I have a lot to thank James Cameron for. Whatever sins he has been guilty of since, in the mid ’80s he helped to change my life.
When I first saw Aliens I was 15 and living at a residential school in rural Devon for children in the Osho (Rajneesh) movement. I felt I was on the cusp of life; I felt the adult me was about to be born. I’d just arrived back from a visit to London where I’d actually met a boy I liked and who liked me in return (first time those two situations had aligned). Everyone over the age of ten crammed into a room and we watched Aliens on VHS. From the very beginning I was gripped. Ripley is both Cassandra, the woman fated to know the awful future, cursed to be never believed, and Odysseus, clever and tough but set against a range of opposing forces that obstruct her return to home and family. Ripley wears the action hero’s vest. In being a woman who acts, who is independent, who is a mother and a lover and draws fighting strength from her love, she was a new kind of heroine to me. In a world that obviously has more gender parity than our own, Ripley still stands out to those around her as ‘more equal than others’.
In the search for heroines amongst the women I’d been exposed to on screen, I’d found that I had to go back to the black-and-white women of Hollywood’s Golden Age. I loved irreverent Jean Harlow, breezy and modern Katherine Hepburn, devilish Bette Davis, sharp-shooting Barbara Stanwyck. I admired a lot of other women of that era but as a decidedly androgynous-feeling person, I was intimidated by the sexuality of Dietrich, the elegance and poise of Bacall. I loved them, but I could not identify with them. It was the same for most of the women presented to me in comtemporary roles: they were too pneumatic (Wonder Woman), too good (Charlie’s Angels), too princessy (Princess Leia), too clean (The Bionic Woman).
Ripley impressed by being six feet tall, taking no shit and working as hard as any motherfucker out there. She didn’t have to be clean or feminine to be sexy. She picked up her flamethrower and fought as a mother might fight, and she used her brains as well as her muscles. It was love. I had found my hero. That night a lot of the younger kids were scared by the film and so I led them around the house, armed with a big stick, bursting into the bedrooms with a shout, checking under everyone’s beds, even leaving my watch with my favourite kid as a ‘tracker’. It was simultaneously a childlike performance, acting out scenes from the film, and the first assumption of adult-like behaviour: taking charge and making the young ones feel safe. Something awoke in me that night, a new possibility. I’d always felt nervous and cowardly, anxious and weak. That night, my inner Ripley got to her feet and showed me that that was not the whole story. Being bullied had made me strong as well as paranoid. Being different and lonely had made me independent; I could stand apart when I needed to. Plus I had discovered how much I love action movies and how much of an outlet for my aggression and rage they could be.
Cameron and his wife, Linda Hamilton also created the amazing figure of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies, who, although seriously disturbed, is another action hero who is not confined to the usual gender roles, not forced to be good or sexy or even sane in order for us to root for her. These women are mothers who have been forced into existential battles and then chosen the fight over everything else, neglecting their parental role like a man is allowed to. They ‘wear the vest’, strap on weapons, lace up their boots, and learn how to handle the hardware. They battle against fearsome monsters and bang their heads against dark corporate entities and manage to be much more intelligent and humane, less casually psychopathic, than Arnie, Bruce or Sly.
I know that I have disgusted people of taste over the years with my preference for Aliens over Alien. I don’t care. I don’t care about taste or what critics think. I even like Alien 3. I will never forget what Ripley did for me that night. It’s been a long wait for us to see such powerful women on screen again. Nowadays we are used to women fighting, firing guns, flying spaceships. They can even turn out to be the Jedi-in-waiting, which I admit did both delight me and bring a tear to my eye in the latest Star Wars Franchise offerings. But while they are in lycra or latex or corsets,* while they have perfect lipgloss and hair and wear high heels and have Barbie-doll figures, while they have to be good or feminine, they remain unbelievable and inaccessible to me. Give me a woman in army boots and a vest, a complicated and imperfect woman who will stub out her fag with a tired sigh and get to work, getting sweaty and dirty in the process. Give that woman a flamethrower and I will be in heaven.**
*Not Michelle Pfieffer’s Catwoman, I really liked her even though she breaks all the rules I list here. She’s just so deliciously bad and insane.
**As I write, I realise that this is basically a vision of me doing archaeology with a flamethrower.