Absolutely Badasses: Looking Back on Vasquez, 30 Years Later

March 28, 2017

My parents’ attitude toward selecting films to watch on family movie nights was pretty loose when I was young. They’d refined the criteria a bit more by the time my brother was able to sit up by himself and keep his eyes focused; but when I was little, the only real rule was no nudity below the waist. If Blockbuster had it in stock, then my parents were cool with me watching it. Silent Night, Deadly Night? Knock yourself out. The Thing? Go wild, girl. Aliens? Absolutely.

As a matter of fact, we watched Aliens as a family so much that by the time my brother was about six, he could do a pretty convincing Sergeant Apone.

 

To this day, my brother will randomly text me in all caps to remind me that a day in the Corps is like a day on the farm.

 

Like many people, I vacillate between whether I consider the first or second films in the Alien pentalogy to be the best (let’s ignore the Alien vs. Predator films for now…or forever, really). But line for line, you can’t beat Aliens and its wisecracking team of Marines. And that team would be nothing – nothing — without Private First Class Jenette “El Riesgo Siempre Vive” Vasquez. Sure, Hicks (or is it Hudson?) seems like the ne plus ultra of the gang, but even he’s completely dominated by Vasquez. Game over, man! She’s an undeniable force: quick-tempered, loyal unto death, fearless, completely self-possessed. She’s butch, she’s fierce.

Vasquez is also wildly problematic in a couple of important ways. Don’t get me wrong; that’s my girl.

 

But let’s take a moment and consider the following:

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My parents’ attitude toward selecting films to watch on family movie nights was pretty loose when I was young. They’d refined the criteria a bit more by the time my brother was able to sit up by himself and keep his eyes focused; but when I was little, the only real rule was no nudity below the waist. If Blockbuster had it in stock, then my parents were cool with me watching it. Silent Night, Deadly Night? Knock yourself out. The Thing? Go wild, girl. Aliens? Absolutely.

As a matter of fact, we watched Aliens as a family so much that by the time my brother was about six, he could do a pretty convincing Sergeant Apone.

 

To this day, my brother will randomly text me in all caps to remind me that a day in the Corps is like a day on the farm.

 

Like many people, I vacillate between whether I consider the first or second films in the Alien pentalogy to be the best (let’s ignore the Alien vs. Predator films for now…or forever, really). But line for line, you can’t beat Aliens and its wisecracking team of Marines. And that team would be nothing – nothing — without Private First Class Jenette “El Riesgo Siempre Vive” Vasquez. Sure, Hicks (or is it Hudson?) seems like the ne plus ultra of the gang, but even he’s completely dominated by Vasquez. Game over, man! She’s an undeniable force: quick-tempered, loyal unto death, fearless, completely self-possessed. She’s butch, she’s fierce.

Vasquez is also wildly problematic in a couple of important ways. Don’t get me wrong; that’s my girl.

 

But let’s take a moment and consider the following:

RACIAL COSPLAY: Our badass Latinx was played by non-Latinx Jewish-American actress Jenette Goldstein. Hollywood loves to play Racial Twister: the number of “ethnically ambiguous” actors who just might find their most consistent work playing anything other than the ethnicity they personally claim (Cliff Curtis, Max Minghella, Alfred Molina, John Rhys-Davies) turns out to be fairly eye-opening, once you start paying attention.

And audiences of colors do pay attention. Substantive roles for non-white (let alone non-cishet) actors are still too thin on the ground for this kind of racebending to be standard operating procedure. The fact is, Hollywood is often way more comfortable with an ersatz ethnicity than the real thing. Casting agents, directors, showrunners: they often play fast and loose with ethnic characters, because for many of them, whiteness is an empty category, and ethnic identity is merely a question of getting the accessories and accent right. This is especially true for actors whose own proximity to whiteness is variable, contextual, and negotiable. We appear to have reached a cultural consensus that blatant whitewashing isn’t exactly cricket …but ok, ok, what about this? A Pakistani kid playing a Nicaraguan?  That’s not as bad, right? Huh? Right? So you can take an ethnically-malleable Jewish actor, add a bandana, a tank top, and a little bit of makeup and boom: instant cholo. Which leads me to…

EL RIESGO SIEMPRE VIVE: It’s 2183, and cholo style as the sole marker for Mexican identity doesn’t seem to have undergone any appreciable changes. Granted, the rest of the Marines also rep vintage 1986 gear, but an argument could be made that, as a function of their utilitarian mission, standard issue buzz cuts and fatigues will still be standard military issue 200 years from now. But as the film’s sole Latinx character, what does it say that Vasquez bears the accoutrements she does? Or that Hicks (or is it Hudson?) gets one of his biggest laughs among the group by joking that Vasquez signed up for the Corps because “somebody said alien…she thought they said ‘illegal aliens,’ and signed up!”

Think about the implications of that for a moment: for that joke to work, the primary association for Latinx people in most folks’ minds, 200 years from now…in outer space…will still be their immigration status. Mindblowing. James Cameron and Co. literally could not think of a better joke to make about a Latinx character.

Cholo culture is a viable, vibrant one; but what we have here is not some nuanced nod to Chicanx subcultures. What we have here is lazy shorthand for “Mexican.”

BUTCH…BUT NOT TOO BUTCH: what exactly is Drake and Vasquez’s relationship? It’s not explicitly romantic, but is their closeness meant to allay some degree of lesbian panic? There’s no on-screen sexual intimacy in the film  — although Ripley and Hicks do share a few joking moments that nod to the expectation that they are the Main Couple. But the Colonial Marines do demonstrate a lot of [ostensibly] platonic intimacy,  their bonding a natural effect of the life-and-death work they do. Is the Vasquez/Drake pairing merely one more iteration of this? It certainly could be – but her relationship with the ultra blond and blue-eyed Drake is notable for the way it humanizes the gruff and blunt Vasquez and allows her space to express emotion. Her grief at his death is acceptable in a way that it might not be if she were visibly distraught over the demise of one of the other female Marines.

There’s actually a very cool conversation to be had about the intersections of class/race/gender/sexuality as they pertain to military service — both voluntary and conscripted. And Vasquez’s place in Aliens’ narrative, warts and all, offers a multitude of entry points into the discussion of how that plays out in film — as do the presence of Ferro (“Five by Five”), Dietrich, and Ripley herself. Vasquez is a fan favorite for a reason; and over the past 31 years, her backstory has been fleshed out in the rhizomatic Alien media universe, including a suite of video games and novelizations.  Vasquez siempre vive.

 

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