(Note: For this analysis, I will be referring to the 2003 Director’s Cut of Alien.)
In the past nine months, we’ve talked about a lot of characters. There are some we’ve devoted whole posts to, while others were forced to share space with one, two, or, in the case of the Disney mothers analysis, a dozen or so other people. But there are some characters too big, too important, and too iconic to be contained in one post. For that reason, we’re introducing the Heavy Hitters, month-long discussions of the most influential female characters in pop culture.
We begin with Lt. Ellen Ripley, who, in her debut in Alien, is the third officer of the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo, the sole survivor of said spaceship, and an all-around badass. For those who have never seen the film, here’s a quick summary. The crew of the Nostromo wakes up from cryogenic sleep only to find that the ship has been re-routed far from its usual territory. Already a little thrown off their game, the crew faces further strangeness when they receive a transmission from a small planetoid that they assume to be an SOS. They descend to the planetoid, where the scouting party discovers a ship full of eggs; one hatches, and the creature inside attaches itself to the face of the executive officer. Ignoring the company’s quarantine rules, they bring the alien parasite onboard, where it bides its time before emerging as a human-sized nightmare and killing everyone but Ripley, who shoots it into space.
The first significant point to discuss in terms of Ripley’s portrayal is the fact that she was not originally intended to be a woman. In the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, they specify that, while the sole survivor, then called Martin Roby, was written as a man, “the crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.” Still, it’s a pretty safe bet that they weren’t planning to be part of the genesis of one of the first female action heroes.
The concept of ostensibly gender-neutral casting is something of a thorny issue. Is a strong female character really a strong female character if she was originally intended to be a man? Is there more to writing women than merely taking a male character and having him be played by a woman (the so-called “man with tits” writing method)? Can male writers write female characters as complex people without initially envisioning them as men? Is there such a thing as a major “unisex” role? Should there be?
What I’m trying to get at is the simple fact that a person’s gender necessarily affects the way they experience the social world around them, and this is particularly true of Ellen Ripley. Before she defeats the alien Xenomorph, she has to confront the patriarchal power structure that allowed it to get onto the ship in the first place. After the Facehugger attaches itself to the executive officer, Kane, the scouting team returns to the ship, desperate to move their colleague into the infirmary. Ripley, left in charge during the absence of both Captain Dallas and his second-in-command, refuses them entry on the grounds that they could infect the rest of the crew. Dallas, who should know the quarantine procedure, disagrees with her assertion that they would do the same thing in her position. He is fine with the possibility of saving one person, even if it means jeopardizing the group.
Ripley’s struggle with Dallas takes on some heavy metatextual meaning over the course of the film (at least the part he lives to see). Although the film initially refuses to reveal its protagonist, focusing in turn on every crew member as part of the group, the most likely candidate that emerges is Dallas. He’s a white man in a position of authority; he’s Hollywood’s second favourite heroic type, after the white, male underdog who rises to a position of power. He is, however, not much of a hero. He proves himself an ineffectual leader when he chooses to risk the entire crew in order to save one person, and when he blindly follows the Company’s orders and cedes responsibility over the alien to the science officer, Ash. In both cases, Ripley defies him.
Their conflict reaches its climax when Dallas outlines a plan to kill the alien that involves one person flushing it out of the air ducts. Ripley volunteers, but Dallas takes the job for himself, as if he was somehow misinformed and thought that he was starring in a typical Hollywood action flick where he was the lead. At this point, there still remains the slightest possibility that he could be right, at least until he fails to use his flamethrower and gets taken by the alien. His capture and probable death leaves Ripley in charge, of both the Nostromo and the narrative. With the typical male action hero not only weakened, but removed from the story entirely (save for a brief scene in which Dallas, entombed in an alien nest, begs Ripley to end his life, acknowledging both her agency and his lack of it), Ripley is free to take her rightful place as the film’s protagonist.
Because Dallas is ultimately so ineffectual, the real battle between Ripley and the patriarchy is the one she fights against Ash. Dallas argues against the quarantine, but Ash is the one who opens the airlock. From this point on, he becomes Ripley’s primary antagonist. When she confronts him about the violation of quarantine procedure, she does so by reminding him that she was the senior officer and that, as a science officer, he should know to enforce certain rules. She reminds him that she did her job, even as he failed to do his. After Dallas is captured, she confronts Ash from her newly inherited position of power, telling him that he can continue to do nothing. She observes that she now has access to Mother -- the MU-TH-UR 6000 computer mainframe that operates the Nostromo -- and states, “I’ll get my own answers, thank you.”
Unfortunately, the answers are not what she had hoped they would be. The Company wants the Nostromo to bring the alien back to Earth, and they have deemed the crew expendable. Ash already knew about this, and, when Ripley attacks him in rage and desperation, we find out that the reason why he was okay with human loss is because he isn’t human himself. Suddenly, instead of woman vs. man, it’s woman vs. robot and woman vs. Company, and his strength quickly overcomes hers.
This is arguably Ripley’s darkest moment. In addition to the psychological blow of learning that she and her crew have been sacrificed by their employer, she suffers a physical beating at Ash’s hands. Then, to cap it off, he performs a sort of attempted rape by rolling up a pornographic magazine and forcing it into Ripley’s mouth. In an article entitled “The Rise of Ripley: Gender and ‘Alien,’ Part 1,” Jordan Poast describes the symbolism of this event:
This assault bears a dual offense to Ripley’s feminist thrust. Firstly, as an act of male dominance against an independent woman, Ash’s attack is akin to an oral sexual violation because he tries to oppress her by forcing her to swallow (or submit to) the images of female subservience. Secondly, the act silences Ripley, depriving her of the authority that she typically asserts through her voice.
What also strikes me about this scene is its potential critical function. The audience sees a complex woman, the character who serves as our point of identification, quite literally having the sexual objectification of women shoved down her throat by a machine that acts as the tool of a corporation. Intentional or not, it reads as a powerful condemnation of the standard Hollywood practice of portraying women as objects of male sexual fantasy and, by positioning the audience firmly in Ripley’s perspective, it shows these images to cause harm to those who consume them.
Once Ash is defeated, it’s time for the remaining crew to turn their attention back to the problem of the alien. Ripley decides to blow up the Nostromo, while she and her two remaining crew members escape in the shuttle. As one might expect, the alien kills both of them while they’re gathering supplies, and Ripley is left alone. She manages to make it to the shuttle just in time to watch the destruction of the Nostromo, an explosion that should serve as proof that she successfully saved Earth from the alien threat. She says as much when she observes, “I got you, you son of a bitch.”
Except she didn’t. Here’s where things get really interesting. Ripley strips down, in what must be a conscious moment of sexualization on the part of the filmmakers, considering the fact that Ripley has spent the rest of the film wearing multiple layers, including coveralls. At the same time, her decision to get undressed makes narrative sense; she’s preparing for hypersleep, and she’s shedding the uniform of the company that signed her death warrant. It is also at this most vulnerable moment that she spots the alien hiding on the shuttle.
In the final scene, we see Ripley become a tactician. While she has already displayed courage, intelligence, and determination, this is where we see the resourcefulness and planning that come to define her character in the second film. She quickly and quietly dons a space suit that resembles a suit of armour, transforming herself from the damsel in distress into a knight. She fills the cabin with gasses to flush the alien out of its hiding place, blasts it out of the airlock and, when it holds on to the hull, shoots it with a harpoon gun. When it still refuses to die, she fires up the engines and blasts it with heat, then watches as it floats off into the vacuum of space. Finally, she settles into her hypersleep pod, ready to return to the civilization she has saved.
Before taking her well-deserved rest, she makes a final report, concluding it with “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off.” There’s a lot of meaning embedded in this statement. Applying a “survival of the fittest” reading to the film, which is clearly supported by the film itself, we can argue that Alien is asserting the superiority of its heroine over the rest of the crew of the Nostromo. They died because they lacked her caution, her courage, and her adaptability.
The real accomplishment, however, is out-living the alien. We know from Ash’s analysis that the aliens are almost perfect organisms, able to withstand harsh conditions. We see, in the way that the alien so easily hunts its human prey, that it is an efficient killer. Ash describes it as “a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality,” but, while he attributes its survival to the lack of these traits, the film suggests that Ripley’s survival is made possible by her possession of them. Her initial refusal to let the alien onto the ship was motivated by concern for the rest of the crew. She argues with Dallas because he blindly obeys the Company’s orders instead of doing what is right. Even when the ship is about to explode, she spends precious minutes saving Jones the cat and ending Dallas’ suffering. She destroys the alien not just to save herself, but because she knows she needs to keep it from reaching Earth. She survives -- and is worthy of survival -- because she is interested in more than mere self-preservation.
Verdict: Actual strong female character