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

A Few Good Chicks: The Modern Woman and Salome

 

The Defence of Saragossa by David Wilke.

The Defence of Saragossa by David Wilke.

“Oh those base invaders of my country, those oppressors of the best of its patriots; Should the fate of war place any of them within my power, I will instantly deliver up their throats with my knife.” – Agustina de Aragón (1785-1857)

According to Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, women are vicious, self-centered and lack inherent goodness.

And that means they are equal to men in every way.

The role of women in Western civilization has always been based on normative views. According to society’s norms, women should be inherently motherly and naturally submissive to men. Nineteenth century novels such as Jane Eyre began to question what a woman’s role in society was. In Salome, the princess Salome is frequently alluded to when the characters refer to the moon. The young Syrian describes the moon as “a little princess who wears a yellow veil, and whose feet are of silver” (1). Herodias’ page views the moon as “a dead woman” (1). Herod, who has a sexual interest in his stepdaughter, describes the moon a naked and wanton (28). The prophet Iokanaan predicts that the moon will become like blood, suggesting blood-guilt (44). Salome herself describes the moon as “cold and chase…a virgin” (11). All of these qualities are demonstrated by the princess in some form within the story.

Herodias, Salome’s mother, is the only character to provide a positive analysis. She says “the moon is like the moon, that is all” (28).

At the time of the writing of Salome, women were asserting their rights in the United Kingdom and the United States. However, with equal rights comes equal responsibility. Women were viewed in Victorian culture as the angels of the home. They were to be quiet, raise children, serve the needs of their husband and, ultimately, behave exactly how society dictated they should act. The princess Salome, however, asserts her power and requests the head of Iokanaan on a silver platter.  Her desire for Iokanaan’s head, whether out of possessiveness, jealousy or revenge reveals a woman who defies the values of the day. The audience, whether watching the play or reading it for an English literature class, is shocked by Salome’s actions. Yet many find it more offensive because Iokanaan’s death is caused by a woman.

Being viewed as equals in society is important to both sexes. However, it creates difficulties that society has not always been prepared to face. Due to the view of women as angels in the home, society has had trouble realizing that, given the opportunity, women will act a lot like men who have enjoyed same freedoms for centuries. While one woman may be the traditional mother and wife, another may decide to have a career. While a woman in Victorian times had little choice but to stay home and be quiet, a free woman can stand up and speak out for or against anything she believes is important. And some, like Salome, will kill.

As part of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, Soviet pilot Irina Sebrova engaged in more than 1,000 bombing sorties against the Germans during World War II.

As part of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, Soviet pilot Irina Sebrova engaged in more than 1,000 bombing sorties against the Germans during World War II.

While history books are content to focus on the supportive wives of presidents, actual history is filled with women who were not afraid to break rank with polite society and be themselves. Julia Agrippina, Anne Bonny, Augustina Zaragoza Doménech (Agustina de Aragón), and Irina Sebrova are all excellent examples of historical women who would be viewed as heroes if they had been men. Yet most people have no idea who these women are. While children are taught of the bravery of King Leonidas’ stand against the Persian horde, they are never taught about Tomoe Gozen, a young female samurai who, when confronted by a rapist, decapitated the man. Women are never declared as heroes equal to men because the established normative thinking is that women are heroes by breeding heroes, not by direct action.

In the case of Herod, he discovered that Salome was not the adorable sexual object that he wanted. Repelled by her actions, he realized that she needed to be treated, not as an innocent child, but as a monster (66).

While the fight for equality is hardly over, great progress has been made. Equality can be about equal wages or the right to vote. However, it can also be about the right to sow one’s own field of life and reaping from it, good or bad. And maybe that is what women really want, the opportunity to freely make decisions, and be judged, not by long-established rules of gender, but by their own merits.

Originally written May 2, 2011 for an English literature class.

©  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.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. Salome. New York: Dover, 1894. Print.

Dirge for the Common Man: A Response to “Song to the Men of England”

Image from Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis.”

The near-deafening brouhaha raised by the Tea Party during the 2010 election season in the United States attracted the attention of the mainstream media and political system with its use of controversial slogans and anti-government statements. Candidate Christine O’Donnell, misattributing words to Thomas Jefferson, riled the crowds with words that the government should fear them. Air-raid-siren-voiced candidate Sharon Angle shrieked against the so-called evils of public education, social security, and minimum wage. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin announced that the women of the Tea Party were “mama grizzlies” ready to devour an out of control federal government. Party members met at rallies, shaking signs announcing “Warning Constitution Under Attack,” claiming President Obama was a socialist, and the need to “Protect and Defend the Constitution from All Enemies” (Scherer 27).

The November 4th election led to some Tea Party victories and the Republican Party gained a majority vote in the House of Representatives. Suddenly the Tea Party vanished into the background and little changed in government. Legislature made compromises, passed bills, and all will remain quiet until it is time for another election. Rather than being out-of-control wild grizzlies, Tea Party members showed themselves as sheep, bleating loudly until shepherds arrived to tell them they will be taken care of by the wealthy.

Large uprisings are nothing new. History is full of groups of people rising against their rulers demanding food, protection or freedom. The American Revolution, which energized Europe, provided hope for the people of France, who felt oppressed under a system that protected the wealthy and denied human rights to the common citizen. In time, however, the fervor about revolution calmed and many felt the dream of freedom and equality would never be attained. Indifference, or complacency, settled into the soul of the commoner.

Perhaps this is what early 19th Century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was responding to when he wrote “Song to the Men of England.” Shelly directs his poem directly to England’s working class, those who plough and weave for the wealthy, providing the rich with food and fine clothing, yet ultimately giving their lives for the upper class without receiving any gratitude. Ultimately, Shelley states these men toil, yet receive not “leisure, comfort, calm, / Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm,” but pain and fear.

Shelley’s words are clearly a call to arms, but they are also a reproof of, not only the workers’ indifference, but their willingness to contribute to class inequality. The final two stanzas of the poem tersely tell the men to go underground, bellow the very floors they built, and chain themselves with the very chains they made for their masters. If the men of England are going to continue supporting the system, then Shelley writes that they should use their tools and skills to make their own graves.

Class divisions still exist in the United States. After World War II and continuing through the 1970s, the gap between the rich and the poor in America remained relatively close and stable. With the introduction of Ronald Reagan’s policies of deregulating markets and giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, the gap began to grow. The gap continued to growing as the wealthy continued to increase their corporate earnings while the working class was getting paid less. Unions are now viewed as an evil, designed to steal away money from workers. Yet non-union workers constantly find themselves struggling to make enough income to take care of their living expenses.

An example of this is Wal-Mart, where employees are constantly told they are part of the family, but consistently have trouble getting the desired hours they need. A new employee is forced to watch a video about why a union would simply hurt the store’s employees and create a rift between the management and the managed that would damage everyone. Just in case an employee does not get the message, he or she must pass a computerized exam where agreeing with Wal-Mart is a condition for passing the test (Ehrenreich 144-145). With twenty-five percent of all merchandise in the United States purchased from Wal-Mart, it benefits the company to remind its employees that they are part of a family and need to show loyalty to that family by accepting low wages and whatever hours the store decides an employee deserves on any given week. And employees agree to it. They become participants in a plan that benefits the upper echelons of the corporation disproportionately more than the workers.

From “Fight Club.” Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

That has become the American way, serve and be quiet. Author Chuck Palahniuk’s novel “Fight Club,” about the impotent and denaturalized condition of the modern American male, introduces status quo challenger Tyler Durden. Tyler challenges the system at every turn, setting up clubs for men, dissatisfied with their lives, to fight each other. In the fight clubs, every man, whether rich, poor, healthy, sick, big, or little, gets the chance to throw down with another man. There is no class. There is not any system elevating one man over another. A man’s liberty in Tyler’s world is forged with bare fists from bruised flesh.

Eventually the system, in this case law enforcement, tries to interfere. A police commissioner vows to stop the underground fighting. He is soon grabbed and pinned down by Tyler and a group of his Space Monkeys. They pull the commissioner’s pants down, wrapping a rubber band tightly around the man’s testicles. “How far do you think you’ll get in politics if the voters know you have no nuts?” asks Tyler (165). Since he is a powerful and wealthy man, the commissioner has much to lose. Tyler tells him that his gang has nothing to lose except for the fight club.

Tyler’s next words echo Shelly’s. However, in the case of Tyler and his Space Monkeys, they are already challenging the system. They are ready to neuter those who have kept them at the bottom and Tyler’s words tell the system that the underclass has realized its true power. He says:

“Remember this…The people you’re trying to step on, we’re everyone you depend on. We’re the people who do your laundry and cook your food and serve your dinner. We make your bed. We guard you while you’re asleep. We drive the ambulances. We direct your call. We are cooks and taxi drivers and we know everything about you. We process your insurance claims and credit card charges. We control every part of your life.” (166)

America’s political and upper classes remain happy with a nation where the workers view it as a privilege to serve the needs of the rich. The Tea Party, whether one agrees with their politics or not, made a lot of noise, but eventually allowed themselves to be used by the very people they claimed to be against. The Tea Party, which stood for less federal government, became supporters for fewer taxes for the rich, less regulation over the markets, and reduced funding for education. Ultimately they were happy to chain themselves down and be used by the political right.

Shelley knew the people’s power came, not from just rioting or protesting, but by their power to assert themselves through the goods and services they provide for the wealthy. If Wal-Mart’s employees decided to strike for better pay and work conditions, twenty-five percent of the nation’s economy would come to a halt.  That is power.

Or as Tyler would say, “don’t fuck with us” (166).

Note: This essay was originally written February 8, 2011 for an English literature class. In retrospect, I may have underestimate the Tea Party movement a bit. But it is still an early movement.  

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickel and Dimed. New York: Henry Holt, 2001. Print.

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club. New York: Norton, 1996. Print.

Scherer, Michael. “It’s Tea Time.” Time. 27 Sept. 2010: 26-30. Print

Shelly, Percy Bysshe. “Song to the Men of England.” Ed. Applebaum, Stanley. English Romantic Poetry:An Anthology. Mineola: Dover, 1996. Print.