A Bechdel test rating for movies has just been approved by the Swedish government, I finally have the chance the catch a screening of the hyped sci-fi epos Gravity tonight and Halloween is just around the corner - what better to write about these days than one of the coolest female characters that has ever kicked cinematic asses, first appearing in 1979s groundbreaking sci-fi/ horror flick Alien?
Ellen Ripley is not just an awesome female action hero - she is the epitome of the strong, layered, female main character. In May, Total Film magazine picked her as the #1 Hero of all time, outperforming 49 other (mainly male) characters such as runners up James Bond, Indiana Jones and Han Solo. At that time, I hadn't seen a single one of the Alien films - in fact I had never heard very much about them, nor the badass performance by Sigourney Weaver. But I'm not the person who will watch a movie the minute they hear praise about it, even though I did put Alien very high on my watchlist. Things are crowded up there however, so it should take more than 6 months for me to finally catch up with the Alien franchise.
The first installment in the series, Alien, left me completely awestruck. Could this truly be from the hands of the same Ridley Scott that made Robin Hood and A Good Year - two movies that I don't have anything in particular against, but that really did nothing new for me? I'd had similar feelings when watching Blade Runner shortly before, so I'm seeing Scott from a totally new perspective today. Same goes for Weaver. Of course, I knew her face from tabloids and general pop cultural exposure, but the only thing that I remembered actually seeing her in was Avatar. Her character in that, Grace, is remarkably similar to that of Ellen Ripley in Alien(s) and you can make of that what you want. At any rate, she was the best thing about the movie apart from the 3D, I just have the feeling that she's being reduced to what she became famous for - although playing kick-ass action heroines perhaps isn't the worst stereotype in the world. It's just a bit sad that she's one of those actors/ actresses that are recognized, but you haven't actually seen them in anything lately. However, I'll be happy to be wrong about this, perhaps I'm not watching the right things - if that's the case, please do let me know.
So then 30-year old Sigourney Weaver became a star over night with her portrayal of smart, cool-headed Ripley in Alien - but even before that, just landing the role was a big success for the young actress. Initially, the script featured a male character instead of a female - think Alan Ripley instead of Ellen - but Weaver had the courage to audition and landed the role; the female action hero was born. Isn't it sad then, that in my experience of watching Alien and Aliens, the character of Ripley still felt very uncommon and how surprised I was by what I saw, as compared to my expectations for a "female-driven action franchise"? First of all, I hadn't expected Ripley to look the way she did, especially in the first film. She was a beauty, but natural-looking. Lean and fit, but very feminine. Neither your shouting, sexy commandant nor your quiet nerd. To keep a long story short: everything about her was mesmerizing and absolutely perfect. I had no intention whatsoever to move my eyes from the screen at any moment she occupied it.
In Aliens, the sequel to Alien directed by James Cameron, Ripley becomes more determined and aware of her strengths - as well as discovering her maternal instincts. Reading this before I had seen the movies, I sensed a contradiction in that development but really, there aren't any. The characters matures just like a woman would do in real life, where (I've heard) insecurities and self-doubts diminish over time, just like you will discover your abilities and instincts as a mother (-figure). These are very general terms and certainly don't apply to every woman, and I personally don't have much experience to draw from here, but I do think this is a logical and realistic development of a female character. I couldn't say that I prefer any of the two Ripleys by this time - I can relate more to the younger one, but for the same reason I also admire the older one more. She knows how to handle weapons, values other people's lives more than her own and basically saves the world (or a world). Those are all admirable abilities, and while young Ripley does have them to some extent, older Ripley is the one who is brilliant at them.
Still, Ellen Ripley represents an exception in the film world, more so than in literature where there's a fast-growing amount of quality female-driven action(-ish) stories, at least in the YA genre. If you take a look at all the lists of "Best Movie Heroes", "Best Action Heroes" or "Best Movie Characters", the amount of female characters in these is frustrating. I'm not a feminist in the traditional sense of the word; I think there are considerable differences between the male and the female sex, and that we do not by any means share all the same strengths and weaknesses. But why not celebrate these differences that exist, highlight what there is to highlight on both sides, explore what there is to explore. Men and women should have the same chances, and though I don't think pop culture can change society - it is, after all, a reflection of its morals and prejudices - I believe that it can offer food for thought and exemplify new perspectives. In a nutshell: we need more Ellen Ripleys.