“She came from a family of fliers, people in this business. A space family rather than an army family … Nothing fazes her, and if it does you’d never know it. Ripley was pretty inexperienced, this was the biggest job she’d had. She was by-the-book because of the inexperience. In the course of the story, she has to go from earnest infant to full-on survival mode – like an animal.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Empire Magazine, 2009.
Dan O’Bannon’s Alien script featured an all-male crew of six with one important disclaimer: “The crew is unisex,” it reads, “and all parts are interchangeable for men or women.”
The character that would become Warrant Officer Ripley was at first known as Martin Roby. Roby is the ship’s Executive Officer, and is described in the script as being “cautious but intelligent – a survivor,” which shows no real marked difference from the Ripley we know. Many of his scenes are carried over to the final movie. He refuses to allow the others back on board when they return from the pyramid/silo; is suspicious of the facehugger’s prolonged presence on the ship even when his crew-mates have relaxed somewhat after leaving the planetoid; and he ultimately takes the lead and survives the Alien’s onslaught along with the ship’s cat.
“Having pretty women as the main characters was a real cliché of horror movies,” O’Bannon told Cult People, “and I wanted to stay away from that. So I made up the character of Ripley, whom I didn’t know was going to be a woman at the time … I sent the people of the studios some notations and what I thought should happen and when we were about to make the movie the producer [Walter Hill] of the film jumped on it. He just liked the idea and told me we should make that Ripley character a woman. I thought that the captain would have been an old woman and the Ripley character a young man, that would have been interesting. But he said, ‘No, let’s make the hero a woman.'”
O’Bannon wasn’t the only one to have some slight reservations about making the lead character a female. Producer David Giler also thought that having Captain Dallas as the female on-board would be interesting, but Hill was adamant. He told Film International that, “David had suggested making the captain a woman. I tried that, but I thought the money was on making the ultimate survivor a woman.”
The change from O’Bannon’s Roby to the film’s Ripley (named “after Believe It Or Not,” revealed Hill) was not immediate. Alien as we know it did not spring forth, fully formed, like Athena, but was instead the product of writing and rewriting, giving and taking, cutting and recutting, over a period of a couple of years (in fact, the final revised script, which you can read online, was not the shooting draft, but was cobbled together in December 1978, after principal photography had concluded.) Though Giler and Hill rewrote O’Bannon’s script after snapping it up, Twentieth Century Fox did not greenlight a version of Alien where the lead was female – in fact, the character was still a male even when Ridley Scott came aboard in early 1978.
“After a couple of weeks at Fox,” said Scott, “they said, ‘We’re ruminating on the idea of making Ripley a woman.’” Scott’s involvement in the decision making process here was minimal: “I just said, ‘That’s a good idea.’” Later, he was far more blunt on the topic of Ripley’s gender and her prominent role in the film. “My film has strong women simply because I like strong women,” he said. “It’s a personal choice. I’m no male chauvinist, nor do I understand female chauvinism – I just believe in the equality of men and women. It’s as simple as that.”
In May 2012, Ridley told Empire magazine that “I never changed a word” of Alien’s script when he came aboard – his memory may have failed him, as the script went through some monumental and very well known and publicised changes, including the removal of the pyramid (“a see-saw debate when I came on to the project”), the removal (and later reinsertion) of the Space Jockey, the insertion of a government installation on the planetoid, the removal of this latter element, the change of Ripley’s gender, and so forth.
Ron Shusett claims that Alan Ladd Jnr broke the Ripley-as-a-woman suggestion to O’Bannon and himself, and both agreed that it was a good idea, if not a funny one, as, in Shusett’s words, “they’d never done that, a woman in a space horror movie as the leading character,” (though women had performed as the leads and ultimate survivors in other genre movies, such as Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)
Writing-wise, the transition from male to female lead was not all that difficult for Giler and Hill; in fact, they relegated the task to their typist: “We really just had the secretary change ‘he’ to ‘she,'” admitted Giler.
The production’s reasons for making Ripley a female was less about girl power, and slightly more cynical. “We were looking it over, Walter and I,” Giler said in 2003, “and we thought, ‘Here’s this one character, not too interesting,’ and this studio, I hate to say this, but for very cynical reasons, this studio is making Julia and Turning Point and they really believe in the return of the woman’s movie – bet we get a lot of points if we turn this character into a woman.” Giler was sure to add, “And it’ll just make the character more interesting.”“No one on that film was a feminist,” Sigourney Weaver told Total Film in 2006. “Everyone thought, ‘Who will ever think the woman is gonna be the survivor?’ So it was just one big gag.” Weaver had told Starlog in 1994 that making Ripley female “was a commercial decision. The producers thought, ‘Here’s this movie about six guys landing on a planet. What can we do to make it more interesting to a wider audience?'”
As recently as 2011, Weaver told HollywoodOutbreak that “It makes me laugh because it’s not like… our producers were lovely men, and Ridley Scott too, but they weren’t being feminists. They thought the last person that anyone would think would survive is this girl. So it was really done for the story, not for any political, feminist reason.” She said during an interview in 1991 that, “[A lead female] was sort of breaking new ground. I mean, not really, but in terms of action movies, it was.”
“I don’t see it as that revolutionary to cast a female as the lead in an action picture,” said O’Bannon. “It didn’t boggle me then, and it doesn’t boggle me now. My conception from scratch was that this would be a co-ed crew. I thought there was no reason you had to adhere to the convention of the all-male crew anymore. Plus it was in 1976 that I was writing the thing, and it just seemed like an obvious thing to do. I mean Star Trek had women on for years.”
Ridley Scott told the American Film Institute in 2009 that, “because [Ripley] was female the idea that she would survive at the end was highly unlikely. She’d probably go out in some beautifully sexy way halfway through the movie.” Even future Aliens director James Cameron’s preconceptions about the character served to surprise him when he first saw the movie. “You didn’t really know she was the main character,” he said. “She was just kind of this bitch officer that you thought was gonna fall by the wayside as it went along, and you know, the guy was gonna be the main character. And they flip-flopped on that. I loved the unexpectedness of that.”
Looking back on her character in 2009, Weaver told AFI that, “I think what attracted me to Ellen Ripley was that she, first of all, was a character who was written as a man, so it was written in a very straightforward way. This was a kind of direct person who didn’t have these scenes where she was suddenly vulnerable and she didn’t throw her hands up and wait for someone else to save her. She was a thinking, moving, deciding creature. And I think that the other thing that interested me was that she went from someone who sort of believed the world was a certain way, to someone who couldn’t believe in anything any more, and went from someone who’s sort of a thinking person to someone who’s kind of an instinctive animal. So there was lots of progressions in the character that I just thought would be very interesting to play.”
When it seemed that Alien’s wardrobe unit were dressing Weaver up as too overtly feminine, Scott stepped in: “When they first dressed me up as Ripley it was in one of those pink and blue uniforms,” Weaver said in 2006. “Ridley Scott came in and said, ‘You look like fucking Jackie O’NASA.’ We went into this room where there were all these costumes from NASA and he tore it apart until we finally found this flight suit that was an actual flight suit. And that’s what I wore.”
“Weaver is not so sure about the feminism theory behind Alien. She thinks Ripley was a shrewd plot surprise created by studio executives at Fox whose noses were led by the box-office, not Girl Power. ‘I don’t think the producers were feminists. In the original script, they were all men. I think they thought, let’s change it up and make the survivor a woman because no one will ever think the survivor will be a woman.'”
~ The Independent, 2012.
“Certainly people who only know the Alien movies think of me as tough, but to me I’ve played only vulnerable women. Even Ripley. She’s a bare-bones kind of woman and she doesn’t fall apart, which people think is tough, but she only keeps it together because she has to. She’s alone.”
~ Sigourney Weaver, Total Film, 2006.
Ripley’s heroine star power was pushed into overdrive by James Cameron’s Aliens, and Weaver credited both Scott and Cameron for bringing the character to the forefront of the action hero pantheon. Speaking to The Independent in 2012, she said, “I certainly credit [Scott] in making Ripley an everyman character, not just a damsel in distress, but a character who is not giving up. Cameron was also a breath of fresh air. He is a champion of strong women who never thinks in terms of gender characteristics.”
Though Ripley resonated with audiences, the producers were at first disappointed that her gender did not lure more females into the cinema. Giler said in 2003 that “When we were looking at the numbers of the first Alien -the exit polls and all this kind of stuff that the studio gets- it’s… even though this was the first action hero heroine possibly ever -it’s the first one I know about- [we found] that women didn’t go to the movies. Women didn’t go to see it. And that the audience for the movie actually would have preferred that [Ripley] had been a man … If we’d done it [a sequel] right afterwards, we’d have probably done it with a man.”