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:
And not this version below:
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