For those of you that don’t know, Ripley is the main character of the phenomenally successful Alien series. Set in the future, the plot revolves around Ripley’s attempts to defeat, well, aliens – terrifying creatures called Xenomorphs that burst out of people’s chest and generally ruin everything. The first film was an incredible success – so much so that it has permanently changed the face of cinema, the Library of Congress declared it significant in 2002, and has been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry. Ripley herself has been at the centre of all this, and has been widely heralded as one of sci-fi’s truly ground-breaking female characters.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Ripley’s adventures come under the heading of my Universal Monster Law – in general, if a story is about stopping a scary monster, it’s the monster that is really the one calling the shots, as it’s their actions that set the larger plot in motion. Really good characters aren’t held back by this, and despite all the monstrous nastiness they have to deal with, their decisions still have a tangible impact on the plot.
Ripley is one of those characters. She may spend a substantial amount of time trying not to get eaten but she still has a certain amount of control over her life, whether that’s through preventing the Xenomorphs from spreading or saving the lives of others. What sets her apart is that she’s not simply trying to survive her ordeal – she’s also trying to ensure that no-one else has to go through it ever again. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear a lot about Ripley’s hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are pretty clear. She wants to defeat the Xenomorphs and wipe them out and when it comes to her beliefs she will usually do what benefits the most people – even if that means letting one, two, or an entire prison colony die.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Ripley is a pretty consistent character. She’s determined, intelligent, brave and responsible, good at thinking on her feet and adapting to a wide range of situations. She stays this way through all the movies, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A determined, brave woman sets out to destroy the aliens that killed her entire crew – whatever the cost.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Ripley doesn’t have a love life, so this question isn’t really relevant. What influences her decisions are her missions, her need to protect the people she cares about, and the desire to stay alive – while killing as many Xenomorphs as she can.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Ripley does develop over the course of the movies. She develops PTSD as a result of her experiences – an entirely realistic response to being chased around by this cuddly little darling:
She also starts losing trust in other people, loses patience with her employers, and starts losing her temper much faster. This isn’t positive character development but it certainly counts: it’s a direct result of her scary, life-threatening experiences, so she definitely gets the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- Does she have a weakness?
Ripley does have a couple of weaknesses – her inability to trust people and how quickly she can lose her temper – but to be honest, they don’t really affect her much. They’re often presented as survival skills rather than as something she should overcome. Ripley’s losses of temper and inability to trust other people are almost exclusively directed at people who deserve it – such as her employers, who put her in danger by trying to collect Xenomorphs for study.
This is entirely justified – and this is where the problem lies. When Ripley’s anger is directed towards people who were prepared to let her die, and when her inability to trust people is directed towards people who have previously betrayed her, it’s pretty difficult to see it as a flaw at all. They don’t hold her back or make her unhappy – they actually help to keep her alive. I’ll give her half a point because the flaws are there, but they certainly don’t have much of an impact.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Ripley is a huge influence on the plot. In all her movies she’s right in the centre of the action, whether she’s trying to protect her crew or kill the Xenomorphs.
SCORE SO FAR: 7.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Ripley is a breath of fresh air when it comes to gender stereotypes. She’s an accomplished pilot, a military officer in a position of responsibility, and a scarred, determined survivor – all unusual for a female character. She’s nobody’s sidekick, nobody’s girlfriend, and doesn’t prance about in tight lycra when she’s trying to be badass – unlike some characters I could mention.
She doesn’t have to rely on anyone else to get her out of trouble. She doesn’t depend on other people. She doesn’t need to have an excuse to be in the plot – she’s very firmly the hero of her own story. This is particularly unusual for women in science-fiction, who are often cast as a helpless girlfriend, or the token ‘sexy one’ in part of a wider team. Ripley is one of the first characters who broke that mould – and she completely smashed it.
SCORE SO FAR: 8.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Ripley has a few different relationships with other female characters, but none of them are given any real depth. She works alongside Lambert and Vasquez in various movies, but their relationships aren’t really explored much as they’re mostly trying not to die.
The most significant relationship Ripley has is with the little girl she rescues in Aliens, Newt. They actually get a chance to bond, and Ripley becomes something of a Mama Bear when she’s protecting Newt from the aliens. Their relationship is also a way to Ripley to mourn the loss of her own daughter, who died when Ripley was being kept in stasis for fifty-odd years. This relationship is probably Ripley’s most significant interaction with another female character, but it’s not quite enough for her to completely ace this round.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
Ripley is a consistent, active character with a range of goals, beliefs and strengths. She isn’t completely controlled by her love life or gender stereotypes, she develops over the story – and to top it all off, she’s also a ground-breaking character. She’s certainly passed my test!
Next week, I’ll be looking at a modern classic – Spirited Away. Chihiro, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.