Sarah Connor and the Strong Female Character

Terminator (1984)

Terminator (1984)

I had the opportunity to rewatch the original Terminator (1984) with my son last night on Netflix. He’s getting to that age where he’s mature enough and patient enough to sit through “classic” grown-up films that I enjoyed and form part of my pop culture DNA.

The point of my post, was not so much my son’s reaction to the movie (which was interesting in itself), but rather my own thoughts about  Sarah Connor and the role of the strong female character.

OLD MAN ALERT: I first saw Terminator in probably the summer of 1985 or 86 when I was a teenager. It was a year or two after it had been in theatres when it showed up on a FREE preview weekend of The First Choice movie network on pay-TV in Canada. I sat mesmerized watching it late one night, riveted by the action and Brad Fidel’s score. Since then I have probably watched it a dozen or more times and have probably owned it on everything except LaserDisc and Betamax(Yes it was released on both those formats.)

We’ve all come to view Sarah Connor in general, and Linda Hamilton’s version in particular as the definition of a strong female lead. There is no denying that she’s all that, but oddly I think that when you ask most people about Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor they picture this:

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

And not this version below:

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator (1984)

Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator (1984)

Obviously the first one looks more “badass” than the other, but the second one is no less strong a female lead than the other.

In the original film, Sarah is a young waitress working a thankless job at a local family diner and sharing an apartment with her friend Ginger. Just a girl in her 20s trying to figure out her place in life. She’s caught up in this unbelievable and traumatic experience  as she targeted by the Terminator that will stop at nothing to kill her. (Spoiler Alert!) Sure she triumphs in the end , but through it all she reacts as many of us might; with disbelief, shock, tears, fear, and anger. You know normal human emotions given the circumstances.

Sadly, it’s not just Sarah’s reaction in the circumstances that makes her a “strong” female character, but rather our own low expectations of female characters in similar circumstances. The fact that she perseveres and goads on a critically injured Kyle Reese in the final battle is due to the fact that the director and writer Cameron has allowed her character to go through those events and survive.

Having all the answers and being tough as nails is one way to have a “strong character”. Another more realistic way is to allow them to be human, show emotion, and have weaknesses, and STILL triumph. This applies to both male and female characters.

Not to steal away from Sarah’s character, but take a moment to contrast the two male lease, the Terminator and Kyle Reese. While the Terminator can rely on his virtually indestructible nature to survive, emphasized by Arnold’s hyper-masculine body builder physique,  Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and his “average” male physique by contrast  must rely on the strength of his wit and loyalty to John Connor to survive. Even though human and weaker physically, Reese is a stronger and well rounded character as we learn what motivates him and his passion to save Sarah.

Cameron has been held up as one of those pioneering writer/directors in Hollywood that instead of trying to turn women into male action heroes, wrote women characters that were true to themselves and their femininity and still saved the day. Thankfully we’ve had more creative people, both male and female come up through the ranks in the last 30 or so years that also believe in creating believable female characters that carry the story on their own.

In Equality Now speech, May 15, 2006 Joss Whedon related a story where he was asked “So, why do you write these strong female characters?” again and again by reporters during press junkets.  His variety of responses were thoughtful and revealing, but he ended the story in frustration and his final response was “Because you’re still asking me that question.”

I try to write strong characters in my own stories regardless of whether they’re male or female. In my story “Second Harvest”, Charlotte is young nurse serving with the Canadian Army in World War I and has seen a lot of horrible things. Not just the horrors of war, but also what the doctors and scientists have done with the bodies of the dead in the name of science and winning the war. She’s basically had a mental breakdown and has been discharged and returns home, where she has to confront her role in the war. I think through it all her humanity is what carries her forward. She has a compassion for those that have suffered at the hands of others during the war and eventually wants to balance the injustice.

Maybe, it was seeing characters such as Sarah Connor as an impressionable teen that helped shaped my views in some small way. I just hope I can continue to carry the torch forward in my own writing when it comes to writing believable and strong female characters.

I leave you with a quote from J.J. Abrams another director/writer from my generation that sums up what I’m trying to say.

I don’t try and write strong female characters or strong male characters, I just try and write, hopefully, strong characters and sometimes they happen to be female.

J. J. Abrams

Writer: Level Up!

Writing is a long journey and as a writer it helps to stop and get the lay of the land every once in a while. To pause and look back and to see how far you’ve come, but also l to look ahead at that next summit, catch your breath and say”Let’s do this”.

Portrait of the writer as a young man.

Portrait of the writer as a young man.

I’ve been writing all my life. Most of it spent wandering aimlessly hoping I would hit upon some magic formula for success. (What can I say I was young and naive)  I wasted much of my youth thinking I had all the time in the world to write and that someday I would REALLY crack down and take it seriously. It wasn’t until my wife and I were expecting our first child 12 years ago that I committed myself to this path that I am on now.

I realized then that if I didn’t double down and make an effort that I risked losing my writing to the demands of parenthood and family life. It would be far too easy to say – “I’ll pick it up again when my kids are older and I have more time.” Of course there never is enough time. You have to carve that time out of everything.

I became active in writing groups, both while I was living in Toronto and now here in Sudbury. I attended workshops, read books about writing, and most of all took the time to write. Ever so slowly, its been paying off. My writing has steadily improved and just last year I sold my first short story, Second Harvest to Fictionvale.com.

Back in 2011 one of my writing buddies – Stephanie Charette applied to and attended a workshop called Viable Paradise at Martha’s Vineyard. The workshop is a week long intense session with professional writers and editors in science fiction and fantasy. Here’s how they describe the workshop:

Viable Paradise is a unique one-week residential workshop in writing and selling commercial science fiction and fantasy. The workshop is intimate, intense, and features extensive time spent with best-selling and award-winning authors and professional editors currently working in the field. VP concentrates on the art of writing fiction people want to read, and this concentration is reflected in post-workshop professional sales by our alumni. ~From Viable Paradise website.

Stephanie came back from that workshop a changed person.  She encouraged me to apply practically the minute she stepped off the plane in 2011. I wanted to attend, but I somehow had excuses for not applying each year. Too busy with work. Too busy with family commitments. I can’t afford the money this year. I can’t get the time off work. “Next year I’ll apply” I said. For three years. 

Then 2015 came around and I looked up at that next summit and said “Let’s do this!” My family was on board and I was finally in a position at work where I could manage the time off. I enlisted the help of my writing circle of friends both to be my cheer leading squad and to help me whip my application into shape.

I submitted my application a few weeks before the application period closed and waited – until yesterday when I got the word.

I have been accepted! Look out VP19 here I come! (Well, in 4 months anyhow)

Scott Pilgrim Levels Up

Scott Pilgrim Levels Up

I suddenly feel like I have levelled up as a writer. Ready to take on this challenge. (Okay maybe the true Level Up won’t come until AFTER the workshop, but you know what I mean.)

Thanks to everyone who has supported me along the way on this journey, I couldn’t have done it with out you. I’m looking forward to this next chapter in my writing life and more than just the new skills I will add to my tool kit, I am looking forward to the new friendships and personal connections that will flow from it.