My husband and I went to a 40th anniversary screening of Alien at Chicago’s Music Box theater tonight. We’ve gone to hundreds of movies together, but Alien is special – it’s the first movie we ever watched together, and the first time we watched it was also at the Music Box for a 4/26 Alien/Aliens double feature. I was excited about tonight’s screening. It was in 35mm, and Tom Skerritt was in attendance to introduce the movie and to answer questions afterward. The print looked good – some grain and damage, but that’s to be expected; the sound was immaculate. The crowd even managed to settle down after cheering for every actor’s name in the opening credits. It felt good to sit in a sold-out theater and watch one of my all time favorite movies on the big screen.
And then someone decided to catcall Ripley during the final scene in the shuttle.
It’s exactly when you would expect. Ripley’s escaped the self-destruction blast of the Nostromo. She’s put Jones the cat into the hibernation chamber, and she’s getting ready to go to sleep herself, so she takes off her jumpsuit. The moment she stepped out of the suit and straightened up in just her underwear, some asshat hollered “Aauuuuw!” at the screen from the back of the theater. The silence was broken, with a ripple of laughter following the call. The man seated next to me didn’t laugh, but he did whisper to his friend that he’d been expecting someone to do that. He sounded self-satisfied, like the kind of person who laughs half a second too early at a joke in a movie they’ve already seen, just to broadcast the fact that they get the joke in the first place.
I couldn’t get my head back into the movie. I was too furious. I wasn’t surprised that someone would violate the rules of a movie theater–I’ve been to too many screenings with too many people who keep their phones on and out to be surprised by rudeness. But I was surprised that someone would lack the self-awareness and the decency to make a catcall like that in a crowded theater screening of a movie that is known for being “feminist.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’ve been catcalled while in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt too many times to be surprised by shitty behavior; men can and will catcall women however and whenever they please, because it isn’t about the woman in question, it’s about her body and the things those men want to do to it, and it’s about the powerful feeling of making a woman feel unsafe and insecure, and it’s about how good the man in question feels about being a man, regardless of how consciously aware he is of those feelings (or not).
The catcall still felt like a betrayal and a violation, almost more than any catcall I’ve been on the receiving end of. Alien is a movie about many things, but one of the foremost readings of Alien that I subscribe to is that it is a movie about rape, and about the fear of rape, and that it is a movie that gives men a taste of the fear of sexual assault that many women have to live with every single day. For a man to sit through a movie like Alien, to watch Kane (a man!) be forcibly impregnated and then die, and to watch the crew be picked off one by one until the only person left happens to be a woman, and then for that man who is viewing the movie to reduce that woman who becomes the movie’s de facto protagonist to only her body, is a display of callousness and lack of empathy that I cannot countenance. For the rest of the theater to laugh at his remark (whether uncomfortable or condoning, I couldn’t tell) is terrifying. It tells me that the empathy machine of the movie is broken, that the viewer who made the catcall does not care about the woman he’s watching on any level other than a sexual one, and that there are others in the darkness around me who think exactly the same way he does. Worse, their laughter encouraged him. Their laughter told him not only that his call was funny, but that it was socially acceptable, and therefore that his attitude toward women was acceptable. I’m sure he didn’t think twice about it after he did it, except to think that he’d made a few dozen people laugh, and then he probably felt self-satisfied about it. I can’t imagine what any of the other women in the theater felt. But I know what I felt, and what I felt was anger, and I felt unsafe.
To all the “comedians” who want to make jokes at a movie screening: don’t. At best, it’s an annoyance. At worst, you’re making the theater a less welcoming place in the name of making yourself feel good for just a moment. Movie people: do better.