Is Sarah Connor a strong female character? Her physical fitness is undeniable. Actress Linda Hamilton shed her Members Only jacket from Terminator for a tank top in Terminator 2: Judgment Day that showed off her shredded physique like she was flexing for Instagram at an L.A. gym. Is she a character? Well, yes, she certainly has dialogue and scenes. But fully-realized as an action heroine? James Cameron believes so.
In an interview with The Guardian, he praised his own creation while simultaneously knocking Wonder Woman: “All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided. She’s an objectified icon, and it’s just male Hollywood doing the same old thing! I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie but, to me, it’s a step backwards. Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon. She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.”
Wonder Woman may be a lot of things, but it’s far from a step back from Sarah Connor. Then again, it’s no surprise that Cameron is too dense to realize this, given his modus operandi when it comes to allegedly strong female characters.
As I wrote recently in regards to Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, when male writers set forth to write strong women, they tend to eschew femininity and embrace masculine traits. Just as Arya balked at her sister Sansa for preferring pretty dresses to the sword of a knight, the architects of women like Sarah Connor tend to follow the mindsets of early film scholars that believed action heroines should emulate men. As Sherrie Inness points out in the book Action Chicks: New Images of Tough Women in Popular Culture, “That several of the first scholars to address these new roles for women identified them as figurative males, masculinized female bodies, and Dirty Harriets has led to a misconception that action heroines are only enacting masculinity.” This fits Cameron’s description of Sarah Connor to a T. In his mind, she’s strong because she’s not a woman. Sure, she has a child, but the child is merely a MacGuffin that instills in her an intense drive that can only be sated by kicking ass, shooting guns, and acting like one of the fellas.
This isn’t a knock on women who exhibit masculine traits, but in pop culture there tends to exist two types of women: the kind that Cameron is fond of writing, the muscled, no-nonsense women you can’t imagine having a single X chromosome in them, or the breast-bouncing babes of Aaron Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels. The irony in calling Wonder Woman a step back is that she actually exhibits masculine and feminine traits, and is a far more realized woman than Sarah Connor was. Perhaps it has something to do with Patty Jenkins being at the helm of Wonder Woman and understanding that just because a woman is a warrior does not mean she must imitate a man. Kathryn Bigelow, once married to Cameron, does a far better job of exploring a similar juxtaposition in her films, where one can witness a repudiation of toxic masculinity (Point Break) and the infiltration of the boys’ club mentality during wartime with Zero Dark Thirty.
For all of Cameron’s self-aggrandizement (insisting, “how many times do I have to demonstrate the same thing over again? I feel like I’m shouting in a wind tunnel!” as if he’s the bell hooks of cinema), he actually does reach a point, albeit unwittingly so. When he calls out the self-congratulatory mood surrounding Wonder Woman, he’s not exactly wrong. As Warner Bros. is soaking up the positive press from producing the highest-grossing live-action hit from a female director, their response has been to… not immediately announce that Jenkins is returning for Wonder Woman 2. Furthermore, there’s an entire slate of DC films that have no female screenwriters or directors attached.
Batgirl is being directed by Joss Whedon, who is going through some of the same misogyny allegations that Cameron has faced in his career. An upcoming Gotham Sirens film set to star Harley Quinn, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy wasn’t mentioned at all at San Diego Comic-Con this year and if it does happen will be directed by David Ayer, whose film Suicide Squad had Joker and Batman roughing up Harley Quinn for fun. Then, this week alone, two new Joker films were announcing by Warner Bros—both of them to be written, directed and produced by men. Given how successful Wonder Woman has been and how much gloating Warner Bros. has done about its success, it’s downright shameful that Patty Jenkins is the only female creator currently involved in the DC Extended Universe.
Jenkins, for her part, addressed Cameron’s controversial statements in a tweet late Thursday night:
“James Cameron’s inability to understand what Wonder Woman is, or stand for, to women all over the world is unsurprising as, though he is a great filmmaker, he is not a woman. Strong women are great. His praise of my film Monster, and our portrayal of a strong yet damaged woman was so appreciated. But if women have to always be hard, tough and trouble to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional or celebrate an icon of women everywhere because she is attractive and loving, then we haven’t come very far have we. I believe women can and should be EVERYTHING just like male lead characters should be. There is no right and wrong kind of powerful woman. And the massive female audience who made the film a hit it is, can surely choose and judge their own icons of progress.”
The lesson to be learned in all of this is that creators like Cameron and studios like Warner Bros. should stop resting on their laurels and start focusing on putting their money where their mouths are. Regarding the question of why Hollywood is still bad at depicting powerful women, Cameron told The Guardian: “There are many women in power in Hollywood and they do get to guide and shape what films get made.”
How about the men in power stop bitching about Wonder Woman in interviews and actually do something about it?