"‘Prometheus,’ Pregnancy, and the Persistence of Patriarchy"
As should be obvious, there are massive spoilers for Prometheus in this post.
I’ve been thinking about many aspects of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s prequel to his Alien movies, but the one that’s stuck with me most is the clearest continuation of the Alien franchise’s themes: the movie’s exploration of bodily invasion and specifically women’s bodily autonomy. In New York Magazine, David Edelstein describes one of the movie‘s most harrowing and original sequences “a bit of grisly self-surgery that should inspire the pro-choice movement for millennia to come.” Livejournal user cavalorn, in a long and much-circulated analysis of the movie that’s the closest I’ve seen for a compelling argument for the coherence of some, but not all, of its ideas, writes: “I’m not even going to begin to explore the pro-choice versus forced birth implications of that scene. I don’t think they’re clear, and I’m not entirely comfortable doing so.” I’m still considering this element of the movie, and suspect I will be for some time to come. But for the moment, I feel like Prometheus is a movie that attempts to describe the quest for bodily autonomy as a sign of extreme toughness that ends up reaffirming the persistence of patriarchy and rape culture, even in the future, even as we travel beyond all we know.
There’s a lot of discussion to be had about the android David’s (Michael Fassbender) motivations for dosing Holloway, the colleague and lover of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the movie’s main character: does he know that it will result in her pregnancy? Is he experimenting for his own purposes or at the behest of Peter Weyland, the father he also wants dead? To a certain extent, his motivations and reasoning are irrelevant. The end result of David’s actions is that Shaw ends up with a metaphorical pregnancy against her plans and will, and when she expresses a wish to end the invasion of her body, David forcibly prevents her from doing so.
The scene of Shaw’s—abortion isn’t really the right word for it, because she isn’t pregnant, but rather infected, and the result of the surgery isn’t the termination of her pregnancy but a premature birth—seizing control of her body is undeniably, viscerally powerful, even as it’s sacrificed in small ways to the movie’s other needs. The surgery would have been urgent enough even without the medpod’s initial warning that it isn’t programmed to treat women, a nonsensical restriction on its programming that causes a slight delay in the midst of great urgency but really exists as another clue that Peter Weyland is still alive. Similarly, the revelation that Shaw has been unable to conceive a child with Holloway ends up functioning as foreshadowing, rather than as nuance. Her instant reaction to David’s diagnosis of her pregnancy is to want to terminate it. The movie isn’t interested in the possibility that, given her profound upset over her inability to have a child with Holloway, she might have some sort of connection to the thing growing rapidly inside her. Those emotions might have been uncomfortable given how that creature came to be inside her, but it would have been a fascinating, uncomfortable conversation for the movie to engage in.
What’s interesting to the movie, though, is less Shaw’s autonomy and her potentially conflicted feelings about her body, and more her toughness in maintaining it and in keeping going even after a physically and psychologically traumatic event. She overcomes drugging to get to the med pod, survives the surgery, goes back out to continue pursuing her mission with her abdomen stapled and glued shut, keeps going even when struck in her wound.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having female characters who are unambiguous about wanting and pursuing abortions, and their invisibility in popular culture in some respects makes this sequence remarkable. But the movie undermines Shaw’s refusal to become a host, potentially sacrificed to the alien within her, and her very unambiguous reaction to what is effectively a forced pregnancy. While she locks the alien in the medpod and has it sterilized, she does not kill it. And in the world of the movie, her mistake or omission turns out to be be the very thing that saves her life. Shaw’s monstrous child kills the Engineer who wants to kill her in an attack that can only be described as an evocation of tentacle rape scenarios. A denial of Shaw’s bodily autonomy gives life to the thing that saves her through violation of someone else’s bodily autonomy, a visually overwhelming depiction of penetration. That act is similarly generative, a rape that creates sin in the form of the xenomorph, which will come to haunt humanity’s nightmares. But Shaw remains pure, her life saved and her work able to continue by her failure to exercise pure autonomy over her body and the products of it.
And when she leaves on what is meant to be an inspirational journey at the end of the movie, her optimism leavened with sad wisdom, her companion is the man who violated her body in the first place. It’s true that David gives her a warning that helps save her life, that he returns her cross to her, that he has information she needs to continue her search. And however much I may believe that her decision defies logic, that by the scientific or sin-made-manifest rules of the movie, she should die on the way to the Engineers’ home planet making a sequel impossible, that is what Elizabeth Shaw wants, and fictional or not, I have to grant that she does want that. But it makes me ill to see her fly off with a man who, knowingly or no, set up the conditions for her to be unwittingly subjected to a monstrous pregnancy, who forcibly (if temporarily) denies her the ability to terminate that pregnancy, and then when she is able to rid herself of the thing incubating inside her, mocks the ordeal he helped subject her to: “I didn’t think you had it in you,” he tells her with a smooth malevolence. “Sorry. Poor choice of words.”
David’s ability to do Shaw harm may be minimized now that he’s been torn apart, and Shaw’s treatment of his damaged body with more care than he ever showed her whole one is a gentle rebuke to the horrible things he visited on her. But there’s something deeply fatalistic about her decision to forgive him—or at least to take him on as a collaborator—without a reckoning of the immense harm he’s done her, his manipulation of her medical history, her body, her mission. In Aliens, Ripley’s allowed to distrust Bishop after Ash betrayed her, and Bishop’s heroism is earned through patience, respect for Ripley, and sacrifice in support of their joint cause. But in Prometheus, a movie at least theoretically about the search for our essential selves and lost truths, rape culture and accommodation with patriarchy are things we carry with us on the journey, oozing heads packed away out of queasy sight in a Duffle bag.