Hello and welcome to Is This Problematic? the ongoing thought experiment where we (Brooke and Shannon) revisit the films of the past and near-past with a feminist lens and ask ourselves the tough questions about the narratives that shaped the culture, and our younger selves.

The film: The Terminator

The Terminator set the sci-fi genre ablaze in 1984. The story of a cyborg sent back in time to kill the (literal) mother of the future human resistance and the mere mortal who follows to save her life launched countless imitators and nearly as many sequels and spinoffs. And though Ah-nold speaks only 18 lines throughout the entire film, his killing machine remains one of the most iconic performances in cinema. (And that’s even before he learned how to say hasta la vista, baby).

The discussion:

S, start us off here. Sarah Connor is nothing if not one of the most beloved women in sci-fi, but as our Kiwi friends remind us in Hunt for the Wildepeople, she won’t be able to chin-ups until the sequel, so this is as much her origin story as the Terminator’s. What do we make of it?

S: It’s tough to divorce a feminist analysis of Sarah Connor from an examination of the intentions of her creator, James Cameron. Luckily, Cameron decided to let us in on some of his thoughts when he lovingly mansplained feminism to us after the release of Wonder Woman in the summer of 2017.

For those of you who don’t remember, Cameron referred to the Themysciran warrior as an “objectified icon” and pointed to Sarah Connor as a shining example of what a female action movie protagonist should be. In his words, “Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.”

I recognize that I’m headed down a bit of a rabbit trail here, as we’re supposed to be analyzing The Terminator, and I’ve now invited Wonder Woman and Terminator 2 (and probably also Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) to the party. But…indulge me. I’ll bring this full circle.

While I appreciate Cameron’s assertion that a woman needn’t be objectified to grace the silver screen in an action flick, I find his declaration to be highly problematic, for a number of reasons.

  • It implies there can only be one kind of female action hero: troubled and gritty. With all deference to Imperator Furiosa and Ellen Ripley (two of my favorite troubled, gritty females), why can’t female heroes be a variety of archetypes? Wolverine and Superman are wildly divergent character types and although nerds the world over will fight to the death about which one is better (cough…Wolverine…cough), there is room in Hollywood for both. Can’t Sarah Connor and Wonder Woman be afforded the same courtesy?
  • It ascribes each character an intrinsic value based on her level of physical beauty. And BTW, who says Sarah Connor isn’t a beauty icon? She’s gorgeous. And in T2, when she’s cut AF? A knockout.
  • It ignores the fact that the entire premise upon which Cameron built his “feminist icon” is troublesome. The Terminator is not the story of Sarah Connor, the badass female who rises up of her own volition to become the leader of the human resistance. Instead, it’s the tale of a woman whose agency – and womb – are co-opted by men (HT to Tracy King at Britain’s New Statesman who eloquently lays out this argument in much more detail).

What do you think, B? Is Sarah Connor the hero of this flick? Or does toxic masculinity get in her way?

B: Incredibly, I managed to forget that James Cameron had to go and splay his opinions all over Wonder Woman. And that is saying something given that complaining about Cameron the man while loving a number of his works is a favorite pastime of mine. But hey, I guess if you have a vocal mob of men losing their minds over a few women-only, girly night screenings AND THEN months and months of some of the most notable men in Hollywood being fired out of a proverbial creep cannon for their sins … I guess it makes sense that Cameron’s comment slipped my mind. But now that I remember, give me a moment to indulge my exasperation.

Terminator

And I’m back. And before I answer your central question of whether or not Sarah Connor achieves hero status in The Terminator, I’m going to go ahead and answer your rhetorical question from a little earlier. Who said Sarah Connor isn’t a beauty icon anyway?

James Cameron did. Twice.

Here’s how Sarah is introduced in the screenplay for The Terminator:

SARAH CONNOR is 19, small and delicate-featured. Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength even she doesn’t know exists.

I repeat, “Pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn’t stop the party when she walks in, but you’d like to get to know her.” Cooooooooooooooooooooool.

Terminator

Now check out how she’s introduced in Terminator 2: 

SARAH CONNOR is not the same woman we remember from last time. Her eyes peer out through a wild tangle of hair like those of a cornered animal. Defiant and intense, but skittering around looking for escape at the same time. Fight or flight. Down one cheek is a long scar, from just below the eye to her upper lip. Her VOICE is a low and chilling monotone.

Clearly, Cameron sees her as a James Cameronian hero by the sequel, but that status means she is now firmly in the camp of tough and gritty and no longer the girl he would approach at a party after all of the whole and inaccessible beauties turned him down. So yeah, James can kindly take a seat now and keep his flawed perception of feminism away from badass heroines like Sarah Connor.

In conclusion:

Terminator

Terminator

Sick burn, even better reaction from Chastain. So good, in fact, that I officially award Tina and Amy their own high five from earlier that evening.

Terminator

Alright. Back to it. Is Sarah Connor the hero of this story? I don’t think she was written that way. Kyle Reese, the baby daddy sent to her through time by her own son, is painted as the hero. He pines for Sarah before he ever meets her, he shapes her to be the warrior he fell in love with, the woman who trained John Connor. He dies for her, and ostensibly the unborn son he must surely have realized he was there to provide. It all smacks of a kind of romance that Cameron would peddle and it leaves Sarah firmly at square one of the classic hero journey circle. When she sits at that gas station speaking to her unborn son on a tape recording she’s in the rising action that follows the call to adventure. Only when she emerges in her fully flawed and gritty form will she be a hero in her creator’s eyes.

However, I think time and perception have made Sarah Connor a hero of the kind she was never intended to be. Sure, Ah-nold got all the catchphrases, but Sarah’s revered. She’s the hero we as viewers want, she’s the hero we deserve, so she’s the hero we’ve built up in the zeitgeist. Still, she’s the hero who doesn’t even get to decide what to name her son.

I’d say we have ourselves a bit of a conundrum here. S, do Cameron’s intentions matter here? And whatever we decide, how do we reconcile what we know of his vision with what actually transpires on screen? Is it possible for Linda Hamilton’s performance to redefine what’s on the page?

S: B, this one may be our toughest one yet, which is why I’m going to avoid answering your questions until we lay down our verdict. Instead, I’ll make like baby Bill Paxton when he sees naked Arnold Schwarzenegger, and throw some stray observations your way.

  • Ginger! Lock your sliding glass door, girlfriend. It’s California in the ’80s! If the cyborg future governor doesn’t sneak in to murder you, FOR SURE someone else will.
  • Props for the female resistance fighter in the flash-forward sequence. Props rescinded for blowing her up just a few frames later.
  • Could 80’s sex scenes be any more awkward?

Alright B, come at me with your stray thoughts and then let’s give The Terminator its own judgment day.

The TerminatorB: How long have you been waiting to unleash that amazing pun? I feel like the answer is at least 1,421 words — I might have counted. And believe it or not, the observations get more stray from here.

  • Could the titles in this movie look any more like an ancient animated screensaver?
  • Speaking of Bill Paxton, he was 29 at the time of this shooting and came off way too old to be the blue haired, face tatted punk. This film was released a year before Weird Science, so how did he go back to playing a teen? And further, how does he look like he’s firmly in his mid-twenties more than a decade later in Titanic? Was Bill some kind of Benjamin Button?
  • Also, did those punks have magic clothes? Because they fit Ah-nold spectacularly.
  • Every single person named Sarah Connor: ALWAYS GO UNLISTED. Especially if you live with Ginger and she’s not going to lock the door!
  • I don’t know if Sarah Connor is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a Cool Girl or a Final Girl. She has an iguana named Pugsley and rides a scooter (MPDG), she heads out for a solo movie and pizza date when she gets blown off (CG) AND she’s the last one standing after Kyle gets cut down defending her and Ginger and her manfriend get real dead after getting it on (FG). Our girl has layers!
  • Why is LA so lovely and bustling during the day and such a deserted hellscape at night?The Terminator

The Verdict:

B: As you say, S, this one is quite a challenge, but I’m going to hazard some work toward our verdict. Let the cringe equation begin:

  • +6 cringes for James Cameron, the walking cringe, and his disservice to our girl Sarah.
  • -2 cringes for Kyle Reese being dreamy and in awe of the ferocious force he knows Sarah will become.
  • +2 cringes for Kyle Reese feeding Sarah stories of who she will be and effectively shaping her into the woman he, John and the Resistance need her to be, no one gives a whit about the woman she wants to be.
  • -1 cringe for the utter absence of the Creeper Crutch and The Terminator himself being rad.
  • -2 cringes for Linda Hamilton just bringing it.

If my ‘rithmatic is correct, that brings us to 3 cringes out of 10. This one is particularly tricky to pin down for all the reasons we’ve discussed, but a mild recognition of the issues at the core of this narrative seems about right. What say you, S?

S: Now that I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts, here’s what I think. James Cameron: problematic. Sarah Connor: not. Regardless of the intentions of her creator, Sarah Connor has transcended her “pretty but doesn’t know it” roots. Both versions of Sarah — the T1 pink-backpack-clad scooter rider and the T2 chin-up champ — are badass ladies. While both are victims of circumstance (robot apocalypse circumstance, but still…circumstance), they both respond to that circumstance not by backing away, but rather, by accepting the responsibility that has been handed to them.

That brings me to the math.

  • +1 additional cringe for Ginger and her man getting knocked off post-coitus: the classic 80’s sex-negative trope.
  • -1 additional cringe for the rare introduction of male nudity. Gotta love equal opportunity nakedness.The Terminator

Again, we agree. Post-apocalypse (even if pre-post-) is my favorite genre of fiction, and — problematic creator issues aside — it was a true pleasure to revisit this gem.

 


 

Next time, we’ll take on both the Bard and the Academy and determine if feminism is “to be or not to be” in Shakespeare in Love.

Main image credit: Orion Pictures

About Shannon Fern

Anglophile. Star Wars apologist/prequel denier. Creator of small humans. Thrower of nearby objects upon hearing of pay inequity in popular media.

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