Any film which includes a woman suddenly busting out a roundhouse kick or making a withering remark about penis size risks getting hailed as a beacon of feminism, even if her character is otherwise paper-thin or disposable. Sarah Connor, played by Linda Hamilton in the first two movies in the Terminator franchise, is sometimes held up alongside Ripley from Aliens and GI Jane as an example of a female action hero. But is the fact that ‘there’s a woman in it and she kicks some ass’ really enough?
At first blush, it doesn’t seem that Sarah Connor has any of the qualities you’d expect of an action hero. Her value lies not in what she herself is going to do, but in the abilities of the baby she is going to have: a son, natch, who will lead the humans in revolt against their mechanical overlords. For pretty much all of the first Terminator (1984) she could easily be replaced by an inanimate object for the male protagonists to tussle over – Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase, perhaps, or a childhood sled with a functioning uterus. Even Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), a man who considers her a “legend” and is rather creepily in love with her (solely from a photograph given to him by his – and her – own son in order, we can assume, for Reese to imprint on Connor’s image through frequent wanking), isn’t above smacking her about. Her questions about exactly what the fuck is going on seem to just annoy him, as if the Ark of the Covenant had started interrupting Indiana Jones to ask about the finer points of Nazi ideology. The only other female given even cursory screen time is the inexplicably named Ginger (Bess Motta), Sarah’s flatmate, who slots neatly into the has-sex-then-dies horror trope.
However, towards the end of T1 Sarah does start to show the glimmer of a character arc. As with all chosen ones, she initially refuses the awesome responsibility thrust upon her, but then begins the long slog towards acceptance. Her protector dies, leaving her to finally face down her adversary solo, although in this instance her nemesis has been reduced to a crawling arm and some glowing eyes, so it doesn’t take much more than the push of a convenient button. The film ends by setting her up to become the hero – her protector is dead, her task is before her and she is going to have to go it alone. Yes, she had a one-night-stand, but it was all for the noble ends of procreation, and now she carries the chosen one in her precious briefcase. Sorry, womb.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) introduces us to a far more muscular Sarah Connor, who has spent the time since the last film doing chin-ups in mental hospital (the traditional place of women’s incarceration by the patriarchy) and being licked by rapey guards. However, bulging triceps alone do not an action hero make. Once on the road with her son, John (Edward Furlong) and the newly teachable T-101 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), Sarah is quickly relegated to third in the pecking order. John literally takes the front seat, having ordered his mother (“I’m supposed to be this great military leader. Maybe you should start listening to my ideas!” Yeah, you’re ten. Maybe you should start doing your homework) to let his brand new pal live, when she was all for bashing in his CPU. Indeed, they strike up quite a father-son bromance, with some wince-inducing scenes where young John teaches the Terminator to crack wise, American-style. This is the source of the appalling ‘Hasta la vista, baby’ quote, something that fills everyone with the same squirming, embarrassed-for-you sensation of watching Prince Charles do a pelvic thrust in a dole queue to Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing. Everyone, that is, except Sarah, who muses wistfully on her own unsuccessful attempts to give John a father figure. A failure that comes as no surprise bearing in mind her decision to hand her only son over to a strange-voiced killbot dispatched from an increasingly hard-to-follow future. Clearly, heroes — that is to say, boys — need fathers, not mothers.
Realising she is now expendable, Sarah tools up and goes out to kill Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), the cybernetic engineer who will unwittingly set up Skynet, source of the AI that will eventually lead to the destruction of all human life. Because John has a far more sophisticated grasp of humanity than his mother, despite being 10 and a bit of a dick, he sees at once that her mission is immoral; something that only smacks Sarah between the eyes when she’s standing over the bleeding, pleading Dyson with a gun. That’s the problem with letting women get all macho, the film seems to be saying – they just go nuts if you let them have any power. She even gives a bitter little speech about how “men” built all the bad things in the world and only know how to destroy stuff. Women, it seems, truly know what it is like to create something – babies. To put a speech like this into the mouth of the only woman who isn’t dead or forgotten two camera set-ups later gives the lie to the idea of Sarah as a Strong Female Character – it firmly relegates women to the biological realm, while men get the whole of human science and endeavor.
Once Dyson understands the evil of what he is working on, he readily agrees to some ill-thought-out industrial sabotage. This is not the place to point out that putting a trussed guard in the gents’ toilet is the single likeliest-to-be-discovered-by-accident hiding place ever, nor that the technology to crack a PIN and to enter a top-security laboratory are unlikely to be the same, so we’ll move on. With Dyson fallen on his sword, the gang hightail it to yet another steel refinery to take on the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). In a final blaze of gun-pumping badassery, Sarah very nearly manages to blow him into a vat of molten metal and save the day. It’s all going brilliantly, just one more shot needed, but at the last moment, her penis jams. Sorry, her gun. Her gun jams. Fortunately, a true penis-wielder appears behind her, and it’s left to Arnie to deliver the coup-de-grace. The T101 nobly sacrifices himself, and John weeps, presumably because now all he has to train him up is his disappointment of a mother, who needs him to save her rather than the other way around.
So despite the fact she’s genuinely tough, capable and a dab hand with a home-made pipe bomb, Sarah Connor is a female action hero in triceps alone. Her job is to give birth to a hero, not be one herself. The films flirt with the idea of making her powerful and significant, but guns and a teeth-gritting commitment to violence are not the same as being a meaningful protagonist. And in the end, whether her job is protecting John, destroying Skynet, or blowing away bad guys, it seems it’s best left to a man, even a metal one.