40 years later, sci-fi classic Alien still depicts the frustration of being a woman in the workplace
Classic sci-fi film Alien turned 40 this year.
I had cramps and a terrible week at work, so I ordered a chicken club sandwich with fries to my Brooklyn apartment, ready to settle in for one of my greatest self-care indulgences: old hyper-violent action films. When I feel the most homesick for my family and old life many states away, I think of laughing with my dad at the paltry practical effects in the original Godzilla movies that we’d marathon. I opened the steaming tin foil from my delivery order and pressed play on my pick: Alien (1979). I was ready to snuggle back into the proverbial womb and ease my physical and emotional aches with a movie that I had not seen since childhood.
The nearly 40-year-old film struck me to my core. During what I anticipated to be nothing more than a lazy weekend surface-level re-watch, I wept. I shouted at the screen. I pumped my fist. I sighed with rage. And I took reams of notes about feminism, #MeToo, and the stark reality that men, en masse, would literally rather die than listen to a woman. This franchise is less “sci-fi action flick” and more “realistic video essay about gender in America.”
The plot, for the uninitiated, follows Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her good-faith attempt to save her crew aboard the Nostromo, a commercial spaceship that is obligated to land on a distant exoplanet, when the ship receives an unidentified distress call. What ensues is a unique and terrifying action/horror film in space as the crew is held hostage by a malicious alien species. Everybody dies because they assume that Ripley, the highest-ranking female officer aboard, can’t possibly know what she’s doing.
The truth of womanhood is eternal. Ripley is the smartest and most capable on her team. And just like real life, here on our human planet in the present day, the men around her constantly question her, gaslight her, and go over her head in order to maintain their petty pride. The future, with all of its mind-bending galaxy-exploring technology, still can’t tame the fragile male ego.
It is infuriating to watch Ripley—level-headed and brave—possess the tools necessary to save the ship and her crew, yet be unable to use any of them. If the men could just put aside their greed and thirst for power, most of them would still be living and the $42 million ship would still be intact. (Notably, one of the male crew members lies to Ripley in order to attempt bringing one of the deadly alien forms back to Earth, knowing that it will result in great fortune and notoriety, regardless of her insistence that this will bring the inevitable loss of the lives of the crew). The men on the ship find Ripley, a female leader, too grating, too strong-willed, and too much.
The brilliance of Alien is that any woman in any workplace can fiercely and instantly relate to Ripley. We know the daily emotional labor required to send a project management email and tailor it so as not to sound “too bitchy” or “shrill”—knowing that any man who used our very same wording would be lauded for his strength and leadership. We know the feeling of being treated with less respect and more pushback than our male counterparts. (Note how CEOs Kate Dwyer and Penelope Gazin only started to actually be treated well by male clients once they signed their emails with a fake male co-founder named “Keith”.)
All hell breaks loose when Ripley is acting senior officer aboard the Nostromos. Her male counterparts—professional astronauts with years of higher education and stature—cannot fathom or handle a woman being in charge. She is faced with a frantic crew member trying to bring Officer Kane (John Hurt)—currently paralyzed by a terrifying alien life form attached to him—onto the ship. Ripley enforces strict company quarantine orders not to allow any infected crew member aboard. She is thus chided, screamed at, and undermined by an inferior male crew member. The infected crew member is let on board against her wishes. This is the event that sparks every single subsequent death aboard the ship (the infamous “chest-burster” scene) and it leaves Ripley (along with her loyal cat, Jonesy—the only good man in the Alien franchise, as far as I’m concerned) as the final survivors at the end of the film.
“The brilliance of Alien is that any woman in any workplace can fiercely and instantly relate to Ripley.”
While Alien is deservedly remembered for its T-shirt-worthy one-liners and artful effects, this franchise also cohesively centers the downfalls of men with the virulent need to defy strong, intelligent women. I couldn’t help but draw immediate parallels to the #MeToo movement and women’s equality in the workplace. As a survivor of sexual violence and emotional abuse, in addition to experiencing the daily frustrations of being tone-policed and belittled by men on the internet and at work, I not only cheered for Ripley’s badassery (“Micro changes in air density, my ass”), but I wept for our shared truth. She has worked her entire life to reach her rank, to scavenge planets, and to make scientific discoveries. She is more competent than anyone. And yet, in the eyes of men, her achievements and strength are ignored. They are not qualities to admire, but threats. She is simply another annoying woman.
In the second film, Ellen Ripley is given no choice but to revisit the scene of her initial trauma over and over again—a common occurrence for survivors of abuse. Ripley is not met with sympathy, trust, or even admiration for being the only survivor of the infestation and subsequent explosion of the Nostromos. Though Aliens starts 57 years after the end of the first film, nothing about the dynamic of society has changed. Not even the tiniest bit. A boardroom of wealthy gruff old white men grill her about what happened on the Nostromos. She tells the truth. They don’t believe her.
RIPLEY: I don’t understand this. We’ve been here for three and a half hours. Now how many different ways do you want me to tell the same story?
VAN LEUWEN: Look at it from our perspective, please. Please. Now you freely admit to detonating the engines of and thereby destroying a M-class starfreighter. A rather expensive piece of hardware.
Oh, cool. Not “Thank God you’re alive, Ripley” or “That must have been so terrifying, Ripley. Thank you for having the strength to be here today.” Nope. Just old cis het men berating a woman and wishing that she hadn’t fought back; all so they could save some extra cash.
VAN LEUWEN: The analysis team which went over the lifeboat centimeter by centimeter found no physical evidence of the creature you describe.
And that’s enough to shut and stamp her file. Case closed. Ellen Ripley must be a liar—it reminds me of rape culture. They punish her for being a survivor and talking about it (sound familiar?), and her flight officer license is revoked. She is blacklisted from work on spacecrafts and resigned to operate cargo lifts for the foreseeable future.
Demoted from Warrant Officer to First Class Lieutenant, Ripley is given an ultimatum by another man from the boardroom, company representative Carter Burke. The only way she can get her flight officer license back is if she agrees to go on a mission with a new crew to revisit the species that terrorized her. In order to “prove” the literal horror movie that she lived through—because her words alone are not trusted or seen as good enough in the eyes of prideful men—labor is demanded of her and her safety is at risk yet again. I had a wildly similar experience when I reported an abuser to a comedy theatre and was tasked with the deeply re-traumatizing demand of scouring years of all of my texts, Facebook messages, and emails to find any “proof” to bring in on paper. If I didn’t (and abuse so often does not have tangible evidence, just years of internal trauma and therapy bills), I would not be helped and he would remain a performer at the theatre where I was studying. I wasn’t helped, he still performs at the theatre, and I was invited to “pursue training elsewhere.”
From the mission’s start, Ripley is frequently second-guessed by her crew regarding what she experienced and what the mission should entail. These are men who weren’t even born when she slayed evil aliens with a flamethrower and watched all of her co-workers die. And yet, as far as they’re concerned, she simply must be exaggerating. These films accurately speak volumes about the nature of being a female survivor in a patriarchal society.
As you might have predicted, Aliens follows the same path as its predecessor. Ripley is invariably defied and remains one of the only survivors of the ship—all because adult men refuse to treat her previous experiences as valid.
This harassment harms women workers in a trendy start-up office or a distant galaxy. In an email chain or a xenomorph war. The aliens are already here. We have been screaming about them to you for centuries, but nobody wants to listen. We are forced to sit with them on the subway and politely smile back at them in HR meetings. I wonder if Alien and Aliens are the only movies that get a hell of a lot scarier as we women get older?
I leave you with the final lines of Aliens, as Ellen Ripley is finally safe and about to enter stasis once again. She comforts Newt, a lone little girl whose family was killed and who she rescued from the bloodthirsty mother xenomorph. That’s right. Even amidst her fierce exhausting battle against her crew and against her old alien enemy species, she is still sure to take care of her fellow women.
NEWT: Are we gonna sleep all the way home?
RIPLEY: All the way home.
NEWT: Can I dream?
RIPLEY: Yes, honey. I think we both can.