Note: I get a bit too preachy and feministy with this, and indeed assume and rant and whatever. I’m sorry. Last few days have been a nightmare.
What do you think of when I say ‘classic strong female heroine’? Some of you literature folk will raise your fingers towards the likes of Austen and her collection of protagonists, or Lady Macbeth from ‘The Scottish Play’. Some of you history people, me included probably, will yell out Pmily Pankhurst or Eleanor Roosevelt. A few of you will namecheck Bella from Twilight or Lara Croft or choose from a plethora of responses. I fully expect Joss Whedon’s name to be in the mix of descriptions too. The phrase of ‘classic strong female heroine’ always sparks images of Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Aliens, not the latter two.
Exactly why this is has been a plaguing question for a while. Yes, Weaver’s Ripley is an empowered, strong and witty female who holds her own against xenomorphs never mind the mostly ‘male’ crew. The film is probably, as thousands of much more cleverer folks have pointed out, an incision into the Vietnam War and its consequences. The most patriarchal of all of life’s pursuits, at leas that’s what history will teach you. Ripley, however, gives us the full story about conflict and community; that women are badass too.
Except ‘badass too’ would likely cause some sting with a slice of the feminist community. That to be on the same level of men in the context of one film isn’t enough. As a more easy feminist myself I would somewhat agree, but I’d point out the absolute presence that Weaver’s character has on the entire franchise. She’s namechecked when she’s not there, she’s the only focus of the fourth movie, she defeats a legion of nasties and she’s the protagonist. That last one is probably the most obvious to anyone, but this is important to consider given the realm of sci-fi horror we’re dealing with.
In the realm of ‘horror’ then the girl is usually one of the first to die and in the realm of ‘sci-fi’ they’re often treated with some disrespect. Blade Runner, another Ridley Scott film, treats females with either a righteous empowerment, giving great ability to the Replicant females and showing absolute oppression, or a distinct misogynist slant, the ‘pleasure’ model Replicants are females and Deckard only ever kills female Replicants directly, depending on how you interpret it. Ridley, in the case of Alien however, takes a vastly different approach in my opinion.
I can say that I can count enough ‘good’ films with female protagonists on one hand. Sarah Connor from Terminator (James Cameron also directed Aliens), Beatrice Kiddo from Kill Bill, Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, Ellen Ripley from Alien series and arguably Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Obviously if you expand that to literature and I’ll need a lot of hands.
Empowered female characters in films is another story too. What I’m talking about is ‘protagonist’ and the paradigm of the protagonist, the very model of the lead character, isn’t necessarily decided by gender but it seems to be somewhat ‘the case’. The vast majority of stories have male protagonists with females serving as a cause of destruction, a femme fatale, eye candy to gawp at, a damsel to be in distress, a Maggie Thatcher male-empowered ‘Look I can shoot guns too’ figure or simply ‘wife/girlfriend’. I’m not playing the feminist here. It’s quite fun to look at the works of Christopher Nolan and try to find a single woman in his filmography that isn’t a foil to the protagonist. Not that Nolan is a misogynist but I wondered for a while why he has females to be so destructive, unfair and generally viscously disgusting ‘creatures’. Then I remembered Alien.
I will probably write about Nolan’s ‘use of women’ in his films at a later date but I think he uses them as such vile, violent characters because they often destroy men. A few extreme circles would argue that he is simply showing how the patriarchal society that we have created has now created such desperate, tragic figures as Mal (Inception) or Natalie (Memento) or Selina Kyle (The Dark Knight Rises). The same goes true for Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Shakespeare may be showing such a distress (and indeed powerful being) because she only manipulates what is put upon her; masculinity, sexuality and the crushing weight of being a female. Although they’re all debatable really.
Alien is not about the ‘female metaphor’ destroying the ‘male society metaphor’. It has nasties with phallic weapons, the men tend to die a lot or do stupid stuff, and even in Blade Runner Scott portrayed the men as drunk or obese or killers or cold-blooded or envious or generally disgusting or perverted amongst others. Alien‘s take on the ‘protagonist paradigm’ is indeed a challenge of the status quo, but in a reverse as to what the ilk of Nolan and Shakespeare have created. It’s showing empowerment not through showing distress, and the consequence of macho-male dominated society, but through plain empowerment. Ripley is probably the strongest female protagonist of all time by virtue of her being one of the strongest protagonists of all time full stop.