Strong Female Characters: Ellen Ripley
It’s dark in space. Cold. And after a while, it’s a job just like any other. This is the world we are dropped into at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Alien.
Through voyeuristic cinematography, we’re introduced to the crew of the Nostromo. There is nothing glamorous about this version of space. Their jobs seem something akin to long-haul trucking, and their living quarters are about as clean. They make small talk, give and receive orders, and generally look bored. Of course, that all changes when they run into an alien species.
I’d love to wax poetic about the incredibly tense, bare-bones script of Alien that follows, but that’s not my focus for today.
My focus is warrant officer, Ellen Ripley (played with femininity and strength by Sigourney Weaver). She is one of the best examples of a truthful female character to date.
From the first moment she appears on screen she is treated with an equality rarely afforded women in film. She is shot with the same camera angles and lighting as everyone else. She wears no makeup because a person performing a job such as hers would not be wearing any. Her uniform is the same cut and fit as the rest of the crew. Nothing about her is highlighted in a stereotypical leading lady fashion. She’s just one of the crew.
The story moves forward as the characters struggle to make sense of the creature threatening their every move. Ripley fights, second-guesses, and makes mistakes along with the rest of the crew, but she is never treated differently because she is a woman. Certainly, she is strong, but she is notjust strong. She is frightened, flawed, intelligent, and most importantly, human. Her strength comes from her resilience in the face of being imperfect.
Ripley finally prevails over the creature, but not before being forced to give up everything, even (temporarily) the atmosphere in her escape pod. Her desire to survive is found in all of us. It’s coated in humanity’s DNA. It knows no gender. It is singular in its pursuit.
It is worth pointing out that the character was originally written with a man in mind. That piece of information gives the idea of strong female characters a whole new perspective. The character of Ellen Ripley is competent, real, and entirely female. This is because she is presented to us that way.
Armed with this simple behind-the-scenes knowledge we are given the most blaring example of gender-as-construct. Ellen Ripley identifies as female, so the actions she takes are viewed as female. Having strong, complex, emotionally alive female characters is as simple as focusing more on the character’s desires and actions and less on their presented gender.
Who we are is determined by what we do. When we create female characters with this focus in mind, they will be filled with all the tenacious strength humanity has to offer.