My near life-long love of Ellen Ripley began with a VCR, and a federal offense committed by my mother.
In 1985, my parents cashed in an old insurance policy and used it to buy their very first VCR, a $350 shiny new silver Panasonic. It was a technological marvel with its colored buttons—green for play, blue for stop, red for record—and a remote control attached by a cord that was never long enough to reach any of our furniture (though it was the first remote controlled device we owned, so still magnificent). Every Friday we would rent a large stack of tapes from the local rental store in our tiny, southern Iowa town and watch films like Sixteen Candles, The Terminator, and The Karate Kid all weekend. We were a farm family in a remote area and had only four local channels on our TV, half of them snowy most of the year; the VCR opened a whole new world of entertainment for us.
Eventually, my mother saved more money (probably loose change she kept in a Pringles can) and bought a second, cheaper cassette player, and figured out how to run a complex network of cables from the player to the VCR to the TV to record all our rented movies onto blank tapes, amassing an impressive—and highly illegal—video library we could watch over and over. Sometime in 1986, she recorded the movie Aliens, the second installment of the Alien franchise starring Sigourney Weaver, and my 11-year-old self fell in love with my first feminist hero.
By then, VCR manufacturers had caught on to amateur pirates like my mother who blatantly ignored the stern FBI warning at the start of every home rental movie, and installed a technology that detected when a tape was being recorded and triggered an intermittent darkening and lightening of the screen every few seconds to discourage recording. Our bootleg copy of Aliens had the light/dark technology on it, rendering some scenes almost unviewable, but it was no matter to me. I still watched and re-watched it upwards of a hundred times throughout my adolescence, and at one point even recorded all of Ripley’s best lines with an audio cassette recorder so I could memorize them.
I had already seen the first movie in the series, the classic 1979 Ridley Scott-directed Alien, about a commercial spaceship called the Nostromo that gets diverted to a desolate planetoid by a mysterious signal. While exploring the planetoid, the crew discovers a derelict alien ship and brings the alien species onto their ship when one of the parasites attaches itself to a crew member’s face—a move warrant officer Ellen Ripley (played by then-newcomer Sigourney Weaver) objects to because it breaks company quarantine rules, but is subsequently ignored. Sure enough, Ripley’s proven right when the parasite lays eggs and hatches an alien that grows rapidly and begins to kill the crew members off one by one until she’s the lone survivor by the end of the film (along with her cat, Jones). I mostly remembered the famous scene where the alien bursts out of a man’s chest during dinner and for being the movie where a woman is the unexpected heroine at the end, but it didn’t leave an impression on me beyond those two points.
A surprise R-rated hit in 1986, the more testosterone-pumped sequel Aliens was likely never intended to become an iconic cinematic feminist example. 20th Century Fox originally requested that pre-Terminator director James Cameron write Ellen Ripley out of the script due to a pay dispute with Weaver, who rightfully held out for more money after the success of Alien, where she was paid only $35,000. But Cameron recognized the importance of her character and advocated for Ripley to stay in the script. The studio eventually relented, paying Weaver $1 million for Aliens, almost 30 times more than she made for the first film. Still, it was only half of what male action stars made the same year, with stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger earning $2 million for Commando and Sylvester Stallone making $16 million for Rambo II, even though Weaver’s role was just as physically demanding, and she’s arguably a better actor in the film, as underscored by her unprecedented Academy Award nomination for an action hero role.
In Aliens, Ripley awakens aboard a medical space station orbiting Earth after 57 years spent drifting through deep space in hyper sleep following her escape from the first alien encounter and deliberate destruction of the Nostromo. After her rescue, her account of what happened on the Nostromo is roundly doubted by the Weyland-Yutani company officials—the employer that had already betrayed her in the first film—and she’s stripped of her warrant officer status, professionally reducing her career to running cargo bay loaders. It’s also revealed that she had a daughter she was trying to support and return to in the first film who has since passed during the years Ripley’s ship floated undetected through space. To add insult to injury, she learns that the planetoid from Alien is now home to a terraforming colony known as LV-426 that houses hundreds of families who’ve never once been pestered by these hostile “Xenomorph” aliens she described in her debriefing.
But not long after she settles into her new loading dock job, still battling extreme PTSD symptoms from her alien encounter, contact with the colony is mysteriously lost, and Ripley is asked to accompany a squad of colonial Marines to help investigate as a consultant in exchange for reinstating her warrant officer status. After first refusing and being shamed for her demotion and lingering PTSD symptoms by Carter Burke, a Special Projects Director at Weyland-Yutani, she reluctantly agrees to travel back to LV-426. Again, when she attempts to painfully recount her experience on the Nostromo, the Marine squad and their leader, Lt. Gorman, interrupt and disregard her. Once the squad arrives at the colony, though, they discover the colonists are indeed missing after a seemingly violent fight, with the exception of a little girl named Newt, who makes it clear the marines will be no match for whatever the colonists encountered, and with whom Ripley quickly bonds.
For me, it’s during the scenes in the middle of the film where Ellen Ripley becomes the iconic Ripley whose character legacy still stands as a culturally important feminist artifact. When the Marines find the cocooned colonists serving as human incubators for the Xenomorph’s offspring, with Ripley, Gorman, and Burke watching on a live feed, the adult aliens begin to attack and kill the marines, and the squad disintegrates into chaos. The inexperienced Gorman panics and freezes, with Ripley at one point begging him to pull his team out, screaming “Do something!” at him as they’re watching his soldiers die before their very eyes. Finally, it’s Ripley who steps up and assumes command, taking control of their armored personnel carrier and ramming the nest to rescue the surviving marines. The moment is brilliantly acted by Weaver; the resolve to get herself and everyone else out alive is practically seared across her face. When the remaining group barricades themselves inside the colony, they clearly, pointedly, now look to Ripley to lead them out.
As the group plans and waits to execute their escape, Ripley discovers Burke is conspiring with Weyland-Yutani bosses to seek and capture the alien species for bio-weaponization purposes in exchange for a large payout. When Ripley confronts Burke about his role in the deaths of the LV-426 colonists and marines, Burke resorts to a sniveling defense of how much the two of them could financially gain and, in a second shaming attempt, tells Ripley, “I expected more from you. I thought you’d be smarter than this.” Ripley replies, not biting this time, “Well, I’m happy to disappoint you.”
It’s here where Aliens further distinguishes itself from Alien in my mind, and why it left such an impression on my adolescent psyche. In Alien, Ripley is the de facto last survivor of the Nostromo. But in Aliens, Ripley takes charge of her own survival almost immediately, and saves three others in the process. In the first film, Ripley must survive inhuman forces. But in the second film, the people are just as dangerous as the aliens, particularly certain men. Hearing that line from Ripley—“I’m happy to disappoint you”—spoken from a woman to a man was revelatory to me. Ripley didn’t give a shit about what Burke or anyone else thought of her. Her moral compass would not be swayed, nor her will to get the hell out of there alive.
The ‘80s weren’t a model decade for strong female stories, a trend set at the end of the previous decade by films like Grease and Animal House, continuing with Revenge of the Nerds and—God, how it pains me to say this—pretty much every John Hughes film. These beloved, nostalgic films sadly haven’t aged well; certain scenes or plot lines we now view as seriously problematic in their messaging about females, but at the time, they stuck. How many of us Gen X girls happily sang the line “Did she put up a fight?” or crushed on Jake Ryan, the “ideal,” a guy who handed over his blackout drunk girlfriend to another dude and told him to “have fun?” And just browse the top 10 earning films of 1986, the overwhelming majority of which featured male-dominated stories and starring roles.
It wasn’t that I lacked any real-life examples of smart, assertive women (as evidenced by my mother’s personal form of badassery with her video piracy habit), but when you’re an adolescent, pop culture is powerful. It’s influential. It’s everywhere. And the messages it transmits through music, TV, and movies matter.
Aliens was the first time I remember being consciously aware of watching a female character on screen who wasn’t defined by the men around her, or by her relationships with them. She wasn’t portrayed with super-human strength, intellect, or over-the-top survival skills. Ripley doesn’t run in a particularly fast or graceful manner, or in slow motion wearing a skimpy outfit with her full breasts swinging and long, luscious hair billowing. Quite the opposite. Instead, she’s dressed in a sensible jumpsuit uniform and wears her curly hair short and maintenance-free. She doesn’t have ripped biceps and can’t hurl a string of grenades very far. She’s frequently out of breath and exhausted, frustrated at having her decisions questioned and warnings ignored. And in her most relatable moments, she’s understandably, appropriately, fucking terrified. In contrast to most horror and especially action films, Ripley isn’t there to fulfill any visual pleasure. She’s there to carry the story.
Sigourney Weaver stated in a 1984 interview that she set out to play Ripley with matter-of-factness and felt that Ripley’s beliefs were tested when “she suddenly has to work on instinct and emotion rather than intellect.” But Weaver’s angle on the character didn’t make Ripley hysterical or shrill, nor did the portrayal come at the expense of Ripley’s male counterparts. Weaver’s interpretation showed that Ripley didn’t have to compromise her womanhood to fit into a man’s world.
And that’s the true genius of Ripley: she’s a “strong female character” and tough heroine—who is also human and relatable. She became the needed action hero for so many Gen X girls who’d been starving on a steady diet of testosterone-drenched Stallone and Schwarzenegger roles. Even critic Peter Travers acknowledged the significance of Weaver’s Ripley at the time, saying, “Weaver comes through with a spirited, knockout performance that dominates the film. Her final duel with the alien queen would shame Rambo.”
Female audience members, girls like myself, also sat up and took serious notice. When you’re a girl who finds no currency in your appearance and diminished power in your gender role, but have a smart mouth and your own brand of determination and brains, a character like Ellen Ripley becomes deeply personal. She’s never just fighting aliens. She’s also fighting a greedy global corporation that has deemed her expendable. She’s fighting constant doubts and questions of her own experiences and knowledge. She fights to survive, but never through cunning or feminine wiles, and never at the expense of others.
Even when she’s depicted wielding an M41A pulse rifle in one arm while clutching Newt in the other, those archetypes—badass and maternal—feel reductive. For girls like myself at the time, she represented so much more for what complex feminism could be. She’s neither a motherly damsel in distress nor a gun-toting maneater. She doesn’t triumph because she’s a woman or a mother or by extreme fire power and combat skills. She triumphs simply on her wit and resolve alone, her will to survive both selfless and self-reliant. Her complex femininity helped young girls like me understand for the first time that being unlikable and “disappointing” is sometimes a necessity in our world, because so often we don’t have a choice if we want to thrive, or even survive. We may not be fighting deadly Xenomorphs or malfunctioning androids or a greedy, murderous corporation, but women are always fighting something, and need our brand of hero to look up to, just like men.
Scott’s Alien may have blazed the trail for unlikely female action heroes, but it’s Cameron’s Aliens that made Ripley iconic to girls like me. When I watch Ellen Ripley in Aliens now (sans the federal offense) I still love her the same as I did when I was an 11-year-old girl—with admiration and respect, and the aspiration that every time I speak some version of “I’m happy to disappoint you” in my life, I mean it every bit as much as she did.