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On The Agency of Heroines, and Why Ripley's Not The Best Symbol For It

Illustration for article titled On The Agency of Heroines, and Why Ripleys Not The Best Symbol For It

This post is about fictional female agency, inspired by the post from Charlie Jane Anders. It's an all call to writers of literature, TV, Film, online series, web comics, paper napkins, whatever. It's also an invitation for you to look a bit more closely at some characters who are getting a bit too much or too little respect, in my opinion. I'm in a nitpicking mood, so deal with it.


Right. So with writers not creating enough capable female heroes: the root of the problem is invisible. People don't notice what they're not seeing until after their attention's been pointed to it, by someone else. If the previous generation didn't create a whole bunch of capable female protagonists, its because they never saw any in the fiction they were fed. You write what you know, you write what you want to see, and what you want to see is influenced and shaped by what you've already experienced.


We're working on it, we're talking about it, we're shining a big ol' light on it. So, progress.

But in the interest of full disclosure, you need to know something about the focal point of Alien.


Ripley Was Originally Just Ripley — Not ELLEN Ripley

This may not be common knowledge, but the character Ripley— who goes entirely (if not almost entirely) by her last name throughout the first picture— was originally written to be male. Making the role feminine was an afterthought. An awesome afterthought, but again, just that.


The character is no less important, but please look at it with the knowledge that she was originally written as a man— and they changed virtually nothing else about the character to give us our proto-example of a "strong female lead".

In Alien, Ripley Has Almost NO Agency - And We Love Her Anyway

I'm ALL for a heated debate, but I strongly believe that in some scenarios, a character's lack of agency doesn't lessen the character's strength or importance to the story.


Let's look at Ellen Ripley:

  • She stays behind when the crew assigns an away team to visit the Derelict.
  • She tries to keep her ship in quarantine, and fails, thanks to Ash.
  • She only gains access to MOTHER and learns the Company's aims after the captain has died.
  • Ash would have succeeded in killing her, if not for Parker's timely intervention.
  • She is unable to save a single one of her crewmates from a grisly, painful death.
  • [In the deleted scene, she finds Dallas mid-transformation into a Facehugger egg. She kills him at his request, only after admitting "I don't know what to do..."]

It's not until the very end of the picture that she shows the one trait that sets her apart from the rest of the crew— she pushes through her paralyzing fear to evict the Alien from the lifeboat, then incinerates it. Her courage and self-preservation set her apart from crewmates who either had no time to react, or were frozen to the spot in sheer terror.

Ripley's reputation as a badass doesn't cement until the sequel, where she grabs the title with both hands, taking proactive action against the creatures to rescue Newt. Her actions in Alien, while impressive, are a reaction— a desperate scramble for survival.


And while we're on the subject of mis-represented action heroines...

Trinity's Flaw Wasn't Being Female, It Was Not Being Neo

Comments on the article that inspired this one suggest that The Matrix's Trinity lacked agency, going so far as to categorize her own model flaw: Trinity Syndrome.


It's inaccurate and unfair to criticize Trinity for not being the protagonist of The Matrix when she still manages to do as much if not more for the plot, as anyone else who isn't Neo.

  • She is his introduction to the very concept of a bigger picture, later explained in full as The Matrix.
  • She fights every bit as hard as every other member of the Nebuchadnezzar, in every engagement in the Matrix.
  • She partners with Neo for his assault on the Agents, saving his life at least twice before the climax. He could not have survived or succeeded without her help.
  • She resurrects him at the climax.

If you perceive that she didn't do enough to progress the plot, answer this: did anyone who wasn't Neo do more? Did Morpheus? I mean after all, Morpheus:

  • Got Neo out of the Matrix, into the real world... with the help of Trinity and everyone else aboard his ship.
  • Introduced Neo to the Oracle.
  • Got kidnapped.
  • Did nothing else of consequence for the remainder of the plot.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being a kick-ass supporting character. If you want more kick-ass leads, write more women as the leads, and give them more to do than run for their lives.



Casey Jones is a screenwriter and author, with a day job. He's been writing female leads for years, but admittedly not "before it was cool". Follow him, or feel free to ask him questions.

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