On “Passing” and the Intersection of Race and Humanity

This paper will detail an observed theme of “passing” in Alien Resurrection (AR). In this film the two characters who pass are Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Call (Winona Ryder). But instead of passing as a racial other-at least in terms of how we think of phenotypically racial characteristics on the body-Ripley and Call pass for human. Lewis Gordon’s reading of Pico Della Mirandola’s scheme of humanity assists recognition of this observed theme of passing in AR.

In addition, the information about the history of racial passing in Naomi Zack’s Race and Mixed Race is of useful comparative value; for as this paper will show, the structuring paradigm involved in human passing in AR seems to correlate, both positively and negatively, with that involved in racial passing. To understand the observation detailed herein, a definition of passing is necessary. For the purpose of this paper, passing refers to: 1) the phenomenon of pretending to be something or someone that one, by definition, is not; and 2) successfully fooling an audience that one really is his/her feigned persona, and not an imposter.

I call attention to the phrase “by definition” in the first requisite above because historically the term passing has popularly held a racial significance in the United States. As such, to pass racially depends on discrete definitions of race (e. g. , the “one drop rule” to determine blackness) as a foundational frame within which passing may operate. One historical application of passing would be those individuals who were, by definition, black (per the “one drop rule”), but who, because they may have appeared white, successfully passed for white in the public arena.

While there are many other forms of passing (e. g. , a pre-operation transsexual seeking to pass as the opposite sex), such forms, I believe, are a reapplication of, or “sequel” to, a foundational definition of passing that finds its origins in a discourse of race. One of these “sequels”-passing for human-occurs in Alien Resurrection. To assist recognition of this theme in AR, consider Lewis Gordon’s reading of Pico Della Mirandola’s schema of humanity: In his famous Oration of the Dignity of Man, Pico Della Mirandola constructed a schema that is instructive for the understanding of race and racism.

According to Pico, the human being stood between the gods above and animals below. . . . Pico’s schema becomes instructive, in that the implications of a superior race and an inferior race fall onto the schema, in terms of which each group is pushed in relation to the gods and animals. The teleological implication of a superior race is its closer place to the gods, and the implication of an inferior race is its closer place to the animals. (54) According to Gordon, race ultimately acts as a tool to discriminate among humans, who are caught in the middle of a hierarchical continuum that descends from gods to animals.

What separates these three categories of beings is the extent of knowledge and power each group possesses. Gods are omniscient and omnipotent. And animals (ex-humans), because they act on instinct, possess limited knowledge, and thus, limited power. Humans, however, may be seen as a hybrid of the two categories. The quest for knowledge has always been paramount to humans, who seek it to discover meaning and purpose in life. Consequently, humans’ ability to harness knowledge has empowered them, pushing them above mere instinctual animals, to thereby exhibit continual mastery over their environment, which is a primary form of power.

And yet, as Gordon explains, not all humans exist on the same plane within their category. Those humans who are perceived to be the most knowledgeable and most powerful occupy a privileged position that comes closest to approximating godliness. These privileged ones utilize their “powerful knowledge” to make assessments of their fellow men, and in doing so, institute a social hierarchy that divides humans into races. Whites, particularly Europeans, are at the top of this social hierarchy-only because historically they have been presumptuous and arrogant about the extent of knowledge, and thereby power, they possess.

In fact, essentially whites instituted this social hierarchy in which blacks are at the bottom, due to whites’ assumptions about blacks’ supposed inferiority. In the Alien saga, the human race has always presumed superiority. Whether they were plotting to subjugate the aliens as a military war force, or plotting to kill them because the alien parasitic reproductive cycle involved the loss of human life, the humans have sought mastery and control over the alien species. These humans, then, make a similar move as Europeans made when venturing into Africa to find slaves.

The metaphor of space exploration into the threatening blackness of the unknown, and ultimate colonization of “other-wordly” galactic territories, strongly resonates with European colonialism in the “Dark Continent” of Africa. In addition to this alleged superiority, the humans also harness the ability to revive and clone the lives of past humans, hence the theme of resurrection. And mythologically, the power to resurrect life has always been thought to reside in the hands of gods.

So in accordance with Gordon’s reading, the humans in AR take on a godlike status, instituting a social hierarchy between them and the aliens, who clearly reside at the bottom given their more animalistic nature. If this is the case, one might subsequently wonder who/what represents humans in the hierarchy? In AR, both the hybrid-or mixed-raced- technologically cloned character of Ripley, and the technologically engineered character of Call, “pass” for human in the stated hierarchy. Despite their “genetic make-up,” each is engineered in the image of (the) God(s).

As “real” humans are gods in the hierarchy, the biblical metaphor of God creating humans in “His” likeness strongly emerges to support the simultaneous interpretation of Ripley’s and Call’s human passing in the same hierarchy. It is primarily due to their uncanny human-likeness that Ripley and Call are elevated to the status of humans from that of Other. 1 As I have stated, the move to interpret Ripley’s and Call’s behavior as passing necessarily emerges from an awareness of the history of racial passing in the U. S. But while their behavior overlaps quite neatly with this racial paradigm, it differs from it, too. As Zack tells us, “[b]etween Reconstruction and the turn of the century, the possibility of blacks passing for whites became… a ‘temptation’ to many whites with black ancestry” (83). Suffrage and egalitarianism are the implied goals inciting such temptation. To apply this paradigm, Call’s attempts to pass as human therefore echo similar goals of egalitarianism on the part of whites with black ancestry who wanted to continue enjoying the privileges garnered from their status as white.

Similarly, while Ripley lacks the motivation to pass, she nevertheless does, at least for brief periods in the film like during the basketball game with Johner before she is “discovered. ” But a closer analysis of Ripley’s character reveals crucial differences that depart from the racial paradigm of passing. True, Ripley does briefly pass for human, but she more importantly passes for alien. She instrumentalizes deception to pursue a form of egalitarianism with the aliens-like black/white mixed-race persons pursued with whites-as opposed to the humans.

Ripley already identifies with the humans enough to obtain at least a semblance of equality with them, particularly given the fact she can kick butt! However, this differs greatly from the actions of black/white mixed race individuals in the racial paradigm. According to Zack, [m]iscegation between blacks and whites fell off sharply after the Civil War, although miscegenation between mulattoes and other blacks led to a doubling of the mulatto population between 1860 and 1890, and to an increase of 81 percent in that population between 1890 and 1910.

These racial mixtures reflected the increasing tendency to identify with blacks as a whole, rather than see themselves as a separate group. Indeed, mulattoes as well as whites accepted the one-drop rule by 1920. In 1920 the last census count was taken of mulattoes-thereafter there was not even that merely formal legal recognition of individuals of mixed black and white race. ” (82-3) What Zack clearly says is that mixed race peoples identified more with blacks-those at the bottom of the social hierarchy-than with whites. They even began to regard themselves as black.

To employ deception to pursue equality with blacks simply was not necessary for them. But this really isn’t the case with Ripley. Not only does she not actively employ deception to be on equal footing with humans (which she could care less about), but she even seems to identify more with the humans-those at the top of the social hierarchy-inasmuch as she is greatly invested in helping them kill the aliens and find a way off the ship. Indeed, Ripley’s allegiance definitely does not lie with the aliens-those at the bottom of the social hierarchy in a parallel position to blacks in the racial paradigm.

Even when Ripley realizes that she is a “mommy” of a “mixed race” baby alien, she eschews motherhood like a disease, deceptively showing the baby affection only to have it “aborted” by being sucked out of her life into the nothingness of space. Thus, having used both Gordon and Zack to detail how both Ripley and Call pass for human in AR, there is one more minor twist to this observation of passing. That is, if Ripley and Call pass for human, then the godlike status of the “real” humans essentially has them passing for gods, a particular insight I skirted around but did not explicitly state until now.

As a result, a dilemma arises, just as it does with the discrimination of race among our Earthly humans: if in the end so many beings-both “humans” and “gods”-really all look alike as humans anyway, then ranking along a social hierarchy is superfluous. Indeed, the utility of its duality and deception escapes me. In light of this ontological strife and deception, the ultimate question remaining in my mind-posed in the words of diva soul singer Aretha Franklin-is none other than: “Who’s Zoomin’ Who? “