Great Characters: Ellen Ripley (The "Alien" series)

December 3rd, 2010 by

Simply one of the best Protagonists in cinema history.  Ever.  Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the movie Alien (screenplay by Dan O’Bannon, story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett) is smart, tough, and riveting to watch.  And in Aliens (screenplay by James Cameron, story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill) we see all that toughness challenged not only by monsters, but by something Ripley struggles with on a deeply emotional level: her maternal instincts.

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And all this, per the legend, in a role that began as a man.  That right there speaks to what I think is one of the most fascinating aspects of Ripley’s character: the amazing range of her transformation over the four Alien movies.  Sigourney Weaver herself talks about that here:

I think what attracted me to Ellen Ripley was she… first of all, a character that was written as a man.  So it was written in a very straight-forward way, a kind of direct person where she didn’t have these scenes where she’s suddenly vulnerable, she didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone to save her.  She was a thinking, moving, deciding creature.  I think that was the other thing that interested me.  She went from someone who believed the world was a certain way to someone who couldn’t believe in anything anymore.  And went from someone who’s sort of a thinking person to someone who’s kind of an instinctive animal, so there’s lots of progressions in the character that I thought would be interesting to play.

You want a feel for those “progressions,” check out this video compilation of all the different Ripleys from from all the different Alien movies:

Believe it or not, there is even a book on the subject: Gallardo, Ximena C. and C. Jason Smith. Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley. New York: Continuum, 2004. 241 p.  Here is some commentary on the book:

Gallardo and Smith’s Alien Woman examines Ripley as a product of the ongoing construction of sex and gender in the four films. In their introductory material, the two point out that before Ripley, women in science fiction were primarily plot devices, typically undermined if they exercised any power whatsoever or showed themselves to be more than window dressing. The character created by Weaver and directors Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, however, is “born of the long and uncomfortable association between science fiction and horror… [combining] the survivor of slasher with the heroic astronaut of science fiction.” Like many women before her, her scenes include “the requisite running and sweating, but she substitutes the shrieking of her predecessors for some understandable swearing, and, in the end, she vanquishes her foe on her own.” In fact, according to Gallardo and Smith, Ripley stands alone as the enduring, self-reliant female protagonist of science fiction film.

But the beauty of their study is the evolution of the character from her introduction in 1979, to her demise in 1992 and resurrection as a clone in 1997. The authors point out how each director, along with his team of writers, had to reconsider the idea of the strong female protagonist, in light of the social, political, and cultural imperatives of the times. As such, Alien Woman can be seen as highly focused lens, through which, by viewing the changing idea of “a woman’s place” and “women’s roles” in one particular case study, readers can extrapolate a larger picture of both women in society and in science fiction.

But perhaps the Wikipedia entry for Ellen Ripley sums it up best:

Ellen Ripley is a fictional character and the main protagonist of the Alien film series played by American actress Sigourney Weaver. The character was heralded as a seminal role for challenging gender stereotypes, particularly in the science fiction genre, and remains Weaver’s most famous role to date.

In 2003, Ripley was selected by the American Film Institute as the eighth greatest hero in American cinema history on their 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains list. Entertainment Weekly called the character “one of the first female movie characters who isn’t defined by the men around her, or by her relationship to them”.

Challenging gender stereotypes.  Not defined by the men around her.  All because someone had the bright idea to turn a guy into a gal.

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That may be the biggest single lesson screenwriters can take from Ripley’s character: to take our own characters and explore their female or male aspects.  Or even gender-bend them.

Let’s see more great female characters like Ellen Ripley.

9 thoughts on “Great Characters: Ellen Ripley (The "Alien" series)

  1. Atlanta says:

    Safe to say Alien would pass the Bechdel Test! I adore Ellen Ripley, and Weaver seems so fabulous in real life too, what a wonderful intersection of events and people, that gave us Ripley.

    So Sarah Connor good one too, though her run shorter and impact smaller, and she certainly would fail any meta bechdel test (as her lady parts are responsible for her role).

  2. James says:

    Ripley wasn't originally written as a woman. The original ALIEN script is not gender specific.

    I believe this to be a LARGE portion of why Ripley is such a good female protagonist. Because she is just a good character, despite gender. (Something I think your average exec can't wrap their head around).

    As for Sarah Connor — not a single doubt in my mind that James Cameron based a large chunk of her off Ripley. I mean, he was writing ALIENS at the same time as TERMINATOR. His Ripley and T2 Sarah Connor are remarkably similar.

    That Bechdel Test is somewhat flawed. By design, one of the limiting factors is that you MUST have 2 females in the film. This means any film that only has 1 female is automatically disqualified. Yet, films with only a single male are can both pass the Misogynistic test as well as the Bechdel one.

    The Bechdel Test really is more of a snarky joke and stab at Hollywood than any hard and fast rule about female protagonists.

    By the Bechdel Test, Princess Leia fails. Sarah Connor almost does as well — her roommate and her only talk about boys. Lucky she has female co-workers, right? "You're dead, honey." What a woman empowering sentiment :p

  3. Atlanta says:

    You're so right about flawed, James. A casual smart observation turned crude measuring stick. That there's talking is good I think (doing even better, shout-out Jolie re Wanted and Salt).

    After thinking about Bechdel earlier, came across this (screenwriter talking about BT). Nothing happy, so then I visited Ebert for some new movie happy, and his journal post was even less happy.

    Two conversations between chicks on TV that really struck me, Closer with Brenda and internal affairs woman on day Brenda's being considered for Chief (two very different women bonding for the empowerment of all women), and Burn Notice with Fiona rescuing a woman (explaining you have to be your own white knight) (the fabulous writer was Lisa Joy, a student of Scott). Both moments were so wonderfully done–and felt like genuine fresh TV viewing.

  4. Scott says:

    James and Atlanta: The Bechdel Test, which I've posted about here and here, does have its flaws, but I guess whatever can cause a writer, producer, exec or whoever to expand their consciousness re female roles, the better.

    As a writer, I would rather the inspiration was a creative one, rather than some sort of external onus laid upon us. Simply out of curiosity, approach a story where you gender-bend some roles — to see what happens. What if Cogburn in "True Grit" was a female? You can extrapolate the core of that and evolve it into a 'similar but different' movie.

    Actually not a bad idea…

  5. Scott says:

    Oh, I forgot. Thanks for those links, Atlanta. Very interesting.

  6. Atlanta says:

    Thanks for reposting links to your Bechdel and Kesler/Hathor posts, Scott! Wonderful reads, much appreciated.

    Tomb Raider Lara Croft btw began as a boy but got changed to a girl when the makers realized looking at a chick's behind (view while playing) a whole lot funner. I'll take that reason, and any other, for moving in the right direction.

    Would love to see True Grit with woman lead! May someone be running with that idea. I think smart writers are key, and I am particularly grateful to smart women writers like Lisa Joy and Gail Simone (comic books, Secret Six amazing series thanks to her, and she also breathed entirely new life into a super hero woman, Power Girl, who was known before only for her impressive keyhole cleavage).

    My sweetest link find of the week, 2011 TED Prize Winner, JR, here the mini-documentary talking about him and showing work (have some tissue nearby, or is that just me that cries at beautiful art and people).

  7. Scott says:

    Re Lisa Joy: Lisa took two of the first online screenwriting classes I taught. At the time, she was just graduating with a B.A. from Stanford. I believe she then went to work at Universal in their legal department which somehow helped defray costs for her to go to Harvard Law School. Throughout her law school years, we stayed in touch. Lisa kept saying she wanted to be a writer. I kept saying, "You have the talent to do it. But screenwriting and TV writing is extremely competitive. Get that law degree just in case."

    If you can imagine, while going to Harvard Law School, Lisa somehow found the time to keep writing. She sent me a very funny comedy she co-wrote with, I presume, a fellow student.

    Then she graduated and landed a gig doing corporate law in LA. Still yearning to be a writer. All I could do was to keep encouraging her.

    Lisa wrote a spec "Veronica Mars." It landed in the hands of Bryan Fuller who was just launching the ABC series "Pushing Daisies." Lisa met with Bryan. He hired her. She quit law. And is now a successful TV writer as well as graphic novelist.

    I invited Lisa to speak to one of my classes in LA a few years back. She said something I thought was profound. She told my students, "You have to think of yourself as a professional writer. Treat how you approach your writing that way. You will get more done, your writing will be better, and you'll be preparing yourself for when you finally succeed."

    I can't tell you how much joy I get when one of my students goes on to find success as a writer. And I expect great things from Lisa.

  8. Atlanta says:

    What a wonderful story, Scott, thank you so much for sharing. And agreed on profound. Louis Pasteur put it nicely too, "luck favors the prepared."

    It's fabulous that Joy is so darn hard-working and talented and has a great mentor, we all benefit on multiple levels from the great work she produces. May she be busy for a long time to come.

  9. [...] the gender of the characters. Ripley’s role could have easily been filled by that of a man, and that’s how it was written. The end result was just a badass collection of characters, free from preconceived notions of how [...]

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