Race and Gender in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” ***CONTAINS SPOILERS***



Last weekend, my husband and I went to see a much anticipated film, “Prometheus”, directed by Ridley Scott and hailed as a prequel to the sci-fi films “Alien”, “Aliens”, “Alien 3” and “Alien Resurrection”, the first film featuring in 1979. As an “Alien” and “Alien 3” fan from the 1980s, I was also pretty excited, as the trailers featured a magnificent mystery left unknown to us fans, which came to be known as the “space jockey” or “the pilot” in sci-fi geekery. This alien entity was discovered in the “Alien” movie as a fossilized, enormous humanoid creature, with an elephantine head; a face resembling an elephant with a trunk. This person seemed to have perished via the infamous chest bursting caused by our familiar antagonists, the xenomorphs (the “aliens”).

The trailer promised an answer to this 33 year old question, but I ended up exiting the theater with a few more questions…that outshined the puzzle of the deceased “space jockey”. Not questions about the film -well…actually, I thought the film was a disappointing confusion of impossible leaps of logic and absurd behavior, so that isn’t actually true, but not the point of this post…this time- but questions about how the film reflected certain social concepts, the most important being race and gender.

The introduction of the film is a splendidly beautiful and morbid depiction of an “Engineer” visiting a primordial planet (R. Scott does not reveal if this is Earth or not, but perhaps), and then ingesting a strange material which proceeds to break his body down, presumably acting as the first burst of amino acids and proteins which causes organic life to begin to develop. The “Engineer” is a very tall and extremely muscular human male, with unpigmented, paper-white skin. Beautiful, I thought. Until I later saw that ALL of the “Engineers” where exactly the same. Huge, muscular, white males. And, before you ask, no, there was no shot of this giant human’s genitals, but visually, the “Engineers” are all male.

Yes. All male, huge, muscular and white.

Sociologically -which is a large part of my educational background- seeing this depiction in the film, along with the lore that these huge space men are the progenitors of the entire human race on Earth, I left the film cringing at the implication of this visual Genesis.

Anthropology holds several explanations of how humans came to be humans as we are today on Earth, but the generally agreed upon history involves humans first evolving in Africa, and then slowing moving out to populate the world in something like an exodus. This movement later results in physical differences in humans, such as skin color, which is associated with geographically where a group spends tens of thousands of years. A group that traveled to settle in higher elevations with different amount of sun exposure will likely cause a group to favor lighter skin and more compact bodies for survival. This is natural selection, the mechanism for evolution.

Since it is generally agreed upon that contemporary humans are an extremely diverse group that had its ancestry in Africa, it is safe to assume that early peoples, such as Homo habillis and Homo erectus, had very dark skin and likely very lithe, slender bodies (strong, however).

So why then would Ridley Scott or perhaps the writers, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof decide to invent a creation story that specifically posits the “gods” of human beings as such extraordinary examples of whiteness? Where to some this may seem to be over-analysis, in the social sciences, a critical lens into our daily life is essential to discovering what is taken for granted in society. Or worse yet, what is accepted as normal or natural in society.

Of course, as a sci-fi fan I acknowledge that “Prometheus” is essentially a fantasy and within that category is afforded creative license to invent or reinvent -even human history. Despite this, it is meaningful that the “Engineers” of the “Prometheus” fantasy literally flies in the face of everything we know about actual human history (scientifically speaking). Humans were very dark skinned -black, essentially, until we did some traveling. Considering how Black Americans are still undermined in U.S. society, especially by our new dialogue of colorblindness (please review this excellent article on the problem of ignoring race), this new story of giant white men creating humans can be construed as offensive in nature.

Which brings me to my next social question about the film: why is “Prometheus” so male-centered? Aside from the “Engineers” being pure white muscle men, even the language surrounding the existentialism which is the major theme of the film, is riddled with inappropriate language such as “mankind” and “man” as a noun for all humans. Before second wave feminism in the 1960s, this kind of language was still common, but thanks to the efforts of outspoken and equality-minded women and men, we now demand that literature no longer refer to all human beings as essentially male –“mankind”.

So what in the world is up with “Prometheus?” Not only is the language moving women in to a position of un-existence, women aren’t even represented among the creators of human beings. All the “Engineers” are male. This is bizarre, considering the focus of the movie, around the protagonist Elizabeth Shaw -played by Noomi Rapace- who plays an archaeologist who visits the far off world to find her “Makers”.

This is further compounded by the very fact that the nature of the “face huggers” of the “Alien” series, who forcefully impregnate victims with their young –a particularly male ability.

In the end, Shaw may be the single surviving (organic) character, who zooms off with the aid of David the synthetic, to find the homeworld of the “Engineers” to get her unresolved answers, but I think she ought to be going to ask how in the world women fit into the lore of “Prometheus”.

Ah! This just in: another great blog reviewed “Prometheus”, and it is indeed a good thing. Check out northierthanthou blog and read, it is so very very satisfying to hear someone else say/type what we are all thinking.

28 thoughts on “Race and Gender in Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” ***CONTAINS SPOILERS***

    • Right on, sounds like we are about equal on this. I didn’t even get into the horrid leaps of logic or incomprehensibility of certain behaviors of the characters…love to read your review when you are finished. :)

  1. Pingback: Meeting Your Maker in a Ridley Scott Movie: Once Again As Farce (Spoilers) « northierthanthou

  2. How have I been trolling WordPress so long and not run across your blog? Very interesting! And a fellow Midwesterners to boot. While I liked “Prometheus,” I found your perspective on race and gender to be thought-provoking. Nicely done.

    • I have been thinking the same lately, I run across a great blog and have no idea how I managed to miss it this whole time! :) I’m glad you enjoyed the film. It left me with a lot of disappointment but I’m happy you enjoyed my thoughts on the social aspects of the movie. Many thanks for reading; the entire reason I write is to cast a critical eye on what we might take for granted in society. Raising questions is my goal with my readers. :D

  3. Great that you bring it up straight forward! It’s such a madness that is going on sometimes in the film industry (again, dominated by men, directed towards male audience and women just play along, nodding)

    • Thanks for reading and your comment! Yes, it is disappointing about how the media often works to promote the status quo -as we say in sociology- which makes whiteness, heterosexuality and maleness seem “natural” and not another social construction in our society. In sociology literature, being male, white and heterosexual are referred to as “invisible categories”, because often it is taken for granted that heterosexuality, being white and being male are indeed social categories just like homosexuality, Black or Mexican American and female (or even unspecific gender). While I am sad that many women do indeed “nod and smile”, I do not feel that this is due to sheer ignorance or submissiveness intrinsic female nature. In our society, we are all socialized in ways that make certain aspects of society seem normal, such as male dominance. I believe many women are convinced that it is normal and natural, rather than institutional. I also think that many women do not know how they could possibly change structural patriarchy, so going along with the show makes them at least feel they have a chance to be accepted and valued in some way. :) We have to keep our critical lens focused!

  4. Interesting article, I didn’t really notice it while I was watching the film but now that I’m thinking about it it’s so obvious. Wish more film makers would pay attention to race and gender instead of thinking that peppering the film with a few token characters makes it okay to disregard the big issues.

    • Thanks for reading, I thought your posts on female beauty were very interesting as well. I agree that the media needs to work harder, but I also know that the forces and influences at work to preserve the status quo (the way things are) are very difficult to change. Plus, it is often ideology at work and not the evil top corporate characters that could be tossed away and the world is right again. Ideology itself, because it has to do with ideals and essentially unreal-ism, is incredibly complex and ethereal to discuss to go about altering it, and activism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. :)

      In a society like the U.S. where corporate capitalism exists not only as an economic model but also an ethos and philosophy, creating consumer products -like media products- becomes a battle between who has the money, who needs the money, and who is buying the product and this has a way of usurping social issues.

  5. I really enjoyed this post! I actually teach a college-level course on representations of race, class, gender, and sexuality in film, and I’ll need to incorporate a discussion on this film. Honestly, I was so distracted by my hatred for Lindelof (and his allergy to things making sense) that I didn’t even consider the phallocentricism. Thanks for the post! I’ll definitely be checking back!

    • Thanks so much for your comment and I am go glad my analysis will be lent to a class! I have given a lecture and presentations on my research on gender and sexuality in Japanese culture before, and I believe reaching out to undergrads is a GREAT way to promote critical thinking towards society! I’m so pleased that my post could help. Best of luck with your class! By the way, your images on your blog are amazing! Going to have to follow you! :D

  6. I understand there is a lot wrong with the movie, but your interpretation has some leaps of logic as well. For instance, the ‘first life’ created on our planet is very distance from the first humans. It wouldn’t matter what color the progenitor was if it was millions of years of evolution away from humans. Also, the reason Caucasians became white was due to the lack (or at least lesser amount) of sunlight in the northern regions of Europe. It could be similarly inferred that a race of space dwelling creatures would have a pale complexion (if they need sunlight like humans…).

    That aside, I think they choose powder white as a symbol of their preternatural nature. It gives them an inhumane appearance to avoid such racial connotations. “white people” aren’t really white…. Also, white is the exact opposite of the black, the the color of the xenomorphs and their “WMD”.

    As far as sexism, woman are considered the leaders of the expedition (until the take over by weyland senior).

    Mankind is still a valid way to refer to humanity. I believe he said it as a reference to the moon landing? (lol…. this made me think of human ‘herstory’)

    As for their one gender. We could assume a few things. 1. It was a military operation where ‘men’ were the only engineers allowed to be there or 2. YOU could assume they are all male based on their appearance (you admit not seeing genitals/reproduction method), which might not be the case or 3. They don’t need gender. If a single being can become the genesis of existence on a planet, I bet they don’t need ‘men’ or ‘women’ to reproduce.

    I think her desire to have a child was the biggest assault on women, but even if it was just foreshadowing for the alien she birthed.

    I loved your post and definitely encourage critical thinking about movies, but to pretend it has racist or sexist connotations is a big stretch.

    What I thought was bigoted, was their treatment of david. While he wasn’t innocent, they made several discouraging comments about how he was ‘just a robot’ or about how he didn’t have certain feelings. How robophobic!

    • Thanks for reading and your comment! Let me explain a few things. My “leaps in logic” actually refer to problems I experienced with the plot. For example, I actually don’t follow the logic of seeing a lovely hologram of the universe(s) with a highlighted Earth, jars with black goo and the malicious destruction of the human race which everyone seemed to agree was the Engineers intention. To me, that was a, “..uh…what?” moment in the film.

      For the rest of what you were saying, we are analyzing the film from very different but certainly equally valuable perspectives. I am a sociology and journalism/media student and am also a feminist. My review of the film intentionally suggests social meanings to the seemingly fantasy elements of the film, because in my study, fantasy (or anything in society) does not occur in a cultural or social vacuum. My aim is to draw attention to elements in media that are taken for granted to put them in a critical perspective. Not to say that any filmmakers intentionally set out to subordinate women symbolically or posit white folks as the dominant human precursors, but I certainly feel a responsibility in pointing out that they should aspire to be more aware of their creative notions, as well as their audience.

      Finally, as a feminist, “herstory” is not some kind of amusement, it is a real, salient and meaningful way that women have linguistically demanded that they not be placed in a subjugated position in society -symbolically or not. When you say that “mankind” is still a valid way to refer to humanity, I have to refer back to the “herstory” comment to clarify my position. In sociology and certainly anthropology, humans are considered deeply symbolic creatures, and as such, language is immensely full of symbolic meaning. Due to this fact, language is not simple. Language reveals cultural worldview and ethos in the way it develops words, focuses on some, and neglects others. In the interest of equality, feminists and other equal-minded folks have insisted that society pay more attention to the use of words, as they influence and shape the way culture does culture. “Mankind” is just another example of women being placed in a symbolically subjugated position.
      :) I thought that since you took so much time to tell me your opinion,I should make sure mine was clarified as well! Again, thanks for reading and your viewpoint! It is great to hear another side to the picture.

  7. Thanks for writing the dumbest article I’ve read in a while… :D no, but on a serious note: you have to open your mind to understand the true message of this movie. It’s not about humans, it’s not about our society or diversity or whatever you wish for in your everyday life. This movie focuses on the possible creators (aka engineers) of the human race. Sexes like male, female, intersex are important for us people on earth but NOT for our possible creators. There is no use for different sexes among the engineers. It’s useful for them to have very white skin, be tall and muscular etc. Why should the authors put engineers with breasts in their movie? It’s obviously a very advanced species that doesn’t need sexual reproduction ;)
    Also it was not intended to spoon feed the viewers but to make them think about humanity, about our beliefs, about faith,… :)

  8. I have to wholeheartedly agree with Hekkate. Your interpretation of the movie is hindered by many illogical inferences, such as the fact that you only choose to seize on the idea of the big white men as our creators… and ignore the implication that they are trying to get to earth to destroy it, possibly to reshape it. What better symbol of oppressive white male domination is there? Even if you personally “don’t follow the logic of seeing a lovely hologram of the universe(s) with a highlighted Earth, jars with black goo and the malicious destruction of the human race” (which i personally find idiotic, considering any human who came in contact with it or another person who had either turned into a monster or gave birth to one) you have to accept that at least the characters in the movie believed so, hence the line “it’s carrying death – and it’s headed for Earth.” I think the problem with modern feminism is that you take things in general, but more importantly yourselves, too seriously. Most conversations i’ve had with self-proclaimed Feminists have felt like arguing with a book on Women’s… sorry, Womyn’s Studies. Art does not, possibly cannot, appeal to those without a sense of humor. Camille Paglia, my personal favorite Feminist and one of the greatest thinkers and critics i know, says: ” …you know, feminism’s main problem for the last twenty years has been that it is incapable of appreciating art, okay? There is no aesthetics in feminism. All there is, is a social agenda. Art is made a servant to a prefab social agenda.”
    Thank you for your review. Predictable, but thought provoking.

  9. Get over yourself. Your gender and race politics are so shallow. Get over your hate for the “evil white male”.

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