Shortly after May 5th, 1979, I stood in a line that circled twice around the block in Manhattan, waiting to see the new British-American movie Alien. It was causing one hell of a ruckus. When I finally squeezed into my center row seat, I settled in to watch a movie which, for the first time in my experience, featured a badass and supremely competent female in the starring role. That I couldn’t hear the dialogue because of audience screams didn’t matter. I was watching history be made.
Sigourney Weaver, in the franchise that became the Aliens series, rewrote for all of us Boomer women what had traditionally been stupid woman falls in forest while running from monster, is saved by Great White Man story. Every image I had seen up to that point on Saturday afternoon sci-fi flicks taught me that girls couldn’t hack it. We had to be saved or we were the victims served up to the swamp monsters in quasi-religious offerings. Woman as edible feast. Fodder for the monster, the virgin sacrifice. It was a perfect analogy for the times: women were for eating, consuming, pillaging, mutilating. We were weak and useless, therefore disposable. Men were the real heroes.
Rewriting the Script
Weaver, and Alien, rewrote the genre, and for my generation of Baby Boomer women, set us on a different path for understanding powerful film heroines. When I saw the movie I’d just left the Army after five years. I’d been a warrior and I bore many scars, internal and external. Alien came along at just the right time. The movie legitimized a messy life. Here on the big screen I saw a heroine I’d be proud to emulate. Badass.
For the last few years, my movie collection has begun to reflect the changing zeitgeist of Hollywood’s recognition that women can be, and are, immensely attractive- and profitable- as powerful heroes. After Alien changed the conversation, slowly but surely the film industry began to offer
us women we could rally behind.
Messy Lives, Messy Heroines
From movies like “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” to “Lucy,” to “Atomic Blonde” to “Unlocked,” to “Wonder Woman,” we now see potent, powerful heroines we can believe in. These days we see women with messy lives and messy backgrounds and messy personalities who have taken on the world and won their places. Scarlett Johannsson continually shows up in intensely powerful movies like Ghost in the Shell, and in the Avenger series as a no-nonsense kickass spy. She is a hero among equals. Messy lives made them powerful. Not perfection. Pain.
For most Baby Boomer women, drop kicking perfection to the curb is a long time coming. I revel in the message that women who have been damaged, hurt, defeated rise up and take on impossible conditions. As an international adventure traveler with an interest in other women who embrace daunting odds, I delight in the appearance of real-life sheroes. These women, much to the frustration of social media trolls, take on truly epic adventures and carve out a place in history. They send impossible climbs that perhaps two men in the world have ever done. They ski lines that most would quail to even consider. Many, like the inimitable Jane Goodall, are still around, still making waves, still teaching. Others break barriers setting endurance records. Today I don’t need imaginary women as role models. They are everywhere. In business, in sports, in everyday life.
Real women. Real stories. No CGI necessary.
These women are changing the conversation about who and what women are, and can be.
It’s not that they haven’t always been there. Outside Online, the digital version of Outside Magazine, now features stories about women explorers who set the stage for gals like me. As a veteran, I’m fascinated by the stories of women who enlisted, dressed like men and fought side by side with their male counterparts. Long overlooked, long forgotten, today our remarkable female predecessors are being given a voice. I’m a member of a book club made up mostly of women in their twenties which reads women’s stories and discusses how those truths impact our lives. What’s the message? How do these brave tales teach us to live our lives out loud? What does it say that we women don’t have to live perfect lives, be perfect in all respects?
As the great Canadian climber Margo Talbot says, “We’ve been hijacked.” It’s very hard to make waves when we’re expected to make waffles.
LT Ripley had a Very Messy Life
Alien’s Lieutenant Ripley, long my heroine for these many years, had a messy life. She dealt with PTSD, had her rank ripped away by the corporation, lost her family, and repeatedly came face to face with a right rank monster. Yet she persevered. No other film heroine has better portrayed what it’s like to rise, rise, and rise again no matter the odds. She changed the fundamental conversation about what it means to be female, strong, yet vulnerable.
Our world is peppered with potent women. Slowly they have been gaining a greater voice. Social media has opened the floodgates for us to see more of them in action in the world, in the wild, and in their element. We’ve always been there. We’ve begun to uncouple ourselves from the freight of “the perfect woman,” “the ideal body,” “the perfect closet,” being “ladylike.”
Role Models for Today’s Woman
Serena Williams, who has been vilified for her body type, her gender, her race and life choices, is one of our best modern-day heroines. Touted by many as possibly the finest athlete of our time, she has taken on the monsters of prejudice, social media, trolls, haters and sportscasters who have repeatedly predicted her demise. And still, she RISES. Playing pregnant. Winning. And winning. And winning yet again.
Eight years prior to Alien, Australian-American recording artist Helen Reddy debuted her song I Am Woman. It shot to the top of the charts and became a mantra for many of us who were ready to bust out of limiting stereotypes. That song became a rousing anthem for the women’s liberation movement.
It’s no accident that women have begun to speak their truth, and in the process are taking down men who abused them. This is what powerful women do. It’s been a long time coming. The monsters we faced then and continue to face now don’t have a set of retracting fangs. The horrors they committed are, and were, just as bad.
Women in potent, pivotal roles like Wonder Woman, which has so far earned more than $3 billion worldwide, rewrite women’s roles. Our daughters are seeing the sea change. They want to be heroines, not the concubines wrapped around Conan the Barbarian’s thick calves. They want to stand at the top of the mountain. And indeed they do. Just look around. We are everywhere.
It’s been 38 years since we were introduced to Lieutenant Ripley. Plenty of today’s young women have never seen the Alien movies. They are, however, being regaled with tales of real life women doing genuinely remarkable things. Herstory is being rewritten.
That paves the way for the rest of us to live unapologetically. To right fundamental wrongs. To give other women their voices. Providing implicit and explicit permission to be extraordinary, live out loud, determine our own lives, and make a difference.
Cultures win when women have power. Cultures and countries rise when women are educated, informed, and engaged. When we are brave enough to show women as the sheroes, nature, animals, and Mother Earth win. Today’s Wonder Women are spilling off the big screen into real life.
We uplift our men, our culture, our communities, our kids, our world.
We are everywhere.
We are woman. And we roar.