This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Lucas Hill-Paul.
The recent releases of Captain Marvel and Jordan Peele’s Us have definitively positioned female genre heroines away from their origins in sexual exploitation and victimhood. A trend of Hollywood horror and action franchises in the 1970s and 80s established a seemingly inescapable quagmire of final girls and sexy sidekicks, but Ellen Ripley, played masterfully by Sigourney Weaver, offered a vital alternative. The effect wasn’t instantaneous, but she proved a disruptive outlier to the tiresome formula that insisted female-driven horror and/or action films don’t sell.
Brie Larson as Carol Danvers encapsulates a recent shift away from superheroes as brooding casualties of tragic happenstance or experimentation. While the Hulk wrestles with his inflicted brutality, Thor battles the growing dread of sovereign responsibility and Iron Man seemingly learns a new lesson with each appearance, Danvers crucially outgrows this within the space of a singular narrative. Her origin is confining and excruciating, but she completes her arc as the predominate figure, unbound by her past and any expectations to prove herself to masculine antagonists.
Much unlike Black Widow or Scarlet Witch, Danvers is unhampered by shameful infertility or the pervading trope of powers too destructive to be controlled by the hands of an emotional woman. We’re about to see yet again the familiar story of a superheroine tempted to the dark side by seductive supernatural abilities with X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and Carol Danvers’ absolute refusal to buy into this cliché of the “over-emotional” female is a much needed character shift.
Ever since the predatory Count Orlok menaced Greta Schröder’s sleeping Ellen Hutter in F.W. Murnau’s foundational silent horror Nosferatu, women in horror have been persistently framed as circumstantial victims, primarily of violence and often of sexual oppression. Ellen Ripley, emerging at the tail end of the 1970s, embodies this trend of the final girl, arguably introduced by Hitchcock with The Birds, Psycho and so on and popularised with Laurie Strode in Halloween. The tradition is defined as an innocent, frequently virginial female figure who, after harassment and injury at the hands of an immovable killer, gains the upper hand and slays or escapes the monster.
However, recall that the majority of these female-centric slashers – Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street – would repeatedly recur these disposable protagonists for another round of terror, unavoidably positing the creature or villain itself as the unkillable victor. As slasher franchises reach their homogenous peak in the late 80s, were it not for Hollywood’s insatiable appetite for ongoing sequels, it would be easy to frame James Cameron’s follow-up to the claustrophobic classic as a protest, a cry to dispose of horror’s unpleasant preoccupation with female victimhood once and for all.
Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley naturally evolves from a surprise protagonist riddled with trauma and insecurity to a figurehead of feminine strength. The first half of Aliens is marred by boisterous space marines who wield undeniably phallic weaponry and disregard the orders of their superior, but Ripley remains steadfast. She’s the only one capable of conversing with the little girl, Newt, as if she’s a living human being and not an asset or liability, and her previous experiences with the unrelenting alien creatures grants her learned knowledge to neutralise and detain the threat without any reliance on thinly veiled bravado.
Alien remains a remarkable film, but its onus to cling to strikingly 70s imagery of a woman in peril never had the potential to cinematically redefine the male gaze. The audience is still invited to linger on shots of Ripley’s body far longer than any of her male crewmates, and the threat of sexual violence leaks out of her final confrontation with the android Ash – a skirmish with a magazine is just as gruesome as any sequence of its time that invokes the powerless dread of sexual assault. Aliens asserts Ripley as the driving agent of her own existence, however tormented, and not simply the newest plaything for a growing roster of predatory baddies.
With Jordan Peele’s Us we perhaps have the ideal modern fruition of Ripley’s strength as a horror protagonist, with Lupita Nyong’o masterfully blending the conventions of a pursued victim and proactive combatant. Simultaneously persecuted and enraged, those who have seen the film will know that Adelaide even embodies the moral duplicity Ripley would be defined by in her later appearances. Both heroes exit the film drenched in blood, haggard from their arduous experiences, but nevertheless the inarguable emergent victors.
Aliens was indeed a wake-up call for Hollywood franchises, but it’s only in the last few years that we’ve caught up to what James Cameron was really trying to say. If it wasn’t already clear, his sequel to The Terminator offers a frightening modern commentary, with Sarah Connor evolving from her perceived mental instability after a violent encounter with an anonymous assassin is shrugged off as hysteria. Women have been tormented in reality longer than they’ve been the victims of exploitative horror cinema, and Ellen Ripley stands as one of the first pages torn out of a sexist and archaic rulebook.
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