It’s here where Aliens further distinguishes itself from Alien in my mind, and why it left such an impression on my adolescent psyche. In Alien, Ripley is the de facto last survivor of the Nostromo. But in Aliens, Ripley takes charge of her own survival almost immediately, and saves three others in the process. In the first film, Ripley must survive inhuman forces. But in the second film, the people are just as dangerous as the aliens, particularly certain men. Hearing that line from Ripley—“I’m happy to disappoint you”—spoken from a woman to a man was revelatory to me. Ripley didn’t give a shit about what Burke or anyone else thought of her. Her moral compass would not be swayed, nor her will to get the hell out of there alive.
The ‘80s weren’t a model decade for strong female stories, a trend set at the end of the previous decade by films like Grease and Animal House, continuing with Revenge of the Nerds and—God, how it pains me to say this—pretty much every John Hughes film. These beloved, nostalgic films sadly haven’t aged well; certain scenes or plot lines we now view as seriously problematic in their messaging about females, but at the time, they stuck. How many of us Gen X girls happily sang the line “Did she put up a fight?” or crushed on Jake Ryan, the “ideal,” a guy who handed over his blackout drunk girlfriend to another dude and told him to “have fun?” And just browse the top 10 earning films of 1986, the overwhelming majority of which featured male-dominated stories and starring roles.
It wasn’t that I lacked any real-life examples of smart, assertive women (as evidenced by my mother’s personal form of badassery with her video piracy habit), but when you’re an adolescent, pop culture is powerful. It’s influential. It’s everywhere. And the messages it transmits through music, TV, and movies matter.
Aliens was the first time I remember being consciously aware of watching a female character on screen who wasn’t defined by the men around her, or by her relationships with them. She wasn’t portrayed with super-human strength, intellect, or over-the-top survival skills. Ripley doesn’t run in a particularly fast or graceful manner, or in slow motion wearing a skimpy outfit with her full breasts swinging and long, luscious hair billowing. Quite the opposite. Instead, she’s dressed in a sensible jumpsuit uniform and wears her curly hair short and maintenance-free. She doesn’t have ripped biceps and can’t hurl a string of grenades very far. She’s frequently out of breath and exhausted, frustrated at having her decisions questioned and warnings ignored. And in her most relatable moments, she’s understandably, appropriately, fucking terrified. In contrast to most horror and especially action films, Ripley isn’t there to fulfill any visual pleasure. She’s there to carry the story.