Ripley’s Shame: The Backsliding Feminism of the New Alien Movies

In 1979 director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon gave audiences the scare of a lifetime with Alien and a feminist action heroine with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. The blue-collar woman with ‘80s curls transformed into a kick-ass action heroine, a small step for women in a landscape that’s still male-dominated. Weaver’s character hasn’t arrived in either of Scott’s latest Alien movies — 2012’s Prometheus or 2017’s Alien: Covenant — and it’s doubtful Ripley would approve of how Scott and crew have taken a giant leap back to mankind.

Ellen Ripley isn’t a flawless feminist icon, and much criticism has been written since the Alien franchise’s heyday. Feminist scholars decry the need to feminize Ripley, whether through her mothering influences toward the cat in the first film and Newt in the second or (and more obviously) the camera pan of her in bra and panties as a need to sexualize her. But it’s important to remember that, in 1979, the sci-fi genre had always been remarkably male driven. The few female characters in sci-fi films were wives or girlfriends stuck firmly on Earth. Those actually in space, such as Anne Francis’ Altaira in 1956’s Forbidden Planet, were sexualized prizes for the male astronauts, a savage in need of civilizing by marriage.

As John Scalzi wrote in 2011, “Ripley isn’t a fantasy version of a woman.” Because of Ellen Ripley, for good and ill, the cosmic landscape has become a more habitable place for female characters. Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone in Gravity and Jessica Chastain’s ship commander Melissa Lewis in The Martian wouldn’t exist without Ripley as a guidepost. Which is why Scott’s current white male depiction of feminism is so frustrating.

Prior to deconstructing the film properly, it’s necessary to discuss the presumed intent of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Both films imply a “woke” mentality towards feminism. When Prometheus was released, the studio squabbled with Scott and lead actress Noomi Rapace about a scene where Elizabeth Shaw has an alien surgically removed from her stomach, presenting itself as a thinly veiled abortion allegory. A similar thread runs through Alien: Covenant involving the implantation of unwanted embryos, albeit in a less graphic and penetrative manner.

It’s laughable not to expect women in space and in prominent leadership positions by 2017, let alone 2104, when Alien: Covenant is set. The director is aware of this. But there’s a distinction between having women present and placing them in the same capacity as Ellen Ripley. In Scott’s Alien, Ripley is a Warrant Officer who has a mutual rapport with the ship’s captain, played by Tom Skerritt. When she talks, respect is demanded even if it’s not adhered to, a problem that shows the stupidity of the men around her as opposed to a slight against her character.

In both Prometheus and Covenant, the Ripley analogs, Rapace’s Shaw and Katherine Waterston’s Daniels have defined positions but no real purpose within the narrative. Shaw’s a scientist who discovers the cave paintings that bring the characters into space, but the majority of her screen time is spent dealing with her significant other’s transformation after being attacked by the alien creature. Daniels is even more ill-defined, second in command to the captain, but outside of being overridden in the decision to stop at the signaling planet — a decision she rightfully says is bad — there aren’t any other significant moments of her in power. Daniels and Shaw survive as part of a group, as opposed to Ripley’s final girl, with a backhanded need to keep one man alive for “equality” that ultimately leaves both female characters incapable of surviving on their own.

Ripley’s final girl status didn’t necessitate the need for a male love interest, one of the bigger backslides the new franchise takes. Where Ripley was the foil to the “monstrous mother” that was the Xenomorph (a term coined by Lynda K. Bundzten in 1987), Shaw and Daniels are both unmoored by a “widowing.” Daniels loses her husband in the opening scene. It’s the first thing audiences know about her, and with no indications of her past that don’t include her husband, there’s little proof that her agency doesn’t live and die with him. This is certainly a slight uptick from Shaw, who is hobbled at every turn by her boyfriend, right down to questioning whether to have a child she knows is an alien purely because it was delivered to her via sleeping with him. Each case shows women as only reacting to trauma through being alone without a male counterpart, whereas Ripley reacted to the trauma by using her inherent strength to survive.

These issues aren’t exclusive to the main heroines, though because they are set up as Ripley alternatives it’s easier to discern. Alien: Covenant’s views of marriage end up being detrimental to all the female characters. Two women die immediately once the crew reaches the alien planet. The fact that these women die first, with the majority of the third act being dominated by men, presents them as disposable figures. Furthermore, the male characters refer to the females exclusively as “my wife,” hardly ever referring to them by name, reiterating an out-of-touch 1950s connection between marriage and property. Complicating matters further is the nature of pattern. These issues are a continuation of problems established in Prometheus. Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was a cold ice princess with an Elektra complex who could only prove she wasn’t a robot by having sex with a man. Alien: Covenant’s problems are building on a series of missteps that degrade the pedestal Ellen Ripley is standing on.

If the Alien franchise is to continue, it would behoove Scott and his screenwriters to pare down their cast. Leave the female as the final girl or, if the intention to leave a pair alive, consider making it two women as opposed to a woman and a man, which leaves the question of “repopulation” hanging in the air. There’s no reason for the female to lack a relationship, but show proof of action and agency that don’t involve the spouse’s death or deterioration. It’s not enough to be aware of feminism and thus gender-swap by putting a woman in power. One must allow the woman to wield that power of her own free will — something Daniels and the rest of the Covenant women aren’t able to do.

Kristen Lopez lives among Xenomorphs in Sacramento.