A GUEST POST BY ALEXANDRA BRADLEY
Part II: Why Ellen Ripley is the cat’s pajamas, and other stories
So…“Ripley, you say? Tell me more.” (See Part I here.)
Well, aside from the obvious factor that Alien is one of the most respected movies ever made and most of the other aforementioned action/sci-fi films featuring female action protagonists are….not….there are subtle but key differences between the leading ladies that set them miles apart from one another in terms of how much I consider them positive steps forward for women. And for my money, the most pervasive of these is something rather invisible to the viewer: the fact that Ellen Ripley was never supposed to be an “Ellen” at all, but rather a man.
Now I know that sounds like a reason for me to be the opposite of excited about this character, and I understand why you would think that. After all, why wouldn’t I want a character designed from the ground up to be a woman who still stood on her own? Well, that would be excellent, and if I find a great example, I will absolutely let you know. But especially considering that this is an older movie [Ahem. ---BOF], the filmmakers’ ability to remain true to the character even after turning the he into a she is quite remarkable.
The reason why this gender swap actually makes her such a great female role model is not that she becomes an overly masculine character (because that is obnoxious in a totally different way), but that her gender does not matter at all. Pretty much every detail about her character is gender neutral, and so she is stripped of all the stereotypes and overcompensations we heap on any character written explicitly to be a badass female action hero. She does not need to go to great lengths to prove herself as a badass, she does not need to be dressed in a skin-tight leather suit to show how “fit” she is, she does not need to be seduced by the man she trusts so much only to find out that he’s working for the enemy…no, none of these things is necessary because she just IS who she is.
As a matter of fact, the examples I extracted of why Ripley is such a great feminist character come just as much from what she does not do or have done to her as from what does happen. Or, to put it in a different light, it is in how much she is not really any different from any other crew member on board the Nostromo.
Walking into the film, there is not even any real reason to believe she is going to be the one who survives. We all consider that a given now, but at the time it came out, I would bet that it was kind of a surprise. As a relative unknown, she isn’t first-billed. Meanwhile, Tom Skerritt is the captain and the first-billed, so, had I not been about 7 years old when I first saw it and incapable of making those kinds of logical assessments, I would have put my money on him. She’s also not the only female on board, so she does not stick out as an anomaly and her presence as a female does not require any explanation. We immediately accept it as fact that in the 22nd century, women are considered pretty capable to do these kinds of jobs, just as men are. As a matter of fact, everyone in the crew is pretty much just in it for themselves; they are characters written for the sake of being characters, and not for the sake of making some big statement about the coexistence of whites and blacks, males and females, lions and sheep….you get the picture. Add in the fact that most of the actors are also much older than your average sci-fi/action hero, and you get a pretty perfect formula for realistic characters instead of idiotic young hot-shots driving us all crazy. But I digress…forgive me; I just love this film so much.
There are so many examples of things that they could have done wrong with this character but never did that it is hard for me to list them all. Yet I must try, so here are just a few: first and foremost, she is not just dumb, sensitive, and emotionally fragile every time something goes wrong. In fact, she fights back against her colleagues when they want to bring Kane back on the ship in complete disregard of her very valid concerns about contamination and the unknown. She is not just callous about it, as it’s never an easy call to insist upon leaving a crew member behind, but she is practical, rational, and, yes, struggling a bit with the decision.
She is also respected and taken seriously by the majority of her colleagues, or at least to the degree that any of them take one another seriously. She has legitimate professional conversations and opinions that are taken into consideration just like anyone else’s. This may seem like a small thing, but subtle does not equal unimportant. This is also reflected in a different way later on when Ash starts to have his meltdown. The filmmakers are not at all shy about letting a female character get beaten up, which is a pretty bold decision. Again, she is treated as an equal member of the crew, right down to how much she is punched in the face when someone gets out of control.
Another thing that I feel very adamantly about is that badass female characters are still realistic, and this is another example of something they did not mess up with Ripley. She gets scared and nervous. Everyone on the entire ship gets scared and nervous (except for Ash but, well, you know…). There is no reason for her just to melt down in tears every time something happens, nor is there any reason for her to be verging on sociopathic in her inability to show empathy or emotion. She displays the perfect balance for any action hero—male or female—between anxiety and strength. And yes, that does mean she loses it a few times (such as when she is speaking to Mother and finally hears the ship say that the crew is viewed as expendable). Wouldn’t you? I know I would, and I know most men would, too.
And finally, perhaps my favorite way in which they did not ruin Ripley was by resisting the urge to make her a hyper-sexualized character or hyper-feminine character visually. There is basically nothing sexy about how they presented this character—she’s dressed in one of the ugliest uniforms ever, covered in true grit for most of the movie, and gets sweaty and gross like any real person would. Yet that’s not to say that Ripley is not still sexy to some (most?) people, because a line of fan boys (and girls) that could probably wrap around the Earth a few times would rightfully argue that point with me…and I would agree with them. The point is that there is simply no concerted effort to build up her sexual appeal; she just is an attractive woman, and the fact that she gets out there and gets the job done with such competence probably doesn’t hurt.
And yes, she is in her underwear (gasp!) at several points during the film, and sometimes for a substantial amount of time. But I would be more annoyed if she wasn’t. It is established right from the get-go that they all go into hyper-sleep in their skivvies. So why would she be any different just because she’s a female? Even the final scene of the film in the escape pod is perfectly reasonable considering the circumstances and the flow of the film. We are supposed to be calming down with her and becoming vulnerable with her before the final blowout. We would feel off, as an audience, if she was fully dressed…all by herself in an escape pod…about to go into hyper-sleep. It just wouldn’t make any sense, and we would immediately know (as a first-time audience) that the show wasn’t over. I have no problem with putting a female character in her skivvies for the greater purpose of the film—only when it’s gratuitous do we have an issue.
Now, to get back to reality for a second: did they actually go out of their way to make this character an amazing feminist role model? Hell no. They made the decision to cast Ripley as a female because they wanted to break up the male-dominated genre and bring in more viewers, which means selling more tickets and, you guessed it, making more money. But, once again, that is exactly how her character became so great. It seems to be in the act of deliberately making a character female that we run into trouble, and so having it be little more than an afterthought is actually the perfect scenario. Gender bias never really came into play until later on in the series, when the character had already been largely developed.
On that note, you can catch a glimpse of what might have been when you look at the writing of the character Lambert, whom I consider a much more traditionally “female” character. She’s still pretty great, because this is still an excellent movie in every other respect in addition to Ripley, but she meets your expectations of a female character in an otherwise masculine world. She doesn’t do a whole lot in comparison to everyone else to help get rid of the alien, gets extremely emotional at various points in the film, wants just to leave rather than fight it, and becomes paralyzed and hysterical with fear when the alien shows up at the end. Now, that’s not to say that those aren’t very realistic things that some people would absolutely do in response to such a situation. However, had she been the only female on board (as she originally was supposed to be), it would have been a really obviously gendered choice to have her be the only one who does all of those things. Let’s be frank: in real life, women are not the only people to behave like that, and a large proportion of women would not behave like that either. Plus, I have read that, apparently, Veronica Cartwright rather agreed with my analysis of her character, though she did ultimately take the part because they talked her into it, so I can’t be that far off. [And, that said, performed her high-strung role brilliantly. –BOF]
This ability to conserve the purest form of the character rather than allowing her to fall into either heavily gendered direction is thanks in large part to the deft hand of Ridley Scott’s direction and the rest of the behind-the-scenes folks responsible for the original Alien film, as unfortunately we progressively lose this element of Ripley’s character as the series goes on. But that’s another story for another day. For now, suffice to say that this is my rationale for believing that Ellen Ripley is the greatest female action hero of all time. Agree or disagree with me as you will, because this is just one woman’s opinion, but I hope that my analysis and opinion has been informative or eye-opening for at least some of you, and that you may go forth to new action/sci-fi films with a bright, shiny new perspective on female characters in tow.
If you like what you see here, look for my next post on Daddy BOF’s site in the near (but not too near) future, this time looking at the next stage of Ripley’s progression in Part III: Where Alexandra laments the immense popularity of Aliens.