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.




Cameron, J. (Director). (1984). The Terminator [Motion Picture].

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

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

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

Fincher, D. (Director). (1992). Alien 3 [Motion Picture].

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.

Jeunet, j.-P. (Director). (1997). Alien: Resurrection [Motion Picture].

Melzer, P. (2006). Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Texas: university of texas Press.

Scott, R. (Director). (1979). Alien [Motion Picture].












Hollywood’s Infidelity to Literary Adaptations: The Time Travellers Wife…

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Cinema has adapted stories from novels, dramas and myths since its inception in the late 1800’s.  Everything from Shakespearean drama’s to romantic novels have been translated into film in various ways using a range of techniques to re-tell the narratives in a more effective way, using point of view shots, narrative techniques, mise-en-scene, editing and music.  The making of a film out of an earlier text is as old as the apparatus of cinema itself, as over half of all commercial films have come from literary originals.  Literary texts are not visual tools so film adaptations have been known to bring stories to life through the use of these techniques.  Literature is an important medium along with storytelling, and film producers have been aware of this, battling over the film rights to many literary works that become popular either in academic areas of discussion or mainstream society.  Shakespearean adaptations, mostly made by the BBC, have stayed true to the original stories, understanding the need to change the narrative is absent, giving Shakespeare’s expertise in writing, possibly, the most famous tales of tragedy, love and comedy ever written.  Other novels have not been so lucky, as the film rights have been bought by Hollywood film producers who simply wish to portray the most sell-able story, usually the love story.  One such novel is ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ (Niffenegger, 2003) written by Audrey Niffenegger.  I will be analyzing how Hollywood adapted the novel into a screen medium (directed by Robert Schwentke), the narrative techniques employed in both novel and film and whether the film and original text had the same impact on readers/viewers.

Niffenegger’s original story was a mixed genre book comprising of science fiction aspects coupled with traditional romantic practices. The basis is simple: a man (Henry) suffers from a medical disorder that causes him to jump through time, where he meets his future wife (Clare) as a young girl.  The couple then begin a relationship and attempt to cope with the constant and unstoppable time traveling while simultaneously waiting for the moment when they meet in real time.  The initial vulnerability of passing through time and finding himself naked in somewhat random places in time causes Henry a great deal of stress. Suddenly naked and in public places, Henry has mastered the art of picking locks and pockets in order to adjust to where he is. This adds a shadowy survival aspect to the character, “When I am out there, in time, I am inverted, changed into a desperate version of myself.  I become a thief, a vagrant, an animal who runs and hides”.  Henry travels due to a genetic condition called Chrono-Impairment and he experiences this as inconvenient and unpleasant.  This unpleasantness is expressed thoroughly in the book and causes Henry to become a gritty, unhappy character before he finally meets his future wife.  He questions the causes of his problem and the effects it has on him “After about five minutes of swearing and shivering and hoping to hell you can disappear, you start walking in any direction”.  The film version (Schwentke, 2009) of Henry however had numerous flaws as many typical Hollywood adaptation screenplays of a novel do. Much of Henry’s irate and edgy behaviour in the novel was left out and he was less angry and more accepting of his problematic time traveling endeavors.  The violence was also toned down, possibly to ensure a friendlier rating, as an encounter with a teenage boy and a gun was completely cut from the story.  This was most likely due to the need for Henry to be a like-able character, therefor, much of his bad habits were completely left out of the film.

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From the first pages, the book establishes itself with a non-traditional, non-linear plot structure. The narrative of the story is from two perspectives; that of Henry and Clare alternately, with many of Clare’s narration portrayed through the pages of a diary.  It achieves the illusion of distance and depth through a series of episodes that don’t appear to be framed into a coherent plot.  By the end of the novel though, the plot becomes linear and consistent. Schwentke on the other hand created a more linear plot in the film, portraying the relationship from the beginning to the end, with only a few jumps in time to portray significant scenes that surrounded the relationship.  The decision to create a more typically straightforward plot is common of Hollywood films, as the confusion surrounding a non-linear story could hinder the viewer’s experience.  It also depicts the narrative as a simple love story, while the literary version was a confused, often erratic, portrayal of a woman coping with a husband who jumps through time uncontrollably.  In an attempt to create the typical Hollywood film of love conquering all, important aspects of the book were left out of the screenplay, as they would undermine the romance between the two protagonists.  Such cuts included secondary characters and their interactions with the protagonists, incidents of infidelity, the continuous problems they encounter with trying to conceive and the fatality of Henry’s time traveling which leaves him an amputee by the end of the book.  Each of these aspects created a well-rounded, complete story in the novel, and portrayed the story realistically, giving each character certain incidents that they would have to deal with both physically and mentally.  The film did not portray these events or characters, largely due to the fact that it would spoil the fairy tale love story of two people destined to meet.  It creates the illusion of the perfect couple, rather than portraying the realistic struggles of two people in love.

The original text deals with many psychological issues that surround both Clare and Henry with which the film does not.  There are techniques available in order to bring these issues into the film without disturbing the visual elements, such as voice-overs, however this was not used in the film, creating the impression that the story is one dimensional.  Schwentke chose not to include the deeper psychological aspects of the story and instead added less meaningful changes such as their daughter’s abilities to control her time traveling.  Henry also challenges his (dis)ability in the novel as he consults with various doctors and professionals in a hope to understand and control his travels.  He self-medicates, gets numerous tests done and tries every medical treatment he is given in an attempt to control his life: “On an EEG, I have the brain of a schizophrenic” .  The confusion that surrounds his problem with staying in the one time, and the erratic behavior it conjures is symbolized even more through the literary devices such as the non-linear narrative and for-shadowing which were both found in the original text, and not the film adaptation.

One of the most harrowing experiences expressed in the novel is the loss of Henry’s feet due to a jump in time that left him, naked, in a snow storm.  After spasmodic accounts of the aftermath Clare states “Although Henry is right here in front of me, he has disappeared”  suggesting his loss of self as he copes the loss of his feet which left him disabled.  The internal anguish he suffers turns him into, yet again, the angry and miserable man.  Yet, this is toned down in the film adaptation as although he does get hurt in the snow storm, he does not lose his legs.  He is left in a wheelchair but is a much happier disabled man.  The contrast is huge and again the film takes out important emotional complexity and loses the opportunity to highlight the insignificant aspects of the couple’s life, compared to Henry’s time travelling.  This is highly common in Hollywood films.  The emotional impact due to the loss of Henry’s legs leaves him devastated in the original text because of the disastrous effects it has on his ability to ‘run and hide’ when he travels through time.  Without this consequence in the film, the emotive impression is lost in Henry, who is now still seen as the traditional ‘attractive’ hero of the tale portraying society’s notions of beauty.  His doctor states that he will not need the wheelchair for long and that his disability won’t have a long term affect, again, restricting the characteristic of the novel that literally changed Henry’s life and caused him to become completely debilitated.  In not portraying this facet of hugely important information, the ending to the film is perceived like many other Hollywood films, not wanting to damage the appearance of the protagonist/hero.Picture 4


Although the story has an unhappy ending with the inevitable death of Henry, both mediums tell a different version of events.  In the novel Henry dies a tragic death in the arms of his wife and daughter.  After his passing Clare finds a letter written by him explaining that someday in the future he will meet her again “Until then, live, fully, present in the world, which is so beautiful”.  She thus spends the rest of her life waiting for Henry to appear one last time, which inevitably happens when she is an old woman.  In stark contrast to this hopeless ending, the film adaptation first attempted the unhappy ending and tested it on audiences before the film’s release (Wilson).  The test audience did not enjoy the realistic unhappy ending, thus Schwentke altered the ending in order to keep audiences happy.  Instead of Clare waiting years to catch a glimpse of Henry, he appears in a meadow in front of their daughter, who sends her friends to tell Clare that Henry has materialized.  Clare runs to the meadow and the film ends with the couple sharing a kiss, in typical Hollywood fashion.  The change in the conclusion directly represents the need for archetypal Hollywood endings and implicates that Hollywood itself is primarily concerned more with ratings than with accurately re-telling an already established story.  Dudley Andrew states in his book ‘Concepts in Film Theory’ (Andrew, 1984) that theories in film adaptations are concerned mostly with “fidelity and transformation” (Andrew, 1984), that is, the transforming of a story from literary to visual modes and how loyal to the original the latter would be.  He continues “the task of adaptation is the reproduction in cinema of something essential about an original text” (Andrew, 1984).  The ‘essential’ features of ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ are the science fiction aspects of time travel and a relationship between the time traveller and his wife, whom he first meets when he is in his thirties, and her in adolescence.  These essentials are certainly present in the film as Andrews also states “The skeleton of the original can, more or less thoroughly, become the skeleton of the film” (Andrew, 1984).  The ‘skeleton’ of the initial story is portrayed in the film, however, it is portrayed as the whole film, with nothing “more or less” (Andrew, 1984).  Schwentke did not “transfer the original story to film as closely as possible” (John M. Desmond, 2006), as the basics of the story were not expanded, therefor, the film is simply the bare essential of the original story, giving evidence of a one dimensional nature intended to purely entertain masses.

The medium of film has been used to bring literary texts to life, and some are greatly anticipated if the text itself was a big enough success.  Niffenegger’s debut novel ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’  quickly become a global success, and so the film adaptation was anticipated for almost a decade.  The translated story has many alternations, as the original was a chaotic non-linear narrative while the film was constructed as a linear text.  These alterations are highly common among Hollywood films, along with simplification, as they are marketed to international audiences.  They require simple, often predictable plot lines, and as the original text of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’  was quite the opposite, much of the content was either deleted or distorted in some way.  In conclusion, while there are stories/narratives aptly translated into film, many bestsellers have been bought by Hollywood producers/directors in order to simplify and distort the narrative to appease and satisfy large audiences.  The clichéd ‘happy ending’ often associated with Hollywood films was inserted into Niffenegger’s text as her original ending was not deemed satisfactory.  Due to this and the numerous alterations to both the form and content, Schwentke and Hollywood alike, were unfaithful to the original text.

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Andrew, D. (1984). Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

John M. Desmond, P. J. (2006). Adaptation: studying film and literature. University of Michigan: McGraw-Hil.

Niffenegger, A. (2003). The Time Traveler’s Wife. A Harvest Book.

Schwentke, R. (Director). (2009). The Time Traveler’s Wife [Motion Picture].

Snyder, M. H. (2011). Analyzing Literature-to-Film Adaptations: A Novelist’s Exploration and Guide. Continuum International Publishing Group.

Wilson, S. L. (n.d.). A Series of Down Endings. Retrieved 04 06, 2013, from

Discussing Social and Political Movements within the Poetry of Eavan Boland and Adrienne Rich



Throughout the history of literature and poetry, social and political movements have influenced it greatly, having an impact on the readers, which assists the development of such movements.  Gender is a movement that has inspired many poets such as Eavan Boland and Adrienne Rich, who both took part in the Feminist Movement.  Feminist poetry is recognized as coming about in the 1960’s, a decade where many writers were challenging traditional notions of form and content in literature.  Many women writers at this time began to write about their own experiences.  The importance of using creative technique to discuss or analyse social and political movements is huge as it both develops awareness for the cause and interprets the opinions of the poet on the subject.  This essay will analyse how both poets express the expectation of gender roles in society through poetry and literature and the limits of that role.  Poetry is expression and with such turmoil and troubles within society it is no wonder poets have taken to writing about them, expressing themselves through their artistic language and imagination. 



While both Rich and Boland have written about feminist issues, they did so in two wholly different methods.  Eavan Boland is a feminist and a poet. But does not consider herself a feminist poet, yet her poetry, and some of her essays, have wielded feminine ideals and principles, such as ‘Listen.  This is the Noise of Myth’ and ‘Anna Liffey’.  Adrienne Rich writes with more force on the subject of feminism and gender.  Her more renowned poems are ‘Living in Sin’ and ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ which openly express her frustration at the role of women in relationships and the burden of the role they are given.


Eavan Bolan was born in Dublin in 1944, her earlier work is influenced by her experiences as a young Irish woman and soon developed to centre on her growing awareness of the distressed role of women in Irish culture and throughout history.  One such poem ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ does exactly this as it questions this gender role for women entwined with the stereotype of women in myths and legends.  In the beginning of the twentieth century, Ireland was not a country renowned for its progressive treatment of women’s rights.  Women were still being defined by their gender and were little regarded, both in the society and the political world.  The early poetic tradition was highly masculine as, for centuries, men had dominated the literature world.  Irish Poets wrote about the Irish experience through heroic and mythical circumstances, but the modern age brought female poets who channelled both heroic poetry and feminine style.  ‘Listen. This is the Noise of Myth’ tells of the journey ‘of a man and a woman…They are fugitives’.  The pair are running from something, but it is never revealed as to what they might be running from.  Throughout their excursions ‘through the Midlands and as Far West as they could go’ Boland examines the role of the female beside the male denying the legends that state that men are stronger than women.  Women have always been falsely accused of needing men to survive so in Boland’s poem, the female keeps her pace with the man, she does not complain or ask for help. She does not require the man with her to be her saviour. Image


While they rest ‘under a willow and beside a weir’ she leans in to the man, submissive to his masculinity.  Boland is using the invention of women as purely sexual beings to highlight myths that end with the woman giving into the male influence, surrendering her power.  Yet, is the woman only remembered for this submissive act, or is she also remembered for her journey with the man, where she was equally as strong as him?  Boland asserts that by doing the feminine role at the end of the journey, women have no hope of asserting their own power in society but more importantly, she is articulating that gender should not limit women to housewife and mothering roles.  They are equally as resilient as men.  Boland then goes on to declare that the couple making love and their journey, was a fabrication, ‘Invention. Legend. Myth’ saying ‘forgive me if I set the truth to rights.’   She develops this idea of the myth ‘Consider how the bereavements of the definite, are easily lifted from our heroine’.  By choosing to describe the girl as ‘Heroine’ she is removing the assumption that she is merely a sexual being, but has the ability to become a hero also, as the man then ‘becomes her lover’, submissing to her feminine power.   In denying that the couple took part in the journey Boland is considering the ways in which myths and legends are gendered against women. 


In ‘Object Lessons’ (Boland, 2006) Boland expresses the gender role placed on women in Irish society, Irish female writers in particular, arguing that women poets were obstructed twofold: one by the traditional ideas of femininity and poetry and two, by the demands of separatist feminism that demands women be true to the historical dispute which undermines the women’s movement (Maguire, 99).  She explains that after her marriage and subsequent move from the city to suburban Ireland “Ovens and telephones became images and emblems of the real world” however “it would be wrong, even now, to say that [her] poetry expressed the suburbs.  The more accurate version is that [her] poetry allowed [her] to experience the suburbs” (Boland, 2006, pp. 156-167).  Her poetry allowed her to express the domestic attributes of Irish women through the use of narration, imagination, tone, technique and language.  By communicating to readers the domestic life of women, she was exposing the importance of domestic women to society while simultaneously revealing the gendered expectations of women and uniting Irish women.   She states that “When a woman writer leaves the centre of a society, becomes a wife, mother and housewife, she ceases, automatically to be a member of that dominant class which she belonged to …chiefly as a writer…whatever her writing abilities, henceforth she ceases to be defined by them and becomes defined again instead by subsidiary female roles” (Boland, 2006, p. 251).   


Boland goes on to suggest that Irish female poets have inherited a dilemma that “is present, waiting and inescapable” (Boland, 2006, p. 239).  Voices inside the woman’s head disfigure and simplify ideas of womanhood while also questioning the interest in what she writes about.  This voice is named “The Romantic Heresy” (Boland, 2006, p. 242).  Women poets are a minority in literature and under the authority of romanticism, women have been marginalized by what is essentially, a patriarchal penchant.  The most important thing to Boland on the subject of female writers is that “Above all, it [poetry] encourages her to feminize her perceptions rather than humanize her femininity” (Boland, 2006, p. 245).  In both Boland’s poetry and essays she encapsulates the Irish woman writers experience alongside the experience of women throughout history.  She enforces the women’s movement by addressing domestic life and what it means to be female. 


Similarly, American poet Adrienne Rich writes about the female experience and the accepted gender roles designed by patriarchal society.  She explores the complex ideas of Western world with regard to women’s roles in society and their need for liberation.   Her poetry also highlights the experience of women within heterosexual relationships and ultimately disputes the roles limiting women.  ‘Living in Sin’ does precisely this, by portraying a couple who, although are not married, live together.  It is the woman in the relationship who does all the maintenance, she makes the bed and cleans the apartment.  She “pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top”.  The man with whom she shares the apartment appears to contribute little to the upkeep of the household: “Meanwhile, he, with a yawn, sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard, declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes”.  This portrays how a woman is being dominated and controlled by man purely because she is female.  She is expected to do the housekeeping and is not offered help.  Rich is emphasising the fundamental inequality of both marriage and heterosexual relations. 


The powerlessness of the woman in the situation is important and Rich wants to expose the female perspective.  She has no say in what the man does, unable to control him, like he controls her.  She is “jeered by the minor demons” of the relationship.  By taking this approach, Rich is giving a voice to women in similar circumstances, uniting, once again, women everywhere.  However, there is also a hint of power being implied unto the woman in regards to the milkman.  We know he is “relentless” in his job as he wakes the woman every morning coming up the stairs.  Following this she says “That morning light” which implies he offers her some sort of solace and hope for a brighter future.  He conjures notions of security and well-being, as in her present relationship all she offered is the expected role of the female gender, the housewife.  It is implied that there is a relationship between the woman and the milkman and by adding this to the poem, Rich is handing power back to the woman, by offering her a way out, or sanctuary from the present lover. 


Adrienne rich also deals with the notion of escape in ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ as Aunt Jennifer tries to survive her unhappy and submissive place in her marriage by creating art.  The tigers in the art created by Aunt Jennifer are beasts that demand respect and do not allow themselves to be victimised.  This demand for respect is something that Aunt Jennifer is incapable of doing for herself in her own marriage. She describes them as “Bright topaz denizens of a world of green“.  The use of colours implies that her tigers and their land are more energetic and they enjoy a sense of freedom far greater than she has presently. 


The second stanza deals with images of weight and heaviness, as Rich describes “The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band, Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand“.  This symbolizes the burden of her marriage and the weight it has on her psychological well-being.  She is victimized and controlled by her husband.  This is exposed when rich writes “Still ringed by the ordeals she was mastered by” which suggests she was mastered and oppressed by her marriage, but also her husband.  The second stanza also makes insinuations about the oppressive nature of men outside of the family.  Aunt Jennifer uses an ivory needle to sew the tigers, which comes from animals that are also controlled and dominated by men.  By bringing this subtly into the poem, Rich is addressing the domination of every aspect of life by patriarchal society.  They oppress women in the family by limiting their existence to the household, they dominate societal traditions, that also see women confined and they destroy animals for their own greedy needs.  Aunt Jennifer is the exact opposite of this, as she creates the tigers rather than destroying them.  Patriarchy is seen as an uncontrollable power of oppression that must be challenged. 


Although the tigers are masculine, they also possess the qualities of honourable men with “chivalric certainty”, which her husband is not.  The third stanza relates to the death of Aunt Jennifer and her existence after she is gone.  Although she is dead her “terrified hands will lie, Still ringed” which is suggestive of the fact that even in death, Jennifer will not escape her oppression, as she will continue to be tied to the uncle that “terrified” her.  It also implies that she could be shocked that she never challenged her husband, and will continue to be his long after she is gone.  The tigers, however, will always be hers, something she created that is strong and durable and will remain that way after she dies.  This is her legacy, as she dances “proud and unafraid” of the men beneath her, through the tigers.  


The idea of gender based roles in society is evident in both poems; Aunt Jennifer sews tigers, a gender based action associated with women and the narrator in ‘Living in Sin’ is filled with naïve dreams and hopes about love and rejecting social norms (Defoe, 2012).  She embarks on a journey with her lover, but her dreams are crushed when he places her in the domestic role of a woman, subjecting her to the very social tradition she was trying to escape.  Her works blend the personal with political aspects of life as she questions the restrictions placed on women within the family.  In ‘The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich’ (Keyes, 2008) Keyes says “In her early poems, Adrienne Rich accepts certain traditions associated with the divisions of power according to sex.  Later, Rich continually defines and redefines power until she can reject power-as-force (patriarchal power) for the power-to-transform, which for her is the truly significant and essential power”.   As Rich persistently redefined the nature of power, she is allowing readers to understand the context of her poetry, which is that feminism is something worth writing about and fighting for. 



Both Boland and Rich deal with similar themes in their poetry, which all come back to patriarchal society and how it restricts the role of women.  This can be understood in every aspect of the woman’s life, but the poets are also examining it in regards to female writers.  Both poets are intensely aware of the problematic associations and troubled place that women hold in Irish and American culture.  Boland writes about female experience to make an honest account of it, while Rich expresses frustration at the assuming and limited roles of women in the family.  Her poetry encompasses escapism through art as Aunt Jennifer sews tigers to distract herself from the burden of her marriage while the narrator from ‘Living in Sin’ exists in an artistic delusion of wine, cheese and music (“piano”) to escape the reality of her domesticated placement within the household.  Boland uses the opposite technique by examining the role of domesticated life as something that is important to all culture.  Without the women at home taking charge of herself, she has no power, she is simply taking on the role expected of her.  In her poem ‘Listen.  This is the Noise of Myth’ she rejects the desired role of women and instead creates a power of her own by allowing the female to become the heroine that compels the man to submit to her. 


With the poetry of both these women, women felt that they too had a voice and a cause to fight for.  They did not have to be submissive people subject to male authority, but self-aware women that had the capability to become the ‘heroine’.  By acknowledging the feminist movement through their poetry, Bolan and Rich increased awareness for the movement and allowed it to progress and develop rather than dissolve into something considered only in history. 



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Keyes, C. (2008). The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Georgia: University of Georgia Press.

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Wier, L. (1994). Post-Modernizing Gender: From Adrienne Rich to Judith Butler. In H. J. Radtke Lorraine, Power/Gender: Social relations in Theory and Practice. SAGE.