Time for a second installment in the (extremely) occasional feature here, where we look at a female character in science-fiction and fantasy and ask ourselves the following five questions:
1) Is she active? A genuinely strong female character should make her own decisions, and those decisions should drive the plot.
2) Is she only allowed to be strong in a way that confirms gender stereotypes? A strong female character is not strong in the way women are allowed to be strong (femme fatale, mama grizzly, etc); she's strong in the way people are strong.
3) Is she allowed to explore a spectrum of sexuality outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy? An active sexual identity is fine, but it should not be presented as an object of male sexual fantasy.
4) Does she derive her power from a determination to avoid repeating a defining moment of victimization (particularly sexual victimization)? A strong female character should not just be an ordinary woman who was hurt/brutalized/raped and swore, "Never again".
5) Is she defined solely by her relationship with a male protagonist? Any character who is primarily motivated by her feelings for a man is being limited in some way.
Ideally, by looking at them through this lens, we'll be able to see whether or not the character is genuinely a strong female character, or whether she's the same old stereotype but with weapons.
Today, we'll take a look at Ellen Ripley, star of the first four 'Alien' movies. (And rumored to be involved in the next one as well.) She's often been held up as an example of a feminist science fiction hero, and while I certainly think that's true, I do think we can take a slightly closer look at the character and see just how and why she's written as a feminist. Let's go point by point, shall we?
1) Is she active? Definitely. Ripley makes her own decisions at pretty much every step of the way in all four movies. She's not completely unfettered in her decision-making process; let's face it, who is? But she makes key determinations that drive the plot of every movie. Usually, characters who don't listen to her or deny her agency are presented as villainous, and get their comeuppance at some point. Ripley knows what she's doing when it comes to xenomorphs, and you ignore her at your peril.
2) Is she only allowed to be strong in a way that confirms gender stereotypes? Well...this one may be a bit more problematic. Certainly in the first one, she's presented as "just another crewmember" (primarily because all of the parts were written to be played by any gender). In the second movie, though, she's very clearly presented as a mother defending her surrogate child, and the entire third act of the film is an elongated quest to rescue Newt (with the Alien Queen presented as an inverted mirror of Ripley, a mother figure who can only have children by killing). This isn't to say that it's not a solid character beat--Ripley feels lost due to her extended period of cryo-sleep, and is trying to recapture a lost relationship with her daughter through Newt. (In fact, the scenes between Newt and Ripley are one of the reasons this film passes the Bechdel Test.) And it's hard to argue that the film normalizes gender stereotypes, not with Vasquez around. But nonetheless, she's slotted into the "mama grizzly" stereotype for a significant chunk of the movie, and that shouldn't be dismissed.
The third and fourth film, meanwhile, subvert the "mama grizzly" stereotype by making Ripley mother to the antagonists. In the third film, she's gestating a queen, which makes her "immune" to the alien attacks; it's protecting the new queen. In the fourth film, she has a psychic connection to the aliens through the queen that is her offspring. Both do give Ripley power in a way that technically confirms gender stereotypes--the power of motherhood is a distinctly feminine power for obvious reasons. But they both subvert the tropes even as they offer them by presenting motherhood as something that forces the mother to sacrifice herself for her children, and by presenting the mother in question as decidedly unhappy about the idea. So while I think you can say that Ripley does confirm gender stereotypes, this is a good example of a way in which that doesn't necessarily mean it's not being feminist.
3) Is she allowed to explore a spectrum of sexuality outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy? There's not a lot of sex in the 'Alien' movies; it's just not really a thing they do. (Well, at least not literally and among humans. The facehuggers are a deeply symoblic and deeply troubling view of sexuality that probably deserve their own blog post. Suffice to say for now that the series is not pro-life.) It is worth noting, though, that Ripley is never condemned for the sex she does get to have, and it's not generally presented in an exploitative fashion. The only really exploitative bit in the whole series is when she strips down to her underwear at the end of the first movie.
4) Does she derive her power from a determination to avoid repeating a defining moment of victimization (particularly sexual victimization)? Nope. She certainly wants to wipe out all the xenomorphs, but that's primarily because she has first-hand experience of what they've done to her friends, not because they did something terrible to her that she's determined to avoid or exact revenge over. Free and clear on this one.
5) Is she defined solely by her relationship with a male protagonist? Nope. There isn't even a single male protagonist from film to film. Ellen Ripley is who she is, a survivor. She's tough, but she's very human and very real, and a really strong female character. There are some interesting nuances that the later film picked up on that did explore character beats specific to her role as a mother, but they weren't the only thing about the character and they weren't presented uncritically. I think that Sigourney Weaver has a lot to be proud of with her portrayal of Ripley.