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This week is a busy one for me, because my most recent novel Zoe's Tale hit the stores on Tuesday; I'll be promoting it by making appearances, doing interviews and generally blathering about the main character, a 16-year-old girl who is called upon to save the day, whether she wants the responsibility or not. It was in the course doing these interviews that I've had cause to think about women's characters in science fiction, and the single most important female character in the history of science fiction film: Ellen Ripley, of the Alien series. What makes her important? Because she's a pivot point in the history of science fiction film, and how women inhabited the genre. In a nutshell -- Before Ripley: Barbarella. After Ripley: Sarah Connor.
Ironically, Ripley didn't become this pivotal, iconic character in her first film appearance, 1979's Alien. In Alien, Ripley's character, third in command on the space freighter Nostromo, is initially pretty unsympathetic and unlikeable, the sort of character the other characters dislike for being rule-bound -- she refuses to break quarantine even when one of her crewmates gets a surprise alien embryo to the face. In Alien, Ripley doesn't take charge so much as have responsibility devolve onto her; the final confrontation ends up being between her and the alien, but to a very real extent, that showdown had as much to do with the then twenty-something Sigourney Weaver looking tasty as she stripped down to her underwear to slip into a spacesuit, as it did with the character surviving simply by dint of her own intelligence and will to live.
It took the 1986 sequel, Aliens, for Ripley to become the canonical character she is. In that film, screenwriter-director James Cameron remodeled Ripley, making her something new to science fiction: An action heroine who was neither a female caricature of a macho man nor a Barbarella-like sex bunny. There's nothing particularly sexy about Ripley in Aliens at all, in fact, which is something that both makes sense in the context of the film (when you're trying to help a Marine detail fight acid-spewing aliens, there's not much time for the sexy) and which came as something of a revelation to film audiences. Ripley was tough, competent and -- here was a surprise -- maternal. That side of her character becomes activated by the presence the little girl, Newt, and expresses itself savagely in the film's final showdown between the Queen alien and Ripley in a human-shaped power lifter.
If you were to suggest to teenage boys just before the release of Aliens that the most awesome action scene they'd see in a science fiction film that year would be between two women fighting over the safety of a little girl, they'd probably look at you with blank incomprehension. But there it was: Ripley was an action star not in spite of being a woman, but because she was one. The combination of Cameron's writing and Weaver's Oscar-nominated acting -- a rare accolade for anyone acting in a science fiction role, much less in a lead actress slot -- did what was previously impossible: Made a female character a bona fide science fiction franchise star.
Carrying on the tradition
Cameron and Weaver's success opened the door to other tough, smart science fiction leading women, the most obvious being another Cameron creation: Sarah Connor. Connor is a fine example of how Ripley changed things for science fiction film women: In the first Terminator film, released in 1984, Connor spends nearly all of her time being chased and defended, except for the scene where she gets naked and impregnated (this scene is actually reasonably tastefully done, despite the fact it was in essentially a B-movie); in 1991's Terminator 2, however, she's take charge, dangerous and (literally) crazy competent -- and like Ripley working from a maternal place: Feminine without the ogle factor for the boys in the audience. It's possible that Cameron always intended her to be this way in a sequel, but it's also a pretty good bet that without Ripley having blazed that trail (and making a lot of money while she did it), Cameron would have gotten a lot more pushback on making Sarah Connor the way she was.
This model has been so successful, in fact, that it's essentially become a standard template for science fiction heroines -- around long enough, and successful enough, to be shoddily replicated in bad films. Check out Milla Jovovich's character in 2006's Ultraviolet, and you'll note the film doing very poorly what was done so well in Aliens: Establishing a female character independent of sexual relationship either with another character or with the males in the audience (note well that one reason Ultraviolet does a poor job of this relates to Jovovich's wardrobe of midriff-less shirts and hot leather pants). Yes, it's a little perverse to note that success of a character template by pointing out examples of other filmmakers doing it badly. But on the other hand, it's also nice to know that at this point in time, science fiction audiences not only don't have a problem with strong, problem-solving lead female characters, they've come to expect them to be that way -- and they know when such a character is being done badly.
I'm not going to make the argument that science fiction films don't indulge in catering to the baser instincts of the teenage boy crowd on a more than occasional basis (please refer once more to Milla Jovovich's hot pants). But thanks to Ellen Ripley, and the actress and writers who created her, that's not all we're stuck with. That's worth noting, and with thanks.
Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man's War and Zoe's Tale, which was released this week. His column appears every Thursday.