Hating the alien: the othering of extraterrestrials

One of the things that struck me as I kept watching films for The Aliens Are Here was how much Othering some of these movies engage in.

Othering, as most of you probably know, is the process of distinguishing between Us and Them, and not in a good or harmless way (e.g., loving cricket marks off the UK and many former colonies from the US, but the difference doesn’t come with judgmental overtones). As this article explains, when a group is Othered they’re branded as less deserving of equal rights with the Us group. They can’t even be tolerated, they’re so foreign and creepy. Jews have been Othered for centuries. The Japanese were Othered as soon as they started emigrating to America. In Bogart’s Across the Pacific (1942), Victor Sen Yung plays a slang-spouting Nisei college student, apparently as all-American as they come. Underneath his American surface he’s all Japanese, a stone-cold killer in the service of his Emperor. When a people are Othered, they never truly belong.

Othering also ignores differences between individual Them. If They are the enemy, there are no dissenters, no pacifists among them; they’re all in on war. In Live and Let Die, every single African-American in Harlem and New Orleans apparently works for Kananga (Yaphet Kott0; the only good black is a CIA agent sent to back up Bond. It’s much the same way Japanese Americans were portrayed during WW II: all Japanese, zero American (Germany, by contrast, was often portrayed as a good country oppressed by an evil ideology).

Othering is a lot harder to pull off these days. A movie that, like Little Tokyo USA (1942), showed every Japanese resident of Los Angeles as an enemy and suggested shipping the Japanese to concentration camps was a necessary security measure would bring a shit-ton of flak down on people’s heads. Othering aliens isn’t going to generate angry letters from members of groups opposing ET defamation.

That makes it easy for Independence Day (1996). In a convenient telepathic flash, Whitmore learns there’s no hope in negotiating with the invaders: they’re merciless and want only to wipe us out, thens strip-mine Earth of its resources. He describes them as “locusts,” which is classic dehumanizing language, comparing the Other to animals, particularly insects. But the aliens just blew up Los Angeles and Washington DC, so who’s going to say they’re being portrayed badly?Battleship (2012) takes the same slant, and also gets exposition across by convenient telepathy. The aliens are ruthless monsters, they’re going to destroy us, there’s no point inn playing nice or showing them mercy. One character suggests even attempts to contact aliens are a catastrophe waiting to happen: if they’re advanced enough in technology to reach Earth, they’re advanced enough to annihilate us, therefore they will. The impossibility of mutual co-existence is a given.

This happens in print fiction too. In John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? — the source of the Howard Hawks and John Carpenter Thing movies — after the scientists recover an alien body from a crashed ship, they debate whether it’s safe to revive it. Several scientists emphasize the evil expression on its face; the counter-argument is that we have no idea what that facial expression means on its world, and expecting a friendly, happy face at the moment of Oh, Shit, I’m Going To Crash! is a bit much. But of course, the rational explanations are wrong: the creature is pure evil.

It’s why I was so impressed by V. As I said Saturday, there’s no Othering in this story. Most of the Visitors are evil but some are good and not happy with the conquest of Earth; others are active resisters. This mirrors the situation among the humans, some of whom collaborate, some of whom oppose, and many just keep their heads down and hope not to get caught.

A few other movies give their alien invaders some personality beyond Evil. But they’re regrettably an exception to the rule.

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1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Nonfiction, Writing

One response to “Hating the alien: the othering of extraterrestrials

  1. Pingback: Women of the suburbs, the West and the future | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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