So, as a feminist running a physical feminist fan site (that would be the one you are on right now) for Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor, I have to break this to you and often to myself:
The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day are not actually feminist movies. They are not really female led, either. Yeah, it sucks. I truly wish I could tell you differently, but I’ve been dealing with this fact for years. Those of you where have been reading recently probably have picked up on this with some of my recent posts.
But, but Sarah Connor is the lead, right? Well, only kind of.
The title character is, obviously, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator. It is pretty standard for monster movie titles to be or to allude to the monster, which was the case of The Terminator which was a Final Girl horror piece with a twist a the end. Sarah doesn’t breath a sigh of relief that it’s all over after she crushes the monster, while the audience knows better, she heads off to prepare for the fact it’s just starting. She’s also pregnant because the movie also broke the usual virginal requirement for Final Girls. Final Girls are only kind of the lead character, she does win, after all, but really the monster is the star. The Final Girls can even change in each movie.
Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is again the title character, now a franchise name, in Terminator 2, this time as the hero. It’s, of course, handy that it as the T1000 is also a Terminator, the monster still gets in on the title (this, of course, means there was a female title character in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but as awesome a person and actress as Kristanna Loken is, there was no saving that movie). While Sarah is shown as tough and capable and, for many of us, felt like the lead, this time she doesn’t even kill the monster in the end like a Final Girl. She comes close, but is short that last shell that might have driven the T1000 over the edge and into the molten steal It is the Terminator who has to take the final shot. She does then get to kill this reprogrammed ally, but it’s somehow not the same as watching her crush the monster that tried to kill her and did killed everyone she loved, “you’re terminated, fucker!” And now that she is not a Final Girl, being the only fully developed female character in the movie, she sadly fits in the One of the Boys mode far too much.
While some of us, of all genders, where hooked by the transformation of Sarah Connor, a lot of the male audience was focused on the Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, whether it was the monster of the first or the hero of the second. Some seem to, disturbingly but not surprisingly, identify more with the monster. This demographic was where Cameron likely saw the money coming from, the myth of the young white male target audience that is even harder to kill than a Terminator (although recent box office successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther are giving some hope). It was certainly where merchandisers saw their money coming from. While there were multiple, many unrelated to the movie in any way, Terminator figures as well as a John Connor one, made by Kenner between 1991 and 1997 there was never a Sarah Connor figure. We did not get a Sarah Connor figure from T2 until McFarlane’s Movie Maniacs 5 came out with three variants 13 years after the movie. Surprise, they did well enough that several other figures have been made since from the truly horrible Sideshow one in 2007 to the outstanding Hot Toys 2009 and N.E.C.A. 2015 figures.
When I’m not writing about pop culture “strong women” or fitness, I research and write about warriors and gender issues in Old Irish literature and culture. My educational background is in Celtic and women’s studies and it’s been something I have continued to research seriously for over 30 years now. This may seem like an aside, but it definitely connects for me as there are layers of similarity in studying women warriors in both modern media and Old Irish literature. One big one how there are few women warriors in either early Irish or modern stories, yet many, including many feminists, declare that those few mean that women are so well represented that we should just shut the fuck up about it now.
Which, of course, I’m not. Because counting off two, three or a dozen “strong female characters” actually does more to demonstrate that there actually are not that many compared to “strong male characters” which are, of course, usually just called “characters” because male is seen as the default and physical strength is something considered normal for men but exceptional for women. You can’t make similar lists of all the “strong male characters” in either the Irish literature or modern movies and television so easily, there are just too many. Instead people will list their favorites or the best know. And also ignore all the dozens of supporting characters that are male and in roles indicating strength, while even in the background there are few such women. If we need further reminding of the issue, we just need to see how white cis-het men get so defensive about being “erased” when there are “too many” characters (or writers or directors…) who are not white cis-het men. That’s because there are some who truly believe that that white cis-het maleness is the Default Human and everyone else is Other, so they must outnumber everyone all the time. One woman (or PoC or LGBTQ+ person) is “equality,” two is “really pushing it,” more than that is “Feminazi SJWs* Ruining My Childhood!” Even though, you know, the world doesn’t work that way, so why should fiction? And if your world really does work that way, you have created a safe little bubble for yourself haven’t you? Guess what? That means that both your childhood and your current bubble need ruining. Time to join the real and very diverse world.
The other reason not to step back is that we’re usually having to find these characters in works that are non-feminist, even misogynist, and even when not that heavily so were created by men and not from women’s points of view. This is extremely obvious in the Old Irish literature, which we have not only written down by male clerics but most of the translations we currently have were done by men during the Victorian era. The point of view we get these stories from is very male and often hostile towards women. Which, oddly, is part of the reason why the fantasy of women warriors and women’s “strange” equality in early Irish culture is still believed by many, despite the evidence that women were not equal and any living female warriors wold have been outside the culture which is actually the very focus of what I write about on that subject. “If men wrote about them it must be they existed.” Except that it doesn’t work that way, either, and the actual presentation of female warriors in these texts is actually very negative. They are usually the enemies of the hero, sometimes monstrous. If positive, they are veiled as Otherworldly, Outsiders, and serve the hero of the story as teachers who are only warriors to pass the skills on and sometimes sacrifice themselves for his future. Well, kind of like some view Sarah’s role with John and maybe Dani now, which at least is a positive change regarding the gender of the student but it’s making some of us really worried about the possibility of that sacrifice aspect. (blatant self-promotion, this is all total simplification, if anyone is interested in that sort of thing you can visit Scáth na Feannóige)
Yet, while the viewpoint, the lens, that male writers might have see these female characters in was often down right misogynist, some of those women seem heroic to women today. In feminist literary studies there is the concept of looking at how different readers/listeners/viewers of a story see the story through different lenses, only some sharing the same point of view with the writers. Irish literature, among other forms, is being studied through this theory. Women, like Queen Medb of Connacht may have been written in a bad light, but women today and possibly women of early Ireland, often feel empowered by the story of her “unwomanly” ambitions and actions. (for those interested this is my review of what I consider to be the most thorough study of Medb’s story using this theory. Several of my papers on my site linked above as well as the blog linked here examine others)
Whether we are discussing ancient tales or modern movies, the story itself does not have to be written as feminist for us to find feminist messages. James Cameron did not create Sarah Connor as a feminist icon, that is clear in where the movie falls short. Like Medb is now made a feminist icon by feminists own vision of her, feminists, including Linda Hamilton through her amazing performance, made Sarah Connor a feminist icon. That’s our lens, we don’t need to pretend Cameron had the same one.
Today, men still tell most of the stories about women. It’s 2018 and it’s just now that we are really seeing an effort in film and television to even the playing field for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ folk. Oh, just as with characters in movies and literature, yes, we can name women who have held power in Hollywood, including Gale Anne Hurd who played such a vital role in bringing The Terminator to us both as writer and producer, and doing the leg work to sell it, to begin with. But white cis-het men still control things. Some of these men have worked to uplift women, POC and LGBTQ+ colleagues by consciously hiring and centering their voices. Others, as we have seen, continue to treat women directors and writers as if they are mythical, as satirized here. The San Diego Comic-Con had a panel of female filmmakers discussing the very real issues of working in Hollywood today. Some women who have made progress are definitely lifting other women up behind the camera, like Marvel’s Jessica Jones show runner Melissa Rosenberg hiring only female directors for season 2 and again for season 3, which will include the star Krysten Ritter’s directorial debut.
We are now seeing more female writers and directors in action movies, especially comic book based ones which is coming up as we’re finally getting female-led comic book based movies at all. Wonder Woman, which, remember, Cameron infamously attacked as “not really feminist,” was initially written by men, but put in the talented directorial hands of Patty Jenkins who co-wrote Wonder Woman 1984. The upcoming Captain Marvel movie is directed by Anna Boden with Ryan Fleck, both are co-writers along with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (who also co-wrote Tomb Raider), Nicole Perlman, Liz Flahive, Meg LeFauve and Carly Mensch. The treatment for Black Widow was written by Nicole Perlman and it will be directed by Cate Shortland.
Hurd actually co-wrote The Terminator script, as well as producing the first two films. She has been given “characters by” writing credit on Terminator 3, Genisys, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and some of the video games. We’ll see if she gets them with the new movie or not. She should William Wisher is the only other writer credited on Terminator 2, as well as having writing credit on the first one with Cameron and Hurd. But for Cameron’s return to the franchise, he and co-producer David Ellison hired a roomful of writers. All men. And he hired another man to direct. While attacking Jenkin’s Wonder Woman as not as “feminist as T2,” Cameron somehow forgot to include any actual female presence anywhere behind the camera of his supposedly feminist new movie.
I’m not going to say that men can’t write and direct Strong Female Characters or even express feminist ideals. And Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a strong character, in both the first movie when she’s thrown into a situation she has no preparation for (and was co-written by a woman) and the second where she is more obviously the epitome of the trope. But she is alone as a major female presence in T2.
Since then some men have clearly learned that the Strong Female Character doesn’t have to be One of the Boys and exist only in the company of men. Notable cases in recent times are, of course, Mad Max: Fury Road, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Panther, all were written and directed by men (with women among the production staff, at least), but all featured multiple, diverse (including older) strong female characters that spoke to and worked with each other. Of course, all were were both subject to toxic “fan” attacks over this aspect (as well as over race in Black Panther, which also was an issue they had with TLJ). Both Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley of of TLJ were driven off Instagram due to these “fans'” harassment. A group of such “fans” claimed responsibility for that attack had also attempted to undermine the success of Black Panther and failed spectacularly.
These are the movies I had thought we had coming back in the 1990s, strong, capable and, yes, muscular, women following in Sarah Connor’s footsteps. But more of them in any given movie or show. And diversity in strengths, characters, sexuality, race, size, appearance. Ah…how naive I was. We are still only barely getting this now, despite the examples noted above, despite how upset so many misogynists are. The reality is that in all movies, but especially action, women are still not equally represented, no where close.
Terminator 2 should have been a game changer, Linda’s portrayal of Sarah certainly did push boundaries in the hearts and minds of many women. Her physicality, her toughness, her organization, her prepping, even her psychotic break from knowing the truth and being gaslighted by…everyone…was stupendous for a female character. But it didn’t really change the game in movies to the extent it could have. This is likely because for all her strength, Sarah was alone, therefore such a breakthrough was not even considered by filmmakers at the time. And she was presented as primarily the future hero’s mother for all her muscle and skill, with no alternative non-maternal fighting women involved for balance as she was the only fully realized female character in the entire film. Add the cringey faux feminist rant that is shut down by her son and that she needs rescuing in the end, Sarah is a “strong female character” that doesn’t challenge fragile masculinity all that much. Therefore any progress stopped there, where we see similar characters, well, it’s usually clear that she’s One of the Boys.
If we needed more evidence that T2 wasn’t female-led nor feminist, it’s the fanboys who are right now crying over the inclusion of two more female characters and the release of a photo of the three as the first official photo, many who are claiming “T2 was real feminism, this is fake feminism. Because 1) they think they have the right to proclaim what is or isn’t feminism and 2) they think that equality means that men outnumber women at least 3-1. I will note that it’s not just men, there are women out there who even call themselves “feminists” who gladly support this delusion and join in on the attacks. Like the “Sarah alone was real feminism, if there are other strong women for her to work with that fake feminism” I was informed by a guy that he had it on the “creds” of YouTube “feminists” that “SW: A New Hope with Leia alone was real feminism, while four prominent women in TlJ as fake feminism ..and totally erased the men.” So, yeah, it’s not just men who are the problem, some women gladly attack and we are seeing that with Terminator now as well. But we can look at the actual numbers, to see exactly how feminist ANH was in comparison to all the SW movies through TLJ really were; even TLJ fails at reaching 50% of the dialogue being by women. Yet some very fragile men see that as erasure. Meanwhile, I would love to see such a count on T2 and the upcoming movie.
The toxic misogyny has certainly showing up in the Terminator fandom since this movie was announced, primarily at first in the form of ageism because Linda Hamilton is now 61. Mind you, Arnold Schwarzenegger is 71 which has prompted some ageist remarks, but far fewer than towards Linda. The photos of Mackenzie Davis have been attacked since the beginning, often with misgendering or vile tr*nny attacks. There were murmurings of “this better not be Feminazi SJWs* Ruining My Childhood!” again. The release of the photo at top, the first official photo for the movie, of course, has verified that’s what it is for this type and the attacks have been standard. Natalia Reyes had mostly been ignored in the English and other non-Spanish speaking media and social media until then. As she looks more conventionally “feminine” at this point, may save her from some attack. It does make me kind of glad that Hamilton does not do social media (seriously, folks, none of those profiles or pages are her or official, most are straight forward, but at least one person has accounts everywhere claiming to be her, they are not) and Davis does not seem to either. Otherwise, they might end up driven off by the shit like Ridley and Tran were.
But in a way, I’m taking this hysterical vitriol as a good sign. Change is coming, slower than some of us might like, but the tantrums over it make it clear that it’s happening. So it makes me hopeful that despite the lack of women behind the scenes, with three strong actresses playing strong roles, Terminator 2019 might just take major steps towards being an actual feminist movie….as defined by a middle aged feminist with a background in women’s studies who doesn’t really give a flying fuck whether actual feminism hurts certain men’s feelings or not. And if it is and does hurt those fragile feelings, all the better. Women, non-binary and non-fragile men spend money too, and again and again it’s being shown we will fill those seats that the misogynists won’t. And given that Mackenzie Davis appears to be at least part machine, given her apparent surgical scars and therefore may qualify as a Terminator, this may have a female title character.
I am hoping that what we are seeing does indicate that the female fans of Sarah Connor are a considered fanbase this time. That we will, indeed be seeing these three characters be well developed and featured. And that THEY DON’T KILL OFF SARAH CONNOR! I also really hope that we get action figures of all three right off the bat!
*Social Justice Warrior being used as a pejorative is one of the most Bizarro World things I have seen in all this mess. But, see, I’m old enough to remember the term being used as a positive descriptive and consider the idea of fighting for social justice being negative one of the fucking stupidest things I have ever seen. Obviously, I am using it ironically to mock those who use it as a slur here.