Pitting women against each other to undermine feminism is what men do best. So it wasn’t enormously surprising to read James Cameron’s recent comments in the Guardian about his female character, Terminator’s Sarah Connor, being better than director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. But by comparing his character to Jenkins’, Cameron invites deeper gender analysis of his work – and as a sci-fi and horror enthusiast who also happens to be feminist, I’m extremely happy to oblige.
Sadly, Cameron’s perception of the feminist credentials of Sarah Connor, the heroine of the Terminator franchise, is flawed. Sure, she is brave and badass, but there’s an elephant in the…womb. In The Terminator (1984), the character of Sarah Connor exists only to get pregnant and give birth to the future hero.
Not feminist. I say that as a huge The Terminator fan. I love the film but a gender analysis immediately reveals the obvious flaw, that Sarah is a prisoner of biological destiny.
She is going to fall for her rescuer and have unprotected sex with him while he’s still wearing the dirty jogging bottoms he took from a homeless guy at the start of the film. She is going to get pregnant, and the son she has no choice in bearing is going to be named John. He will lead the resistance and send his own dad back in time to save his mum and, well, you know the plot.
Sarah’s destiny is shaped by men and fertility, and that robs her of the essential agency required to declare a character feminist. Her character can only be cast as female, because her fertility is required for the plot. She’s a walking womb.
One film doesn’t have to undermine Cameron’s overall claim to feminism, but when he took over the Alien franchise from Ridley Scott he did exactly the same thing. Ellen Ripley is supposed to be a feminist icon, and in Scott’s Alien (1979), she is. Oh, she is.
Indeed, the character was originally written as gender neutral (the 2003 Alien making-of documentary notes that the script stated “the crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women”) and nowhere in Alien does Ripley do anything despite being a woman, or because she’s a woman, or out of motives mostly associated with women. She does it because she’s fit and clever and resourceful and because it’s her damn job to survive.
But then along comes James Cameron as writer and director of the sequel Aliens (1986). Guess what, Ripley? You’re now a mother! Cameron’s version of Ripley needed to be fleshed out, of course. But the clue to his superficial idea of feminism is in a scene he included in the director’s cut of Aliens, in which we learn that Ripley had a daughter.
Cameron’s idea of character development was to give Ripley guilt about leaving her daughter (never mentioned in Alien) to go and work on a spaceship, a punishment for trying to have it all. Because of the events in the first film, Ripley doesn’t make it home in time to see her daughter alive again, and this grief is what gives legitimacy to her taking on the surrogate mother role to Newt, a little girl who is the sole survivor of a colony decimated by the aliens.
Ripley immediately assumes custody of Newt, offering her kind words and nurturing where the rest of the team had been bizarrely insensitive and shouty (if they were kinder to Newt, then Ripley’s actions wouldn’t set her up as the only one motivated by motherhood).
Putting a little girl in danger gives Ripley a way to compensate for her own lost daughter, and restores meaning to her otherwise isolated life alone with her cat Jones (which she rescued in the first film). That’s right, Cameron’s Ripley is the original spinster crazy cat lady who turns out to have issues about being childless. That she ends up literally siring (there is no female equivalent of that word so I’m using it) an alien in later films is not Cameron’s fault, but I draw a direct line between the events of the sequels and Ripley’s mother status in Aliens.
Cameron’s Ripley is defined by her relationship to children and her role as a mother, just like Sarah Connor.
There’s also Cameron’s film The Abyss (1989), in which the female lead Lindsey Brigman, not defined by or motivated by motherhood, is the ex-wife of the male lead character, and a bitch (not my words, it’s in the script, although it bears noting that Cameron made this film during a divorce). Her character is still defined by her emotional relationship with another character, this time a man. This too is not feminism, and it hasn’t gone away with age.
Read more: Can Wonder Woman make America great again?
Women in TV and films are still so often motivated by their status as a wife or mother or, exhaustingly, by the loss of a child. It’s become an easy and, dare I say, lazy way for (often male) filmmakers to give what they think is character to women. Even when it’s done incredibly well, for example in Neil Marshall’s 2005 horror The Descent, American audiences were so upset that the mother, Sarah, doesn’t escape, the USA ending was changed to a less bleak one.
I will always love The Terminator, and Aliens, but following his criticism of Wonder Woman, I would invite James Cameron to divorce himself from the limited characteristics that he’s decided define a strong female lead.