Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley burned herself onto our consciousness when she outlasted her crew and became the lone survivor of Alien. In an instant, she crafted the mold with which the modern action heroine was made. Hyperbolic praise and status are heaped upon her because Ripley is the heroine who has remained essential, notable, and relevant some 30+ years since her 1979 debut. A long list of attributes made her a wonderfully strong leading woman, and the severe lack of tentpole heroines made her the wonderfully strong leading woman. We couldn’t forget her if we tried, and we wouldn’t want to.
Yet, Ripley’s status hurts her just as much as it helps her. Her character in the first film resonated so deeply that each sequel has tried to not only one-up its source material (in grand Hollywood tradition), but also encapsulate her power as a female hero, failing a little more each and every time. Subversive nods to the female experience became obvious, screaming signs, and Ripley ultimately became shackled to her sex, a mere fraction (physically and spiritually) of her original self.
The magic of Ellen Ripley lies in the hands of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. When they created this world, and what ultimately became this cast of characters, the crew was male by default. Ripley, then named “Martin Roby,” was an executive officer, someone “cautious but intelligent – a survivor.” But there was one key line to the script that made all the difference: “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” They opened the door to see these characters as crew members rather than characters shackled by the rigidly stereotypical expectations of their sex, and the studio and Ridley Scott, luckily, accepted the challenge.
Even with this equal playing field at its heart, stringent ideas of womanhood and femininity trickled in. David McIntee likens the film to “a rape movie with male victims” which “shows the consequences of that rape: the pregnancy and birth. It is a film that plays, very deliberately, with male fears of female reproduction.” H. R. Giger, known for his sexually enticing techno-surrealism, created the aliens, sharp-toothed phallic creatures who literally pierce through their human hosts to be born. When Ash attempts to kill Ripley, he does so by rolling up a magazine like a phallus and attempting to choke her with it – a choice of death so odd that its innuendo cannot be overlooked. When Ripley is alone and her crew is dead, she strips to reveal ill-fitting panties and a small tank top. The impractical, wedgie-inducing garb allows her to bend over, the crack of her backside showing as she discovers yet another phallic alien. As Xan Brooks writes: “It is as though the makers were so alarmed by what they had unleashed that they tried to rein her back at the last minute.”
Nevertheless, Ripley resonated. The past instances were but blimps to a larger, less stereotypical whole. Ripley is as O’Bannon wrote all those years ago: “cautious but intelligent – a survivor.” She’s a capable crew member who practically follows protocol while her crewmates emotionally chastise her. She is ruled by common, level-headed sense. Ripley isn’t overwhelmed by curiosity, but rather the practical concerns of their predicament. She is firm when she needs to be, yet shows enough emotion so that she never seems robotic. When she delivers a one-liner like “We’ll blow it the f**k into space,” it’s with sincere precision rather than ridiculous bravado.
When she goes into hypersleep, she is a woman, a regular human who used her brains and resiliency to survive.
At once, Ripley begins to fall to the pressure of feminine expectation in Aliens. Though she keeps her ability to fight and survive, it’s at the price of her gender barrier-free humanity. A filmmaker obsessed with mother/child dynamics, director James Cameron makes Ripley a mother figure, given the quintessential female trait. No longer a mere crew member, in a deleted scene Ripley learns of her daughter’s death. She becomes a mother mourning, which Cameron insists on making her motivating concern. When she arrives at the colony and finds that Newt, a little girl, has survived, Ripley is the immediate mother figure. She bathes and cares for Newt alongside her alien battles. She promises Newt survival, eager to make up for the failed promises to her real daughter.
Unfortunately, that’s only the tip of the problem. Sexist prejudice trickles in. Once again, she’s in her skimpy, hyper-sleeping ensemble as fellow female travelers wear more practical gear. She is surrounded by the military, smart-ass men (and women) who almost exclusively joke about sex, like the “juicy colonists’ daughters we have to rescue from their virginity.” Aliens even attempts to make this off-hand joke a reality, with Ripley realizing that company man Carter Burke wants to sexually assault her via the alien, impregnating herself and Newt (a colonist’s daughter) with alien spawn to smuggle them through border control.
Jenette Goldstein’s Pvt. Vasquez, meanwhile, is the one-dimensional tough-woman to balance Bill Paxton’s one-dimensional tough-man. But her overt, theatrical masculinity is even questioned as she’s asked: “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” The women of the Alien quadrilogy are no longer capable crewmates, but women facing overly antiquated sexist attitudes (especially for the year 2179). Even Cpl. Dwayne Hicks, Ripley’s best ally, falls into the stereotypical game, giving her a weapon with the disclaimer that it “doesn’t mean we’re engaged or anything.” (This is a twist from the script, where intimacy is “the last thing on their minds.”)
Cameron is so focused on the larger-than-life action (which is what made the sequel a commercial success) that Ripley slips further away from humanity, step by step becoming an inhuman superhero who can single-handedly defeat an alien and crawl against the current of air and debris being sucked out into space. … a superhero who is also a sex symbol titillating senses of danger and lust.
Where Aliens made Ripley the theoretical and potential mother, Alien 3 makes her the actual mother, linking her reproductive organs to her enemy that lives inside her. The film seems unsatisfied with the mother-status Ripley was given in the previous film, and again kills her “daughter,” Newt, sending her to the position of grieving caregiver. But worse, the film does this on a male prison colony where the danger to her physical body is just as imminent from the prisoners as it is from the aliens. Ripley has been transformed completely into the sexual object whose body is toyed with by all the men who surround her – for sexual pleasure or financial and political gain. She shaves her head to fit in, but it reads more like a weak attempt to balance her position as a mother with her position as alien asskicker.
Sexual danger lingers like an oppressive extra character, constantly reminding the audience about Ripley’s sexuality and femaleness. She jumps into bed and becomes the seductress, chastising her lover (Clemens) for spoiling the mood when he tries to work. She then becomes the potential victim, almost gang-raped by inmates until she is saved. Her future worth is dangled as the potential to recreate: “you can still have a life … children.”
But her only chance for offspring is the alien living inside her, a mother potentially birthing a mother, that she must kill. Ripley is defined by her womanhood and condemned by it. What was hinted at in the first film is now an oppressive reality she cannot survive…
…until Hollywood resurrected the franchise.
After two hundred years, Ripley is back again, the company having finally successfully cloned her (after many horrific attempts) as Ripley with her alien child, c-sectioned out of her body. She is imprisoned naked, swathed in a sheet on a hard floor. But the horrificness, and every bit of seriousness, are thwarted by Joss Whedon’s one-liner-laden script, and a marked insistence (by Whedon and Weaver, as explained by the writer in the extras) to remove much of Ripley’s humanity as a superhuman, acid-blood clone.
The film is a mélange of groan-inducing moments from beginning to end, including Ron Perlman’s Johner continually leering at Ripley, the ridiculous moaning “sex” scene where a thonged backside leads to a racy foot massage, the phallic-mouthed alien continually thrusting at its prey, the way Ripley ends up caressing and holding the hybrid alien in the end, and most ridiculously, her line: “who do I have to f**k to get off this boat?”
By the final moments, Ripley had evolved from the formidable hero defined by her actions and thoughts (rather than gender), to a heroine completely reduced to her reproductive powers. Critics might chastise the sequels for how directorial whim trumped story and trajectory, but Ripley’s real magic was lost the moment she become a female hero instead of just a hero. With her gender distinctly in play, she became a victim more to her gender than she did to her alien.
There is nothing wrong with having a tough female hero who has sex, babies, and anything else classically feminine, but Ripley wasn’t that type of heroine, which made each sequel seem thematically off. They never had a chance, no matter who was at the helm, because the focus of her character was so distinctly changed, so focused on her heroism and sex that she couldn’t just be the sum of her actions. She had to be the sum of her sex.
That’s the biggest blessing about this week’s Prometheus. It’s an Alien world without Ripley – the chance to break free from the obsession with a larger-than-life mother-figure and ass-kicking superheroine.