Mulvey’s Theory of the Male Gaze in Alien: Does it Hold Up?

alien cover2

Laura Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze completely revolutionized our approach towards film criticism. In short, it asserts that “there is a pattern of male domination that runs throughout popular culture, and this doesn’t only determine what we see—it determines how we see. Hollywood cinema, in particular, treats the camera as though it were male. It compels all its viewers to see through male eyes.” The male gaze is asserted in three ways, first using the camera to subtly force the audience to gaze on females “as an object of sexual stimulation through sight” (Mulvey 397) Secondly, the films present their male protagonists as controllers of the narrative and of the gaze, eliciting the audience’s identification with said protagonist such that: “The male protagonist is free to command the stage, a stage of spatial illusion in which he articulates the look and creates the action” (396) The third mode in which the male gaze asserts itself is through “that of the characters within the screen illusion” (403) i.e. the male protagonists (with whom the viewers identify) assert their power by gazing upon the women. Essential to her theory is the fact that “The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presences and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator) fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth.” (403) Thus, the invisibility of the male gaze to the viewer is critical to the functioning of the male gaze as a medium of male power in film.


Hmm… I wonder if this is an instance of the male gaze

Mulvey’s theorizations were adopted and widely supported for good reason. One need not look far to see it’s prevalence in Hollywood movies today. Yet we should always be skeptical of such theories that claim to totally change the way we see the world. While Mulvey implies that the male gaze is ubiquitous in Hollywood cinema, inextricably linked to the Hollywood industrial production of cinema, she does not provide comprehensive evidence to prove its universal applicability. She admits that she does not analyze films with a female protagonist, but offers that typically “the female protagonist is more apparent than real.”(398)  Furthermore, there are assumptions in her argument that must be examined under a more critical lens. As Carol Clover notes, if we see gender as a social construct (rather than solely determined by the subject’s possession or lack of a penis as Mulvey’s Freudian analysis takes for granted) we may not be able to wholly categorize the character’s, camera’s, and audience’s gaze as so one-sidedly gendered. In other words, does this black-and-white distinction of the “split between active/male and passive/female” create a false dichotomy? Lastly, Mulvey claims that “the conscious aim [of Hollywood cinema is] always to eliminate intrusive camera presences and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience” (403). What then do we make of certain Hollywood movies that actively call the audience’s attention to the male gaze? I’d like to test how Mulvey’s theorizations hold up in a film in which many of these assumptions are tested, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

Despite its controversial classification by some as a feminist film (Shone), in the exposition Alien does conform to an extent to what Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze. While, the women are not objectified or eroticized by the camera to such a degree that the lack of objectification is actually noticeable in itself, there is a “split between active/male and passive/female” in the first portion of the film. For instance, with the exception of Mother’s decision to wake the crew, Dallas makes all of the key decisions in the beginning of the film. He is the only one given access to Mother, who is in part a stand-in for the corporatist patriarchal power elements back-home. The external society is represented by one of its dominant forces “The Company”, gives Dallas power to wield over his crew. Within the crew, Dallas is respected as one who is “free to command the stage.. who “articulates the look and creates the action.”. The crew always looks to Dallas to answer their questions and his authority is reinforce by the use of tracking shots as the camera typically follows Dallas in his journeys about the ship, focuses in on his face (typically observing i.e. directing his gaze or explaining something to the crew). In times of tension or distress, such as when the issue of equal pay is raised, and the debate over whether or not to visit the planetoid Dallas is answers calmly and resolutely, occasionally even standing above the crew. The movie viewer has been conditioned to see Dallas, the attractive, calm, in control, camera-hogging, leader as our archetypal hero of the film (Newton 77). Notably, when the Nostromo has finally arrived on the planet, there is a shot of the three highest ranking men, discussing their course of action, while Lambert looks on passively, and Ripley is absent. This assertion of male power, is accepted because at this point the audience trusts Dallas’s judgement, identifying with him

dallasAlien initially centers around Dallas, an archetypal hero, with close-ups and tracking shots.

As the film continues, it begins to draw the viewer’s attention to the issues with the male gaze. When Lambert, Dallas, and Kane leave to investigate the location of the mysterious transmission, the male gaze is present in full form present in the contrast between Kane’s desire to investigate, look upon and probe the aliens and the clichéd desire of the female, Lambert (who “can’t see a goddamn thing”) to leave. According to the conventions of horror, the audience already knows that Kane’s over-exuberant gaze and curiosity will be his downfall in one way or another. Moreover, for much of the planetoid sequence, we are forced to adopt the gaze of Ash, first literally looking down on the search party from his position in the ship, and later watching them through a variety of cameras.

Yet, we begin to be suspicious of Ash and his gaze, as he fails to pick up on or disclose the recognition of the transmission of the warning. Furthermore, upon the crew’s return to the ship, it is Ash who re-admits the crew to the ship in direct contradiction to Ripley’s justified orders and legal authority. Given that this can be recognized by the viewer as an obvious mistake in the horror genre,and a breach of trust, we begin to question the male gaze and faith in male authority that has led the characters down this dark road. It is at this point that the movie’s gaze begins to evolve from Mulvey’s stereotypical, cut-and-dry male version, towards a more complex, less phallocentric vision. We are creeped out by Ash’s fascination with the alien, (Ash picks up right where Kane left off). The film begins to adopt Ripley’s viewpoint as she watches the medical operation. While Ash is constantly “collating” i.e. doing nothing, it is Ripley who propels the crew into unified action. Even before Dallas has died, it is Ripley who begins to gain power in scenes justly interrogating both Ash and even Dallas as the camera begins to adopt her gaze.

Finally, we are left with perhaps the climactic confrontation of genders in the movie: Ash’s attempted assault of Ripley. Angered by Ripley’s assertion of her power in spite of his efforts to thwart any action against the aliens, and determined to enforce the role of the Company (the patriarchy) Ash attempts to put Ripley in her place by throwing her to the ground, forcing her onto a table, and beginning to choke her with a pornographic magazine, while his entire body vibrates and makes involuntary sounds. It’s as close to oral rape as a (soon-to-be-outted) “male” robot can get (Newton 85).  Now that the movie has made us suspicious of the male gaze through the failures of the company, Dallas, Kane, and Ash, and begun to adopt a contrary viewpoint through the empowerment of Ripley, it draws our attention in Ash’s abduction to the male gaze only to highlight its most horrible and exaggerated manifestation, and assertion of power over women. The viewer ,once wholly adopting and yet unaware of the male gaze, is now cognizant and repulsed by at least some of it. In direct opposition to Mulvey’s claims, in this instance, the male gaze has ceased to deny or hide its existence.

From this point on, Ripley is clearly anointed as the heroine of the film. On the pathway to becoming a version of Carol Clover’s final girl, who the (typically male audience of a sci fi/ horror film) identifies with (Clover). This needs some qualifications, however. First and foremost, Ripley seems to exhibit more and more stereotypically male characteristics. She is authoritative, telling Parker to “Shut up”, and tall with a deep voice. In the climactic moment she fires a harpoon from her midsection, destroying the phallic alien with a more potent phallic weapon of her own (Newton 76. While her gaze is not a male one, it’s hard to call it a wholly female one either. Certainly, elements of the male gaze still exist in isolated instances throughout the film. Lambert continues to act (or rather fail to act) as a stereotypical, powerless, passive female. Not sexually objectified by the camera’s gaze she nonetheless is little more than an object, voicing the audience’s (stereotypically feminine) fears, while often literally paralyzed and is attacked between the legs by the highly phallic alien (Creed). Make of that what you will, but there’s no way you can tell me that’s a pro-feminist characterization.


Our patriarchy defying feminist hero!

It is at the very climax of the film though, that the male gaze resurfaces in all its voyeuristic splendor, as Ripley controversially strips down to her tiny panties for no plot-necessitated reason, to be watched and panned over by the camera. It’s a bizarre, seemingly out of the blue moment, inconsistent wight the tone of the film (Newton 77). Ripley clothed so completely, and hardly objectified for the entirety of the film is now being made a complete spectacle of by the camera, when she is most vulnerable (Creed). There are few more obvious cases of the male gaze. Before her moment of triumph and full assumption of power she is first obviously and needlessly degraded and objectified. But perhaps that’s the point, while the male gaze is often impossible to detect, the viewer having grown to identify with this new somewhat alternative gaze, is now thoroughly confused as to why the character they identify with has become thoroughly objectified. In fact, the camera angle as we watch Ripley take off her clothes is not very dissimilar from the perspective of the predatory (and often predatory in a sexual manner) alien, with whom the viewer is sharing this spectacle. Having slowly encouraged us to identify with Ripley, the film has now turned the male gaze on itself, asking the viewer to adopt a view that it is thoroughly uncomfortable with and parallels that of an undeniably evil alien, and thus highlighting the issues inherent in the male gaze.


…And why our we watching our patriarchy defying feminist hero voyeuristically while she walks around in panties two sizes to small?

In light of these contradictions to Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” present in Alien we should consider qualifying and revising her claims. While, her explanation of the camera’s power and immense influence on perspective, is crucial to the understanding of a film’s meaning, the assumption that Hollywood will deny this camera’s power is not always valid. Through drastic shifts in perspective, that jar the reader, Hollywood films like “Alien” can highlight and critique the power of the gaze. Secondly, we should not assume that the camera can so easily be pigeonholed into a specific gender. While, in conventional cinema the camera does tend to perpetuate male as the looker and the female as the looked upon, the fluidity of genders makes such an assumption not always valid. Hollywood film has a tendency to build the audience’s experience through the eyes of it’s protagonist. Furthermore, typically the protagonist is the one “who commands the stage… articulates the look [on the screen itself, through the camera, and for the audience] and creates the action.” In our society, and particularly in male-dominated Hollywood, the stereotypical version of this character is a male. But in spite of Mulvey’s dismissiveness of such a scenario, given the fluidity and constructed nature of gender, it is very much possible for this character to be a female imbued with stereotypically male characteristics. Whether a Hollywood protagonist can be female with stereotypically female characteristics is a question for another day.

Works Cited

Clover, Carol J. Men Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. London:    BFI, 1992. Print.

Creed, Barbara. “Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine,” Screen, Vol. 27, No. 1 (1986),

Mulvey, L. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18. Web.

Newton, Judith. “Feminism and Anxiety in Alien” in “Symposium on Alien,” Science  Fiction    Studies Vol. 7, No. 3 (198)

Shone, Tom. “Why Are Academics So Obsessed With Alien? And Will Prometheus Get the    Same Treatment?” Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 06 June 2012. Web. 18 May 2016.

“Jesus Walks”: Cultural Innovation in an Industry of Monotony

By Ross Hoch

                                  ‘I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.’

You’ve heard it before: Modern music is all the same, some formulaic progression of chords, manufactured in the hit factory by calculating writers and producers to hook listeners, before being neatly packaged by some attractive entertainers.  Some would say that people who think like this are only reactionaries; old curmudgeons opposed to change, who not only say that music and culture was more diverse in their day, but that they walked uphill both ways to and from the concert hall where they listened to it. However, scientific studies have proved that pop music has a narrower dynamic and timbral range, borrows more heavily from older music, and is less and less unique than ever before. While advocates of the internet age might disagree, for the most part the significant capital needed to professionally produce and distribute music and other forms of entertainment to the mass market encourages an industrialization and streamlining of the process.   Cultural theorists like Adorno have gone so far as to suggest that with the advent of the industrial age and mass markets, all of culture has been infected with mind-numbing sameness, devoid of original thought.  Adorno even argues that the supposed counterculture movement merely offers the illusion of choice which functions within and perpetuates the existing system of sameness.  However, there have been certain artists who seem to have provided strong counterexamples to Adorno’s claims.  One of the most notable is Kanye West, who gained fame with his groundbreaking single “Jesus Walks.”  While, this work admits that in a world of mass-production the danger of all art being the same exists, Jesus Walks rejects cultural and genre norms, genuinely supporting the idea that the exceptional creativity and individuality of human spirit can overcome industrial society’s pressure for sameness.

Kanye West’s second (and most popular and critically acclaimed) “Jesus Walks” music video.  Not the contrast between the flames of the devil that are trying to engulf West at one moment and the halo that surrounds him at the next.  Also note the blatant undisguised allusions to racism in America.

Though it was conceived of well after Adorno’s publication of his cultural theories on an inevitable sameness (in 1944) hip hop was in many ways born out of a reaction to the culture industry and “establishment” domination of culture and entertainment.  Working class African Americans in the South Bronx, disenchanted with the almost – systematic oppression and a lack of opportunity in spite of recent civil rights movements, and not given a voice in popular “industrialized” artistic forms like rock and roll, created a new unique cultural movement to express themselves.  As the Paley Center writes, “From the beginning, hip-hop was aggressive and oppositional, a break from the musical traditions it followed.”[1] In rejecting the primacy of the melody (something previously thought to be a musical necessity) and instrumentals, in favor of the layering of beats with rhythm, rhymes, bass, and samples, hip-hop established itself musically as a unique, and innovative art form, outside of Adorno’s monotonous “culture industry.”  Furthermore, by giving a voice to oppressed inner-city blacks and speaking freely about the harsh realities of inner city life it gave expression and agency to those who Adorno would have asserted to be voiceless, brainwashed subjects of the culture industry.


The Sugarhill Gang who had the very first hit rap single “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979.

Yet, few would recognize the 21st century hip-hop culture (that Kanye West wrote in) as the wholly innovative, unique form of expression of a typically marginalized segment of society. As hip-hop spread to the wider world in the 1980s, corporate interests took what had been a subversive and revolutionary form of music made for the oppressed and commoditized it for profit and mass consumption[2].  Under the pressure of corporate-driven profit, rappers have been driven towards defined media stereotypes: such as the “pimp”, “gangsta”, and “playa”, in corporate America’s attempt to profit from narrow, but dramatically appealing definitions of inner-city black life for profit.  This evolution in hip hop has led some like music critic Dart Adams to say that hip hop (like one of Adorno’s “countercultures”) merely presents the illusion of choice, existing “almost solely to maintain the status quo and promote moneyed interests.”[3]

Within this context of hip-hop as the product of an industrial process, the unorthodox messages in “Jesus Walks” provide a testament to the fact that despite the conformist pressures of cultural mass production individuals have the capacity to produce art of substance and individual meaning.  For instance, Jesus Walks very premise, that of the walk with Christ that everyone must embrace, “Jesus Walks” rejects adopting for himself the conventional “bad-ass” gangster, rapper, and pimp personas and instead chooses to adopt that of a Christian capable of humility.  West notes that this is specifically a rejection of the terms and corporate pressures of the producers, in rapping, “So here go my single dog, radio needs this/ They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus./  That means guns, sex, lies, videotape./  But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”  While one might be led to think that the risks of stepping outside convention would be consumer rejection, West explicitly states that he is rebelling against the corporate controlled radio industry (and record industry).  Thus he does not believe his innovative artwork to be outside the bounds of consumer tastes, but rather outside of the narrow, negative and monotony-inducing “guns, sex lies, videotape” confines imposed by the radio and record industry.  In interviews about the song West often cited that those in the record industry, while admitting the song’s undeniable musical and lyrical excellence, stated that the centrality of the Christian theme meant that it would not get playtime on the radio[4].  Yet, in explicitly challenging the producers and describing the issues with the corporate elements of hip hop, West not only forces the hip hop industry to widen its scope in playing this convention-defying song, but also in observing its success, confront the fact that their limited scope was neither productive in forming good art, nor in catering to true consumer desires.

Furthermore, unlike the hit singles of many of West’s contemporaries,  “Jesus Walks” is the rare piece of art that by using old material creates a piece of music that is genuinely innovative.   Hip hop production has always been an amalgamation of various musical motifs, beats, samples or songs, with the payoff of the best songs being far more than the sum of their parts.  However, in recent years this potentially rich combination has often become more and more formulaic.  Rap has evolved in the direction of a more pop-like formula with a base synthesized beat and musical riff overlaid with alternating rap verses and more and more poppy, melodic hooks typically infused with a couple ear-pleasing samples.  In contrast to this general trend, “Jesus Walks” utilizes several musical elements rarely used in mainstream hip hop to create a rich, and frankly surprising texture of sound.  As Pitchfork (a magazine particularly vicious in its critiques of unoriginality) remarks, “Militaristic drums, choral melisma, snake-charmer keyboards, and swatches of orchestration made “Jesus Walks” an odd thing to spill out car windows in summer 2004.”[5]

In addition to these elements atypical of contemporary hip-hop, “Jesus Walks” makes heavy use of gospel choir, incorporating an element of the African American tradition of music seldom paired with the heavy beat and rhetorical power of mainstream rap to construct a truly moving refrain.   Indeed, the song made gospel so central to its musical themes and has motifs so characteristic of gospel that it was even briefly nominated for several gospel awards categories despite the fact that the song was not traditionally considered within the confines of gospel music. (Don’t worry cultural conservatives quickly convinced the awards organization of the need to remove a song so “secular” and “profane” from the nominees).

     An early Jesus Walks music video.     Listen for the way in which milatiristic drum beats, impassioned gospel solos, the backing children’s choir, and orchestral transitions combine to create a “towering inferno of sound” particularly during the refrain from 1:50-1:20.

Jesus Walks” gradually layers all of the above-mentioned voices from all corners of culture on top of each other to build what the Observer describes as “[a] towering inferno of martial beats, fathoms-deep chain gang backing chants, a defiant children’s choir, gospel wails, and sizzling orchestral breaks.”[6]  It is a creation that simultaneously hearkens back and stays true to musical traditions, particularly African American hip hop and gospel, and yet is so removed from the stereotypical formulaic conception of commoditized hip hop or any form of mainstream music, that upon listening one cannot help but question Adorno’s theory of universal cultural sameness.  

While we have established that West thoroughly rejects the notions of conventional hip hop in terms of both subject matter and musical composition, “Jesus Walks” could have been a song that while rejecting mainstream elements of the hip hop industry merely embraced other establishment cultural values previously not expressed through hip hop.  “Jesus Walks” could have just been some catchy musically brilliant work that presented Christ as a panacea to all the problems facing America, but instead it explores the struggles, false promises and internal conflicts in the American dream for marginalized members of society.

There is no one version of the American dream.  It’s a buzzword or buzz phrase, if you will, and to some extent it has a different meaning for everyone.  However, there is a sort of establishment portion of the American dream that a Marxist like Adorno would say the ruling classes foist upon you.  This is that success is possible through hard-work within the confines and conventions of what’s accepted by society.  In other words if you adopt the Protestant work ethic as a guideline in your personal and work life some sort of success will come, regardless of your background.   Of course this implies the drug-dealers and criminals are that way because they are less worthy.  They had a chance to better themselves and wasted it.  They are criminals chiefly because they are morally depraved and corrupted.  

West disagrees with this empirically flawed premise and presents them drug dealers and criminals as equals, morally complex victims of unjust circumstances and stereotypes, to be valued as much as anyone else, through the use of various speakers on either side of the conflict.  In the first portion of the first verse he raps, “You know what the Midwest is?/  Young and restless/ Where restless (niggas) might snatch you necklace/ And next these (niggas) might jack your Lexus.”  Here he reveals the racial stereotypes of thievery, depravity, and the inferior quality denoted by the usage of the n-word, that are projected onto poor blacks by American society.  West uses and identifies with (using “we”) further examples of the systemic environment into which blacks are thrust such as arrested by police and tried in court solely as a result of skin color so that his audience may sympathize with those “who walk the valley where the shadow of the Chi where death is” like they would with the shepherd of the 23rd psalm. He builds on the sympathy he has established in the listener for the difficulties of the marginalized by segueing into a first-person narration, spoken by a drug dealer raised in this environment.  Finally, after hearing of the repeated oppression and denial of the American dream in America we can understand why the speaker no longer believes in Jesus’ ability to save us.”  Through presenting the victims such as the drug dealer and the “victims of welfare” as torn between the devil and God,  Kanye outlines the duality of man and the members of an unequal American society constantly torn, “at war” with “terrorism” “racism,” and “ourselves.”  

A product of the culture industry would likely have accepted and propagated the inequality-enforcing (interpellative) message of the elites American Dream.  In contrast, West outlines the inherent flaws and inequality caused by racism and stereotypes ingrained within American society, and in doing so creates a genuinely individual, complex, and original message, devoted to a cause greater than profit or maintenance of the establishment.  Through presenting victims such as the drug dealer and the “victims of welfare” as torn between the devil and God,  Kanye outlines the duality of man and the members of an American society constantly torn, “at war” with “racism,” “terrorism” and “ourselves”.  

In its refusal to conform to norms of popular music genres, and its complex voicing of the struggles of marginalized African-Americans in society “Jesus Walks” revives the dissident, nonconformist, nature which made hip hop so powerful and attractive at its inception.  Moreover, “Jesus Walks” is nothing if not a musical masterpiece created through a rarely seen combination of gospel, rap, orchestral arrangements, and carefully chosen samples.  In “Jesus Walks” West created a mass-produced cultural work of rebellion and originality that is a joy to listen to in its own right.  Thus, many pieces of entertainment lead their audiences to absorb the conformist ruling-class ideologies packaged within them “Jesus Walks” demonstrates the potential for certain mass-produced entertainment to elevate its audience’s mindfulness.  

“Jesus Walks” openly acknowledges and attacks the perceived culture industry (in this case specifically the record industry) and its tendency to churn out art that is topically and musically monotonous and disconnected from the realities of social conditions within American society just as Adorno does.  However, by attacking and rebelling against the same cultural problems Adorno diagnoses, it disproves Adorno’s claim that all art is the same, for in order for a mass-produced piece of art to genuinely attack the culture industry for its “Adornian” monotony and false messages, it must be different from those messages which it critiques.  The beauty of “Jesus Walks” as an artifact of cultural individualism and authentic originality is that it works within Adorno’s own framework for culture but provides a counterexample to its central claim, that in a culture of mass production all culture is essentially the same.  


jesus walks



[1] Calhoun, Claudia. “The Emergence of Hip Hop.” Paley Center. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.  <>.

[2] Romero, James. “Influence of Hip Hop Resonates Worldwide.” LA Times 14 Mar. 1997, Column  One: n.pag. LA Times. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

[3] Adams, Dart. “Hip Hop Turns 40.” NPR. NPR News Organization, 11 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Mar.  2016.

[4] Leung, Rebecca. “Rocking for Christ: Christian Music Becoming Big Hits on Mainstream Radio Stations.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

[5] Leung, Rebecca. “Rocking for Christ: Christian Music Becoming Big Hits on Mainstream Radio Stations.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

[6] The Guardian Observer. Web. 18 Mar. 2016.  Mulholland, Gary. “Song of the Month: Jesus Walks by Kanye West.” The Observer 15 Aug.  2004: n. Pag.

Key Works

Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. N.p.: n.p., 1944. Print.

“Jesus Walks.” Comp. Kanye West and Che Smith. College Dropout. Perf. and prod. Kanye West. Roc a Fella, Def Jam, 2004. CD.