A few weeks ago director James Cameron took criticism for comments he made that called Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman a backslide for feminism, and that his creation of Sarah Connor in the Terminator franchise held up better. Female writers came out against Cameron, saying that in the world of female-focused cinema, we shouldn’t be comparing two female heroines in order to see who is “better,” but even that misses the grander point. Film acts as a dialectic, influencing the culture and thus influencing what films get made. In that regard, the character of Sarah Connor owes her life to tough female characters that came before her and, in turn, influenced cinema and characterization enough to create the filmic portrayal of Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman.
It’s important to start with where female characters were before Cameron gave us the first incarnation of Sarah Connor in 1984’s The Terminator. Films like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Network and The Last Picture Show presented women as cold, unfeeling sirens. Their ambition and own personal desires came at the expense of male emasculation that combined nicely with the rise of Women’s Liberation later in the decade. Ridley Scott’s 1979 drama Alien changed the narrative with Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, a smart, level-headed woman whose beauty was matched by her ingenuity. Ripley wasn’t perfect; she was still written and shaped by men, hence a long camera pan up her semi-nude body is included in the film for titillation purposes.
It is the character of Ripley that acts as a makeshift grandmother figure for Sarah Connor, which isn’t surprising since Cameron himself worked on the 1986 Alien sequel after he made Terminator. In the first film, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is an average ‘80s woman placed in extraordinary circumstances. To use Joseph Campbell’s methodology, Sarah Connor is in a “chosen one” narrative, ironic considering Cameron gender-swaps the “chosen one” from where it gained its biggest prominence to date – 1977’s Star Wars. However, where Luke Skywalker becomes a hero with powers and added complexity, Sarah Connor is chosen as a sacred vessel to be the “mother of the future,” giving birth to a son who will end the war between humans and robots. Sarah’s body is in important, but unlike Diana Prince, her body is only as necessary as it is fertile, resulting in much of the first film putting Sarah in a damsel position.
Despite The Terminator ending with Sarah Connor embracing her role as the Virgin Mary-esque mother of humanity’s savior – and being galvanized by the death of her lover – the film didn’t spark an uptick in female-centric action movies. The era of pumped up macho in action saw women in cinema criticized for not getting married or having children commonly cited as a backlash against the female strides made during the previous decade. So by the time 1991 arrived, and James Cameron returned with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, the ‘90s would come to embrace women as heroes, somewhat.
The Sarah Connor of Terminator 2 is a far cry from the first film’s incarnation. Gone is the permed 1980s hair and dear in the headlights look. The audiences’ first introduction to Sarah is as she’s doing pull-ups, sweating with her lank hair in her face with a frenzied look in her eyes. She’s become a Rambo figure, a warrior woman, but this is mitigated by society deeming her “crazy,” and, really Cameron doesn’t give the audience much to disagree with that. This isn’t a knock on Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. For many young women, myself included, Sarah Connor was the first female star who could kick ass, pump a shotgun and didn’t need a man to aid her. And, in theory, that’s true throughout Terminator 2. Where Sarah and Kyle Reese try to outrun the Terminator in the first film – and find the time to have sex and, you know, make John Connor – Sarah is on her own, whether in the mental institution or trying to concoct a plan to take down Skynet. Where the Terminator gets his story is by playing a “mom” role, babysitting the young John Connor and learning about humanity and catchphrases of the ‘90s.
Sarah isn’t a character allowed to have it all, a remnant of the backlash 1980s. She can be tough and calculating but it comes at the expense of her humanity. Her love for John is all-encompassing and deep, but her controlling need to protect him ends up estranging the pair literally and figuratively. The script doesn’t allow her to be a mother who can protect her child, and thus their union at the end is, like in the first film and Kyle Reese, through the Terminator sacrificing himself.
Which brings us forward to Wonder Woman which takes many Sarah Connor tropes, but contextualizes them into a film universe where a woman doesn’t have to be an “either or.” Diana Prince is a literal Amazonian warrior raised by women. Her mother Hippolyta, like Sarah Connor, wants to protect her daughter from the horrors of the world but it never comes at the risk of her sanity or her unity with Diana. When Diana decides to set out on her own quest to stop Ares, her mother understands there’s nothing she can do but hope the training that’s been provided to her daughter is enough.
Diana herself has Sarah Connor’s strength, acumen and sense of honor. Where Sarah is duty-bound to destroy Skynet at all costs, Diana feels an equally grand sense of pride in protecting the Earth from evil. But where Sarah’s goal is set in one mode, “destroy Skynet,” Diana is giving complexity in having a moral code that’s tested in multiple areas. When she’s put in front of a military general content to kill his soldiers, Diana steps in and demands he die on the field with his men. Sarah’s purpose in life is only written for the narrative in which she inhabits; it’s written with simply the film in mind. Diana, on the other hand, is giving a personality that can, and is, conceivably applied to situations outside of the purview of cinema. This is why Diana is allowed to be physically powerful and intelligent, but still optimistic and naive about the world. The script notes the contrasting characteristics and women, and is aware that audiences are no longer content to see one-note female characters.
This isn’t to say Wonder Woman “solves feminism” or that female characters are now perfect. Even in Wonder Woman Diana still falls into a finale reminiscent of the two Terminator films. In each of Cameron’s films Sarah Connor is called into action and bonds with her son through the death of a male figure; in the first film it was her savior/lover Kyle Reese and in the second feature it was the Terminator itself. It is only through their sacrifice for the greater good that allows Sarah to reorient her priorities. In the case of Wonder Woman, the death of Steve Trevor weakens Diana in the midst of her fight with Ares. But once Diana realizes Steve loves her, and that he sacrificed himself both to aid in her fight to save the world, she can then defeat Ares once and for all.
The distinction lies in what the male character’s death does to the character, and who she was prior to their relationship. In the Terminator films these male characters are given the lead mission; they control the action and shape it, leaving Sarah to simply react to their plans, a fact more overt in the first film. In the second film Sarah is practically a villain whose zealotry threatens to bring about doomsday and the Terminator’s death makes her realize what she’s saving. Wonder Woman gives Diana all the tools of humanity before meeting Steve Trevor. He is the one who becomes the conduit for her, channeling all her skills and optimism into a world that needs saving. Diana has humanity, she simply needs an outlet for it which is what Steve gives her.
All of this ends up proving the point that Wonder Woman simply builds upon the foundation of all female heroines. Sarah Connor and Diana are similar in that they’re women, but the scripts and time periods in which the films were released create the divide. Sarah Connor is a character shaped by a man, released in a film landscape where women characters were only able to exist in so many ways. Wonder Woman picks up the Sarah Connor narrative and builds upon it, proving to us that not all female characters are created in a vacuum but inhabit the same network.