- Deactivating Feminism:Sigourney Weaver, James Cameron, and Avatar
Thirty years separate Ellen Ripley, the gun-toting feminist icon in the Alien series of films (1979-1997), from Grace Augustine, lead scientist for the Avatar Project in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). In the former, actor Sigourney Weaver is the star; in the latter, she plays a supporting role. The actor’s move from the center to the sidelines mirrors the arc of second-wave feminist activism, from the euphoric progress of the 1970s to the routine, but limited, implementation of the present day. As Elisa Narminio and Matthew William Kapell explain, Avatar’s apparently “regressive” gender politics reflect “confused societies that have integrated the norms of gender equality while still promoting a patriarchal model” (157).1 The framing of feminism in Avatar merits more sustained attention because Avatar markets itself as a tool for raising environmental consciousness2 and presents a worldwide audience with a jumble of linked injustices that should or could be corrected as part of this project. According to Ellen Grabiner, critics have argued that the film is “sexist, anti-imperialist, anti-militaristic, racist, anti-capitalistic, leftist, reactionary, and pro-environment” (1). The film takes a shotgun approach, scattering compliments and complaints in every direction, but feminism remains unrecuperable within this broad frame of competing political ideas. The character Grace Augustine personifies this failure of women’s agency and leadership both within the film and, historically, through the connection of Grace Augustine to Ellen Ripley, an iconic figure for second-wave feminism.
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Elements of Avatar correlate with its predecessor Aliens (1986), James Cameron’s popular sequel to Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979). There are hulking robotic suits (which offer visual counterpoint to the organic avatars), broad-shouldered fighter jets (which seem to have been cut-and-pasted from Aliens), giant mother figures, and greedy interplanetary corporations. But the most compelling and obvious link is Sigourney Weaver, who played the smart, tough, technically skilled Ellen Ripley in Aliens and returns in Avatar as the smart, tough, technically-skilled Grace Augustine. Critics comparing female characters from Avatar to Cameron’s earlier work cite Ripley as a ground-breaking figure who “rewrote the rules of who can and should be the lead in Hollywood action films” (Narminio and Kapell 146). Dean Conrad writes that Cameron’s “Ripley embodies all that a woman can be—taking a path she chooses for herself” (130). At the time of Aliens’s release, Ellen Ripley represented the potential of second-wave feminism, a revolutionary character unfettered by female stereotypes and embodying the need to reject them. Weaver’s iconic performance as Ripley earned Weaver a place on the cover of Time. Weaver-as-Ellen Ripley represented the radical potential of feminism to upstage masculine postures of identity.
However, the second-wave feminism Ripley embodied has also been seen as myopically beneficial to white, upper-class Western women. Following the broad-based feminist coalitions of the 1970s, feminism and feminist theory fractured as critics identified complications within the movement. In books like When and Where I Enter (1984) and All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1982), black feminists lamented the failure of feminism to account for race, and they demanded change. Barbara Smith, one of the editors of the latter volume, also spoke out about homophobia in the feminist movement, and Adrienne Rich published “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in 1982, which revealed how feminism is a function of straight culture. Criticism mounted when postcolonial critics reframed feminism in the context of imperialism. For example, Chandra Mohanti, in “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” (1984), and Gayatri Spivak, in “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” (1985), analyzed how Western women writers advanced the cause of women’s rights without simultaneously seeking to advance the cause of women (and men) of other races. Numerous critics—following Edward Said’s [End Page 21] influential work—have studied how white women exploited their race to achieve greater freedom and latitude while travelling in the colonies.3 Since the 1980s, and as a result...