Illegal Alien

(Culture Snob’s third offering for its own Misunderstood Blog-a-thon.)

E.T.: On the lam from the lawI suggested it, jokingly, when I announced the Misunderstood Blog-a-thon:

“Is E.T. really a sophisticated exploration of diaspora?”
But the more I think of it, the more it makes sense.


  • Like many illegal immigrants, E.T. is strongly encouraged to learn English.
  • Like many aliens, E.T. is forced to fit in (with the stuffed toys in the closet).
  • E.T. is subjected to stereotypes (that all extraterrestrials are little green men [Yoda]) made all the more insulting because they’re performed by human beings, like white people in blackface.
  • In public, E.T. cannot be himself, given a disguise (a children’s costume) to wear so that he doesn’t upset the natives.
  • Metaphorically critical, it is a ghost costume, reflecting E.T.’s invisible/neglected status in American culture.

  • Denied the typical food and customs of his homeland, E.T. becomes accustomed to an American diet, subsisting on alcohol (beer), junk food (Reese’s Pieces), and television.
  • Federal authorities have an interest in E.T. that’s disproportionate to the threat he poses.
  • E.T. becomes gravely ill after his relocation to the United States — not unlike Hmong refugees:
    “Since 1977 more than a hundred Southeast Asian immigrants in the United States have died from the mysterious disorder known as sudden unexpected nocturnal death syndrome. [...] It is widely held, however, that some type of intense stressor is likely an additional risk factor.”
  • Like many foreigners with an unusual appearance, E.T. is credited with magical, dark powers, and strikes fear into white suburbanites.

Help me out here. What else?

Uh...he works as a gardener and nanny?

Thank you! I had meant to include the gardening but lost it in my brain.

Even though E.T. has broken no major laws, he is treated like a criminal: He only gets one phone call.

Interesting interpretation and some really good parallels. I think it works pretty well. I wonder, though, if this approach overly downplays the theme of children in the film--more importantly, the theme of the identification of ET with children, both in their relationship to each other (only children really understand him), but also in the eyes of adults: ET is uncanny to adults in the same way that precocious children can be, and he is mistreated in the same way children often are: as a pet or possession, or as a thing that is not fully human--both to similar to us and too strange. ET breaks the standard film presentation of aliens as truly alien, either more savage and cruel or more intelligent and wise, than humans. (It also uses this uncanny element to manipulate its audience, playing with ET’s demeaning doll-like, infantile status to elicit coos from the audience.)

This identity of child and alien (and the identity of both with the subhuman, the pet or animal) seems to be strongly underlined by the scene with ET among the stuffed animals, the trick or treating, and the his later reduction to a lab specimen by the doctors.

I don’t think this is at odds with your interpretation, since it basically makes the contrast and simliarity of child and alien into a symbol of our relation to other human beings in their difference from us--to the other as other. And so the parallels to the situation of an illegal immigrant would be specific cases of this broader theme.

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