When one picks up a copy of Cameron’s 1986 movie Aliens, one becomes aware that this film does not strive to be a typical action movie. The cover image depicts Sigourney Weaver, dripping with sweat, holding a small child on one hip and a large gun on the other with images of a battle-torn spaceship in the background. Ellen Ripley, the role Weaver reprised for this sequel to 1979’s Alien, probably represents Cameron’s most successful challenge to gender norms. At the beginning of the movie, Ripley is found floating in outer space, the only survivor of the attack in the first film, and is rescued. Despite her hesitations, Ripley soon finds herself returning to LV-426, the planet where she nearly died, possibly to face the same creatures from which she managed barely to escape. The scenes that precede her departure to LV-426 attempt to create previously unmentioned backstory for Ripley, specifically that she had a daughter who died during Ripley’s 57-year hypersleep in space. This establishment of Ripley as a mother, especially a mother with an absent child, becomes critical in determining her character.
Because the audience has the advantage of knowing the events of the first film, Cameron’s choice to surround Ripley with people who doubt her claims of these monstrous aliens immediately establishes her as the most effectual member of the crew of Marines sent to explore LV-426. However, Ripley does not assume that position until they discover a young girl named Newt on the planet with whom only Ripley can communicate at first. As well as setting up a parent-child relationship to foster between her and Newt, this encounter seems to empower Ripley further to assert her competency amongst the crew. Soon after, the crew encounters the aliens, who capture or kill a majority of the Marines, and during the attack Ripley seizes control of the crew’s vehicle to rush to save the surviving three members of the crew.
With the senior Marine officer incapacitated, perhaps as punishment from Cameron for doubting Ripley, she comfortably assumes leadership of the remaining group to organize their plans to escape from the encroaching aliens. During this section of the film, Cameron alternates slower, character-building scenes in which Ripley and Newt bond as mother and daughter with faster-paced exposition-filled scenes in which Ripley coordinates crew members’ assignments, striding forcefully around the control room, surrounded by phallic weapons that occupy every frame, carelessly flicking a cigarette in an almost masculine way. Scenes such as the one in which Ripley exerts her authority over Burke, shoving him against a wall and telling him that she is “glad to disappoint [him],” contrast sharply with images like Ripley crawling under a bed to cuddle with a sleeping Newt, but Ripley seems comfortable and confident in both types of situations. “Masculine” attributes, such as aggressiveness and rationality, and “feminine” attributes, like nurturing, meld in Ripley to create the ultimate weapon against the aliens: the warrior mother figure. In Ripley, “The maternal recurs as motivating factor with [the female hero] acting to protect [her] children” (Tasker 69). With six people as her allies, Ripley spends most of the film avoiding conflict with the aliens, and understandably so, but once they capture Newt, she returns to face all of the aliens by herself to rescue her child and manages to destroy all of the creatures.
Because Aliens falls under a horror/sci-fi genre, “body count, as well as who compose and why they compose that count” (Green 61) becomes important. Offering an opposing image of femininity from Ripley, Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) represents a more “masculine” woman. As Yvonne Tasker describes in her work Working Girls, Vasquez exhibits a “musculinity,” “an enactment of a muscular masculinity involving a display of power and strength over the body of the female performer” (Tasker 70). She remains androgynous in appearance throughout the film, prompting the comment from a male Marine, “Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?” while she does pull-ups. She replies, “No, have you?” sharing the joke with a fellow Marine. In his book Cracks in the Pedestal, Philip Green suggests that Cameron intends this exchange as a joke, which audiences will find funny only if they equate masculinity with physique and physical prowess. He further extrapolates that this scene demonstrates a valuation of “natural” musculature in men over “unnatural” musculature in women and indicates that while an “unmanned” man will die before Vasquez, she must ultimately die for violating these laws of naturalness (Green 62).
While Vasquez does die in the movie, Green overlooks an important aspect of the film. Three soldiers survive the first major attack from the aliens and remain throughout most of the film: Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez. While Hicks represents Cameron’s preferred version of masculinity in this movie, Hudson provides the best example of an “unmanned man” in the film, yet he survives longer than the more “manly” members of the crew. Besides being emasculated by Vasquez’s comment, “No, have you?” Hudson loses credibility as Green’s version of a “manly” man in a scene in which Bishop demonstrates a talent by jamming a knife into a table in the spaces between each of Hudson’s fingers. While he asked Bishop to show off, Hudson squirms uncomfortably when another soldier encourages Bishop to use Hudson’s hand rather than his own to demonstrate his skill, screaming louder and louder as Bishop moves the knife faster and faster between his fingers. With his fellow Marine buddies laughing at his discomfort, Hudson complains that the trick “wasn’t funny.” After barely escaping from the aliens’ first attack, Hudson, and only Hudson, exhibits a rather un-"masculine” tendency toward hysteria, proclaiming, “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over. What the fuck are we gonna do now?” Burke, who is not a military man and therefore not trained for combat like Hudson, and Newt, who is only about seven-years-old, do not even panic while Hudson rants wildly.
Because the unmanly man and the unwomanly woman survive for comparable amounts of time, far longer than most of the men who represent more stereotypical versions of masculinity, Cameron must have another criterion for survival in this movie. Because, in the very end, only Hicks, Bishop, Ripley and Newt manage to escape, nurturing seems to function as the salvific force of the film. When comparing the two main female characters—Ripley, who lives, and Vasquez, who dies—their relationships with Newt provide the clearest distinction between the two women. Both women are competent, assertive and ruthless, but unlike Ripley, who becomes Newt’s surrogate mother, Vasquez does not direct a single comment toward the child. Throughout the film she remains focused upon what she enjoys most, namely firing big guns and killing things, just as Hudson remains focused on bemoaning the situation and trying to protect himself.
Hicks is the only Marine who nurtures Newt as Ripley does—their parental roles toward her become established early in the film—and, consequently, Hicks survives the film unlike his colleagues. He first notices Newt and prevents a soldier, mistaking her for an alien, from shooting her. As well as Ripley, Hicks tries to shield Newt’s body with his own from dangerous flying debris and he watches Newt around the weaponry to ensure that she does not injure herself. He notices her curiosity to see blue prints, which the group studies during a summit meeting, and lifts her so that she can see. Indeed, Hicks functions as the nurturing member of the entire crew, checking his fellow soldiers for injuries after altercations and bandaging their wounds. He becomes a nurturer to Ripley as well, asking after her well being when he notices her hesitation at entering into the main structure on LV-426 and gently urging her to sleep. Hicks, however, does not escape unscathed, obtaining wounds when an alien’s acidic blood sprays on him. His wounds might act as a punishment for not fulfilling the nurturing role as completely as Ripley. When Newt becomes separated from Ripley and Hicks, he immediately suggests trying to rescue her. However, when they do not find her in time and an alien captures Newt, he urges Ripley to escape to the waiting ship, unwilling to risk his and Ripley’s lives even though Ripley protests that the aliens will not kill Newt immediately. Only after he makes this decision to abandon Newt, Hicks becomes injured.
The other survivor, Bishop, does not quite meet the nurturing standards set by Hicks and Ripley, but perhaps due to his being a synthetic person rather than a real one Cameron holds Bishop to different standards. Bishop does show concern for his fellow crew members though, most notably when he volunteers for a dangerous mission, for which no one else would volunteer, and the successful outcome of his mission results in the remaining survivors escaping the alien-filled planet. Since only Ripley achieves Cameron’s ideal in this movie, Bishop must also receive wounds of some kind, which he does when an alien rips him in half. Bishop manages to help save Newt, even though his torso is laying several feet away from his legs, which perhaps secures his place on the survival list.
Aliens. Dir. James Cameron. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Henn, Michael Biehn, Lance Henrikson. 20th Century Fox, 1989.
Green, Philip. Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Tasker, Yvonne. Working Girls: Gender and Sexuality in Popular Cinema. New York: Routledge, 1998.