What James Cameron Doesn’t Get About Strong Female Characters – Hollywood Reporter
After the director’s controversial remarks about ‘Wonder Woman,’ it’s time to remind Hollywood that audiences are looking for well-developed, multidimensional protagonists.
Nearing the 20th anniversary of the fictional “Judgment Day” from Cameron’s Terminator mythology (August 29, 1997), an interview the director did with The Guardian is blowing up. While they covered a great deal of his decades-spanning career, when they broached the topic of Terminator 2, Cameron’s thoughts on the film’s hero Sarah Connor pivoted to some odd critique of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.
“All of the self-congratulatory back-patting Hollywood’s been doing over Wonder Woman has been so misguided,” he told the publication. “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.”
There’s a few things here. Hollywood is not actually patting itself on the back over Wonder Woman. It was shocked by its success. While it had huge critical and financial achievements, the studio has yet to sign Jenkins for the 2019 sequel (likely as her team negotiates the rich deal she deserves). And with the success of the female-led superhero film, one would presume Hollywood would be jumping at the chance to bring others to life. But over at the studio, this week brought word there’s not one, but two projects focused on the Joker, perhaps the most antithetical character to Wonder Woman.
And then there’s that “objectified icon” bit. Has Wonder Woman been objectified over the years? Yes, but perhaps less than almost every other female comic book character because she’s an icon first. Wonder Woman has been breaking ground and making waves since she debuted in DC Comics’ pages in 1941 and is an inspiration to so many for a variety of reasons. While the film 75 years in the making wasn’t perfect, Wonder Woman was far from objectified, especially if you ponder what it might have looked like with a male director at the helm. And if the only qualifier of her being objectified is that her costume is small, there’s a much larger conversation to be had about the entertainment industry’s interest in attractive people and what they wear.
“Sarah Connor was not a beauty icon,” Cameron went on to say in his Guardian interview. “She was strong, she was troubled, she was a terrible mother, and she earned the respect of the audience through pure grit.” This is another reduction of Wonder Woman’s legacy and perhaps even a misguided and a deep misunderstanding of his own character. Sarah Connor isn’t diametrically opposed to Wonder Woman because the former didn’t give a shit about her looks. And Wonder Woman didn’t care about her looks! That her hair remained perfect after walking into a field of bullets was a choice made by the people behind the screen, not the character herself.
Was Sarah Connor groundbreaking in her own way? Absolutely. She went from the confused damsel in Terminator to a hardened warrior in Terminator 2. It was an incredibly interesting development that had a very specific purpose behind it. So when Cameron calls her a terrible mother that seems wildly off-base. Sarah makes very specific choices because she knows the future and wants to prepare her son John, the future leader of humanity against Skynet. It’s of course an extraordinary situation, but I think if any mother was in her position, she’d sacrifice time at the park for weapons training too.
But the director’s comparisons are a good reminder of what’s expected from “strong female characters.” For a long time, that’s had a very narrow definition, a woman who kicked butt and didn’t really “act like” how Hollywood thinks a woman should act. But when we’re talking about strong female characters, what we’re really looking for is a well-developed, multidimensional character. They aren’t perfect and aren’t always heroes or people to look up to. They can be mothers, or not. They can care about someone, or no one. We’ve certainly had many memorable female characters over the years, but we can’t keep thinking there’s only two ways to go about creating them.