I mention all this because to describe the heroine of ALIEN as “groundbreaking” seems too simplistic and almost crude. Warrant officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wasn’t just groundbreaking. She was a 10.0 earthquake that reverberated across movie screens and sent shock waves through our collective conscious. Her impact is still being scrutinized today by countless films scholars, critics, and historians but there is no denying that plenty of little girls like yours truly are deeply indebted to Ripley for broadening our idea of what a conventional movie hero could be. She embodies the idea that actions speak a hell of a lot louder than words and screams.
It’s worth noting that the memorable tagline for ALIEN was written by a woman. Copywriter Barbara Gips came up with the idea while her husband, graphic artist Philip Gips, was creating the original movie poster and he decided to use it in his design. The studio was so impressed with Barbara Gips’ idea that they decided to run with it in their advertising campaign.
At the time there was still an air of mystery surrounding a film’s release and unless you spent hours scouring magazine racks for production information you usually went into a film blind with only the trailer, radio ads, and movie posters as your guide. Gips’ bleak warning ignited our imaginations and spoke to our shared nightmares.
The film’s tagline has become a mantra of sorts among horror film buffs and science fiction fans but it’s also a reminder of how women were often portrayed as “Screaming Mimi’s” in action focused films before ALIEN challenged that perception. In space, nobody could hear Ripley scream–and she does let out a couple of good shrieks during the film–but her survival is dependent on her actions and ability to think clearly when the rest of her crew is panicking…and screaming!
Many have criticized and questioned the character of Ripley claiming she acts “too masculine” and is just a “man with boobs.” Carol J. Clover (author of the often cited Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Films) asserted that Ripley was a “particularly grotesque example of wishful thinking” but I find these observations erroneous and extremely shortsighted.
While it’s true that the character of Ripley was originally written with a male actor in mind, I’ve never questioned the character’s femininity. Ripley defied Hollywood templates that attempted to define womanhood with simplistic labels such as wife, mother, girl next door, virgin, and whore. But she was also a naturally nurturing individual who cared deeply about her crew as well as a cat and she risks everything to save them. Ripley’s tender relationship with the yellow tabby called Jonesy tells us all we need to know about her parental instincts and innate empathy without having to point them out in LARGE BOLD LETTERS, which was done in the sequels that followed.
Top: The crew of the Nostradomas awakes
Bottom: A still from FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969)
In complete opposition to the “Ripley’s too masculine” complaints hurled at the film, there is also the issue of her underwear. Some think the final moments of ALIEN are problematic thanks to Ripley’s “tighty whities” and the ways in which they eroticize the character but as an 11-year-old girl watching ALIEN for the first time I never once questioned Ripley’s wardrobe choices.
The film opens with a shot of the entire crew, both men and women, in their underwear that instantly had me recalling scenes from various Frankenstein films I’d seen and their nudity implied a kind of birth or awakening to me. When Ripley strips down to her skivvies again it’s part of a cycle of events that suggest she’s grown, died, been reborn and is returning to the womb of the ship. Of course, there’s no denying the sexual themes of the film, which was based on H. R. Giger’s highly sexualized work, but when Ripley’s nearly naked body appears on screen she suddenly appears vulnerable and that makes her last confrontation with the monster all the more terrifying. Her genderless uniform may have tricked us into forgetting we were watching a female hero in action but the film demands that we acknowledge her femininity in its final moments.
Top: Ripley in ALIEN
Bottom: Susan Denberg in FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN (1967)
35 years have passed since Ripley saved the world from an alien threat but Hollywood still seems incapable of accepting the idea of a female hero who faces danger head-on without wailing about her predicament or relying on a man to guide her to safety.
While watching the new Oscar-nominated film GRAVITY (2013) recently I found myself wishing Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) would just shut up and get on with the business of surviving. Her continual shrieking, shouting, whimpering, squealing and squawking was a threat to her crew members as well as herself. I want more action orientated women protagonists in my movies. But I also want them to reference the trailblazing independent characters that came beforehand and pointed to a better, smarter and more all-embracing idea of what it means to be a hero that defies easy definition and refuses to scream when the shit hits the fan.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a good scream. Sometimes it’s simply a reflex or the only sane response to a terrible situation but screaming also unnecessarily wastes energy and time when you’re under threat and facing extreme danger. It’s also a reaction that’s chiefly associated with females. When a man is caught screaming his head off or needlessly whimpering our general knee-jerk reaction is to call him a “sissy” and point out how woman-like his actions are using even more derogatory terms. And although plenty of men have righteously and effectively wailed in fear on film it’s still an area where women reign supreme and Ripley’s calm, self-assured manner in the face of adversity is an exception and not the rule.
So what’s my point in writing this long-winded diatribe? I really just wanted to let you all know that you can catch Ridley Scott’s ALIEN on TCM when it airs on Jan. 25th as part of their terrific ‘70s Thrills programming. I also wanted to remind Hollywood of Barbara Gips’s dire warning: In space no one can hear you scream. So please give us more Ellen Ripley’s and less Ryan Stone’s.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published on TCM.com in July 2014.