Women of Speculative Fiction: Sigourney Weaver

I’ll be doing something a little different in this installment, exploring several roles portrayed by the same woman. This is because, thanks to a groundbreaking role in a seminal science fiction film, a number of Sigourney Weaver’s subsequent roles can be seen as a sort of meta-commentary on her pop cultural significance. And I’m always up for a bit of meta-commentary.

First of all, there was Alien. I admit I’ve never seen the film. I’ve heard enough about its details to know that it’s far too grisly for my squeamish tastes. It’s as much horror as science fiction. However, I don’t have to see the movie to know the significance of the character of Ellen Ripley. It’s interesting to note that in the original script, though all of the characters were male, the cast list stipulates that the crew is actually unisex. There is something powerful in the notion that Ripley was not written to be either male or female, but simply human. Yes, gender is an important defining characteristic, but it’s by far not the only one. And too often writers get so stuck on making someone distinctly female that they fail to give the character much beyond feminine markers – whether that means creating a flat love interest/damsel type, or going too far in the other direction with an ultra-tough, robotically emotionless woman. Ripley is neither of those. She’s not defined by being female, but by the perilousness of her situation and how she copes with it.

And audience members took note. Ripley’s character has continued to be one of the most prominent features in the Alien franchise, celebrated as a significant shift in gender roles. Weaver has reprised the role several times, earning quite a few award nominations for her portrayal. And it seems like she’s had fun playing with the reputation stemming from her most famous character.

There’s the supernatural comedy Ghostbusters, wherein she plays a woman who’s ostensibly in a damsel in distress role. But her pragmatism and level-headedness in the face of absurd horror provides a nice balance to the silliness of most of the male characters surrounding her (though, admittedly, there’s some ickiness inherent in her relationship with Venkman -take away his quirky charm and he’s pretty stalkery). Then, once Dana is taken over by a demon gatekeeper, Weaver gets to really let loose with over-the-top comedic spookiness in direct contrast to her character’s original personality. It’s funny already, but if you’re aware of Ripley, it’s somehow all the more entertaining.

And how about Galaxy Quest? This incredibly clever movie was an affectionate send-up not only of Star Trek, but of the fandom and pop culture surrounding the show. It has quite a few winking levels of meta-commentary, and that includes the casting of the characters. Alan Rickman as a washed-up Shakespearean actor, bitterly resisting the truth that his most beloved performance is as a catch-phrase-spouting alien on a cheesy sci-fi show? Yes, perfect. And who else but Sigourney Weaver could play Gwen, aka Tawny Madison, the token female whose sole task is to repeat what the computer says? It’s funny that the ficitious Galaxy Quest, supposedly airing in the 80’s, is less progressive in its portrayal of women than the real Star Trek from the 60’s. Tawny is no Uhura. Her blurb in TV Guide was apparently a discussion of her figure-flattering costume and nothing else. She’s a perky blonde, a definite departure for Weaver. But Gwen is ready to offer a biting commentary on her own character.

When a group of naive aliens recruit the actors to help them, believing the TV show was actually a series of historical documents and the characters are real, Gwen deals with the absurdity and danger of their situation by seizing hold of the one task she can actually do. “I have one job on this lousy ship; it’s stupid, but I’m gonna do it!” And as she and her fellow actor, the supposed “Commander,” are navigating a contrived series of obstacles in order to prevent the ship from self-destructing, she is full of scathing critiques for the writers who created such arbitrary obstacles. “Whoever wrote this episode should die!” she howls as they barely escape with their lives.

There are plenty more, including a voice role in an episode of Futurama, playing a ship’s computer undergoing madness in a parody of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey; the scientist Grace Augustine in Avatar; and, yet again, the voice of the ship’s computer in Pixar’s WALL-E. Her career, of course, has spanned more than science fiction films, but it’s enjoyable to see Ripley’s influence upon some of her other roles. It’s no surprise she’s earned the nickname of “the Sci-Fi Queen.”

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