The in-group: How aliens have become reflections of ourselves

Graphic by Diamond Pham

It is the mere possibility of alien existence that enables us to walk into the tight-knit, exclusive hangout down the hall, feeling a little less awkward and flushed than the time before. Let me explain.

When I think of the quintessential alien of the science fiction genre, I immediately see an eerie, disproportionate head, void of any nuanced, idiosyncratic features. This leaves only their bug-like, beady eyes, and a hostile smirk narrowly marking their moon-silver skin to construct something that bears a slight resemblance to a face.

In that very sentence, I have differentiated aliens, the “other” from “us.” Their physicality is warped in order to create a distinct barrier between the in-group (a group of people with a shared identity) and the out-group (those excluded from the in-group).

Why, as humans, are we so intrigued by this idea of the “other”?

When aliens first made their mark in science fiction, they sought permanent refuge in our minds because they were a novel concept.

However, it is not merely the alien’s depiction as humanity’s “shiny new toy” that lures us into their being, but also that aliens help us to escape from our world.

Moreover, aliens are often attributed with a level of superiority, due to the supernatural powers they seem to always be armed with. After assimilating into the other world, our return to reality arms us, too, with a newfound sense of power, making our daily struggles ever-so-slightly easier.

We relate to these undermined creatures, who are misunderstood simply because we don’t know much about them. Witnessing an eventual acceptance of aliens in some stories gives us hope for the amalgamation of out-group with in-group.

Notions of in-group and out-group aren’t resolute, though. They require context. We have a biological mechanism that works consistently inside of us, fostering trust, closeness, and empathy, but only toward those we consider part of our in-group.

For those deemed an out-group member, this very same mechanism encourages hostility, violence, and aggressive discrimination. It amplifies our in-group preference. Science fiction stories about galactic wars between humans and aliens that threaten our only habitable planet stem from this behavior.

Fortunately, our concepts of in-group and out-group can be easily manipulated. Put on a football jersey of a team someone else is loyal to, and you’ll find yourself in their in-group. Even categories work; how many times have you felt bonded to a stranger who was simply walking their dog, hence suggesting a shared love for dogs? The reason one of my middle school friends and I bonded was thanks to our then-obsession with The Vampire Diaries.

This manipulability has been useful to the sci-fi genre as the role of aliens have evolved. Now, the alien no longer occupies a warped figure, but rather is physically illustrated as one with us, humans.

In order to bring the alien closer to our in-group, science fiction authors often have aliens reflect our physical, political, and societal states –- they are embodiments of humanity, just displaced into another planet or galaxy. The alien is essentially in our in-group, and through their reflective characterizations, our connections to these supernatural creatures grow stronger.

Portraying the alien as reflections of ourselves while still marking their distance from us with the label of “alien,” allows us to relate to them in ways that validate our inner pariah’s feelings, and sometimes even ignites a strength in us to walk into that exclusive hangout down the hall with a newfound sense of confidence and power.

Tarini Sipahimalani is an English major at Pomona College. She enjoys drawing, singing a cappella, and tennis, but mostly for social purposes.

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