Let’s Talk About Ellen Ripley

I was reading the most intriguing article this morning.  S.J. Higbee’s piece, Gender In Writing: Is it She or He Who Tells Your Story, takes apart the essential elements of a writer using the perspective of a character who is the opposite sex.  Since I write a lot of female characters, especially in Vitamin F, it’s an issue that strikes a chord with me.

Then, there’s this:

The latest Entertainment Weekly features several reunions of TV and movie casts.  Since one of those featured was the cast of Aliens, I started thinking about Ellen Ripley and just how kickass she is.

Except, that’s not what she was supposed to be.  In Alien, she’s merely Ripley, no mention of her first name.  Why?  Because the first female action hero was a part actually written for a man.  That was an early draft of the script, but the fact remains, Ripley was supposed to be a man.  In Alien, Ripley is the symbol of traditional strength.

Sadly, I think what most people identify as strength in characters, is actually masculine strength.  Think about it.  What’s Ripley known for?  Kicking ass, taking names, even one liners like Alien Resurrection‘s “I’m the monster’s mother.”  Those are elements we see from The Terminator or John McClane, not Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Wonder Woman.

If Ripley is a symbol of masculine strength, then what is feminine strength?

Look at that picture above.  It looks like a standard action movie scene, but the context is missing.  There’s a little girl scurrying around, running from the Alien Queen.  When Ripley emerges to do battle, she says her most famous line: “Get away from her, you BITCH.”  Ripley’s goal isn’t combat, it’s protection.  She’s protecting a child.  In a sense, the picture above is of two mothers fighting to determine whose children will live.  That’s why you have to give Sigourney Weaver credit for making her character strong outside of being an action movie staple.

If you look at Higbee’s piece, you’ll see how writers can write the opposite gender in plausible ways.  Since I write a lot of action-based stories with a lot of female characters, I have to find the right balance.  I have to be able to excite and compel readers while presenting plausible characters, male and female alike.

The ultimate judge of my success won’t be anything I apply to my work, but it’ll be up to the audience.  I’ll just have to try and make up characters worthy of following in Ellen Ripley’s footsteps.


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