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