Everyone knows that complex and empowering female characters are difficult to find in mainstream films. But there are some who have stood out and become the changing faces of feminism in cinema. In this regular column, Jade Bate looks at her favourite film heroines who are strong, empowering and kick ass.
Before he was spewing out racist tirades about not casting POC in his films, director Ridley Scott was surprisingly diverse and pioneering in his filmic choices. Although he has tackled some iconic feminist characters in films like Thelma and Louise and Hannibal, it’s his second feature film Alien that spawned Sigourney Weaver’s warrant officer/lieutenant/astronaut Ellen Ripley; a trailblazing female action hero who would go on to have her three sequels of her own (Aliens, Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection). Since then, she has become one of the most beloved fictional characters of all time, often being the only female character to break the top ten in lists from certain film publications.
Released in 1979, between the Star Wars hype of the late 70s and the B-grade slasher flicks of the 80s, Alien was a new form of blockbuster that blended elements of the horror, science fiction and arthouse genres into a stylishly sleek film. With its comments on capitalism, gender roles and rape culture, Alien was incredibly ahead of its time and has only improved with age. Often described as science fiction, Alien is actually much more akin to a horror movie and features many elements that would later form the basis of such horror sub-genres as the slasher film (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream), body horror film (Scanners, The Fly) and found footage film (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity). With a constant ominous atmosphere, use of dim lighting and sound tracked by deafening screeches, Alien is perhaps one of the most art-house horror films ever made.
Alien centres on the seven crewmembers aboard the spaceship Nostromo, returning to Earth after a mission to collect precious minerals from a foreign planet for the “company”. When they receive a mysterious signal from an unknown planet, three of the crew are forced to go investigate it. On the ground one of the crewmembers, Kane (John Hurt) is attacked by a foreign organism that latches onto his face.
Back on the ship, Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) argues with Ripley that they must allow Kane to enter the ship to treat him; Ripley asserts that he must first go through the quarantine process. This argument is then repeated again later with the ship’s science officer and undercover cyborg, Ash (Ian Holm) defending his decision to not destroy the alien organism. When Ripley tells him, “When Dallas and Kane are off the ship, I’m senior officer”, he replies, “I must have forgot.” Ripley’s authority is constantly undermined by the male crewmembers, not only in authoritive decisions, but also in her role as one of only two women on board. When she offers to help the ship’s two engineers, Parker (Yaphet Kotto) and Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), they say things behind her back like, “What the hell is she coming down here for? What is she gonna do? She better stay the fuck out of my way that’s for sure.”
The irony of the male crewmembers’ subtle sexism is that Ripley’s decisions and actions always end up being the right choice in the end. And this is especially ironic due to what transpires later in what is perhaps the most iconic film scene of all time. In the film’s most Freudian and psychoanalytical moments, we join the crew for dinner after Kane has just had the organism removed from his face. Out of nowhere, he begins to cough, collapses onto the table and his chest bursts open in a spray of blood. Suddenly, an eel-like creature with razor sharp fangs emerges from his chest and scurries away, leaving Kane the first victim of the film.
David McIntee, author of Beautiful Monsters claims that “Alien is a rape movie with male victims. It shows the consequences of that rape: the pregnancy and birth. It is a film that plays, very deliberately, with male fears of female reproduction.” The very notion that a man could be impregnated and then subsequently give birth is one of the most radical features of Alien. It suggests that males have become the victims and women have become the heroes, which is further articulated with the depiction of Ripley. What follows that horrifying scene is something that can only be described as a slasher film in space, as each of the crewmembers is killed off, Ripley fights back and becomes the ship’s lone survivor, along with her ginger cat, Jones.
In the beginning of Alien, Ripley is just one of seven faces, but by the end of the film she’s the lone survivor. There is nothing in particular within the film’s first 45 minutes (before the chest-bursting scene) that suggests she would become the main character. Her heroism isn’t revealed until the second half when Captain Dallas is killed and she replaces him as the leader. She proves to be strong headed and strong willed in her determination to protect the rest of her crew.
Ripley is obviously a strongly written and complex character, but it’s difficult to say whether or not she is sexualised in the film. Weaver is obviously a conventionally attractive woman, yet up until the film’s last ten minutes she is never sexualised because of her looks. In a perhaps jarring scene, Ripley is attempting to flee in the escape pod when she discovers that the alien has smuggled itself on board. As she strips to her undergarments to get into a space suit, the camera does a somewhat suggestive scan of her perfect feminine body. There are two ways to view this scene. One, that it shows Ripley at her most vulnerable and as something that most people would do in order to change into a spacesuit. Or two, that it sexualises her body as a perfect feminie entity, as apposed to the grotesque shape of the alien. It could be suggested that both explanations are true. In the film’s last minutes, Ripley is vulnerable, humanistic and all together terrified, just like we, the audience, are.
The only other female character in Alien is the ship’s navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) who is acts as a direct contrast to Ripley. Lambert displays very typical traits of a female in a horror film, as she is constantly crying and visually scared. However, this doesn’t mean that she is an un-feminist character; she is just simply exhibiting a natural response to the situation that happens to be in a way that is stereotypically feminine. According to the screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, they didn’t assign a gender to any of the characters in the script until they had been cast. O’Bannon has said of this decision, “Everyone’s gender in the script was deliberately left up in the air. I figured that the gender of each character would be determined at the time they were cast.” However, it’s slightly difficult to believe that a male actor could have played Lambert, and the subtle sexism directed towards Ripley would have been non-existent if she were a man.
After the huge success of Alien, James Cameron directed its sequel Aliens in 1986. Aliens was very much a straight action and science fiction film with a huge blockbuster budget and Weaver now as a household name. Unlike the first film, the audience went into the film knowing Ripley is the main protagonist, meaning that audiences were totally aware that a woman was leading an action film. Although it’s perhaps less stylish than Alien, Aliens further explores the feminist overtones of Ripley, this time giving her a huge part to play not only as an action hero but as a very humanistic character. After being in cryogenic sleep for 57 years, Ripley has to face the harsh reality that everyone she knows back on earth, including her daughter, are dead, and furthermore that the alien planet from the first film is now inhabited by humans. The introduction of a young orphaned girl, Newt (Carrie Henn) gives Ripley a freshly sympathetic and personable element when she becomes her surrogate mother defending her from the alien Queen.
Ripley’s impact on cinema has been monumental. She was not only one of the first central women in a sci-fi/action film – leading the way for characters like Dr. Ryan Stone from Gravity – but she also defied the role of women in cinema all-together by presenting us with an original, headstrong and complex protagonist. It has been announced that Weaver will be back as Ripley in a fifth Alien film, directed by Neil Blomkamp due to be released in 2017. That film will only expand the universe of the beloved character further and prove her to be one of the greatest cinematic protagonists of all time.