May 6, 2012

What can Ellen Ripley (Alien, Aliens, Alien3) teach you about writing?

She’s not a sidekick, arm candy, or a damsel to be rescued.

She didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her.
— Sigourney Weaver

Ripley’s very female, but she has the authority of a male.
— Ridley Scott

So. Prometheus is coming and, for the first time in a decade, I’m almost excited for a new movie. I might even go see it when it opens which, to be honest, is something I haven’t done since the Harpagornis went extinct.

But you’re not here to read about my indifference to popcorn movies.

No, you came because you love science fiction as much as I do – and good science fiction, not just any old crap that looks shiny and new on the surface but already hits the theaters smelling like a bong water tsunami.

Think about Ellen Ripley for a second. She was the original “strong female character” in science fiction film before there was any significant talk of strong female characters. Usually, when there’s tons of cross-chatter on any given subject, that only indicates a lack. An emptiness in search of meaning.

These days, strong-female-character is shorthand for "man with boobs" or what John Scalzi so aptly termed “spinny killbots.”

Kate Beaton knows what we're talking about. Click here to read the rest of the comic.

Alien is what happens when you try to put human beings in the same conceptual space as H.R. Giger’s visionary art. Humans don’t belong there, and the two worlds reject each other as violently as they possibly can. That makes for compelling drama.

It’s us versus a relentless force that wants us gone. Just take a look at these biomechanical landscapes and tell me: Do they look like nice places to visit?

 The alien – or the xenomorph, if you will – is a creature born somewhere in this nameless Tartarus. An angel of death, neither male nor female, it pushes Ellen Ripley to the limits of human endurance.

So, what can Ellen Ripley teach you about strong female characters?

The film, Alien, pits one survivor against another.

Let’s never forget two things –
One, Ellen Ripley never stops talking. Even after her shipmates are gone, she talks to Mother (the shipboard computer), she talks to the cat and even to herself. Ripley uses language as a magic ward and a tool of understanding. Ellen as a given name can be traced back to ancient Greece; it means sunbeam. So the diurnal (solar), talkative and somewhat masculine Ripley is contrasted with the crepuscular, silent, androgynous alien.

Two, the cat. Jonesy. On the verge of annihilation, Ellen would not forget Jonesy. Ellen’s motherly/protective instincts are all centered on the cat during the final stretch of the movie. She would risk her life not only for the other crew members, but for a little furry animal as well. I call that empathy. I call that compassion.

And that is what makes Ripley tough; not guns, not sass and certainly not a bad-girl attitude. Compassion.

Now consider the final scene in Alien, which you can only find on youtube if you search “alien panty scene.” (*sigh*)

Now on the escape vessel, Ripley thinks she has left the alien behind on the self-destructing freighter – then in a moment of quiet horror, as she prepares for space-bound hibernation, the xenomorph reveals itself. It even yawns like a drowsy panther. Ripley backs away and slips into a space suit and makes all necessary preparations to blow the beast out into space. 

What does Ellen Ripley do?

She sings to calm herself as she confronts the abject terror of a thing that cannot be reasoned with.

In the presence of absolute hostility -- she sings.


1. Noomi Rapace has dismissed any comparisons between Ellen Ripley and her character in Prometheus, Elizabeth Shaw. Of course she would. We want to stand on the shoulders of giants, not wallow in the gloom of their shadows.

2. As a longtime admirer of Giger’s work, I recommend the ARh+ collection. It was the first book on Giger that I ever bought, at the tender age of 17.

3. Ultimately, Alien is the apocalyptic story of mankind’s head-on collision with the hostile forces of the universe. There’s more than a touch of Gnosticism about all this – devoid of self or pneuma, subverting our prejudice and psychosexual categories, the alien is 100% matter, a creature of the ever-present now. It has neither past nor future, defining itself by a radical agenda: turning the soulful into soulless excrement. The alien creature is the ultimate enemy of intelligence and therefore, within a Gnostic framework, an enemy of salvation.

“I admire its purity,” said Ash, science officer on the Nostromo. Ash was himself 100% matter, from a Gnostic point of view.

4. Jonesy was important enough to get rescued in Alien, but played no significant part in Aliens. Guess two cat rescues would be a bit much. Note that Ripley always finds herself the caretaker of surrogate children: Jonesy, Newt and finally the alien queen in her bosom. Alien Resurrection doesn’t count. Because.

5. Another “Ellen,” Elaine of Corbenic, was the woman who first showed the Holy Grail to Lancelot. Elaine went by another name, Heliaebel, which combines ancient morphemes for “sun” and “beautiful.”


Sigourney Weaver discusses the way she sees Ripley.

Ridley Scott's turn to explain his perception of the character.

The 1979 trailer for Alien.

An extended trailer for Prometheus, which intentionally recalls its 1979 predecessor in several ways, including sound design.

Finally, here's Giger talking about the "Space Chalky."

Keep Reading: The Xenomorph

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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