ARCHIVE: “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Gender identity in ALIENS (1986)

As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the key films from my adolescence was Aliens (1986). Playing out like a visceral nightmare on crack, that film remains a classic of action/horror/sci-fi cinema, and it fairly quickly made me a fan of the whole Alien universe.

Back in the day this meant the Alien Trilogy ( with Alien: Resurrection, Prometheus and the ill-conceived AvP movies still being off in the future). When I was around 14 I got the Facehugger boxset of the movies, and have a very fond memory of sitting down to watch all three of them back to back. On my own. Wearing an Alien T-shirt. If that makes me sound like a geek, that’s ok: I have a photo somewhere of me as a tubby teenager behind a table full of Alien memorabilia, smiling like a poster boy for cinephile geekery. And I’m kinda proud of that.

The original Alien Trilogy arguably contains two of the greatest movies ever made, with the third being a disappointing entry sabotaged by studio meddling (though I would argue that Alien 3 is a lot better than most people remember it to be). Throughout them all though one of the really interesting things about those movies are their portrayal of women.

If Star Wars was about men rescuing a princess from the tower, Alien is about what happens when the dragon eats the men and the woman rescues herself.

Alien (1979) came out two years after Star Wars (1977), and could be seen as the subversive cousin to George Lucas’ epic space fantasy. Whilst SW upheld gender stereotypes (it is essentially a tale about knights rescuing a princess from a fortress), Alien subverts gender expectations. Lt. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the hero, but she’s not the obvious star, gradually emerging from the shadows as more traditional heroes (the male Cpt. Dallas, for example), are dispatched one by one. If Star Wars was about men rescuing a princess from the tower, Alien is about what happens when the dragon eats the men and the woman rescues herself.

Aliens (1986) builds on and develops this kind of sci-fi feminism. Director James Cameron had already made The Terminator (1984), which also subverted gender expectations (itself being a story of man-tries-to-rescue-woman-but-is-killed-so-she-rescues-herself-instead). As Aliens opens, Ripley learns her daughter died during the 57 years she was in hyper-sleep since the first film. She then accompanies a bunch of macho space marines on a rescue mission to save inter-planetary colonists from a suspected xenomorph attack. What they quickly find though is that the colonists are all dead, except for a little girl named Newt whom Ripley adopts, becoming her surrogate mother.


In Aliens the ideas of femininity and motherhood are absolutely core. As the film progresses the male protagonists are exposed as either lacking or corrupt (the marines are out-numbered; scheming company man Burke is a traitor). Even Hicks – arguably the only positive male character in the film – is overcome by an acid blast to the face. And as Newt is taken by the aliens it falls to Ripley to rescue her. Now she is the knight, Newt is the princess, and the dragon? Well that of course is infamous Alien Queen – another female. By the time the end credits roll round it’s clear the whole film is – in part at least – about a mother protecting her children. And you could say that about either Ripley or the Queen.

Some might argue that Ripley isn’t really an example of true femininity as she adopts a male gun-toting persona to finally conquer. But this is to miss how well rounded she is as a character. It’s helpful to compare Ripley with the manly Vasquez – a butch marine who dies the same as her male comrades, showing that her brand of femi-masculinity fails too. Whilst Vasquez is androgynous, Ripley doesn’t even pick up a gun until the finale when her motherly instincts require it to rescue Newt. As such, a closer reading shows Ripley isn’t a male action hero at all, but a woman utterly distinct from the men around her who is not only able to hold her own but – more than that – able to save the men around her along with Newt.


I think the world needs more Ellen Ripleys. In an age where Michael Bay introduces his female characters with close-ups of their bums, cinema needs strong and powerful female leads: women who don’t need a man to define them, are fierce and intelligent, and who are heroes for men and women alike. And perhaps, if required by their circumstances, are able to use a power-loader to battle an eight-foot tall xenomorphic monster.

Tim Coleman

One response to “ARCHIVE: “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” Gender identity in ALIENS (1986)”

  1. Great post! I agree that the cinematic world needs more female leads like Ripley, rather than the atrocities of the Transformers movies – I watched the latest one the other day & had to stop due to camera shots through parted female legs….

    Liked by 1 person

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