I’m seeing a bunch of memes and comments repudiating the idea that Wonder Woman represents a breakthrough for women in movies, and they do so by comparing Gal Gadot’s Diana to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley (Aliens). Essentially, ‘Ripley got there first, your argument is invalid, redo from start.’
This idea misses the point. Misses it like a Stormtrooper shooting at a main character. And it’s important to note why.
Before we begin, let’s get one thing crystal clear: I love Aliens. It’s a solid, exciting action/horror with great acting, direction and effects. It’s also flawed in many ways. So is Wonder Woman. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d choose the latter. But then, I’ve seen it fewer times, so it’s fresher, and it’s untainted by a plodding, ill-paced director’s cut (which is inexplicably the only version of Aliens you can buy these days).
The Characters aren’t Comparable
Ripley is a woman who has nothing – it’s all been taken away, by cryosleep, by Weyland-Yutani and (of course) by the eponymous aliens. She’s a woman stripped to her core with nothing to lose. Diana, by contrast, lives in a literal paradise, with a family who loves her – she willingly (even aggressively) gives all that up to protect others. The only thing these characters share is their gender.
To put it another way, one is the survivor in a zombie film, the other is someone who goes out to find zombies before they kill strangers. Not that one is better than the other from a storytelling point of view. Ripley’s truly inspiring moment comes about halfway through Aliens, when she commandeers the APC – and it has the power it does because of her fear and reluctance to that point.
It’s About Reach
In BBFC parlance, Wonder Woman is a 12a. Aliens is either a 15 or an 18 depending on what generation you’re from. Diana simply has more reach – especially to younger audiences who arguably need role models more. More reach equals more people inspired. Unless it’s an Adam Sandler film.
It’s About Motivation
It’s also worth noting at this point that Ripley’s motivation throughout much of Aliens is motherhood, because that’s all the drives women, right? No, I’m not saying that this isn’t a legitimate course to take – because of course it is – but it does serve to label Aliens as a stepping stone to better-rounded female characters, rather than the distant shore.
It’s Not the Character, It’s the Whole Damn Film
Wonder Woman is not the only inspiring woman in Wonder Woman. There’s Robin Wright’s Antiope, Connie Nielsen’s Hypolita, and, oh, an entire island of kick-ass warrior women. Aliens has Dietriech (in the background) and Ferro (should’ve closed the door) and Vasquez. Of the three, only Vasquez has a real arc – arsehole to vaguely likeable arsehole – or even any real lines.
While both Antiope and Hypolita don’t have masses of screen time, they do have solid (if truncated) character arcs. For a film set in the early 20th Century, that’s impressive.
It’s Been Thirty Years
But you know what, let’s set all the above aside. Whinging that ‘Ripley did it first’ misses the point. It’s like complaining that Frozen wasn’t really inspiring for young girls because 50 years ago Michelle Lee’s character was secretly the protagonist of The Love Bug. You can have both. You can celebrate the strengths of both. It’s not a competition.
And… ALIENS IS 30 DAMN YEARS OLD.
Seriously, that we have to delve that far back in time to find a woman with agency in such a sprawling genre mash-up tells us everything we need to know about why Woman Woman is being hailed as a breakthrough. Just let that sink in. Thirty years. Three decades since James ‘Raising the Bar’ Cameron put a woman in a power loader. A whole generation of films has passed us by in that time, and Aliens is the only go-to?
Earlier, I called Aliens a stepping stone. Wonder Woman has plonked another rock down in the river, and it’s the size of an island. Like Aliens it won’t get us all the way there – the river’s always a little bit wider than we think, and its currents are treacherous – but it will shape the movies of the future in a way that Aliens failed to do.