(Author’s Note: The following article contains discussions of sexual assault and abortion in an allegorical context. If any of that content might be triggering, continue reading at your discretion.)

The original ALIEN is one of those rare films where a series of specific iconic images immediately come to mind whenever it is mentioned: the face hugger, the chestburster, the bizarre and distinctly inhuman appearance of the Xenomorph, and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), last survivor of the Nostromo. For all of the film’s unique visuals, it is the Ripley character herself who is the most vital aspect of the franchise.

The premise of the original ALIEN is flexible enough that various Xenomorphs could have returned to plague different crews film after film until audience interest waned, but Ripley remained as tenacious as her freakish foes and returned to fight them. Due to these consistent appearances in the franchise, it’s hard to imagine a female character in a sci-fi film that hasn’t been influenced in some capacity by Ripley and her character growth since the her first appearance. There is some irony, however, in the dissonance between the characters that Ripley influenced and the actual Ripley character. While many films create tough female characters, they neglect to explore the primary components of Ripley’s character that make her a crucial part of the ALIEN films: agency and choice.

The language of that phrase immediately brings up specific connotations related to the abortion debate. While the subtext of reproductive rights is certainly present in the franchise, women have consistently had to fight throughout history to gain fundamental rights that would allow them to have more control over their choices. In the world of fiction, where characters literally exist at the whims of their creators and without free will, female characters frequently are stripped of their agency as victims of violence, rape, mind control, or because they are forced to play side-kick to a male character. Right from the beginning, ALIEN presents us with a female character who isn’t some unstoppable badass; like the rest of the crew of the spaceship Nostromo, Ripley is a blue-collar worker doing a grungy job for a paycheck. However, her strength comes from her resolve and from the choices she makes. When the crew members investigating the ship that contains the facehugger creature return, Ripley initially refuses to allow them back into the ship to follow proper quarantine protocol (setting up one of the primary motifs of these films: Ripley is always right), but her decision is quickly ignored by Ash (Ian Holm) who allows the crew members into the ship for his own sinister purposes.

This seemingly small moment gives the plot forward momentum, but it also stands as a vital piece of Ripley’s character development. She doesn’t stand to the side posturing in an aggressive way; she makes decisions that may be unpopular and stands by those choices. When that choice is ignored, it leads to the disaster that kills the majority of the crew. When the true nature of the facehugger is revealed, giving birth to the Xenomorph that will hunt the crew for the rest of the film, Ripley’s battle becomes a struggle against the removal of freewill. The violent bonding of the facehugger to Kane (John Hurt) is a symbolic stripping of agency and the right to choose. The terror of these creatures does not come from their predatory nature, but from the way their victims have no choice but to succumb to their fate. The nature of the aliens parallels the behavior of sexual predators: They take advantage of their victims, not for any sense of pleasure, but to dominate and establish power and control.

Within this sexual assault subtext, director Ridley Scott never portrays Ripley as weak or powerless. Instead, she consistently takes on the role of calm and collected leader. In the film’s conclusion, Ripley is at her most vulnerable, wearing nothing but underwear and a sleeveless-tee, yet in this exposed state she still manages to conquer the monster and survive. Not only is Ripley the most exposed in this scene, she is also the most clearly feminine. Throughout the film, Ripley wears a standard issue jumpsuit, giving her an androgynous appearance. However, this scene clearly shows her feminine form in a way that crosses into male gaze territory. Looking back on this scene, it can seem eye-roll worthy: some cheap titillation in a film that has predominately avoided that kind of audience pandering. Rather than being exploitative, Scott plays a trick on the audience’s inherent misogyny. The audience, unaccustomed to strong female characters, begins to underestimate Ripley’s chances of survival because of the newly revealed femininity. By placing Ripley in a state where she is so open to harm but still able to win, the character’s strength is reinforced because of her femininity rather than in spite of it. She isn’t a great female character because of physical strength or her ability to fight, but rather because she can overcome fear and make choices to survive in a world that is actively trying to kill her.

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In this first film, Ripley fulfills the horror movie trope of “the final girl,” the last survivor who must make the final stand against the antagonist. When James Cameron takes over directorial duties in ALIENS, Ripley’s role transitions into a more action-focused role. The film starts with Ripley being awoken from stasis and learning that over 50 years have passed since the events of ALIEN. Completely without purpose, Ripley drifts through life until she learns that a unit of Colonial Marines are returning to the planet where the original facehugger was found. In this moment, Ripley rediscovers her purpose: kill the creatures that ruined her life. With this desire for revenge, and to ensure that the corrupt Weyland-Yutani Corporation cannot get their hands on the alien, Ripley finds new agency within this film. She takes command when the Colonial Marine Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) panics and cannot help his unit, she learns more about the use of firearms from Col. Hicks (Michael Biehn), and refuses to be side-lined by the hyper-masculine Marines around her.

This evolution into a more adept fighter is the version of Ripley that pops into the minds of many fans when they think of the character. Sigourney Weaver’s delivery of the climatic line (“GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH!”) puts her into the all-time cinematic badass hall of fame, but Cameron does not simply turn Ripley into an emotionless, violent action hero. In order to further show her own agency, Ripley is in the process of learning how to fight throughout this film, grounding her in the same relatable fashion as the previous film. She is still the blue-collar space trucker we came to love, but she is more aware of the dangers of space and wants to prepare accordingly. By maintaining this consistency of characterization, Ripley’s action hero moments in the film’s final act become even more powerful. She isn’t fighting the Xenomorph Queen because she’s the only one who can, but because she makes the choice to do what’s right while disregarding the overwhelming odds. In this ending, the audience can still recognize the vulnerable heroine who barely survived the Nostromo because she is still allowed to make choices that give her such well-rounded characterization. 

Out of all of the films in the ALIEN franchise, ALIENS has likely had the most impact on the development of female characters in action and sci-fi films. Following this film, movies in this genre were churning out Ripley copies—even James Cameron’s reinterpretation of Sarah Connor in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY is undeniably influenced by the work he did with the Ripley character. Unfortunately, the problem with a copy is that its quality begins to dilute as more and more copies are made. Despite taking cues from ALIENS, many of these female characters made in her image end up lacking the two components, agency and choice, that make Ripley into such a distinct character so many years later. Even more egregiously, these characters often end up playing side-kick to a male character. The MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchise, for example, seems to have a revolving door for female characters to make one appearance, participate in some solid action scenes, wait for Tom Cruise to save the day, and then disappear for the sequel with little to no explanation.

Even the Marvel films, which have made great strides in providing egalitarian representation for female characters, sometimes fall short in this department. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is a really great character given a compelling struggle against her family, but the audience is denied the chance to actually see her make the choice to betray her totalitarian father, leaving us with another “brave female warrior” cliché and not the well-rounded character that her background hints at. Within the same universe, we have Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who is currently the female comic book hero with the most film appearances. While she was developed by various writers and directors over the course of her existence, the character has been allowed to make choices and have her own unique agency. The epitome of this comes in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER when she chooses to release all of SHIELD’s information to the public, including the truth about her past as an assassin, for the greater good. The character is treated with the same respect given to the male characters with one major exception: the lack of a solo film. While the need for a Black Widow solo film can be debated, giving the character agency cannot erase the implication that the character has less value to her male counterparts because she does not have her own feature film, in spite of her various film appearances and character growth.

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While some films try but fail to meet the standard set by Ellen Ripley, some recent releases have managed to deliver on the promise of female characters with agency while also exploring the larger female experience through science fiction. Ironically, many of these films explore these concepts in ways that are similar to the lesser loved (which is a generous way of saying “pretty much hated”) entries of the ALIEN franchise: ALIEN 3 and ALIEN: RESURRECTION. While both of these films are often criticized for their dramatic storytelling choices, they maintain crucial thematic elements from their more popular predecessors. In ALIEN 3, Ripley continues her streak as the unluckiest protagonist in cinema when her escape pod from the end of ALIENS crash lands on a prison planet. In this environment, Ripley is surrounded by a patriarchal society that is just as dangerous to her as the Xenomorph. These prisoners have found religion, one that sees Ripley’s presence as the planet’s only female as a sinful form of temptation. With Ripley playing the role as the prisoner’s serpent in the garden, the film emphasizes the sexism inherent in male-dominated power structures like religious organizations. They use their beliefs to justify their misogynistic views of Ripley, making the decisions that she makes all the more vital because she faces ideological opposition, rather than a physical one. In this film, the sexual assault subtext of the Xenomorphs becomes text when Ripley is threatened with rape by a group of prisoners. It’s very similar to this year’s 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE, in which Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) must maneuver her way through a male-dominated world to achieve agency again. Both of these films center around a woman trapped in a prison that exists under a patriarchal rule that can only be overcome through the intelligence and survival skills of the female protagonist. Much like Ripley, Michelle is not the strongest or toughest, but she uses the skills she has to outsmart her captor.

For Ripley in ALIEN 3, her maneuvering begins when her choice is taken away again when she discovers she has a chestburster alien inside of her. This revelation brings to light a larger issue of a woman’s agency: a woman’s right to choose. Here Weyland-Yutani stands in for the pro-life movement. They want to protect the “child” within Ripley with no concerns about her well-being or desires on the issue. Granted, the situation in the film is extreme and not as nuanced as the real word discussion of the issue, but the film is accurate in the way a woman’s views on the issue are frequently ignored. It’s hard not to think of Weyland-Yutani’s insane desire to turn the unstoppable Xenomorph into a weapon when male members of Congress organize committees on women’s health and then don’t invite any women.

It is from this kind of controlling patriarchal structure that Ripley has to reclaim her agency. Trapped with Weyland-Yutani on one side and a boiling cauldron of melted lead on the other, Ripley makes the only sensible choice to keep the Xenomorph out of the wrong hands. She leaps into the heat, letting the baptismal fire burn away the alien monster just as it does her own life. Many people may be upset by this choice made in the ending. Ripley, the constant survivor, would seemingly never sacrifice her life, but it has never been Ripley’s ability to survive that defines her; it’s her ability to make decisions for herself. In this film, she makes the ultimate decision: die with the freedom to make her own choices or live under someone’s thumb. Ripley’s sacrifice is a defiant moment that allows her to dictate control over her own body. Ripley values freedom as humanity’s greatest gift with her final action in life.

With such a dramatic, character-defining ending, it’s hard to imagine what justification the series provides for the character to come back in ALIEN: RESURRECTION. That justification is…it’s an ALIEN movie so she has to be there?  Look, in order to have any appreciation for this particular film, you have to accept that the tone has drastically changed. Taking its cues from the hyperviolent comic books of that era (the film wouldn’t seem very out of place in a 2000 AD comic), the film’s somewhat uneven story still manages to touch upon the major feminist ideas that were present in the previous films. In order to explain the titular resurrection of Ellen Ripley, this film shows that Weyland-Yutani has managed to successfully clone Ripley in order to get a clone of the Xenomorph that was inside of her when she died. Once again, Ripley is denied her own choices—in this case her choice to die—by a patriarchal force. The clone has also come back to life in a different state than we are accustomed to seeing from Ripley. By merging with the Xenomorph’s DNA, this Ripley is literally stronger and more resilient.

Ripley has now become a mystery to the men around her who are equal parts fearful of and fascinated by her. This separation between male and female, with the latter classified as the “other,” is becoming a modern idea used in sci-fi cinema to express the treatment of women in a patriarchal society. EX MACHINA and UNDER THE SKIN both feature female leads who are outsiders to human society: the female lead of EX MACHINA is an AI, and the female lead of UNDER THE SKIN is an alien. Just like the Ripley clone, they exist as mysteries to the men around them, but are still being pigeonholed as women. Ripley is treated like a child, while Eva (Alicia Vikander) of EX MACHINA is treated no better than a household appliance or sexual fantasy by the men with whom she interacts. The alien (Scarlett Johansson) of UNDER THE SKIN faces the disturbingly commonplace threats towards women in modern society. She tries to exist with autonomy in this world, but ends up becoming a victim of assault instead. Each of these characters seek their own independence because that ability to choose is what makes us human. Even in a weaker entry of the franchise, the story of Ripley still manages to convey those crucial components of agency and choice in making a well-rounded female character.

While the visuals of the ALIEN franchise are unprecedented and deserve to be remembered, it’s the character work that should be emulated by filmmakers. It’s vital to present audiences with female characters who can be as involved in action as their male counterparts, but the key to making a truly memorable and well-rounded female character lies in the understanding that all characters must play active roles in their stories and make choices to allow the audiences true empathy. The primary component of the definition of feminism is the idea of equality, and equality can only come in fiction if male and female characters are provided with the same level of agency in the stories we tell.

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