N.B. The following piece contains spoilers for Terminator Dark Fate
When it comes to female action heroes, the Terminator franchise has delivered one of cinema’s most iconic in Sarah Connor, and now the OG is back in Terminator: Dark Fate. Over the years, the character has been played by Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys) and Lena Heady (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), but it’s thanks to Linda Hamilton’s performances in 1984’s The Terminator and in 1991’s T2: Judgement Day (especially the latter) that the character has earned quite such a legendary feminist status.
In the original film, co-written and directed by James Cameron, she was the pretty damsel in the distress in constant need of protection from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800, and Kyle Reese was the man from the future to take care of her. However, after Kyle’s death and the T-800’s destruction, Sarah begins her training to become the badass warrior protector we see in the sequel, who is lean, mean and ready to do whatever it takes to defend her now 10-year-old son John Connor from the T-1000 and anyone else who gets in her way.
I can only imagine the pats on the back the writers (all male by the way) gave themselves when they gave Sarah a moment to criticise the “walking womb” trope she has long been saddled with.
It’s this version of Sarah Connor that people have been championing as a feminist icon and to some extent they are right. Hamilton is not here to be objectified or liked, given how “all business” she is when dealing with her love-deprived son and the possibility of the world getting taken over by a robot uprising. That’s a portrayal rarely afforded to women in cinema. The fact that it made $523.7 million worldwide also goes to show that this type of sci-fi action franchise can be just as popular with a tough woman in the lead as well as any man.
However, T2 still managed to perpetuate sexist notions at nearly every turn. Sarah is treated as a hysterical woman by most of the people around her, even her son, and is thrown into an insane asylum run by predominantly men where she becomes victim to a sexual assault attempt. Sure, she manages to defend herself from the gross orderly, but her escape from the mental institution only comes with the arrival of Arnie’s friendly Terminator, who is also the person to destroy Robert Patrick’s T-1000 in the end. And it doesn’t matter how many chin-ups she does, Sarah Connor is not the saviour of the human race, her son John is, so her role as a mother is the most defining responsibility she has in this franchise.
After watching Terminator: Dark Fate, it’s clear the writers were aware of this criticism and wanted to offer some sort of correction to the franchise’s gender inequality. Set 27 years after Connor helped stop Skynet’s devastating uprising against the human civilisation in T2, Sarah’s no longer the only woman in the fight. The now 60-something warrior teams up with enhanced super-soldier from the future Grace (MacKenzie Davis) to protect Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), a young Mexican woman who is the new target for an even more advanced brand of Terminator (Gabriel Luna) sent back in time to kill her.
It’s a fun, action-packed movie and absolutely great to see a mature woman over 60 play this hard-as-nails action role, looking exactly how you’d imagine a grizzled fugitive to look too. However, when you hear Hamilton saying on The Graham Norton Show that she spent a year getting fit only to be told to wear a fake bum and tits for the film, it’s enough to make your eyes roll at Hollywood’s continued commitment to defining how women should look.
I can also imagine the pats on the back the writers (all male by the way) gave themselves when they gave Sarah a moment to criticise the “walking womb” trope she has long been saddled with. This sort of self-awareness shouldn’t act as a substitute for actually giving the female characters more nuance and depth than the one-note stereotype of a bitter old woman who says: “I hunt Terminators and I drink till I blackout,” or in Dani’s case, a doe-eyed, innocent who doesn’t show much autonomy until the final battle.
Even in this end scene, where the women battle together to defeat the Terminator, they don’t get to deliver the final killer blow, that honour goes to Arnie’s reformed robot, despite him being absent for most of the movie. And the cherry on the cake is that seconds before, it’s Sarah’s screams for his help that sets this anticlimactic moment into motion. After 27 years, they couldn’t even give Sarah this win, but instead, once again, position her as the mothering protector of a younger person to lead the resistance.
Maybe I shouldn’t have expected a more complex examination of female characters in a movie credited with six male writers but I was hoping that by 2019, Sarah Connor would have been able to shrug off the reductive female stereotypes that defined her – not be given a few more.
Terminator: Dark Fate may be the best instalment since 1991, but just like the rest of the franchise, it’s not as feminist as it thinks it is. Here’s hoping it won’t be back, at least not without female writers.
Hanna Flint is a freelance journalist.