Xenophobia, Racism And Alien Representation In District 9

The term alien has many connotations for different people, from the scientific theory and sci-fi representations of extra-terrestrial life to the resurgence in modern society of legal uses regarding immigration. In popular culture these uses can often coincide whether metaphorical, allegorical, or explicit. Extra-terrestrial life is used to represent the human fear of the ‘other’, or that which is different to oneself. Xenophobic attitudes are explored through creatures from another planet which look or behave in a way which is textit{alien} to us. Furthermore, the presentation of aliens in popular culture is the main way in which the general public are exposed to astrobiological questions about what form aliens may take. This leads to a preconceived idea about what an alien is which may well be unjustified as science is often disregarded in pursuit of a political message.

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Arguably the perfect film to explore the idea of xenophobia representation in the form of aliens is District 9. The 2009 Neill Blomkamp film set in 1980’s Johannesburg is about an alien race whose ship stalls above the city. The creatures on board are stranded attempting to collect the parts to repair their transport after humans cut open the ship to find them starving inside, refugees from another planet. We follow Wikus, played by Sharlto Copley, an employee of the MNU (multinational munitions corporation) who are attempting to learn to wield the alien technology.

Despite no clear direct reference to the apartheid in the film, the appalling treatment of the aliens is clearly meant to show the suffering during this period, serving as an allegorical piece of cinema. The aliens in the film are segregated from the rest of humanity in Johannesburg in the titular district 9. Scenes of forced removal and relocation of aliens throughout the slum they live in to a camp far from Johannesburg mirror the treatment of the victims of apartheid era government in South Africa. The camp represents the Cape Flats which many Cape Town residents were evicted to. District 9 as title is also thought to be a reference to the large-scale relocation of removal of black residents from Cape Town’s district 6. Over 60,000 people were forcibly removed from there from 1968 under the Group Areas Act which is paralleled by the inhumane eviction scenes in the film. cite{saha}

The evictions are unfortunately still a relevant idea today with the treatment of refugees being separated from their families and denied a second chance at life due to xenophobic attitudes about not belonging. Shamefully parallels can be drawn with the border camps constructed in the USA where many lose the ability to see their children and are treated as criminals for seeking a better life. This comparison is made even more powerful by the fact the aliens are shown as refugees stranded on our planet after escaping their own dying planet, much like their human counterparts escaping bombed-out war-zones. Borders consisting of barbed wire patrolled by armed guards mirrors the border anxiety at many real-life refugee camps with overcrowding appearing prevalent. News articles and interviews play throughout the early moments of the film talking about alien riots and arrests and the relocation of the prawns. These are very reminiscent of real televised programming about refugees, leading the audience to question preconceived notions of refugees and ‘illegal aliens’ caused by their media consumption.

In addition to this, the alien protagonist Christopher is attempting to fix the alien ship to help his child escape the treatment on earth and save his species but is continually meeting obstacles caused by humanity. This idea also ties into the separation of refugee family members, but further connections can be drawn with the fact that many of the countries refusing refugees have a hand in the wars that put them in this position. An idea still very common in recent history such as treatment towards Syrian refugees by the Gulf States.

Another interesting choice is the use of the film’s lead Wikus. After a routine eviction he is exposed to alien chemicals which cause him to begin transforming into one of the aliens. As others discover this change, they begin to treat him differently as he becomes valuable property to the MNU due to his potential ability to interact with alien technology. This leads to a scene where a live dissection is attempted showing that as soon as Wikus stops being entirely human any question of rights an ethical treatment is discarded. He becomes property to be exploited, hearkening back to the slave trade, in order to gain access to the alien technology due to human fears of inferiority. After escaping Wikus is presented in the media as having been contaminated due to intercourse with an alien to stir up xenophobic feelings in the public so he cannot expose the MNU for their cruelty and to silence him. The way he is treated, later being referred to as a ‘half-breed piece of shit’ also highlights racist, xenophobic feelings toward mixed race couples and children still present in some areas of society.

These slurs tie into another common expression of xenophobia in popular culture. In district 9 the aliens are referred to as prawns as a racial slur meant to reflect their ‘hideous’ appearance and the bottom feeding lifestyle they are forced into. This idea carries across properties however such as in Blade Runner where the replicants are called “skinjobs.” They are viewed as undeserving of humane treatment due to their robotic nature despite the capacity for thought and feeling they have, which is explored more thoroughly in Blade Runner 2049. This idea carries through many properties such as Avatar using the term “blue monkeys”; Star Trek having a variety of nicknames for its plethora of alien species such as “spoonhead” for Cardassians etc. 

07 July 2022

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