James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens is the subject of much critical praise and a prominent part of modern popular culture. Its protagonist Ellen Ripley, played by Sigourney Weaver, is often seen as one of the best examples of a capable action heroine in cinematography. She challenges the tradition of characters that emphasize sex appeal over realism and are ultimately not as capable as men when a large threat appears. At the same time, the film shows struggles that she has to overcome as a woman, such as the initial dismissal of her claims. However, while the movie was progressive in some aspects, it also represented the Reagan-era emphasis on the nuclear family and the woman’s role in it. Aliens express it by replacing the strong female protagonist Ripley with a person who has tried to combine having a child and a career and failed miserably. Its message of her redeeming herself and overcoming her fears by reintegrating into a semblance of a culturally acceptable family unit is indicative of a return to the family-centric mentality where women cannot succeed in life alone.
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The Conflict Between Career and Motherhood
The opening scenes of Aliens involve Ripley being found on the shuttle that she took back to Earth, which has arrived at its destination fifty-seven years after the events of the original film. She spends that time in cryogenic sleep, and in essence, no time passes for her since its horrifying events. Ellen swiftly develops PTSD, which, in combination with her fantastic claims, leads her former employers to declare her unfit for work and relegates her to the lowest rank on the social ladder. Unlike the first movie, where Ripley asserts leadership and acts rationally, eventually succeeding at overcoming the alien threat and escaping, she loses her agency and submits to the system. Moreover, her success in containing the severe threat from the first film is now presented as a failure to do her job as a warrant officer and protect the other crewmembers.
Due to the absence of any proof of the events of Alien, along with the successful colonization of the planet where Ripley believes the threat to be during her stasis, the management dismisses the story. Gallardo and Smith discuss “the self-serving, power-hungry professional who has abandoned her womanhood completely in favor of masculine forms of power (as well as wardrobe),” who is the most dismissive of Ripley (76). She is distrusted because of her femininity, which conflicts with the overwhelming masculinity of the board. With the story of an external threat being considered invalid, Ripley’s failure to save anyone other than herself calls her competency into question. She is only able to avoid prison because of her mental instability, but her career is ruined, either way.
With that said, Ripley is still thirty years old, only entering the area that can be described as middle-aged. She has other potential opportunities in front of her, provided she can overcome her mental issues and move forward. However, the film reveals another piece of information, which is what ultimately leads to her total collapse. Ripley had a daughter, who had died two years before her return without leaving any children behind. There is no mention of a husband, which implies that she was a single mother who left her daughter behind to go onto the original mission. In effect, Ripley has inadvertently abandoned her daughter for her entire life, presumably leaving her with no reliable guardian. The guilt of this act compounds the weight of her failure aboard the Nostromo to completely demoralize the protagonist.
In addition to changing Ripley’s backstory and circumstances, the film also alters the nature of the alien threat. In Alien, a single stowaway creature was ultimately able to kill most of the crew, enabled by its lack of cooperation and panic. However, in Aliens, the viewer sees numerous specimens of the same creature type as well as a larger, more dangerous “queen.” The team, which is hardly any more familiar with xenomorphs than their counterparts from half a century before, manages to kill an impressive quantity of them and ultimately defeat the threat entirely. While the characters of the second movie are marines and not civilians, with better equipment and training, their performance still calls Ripley’s success in escaping the Nostromo into question. The viewer is led to wonder if they only saw her as competent due to a lack of a frame of reference, as the aliens are proven to be far from invincible.
However, at the end of the movie, Ripley redeems herself by becoming a surrogate mother for the child, Newt. Throughout the movie, protecting the girl becomes an extremely important motivation for Ripley, who risks a one-on-one confrontation with the alien queen to rescue her charge. The awakening of the protagonist’s maternal instincts helps her overcome her issues and create a different kind of strength than what she showed in the first movie. This idea is reinforced through the mise-en-scène, especially in the ending sequence before the credits roll. The film ends with Ripley and Newt in separate cold sleep pods, likely for in-universe reasons of safety. However, Ripley interacts with the child as a mother would when laying her down, and the camera in the final shot is positioned so that the two look like they are lying next to each other. Ripley has redeemed her mistake of abandoning her daughter by staying at Newt’s side and becoming a ‘proper’ mother.
The Formation of a Nuclear Family
Ripley is eventually proven correct in her warnings when contact with the colony that she identified as dangerous is lost. The company still refuses to acknowledge the presence of the aliens but recruits her for the investigation mission, regardless. Eventually, she agrees to go, intending to destroy the creatures as a way to confront her fear of them. However, during the mission, her objective changes due to the discovery of new circumstances. She still has her original mission, which she ultimately accomplishes, but the discovery of the child Newt reawakens her maternal nature. Her desire to protect the child informs many of her actions throughout the film and especially her return to the lair of the xenomorphs. In a way, her decision to unofficially adopt Newt likely contributes significantly to the recovery of her strong personality.
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Due to the disbelief of her fellow team members and the distrust Ripley has for the android Bishop, Ripley generally takes on a secondary role during the early parts of the expedition. She expresses anxiety and concern over the careless actions of the Marines but is overruled by the commanding officer. She also remains in the safe environments of the dropship and then the APC while the others, most of whom are male, investigate. However, the encounter with Newt changes this situation somewhat, with Ripley attempting to empathize with the child and have her explain what has happened. Previously, she was convinced that the xenomorphs have killed or implanted everyone in the colony, both of which effectively amounts to the same fate. However, now, she has a child whom she can protect and, therefore, a new purpose beyond hunting the aliens responsible and killing them.
Ripley gets a chance to demonstrate this newfound resolve during the ambush that takes place when the Marines discover the missing colonists. The experienced Sergeant Apone is incapacitated, and the expedition’s commander, Lieutenant Gorman, finds himself unable to control the situation. Despite technically not being part of the command chain and not having gained much respect from the other prior, Ripley takes command and escapes with some of the others. She proceeds to play a substantial role in the further decisions of the team despite being a civilian without any authority. Later on, Ripley also begins handling Marine weaponry and ultimately enters the action actively, confronting the Queen one-on-one twice to protect Newt. She may not have proven strong enough to achieve this goal, especially during the initial ambush, had she not had sufficient motivation.
Throughout the film, Ripley interacts closely with Corporal Hicks, who is the only other human to survive the events other than herself and Newt. There is no overt sexual tension between the two, but over time, they come to work together closely and see each other as partners. Effectively, the three can be seen as an approximation of a family that is based on necessity rather than love at the end of the film. Throughout the events, they form a bond that would be difficult to break. Ripley would likely keep taking care of Newt after returning to Earth, adopting her as a replacement for Amanda. For his part, Hicks would have, at the very least, remained a friend to the two.
When viewed together, the two adults of different sexes with a child form the stereotypical nuclear family that was promoted in Reagan’s era. Much like how the typical action movie ends with the hero obtaining the heroine and kissing, the film implies a “happily ever after” ending without showing it. However, as Tasker notes, “the family is usually an impossible ideal in Cameron’s work – much longed for and highly valued, but out of reach. His characters end up making their own ‘families’ the best way they can” (264). Ripley returns to her former self and overcomes her weaknesses by finding support from a structure that resembles a nuclear family, even if it is temporary. Effectively, she is redeemed after her failure in life due to feminist ideas of self-sufficient single motherhood by adopting the now dominant Reaganite conceptions.
Aliens is a landmark work among action movies that feature women because of its depiction of a female protagonist who is not objectified or being depicted as impossible. However, while it challenged many conceptions that are dominant in such films even today, it also reflected the political paradigm of its time, which was a backlash against second-wave feminism following the election of Ronald Reagan. As a reflection of this view, it expanded the character of Ripley from a confident and able woman to a failed single mother whose career has been ruined as a result of her choices. She then redeems herself by adopting a surrogate daughter and overcoming her struggles as a part of a pseudo-nuclear family. The implication is that while women can be strong and effective, they have to be motivated by maternal instincts and should never abandon their children.
Gallardo, Ximena C., and C. Jason Smith. Alien Woman: The Making of Lt. Ellen Ripley. Continuum, 2004.
Tasker, Yvonne. “The Family in Action.” Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, Routledge, 2004, pp. 252-266.