How does Ripley’s character challenge conventional conceptions of gender, sex, humanity, and power in the ‘Alien’ Trilogy?


The ‘Alien’ series marked the beginning of strong female characters in science fiction films.  The introduction of Lt. Ellen Ripley in ‘Alien’ (Scott, 1979) not only reinforced, but set the mark for the role of women turned soldier placed in the science fiction genre.  As Ripley’s character, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver, progresses, she becomes hardened and more ‘masculine’ than her male counterparts.  After the presentation of Ripley, more female lead characters in films followed suite, such as Sarah Conner from ‘The terminator’ films(Cameron, 1984).  However, before this strong female character was presented in film, there was no real challenge to the stereotype of the women’s role as the powerless sidekick, or token female, there to reinforce the (male) hero’s strength.  Early films from the thirties to seventies presented the role of females as the weak damsel in distress, ‘King Kong’ (Cooper, 1933) being a perfect example of this.  The ‘Alien’ films introduced this powerful female character and as the quadrilogy continues Ripley becomes tougher and stronger.  In ‘Alien’ she takes on and defeats the monstrous alien creature, but the next films portray her defeating swarms of them.  By ‘Alien: Resurrection’ (Jeunet, 1997) she has become truly hardened and stronger than her male allies, but she also challenges conventional concepts of power, gender and humanity.


Ripley is no typical strong character, but as the key character in all ‘Alien’ films she has become the iconic figure in the science-fiction genre.  She has come to represent many things and her intricacy throughout the series has allowed for varied interpretations of what she represents.  As a female, she is both a challenge to science fiction and to the conventional patriarchal societal norms regarding gender.  She has been regarded as “a feminist hero, a substitute for the male hero, a patriarchal mother and a monster” (Graham, 2010, p. 6).  That one character can be understood in so many diverse lights and opinions indicates the complexity of the character in terms of the intersections among gender, class and humanity.  At the point when the first film was released women were beginning to fight patriarchal society.  Ripley is presented as the traditional female and mother under patriarchy but also as her own agent, refusing to be used by The Company scientists that dominate all four films or by the aliens themselves, she excels to her genuine self, an “individual that poses sexual agency, and as an autonomous individual who is not limited to the constraints of gender role expectations” (Graham, 2010, p. 6).  ‘Alien’ was preoccupied with the future of a humanity faced with the perils of exploration and transformation in space.  While some films were optimistically exploring human transformation as progress for human kind, ‘Alien’ expresses the negative impact of taking exploration too far and the aspect of devolution and infiltration.   This idea of humanities constant need for exploration and power is taken even further in the films that followed.


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By the end of the first film Ripley is the sole survivor of the Nostromo ship due to her logic and cunning behaviour , which are traditionally male personality traits.  Being the only survivor indicates her strength and intelligence as higher than the others, who do not survive.  By the second film her appearance is much more masculine; she smokes, her hair is shorter and her ability to work the  pneumatic loader is important to the feminine aspect of the film.  The symbolic position of this ability can be seen in the final scene, where she climbs into the giant machine and becomes a massive female cyborg efficient enough to defeat the alien Queen.  A feminist view comes into play because both Ripley and the Alien queen are mothers and comprise of male features such as incredible strength and agility.  The achievement of defeating the alien is at the peak of Ripley’s masculinity in ‘Aliens’ which then transcends into the next films and progresses even further.


Alien Three’s’ (Fincher, 1992) depiction of humanity, represented by the misogynistic jailers and criminals on one side and the cold-blooded Company scientists on the other, complicates the formula of good versus evil, and instead shows the many sides of humanity and power inundated with symbols and images of religion.  Ripley represents the foul female body whose creations prove lethal to humans and she is treated as such by the men in the film.  Yet these men are “murderers and rapists of women” (Fincher, 1992) and are the worst of humanity.  They laugh at Ripley’s survival because she is a woman and call her “intolerable” to her face.  By portraying these harsh conditions that Ripley has to deal with and her responses to these outright insults (she simply says “Thanks” to being called intolerable) it portrays her as the more durable person, not allowing the men to make her feel weak.  This is a concept brought in to ‘Alien: Resurrection’ (Jeunet, 1997).   Ripley sacrifices herself at the end of the third instalment by jumping into a huge fire, killing herself and the unborn alien queen in order to save society and mankind.  This act transforms her from a victim of both the Company and the aliens into the ultimate killing machine.


Ripley can be seen as an interstitial character due to the role she takes in the final film, as she is neither feminine nor human, yet she has feminine characteristics and was cloned from a human form, so cannot be categorised as robot, alien or human.  She challenges standard concepts of gender through this interstitial space, and through the way she deals with patriarchal opinions of her.  One particular scene that portrays Ripley overcoming male opinions of her shows her playing around with a basketball.  When the space pirates join in and Johner (Perlman) confronts her, she emasculates him straight away by not allowing him to take the ball from her.  It was obvious from Perlman’s manner that he thought little of her and expected her to be a weak female, so by taking on the stronger role in the ball scene, Ripley is challenging the stereotype of the feeble female, willing to lie down and let the male take over.  Johner cannot believe that he was beaten by a mere woman and says “What the hell are you?” (Jeunet, 1997).  By asking this, he is reinforcing the opinion that women can’t be harder than men, but Ripley is and although she is a clone, she is still female.  When looking further into the female characters of the film, it is clear that they are the alphas, Ripley has the power to kill the aliens and protect the crew, Call is a robot and on a mission to stop the cloned alien queen from ever getting to earth, and then there’s the alien queen herself, capable of destroying everything.  These dominant characters suggest a fear of female power.  When compared to the male characters, who attempt but ultimately fail in killing the aliens, these women clearly stand out.  This aspect of Ripley as Alpha is proved in the final scene when the Hybrid alien is born and rips the face of its mother.  Instead of killing Ripley too, he appears to smell her and be comforted by her presence.  It follows her because he sees her as the alpha female.  Ripley constantly displaces the authority of the male crew in order to overcome this alien threat.  The female assumption of power is explained in the film by Ripley’s increasing masculinization.   She uses absurdly sized machine guns and flame throwers as replacements for the absent male phallus.  This is most notable in the scene where Ripley finds the clones one to seven in a room.  Each of them have both alien and human features in a monstrous Frankenstein-like fashion, with human body parts matched with alien features in a cruel and twisted style in order to take the alien baby from the chests of each successful clone.  As Ripley makes her way, horrified and curious, through the room, she comes to a bed with another clone lying alive on it, chest open.  It is another Ripley, but with an alien arm above her head whispering for mercy and asking to be killed.  In a very masculine manner, Ripley number eight lifts the oversized flame thrower and torches the whole room.   This way of killing the clones was a highly masculine act.  This scene also comments on humanities concerns with power.  With each horrific clone, it is becomes clear that the Company scientists are unstoppable in their quest to bring the alien queen to life, willing to cause as much pain as necessary in order to finish their pursuit.  That Ripley was capable of destroying their work proves that she is the dominant agent, disgusted by the Companies work.  This also demonstrates that her compassion for human kind is larger than that of actual human beings, who seem determined to bring destruction and damage to themselves.


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It is during the cloning process (in which seven clones were created unsuccessfully) that Ripley gained the alien features and the alien queen obtained human attributes of reproduction such as birthing from a womb.  The Ripley clone and alien queen represent a threat to patriarchal society as they were created purely from a female, portraying the use of men in reproduction as unnecessary.   It is technology that creates the clones however, technology made by men or more precisely, the Company, which challenges conceptions of humanity.  It is portraying the opinion that women will not be needed when men are creating gender and clones of women.  Ultimately, however, the series confronts this opinion by eradicating the need for men in reproduction. This interlinks perfectly with the theme of motherhood which is prevalent throughout.  The aliens themselves portray the ideal of men being unnecessary in reproduction through their reproductive cycles as they take on both male and female reproductive qualities.  The parthenogenetic mother gives birth to eggs that contain ‘face huggers’.  Both men and women are subjected to rape by the small creatures that grab the faces of the individuals and implant an alien in their chests.  The face huggers eliminate the need for gender by implanting the aliens into both sexes.  As the males are penetrated and impregnated to give birth, they are immediately feminized which can be seen as confronting cultural anxieties about the rebellious male power.  Motherhood is a theme that is challenged intensely in the final film, most recognisably with the last scene.  The alien hybrid follows the crew to the escape pod and attacks Call. Ripley comes to save her from the alien and while she is embracing the alien child, she cuts her hand off its teeth and sprays her acid blood onto a window, causing it to break and suck the alien out of the ship in a gruesome act similar to an abortion.  She is capable of killing her own grandchild for two reasons: firstly, she does it to protect humanity and secondly because she has found a surrogate replacement for her grandchild in Call.


The character of Call (portrayed by Winona Ryder) is also important to the theme of strong dominant female power and to humanity.  Her self-induced mission was to stop the alien queen grown by The Company scientists from reaching earth.  In a paradox to most robot themed films that portray robots killing people in an effort to save humanity and the earth, Call was built by robots with compassion for humankind and a will to protect them.  Since the Company doesn’t appear to have humankind’s best interests at heart, Call portrays the backwardness of the situation, with a robot willing to save humanity when humanity itself is not.  This is reinforced when Call is shot and Ripley notices her wound is not red with blood, but white with chemical ooze.  She realizes call is an android and says “I should’ve known.  No human being is that humane” (Jeunet, 1997).


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Although Ripley is not a feminist and doesn’t actively stand for women’s rights, her role is reflective of feminist ideology.  Her character develops and becomes more masculine as the films develop.  The Alien series challenges cultural norms as Ripley is introduced to viewers to their first self-reliant and successful heroine that is capable of protecting mankind.  Ripley’s role and the film’s general attitude towards women are creations of a changing feminist understanding, helping to historicize the feminist movements concerns.   In each film, Ripley confronts difficult situations which test her femininity.   She has to fight against the patriarchal ideology of the Company, different kind of male figures and against the Aliens.   Gender is an important theme throughout the series, what is interesting is how gender is represented.   The Alien films have many distinctive references to gender roles and Ripley’s function is rather complex as she constantly shifts between a feminine and masculine role.  Ripley, the monstrous feminine in this film, is an intricate description of the maternal figure as observed within a patriarchal ideology and is essentially challenging society’s norms.  Before Ripley, women’s roles in the science fiction genre were restricted to sidekicks or damsels in distress, so with the presentation of Ellen Ripley in the genre it marked a considerable change in these female roles and they became prominent or lead characters.  As the Alien films develop this lead female character becomes more masculine but simultaneously more of a mother figure also.  She portrays these masculine and feminine traits in order to survive, and then sacrifices herself to save humanity in the third film, which can be seen as a male act, but when matched with the maternal context it is placed in, it becomes a nurturing, protective characteristic, typically associated with female qualities.  She also portrays how far humanity (through the representation of The Company) is willing to go in order to gain power.  They willingly cause pain and horror, and with Ripley being capable of destroying the work they undergo (mostly in Alien:Resurrection) she takes the power from them and renders their work inept.  Lt Ellen Ripley set the mark for all female roles in the science fiction genre as strong, independent of men and capable of destroying anything that gets in their way.  Ripley is competent enough to overcome, not only the patriarchal society that created her as a way of producing an almighty power in the alien queen, but also these monstrous aliens that threaten to destroy that society.




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Cameron, J. (Director). (1986). Aliens [Motion Picture].

Charles, A. (2000). Science Fiction. Routledge UP.

Cooper, S. (Director). (1933). King Kong [Motion Picture].

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Graham, E. (2010). Meanings Of Ripley: The Alien Quadrilogy and Gender. Cambridge: Cambrisge Scholars Publishing.

Grant, B. K. (1996). The dread Of Difference: Gender and The Horror Film. Texas: Universoty of Texas Press.

Jason Smith, X. G. (2006). Alien Woman: The Making of Lt Ellen Ripley. Continuum International Publishing Group.

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