Ashes, feminist icon

She is Ashes, hear her roar photo: john zipperer

In 1979, 20th Century Fox unleashed a new-wave science fiction/horror film called Alien. Basically a haunted house movie set in space, it featured a cat named Jones, one of (spoiler alert) only two characters to survive the onslaught of the titular monster. However, some people consider the star of the film to be the other survivor, Ellen Ripley, a human who through a mixture of brains, muscle, and courage manages to elude the frightening alien and save her — and Jones’ — skin.

Science fiction fans like me would find it hard to recast Ellen Ripley; actor Sigourney Weaver helped fuel a new direction in the usually male-dominated science fiction film away from the weak female love-interest stereotype to the heroic female who succeeds where all of the others have failed. But if I were making this film today, I think I would have to think twice about the cat. Four different cats reportedly portrayed Jones, but let’s face it: all of them were pretty useless characters. No, Sigourney can stay, but Jonesy would be better cast with my cat Ashes.

Ashes is somewhat smaller than the litter of cats that portrayed Jones. She’s a somewhat slight-looking tuxedo cat who nevertheless on a daily basis confronts a male who seeks to intimidate and possibly even harm her. Her antagonist is our other cat, Charlie, who can’t deal with there being another feline in his house. He does everything in his power to put her off; he attempts to get into the room where her litter box is so he can soil it; he takes a swipe at her if he can reach her in her favorite perch; he chases after her and would fight her if she weren’t younger and faster than he is. If it were in his power, he would pay her less than a male cat would earn.

The vast majority of the time Ashes manages to keep her essentially sweet nature intact while also turning into a Ripleyesque fighter whenever Charlie attacks. On those rare occasions when they do get into a rolling-ball-of-feline-fury fight, it is quickly broken up by us human peacekeepers. Like most house cats that tangle with each other, their fights have never been dangerous, and the one and only time they drew blood in a catfight, it was the big Maine Coon cat Charlie who walked away (well, was shooed away by us) with a bloody nose.

A lesser cat than Ashes in these circumstances could have developed into a scaredy cat, nervous and frightened and even submissive. Ashes is not that cat. She has the feline’s conviction that she couldn’t possibly be at fault (which is accurate) mixed with a youth pastor’s expectation that Charlie can be turned into a friend (which is delusional).

The one at fault here is, of course, Charlie. But Charlie and Ashes are both cats, and therefore they follow a different moral code than the rest of us. To be exact, they don’t follow any moral code other than whatever they want to do, they do. And though the two humans in the house do our best to keep the peace between them and separate them when we’re not around, the law of the cats really dictates how the two of them behave toward each other.

Ashes does show her frustration with Charlie the bully sometimes. Despite Charlie’s unwaning dislike of Ashes, he does recognize that there are some places he cannot go. When she is on the top of her three-foot-tall cat tree, he does not make any effort to climb after her. He’s at least smart enough to know that she has the advantage in that situation. So instead, he’ll park himself at the bottom of the tree as if he’s laying siege to the town of Ashes, like some medieval barbarian horde. She, in turn, plays the Roman defender of her town, sallying down far enough from time to time to take a swipe at him if he comes too close.

There are other times when she’s high enough on a piece of furniture or sitting on the laps of one of us and she’ll swipe at Charlie as he walks nearby. Those are the times when her frustration — or her Ripley-like refusal to give up — is evident. The rest of the time, she keeps her composure, makes sure Charlie can’t attack, and lives her life as if the little monster isn’t there.

There’s often a payoff for perseverance, wisdom, and strength. Weaver’s work in Alien and its sequel Aliens helped pave the way for stronger female roles in Tinseltown’s action flicks. “It preceded a cultural shift in America, past second-wave feminism and towards a world where we were allowed to celebrate women who rocked,” wrote blogger and L.A.-based tech executive Barrett Garese. “Ripley also became the archetype” for other tough heroines, such as Sarah Connor and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So go ahead, watch Alien. Spoiler alert: Charlie plays the alien.

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