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Dear Sci-Fi, where did the Ellen Ripleys go?

Date: February 18, 2010 | Posted By:

I recently saw Alien at a local cinema. I hadn’t seen it since I was a little girl (and I’m not sure why my parents let me watch Alien when I was a little girl). Anyway, I had forgotten about Ellen Ripley. Ellen Ripley seems impossible: a female lead in a sci-fi film with a mullet, loose-fitting clothes and no noticeable makeup. A human being! A strong, rational (yet also feeling), ass-kicking woman who we follow in awe not for her body, but because she is the hero of our movie. As Zoe Saldana put it at a recent Comic-Con conference, “Ellen Ripley could have been a man. … Objectives would have been the same. … but [she] happened to be a woman, thank God.”

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in "Alien"

Much has been written about the importance of Ellen Ripley to female characters in sci-fi. As John Scalzi put it on the AMC SciFi-Scanner blog, “In a nutshell—Before Ripley: Barbarella. After Ripley: Sarah Connor.” As Scalzi also notes, Ripley only gets better in Aliens (although I disagree wih his view that Ripley is “unsympathetic and unlikeable” in Alien and doesn’t actually become that “pivotal, iconic” character until Aliens). Point is, in James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Ripley is extremely competent, kicks even more alien ass, and isn’t sexualized at all (in the first film, there is a gratuitous nude scene). So, Ripley made Sarah Connor possible. And Sarah Connor, at least in Terminator 2, would have made Ripley proud. But after that? Let’s take a look at where we are today. We’ve maintained the tradition of interesting, strong and intelligent female sci-fi leads. However, in the majority of cases, the character’s body is equally or more important than her strength, skills and intelligence combined.

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in "Terminator 2"

Think about it. Aeon Flux: Charlize Theron in tight leather. Underworld: Kate Beckinsale in tight latex. Catwoman: Halle Berry in tight leather. Ultraviolet: Milla Jovovich in midriffless tops. The Fifth Element: Milla Jovovich in strips of white cloth. Star Trek: Zoe Saldana in a tight skirt and knee-high boots. Watchmen: Malin Akerman in lingerie-esque latex. And on and on. Plus, some of these films don’t even have actual female leads. Leads yes, but THE lead, no. But the lack of sci-fi films with a female character as THE driving force is an issue for another day. Natalie Portman’s character in V for Vendetta is the only example of a female lead that is not overly sexualized that I came across in my research. Can you think of others? Is it tempting to say “Who cares”? During a discussion at Comic-Con about why Hollywood has failed to create female archetypes that were “as varied and distinct as the ones created for men” in sci-fi, Zoe Saldana said she didn’t see it as a battle worth fighting anymore: why convince a room full of men that “I should wear pants to do an action scene, when they think I can do it in a skirt and hoochie boots?” Why indeed? Well, because of Ripley. Ripley reminded me of how exhilarating it is to watch a woman simply be a hero. How it is to believe—even if only for two hours in a dark cinema—that our bodies are not the most important and most powerful aspect of ourselves. It’s so easy to forget that. It’s so easy to forget that the constant focus on our bodies in the media is not just a celebration of our sexual power (and in the media, women are almost always body first and human being second), but harmful exploitation.

Aeon Flux

And because it is a world of archetypes—of extremes—I believe sci-fi has a revolutionary capacity to change that equation. In a real-world context, it might be more difficult to believe in a Sarah Connor or Ellen Ripley, but in sci-fi, anything’s possible. Real-world rules are forgotten and the hero is the hero. Hollywood, of course, isn’t going to give us another Ripley if we don’t demand one. And it is too risky to wait for another Cameron or Scott to offer us one. In fact, Cameron seems to have temporarily abandoned his Ripleys. In Avatar, his Na’vi princess doesn’t save the day in the end, and there’s a very strong emphasis on her traditional female sexuality (Cameron even admitted in a Playboyinterview that although it wasn’t anatomically correct for female Na’vi to have breasts, he just felt of his lead: “she’s got to have tits.”)

Neytiri in Avatar

Neytiri in Avatar

But how to demand better female sci-fi leads? It’s a tricky question. Our best bet would probably be to support, as much as possible, smart movies created, written, or directed by women. The more influential female players there are in Hollywood, and the more power they have, the more freedom they will have with their content, and the more possibilities to create admirable female characters. And when a Ripley does show up in cinemas, for god’s sake, go see her. Go see her twice.

 

–Katherine L




What Do You Think?

5 Responses to Dear Sci-Fi, where did the Ellen Ripleys go?

  1. uberVU - social comments on 02-19-2010

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  3. Theresa Hayes on 03-19-2010

    As I grow older, and become more aware of my surroundings, I have noticed a lot of the negative aspects of the media. I remember being a young girl and wanting to look and live the glamorous life that the celebrities live. However, now that I am older, I understand that it is a small amount of women who actually look like this. The majority of us look "average" or, some may say, "unappealing." But is this true? What makes the celebrities beautiful and the rest of us just plain? Maybe celebrities and supermodels are not the definition of beautiful. Maybe it is the average girl that holds real beauty. Maybe beauty is something that comes from within.
    After watching an episode of MTV's True Life, I was a little disgusted. It greatly amazes me that some girls are so insecure with their appearance that they obsess over changing it. Young girls and women can really benefit from visiting sites like About-Face and Dove. I have a lot of respect for the people who are involved with these organizations. What they are doing can really help a girl's self confidence.
    This year, in my senior english class, we read The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. This is a book about how young girls obsess with meeting the standard of beauty. After reading this book, I have realized that there is no standard of beauty. Beauty is developed from a person's core. If a women can accept and love herself, then she is truly beautiful.
    Overall, the media portrays beauty in a negative way. Underneath all the hair and makeup, the women featured in advertisements and on the television look like everyone else. Young girls and women need to realize that they do not need to be "perfect" to be beautiful. In fact, imperfectness and abnormalities are what makes someone beautiful. We all must find our self confidence and beauty inside ourselves in order to overcome the standards that the media has put upon our society.
    I thank organizations like this one that have put so much into boosting the confidence of young girls and women. I am confident that a real change will be made here!

    Theresa Hayes, Age 17
    Piedmont High School senior
  4. D'Arcee Neal on 07-28-2010

    Thank you for that great article. I'm doing my Masters in Creative Writing in London and I'm doing screenwriting and wrote a feature length sci-fi with a black lead female for this EXACT reason. Aliens remains in my top 3 of best movies EVER and I think Hollywood should've jumped on that bandwagon a long time ago. Then again, given the rigid and uncompromising focus of Hollywood structure, I can't say I'm surprised. Then again, Zoe was only a supporting character in Avatar though she's arguably more important than even the main character. That's just the way the world works at the moment. Here's to change. And if my movie ever gets made, I'm calling on you to consult.
  5. D'Arcee Neal on 07-28-2010

    Thank you for that great article. I'm doing my Masters in Creative Writing in London and I'm doing screenwriting and wrote a feature length sci-fi with a black lead female for this EXACT reason. Aliens remains in my top 3 of best movies EVER and I think Hollywood should've jumped on that bandwagon a long time ago. Then again, given the rigid and uncompromising focus of Hollywood structure, I can't say I'm surprised. Then again, Zoe was only a supporting character in Avatar though she's arguably more important than even the main character. That's just the way the world works at the moment. Here's to change. And if my movie ever gets made, I'm calling on you to consult.