I cheat a little, I admit. I’m just gonna pretend today is the 29th of February, so I can get away with posting my last Alien entry today. If you click HERE you get to the Alien master index, linking to all Alien posts of my “February is Alien month series.” Since the issue of feminism has popped up several times throughout my discussions of the various Alien movies I decided to close this series with talking about Ellen Ripley and her status as a feminist icon. Is it justified, and if so, why?
Looking at the various Alien movies one thing becomes very obvious: the miniscule presence of female characters, crowned by the major Bechdel-test fail in Alien³ where the only female character is Miss Ellen Ripley herself. However, I’ve said it before, I consider it to be an advantage for the overall plot structure and forgive it on the premise that it was a deliberate decision to create a specific dynamic. And that it does in my opinion, so, okay. In Alien we only have one other woman aboard the Nostromo and she gets killed, and I’d argue that part of the reason why she is on there anyways is to provide a sort of anti-thesis to Ripley. She is afraid, indecisive, and ultimately unable to defeat the Alien, while Ripley is all of this sort of not (yay, grammar!).
In Aliens we have two other female characters and they provide some interesting insights too. There is tough Rambo-woman Vasquez who not only saves GI asses several times but also blows herself up heroically in the end, and who serves as a backdrop to what Ripley once was while she becomes something else: a mother. Cause the other female in the movie is a girl and she primarily serves to awake the nurturing instincts in tough cookie Ripley. She still kicks ass, but she does so, cause she has a quasi-daughter now. Which is about to change radically with the beginning of Alien³.
Alien Resurrection is the first film to present a wider cast of female characters. Among them are scientists (who are stupid and afraid of what they’re actually doing), androids who wonder what it is about being human, and captain’s girlfriend who enjoys foot-massages and breaks down badly once her sweetheart is gone. (I will grace the AvP films only with a bracketed comment: those female characters –tough or not – existed only cause they felt they had to provide Ripley substitutes, and we all know it)
So what about Ellen Ripley herself?
She is the sole survivor, multiple times, and she is because she does not bow down to alpha-male-ish nonsense. She is pretty spot on about what is right and what should be done and about what defo should not be done, like e.g. getting quarantined crew members on board, rescuing the cat, blow a colony up, and kill herself. Ripley, just as the Alien, is a metaphor besides being character, and as such she passes through several stages of female experiences. There is the factor of proving one’s own position and qualifications in a sexist hierarchy, there is the issue of becoming a mother, struggling with the feelings this entails, and also the rejection of motherhood (if we consider her to be pregnant with an alien and deciding to, well, abort the “child”). Questions of female solidarity are touched upon, as is the dealing with sexist remarks and objectification by men. And of course Ripley is more than her gender: the issues she deals with are the acceptance of one’s life story, one’s destiny so to speak, embrace it or reject it, and she remains a self-confident and independent spirit til her very end: she ends her own life, cause it is the only solution she deems acceptable concerning to overall situation and developments. Even as a new and “improved” Alien-hybrid clone Ripley stays true to these traits: she remains in charge of her sexuality (even if it means we have to suffer through abysmal one-liners), she is level-headed in situations of massive crisis, she feels empathy with people even if she does not know them and has no immediate profit in caring about them, and she learns what being human means. The hard way. I guess killing your clone-sister isn’t the easiest thing to do. And well, accepting that the being you fought against the last years of your life is now an inextricable part of you, in the literal sense, even. She once more becomes a mother figure, albeit to an alien this time, and once more she rejects the role, with yeah, terribly racist undertones.
I feel I have to point it out once more: I am not against motherhood, no effin way, mothers rule. But I am against the depiction of female journeys as being complete and meaningful only when they are topped off with becoming a mom. Cause ultimately it means that society tells you that you as an individual are pretty worthless, you only gain worth when having kids. And if we follow the thought through it basically means only being a man really counts, cause a as a daughter the same destiny of having to become a mother awaits you. That is why the glorification of motherhood (meaning that all other conceptions of femininity are rejected or deemed of less value) is often ultimately anti-feminist, or let’s just say it: downright sexist. For all the flaws of the Alien Saga in not only the gender department I truly applaud the series for getting the basic conception of a female and truly feminist heroine right. So: Yay! Feel free to disagree with me tough, but then I challenge you to comment! Muahaha.
Admittedly the headline is somewhat misleading, cause this post is more about the overall feminist message of the Alien Saga than just the character of Ellen Ripley. And one super-important yet thus far undiscussed issue is of course the alien.
The depiction of the aliens is highly interesting from a gender-issues-perspective. For once, the alien society is strictly matriarchal. No matter how many the host to a queen might take down, she is still host to a queen, killing her is not an option for the regular alien, since it of course endangers the survival of its species. The whole imagery of having an alien queen, together with her laying eggs (and the complicated mode of reproduction), serves to remind us of some mutant insect rather than an intelligent being or even something resembling human. But this premise is subverted, because in the course of Aliens we witness the alien queen becoming protective of her descendants and finally furious with those who killed them (and yeah, wouldn’t you be?). Alien Resurrection picks up on this, the alien queen literally becomes a mother when she gives birth to an alien hybrid (that is fucked-up-edly white *headdesk*) and experiences what it means to be rejected by your offspring.
While the AvP movies retreat to picturing the aliens as mere killing machines, the overall Alien Saga hints at there being more. They are social beings, and while their whole existence differs considerably from the human experience they are not entirely dissimilar. I’ve talked about the inherent racist implications HERE, but it is less obvious what the message concerning feminism is. In contrast to what the overall series does with the character of Ripley, the alien as a female queen is only valuable because of her function as a mother. However, we never really know about the gender of the other aliens or facehuggers. Do they even have one? Aren’t the facehuggers some sort of omni-gender in that no matter what gender the host, they still always succeed to implant little baby-aliens? Interesting, methinks.
Okay, I’ll wrap it up! The short version of this post could have been: Yup, Ellen Ripley is a feminist heroine for a variety of reasons. I just went out of my way to come to a point about the series as a whole, kinda.
And yeah folks, that’s it for Alien month. I guess we got it covered, huh? Maybe, with future films…. and the comics….. ah, never say never.