One of the most widespread misapprehensions in cinema is that any film with a female protagonist is, by definition, feminist. While the original Alien’s popularity allowed women-centered action films to thrive, many of its successors have done more to reinforce patriarchal definitions of femaleness than to revolutionize them.
For example, Sucker Punch, which would have never existed without Ridley Scott’s contributions, features a protagonist that, in her own interior world, fights a bevy of monsters while traipsing around in a fetishistic schoolgirl outfit. In turning its female lead into an objectified pleasure thing for a male viewership (and this is just one of the many objectionable aspects of this film), Sucker Punch supports a patriarchal system, with a sexist message disguised as feminism.
Clearly, while Alien spawned a generation of enthusiastic filmmakers, few fully understood how to produce an unequivocally liberating message divorced from dominant male patterns of identification. The worst violators were the following three movies of Alien’s franchise: James Cameron’s Aliens, David Fincher’s Alien3, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection. These films, exerting their authority as canon, revised their iconic heroine, gradually reorienting her progressive political thrust right of center with each iteration. While Scott’s work established a revolutionary, courageous, self-reliant female protagonist who, by illustrating the overlapping elements of maleness and femaleness, sought to render obsolete patriarchal gender archetypes and viewing practices, each new film found Ripley straying farther from her original goal.
Most notably problematic were the ways these sequels began to parallel the journey and motivations of Ripley with the monster, thereby demonizing her by association. With each film, the two were increasingly codified less as polar opposites and more as kindred spirits, reaching an apex in Resurrection, in which Ripley became a hybrid with the very monster that she had struggled to vanquish.
Clearly threatened by the independence and freedom exemplified by Ripley, the filmmakers of the Alien sequels softened their heroine’s radical power. Any thought that these filmmakers had a deliberate agenda against feminism would likely be an overstatement (and a crazed conspiracy theory). What is clear, however, is that (due to either an ingrained bias toward patriarchal filmic conventions or a gross misunderstanding of what constitutes female empowerment) their changes to Ripley proved counterproductive to her political role in Alien. This stark conservative re-appropriation of the revolutionary figure requires examination.
One of the primary ways that Ripley is redefined as a conservative character lies in how she is codified as both ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine at various times throughout Aliens and Alien3. This codification validates the existence of such gender divisions instead of dissolving them.
Thrust into traditionally masculine settings and filmic genres (war movies in Aliens and prison movies and Alien3), Ripley opens both films being ostracized due to her status as the female “other,” the foreign, untrustworthy outsider. Marked weak by her gender, she is pejoratively referred to as “Sleeping Beauty” by the ultra-chauvinistic marines in Aliens, and avoided by the inmates in Alien3, who fear that her sexuality will disturb the patriarchal order of the celibate men. In legitimizing the role of females in these societies, Ripley’s subsequent acts of validation come at the expense of her gender ambiguity and independence (hallmarks of her leftist ambition).
While Ripley maintained a harmonious balance between maleness and femaleness (divorced from definitions of masculinity or femininity) in Alien, her actions in the following two films saw her gravitate to both extremes. Physically, Ripley’s hair became shorter with each film, until Alien3, when she shaved down to the skin. While some opinions maintain that this change in appearance marks Ripley’s method of breaking away from feminine codes such as long hair; in reality, it is used as a tool for her to assume an exclusively male position. Ripley uses her haircut to assume a disguised position as “one of the boys” in order to blend seamlessly into their patriarchal systems of order. In such a way, Ripley adopts the enemy’s skin to gain entry into its fraternity.
In addition to hair length, Ripley begins to exhibit a more muscular physique with each iteration and begins to use heavy machinery and guns (male-oriented iconography that critic Yvonne Tasker argues transforms her into a “chick with a dick”). By adopting these stereotypical elements of masculinity, Ripley begins the first stage of a troubling metamorphosis. Disregarding her ability to obscure conventional distinctions between genders, Aliens finds Ripley submitting to them for the first time. In order to gain authority, she is forced to symbolically re-gender herself by becoming a male impersonator. These films’ steadfast equation of “protector” and “masculine” is an alarmingly theme that contradicts the political agenda of its predecessor.
Yet, despite masculinizing Ripley, Aliens also paradoxically works to feminize its protagonist by reprioritizing her motivations toward motherhood, an institution that many feminists have argued reinforces the woman’s subservient position in patriarchal society. Halfway through Aliens, Ripley becomes the surrogate mother of the traumatized orphan girl, Newt, whose family had been devoured by aliens. Despite maintaining no biological relationship with her, Ripley becomes Newt’s caretaker, conveying a sense of maternal devotion far stronger than previously seen with her cat, Jones, in Alien. Ripley nurses the child to health, tries more ardently to save her than the idiotic marines, and is visually bonded with her throughout the last quarter of Aliens (with the two almost exclusively shot occupying the same frame). This inseparable connection reaches its zenith at the film’s climax, wherein the duo is confronted by the Queen Bee Alien. Registering a threat to Newt, Ripley dons a mechanical utility suit (aligning her in length and bulk to the immense beast) in order to physically defend her. Ultimately, Ripley prevails in the animalistic battle between the two primal mothers, concluding the film by flying off with her adopted daughter and her battered love interest, Hicks.
While Aliens depicts Ripley’s maternal instinct as an example of her heroic nature, her violent motherhood re-contextualizes her entire essence, thereby neutralizing the radical elements of the film. Ripley’s abrupt shift re-motivates her character because her most impassioned acts of bravery are initiated by her child’s well-being. In the original Alien, Ripley’s use of violence was rare and motivated by self-preservation, while in Aliens her violence is centered on the unity of the family and the preservation of the child. In such a way, Ripley’s subversive potential is negated. Her establishment of a faux nuclear family, albeit with her wearing the pants, is a marked departure from the independence and self-sufficiency she championed in Alien. Thus, Aliens establishes Ripley’s wish to return to a “normal life,” which is entrenched in patriarchal definitions.
Developed as an intermediary between maleness and femaleness, Ripley was re-envisioned as an incongruous caricature of both stereotypical masculinity (violence and force) and exaggerated femininity (motherhood) in Aliens. Where she once obscured gender distinctions, Ripley was now flaunting them, thereby validating their existence.
After Alien3 hit theaters in 1992, the series had irreversibly reoriented the image of Ripley towards victimhood. Branding her the perpetual female “other,” the film repeatedly thwarted her attempts at fulfillment by killing off both her lovers (Hicks and Clement) and child (Newt), while leaving her in an inhospitable setting with only the alien serving as a familiar (and friendly) face. Long depicted as a messianic figure, Ripley was reconstituted as a harbinger of death (cursed for defying the patriarchal system). Initially fighting for female equality, her journey had left her battered, alone and (ultimately) defeated. Her newfound ambition towards motherhood was perverted when she was impregnated by the beast and became the host body for the new queen. With her hopes for a normative life dashed and her femaleness dissolved save her procreative functions, which were ironically used to incubate the alien, Ripley was punished one final time with death (a defeat obscured by the flimsy emphasis on self-sacrifice). Alien3, in its bleak tone, acts as a warning to all would-be feminists that all roads paved in liberation lead to failure.
The conservative re-appropriation of the Ripley icon through the Alien franchise has been shaped in a multitude of ways. The most significant, though, lies in how Ripley and the monster are situated (always in relation to motherhood) to one another throughout the films. In Alien, the protagonist and the monster are depicted as polar opposites, linked solely by their shared statuses as lone survivors. The monstrous alien embodies the male gaze and represents destructive sexuality, while Ripley is established as a pillar of female liberation and legitimacy. The two formerly diametric characters become inextricably linked beginning in Aliens, as they share the primary motivation of protecting their “children.” This relationship becomes even more clearly illustrated in Alien3, as Ripley proves to be not only the one human in the prison that the monster won’t harm but also the object of protection by it as the mother of the future queen. In such a way, the trajectory of the franchise establishes a relationship between the alien and Ripley that revolves around them being kindred spirits rather than nemeses.
The fourth film in the franchise, Alien Resurrection, is the logical final step in this gradual conjoining of Ripley and the alien. In the film, Ripley is cloned from a combination of her biologic material with that of the alien fetus. In the process, Ripley becomes hybridized with the monster, emerging as a mixture between human and beast. Thus, Resurrection enacts a reactionary attack on the tenants of female liberation and legitimacy that Ripley previously embodied by aligning her with what critic Barbara Creed coined the Monstrous Feminine, a primal, destructive maternal figure. Beginning with a horrific introductory scene wherein the “new” Ripley breaks a medic’s arm while vacantly yet sinisterly investigating his agony, the former protagonist sheds the humanistic characteristics that facilitated the spectator’s identification with her. Demoted from being protagonist, Ripley becomes unidentifiable for audience because she is marked inhuman by her vicious, mercurial demeanor, as well as by her physical traits. Her hair returns to its long state, now wiry and unkempt; her fingernails become sharp, long, and green; and her skin takes on a sickly pale complexion.
Behaviorally, starkly different from her previous self(ves), Ripley compulsively attacks people, has acidic blood, smells around for her young, and smiles when hurt. She eventually shows maternal pride towards the alien queen, boastfully declaring herself, “the monster’s mother.” Even though she works with the “heroes” to kill her alien offspring, in the end she holds and caresses her baby alien-human hybrid. In such a way, Ripley is made threatening to undermine her politically progressive image from the previous three films (whatever was left of it, anyway). A product of the patriarchal company, the character is transformed into a conservative parody of her former self, sapping Ripley of her trademark humanity.
In order to neutralize the threat she poses to male-dominated power structures, the film demonizes her, aligning her with the monster, instead of with the other humans. Locked in an immortal battle with the alien, she now embraces her role as both “monster” and “mother” (though these roles had always meant the same thing in the franchise). From a formal standpoint, the film detaches its perspective from her for the first time since Dallas’ death in Alien. By becoming a symbol of the archaic mother, who reincorporates her alien/human hybrid grandchild by propelling it into space, Ripley and her ongoing motherhood are redefined through a classical mode of representation.
Ripley’s trajectory through the Alien franchise is one of the most dramatic in film history. The ideals she originally championed (female equality and disintegration of gender distinctions) were slowly eroded, with each new iteration building on the conservative ideals of the previous. In the end, she was stripped of her subjectivity, forced into simultaneously becoming a male surrogate and desperate mother, made to hope for a normal life dependent on the nuclear family, branded by her gender, punished, killed, and then brought back to life in order to be transformed into the monster.
Despite all of the efforts of Scott’s first film, by the end of the series, ¾ of Ellen Ripley’s aggregate screen time is spent having her satisfy the conventional conceptions of gender rather than overcome them (which makes the Alien franchise as a whole conservative). While Ripley remains one of the most enduring female icons, the metamorphosis of Alien’s protagonist illustrates the unique power franchises have to manipulate and alter our definitions of them, making them a political force to beware. Just remember that when people speak of Ellen Ripley, they are actually referring to her in plurality.