Alien’s Ripley: The First Female Action Hero

Films today are rife with strong, independent female leads that inspire ‘girl power’ and often portray women as equals to, or sometimes more capable than, their male counterparts. However, in tracing the beginnings of such a change in gender stereotyping in film, it’s important to ask the question, “when and where was the true female action hero born?”

At a time where male action heroes were all the rage and female characters were reserved as love interests, background characters or damsels in distress, Sigourney Weaver rose to the occasion of kick-starting a new era and a shift in gender stereotyping in pop culture film.

Ellen Ripley

Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi cult classic, Alien, can be attributed to not only setting Weaver up on her path to fame but also marked the beginning of the female action hero in Hollywood, paving the path for heroines like The Terminator’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), Avengers’ Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie / Alicia Vikander) and many more, to become household names.

Having a female lead, particularly one portraying the role of an action hero, was almost unheard of during the time period of Alien’s release, forty years ago. It isn’t any surprise then, that the role of Ripley was initially written for a male, only for the character’s gender and little else to be changed at the very last minute.

The way in which the character was written gave Ripley grit, resourcefulness and the ability to endure throughout the film. Instead of accepting her fate, breaking down, and seeking salvation from a man, something that is stereotypical of female characters, we see Ripley make use of her survival skills to overcome her plight to become the last person standing at the end of the film.

Ripley’s character in Alien and being the survivor played an important role in challenging gender stereotypes in film as her personality went against society’s rules for what women should be like. Here was a female that wasn’t attached to any particular male character, didn’t possess long, flowing hair, delicate skin or a dainty body., nor was she shy, soft spoken and filled with sex appeal; standard characteristics often possessed by female characters in films of the past.

Instead, throughout the film, Ripley was brash and unpolished, remaining strong and refusing to give up in the face of adversity. She rose up to defeat the horrific and monstrous creatures all on her own, using only her skills, knowledge and experiences. A woman with such fortitude and prowess with weaponry was something so new and bold that it revolutionised the way in which audiences reacted to a character’s gender on screen, making Ripley’s impact in film so relevant and memorable today.

With subsequent Alien films further developing Ripley’s character, we see more of that tenacity come to light. In many ways, the depiction of Ripley personifies the true strength of a woman on the big screen, wherein women are able to juggle being a kick-ass savior with being crafty, as well as sensible to take on any grueling task, all the while also looking after her peers. After all, in Alien, Ripley manages to not only save the world and provide one last log entry in order to send a message back about what had transpired, but she also managed to save the ship’s cat too. In a way, Alien appeared to be giving off the message that when you want things done right, get a woman for the job, something that we now see in films today, which firmly utilise the ‘final girl standing’ trope.

Considering Alien’s age, it can be said to be one heck of a game-changing film for breaking down gender barriers and changing the way female leads are portrayed in film today. Sigourney Weaver’s excellent portrayal of a character, who despite having the odds stacked against her managed to overcome adversity, illustrates the notion that gender is no prerequisite to being a hero.

With Alien celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it certainly should be celebrated for not only being a film that spawned multiple sequels and spinoffs, but also introduced the ‘final girl’, a.k.a, the female character that endures, to the world. Without Sigourney Weaver and Ellen Ripley, we may never have had the opportunity to see females take the lead as badass monster hunting and alien killing heroes today.

Here’s to Alien, Sigourney Weaver and ass-kicking women of film!

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