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Get Away From Her You Bitch: The Alien Franchise Has Empowered Female Leads Since 1979

From 1979 til now, how this female character led the steed for strong women in sci-fi and action.

by Kate Jinx
24 April 2017, 12:48am

Katherine Waterston stars as Daniels in Alien: Covenant. Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

This article is supported by Alien: Covenant, out in cinemas on May 11. Ahead of its release, Kate Jinx, film writer and director of programming at Golden Age Cinema, writes about the legacy of Ellen Ripley in the original film, and how this lead paved the way for other strong female characters.

In May 2016, I was trapped in an uber as it zoomed acutely the wrong way from JFK airport in New York. The driver missed one turn, and then another, as the length between me and my designated terminal grew, and my boarding time shrank. 

Nearing that familiar state of semi-panic, my phone pinged, a message from my girlfriend at a different airport –"I just saw Sigourney Weaver!" Here I was, agonising over a map app, while she was celebrity-sighting at her gate. 

But something about a near encounter with Ripley calmed me. Would Ripley sweat over—of all things—a domestic flight? Hell no. 

Twenty minutes later, I made it through the hatch, feeling like I wasn't getting on a flight to LA, but on a Nostromo mission. As luck would have it, Alien was one of the in-flight films, and I watched it for approx a millionth time, before a light valium-induced hypersleep.

THE TALENTED MS RIPLEY

While we wait for Weaver's return, the sneak peeks of Katherine Waterston in Ridley Scott's upcoming Alien: Covenant (the sequel to 2012's Prometheus, which, keep up, was in turn a prequel to Alien) give us glimpses of—to pull a phrase from that other famous space franchise—a new hope.

But first let's talk about Ripley. Ripley in her green coveralls with the rainbow patch on the arm, holding the ship's cat Jonesy. Ripley in the power-lifting exoskeleton. Ripley wielding an extravagant gun in one arm, while holding little Newt. Ripley with a shaved head, back for business. If ever there was a more iconic female action hero, I'm yet to meet her. 

One of the reasons is that the character of Ripley was, notoriously, originally meant to be played by a man until director Ridley Scott flipped the gender and brought Weaver on board, forever changing the expectations of who an action hero could be. With Weaver inhabiting that role, Ripley was transformed into something the screen had not seen before, at least in mainstream cinema. It is not merely the fact that she is a woman in the lead role of a major sci-fi franchise, but the kind of woman she is: prickly.

Though Scott had originally intended to kill off the character in the Alien's closing scene until studio execs (rightly) stepped in, Ripley has endured for almost four decades.

Since 1979's Alien, through that very rare thing—an even better sequel—in Aliens (1986), Aliens 3 (1992) and to, let's face it, the unnecessary Alien: Resurrection (1997), Ripley is still very much in the public consciousness. 

Like any male lead of the big budget sci-fi/action genre, Ripley is not there to act as a love interest, or impress with her sexuality. Instead, the character exists to try to keep the (human) body count down. She doesn't fuss, and she doesn't have time for your bullshit. 

She does still have time to take care of Jonesy the cat, though.

"THEY MOSTLY COME AT NIGHT. MOSTLY."

One of the most compelling traits of Ripley as a character is that her resilience does not discount the ongoing, complicated relationship to motherhood that she is bound to increasingly throughout the series. 

Be it feline, her own daughter, the orphaned Newt, or indeed the properly terrifying Alien Queen, Ripley is nurturing and fearless. It's a different natal connection than, say, Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby (1968) or Nola Carveth in David Cronenberg's excellent body horror The Brood (released the same year as the first Alien film), but throughout the series, Ripley dances with what academic Barbara Creed famously coined 'the Monstrous-Feminine' in 1993. 

This, is of course accentuated by the dark and industrially sexual production design of Swiss artist H.R. Giger. The cavernous space that Ripley encounters practically drips with yonic goo. 

And now with promises of Paradise on the horizon in Alien: Covenant, there appears to be a new link in the Ripley chain.

DANIELS, SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM

 Having not actually found out where to find fantastic beasts in the latest Harry Potter movie spin-off, Katherine Waterston stars as Daniels, a terraforming expert on a colonising mission in Alien: Covenant . 

Of course there's a sense of déjà vu about Daniels' appearance, with her singlet emblazoned with the ship's logo, lean build, cropped hair, and huge gun. 

Waterston herself has expressed a sense of intimidation about stepping into Ripley's boots, mentioning in an interview that she found reading the work of singular essayist Joan Didion strangely comforting while filming. 

An action hero who reads the Dids?! Sign me up.

QUAD GOALS

Some people keep sad-looking peace lilies, Cathy comics (Ack!), or inspirational quotes ("Hang in there!"), to keep their workspaces upbeat. Me? I keep a postcard of Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, circa Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). 

I don't think it's hyperbolic to suggest that without Ripley, there'd be no Sarah Connor, or that you can't trace some of Ripley's quintessence in the female warriors that have appeared on screen in her wake. 

That is, female characters who aren't subjugated to being wank-bank material for horny nerds from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Tank Girl, Mad Max Fury Road's Imperator Furiosa (though that film had a litany of other gendered issues), and now to the latest Ghostbusters troupe, and the young female leads of the most recent Star Wars movies (neither of which feature metal bikinis anymore). 

There's something of Ripley's thorniness too in Scarlett Johansson's character in Under the Skin (2013), credited only as 'The Female,' though in this she is an anti-heroine, with perhaps more in common with Ripley's nemesis, the Alien Queen.

"DID IQS JUST DROP SHARPLY WHILE I WAS AWAY?"

Though it's a long time since 1979, whenever a female lead is revealed in a mainstream genre film, the internet is alive with MRA riddled hot takes bemoaning the death of masculinity. This just returns us safely to Ripley's muscled arms. 

Would she care about any of that pissantery? No. 

You see, Ripley's idea of a 'flame war' is slightly different to the current state of Twitter. In these trying times, we all need to be adopting WWRD (What Would Ripley Do) as our collective, no-nonsense mantra.

You can follow Kate Jinx on Twitter here

This article is supported by Alien: Covenant, in cinemas on May 11

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Sigourney Weaver
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