With help from Pope John Paul II. (Yes, really.)
Today is Mother’s Day, a time to honor those maternal figures who do so much, ask so little in return, and too often go unsung. It is a time to show appreciation, gratitude, and love for such people in our lives. It also has me thinking about Catholic teaching . . . and about aliens. Specifically, Aliens, the 1986 sci-fi action thriller starring Sigourney Weaver, directed by James Cameron. What do these things have to do with Mother’s Day? I’m glad you asked.
Let’s start with Catholic teaching. It is increasingly the view of the modern world that older institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and older mores, such as its teachings, merely exist to restrain women, and to justify the perpetuation of ‘patriarchy.’ This is not so. As is explained in, among other places, Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), women have played an outsized role in the Church from its beginning. Most notably, this is the case with Mary, the Mother of God, and Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s early followers, among the many women (and only one man) of his followers to be present at the Crucifixion. Women, Mary Magdalene among them, are also the first to behold Christ’s empty tomb.
John Paul II carefully draws from Scripture and Church wisdom the meaning and significance of women in creation and in society today. The letter is replete with astute observations, but for Mother’s Day only a few will suffice. He notes the primacy of the maternal role in complementary parenthood, arguing that it is the model for how the family is to function:
It is commonly thought that women are more capable than men of paying attention to another person, and that motherhood develops this predisposition even more. The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains “outside” the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own “fatherhood” from the mother.
He adds that “the ‘woman,’ as mother and first teacher of the human being (education being the spiritual dimension of parenthood), has a specific precedence over the man.”
And finally, concerning femininity more broadly, John Paul II argues that it possesses a distinct, transcendent quality that our age desperately needs. To argue that men and women are different is not to embrace stereotypes about them; rather, it is essential to acknowledging each in the fullness of its virtues. To the extent our age shies away from such thinking, it degrades both men and women. Sadly, such degradation, which has many sources, has already occurred to a considerable extent, and wreaked its predictable yet tragic havoc. We must, Pope John Paul II argues, hope for a suffusion of feminine virtue as part of our road out of the debauched modern moral landscape:
In our own time, the successes of science and technology make it possible to attain material well-being to a degree hitherto unknown. While this favours some, it pushes others to the edges of society. In this way, unilateral progress can also lead to a gradual loss of sensitivity for man, that is, for what is essentially human. In this sense, our time in particular awaits the manifestation of that “genius” which belongs to women, and which can ensure sensitivity for human beings in every circumstance: because they are human! – and because “the greatest of these is love” (cf. 1 Cor 13:13).
Pretty straightforward, I think. Now: What does any of this have to do with Aliens? Well, in that movie, you have a pretty good demonstration of the kind of femininity that John Paul II means. To understand, a brief summary is necessary. Aliens, the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien, follows Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, awakened from suspended animation on a spaceship after defeating the eponymous creature (also known as a “xenomorph”) of the original, though not before it vanquished the entire rest of her ship’s crew. When awakened, she learns she has actually been in suspended animation for several decades, meaning everything she knew in the past is long gone. She also learns that LV-426, the planet where she and her original crew originally began their encounter with the xenomorph, has become a human colony . . . and that others have lost contact with it. Ripley travels with an armed battalion to figure out what’s gone wrong, and discovers that a horde of xenomorphs has wiped out the human colony — with the exception of Newt, a young girl who survived by hiding and scavenging about the colony.
Ripley ends up a mother figure for Newt, unsurprisingly. Also unsurprisingly for a sci-fi action movie, this role comes strongest in Ripley’s role as protector. Indeed, the deliberate contrast Aliens sets up between Ripley and Newt, on the one hand, and the Alien Queen and her offspring (she lays the eggs that hatch the facehuggers, which begin the xenomorph life cycle upon attaching themselves to a host body), on the other, is instructive. In one scene, Ripley finds herself in the Alien Queen’s clutches, then threatens its eggs with a flamethrower, which apparently causes the Queen to relent until one appears about to hatch; Ripley then sets all of the eggs aflame. And later, near the film’s end, there is a duel of maternal energies, as the vengeful Alien Queen seeks to kill Newt while Ripley fights back with the aid of one of the powered exoskeletons of which James Cameron is so fond. Ripley’s taunt to the Alien Queen is rightly famous: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
But this line is more than just a defiant and worthy addition to the badass action-movie one-liner canon. It is also a testament to the feminine genius. For the maternal energies on display in the climactic fight are not equivalent. One is superior to the other, and not only because the good guys have to win. Ripley’s maternal energy is fundamentally human and feminine, an example, in extremis, of the parental role of protection. Yes, one could see in the Alien Queen’s vengeful spite a kind of righteous maternal fury: Ripley did destroy all of her eggs, after all. But this would elide the fact that xenomorphs are, at their core, sterile, lifeless creatures, requiring host organisms to reproduce — hosts they must kill to perpetuate themselves. They are made to kill (their blood is literally acid), and bring only destruction. (Later movies reveal that the entire species was a horrific laboratory creation.) In this, they resemble not at all the feminine genius of which John Paul II speaks, but rather the insidious forces of today that attack our most human elements, driving us away from both our fully realized selves and from one another.
Is this too much for me to read into a work of science fiction? It wouldn’t be the first time. Regardless, women can embody their greatness without defending others from hostile extraterrestrials. Millions do it every day, in their ways. So this Mother’s Day, when they will again, tell your mother you love her, pray for a suffusion of truly feminine genius in our world — and hope for more Ellen Ripleys, and fewer Alien Queens.
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