Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus: We Miss You, Ripley!

I've decided I'm making this a series on the gender portrayed in all of the 2012 summer/spring blockbusters. You can check out my other ones here; The Avengers, the Hunger GamesSnow White and the HuntsmanMIB3Ted/Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, BraveMagic Mike.

So I caught a midnight screening of Prometheus last night. Although it was made 33 years later, Prometheus is a prequel to the popular sci-fi/horror flick Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. Of course, prior to last night, Mr. Nerdy Feminist made sure that I backed up and had actually seen Alien. (I thought I had before but I think that was actually Aliens and I know for sure I have definitely seen Alien Vs. Predator. Oh how proud I am of that...either way I'm all good and caught up now.)

Without spoiling anything, I can say that the amazing character of Ellen Ripley, as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Alien does NOT have a match in Prometheus. In fact, I'm very disappointed that at least in this series, it appears we've quite regressed in the last 33 years. I was so disappointed and concerned that I actually started to jot down the following notes in the theater. (Thank goodness it was the Alamo Drafthouse so I had a paper, pen, and table all at hand.)

And now I'm going to get very spoilery under the cut, so considered yourself warned. 

Before I dig into Prometheus' gender situation, I'll back up and talk a little bit about Ellen Ripley. My disappointment isn't just because of what was portrayed in the prequel, but also because it stands in stark contrast to the character played by Weaver in 1979.

Ellen Ripley is a very strong female hero. She makes ethical decisions, is committed to doing her work right, is a survivor and a badass. I mean, Ripley is so strongly praised that even Wikipedia gets it. Her character page reads: "[Ripley] is often considered as one of the best female protagonists of all time: it was heralded for challenging gender roles, particularly in the science fiction, action and horror genres, gave world recognition to Weaver and remains her most famous role to date."

Many bloggers have also extolled Ripley as a feminist character. As they said at Bitch Flicks, "Radiating confidence and strength, Ripley remains my favorite female film character. A resourceful survivor wielding weapons and ingenuity, she embodies empowerment. Bearing no mystical superpowers, she’s a regular woman taking charge in a crisis."

Furthermore, many argue that Ripley set the tone for many other strong female characters. As reported over by Xan Brooks at The Guardian,
"She advanced the movie heroine pretty far and pretty fast," McIntee says. "I think the entertainment industry would be very different without her. Without Ripley there would be no Leela in Futurama and no Buffy either. She's probably also responsible for toughening up the Bond girls. If you look at the first Bond movie to be released after Alien, you suddenly have the sight of Carole Bouquet running around with a crossbow."
Ok...have I adequately set up why I think Ripley is so great? Yes? Fantastic! Because that really does play a huge role in why the following concerns about Prometheus bother me so much. These concerns can be summarized into two camps...and their names are...

Elizabeth Shaw and Meredith Vickers

1. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) aka the overly emotional one
I had a problem with Shaw from the start. But let me back up and give some details. Shaw and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are scientists who have discovered that human life originated on another planet with an alien race. They are leading a mission to a new solar system because they convinced a very rich man Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) to fund a trip to meet their maker.

Despite that Shaw is 50% of a mission that is a really big deal, her strength us undermined from the start. One of the other men in the mission calls Holloway and Shaw "the scientist and his girlfriend." It is also revealed that she is nervous to lead from the very start. Shaw frequently displays an overly emotional demeanor including mass amounts of crying and shaking (even before shit gets real, people!) And she shares that she feels inferior because she cannot have children.

Some might argue that some of these things were included to humanize Shaw, but the result to me at least, is that she appears illogical, excitable, overly idealistic, wishy washy, and childlike. In fact, it is she who begins to cause a host of problems through various blunders and bad choices. For example, when they go to collect samples, it is she who drops the specimen and has to be rescued.

Later in the movie, Shaw does step up and start to make things happen. However, by the time that she has regained some agency, I was already disconnected from her. It felt like she was only kicking ass because she had to.

2. Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) aka the ice queen bitch
Meredith Vickers stands in stark contrast to Shaw. While Shaw is emotional and innocent, Vickers is stoic and sexual. In fact, our introduction to Vickers is her near nude, waking from a 2 year controlled sleep state designed to make the trip go faster. But instead of shaking off sleep, Vickers is ferociously doing push ups with water (sweat?) running off her body everywhere. It is a scene which could have been bad ass if it hadn't been shot in a manner which just lingered all over her body in typical male gaze fashion. (I think it's worth noting here that when Shaw woke up from the sleep state she was vomiting profusely and had to be cared for.)

Vickers' lack of emotion is displayed time after time. She burns infected men without remorse and is the first to insist that others will be left behind. She is hateful and threatening to almost every character at some point and makes it very clear that she is to be feared. The real problem with Vickers is that she is essentially a stereotypical female villain (cruel, sexy, and severely punished for her behavior.) But the movie doesn't really need a villain, because, you know...aliens.

From either direction, by the end of the film, we are totally lacking a Ripley.
Clearly, neither of these women can hold a candle to Ripley. On one hand, Shaw is stereotypically emotional. On the other hand, Vickers is a badass, but not one who operates with ethics or integrity.

Beyond the characterization of the women in the film there are other interesting gender dynamics at play. The  Alien franchise is rather known for its overt genital/sexual imagery, depiction of male fear of birth, and rape. As told to Brooks:
"Alien is a rape movie with male victims," explains David McIntee, author of the Alien study Beautiful Monsters. "And it also shows the consequences of that rape: the pregnancy and birth. It is a film that plays, very deliberately, with male fears of female reproduction."
Prometheus contains all of these same elements. There is a very intense scene where Shaw has been impregnated with an alien and is screaming for David (Michael Fassbender) to get it out of her. Or in other words, screaming for an abortion. Because she is not given it; she resorts to trying a surgical machine, except  it's "calibrated for men." (I read the scene as a nice comment on how the medical system views men as the default and how men frequently stand between women and reproductive medical services, but it's entirely possible I looked way too far into that.) Anyway, Shaw finds a way to get the machine to remove her own uterus, with the alien fetus inside, in the most bloody and gruesome scene of the film. If you want more on these themes, I highly suggest you let you fingers do some Googling. There is some good reading out there about how the other films depict sexuality and rape metaphors and I suspect Prometheus' material will be added into the analysis soon.

However, these "interesting" symbolic gestures and imagery aren't enough to overcome the fact that Shaw and Vickers can't touch Ripley. And again, Prometheus was written and brought to live over 30 years after Alien.

So I ask you, genuinely, how far have we come?


  1. And how about the scene near the end where the Engineer gets 'impregnated' against 'his will'?

  2. What I think makes Ripley great (I think you touched on this a bit) is that she's not a one-dimentional character like Vickers and Shaw. She is complex. She is both a warrior and a mother. My favorite moment of Aliens is by far the "Get away from her, you bitch!" line. Come to think of it, the Alien Queen is a female and a mother too. Adds a whole new dimension to the Alien series beyond the rape and birth symbolism.

  3. Sorry, I've just discovered your blog so I'm going a bit comment crazy! I don't necessarily think you are wrong about Promethues but I wanted to add a couple of brief positives. Firstly, it passes the Bechdel test, which of course doesn't make it feminist but nevertheless makes me excited because so few mainstream films do. Secondly, I found Shaw a fairly realistic character and her reactions (eg vomiting etc) in keeping with her role as a scientist rather than an astronaut - although the stuff about having kids was a rather cliched shorthand, I agree. She's a different kind of woman to Ripley but I have to say I would probably behave more like Shaw than Ripley in those circumstances! Lastly, I think Vickers is deliberately an androgenous puzzle, not designed to equal Shaw as a heroine but rather held up as a mirror to David. Its sad that Scott didn't take the opportunity to give the world another Ripley but I mostly thought he tackled gender and expectations in an interesting way.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this. I just watched Prometheus, without much knowledge about the previous Alien films, and was incredibly disturbed by what I thought these images represented. I of course went to IMDB and the film website's forums, but nobody seemed to have mentioned anything like what you have written about here. I also was thinking about what AMC mentioned in her comment; that is, the involvement of the mother in this horror story. After all, Shaw is the mother of what fans are calling "Cuddles", which saves her life by consuming/raping the male who tries to dominate her. This film and the use of aliens to convey these fears is almost too much to take in all at once - firstly, that it seems so well disguised as to be nonexistent to 99% of viewers, and secondly, that the horror story is critiqued in every way, it seems, but this. Anyway, thank you for adding to the Prometheus/Alien discussion.

  5. "...Ellen Ripley, as portrayed by Sigourney Weaver in Alien does NOT have a match in Prometheus."

    Having only now just watched both Alien3 and Prometheus in a double-creature feature format, I would argue that the feeling of both lacking and identification of a notable difference between Ripley and the female characters seems, at least from my perspective. In two very different ways, both women subject themselves to patriarchal norms of gender and power roles (Shaw in terms of sexual patriarchy, Vickers in a much more literal sense of the business patriarchy) for their own gains and therefore compromise themselves, with intention, from the film's beginning. In this sense, the contrast can be seen with Ripley in ALIEN3, who is much more assertive and indeed violently matriarchal, rejecting patriarchal expectations of the Weyland Corporation by committing a suicide/abortion that will prevent the Company from breeding xenomorphs. This militantly pro-choice and pro-abortion step furthermore subverts the patriarchal norms of war and the weaponizing of rape, the company intends to raise an army of the xenomorphs, weapons of rape.


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