When I was asked to write a blog post about my top female influences in the sci-fi/fantasy arena, I had to think about who it was I wanted to write about. There’s Kathryn Bigelow, a woman who is best known now for Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker but who cut her teeth on Near Dark and Strange Days; Anne McCaffrey, a Hugo and Nebula award winning writer whose Dragonriders of Pern series has recently been optioned by Warner Brothers; and JK Rowling, a woman who needs no introduction here. All of these women have influenced me over the years. For me, though, when it comes to a lasting impact there is one name that comes shining through. And that name?
Her introduction in the 1979 film Alien changed the way that female leads were seen in mainstream cinema. Whilst Alien didn’t have a particularly big budget, its impact was huge. As a teenager, I saw the sequel, Aliens, in 1986 and was blown away not just by the film but also by Sigourney Weaver’s character, who stood out from the rest of the cast in her attitude and actions.
Ripley came along when it was the fashion to have action heroes with arms bigger than most people’s waists. She was just one character in an ensemble cast in Alien, just the science officer who survived. But by Aliens she had metamorphosed into a kick ass action star with some of the most memorable lines in eighties cinema (the scene where she appears from behind a rising shutter in a giant mechanical exoskeleton, ready to do battle with the alien queen with the words “Get away from her you bitch!” comes to mind.)
It’s worth noting here that Aliens is considered by most sci-fi fans to be one of the greatest science fiction/monster films of all time as well as one of those rare things: a sequel that outshines the original. All this was anchored with a performance from Sigourney Weaver that got her a Best Actress nomination for the Oscars in 1987. In effect, Sigourney Weaver had set the tone for strong, complex women that would be seen time and again in later years.
So did this barnstorming performance mean that Hollywood had realised that there was a market for action films led by a female protagonist? Not exactly. With the exception of two more sequels, there were no obvious successors to Ripley’s crown.
In 2003 Len Wiseman cast Kate Beckinsale as Selene, a vampire whose job it was to hunt down Werewolves, in his fantasy thriller Underworld. Whilst pretty two dimensional, Selene’s use of weapons, her ability to out think her male compatriots and her serious, no nonsense demeanour bore all the hallmarks of Ripley. Whilst more subtle, you can also see strands of Ripley in the characters that have emerged in recent years within detective dramas that have female leads that are both outsiders and socially awkward but use these attributes to their advantage. Whether it is Sofia Helin in The Bridge or Claire Danes in Homeland, the damaged outsider who sees things differently from everybody else is now a lead character that is set in stone.
So why is Ripley such an influence on me? Well, the answer is pretty simple, really. I find her interesting and believable. The screenplays presented Ripley as a flawed multi-layered lead. In the process they created a character that was at once violent but also humane.
When I wrote my book, Isabella’s Heiress, it didn’t for once occur to me that the characters were in any way influenced by Ripley, but as I write this, I can see the similarities. The three central women in my story, Emma Elliot, Taryn Lucas and Sister Ignacia, have all met violent deaths, but on finding themselves in an alien world, must summon up an inner strength to ensure they survive in their new surroundings.
Can I say for definite that the later female leads mentioned above were created as a direct result of Ripley’s genesis? No. There is no way of proving that, but an argument could be made that these characters would have come along anyway but that Ripley was ahead of her time.
I can say, however, that there is no doubt that her character completely changed the way that women were viewed in the sci-fi/fantasy genre for both directors in the film industry and young, impressionable cinema goers, like me.
About the author (taken from his website):
I have been writing since I was a child and have whiled away many hours putting pen to paper (at least until I got my first computer). I have always enjoyed reading as well. For me it was, and still is, an escape from work or school and has allowed me to suspend reality for a few hours on many a dull day (thank you Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Robert Harris et al).
After school I did the sensible thing and got a job, eventually finding myself working IT support in London. In 2005 I realised that I wanted to do something that I could look back on with a sense of satisfaction. So in 2006 and 2007 I spent a year at City University where I graduated from the Certificate in Novel Writing course before going on to do several other courses at West Dean College a few years later.
Whilst at City University I decided to try and bring to life a story that had been working its way through the outer reaches of my mind. The idea was based around a vivid dream I had about a woman out of place in a London she recognised but wasn’t a part of. That woman became Emma Elliott and from that dream a story came about that filled a twilight world with angels, guides and initiates.
After countless late nights accompanied by easy listening and black coffee refills, the end result became Isabella’s Heiress.
You can find out more about Isabella’s Heiress or N.P. Griffiths on his website.