Friday, September 10, 2010

Feminism Fridays: Fictional Heroes - Ellen Ripley

(This post has spoilers for the Alien Quadrilogy.)

Ripley & Jonesy

Lt. Ellen Ripley.

A savvy, sharp tongued, take-no-bullshit woman who fights and survives where all the other men (and a few women) have fallen.

What's not to like about that?

It wasn't until recent years that I discovered that the writers of Alien, while attempting to create all of the characters as gender neutral, assumed the role of Ripley would be played by a man. (Which wasn't a hard assumption to make at the time. It's not even a hard one to make now.)

I can imagine a man in the role.

But it's just not the same.

Which is interesting because Ripley isn't portrayed as overtly feminine. Nor overtly masculine.

The movies don't shy away from what we typically see as "feminine" qualitiese.g. her motherly relationship with Newt in Aliensbut they don't shove them in the viewer's face as though she's some kind of zoological exhibit. (And in this next cage, if you look closely, you'll see the rare and beautiful female action hero.)

They stay true to her totality. She's portrayed as a person harboring a number of qualities we would see as masculine and feminine.

When we meet Ripley, we meet a serious, determined, protocol-oriented Lieutenant who's looking outfirst and foremostfor the safety of those left on board the Nostromo (when the ground crew comes back from their epic fail of an expedition) and then working her ass off to survive (and keep everyone else alive) while the rest of the crew collapse under the pressure of having a human-eating monster aboard. 

And these qualities are reinforced throughout the sequels. 

Even as we're given more of Ripley's back story, more feminine qualities (and thus more chances for the writers to drop into some female-character-in-a-horror-movie-cliche) Ripley maintains her determination, her intelligence, her wit, and her no-nonsense demeanor.

This wasn't something consciously on my radar when I was a kid... But I know that I liked Ripley (when I first saw Aliens, around age seven or eight) because she was strong. Because she didn't scream and freak out and fall and twist her ankle while she was running away from the monster. Because she was pro-active. Because she was a survivor. 

It took a few more years and a number of movies before I realized that was something of a rarity. A main female character who isn't a damsel in distress. Who survives not because of luck or the timely appearance of a man (arguably Bishop in Aliens, but he's technically an android, so....I digress) but because of her own strength and ingenuity. 

I think she's a pretty fine example of a well-rounded female character and quintessential hero. 

This was originally where I was going to end my post, except I realized something about Ripley in just the last few days as I was discussing horror movie tropes with my partner.

And, sadly, these tropes play out in the Alien films.

In Alien it can be argued that Ripley fits the "Final Girl" profile. She has no real sexual identity. She's chaste (or sexually unavailable). She confronts the monster and survives. 

In Aliens we find out Ripley has a daughter (a sign that she has had a sexual relationship). And there is an obvious sexual tension and flirtation between her and Hicks. But, she remains chaste. Battles the monster. Survives (if a little worse for the wear). 

In Alien 3...Ripley has sex. Faces the monster. And subsequently dies. Granted, she died by her own hand (though she would have died regardless) and the alien embryo was implanted before she lost the "protection of chastity" so you could argue that it doesn't really fit the trope. 

But, the end result is the same. Woman has sex. Woman dies.

It's a kick in the teeth.

"Walking the Aisle"

Head bowed, he breathes deep and chokes on the odor of flowers, the subtle cloying scent of lily and sharp tang of lilac settling on the back of his tongue.

She’s next to him, holding his arm; he can feel the soft swell of her breast against his tricep and the sturdy warmth of her body molded against him from torso to calf. She breaks away as the double doors open, twining her fingers with his, and guides him down the aisle to the resonant thrum of organ music; his gait hitches right along with his breath.

At the front of the room, he finally raises his head, falters and loses a step, shiny black shoes scuffing the threadbare chapel carpet.

The coffin, draped in flowers, sits on the middle of a dais with lights beaming down on it; if he didn’t know any better, he’d think he was staring at the opening scenes of some play, but the bowed heads of people in the pews, the whisper-soft sobs and rasps of tissue against wet cheeks remind him that this is reality.

She slides onto the hard wooden pew reserved for family and he follows her, looks at her, waits for her to tighten her fingers around his hand and then he turns his face forward—breathes out, breathes in—and whispers:
Goodbye, brother.

First appearing at my blog over on the Six Sentences Social Network.
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