My advent heroine today is Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the Alien franchise, as played by Sigourney Weaver. Before Alien, women were generally treated as baggage in a story; to be carried around and cared for by the hunky hero. In romances, that role was played up the nth degree as breathless damsels waited for a man to save them from their lives of drudgery.
So when I first watched Alien, I expected that Dallas, as played by Tom Skerrit, would be the one to save the day. I don’t think I was the only one.
That it turned out to be Ripley, gave us a character who broke all the boundaries around portraying women as strong characters who were not a slave to their emotions. As a contrast, Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright, was the distressed damsel, screaming her way through the film and generally hampering everyone’s efforts to deal with the alien.
Ripley was good at her job and able to make the tough decisions, even if those decisions, such as not letting an infected crew member back into the ship, were not popular. So she wasn’t necessarily likeable to begin with, but that was because she was a woman taking decisions that would have been acceptable from a man.
But she was also a nurturer. She ‘adopted’ the little girl Newt, not long after being told that her own daughter had died whilst Ripley was in hypersleep. Later she took care of the android Call, played by Winona Ryder, though word has it that that relationship was supposed to be a version of the alpha male/beta heroine relationship. But the fact that Ripley had a career, and left a daughter at home whilst she worked on a space ship was, for the first time in fiction, treated as normal. Before, if a female character had been depicting leaving her children behind to have a career, she would have been portrayed as unsympathetic, whereas no one would ever disapprove of a man going off to work for several years and not seeing his family. Never before in film had women been treated as true equals, with no apologies and no questions about whether they were doing the right thing.
Interestingly when the script of Alien was written, all the characters were known by their surname. Only when it came to casting were the characters assigned genders. I’m sure that helped in making sure that Ripley did not have to live up to the female stereotype. And it’s just as likely that the other female in the story, Cartwright, could have been played by a man. That would really have tested the boundaries of gender, to have a man playing the weaker role.
Admittedly Alien is not a romance, but I believe it did pave the way for women to have more equality in all types of fiction. Romantic heroines were at last allowed to be proactive instead of reactive. They didn’t have to sit around waiting for men to save them, and they could even be the one to save the man.
I think characters like Ellen Ripley helped all writers to realise their female characters as whole people, and not just as prospective or actual mothers and damsels in distress.