A recent discussion with vschanoes over on ellen_kushner‘s journal resulted in me watching Aliens again tonight. Aside from all the other things the movie does really really well (seriously, it isn’t just a sci-fi action/horror movie, it’s a well-constructed sci-fi action/horror movie), I was reminded of how well it handles Ripley as a strong character.
Hell if I can remember where I saw this, but somebody recently was talking about the way a lot of movies seem to mistake “strong woman” for “woman who kills things.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the latter does not define the former. Ripley isn’t strong because she uses a gun to kill aliens; she’s strong because she picks the gun up and learns how to use it. She’s strong because her reaction to problems is to find a way to handle them. Her nerve isn’t unshakeable — we see her scared, more than once — but fear doesn’t stop her, and ultimately, her psychological resilience is her true strength. The willingness to pick up that gun, or get in the loader, or go back down into the facility because Newt’s down there somewhere and might still be alive; to go with the colonial marines in the first place because the only way to get rid of her nightmares is to face them again. That resilience is why she survives, when a lot of more physically badass marines bite the dust.
(Yes, from another perspective she survives because she’s the main character, and those marines aren’t. I’m speaking from a position of in-story logic. And she’s the more interesting main character because of that logic.)
Which of course means you can have strong female characters in stories with no violence at all. They just attract our attention more when the situation is extreme. Picking oneself up after a bad divorce is one thing; facing down an alien queen is quite another.
Ripley and Sarah Connor are similarly cool characters, and I don’t think it’s an accident they date to around the same time. I just wish it seemed less like Hollywood forgot what it knew back then.