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.”
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.
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.
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.”)
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.