English 5, Spring '06

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Essay #2, Example

Eleanor Ripley: Gender Dynamics in the 23rd Century and the Birth of a True Female Action Hero

Motion pictures are massive conduits for cultural belief in today’s society. Movies convey ideas, mannerisms, behaviors, and attitudes through both subtle and obvious illustration. Popular cinema often reflects society’s generalized notions of people into exaggerated forms, creating stereotypical illusions that perpetuate these assumptions and draw them into the real world. Although it cannot be true all of the time, many categories of film tend to adhere to your average formula of male dominance over the female in a given situation. One of the easiest places to observe these stereotypes is in the “action” film genre. These movies are filled with violence, and the characters are constantly faced with one crisis after another while their lives are in perpetual danger. Action movies are notorious for being geared toward men and their appreciation of macho escapades. Almost always set in unforgiving, male oriented surroundings, females play a secondary if not irrelevant role in action films. That is why while pondering gender representations in modern media, I could not help but think of the 1986 action epic, Aliens. This film broke way out of the conventional gender molds often seen in Hollywood. Aliens created a non-typical manifestation of the future, where men and women do not behave as you would expect them to. Aliens also realized the first genuine female action hero, by developing a steadfast character who was not a hyper-sexualized vixen, but a nurturing role model of strength and courage. This was a construct that had never happened before in mainstream film, and unfortunately, has never really happened since.
Aliens was the sequel to the highly popular science fiction horror film Alien that came out in 1979. The original movie had award winning art direction but employed your typical haunted house type of plot mechanism. A vicious alien life form infects a crew member on a strange planet through a “face hugging” parasite, gets into the human spaceship, and picks off the crew one by one until only a single crew member remains. A lot of Alien is life-threatening tension, but there is plenty of regular interaction amongst the crewmembers before the monster starts to cut loose. The gender aesthetics are not what you would expect of a horror movie. Both women and men regard each other as equals while doing the same kinds of jobs together. In Alien, gender relations seem very egalitarian, suggesting a future with equal treatment for both sexes. What was most noteworthy was the movie’s chief protagonist, the female Lieutenant, Eleanor Ripley. The use of a female lead in a horror movie was not entirely original, but Ripley stood out through the keen gender sensibilities of the film overall, not to mention the fact that her personal victimization was minimized.
In 1986, a sequel to Alien hit the screens and promised to be much more of a thrill ride. Aliens was a colossal movie, with the director’s cut lasting over two and a half hours. As the movie begins, we find Ripley returned to Earth and blamed for the destruction of the ship in the prior movie, and a human colony has been founded on the world where her old crew first contacted the alien species. Colonial Marines are deployed to investigate, and Ripley is reluctantly included as an advisor in the mission. As the movie gains momentum, Ripley becomes less of a cadaverous person plagued by her bad dreams of the Alien monsters and can finally take up arms against them.
About forty five minutes into Aliens, the movie begins to unfold and the perception of gender differences becomes more obvious. Ripley wakes up from hypersleep amongst the Marines, with their space cruiser not far from the colonized planet. Like in the first Alien, crewmembers of both sexes roam around in their underwear in a very innocuous fashion. The actual company of Marines contains both male and female members. From the very moment the troops wake up, both men and women begin to display an exaggerated “kick ass” attitude, with their relentless military witticisms and sarcastic banter. While the extremely tough female Marine, Vasquez, is doing her morning pull ups, one male Marine asks, “Hey Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” and to that she replies, “No, have you?” All of the surrounding Marines approve of the joke as Vasquez shares a vigorous handshake with her male friend, who beams and tells her that she is “too bad.” Although the men appear to be a troop of hardy roughnecks, they seem to hold a resigned cynicism and are constantly mocking their own masculinity. This derisive attitude prevails throughout the whole film and becomes more acute as the Marines begin to unravel in the face of the oncoming cataclysm.
Shortly after landing on the haunted planet, Ripley finds a form of emotional solace in the shape of a young girl. When the humans arrive at the colony it appears to be abandoned, but Ripley and the Marines manage to find one survivor, a child with the nickname Newt. Ripley is reminded of the eleven year old daughter she lost to years of hypersleep, and Newt quickly replaces that emotional void. Even though Newt has a detached attitude that comes from extraordinary trauma, she is receptive to Ripley’s motherly displays of affection. We see how Ripley is immediately charmed by Newt’s sturdy character, and develops a maternal empathy towards this little girl whose life has also been consumed by the alien monsters. Scenes of this distinctly female nurturing behavior are unexpected, and shed a warm light towards the bleakness that Ripley has endured. As innocent as it appears on the surface, this mother/daughter bond becomes the chief catalyst for heroic deeds as the movie progresses.
When catastrophe occurs in action films, a male hero takes on the role of ultimate leadership that keeps the group intact through dire circumstance. In Aliens, we find the female Ripley taking over control of the situation in the name of survival. The Marines find the colonists cocooned, and are ambushed by the ruthless warrior aliens. The commander of the Marines, who happens to be the supposed male authority figure, is the first to crumble by losing his wits and swiftly degenerating into uselessness. As soon as the Marines start to get slaughtered, he becomes frozen, watching the read out screens with an ineffectual fear. It is Ripley, who at this point, takes command of the military vehicle and drives into the complex to extract the few surviving troops. So far Ripley has held a somewhat detached stance with regards to the mission. Ripley follows along with the plans of the shortsighted Marines, but she is the only person next to Newt who knows what the monsters are capable of. After command has disintegrated through this node of crisis, Ripley steps in and takes the initiative necessary to save the remaining Marines. Ripley slides into a posture of heroic resolve without much friction from the male characters, and achieves the luminary traits of newfound authority that are strictly awarded to males in a traditional action film.
Usually the female is the one to show frailty or emotional vulnerability in the face of an unexpected turn for the worse, but in Aliens I found a male character to be the voice of desperation. The remaining survivors wind up stranded on the planet for the time being. This is when Hudson, one of the surviving male Marines, starts to display a panicky sense of doom. He carries on about how, “it’s game over, man!” and asks, “now what the fuck are we suppose to do?” in a high-pitched voice of hysteria. The camera then pans over to Newt, who mentions in her deadpan voice to Ripley, “I guess we are not going to be leaving now,” and suggests that they get inside before dark. Although the contrast between Hudson’s dismay and Newt’s calm disregard is a source of irony and mild comic relief, the fact that one of the few male Marines left alive is whining and carrying on about eminent destruction, while the females remain calm and collected, is a dynamic not often seen in any genre of movie.
A plot twist befalls Ripley towards the end of the film and results in the crux of what makes her such a unique character in mainstream film. The human survivors must make a hasty escape to a landing pad, and this is when Newt is captured by an alien warrior and carried back to the lair to be cocooned with the rest of the colonists. At this point Ripley goes into overdrive, maternal instincts transforming her into the fiercest of soldiers. She decks herself out with weapons and descends into the aliens’ lair to retrieve Newt. In other action movies, the lead characters are drawn into heroic deeds to save someone or something, but it is always a very gallant and masculine affair. Chivalry can be a powerful force, but a mother’s love and concern for the well being of her young could be considered one of the strongest emotional forces known to the human species. Newt is the only person Ripley has left in life, her only connection to humanity. Ripley found a love with Newt that she had lost with the death of her daughter, and that is why she throws herself in the face of danger to save Newt’s life.
After shooting her way through the oncoming alien warriors, Ripley finds Newt and comes face to face with the queen mother of the alien brood, as well as scores of the alien’s eggs. At this point Ripley shoots everywhere and torches all of the eggs, bent on destroying all of the queen’s children and somehow purging her own nightmares of the alien monsters. This self-righteous act triggers the queen’s unfaltering vengeance, as she relentlessly pursues Ripley until the end of the movie. The retaliatory wrath of the queen alien can be absolutely justified when you consider how Ripley destroys the eggs in her cathartic outburst of retribution. In the natural world, destroying all of a mother’s potential offspring is perhaps the worst violation one can commit towards a female animal. Infanticide is sometimes practiced among the species of earth, but it is an argument of food resources or genetic propagation, not a cruel act committed from one female to a much hated other. As a woman, Ripley immediately recognizes the queen’s maternal relationship to the eggs, and destroys them in the face of the queen not only as an outlet of emotional satisfaction, but also out of sheer abhorrence towards the creature who gives birth to the monsters that have tormented her soul. After the remaining survivors narrowly escape from the colony with the hive queen hiding in the drop ship, a final conflict occurs between Ripley and the queen monster where Ripley is victorious. Ripley has survived once again, and has also preserved the life of her beloved Newt.
The movie Aliens paved a road that is seldom traveled by the action film genre. As a sequel, it took the even-handed gender sensibilities of the original Alien movie one step further. There were depictions of aggressive female Marines, and men who turned into whining idiots or fragile buffoons when disaster struck. Your standard ultra-macho attitude, which is usually the intellectual bread and butter of these kinds of movies, often led to a helpless irrationality that pretty much backfired in the face of the good guys in Aliens. This was interesting, but what I found so remarkable was the distinctly female themes explored in Aliens. Ripley is turned into a fearless soldier who risks life and limb for Newt, demonstrating the uncompromising power of maternal love and the care for one’s young. In the end, Ripley finds her much hated nemesis to be a potent vessel of fertility, this female monstrosity that gives birth to her bad dreams, and vehemently strikes out against her. Even though overwhelmingly harsh and deliberately grim in tone, masculinity seems to take a back seat in Aliens, as we observe that the great forces at work in the movie are essentially female ones.


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