Feminists in Space: Ellen Ripley and the Female Action Hero

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Action Comics #252 (1959) introduced Supergirl. Courtesy DC Comics.

Action Comics #252 (1959) introduced Supergirl. Courtesy DC Comics.

Traditionally, the term “hero” identifies a male character, Odysseus, Beowulf, and Batman are identified by classic masculine traits: physical strength, success in combat, and great wit.

As the concept of hero developed into its modern form, more writers created female heroes, the vast majority of which were simply feminized versions of popular male heroes. Supergirl was essentially Superman in a miniskirt. Batman had a Batgirl. For the most part, these characters were in subjection to their male counterparts, not even receiving the designation “woman” in their names.

Conan the Barbarian’s counterpart, Red Sonja, was a tough red-headed warrior woman who wore a chain mail bikini. Clearly, she was designed for a male audience. In the motion picture adaptation Red Sonja, Sonja’s oath is that she would not have sex with a man unless he could defeat her in battle. Even female heroes, it appears, must be in subjection to men at some point.

Rather than letting her help save people, Superman insists that Supergirl go live at an orphanage. Action Comics #252 (1959). Courtesy DC Comics

Rather than letting her help save people, Superman insists that Supergirl go live at an orphanage. Action Comics #252 (1959). Courtesy DC Comics

As one feminist author commented, developing a true female hero would require a “move from the objectification of women as helpless victims (saved by the male action-adventure hero) or as seductive villains,” to a focus on “women’s emotional and physical strength, desire for empowerment, and relationships to strong women of the past,” (Helford 293). The motion picture Alien introduced Ellen Ripley, who appeared in all four films of the Alien series. Ripley is a female character who attains the title of hero by defining herself in female terms and challenging a male-dominated society.

Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien is a traditional monster-on-the-loose story set in a Gothic future. However, the way the creature invades the ship was original. Kane, the ship’s executive officer, looks over a large egg found on a crashed, derelict spacecraft. The egg opens, and a spider-like creature latches onto his face. It is soon learned that the creature impregnated Kane, and he dies as the infant creature bursts from his chest. The creature quickly matures and begins killing the crew. Historically, women have been considered reproductive bodies and throughout most of history, daughters were treated as a commodity (Barr 85). Chivalric tales, such the King Arthur legend, are full of stories involving rape and the treatment of women, especially wives, as little more than a means to produce sons. In the tales of Sir Tor, it is discovered he was the product of a rape. Since the rapist was of noble blood, it was considered a good thing (Mallory 73). However, in Alien, all humans are treated as a reproductive commodity, and the ability to choose is non-existent.

Reproduction is a central theme in Alien. According to Marleen Barr, much male-oriented science fiction presents the ideology that men are better at creating life than women (88). The crew’s orders come from Mother, which appears to be a central computer that controls the ship and gives orders. The crew is expected to follow Mother’s orders. Ash, it is revealed, is an artificial person, complete with semen-white artificial blood. These man-made creations attempt to improve on the natural reproduction of women. However, they are male creations and lack any moral compass. Mother want the alien creature to exploit it for military purposes. When questioned, Ash express his admiration for the creature as a “perfect organism … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” The creature is different than the male human, so a male-dominated society is only interested in exploiting the creature.

As the crew is killed off, Ripley takes a dominant position on the ship. Eventually the crew listens to her. She decides to destroy the ship. Everyone except Ripley dies before reaching the escape ship. Ripley escapes, but the alien stows away on the escape vessel. For Ripley, there is no knight or warrior to save her. She is alone with the creature. In a traditional horror movie, the female character would have never made it to this point of the story without the help of a male character, let alone defeat the creature by her own wits. However, Ripley also defeats Mother’s plan to exploit the creature as a reproductive commodity.

“Get away from her, you bitch!”

Aliens, the sequel, opens with a salvage crew finding Ripley in suspended animation on the escape ship. Fifty-seven years have passed and she finds herself feeling alienated. She discovers, at least in director James Cameron’s longer version of the film, that her daughter died at age 66.

Motherhood is the dominant theme of Aliens.

From Aliens. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

From Aliens. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

When Ripley explains the events of the the first film to commercial and governmental officials, her story is trivialized. These nine people include only two women, wearing male clothing, including neckties. Really, she is being trivialized by a male-dominated leadership. The women on the board get their authority by acting masculine.

Soon she is on a military space vessel heading back to the planet where the original creature was found. She serves as a consultant for a military operation that needs to find out what happened to a human colony on the planet. From the time she awakes from hyper-sleep, Ripley is ignored by the military crew. When she tries to explain what happened to her crew, the marines make jokes. The other women on the ship are tough, muscular marines. Ripley finds her opinions are not wanted.

The masculine marines use their technology and weapons to fight the aliens. However, they continue suffering losses. As the story progresses, the soldiers being to respect Ripley more and involve her in the decision-making process. Instead of letting the marines protect her, Ripley asks one of the soldiers to teach her how to use a rifle.

As the marines explore the deserted colony, they find a young girl, nicknamed Newt, whose family was killed by the creatures. Ripley and the girl latch on to each other, and Ripley spends much of the film protecting the girl. When Newt is taken by the aliens, Ripley enters the nest of the monsters. She shows fear but continues pressing forward. With only a few weapons, she descends deeper into the alien have and saves Newt from being raped by one of the alien face-huggers. As Newt clings to Ripley, they enter the chamber of the alien queen. The rest of the movie is a series of fights between Ripley and the queen, who exists to produce eggs, which will infests hosts and create more progeny. Nothing has any value to her except for reproduction and survival. She is pure nature. Ripley, however, is clearly willing to risk her life to save Newt, who she is not physically related to. She does not want Newt to suffer the horror of the alien reproductive cycle. Ripley represents motherhood as nurture.

Ripley’s fear transforms to anger as the the Queen to save Newt. After the creature is destroyed, Newt hugs Ripley, calling her “mommy.” By putting motherhood in the context of nature versus nurture, the film reveals Ripley as a hero mother. She achieves the designation “hero” because of her emotional strength as a woman.

“I keep telling you I want to die!”

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Alien3 begins with Ripley, in yet another escape ship, crashing on Fiorina 161, a prison planet. Newt and Hicks, the only surviving soldier from Aliens, die in the crash. Ripley is the only woman a a planet populated with convicts. Soon her head is shaved and she is stripped, not only of her motherhood quality, but her outward femininity. Everyone on the planet has a unisex look, and the setting of the film is constantly dark and oppressive in visual and thematic tone. Many of the prisoners have joined a religious group and have made a vow of celibacy.

While the story features another alien on the loose, the subplot is more relevant to the discussion of Ripley as a hero. Ripley learns she is pregnant with an alien queen. The company, which continues to show interest in the creature as a bioweapon, is en route to the planet. As the movie progresses, Ripley feels the creature growing. After defeating the alien that was loose in the prison, she is confronted by a member of the company. She earns the loyalty of the prisoners and some are killed protecting Ripley from while she transforms into a savior hero by throwing herself into a foundry while embracing the baby alien queen as it bursts from her chest. With this act, the alien lineage is destroyed. From Barr’s feminist prospective, Ripley is now empowered to make the choice to terminate the pregnancy.

“I’m the monster’s mother”

Killing the hero would normally announce the end of a series, but Ripley returned in Alien Resurrection. Elyce Ray Helford, in her essay “Postfeminism and the Female Action-Adventure Hero,” complains that Ripley is sexualized in Alien Resurrection with leather fetish clothing and Goth green nail polish. She says that Ripley is “no longer the heroic standard for women in the action-adventure genre,” (Helford 296).

Feminist writer Patricia Melzer disagrees. She explains that the film is about the feminist cyborg. In the cast of Ripley, she is cloned from a blood sample left on Fiorina 161. This Ripley, however, has some of the alien DNA combined with her own. According to Melzer, Ripley is a cyborg because she is now a “woman and a construct” (Melzer 109). Genetically modified, Ripley shows signs of being more sexually aware and physical traits, like dark fingernails, remind views that she is no longer completely human.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

However, like the other films in the series, the aliens are only the surface enemies. In Alien Resurrection, the true enemy is technology. The organization in charge of the operation is call Father, indicating a patriarchy. Cloning is man’s next step in trying to highjack what women naturally do. The goal of the experiments in the film is to create an alien queen out of Ripley’s DNA. They succeed. As one of the scientists tells Ripley, she is simply a “Meat by-product.” Eventually Ripley discovers a chamber of horrors where seven other attempts to separate her DNA and the alien’s failed. Still living, one of the deformed Ripleys begs for Ripley to kill her. The view presented is clear, even in the far future; male interests will continue to view female reproduction as a commodity.

Due to the interference of the masculine drive to out-perform women in creating life, the new Ripley finds her loyalties split between the aliens and the humans in the film. No longer do we see the nurturing Ripley of Aliens or the savior hero of Alien3. Instead, she is a mostly acting out of nature, like the alien queen she defeated. Yet at the end, she saves humankind and develops a strong friendship with Call, a female android. Ultimately she arises as a hero by allowing her humanity to survive even though she is treated as a “meat by-product.”

The four films featured different writers and directors. Each group brought their own ideas to the films. Yet as a series, this films work as a study of the feminist hero. Ripley, the only character to appear in all four films, changes from film to film. In each film, she displays the characteristics of a hero. However, she also rises as a true female hero, fighting against an oppressive male-dominated society while maintaining her female identity.

©  Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul Anthony George and The Reno Signal with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. Originally written December 9, 2010 for an English literature class.

Works Cited

Alien. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and Ian Holm. 20th Century Fox, 1979, DVD

Aliens. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sigourney Weaver. 209th Century Fox, 1986. DVD

Alien3. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Charles S. Dutton, and Charles Dance. 20th Century Fox, 1992, DVD

Alien Resurrection. Dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder, and Ron Perlman. 20th Century Fox, 1997. DVD

Barr, Marleen S. Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Chapel Hill: the University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Print

Helford, Elyce Rae. “Post feminism and the Female Action-Adventure Hero.” Future Females, The Next Generation. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. New York: Rowman & Littlefied, 2000. Print

Malory, Thomas. Le Mort d’Arthur. Digireads.com, 20098. Print

Melzer, Ptricia. Alien Constructions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. Print

Red Sonja. Dir. Richard Fleischer. Perf. Brigitte Nielsen, Sandahl Bergman, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. MGM, 1985. DVD


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