Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley book review

The sexuality of the Alien franchise has long been debated - does Alien Woman bring anything fresh to the debate?

Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley

Authors: Ximena Gallardo C. and Jason SmithPublisher: Continuum BooksISBN: 0826419100Amazon link

It was my curiosity about this book that prompted me to ask one of its authors, Ximena Gallardo C., to write an article for DoG about the sexuality of the Alien saga. If you’re interested in exploring the deepest strata of feminist sub-texts in the four Alien films made between 1979-1997, you have a wealth of academic material and analyses from which to choose, because the character-arc of the female protagonist set in motion in Ridley Scott’s darkly inspired 1979 monster movie truly caught the imagination of cultural commentators and theorists both at the time and since.

Fox’s decision to engage largely untried directorial talent with exceptional visionary and narrative skills led to four films with unique points-of-view, and four interpretations of Sigourney Weaver’s ‘space trucker’ that had varying, if not opposing agendas.

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Ridley Scott’s introduction to Ripley, a character that was ‘made female’ quite late in pre-production, presents a working woman struggling to assert authority in an implicitly male regimen and environment, who proves herself smarter and more determined to survive than her hapless crewmates, finally conquering the insect-like nemesis that will ever after dominate her destiny.

That Ripley had to perform a legendary and voyeuristic striptease as part of the process may speak for the 1970s in which the film was made, where arse-kicking feminist heroes were also required to be glamorous and provocative, such as in Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels and Buck Rogers In The 25th Century; or it may speak to popular accusations of misogyny in the cinema of Ridley Scott, where the Blade Runner female replicants die pornographically compared to their male counterparts, and where, in G.I. Jane, determined military climber Demi Moore undergoes ritual humiliation which becomes more overtly sexualised and fetishised in the context of a female subjugant.

In the change-of-genre sequel Aliens (1986), James Cameron re-imagined Ripley as a Reagan-era hard-body heroine fighting to redeem her status as a failed mother, and the authors ascribe this state of contrition to the former libertarianism and ungoverned strain of 1970s feminism under Carter, with Ripley replacing a failed model of female strength with a more conservative dynamism in line with ‘morning in America’.

In Alien3(1992), David Fincher’s butchered and dark vision of a doubly-failed mother finds the character counting the cost of her crusades and coming to terms with the ‘alien’ darkness within which she has been fighting against in the previous films, and all in an atmosphere of double-Y chromosome hostility, in a semi-abandoned penal-colony full of semi-reformed rapists and murderers.

Finally, in Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection (1997), a revenant Ripley, cloned back into existence by a foolhardy US military of the future, finds philosophic succour in humour and a sense of fatalism that is more self-nurturing than Fincher’s. The hybrid Ripley is part alien herself by now, her allegiances a mystery for much of the film. Jeunet’s European sensibility and heightened sense of the perverse bespeak the induction of the alien, in every sense: into personality, biology and culture.

Gallardo is the lead voice among the authors, and demonstrates an acuitive sense for the inner resonance of the overtly sexual iconography in Alien. Yes, those Giger corridors and entrances do look vaginal, but there are far deeper bass notes being struck, as it were, beneath the pitch of common hearing in the Alien cycle of films, and Alien Woman draws them out for the viewer’s enlightenment with a measured, academic and methodical approach which may find the casual reader despairing of new content in the early chapters.

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Nonetheless, the book rewards the patient reader who bears with the forensic chain of academic evidence presented, and begins to unearth amazing cultural and sociological connections within the psychological landscape of the series, truly emerging from case studies of each film, and resistant to any accusations of grafting-on or specious interpretation.

Alien Woman consists primarily of four detailed dissections of the entire plot of each film, and those who have willingly forgotten the dense and etymological nature of academic reading in cultural studies may feel that they could have gotten these summaries off the IMDB. But with each chapter, new evidence emerges for the picture of Ripley as both the cipher and saint of sci-fi feminism, who, in reflecting the ulterior motives of the men who created her, reflects by a third refraction the culture which informed them, consciously or unconsciously.

If you are interested in dissecting the subtextual appeal of these films, you could as well start here as anywhere. Even though the initial experience is daunting and doubt-inspiring, the answers do come, and add an optional layer of meaning to a well-loved film quadrilogy whose capacity to superficially entertain is already well-proven.


4 out of 5