Jun 11 2012 1:30pm

Ripley Versus Shaw: The Women of the Alien Universe

If you’ve seen any of the Ridley Scott Alien films, then you know that the universe has got some serious Mommy issues. Whose impregnating whom, whose birthing whom, and what to do with your kids when they try to come back and burn your face away with their acid blood is kind of what the Xenomorph universe is about. So it’s no wonder that the Alien films have always had female protagonists at the heart of the action, women who represent the full scope of strong female characters. After all, this is the series that gave us Ellen Ripley, the quintessential kick-ass sci-fi heroine and arguably one of the toughest female protagonists of any film ever.

Now, in Ridley Scott’s new Prometheus, we’re introduced to Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist out looking for a little alien action in space. How does she stack up to our beloved Ripley? Let’s do a side by side.

(Spoilers to Prometheus ahoy!)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

There’s been multitudes written about the unstoppable Ellen Ripley. As a character, she begins as a simple warrant officer on the Nostromo, out on a normal mission to a strange planet. We all know how that went. Ripley survives the events of Alien, even saves her cat, and returns to civilization, only to get dragged back out among the stars for an even worse encounter with the Xenomorphs in Aliens. There, it’s Mother Figure versus Big Mother as Ripley tries to protect little Newt from the Alien Queen. Ripley survives that fight, only to get herself stranded on the Fury 161 penal colony where she’s got to deal with being the only lady in town and, oh yes, more Xenomorphs, in Alien 3. And did we mention she’s been impregnated to birth the Queen Alien? Oh yes, and kills herself so that the Queen baby won’t get out? That is one seriously tough woman, no doubt. Then, just when you thought she might get a chance to rest in piece, Ripley is brought back as a cloned half-Alien with acidic blood in Alien: Ressurection. There, she’s got to teach her own Alien children some manners by killing them all horribly before the Auriga gets to Earth and rains Xenomorphs down on all of mankind.

That, in a nutshell, is the awesomeness that is Ellen Ripley in one paragraph. When looking at her representation in the films, one can’t help but acknowledge why she’s considered one of the greatest on screen protagonists of all time. As a heroine, she is everything one can hope for: kind yet firm, compassionate yet commanding, and capable of equally taking care of a scared child as much as defending the human race from alien impregnation and destruction. After all, this is the woman who made famous the “Get away from her, you bitch!”—later copped by Molly Weasley in Harry Potter. Ellen Ripley is the original deal in female maternal rage.

Ripley also has the problem of her own isolation over the films to deal with. Her daughter dies while she is away in space and as time goes on, other humans begin to find her off-putting due to her (rightful) obsession with the xenomorph threat. Every time she gets close to someone, be they Newt or Hicks or the doctor from Fury 161, they die. By the time she’s stranded on that all-male penal colony, her isolation from support could not possibly be more clear — due to her experiences, Ripley is set apart from others, alone in her fight. And when she is brought back from the dead as a half-Alien, she is literally separated from all mankind by no longer being one of them. Yet even that separation doesn’t keep Ripley from protecting the human race with every weapon in her arsenal.

Ripley’s arc is one of the evolution of a woman from youth and relative innocence to protective mother figure to the wise older matron, out to correct the slaughtering ways of errant grandchildren — who happen to be Xenomorphs.Against that kind of badass trajectory, how can anyone stack up? Let’s take a look now at the new female protagonist of Prometheus to see how she lives up to the Ripley legacy.


Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace)

Elizabeth Shaw is a scientist out to discover why a multitude of cultures on Earth have the same designs in their artwork, a plot point brought out by the Alien vs. Predator movie back in 2004. She and her partner Charlie are the heart behind the Prometheus crew, the “true believers” in discovering the origins of mankind. Elizabeth is also represented as a spiritual woman, having inherited a religious background from her father, and falls back upon her belief in her theories as her backbone when things get tough. Unlike Charlie, Elizabeth does not lose determination even when her theories and ideas are challenged due to that core of faith.

And get challenged she does. Just like Ripley, Shaw is introduced with the same maternal questions posed by many of the Alien films. We discover in the film that Shaw is not able to have children, which is a sore spot for her, and when presented with the possibility of alien invasion babies, Shaw is just as unenthused as Ripley. Still, where Ripley fights to remain unviolated by the alien menace, Shaw takes things one step forward in what might arguably be the most hardcore birth/abortion sequence of all time. Shaw refuses to become a host for an unwanted, invasive alien and takes the power into her hands to save her own life. In essence, she refuses the maternal role over the alien threat that Ripley embraces in the earlier films, putting herself and her quest for knowledge and survival first.

This self-protective determination is equally balanced by a peaceful streak light years wide. When she sees a fellow crew member wanting to bring weapons onto the alien world, she balks at the notion of violence. Shaw’s strength lies in her tender heart: she cares for her lover Charlie, the crew of the Prometheus, and even for the robot David. Yet as those support structures are stripped away, Shaw shows the same determination to protect human life that made Ripley so powerful as a character. For a woman battling for her life in the Alien universe, Shaw does it with her convictions and her determination to survive, rather than with a gun.

An interesting difference between the two heroines also lies in Shaw’s status as a true believer. Where Ripley was pragmatic in her want to return to Earth and a safer, calmer life, Shaw is a seeker of the unknown. She is propelled out into the stars not for money, but for the chance to answer one of life’s greatest questions: where do we come from? That sets Shaw apart as an idealist from the practical Ripley, a seeker of knowledge where Ripley is the defender against the unknown.

So that’s the two women. But wait, there’s one more main female protagonist to be considered in the Alien franchise. Dare we touch on the much bashed but somewhat interesting AvP ?


Bonus Comparison: Alexa Wood (Sanaa Lathan)

So a lot of bad things have been said about the Alien versus Predator movie, but this train wreck of a film did at least one thing correctly. Despite a bad script and wooden acting, AvP at least kept the tradition of strong female protagonists alive in Sanaa Lathan’s Arctic guide, Alexa Wood. For that alone, she bears at least mentioning.

Alexa is a die-hard survivor like Ripley, a woman experienced in traversing frozen wastelands and dealing with tough men on a regular basis. She stands up to millionaires and scientists alike and, as a bonus, has to fight her way through a shifting underground temple full of not only one, but two species of aliens trying to kill her. She makes quick assessments of what is more dangerous and devises a strategy to fight alongside the Predators to deal with the Xenomorph threat. She is a warrior through and through, something that is recognized by the Predators by the end of the film when they reward her with a token of warrior’s respect. Now how many humans can say they get that?

Still, for all her kick-ass portrayal, Wood loses a lot of the themes that make the women of the Xenomorph universe badass in that there’s nothing maternal or caring about her. She is aloof and cool, the typical two-dimensional portrayal of a ’kick-ass chick’ in a badly done movie. Sure, she may kill aliens well, but does she have much else to stand on? Not really. And that’s the failure of AvP as much as anything else.


The Final Analysis

One can make points about both Ripley and Shaw being wonderful representations of women heroes, but it’s hard to argue with the original being better. Noomi Rapace’s performance, while stellar, can’t touch Sigourney Weaver’s intensity as Ripley and Prometheus, while a great addition to the Alien universe, simply can’t stack up against the first two films for depth, tension and character evolution. Still, Elizabeth Shaw is a different kind of Alien heroine from Ripley, an idealist whose vision carries her beyond the violence and slaughter that comes with interacting with the dangers of space, and that’s something to be respected too. In the end, I think the universe has place for both strong women and (hopefully) many more to come.

Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and

Jonathan Levy
1. JonathanLevy
Whose impregnating whom, whose birthing whom

Please, please fix this.
David Thomson
2. ZetaStriker
I actually didn't care for Shaw as a protagonist, to be honest. She was consistently overshadowed by other characters/actors during any scene she wasn't alone for, and where Ripley survived through competence and intelligence, Shaw seemed to get by through luck and the help of others. Most of the glimmers of personality even come from other characters like David and her husband, furthing distancing ourselves from the character herself. I just felt no connection with her, or most of the cast for that matter.

In my opinion Charlize Theron's Meredith Vickers should have been the lead, as she had the most impacting emotional arc as well as the largest screen presence. She dripped vitrol where Shaw showed compassion, but thanks to Theron's performance it seemed obvious she was hiding emotional depth behind some rather extensive emotional blocks. Her growing emotional attachment to the crew, quick and intelligent survival decisions and the level of her involvement - not to mention personal investment! - in the corporate plot placed her front and center with every aspect of the plot. She seemed a better candidate for protagonism than Shaw herself, in my mind, up until they killed her in a mind bogglingly stupid manner. (Shaw rolls to the side all of five feet and it misses her? Really?)

True, she was lacking in certain areas as well. She was more interested in her survival than serving as some sort of savior, but in the end she showed the potential for character growth that Shaw never did, and I would've liked to have seen that explored more in the film and its sequels.
Walker White
3. Walker
Shaw is barely one step above a heroine in a teen slasher pic. Because that is what the characters in this film are. They repeatedly make stupid decisions that only people in a low budget horror movie would make, and these stupid decisions are what move the plot along. While Shaw is not responsible for the most bone headed decisions, she never takes control (except for the surgery, which is still more reactive than proactive) and simply survives the happenings around her. As a heroine, I fail to see why she is better than Alice in Friday the 13th.

Compare this to Ripley in both Alien and Aliens. At all times her actions are intelligent and are often opposed to those of the other characters. She refuses to allow Kane back on board in Alien, and is the person that exposes the android (something that Shaw never does in Prometheus, continuing to trust him in the end). Similarly, in Aliens, she takes command after the failed attack at the reactor, and is the primary architect of the siege defenses. This is a woman that we never saw in sci fi/action movies up to that point, and have rarely seen since.
4. sofrina
i agree with @3 - the dynamics are completely different. ripley is the eye of the storm. when things get crucial, her clear-eyed decision-making becomes the rallying point. in all three films, ripley weighs the options, targets a plan and marshals her companions toward survival.

no one turns to shaw when things start getting crazy. in fact, no one really turns to anyone. with the exception of david and two others defering to weyland, the characters are pretty much freewheeling in all directions. and that chaos clearly leads them all to their doom. given shaw's final choice in the film, only a lunatic would follow her.
David Thomson
5. ZetaStriker
Shaw was unimpressive from the beginning, but when she really lost me after the abortion, when she went right back to Weyland like nothing had happened. She just had no agency to exercise, it seemed.
Del C
6. del
They called her what!?

Excuse me, there is only one Dr Elizabeth Shaw.
7. mrskatemalone
The great thing about Alexa Wood is that she's the rare person of color -male or female - who survives these types of movies. Also, she kicks butt.

As for no mommy issues/maternal archetypes? YAY.
9. a1ay
What depresses me is that now apparently Noomi Rapace is a BIGSTAR and she's going to be in film after film. Maybe some day they'll cast her against Sam Worthington and produce the perfect cinematic beige.
10. michael3224987654
"Noomi Rapace’s performance, while stellar,..."
did we watch the same movie?
there is nothing stellar about here performance, it is flat and lifeless, like an actor's face with too much botox...
11. Andrea K
I vastly preferred Vickers to Shaw. Shaw was a starry-eyed idealist who based her scientific theories on 'faith' (one of the other characters called her a zealot and that fit so so well) and seems to think being on a "scientific mission" (beatific smile) precludes the need for weapons and will somehow make everyone immune to danger.

Vickers is self-interested but a seething mass of rage and jealousy under an icy exterior, and at least possessed an ounce of Common Sense! Vickers would have made an awesome protagonist, especially if they had her face up to "be self-sacrificial or entire planet dies".
Jonathan Carruthers
12. JMurphC
To me it seemed that as much as the first films depended on fears associated with and/or stemming from "Mommy issues" and the vagina-dentata; Prometheus depends on typically masculine traits and Daddy issues.

From small details to the thematic emphases, agency (as #5 noted) is almost strictly masculine in Prometheus. To begin with (as the film does) the Engineers, who interestingly enough all seem to be male, are responsible for inseminating (Mother) Earth with their DNA, which in this universe essentially sets all the action into motion. Shaw's faith and scientific career are nurtured by her father, in whose footsteps she follows (presumably in both aspects), symbolized by the cross she wears. Also, it is Weyland, over Vickers vociferous opposition, who insists on funding the expedition. Then, there is the undeniably phallic alien that kills the biologist, and many other pieces of evidence to boot that I will not go into as this wall of text is most likely long enough to discourage anyone from reading it's entirety. Finally, it is the Captain and pilots of the eponymous Prometheus who foil the remaining Engineer's attempt to destroy life on earth.

Thus, Shaw is not a protagonist empowered in the same way Ripley was but who nonetheless has her own arc and triumphs. Her faith in the end is not a lack of growth but the conclusion of it. Naive and untested at first, stripped away figuratively and literally, fought for and regained; all symbolized by her father's cross. Shaw does not drive the ship/film but is a passenger who nevertheless perseveres and survives by relying on her faith and endeavors to withstand the masculine forces besieging her, ultimately bending them to her will via her "child" and David.
13. a1ay
To begin with (as the film does) the Engineers, who interestingly enough all seem to be male, are responsible for inseminating (Mother) Earth with their DNA, which in this universe essentially sets all the action into motion.

Word of God (Ridley Scott) says that isn't Earth we see in the prologue.

As for the lack of agency argument (ugh): who finds the cave paintings in the first place? Who's the first person into the alien dome? Who establishes herself as clearly in command of the mission - and who is her rival for command in that conversation? Who faces down pretty much the entire male crew, and incinerates one of them? Who takes the head back to the ship, and who then conducts the autopsy on it? The captain and his (male) crew foil the Engineer, but who tells them to do so?
Put it this way: How many times in the film does a male character successfully tell a woman what to do? How many times does the reverse happen?

And of course "My cabin, ten minutes."
Jonathan Carruthers
14. JMurphC
In regard to the prologue, good catch, I have not done much background reading on the film, having only seen it once over the weekend on a whim. I would argue however that regardless of the planet pictured the implication of the film is that the Engineers created human beings, or at least life on earth which evolved into human beings though I believe the former is more accurate.

As for the agency discussion (umm), Shaw is almost always linked professionally with her partner, and is part of a larger contingent entering the dome. As for Vickers' "command," the authority she claims is derived from the assumption that she speaks for Weyland, the real commander of the mission. Also, I would argue that her rival in that conversation was Holloway (possibly misspelled). As for facing down, I'm sorry I don't recall that scene, but when the (for lack of a better term) possessed Fifeild returns to the ship, who puts him down? (Hint: they're all male) Also, the incineration could more rightly be called an "assisted self-immolation." Dr. Holloway commands Vickers to "DO IT!" repeatedly as he calls her bluff and crosses the threshold to the ship's air lock forcing her, clearly against her wishes, to pull the trigger and incinerate him. Yes, the Captain and his crew actually foil the Engineer. It is the Captain's idea to "fire the Ion (Blasters?)", and his order to sacrifice the Prometheus and it's remaining crew to cripple the Engineer ship. Also, it is his ultimatum in which he tells Shaw in no uncertain terms that he will not permit any harmful material to reach Earth.

Shaw's plea to the Captain contains less agency than Vickers' "My cabin, ten minutes," (the sexual relationship itself no more than a device to remove the watchful Captain from the bridge). Consent is not the same as agency. Furthermore, if Vickers had control of the Captain, why was she completely disregarded (also, the Captain orders Vickers to get in her "life-boat" or face the consequences at this point, which she does, not that I'm counting) as he prepared to ram the Engineer ship?

Clearly, male influences and archetypical masculine pursuits (I would argue Vickers displays many masculine qualities) such as; recklessness, exploration, and conquest, to name a few, permeated the film in contrast to the overbearing femininity and maternal associations of the previous films (David waking the crew as opposed to "MOTHER" for example). I do not argue this in order to take away from the female protagonists, but to demonstrate the weight of Shaw's character when finally marshaling these forces to her own purposes.
Philip Wardlow
15. PhilipWardlow
First it's to early to tell what type of heroine/protagonist Elizabeth Shaw will be in comparison to Ripley...I believe both women are just as competent in their roles - they can't be clones of each other that would be stupid writing, and don't tell me Ripley didnt depend a lot on the people around her when she needed it as well..that's what made her a strong character. When to ask for help when needed but also knew when to be proactive as well. First I think Ridley Scott is going in a different direction with these movies than the Alien ones...I think Elizabeth is just along for the ride and the Android David is the real protagonist in the story..just look at the opening scene to the movie to discover that.Cya
16. reded
Noomi Rapace obviously.
Elizabeth Shaw character went through more than Ripley in two entire films!

MUCH more interesting too!
18. You're just too bad!
"No love for Vasquez?"

Funny timing, but two comments before getting to this one, I was thinking "What about Vasqie, she was hardcore", only to find 2 comments after having that thought someone else wondering the same thing.

I cant believe the blog mentions a female character from a train wreck of a sequel but ignores vasquez from a sequel which was'nt all that bad. That was a Bad drop.

And you want to compare a trully hardcore woman to one who was forced into the role of a hardcore woman, try this.

Watch Aliens again. Within minutes of coming out of hypersleep, Vasqie's hitting the pullup bar. What does ripley do coming out of hypersleep? Struggles to pull her panties out of her crack and looks violently ill !!!!!!!!!!

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment