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The Talented Ms Ripley: 40 Years Of Alien's Complex Feminist Legacy
Emily Mackay , September 6th, 2019 03:23

Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley wasn't the first, nor will she be the last influential woman in sci-fi – but her role still has an enduring and complicated impact 40 years on, finds Emily Mackay

The first thing you notice about Lt Ellen Ripley is that no one likes her very much. As the crew of the Nostromo try to figure out why and where their ship’s computer has woken them from hypersleep, she carps at the navigator, Lambert. She’s high-handed with Brett and Parker, the disaffected engineers. Ash, the science officer, is vexed by her questioning. She exasperates the captain, Dallas, with her refusal to let things lie. The only real bond she has is with the ship’s cat, Jones, and even he spends most of the time running away. Yet Ripley remains one of cinema’s most beloved characters. In a 2016 BFI poll of the best sci-fi characters of all time, she was the most popular in film, and the highest-ranked woman (No 5) in Empire’s July 2019 poll of the greatest film characters. It’s her unpopularity, in part, that makes her so enduringly popular: Ripley isn’t ingratiating, easy or self-effacing, but a resilient survivor, and a giant leap for female characterisation.

Alien came just 10 years after the moon landing, when mainstream science fiction was the epic dreams of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or the grand adventure of Star Wars. Grimy and industrial, the film blended sci-fi with horror to evoke a universe that was either terrifyingly empty or actively hostile, embodied in the viciously surreal designs of Swiss fantasy artist HR Giger. It also came five years after the US Equality Act, and six after Roe v Wade. Second-wave feminism was making ripples in film and television, from Princess Leia to Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Ripley wasn’t the first female lead to not just run and scream, and she certainly wasn’t the first woman to make it to the end alone – slasher films were beginning to hit their peak, just as the idea of the serial killer entered the public imagination. The “final girl”, defined by Carol Clover’s book Men, Women and Chainsaws, is most often the last survivor of the slasher’s sexualised violence and the audience’s proxy in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Black Christmas.

But Ripley was more than just a female lead, and much more than just a final girl. Her presence was quite different to anything seen before: physically imposing (Sigourney Weaver is 5 foot 11), terse, tenacious. While contemporary reviews downplayed Ripley as a “tough-talking astronette” or “gutsy”, young viewers like Winona Ryder, Weaver’s co-star in 1997's Alien Resurrection, felt a shift. “We grew up with guys surviving, being the hero. Girls really just being mostly the victim … you saw a woman really kick ass for the first time.” The Alien Memories Project, a study of audience’s thoughts on the film, describes the “sheer force” of Ripley’s impact: fans described her as “the first real action heroine”, “an important role-model for me” and “a smart, resourceful, capable PERSON first and foremost, rather than being defined by her gender”.

Though she was a revolution to the audience, Ripley’s gender is, in the world of the Nostromo, exhilaratingly incidental – there are simply more pressing matters at hand to worry about. Her assertiveness is not just a novel character trait, but the engine of the narrative and the key to her survival. It's Ripley who figures out that the beacon that MU/TH/UR, the computer, wants the crew to investigate is a warning, not a distress call. It's Ripley, too, who discovers that Ash (Ian Holm) is acting on a special order from the unnamed Company that owns the ship: “ensure return of organism for analysis … crew expendable”.

Unlike many contemporary female characters, Ripley’s inquisitive energy is not contained by a love story or a family network. There was a plan to have Ripley and Dallas hook up, or even Ripley and Lambert. Ultimately the filmmakers opted to to stress the crew’s isolation instead, not just in space but from each other.

Every hero needs a human heart, though, and Ripley’s is succinctly evoked by the furry form of Jones. Some read Ripley’s return from the safety of the shuttle Narcissus to rescue the cat as aligning her with the sentimental, the domestic, and the feminine. But the idea of Jones being one of two final survivors was actually carried over from Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s original script, in which Ripley was a man, Martin Roby (“cautious but intelligent – a survivor”). They had specified that the crew members were interchangeable in terms of gender, and the suggestion to make the renamed Ripley a woman came from the 20th Century Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr, as a way to broaden the film’s appeal – he screen-tested Weaver on women in his office. After that, recalled co-producer David Giler, “we had the secretary change ‘he’ to ‘she’”.

Some feminists have dismissed Ripley as a male character played by a woman (Clover identifies her, like the final girls, as a surrogate for the male viewer). That raises the question, though, of what “male” characteristics are. Ripley is brave but not fearless, strong but not heartless. She doesn't talk macho tough, but she takes up space: hands on hips, feet on chairs. In 1979, where screenwriters mostly hewed close to gender norms, that simple swap of pronouns opened things up. “It was written in a very straightforward way,” said Weaver in 2009. “This was a kind of direct person, who didn’t have these scenes where she was suddenly vulnerable and she didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her. She was a thinking, moving, deciding creature.”

Decades before gender-flipped Shakespeare adaptations became standard, Weaver made the Nostromo her Agincourt. “I was such a snob”, she told Vulture, “So I didn’t really want to do science fiction — I just pretended I was doing Henry V the entire time. I thought, Well, as a woman, I’ll never be cast as Henry V, so this is my Henry V.”

Critics such as Judith Newton believe Ripley’s victories ring hollow in the context of Alien’s sexual symbolism: the xenomorph as toothed phallus, the chestburster scene as fear of male birth, MU/TH/UR's control room as treacherous techno-womb. Such readings present Ripley as a repressive force, safely aligning white middle-class liberal feminism to capitalism, while the destabilising threat that a wider feminist movement could present to the social order is transposed on to the gender-troubling alien, with its tendency to impregnate and emasculate men.

Once you go down the Freudian path, the dark dance of sexual symbols is hard to escape. The primary fears Alien plays upon are the terror of total isolation and our instinctual fear of parasites. But the screenwriters also deliberately invoke a disturbing, disorientating sexual threat. The facehugger was described by O’Bannon as “homosexual oral rape … to make the men in the audience cross their legs”. The mature form of the alien is phallic down to its jaw tendons, constructed from stretched, shredded condoms, smeared with KY jelly slaver. And at the heart of it all is Giger’s nightmarishly sexual, deeply misogynistic art. The BBFC’s main reason for passing the film as an X rather than an AA was this “dark undercurrent”, “a perverse view of the reproductive function”.

These sexual subtexts push back against Ripley’s boldness, most egregiously in the bizarre scene where Ash, now exposed as a “synthetic”, tries to choke her with a rolled-up porn magazine. Scott had found himself wondering whether an android would feel sexual curiosity. “Rather than just beating her up,” he muses in a 2003 commentary, “it’s more interesting that he always wanted to …”. The words “rape her” go unsaid. “Here’s his opportunity, but he doesn’t have that part … and therefore it’s a magazine.”

Ripley’s final battle with the alien, just after she’s stripped to her underwear to return to hypersleep, nearly went a similar way. According to Weaver in the 2003 commentary, “We wanted the alien to come and look at her through the glass and be intrigued by the soft pinkness of her compared to him ... that it kind of turned him on.” Budget and time constraints thankfully intervened.

There was no deus ex machina for Veronica Cartwright, who thought her character Lambert had met her end while trying to hide in a locker. Only when she saw the final cut did she discover the alien looming over her as she screams, running its tail up the inside of her calf. Except … it’s not her calf. It’s Harry Dean Stanton’s. The loving leg caress had been slyly moved from the earlier moments – already redolent of Psycho’s shower scene – where Brett dies. Clearly the implied violation felt more comfortable when applied to a woman.

Alien is not, as a whole, a feminist work. Yet Ripley’s force as a character blasts through the sexual subtexts, and far outlasts them; you don’t remember her as threatened, but as triumphing. One of the most rewarding things about science-fiction for feminists is the way it allows us to imagine different possibilities, other futures. Alien’s neo-colonial world is no utopia, but even its nightmare offered a glimpse of a new freedom, although one that was nearly fleeting: Scott had contemplated, he revealed in the 2003 commentary, killing off Ripley in the final scenes, and having the button-mashing xenomorph somehow pilot the Narcissus towards earth. “Two executives said: ‘are you out of your minds?”.

Ripley survived to become the lynchpin of the series, a rare female box-office draw for an action or sci-fi film, but the sequels stumbled over tricky themes such as motherhood and misogyny, down softer, safer paths. The director’s cut of James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) has Ripley discovering, when the Narcissus is picked up after 57 years adrift, that her daughter, Amanda, has lived and died without her. “I promised her that I would be home for her birthday,” she remembers. Given the moral panic over single working mothers in the 80s, it’s a loaded revelation. Even in the theatrical cut, which nixes the Amanda storyline, the presence of Newt gives a normative drive for Ripley’s aggression in her mega-mother face-off with the Alien Queen. Through some of the most badly timed cinematic flirting ever, she’s even given the bones of a romantic subplot with Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks. David Fincher’s Alien 3 – finally emerging in 1992 after six years of development hell during which scripts by William Gibson, Eric Red and David Twohy tried to kill or sideline Ripley – brutally strips away the conventional trappings, killing Hicks and Newt in a pod crash. Yet it fixes Ripley in its own series of feminine archetypes: the fallen woman, the walking temptation, the sorrowing, shaven-headed penitent. “You can still have a life ... children,” offers the company man who comes to relieve her of her alien embryo in the final scenes. Instead, Ripley chooses self-determination and a fiery end, sealing her legacy as the “poster woman for a generation of strong female characters”, as The Alien Memories project put it.

Though “kickass women” have abounded since, many screenwriters don’t seem to have looked much more than poster-deep. Alien’s bold, matter-of-fact characterisation still makes many far younger films feel quaint in comparison – not least Joss Whedon’s script for Alien Resurrection, which brings Ripley back as a part-xenomorph hybrid with an animalistic sexual presence and a penchant for saying things like, “Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat?”. Despite being set 200 years after Alien 3, it seems to have regressed back to real-life 1979: Ron Perlman’s Johner – in a scene that should have been blasted out of the nearest airlock – looks in on the flaming remains of the earlier, failed hybrids Ripley has just torched and says, “Must be a chick thing”.

Women’s strength, in sci-fi and fantasy, is often still patronisingly stressed, jokily noted, or shunted into the safe space of a maternal narrative, as with Whedon's much-hated backstory for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, that has the character referring to herself as a “monster” because she can’t bear children in Avengers: Age of Ultron, or even Ripley’s closest parallel, Sarah Connor, the warrior mother. Or it’s fetishised: there’s no one body type for a hero, but while tall, strong-shouldered, sweaty Ripley looks like she could give a xenomorph a little trouble, other sci-fi heroines are gifted with supernatural strength that’s played off against petite, conventional appeal. Even when their power is self-built, there’s almost always a pop-feminist one-liner waiting to underline their gender with a tedious wink. (I refer to this as the “try wearing a corset moment”, in reference to Elizabeth Swann’s paragon punchline in Pirates of the Carribean.)

Things are improving: growing focus on the characterisation of women in film has led us swiftly from the crude tool of gender-flipping in Ghostbusters to leads in possession of full personalities as well as formidable strength; there’s much hope in the likes of Rey, Jhin Erso and Captain Marvel (though even the latter had to endure a fight scene scored by No Doubt’s thunderingly basic ‘Just a Girl’). The misogynist pushback by a small but vocal subset of fandom shows there’s still a way to go before we catch up with Ripley. In the revived Alien franchise, with Noomi Rapace as Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus and Katherine Waterston as Daniels in Alien: Covenant, a redoutable female lead is now a prerequisite. There’s also Ripley’s daughter Amanda, the viewpoint character in Alien: Isolation, the truly terrifying 2014 game lovingly crafted in tribute to the original Alien. Like her mother, she’s determined, brave, a survivor. Well, at least in the hands of some players. My boyfriend jokes that my tactic is to wait in a locker until the alien succumbs to old age. However long it takes to die, though, you can bet Lt Ellen Ripley’s legacy will take a lot longer.