Written by: Josef Beeby sbigreviews.com
Ellen Ripley was an iconic hero at the tail end of second-wave feminism, a strong female protagonist concurrently trail-blazing the twin male-dominated fields of horror and sci-fi cinema. She becomes more miraculous every day that she remains (unfortunately) unparalleled. But what always stood out to me about Ripley in Alien wasn’t her subversion or conscious contradiction of feminine stereotype, it was the way she seemed to sidestep it entirely. She’s as close as I’ve ever seen to a female hero who is refreshingly untethered to her gender. Why? Because she was a man.
Now, let me qualify that statement because it sounds offensively sexist. I’m not saying that in order to be admirably strong characters on film women should just be written like men. What I am saying is that between the inescapable bias of (male) screenwriters and the immediate elevation of film content to icon status, convention dictates that a female character cannot be conceived or written outside gender context and the closest one can get to escaping that is to write gender-non-specific roles. But ‘gender-non-specific’ actually means ‘male’.
In Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett’s original Alien screenplay, it’s specifically noted that every character could be played by either gender. And yet within a few lines, they refer to ‘a group of nude men’ rising from cryo-sleep and banter like ‘we’re going to be rich men’ etc. It reinforces the idea that, regardless of intent for gender ambiguity, he’s defaulting to male characters.
The script wasn’t necessarily feminist but even with an all-male crew it attacked perceived gender roles in horror movies. Classically, and especially in the 70s, weak female characters were menaced by overpowering male forces. O’Bannon decided to play on male fears instead, specifically those associated with gender. The two most lasting bits of Alien horror iconography are rape (face hugger) and birth (chest burster), predicated on biological or sexual process in some way unknowable to men. It laid the groundwork for gender comment but was less about female empowerment and more about giving a big ‘fuck you’ to smugly exploitative masculine horror tropes.
That said, Ridley Scott didn’t need to do much beyond swapping Ripley’s gender to complete the circle and co-opt O’Bannon’s subversive take. Alien has quite a shaky, vague script history so it’s unclear how much content was added after the decision to make Ripley a woman, but what it comes down to is that she defined a second-wave feminist hero by occupying a space freer of any preconception. It’s not that in space you can choose to subvert gender perception by not screaming. You just can’t scream. As a man she would have been a hero. As a woman she could be an icon.
But isn’t that the problem with minority roles in Western entertainment? You become an inescapable signifier by your nature. As a woman, in a movie, you are a comment on women. Just as a member of an ethnic minority you must say something about cultural perception of that ethnicity. The onus increasingly falls on actors to navigate the minefield of an already punishing profession to find roles that won’t contribute to backsliding. As a white male, I can do whatever the fuck I want but I’m the only demographic with that freedom. On top of the sky-scraping leg up we already get, you can add that we’re the only ones who get to not be signifiers.
And minority roles don’t need to be predicated specifically on positive or negative or stereotypical traits, you’re still a proxy. A female character doesn’t need to exhibit classically feminine traits to be a comment, in fact assiduously and specifically avoiding comment becomes a knowing subversion of type which is, in turn, a comment.
It’s a cyclical issue that always returns to the mass-culture world of film creating icons by definition. Now, Ripley in Alien wasn’t devoid of feminine characteristics regardless of how the script started. Most egregiously, she strips down to a handkerchief’s worth of cloth to get into a space suit at the end of the movie. Whether a backsliding moment of genre convention or an attempt to engage the audience in self-reflection, it’s a pretty far cry from ‘gender non specific’. But again, for the most part what defined her wasn’t a subversion or contradiction. She felt so natural because she was even free of conscious ignorance.
It might seem like a stretch to place so much of this on O’Bannon’s ‘gender-non-specific’ note but think of the evolution of Ripley in the sequels. Still a strong female character, she nonetheless becomes increasingly defined by her gender. Her primary motivation in Aliens becomes motherhood, actually supplanting the more forward-thinking urge for her to get her life back in order. In Alien 3 her gender is even more defining in an all-male penal colony filled with rapists. The dichotomy is absurd: they describe themselves as ‘double-Y chromosome’. They are male past biological possibility. And in Alien Resurrection motherhood is the go-to once again. These aren’t negative motivations but they’re more specifically gender-driven than anything that Ripley does in Alien. And however much was added to that story once she had been locked down as a female character, that purity of strong characterization could only be arrived at by starting from a ‘gender non-specific’ (male) point. This is not a good thing. That Ripley opened the door to strong female protagonists is a good thing but the almost accidental way that was arrived at speaks to a larger and as yet insoluble problem with the basic perceptions of character and minority representation in film. There can be an ‘everyman’, a person rather than a gender, but there’s no ‘everywoman’. As usual, Vasquez puts it best when Hudson asks her snidely “have you ever been mistaken for a man?” and she comes back immediately with “no. Have you?”