In Alien (1979), a seven-member crew of the Nostromo sets down on LV-426 where they encounter an unidentified alien life form. Lieutenant Ellen Ripley is amongst that crew.

Spoiler alert: she will be the sole survivor.

Since dubbed by many to be the “first action heroine,” Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) went on to be the central figure in four three (that we care about) major sci-fi films and spawned a franchise that has spanned nearly four decades now. Authoritative, collected, quick-witted, maternal—she is perpetually multi-dimensional. Her portrayal inarguably changed the landscape for female leads, particularly in both sci-fi and horror movies (see most recently Edge of Tomorrow, Underworld, and Mad Max: Fury Road). She’s been celebrated as a gun-toting badass and lauded as an archetypal mother, and yet none of these reductions truly encapsulate what makes Ripley such an iconic and powerful character, which might be attributed to an even simpler fact: she’s a real woman.

Ripley is not defined by super-human strength or speed, and she has no remarkable survival skills to speak of. She repeatedly displays frustration at having her decisions overridden, incredulity at having her warnings ignored, and persistent terror (presumably of the multi-fanged Xenomorph with molecular acid for blood). But it’s her perseverance in the face of these many combined challenges that make her so tangible to viewers. She’s never just fighting for survival against an alien. She’s at war with a global corporation for control of her life and her own body. She’s challenged at every turn despite her knowledge and experience. It’s Ripley’s sheer force of will to maintain control of who she in the face of these more contemporarily recognizable demons that have kept her so alluring nearly 40 years later.

Any of us might be Ripley.

The Emergence of a Hero

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What defines Ripley from the moment we meet her is her collectedness and shrewd problem-solving. While several crew members are exploring the downed ship of the space jockey, Ripley is on board the shuttle asking Mother, the Nostromo’s AI computer system, to decode the “SOS message” that awakened the crew from hyper sleep early, a detail that often gets overlooked in explorations of Ripley’s character. She isn’t idling while the others are poking around an alien ship but instead questioning the premise her other crewmates have already accepted. Her initiative is telling, and indeed, she unveils a partial message that will later help her piece together who is ultimately behind “Special Order 937,” rendering the crew expendable.

When a frightened Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) makes to re-board the Nostromo with the injured (erm… facehugged) crew member Kane (John Hurt), Ripley hesitates and asks what has happened to Kane. Dallas shouts at Ripley to open the shuttle’s doors, telling her Kane could die. She stoically responds, “If we break quarantine, we could all die.” He protests again, demanding she admit them to the ship. She calmly responds, “Yes. I read you. The answer is negative.”

She never even raises her voice.

That collectedness punctuates Weaver’s performance of Ripley across each film. Coupled with that is Ripley’s inherent quick-thinking. After the Xenomorph has torn a few people to pieces, Ripley emerges as the leader of ragged, shell-shocked crew. It’s Ripley who sets Lambert and Parker to work after Dallas’ death in Alien. Ripley’s the one who calms Hudson’s meltdown in Aliens and sets the marines to work barricading and reinforcing their position from the onslaught of Xenomorphs. And it’s Ripley who, in Alien 3, left with no weapons and no means for escape, develops the idea to lure the final xenomorph into a lead trap.

Perhaps these aren’t the moments that first come to mind when one thinks of Ripley. She’s often depicted wielding her iconic M41A pulse rifle or strapped into the power loading exoskeleton she uses to defeat the Queen xenomorph in Aliens. But it’s this contrast between her cool head and unbridled fury that make those moments all the more powerful. She is not one to lose control of herself. She is not overrun by her own fear. She wields her talents in the most effective way possible while remaining true to who she is—smart, shrewd, and direct. She is neither the damsel in distress, shrieking in horror as Lambert does in Alien nor the hard-charging warrior seeking destruction like Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) in Aliens. Instead, she encapsulates both—sometimes fearful, other times incredibly brave. It’s this combination of attributes that makes her so very real to us.

The Feminine Redefined

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Much has been made of H.R. Giger’s iconic set and alien designs in the film franchise. They’ve been described as industrial, Lovecraftian, and at times, Freudian. Some would claim it’s filled with varying degrees of both phallic and vaginal imagery. To compound that interpretation, David McIntee, author of Beautiful Monsters, has described the movies as a “rape movie with male victims,” seemingly referring to the oral penetration and impregnation of parasites the xenomorph’s victims suffer.

But to depict the Alien franchise as a story of male rape or a depiction of gendered horror reduces its ferocity and female empowerment to…another story about men. Ripley appeals to an audience of men and women alike, not because she is particularly maternal or uncharacteristically masculine for a woman, but because she is so universally human. What’s most remarkable about her character is her seemingly impervious moral compass. She fights to live, but never at the expense of those around her. She risks her own life for that of her crew, a cat, a squad of marines, a young girl, a colony of prisoners, and in the end, humanity. She is capable of achieving these ends not through any cunning or trickery, but because her own endurance and aptitude is what she consistently relies on for her own survival. Ripley’s appeal as a feminist icon is that she is truly self-reliant.

It’s tempting to view Ripley as the preeminent mother archetype. Aliens changed the narrative, depicting her as a mother torn by loss when she learns of her daughter’s death, only two years earlier. Newt (Carrie Henn), the sole survivor of the Hadley’s Hope colony on LV-426, seemingly serves as a sort of surrogate daughter, since we see a relatively new tenderness emerge in Aliens’ Ripley. But this is not as easy as a mother-daughter narrative. That, again, is too reductive. Newt is, in many ways, a reiteration of Ripley. Their bond is built on Ripley’s seeing how capable and self-reliant Newt truly is.

When Newt tries to warn the marines they’re outmatched, she’s ignored. She tells Ripley it won’t make a difference [against the xenomorphs] that they’re soldiers, and later advises them to seek shelter before nightfall. She’s right, of course, and it isn’t until the remaining survivors take to the airshafts Newt navigates so well that they finally escape the onslaught. This isn’t to say Newt doesn’t need Ripley or the others, but that their bond is forged over more than simply inherent female-ness some sense of basic maternal instinct. They are survivors, recognizing in one another a kind of capability that allows them to depend on one another.

The Larger Enemy

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Beyond the immediate danger posed by the Xenomorph to Ripley and her counterparts in each film, there exists the ever-looming threat of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The arc of the Alien trilogy is as much about Ripley denying “The Company” control over her body and her life as it is eliminating the existence of the xenomorph.

Ash’s betrayal in Alien sparks a sub-plot that coalesces across the films in the utter betrayal of humanity by The Company. Their agents will stop at nothing to recover a living Xenomorph specimen for their bio-weapons division, an outcome Ripley is prepared to sacrifice her life to prevent. In Aliens, Burke (Paul Reiser) sends colonists looking for the Xenomorph and secretly tries to ensure Ripley or Newt is impregnated to guarantee the creature is obtained. In Alien 3, the Company outright ignores the prisoners’ distress call until learning of the Xenomorph’s survival. Thus, Weyland-Yutani has been as much a driving threat in Ripley’s life as the Xenomorph itself.

If Cameron’s Aliens can be viewed as the original touched up with more firepower and grit, Fincher’s Alien 3 is a stripping down of the first film. It is less-than-ever about the survival of the Fury’s inhabitants, and more about the final faceoff between Ripley and the Company that has controlled her fate for much of her life. Ripley chooses the certainty of death over even the remote possibility the Company might betray her and keep the Queen incubating inside her. This is a new resignation we hadn’t seen in Ripley before, not when there was even when her chances of survival were at their most dire.

When you have no weapons, defenses, or means of escape, what are you left with? Ripley has a choice. Her choice. When every other means of survival is stripped from her, she resorts to using the only tool she has left—her own free will. She will not be owned by The Company.

To truly appreciate Ripley as a feminist heroine, it’s critical to remember she does not succeed because she is a woman or mother. It isn’t firepower or combat skills either. It’s her own wit, self-reliance, and survivalist resolve that empower her. At the conclusion of Aliens, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) says to Ripley, “Nice job, for a human.” This is perhaps one of the highest moments of praise she receives in the films because it acknowledges all that she encapsulates. Ultimately it’s her multi-faceted portrayal that makes her so real and still so recognizable after nearly four decades.

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