When I was 7, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I got older. Like many girls born in the mid-1970s, I answered, “Princess Leia.” After all, my only other choices for a role model then were Barbie, with one plastered, hollow expression on her face, and Martina Navratilova, a tremendous athlete, but I had no interest in playing tennis. At that time, I believed I had made an excellent choice. Leia was a princess, but she wasn’t a Disney princess. She witnessed the destruction of her homeworld and still lied to protect the Rebellion. She fired a gun, gave orders, and commanded fleets. Yes, she finds a man, but she doesn’t fall apart when he gets frozen in carbonite. At the end of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, Leia’s heart may be broken, but she’s not a blubbering mess; she’s still determined to defeat the Empire.
However, I was disappointed by ‘Return of the Jedi’. Actually, more confused. The determined Leia, the one set on beating the Empire, took time off to rescue her boyfriend, who wasn’t in any real danger. Being frozen in carbonite is probably not comfortable, but Han wasn’t being tortured, and he wasn’t even a prisoner of the Empire. Couldn’t rescuing Han have waited until after the Rebellion won? Instead, she needs Luke to rescue her boyfriend, gets knocked off a speeder, and spends most of the film as an Earth Goddess/Mother figure. She fires a couple of good shots during the climactic battle on Endor, but she gets injured, so is on the sidelines during the key moments of the Rebellion’s victory.
By the end of 1983, my faith in Leia was lost, as was my hope in finding another strong woman to admire (while my mother’s a strong woman, I wanted a role model who didn’t tell me to clean my room). Then in 1986 my faith was restored. Sitting in the dark, I gazed at the flickering image of my new hero as she appeared in a yellow power loader and demanded, “Get away from her, you bitch!”
Forget Princess Leia. I wanted to be Ellen Ripley.
My mother said I was too young to see the Ridley Scott classic ‘Alien’, so James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ introduced me to the former pilot of the’Nostromo’. And what an introduction. Destined to drift in space with only her cat as company, she’s found by chance. Ripley’s forced back into a society that has classified her as a relic with an outrageous story. Ripley’s a defiant outcast and treated like a freak. As everyone repeatedly tells her how she is wrong and crazy, Ripley holds her ground, slamming her fists onto tables in order to keep the truth alive. This is the first lesson I learned from her: even when you are alone, you have to fight for yourself; your truth is worth listening to. She could’ve changed her story after she recovered, but she doesn’t. Easy choices might make things smoother, but you’ll sacrifice your sense of self if you give in too readily.
Standing her ground proves to be the correct choice. Those who didn’t believe her when she returned soon come to her because they’ve lost contact with a colony, so they ask her for her help. Ripley has to choose between helping people she’s never met or telling the company to go screw themselves. Many of us would’ve told the company to go take a flying leap; after all, they discarded Ripley and left her to rot. This is the second lesson I learned from her: sometimes doing the right thing means taking risks for strangers and working for idiots. She had every right to stay away. She didn’t have to advise the Marines. She could’ve stayed home and worked on the docks for the rest of her life, and we would’ve understood her decision. But Ripley knows how to look at the bigger picture and weigh all the options. The colony faces a danger only she knows; there was no way she was just going to stay home.
The Marines don’t believe her at first either. They ignore her. They make jokes. They change their tune once they realize how serious the situation is at the colony. When Ripley takes charge, she doesn’t bark orders; she gets everyone together to share strategy. This is the third lesson I learned from her: personal experience is just as valuable as formal training. She knows the aliens. The Marines know tactical maneuvers and weapons. Together, their combined knowledge helps them survive. Ripley shares what she knows and admits to what she doesn’t know. She’s not too proud to ask others for their expertise or to learn new skills. Some of the best scenes in the film are when Hicks teaches her how to use the pulse rifle. She even listens to Newt, a child. Ripley recognizes that Newt is like her, the lone survivor of an attack by the aliens, so has knowledge and experience that the group needs. By treating others the way she should’ve been treated by the company, Ripley leads as many to safety as possible.
I learned more than three lessons from Ripley; she also taught me to be aware of my surroundings, to not trust company men, and to leave no one behind. Yes, I knew then that Ripley’s a fictional character, but I had never seen anyone like her on screen before. And sadly, I haven’t seen anyone since. Sarah Conner came close in 1991’s ‘Terminator 2’ (also directed by James Cameron), but she’s a supporting character. Where are the leading action women? Who’s going to show girls that they can grow up to become heroes who can lead others to safety while carrying a pulse rifle in one arm and a child in the other?
Television has tried to fill the void. Buffy balanced school, friends, and slaying vampires in Sunnydale. Private eye Veronica Mars showed promise, but the show only lasted three seasons. Although ‘Firefly’ started by centering on Captain Reynolds, the later episodes showed Joss Whedon developing a strong ensemble. Perhaps if given more than fourteen episodes, Zoe might have become more of a second lead character like Scully in ‘The X-Files’. Mal relies on Zoe, the second in command of the Serenity, for tactical advice and for having his back. If any recent character had a chance of filling Ripley’s shoes, it was Zoe. She’s strong, capable, and in a stable loving relationship with her husband. While I admire the character of Zoe, I would have liked to have seen her character on film. I don’t prefer film over television; in fact, I’m a confessed TV junkie, but there’s something special about sitting in the dark and looking up at charismatic strong images that inspire you to think, “Wow. Maybe I can be like that someday.”
Sometimes boys do not understand why girls get excited when we see a character like Ripley on film. Many guys think Ripley’s cool because she kicks some alien ass, but they are quick to list characters that are, to them, just as cool: Indiana Jones, James Bond, Jason Bourne, Blade, Riddick, The Terminator, and Rambo. All great characters. And all male. When people are exposed to many examples of the same concept—the strong action male lead—many begin to question if alternatives exist. Girls deserve to be reminded on a regular basis that they can grow up to be more than girlfriends, damsels in peril, and strippers. Ripley endures because she is a prime example of how a woman can be physically and morally strong. Thanks to DVD/Blu-Ray technology, Ripley can teach more young girls how to be confident during times of uncertainty, how to help others when it’s easy to walk away, and how to command others with humility and intelligence. The character of Ellen Ripley is still discussed and admired because she’s more than a great female sci-fi action hero; she’s a great character. So girls and boys, while we wait for the next great action hero who’s also a woman to grace the screen, I’m going to watch ‘Aliens’ again and see what else I can learn from Ripley.