Couch Pumpkin: Sofa Adventures
News and reviews for the big and small screens…where potatoes fear to tread.

Lady Business ~ Ellen Ripley and the female body

If you know me you know I LOVE ladies who kick ass. So when my housemate and I began an impromptu Alien series marathon some weeks ago (unfinished as yet – we still have Alien Resurrection to go, plus the Predator and Alien vs Predator series handily included in his bumper box set), I jumped at the chance to get reacquainted with one of sci-fi’s biggest, baddest heroines.


First, a little background about my relationship with the Alien series. Perhaps shockingly, I had only seen the first film in full before our little Alien-fest. My parents recommended it to me and my sister, recalling the terror of seeing it on its original release. I’m something of a Ridley Scott fan (yeah, I know, a bit embarrassing?) and loved the film’s dark, gritty take on sci-fi. Ripley, famously a role written for a man, emerges as a strong, capable heroine – and screen legend.

So I was excited to finally see the whole of James Cameron’s Aliens. It’s an interesting prelude to Avatar, featuring many of the same anti-corporate and environmental themes – but executed in a far more low-key way, aping Scott’s minimalistic style.

For most of the film, I had hearts in my eyes any time Ripley was on screen. She’s a brainy, brawny, no-nonsense boss who faces her biggest enemy head-on. No running in stilettos for this broad, but Sigourney Weaver’s beauty is only enhanced by the character’s low-maintenance style.

But Ripley’s role in film 2 is very much maternal. The film begins with the devastating news that her daughter, back on Earth, is long dead (while Ripley was in stasis). Thus the discovery of orphaned Newt in the airducts of the space station prompts her to ‘adopt’ the child, and leads to her famous stand against the Alien Queen, in which both females fight desperately for their offspring. Does this reduce the character? Depends on your viewpoint. It is difficult for a feminist like myself to argue that a woman can/should never draw strength from her role as a mother. Indeed, isn’t the female reproductive power something to be owned and celebrated? But on the other hand it is difficult to imagine a male hero needing such motivation. From Alien to Aliens we certainly see a shift in the presentation of Ripley.

With this thought on my mind, we turned to Alien 3. If you are at all interested in film production, you need to read about the turbulent history of this film. It’s almost as fun a read as the history of Planet of the Apes. Needless to say, with multiple rewrites (even during filming), the movie is a bit of a dog’s dinner, even with David Fincher (The SocialNetwork, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) at the helm.

In this film, Ripley finds herself alone on a prison planet populated solely by men. Drawing on a previous idea in which she arrived at a monastery, some of the men are involved in a religious and celibate cult. Some of the men, however, are not – and from the moment of her arrival she finds herself under threat simply because she is female. Naturally, before long, she is almost raped by a predatory group of convicts.

Here we see a huge shift in the presentation of Ripley. Her gender, so unimportant in the first film and present as a motivational force in the second, is here at the crux of her crisis. Ironically, she is forced to shave her head, stripping her of traditional femininity – just as she is reduced to a walking vagina by the convicts. We are meant to fear the impending rape as much as the Alien growing in the bowels of the prison; yes, humans are as bad as the Aliens, but the use of rape to reinforce such a message is not only lazy but downright offensive. Again, a male hero would not have this story arc.

Then, not only is Ripley’s female body now a target for human invasion, but the Aliens get in on the act too. Yup, it’s time for The Mystical Pregnancy! (link goes to the awesome yt channel Feminist Frequency – all her vids are worth a watch but Tropes vs Women is just brilliant).This trope is all too common in sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not necessarily a misogynistic trope, but it is rarely handled with subtlety or understanding. Instead, it exploits and often disregards the female body/experience to create an effect, in much the way that the female character’s body is exploited within the storyline itself.

Here Ripley’s maternal powers are hijacked by the Aliens – and the film’s producers, who play on the horror that women who lose control of their body must face. Ripley’s gender becomes a destructive force. She is the mother of death. Violated by the Alien, who in itself is a phallic symbol, she is forced to destroy herself in order to avoid giving birth to the creature. This is posited by the film as a Christ-like act of self sacrifice, but this is mixing metaphors – surely hers is the reverse of the immaculate conception.This film revels in age-old stories of powerless women.

Alien 3 fails on so many levels, but it fails Ripley the most. She’s still fearless, still independent, still a fighter – but in this film her gender is her weakness and ultimately her downfall. The only good thing is that Sigourney Weaver got a fat paycheque and hopefully laughed her way to the bank.

I await Alien Resurrection with some trepidation…


One Response to “Lady Business ~ Ellen Ripley and the female body”

  1. […] previous writings on Alien looked at the degeneration in how women’s bodies are treated in the […]

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