***SPOILERS: This is a review of a class that analyzes the Alien film franchise using a feminist lens. As such, there are moments in both the class and review when the plot of the films is discussed in detail.
“I just had a thought. What would you think if Ripley was a woman? She would be the last one you would think would survive—she’s beautiful,” confessed Ridley Scott, the director of the cult classic sci-fi film, Alien. The lead character, Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver), is lauded as a feminist icon. One of the first female action heroes, she is independent and undefined by the men around her. Anthony Hudson, horror fanatic and film programmer, walked us through the many facets of Ripley’s feminism in their lecture, "The Evolution of Ellen Ripley,” the latest installment in SIFF’s “What the Femme” series
The first—and what many consider the best—of the Alien franchise, Alien (1978), follows the crew of a starship investigating strange alien signals. After a crewmember is attacked by a parasitic alien, a gruesome game of tag ensues. By the end, nobody but Ripley survives.
Hudson revealed that Ripley was originally written to be a man. She is, in binary terms, a gender-swapped hero. Director Scott’s quote illustrates the kind of thought process behind her creation: Ripley, while admired by many as a symbol of female resistance, was born for misogynist shock value.
Now we move on to the sequel, Aliens (1986), directed by James Cameron, as we follow Ripley on her escape pod back to Earth. She is dragged back into action when the Colonial Marine Corps requests her accompaniment to an Earth colony outside the galaxy. She travels to the colony with Corporal Dwayne Hicks and they find that the colony is infested with aliens, now dubbed Xenomorphs. A young girl nicknamed Newt is the sole survivor. Ripley takes her under her wing, and the two quickly develop a mother-daughter relationship.
A recurring theme in Cameron’s action movies is the “Virgin Mary'' archetype: women fulfilling their purpose through motherhood. Cameron, and many other male filmmakers, characterize reproduction as the natural destiny of a woman. Hudson pointed out how these films reinforce a heteronormative, cisnormative, and misogynistic view of womanhood.
We move on to Alien 3 (1992), which opens with the “nuclear family:” Newt is the baby, Hicks is the man of the house, Bishop is the dog, and Ripley is, of course, the devoted mother. But a Xenomorph stowed away in the ship tears the happy family apart, and the ship crashes into a prison colony. Newt dies (a decision that was less than popular with the masses) and now Ripley has lost her “biological” purpose. Hudson called this the “metaphorical neutering” of Ripley, a theme-driven further by the masculine appearance her newly shorn head gave her. “The act of a woman putting on pants isn’t considered as transgressive as a man putting on a skirt,” Hudson explained. “Men are considered the default.”
While she embodied the motherhood-equals-purpose trope in Aliens, Alien 3 instead forces motherhood upon Ripley. Nearing the end of the film, Ripley realizes that the embryo of the Alien Queen is inside her. The film adheres to its body-horror roots: the scenes of something writhing within her belly become increasingly stomach-churning. Ripley, a persistent survivor throughout the series, finally meets her end as she throws herself and the Xenomorph inside her down a furnace. Her “Virgin Mary” arc is cemented in her sacrifice: in a sense, she has died to preserve purity.
In 2020, 84% of the directors of top-grossing films were male. People’s views on the world are shaped by what is represented in popular media—popular media produced by men like James Cameron. Women are too often seen as pretty pieces to complement the man of the film, especially in action movies. When women are given a role of badassery and independence, they are usually oversexualized. Lara Croft, Black Widow, and Wonder Woman are just a few examples. Movies like these teach the billions in the audience that women are supposed to adhere to these misogynist archetypes.
Hudson’s lecture is the first step in taking away the power these tropes hold. They deconstructed the misogynist roles forced onto Ripley, in the process encouraging us, the audience, to think critically of how we see women represented in media.
It is in Alien: Resurrection (1997), the final installment of Ripley’s journey, when we see Ellen Ripley “not born, but made a woman,” in Hudson’s words. “Womanhood is done to her,” they say, “unlike the men who wrote her throughout the series.” Sigourney Weaver’s involvement with the vision of this film is evident in the feminist themes established; vastly different from its predecessors.
Two hundred years after her death, Ripley 8 is born. A clone created by scientists who combined her DNA with the Alien Queen, she has an embryo growing inside her. The scientists extract the embryo from her and raise the eggs into fully grown Xenomorphs, one of which turns out to be the Alien Queen. As a product of the queen’s mixed DNA, she yields a hybrid Xenomorph-human. The baby kills the Queen, recognizing Ripley 8 as its real parent.
Ripley 8 works with mercenary Annalee Call and her team to extinguish the threat of the Xenomorph nest. The two develop a liberating bond as the film progresses. In one emotional scene, Call points out how Ripley’s contradicting alien-human identity is just a construct. When it is revealed that Call is a cyborg, Ripley says, “I should have known. No human is that humane.”
The movie’s finale is an establishment of Ripley’s agency as she lets the alien baby be sucked out of the spaceship through a tiny vacuum. She cries as it groans with pain and spills grotesquely apart.
After everything is over, Call asks, “What happens now?”
“I don’t know,” Ripley replies. Hudson affirms that the two have finally been liberated from the written script, the predetermined construct of heteronormativity. They are free to forge their own path together, to do things their own way.
What the Femme: The Evolution of Ellen Ripley was held as a live online event on Tuesday, May 18, 2021. For more information see here.