Forty Years Ago, Alien Gave Us the First Female Action Hero

Pop Culture

Forty Years Ago, Alien Gave Us the First Female Action Hero

Illustration: Arati Gujar

As a science nerd, my childhood was defined by the intense urge to devour anything science-fictional comic books, cartoons, novels, films anything that extrapolated the dry, dusty concepts in our S Chands and Ratna Sagars into kaleidoscopic visions of the future, parallel universes, and extraterrestrials. But here’s the thing about science-fiction: it was, and still is, gatekept by men. How many of us remember our female friends talking about spaceships and death lasers?

This is not to say that women are not interested in or suited to the genre; in fact, the first sci-fi novel is widely agreed to be Frankenstein (1818), the idea for which first appeared in a teenage girl’s lucid dream. But when it became known that the anonymous author was Mary Shelley (a woman! egad!) several critics bashed the novel on the specific grounds that I paraphrase women should remain sweet and gentle and not imagine such grotesque nightmares. Even so, women have always been at the core of sci-fi creation, from the utterly masterful Ursula K Le Guin to the equally vibrant Margaret Atwood. And when it comes to cinema, we cannot have a conversation about the mothers of science fiction without mentioning a seminal character, a maternal force in her own right, Ellen Ripley from the classic film Alien.

I first discovered the movie while rummaging in the back of my parents’ VHS drawer for something non-Disney to watch. I was nine, it was summer, I was alone at home, and I found an old tape just mysterious and creepy enough to stimulate a whirlwind of childlike fantasy. “If it’s called Alien, there must be cool spaceships and fighting and guns,” I thought to myself, unprepared for what was to come two hours of screaming myself hoarse, turning on all the lights (in the middle of the day), developing a jittery fear of jumping spiders, and refusing to sleep in my own bed for months. Trauma is the word. But so is awesome. And horrifying and brilliant and bizarre and stupendous and disgusting and wonderful. Because Alien is all these things, and also none of them.  

When the movie released in 1979, it was billed as a haunted house set in space. It was, in many ways, given all the uterine mazes and ducts, brooding ghostly atmosphere, unfamiliar terrain, distorted anatomies, and the vicious villain. These horror cliches, however, weave together an elaborate masterpiece; a keystone of cinematic sci-fi buttressed against the overwhelming tides of superior CGI, higher production budgets, and warring superheroes. And it has endured for 40 years.

And it is in Alien that we see, for the first time, a competent woman take charge of a situation that necessitates brute force.

The last decade has finally seen female figures exhibit heroic qualities. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are the tip of the iceberg; the road to their entry into pop culture has not been easy, and was paved by women who received far less adulation. And it is in Alien that we see, for the first time, a competent woman take charge of a situation that necessitates brute force. Ellen Ripley, played by the previously unknown Sigourney Weaver, becomes the real hero. And she doesn’t do this by playing tropified, oversexualised women who take down a battalion of enemies without a single hair out of place. Ripley is/was real. She breaks social norms aimed at controlling women: she stands atop the ship’s hierarchy, working with her hands, fighting with guns and flamethrowers, taking on the monster with her subordinates, and subsequently by herself. Ripley and the Xenomorph are opposing binaries: Bright Angel and Stalking Evil, Rama and Ravana, St. Michael and the Dragon.

To some, this might be problematic as it envisions her character through macho stereotypes, but to me she subverts them. She is both anal about her job and pleasant, bloody and compassionate, bossy and exhausted, grimy and intelligent, angry and funny, but most importantly, affixed with a determination to protect and care for those around her. She projects both masculine and feminine, mother and father, delicate nymph and battle-hardened warrior. Her first scene is iconic: she is seen hibernating in a pod, a delectable vision for the carnivorous male gaze, but as the movie goes on she gets progressively less “womanly” while losing none of her magnetic charisma.

Here is where we return to the start, where I had asked, half-wondering, why the girls and women in our lives don’t seem overly interested in sci-fi. The dearth in the genre is not of one of creation, but of portrayal. We have innumerable (though still not enough) female sci-fi writers and filmmakers, but so few women protagonists, and even fewer who can manage predicaments with assurance and fortitude (and without resorting to a nearby man).

Where men in sci-fi tend to see themselves as wielding enormous power, women wield enormous strength

Gender plays a crucial role in art. Where men in sci-fi tend to see themselves as wielding enormous power, women wield enormous strength. And there is a difference. Male action heroes often share traits with the Xenomorph: aggression, vengefulness, cold logic, rejection of tenderness/emotional displays (disregarding romance; it’s only squeezed in to supposedly convince women to watch action movies). On the contrary, Ripley is the embodiment of the Biblical phrase “justice must be tempered with mercy”, in that she is as badass as the boys, but compassionate and tender when called for.

Alien may have been the first of its kind in many ways not least in terms of artwork, set design, visual effects, or even the sheer scope of imagination — but the real victory here was the germination of Ellen Ripley. Her character is so provocative and influential that it radiates a beacon of possibility for women everywhere to see their inner fantasies sprout and flower within their own stories, never again to be just an afterthought in a male narrative.

Ellen Ripley is in no uncertain terms the first action heroine. But instead of righteous anger, she exhibits benevolence, giving of herself until there is nothing left to give. She has fought many monsters in many sequels: saved innocent children (Aliens, 1986), sacrificed her life to protect others (ALIEN3), and even unwillingly murdered her adorably disgusting half-Xenomorph child to save humanity (Alien: Resurrection). There is only one word for women who put everyone’s needs before their own: Mother.