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I often find myself in the curious position of a James Cameron apologist. Not that he needs it, mind you: he has multiple Oscars and is responsible for the two highest-grossing films ever. He's doing okay, whether or not I'm speaking up for him. Still, no one will cop to being a Cameron fan. Why? Could it be his outsize king-of-the-world ego? His penchant for boasting would be completely insufferable if he didn't have the goods to back it all up; instead, he's merely somewhat insufferable. But what I find most interesting is that, aside from the fact that Cameron's movies are always huge, he's created of some of cinema's most enduring female characters. Given that he works predominantly in the male-driven action and sci-fi genres, the fact that he's populated his films with tough women is as unusual as it is welcome. One might even wonder: is James Cameron the action genre's greatest feminist? Seriously, check out the following two pioneers and their successors.
Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Though the sweet robots may be the first things that come to mind when thinking about the Terminator films, Connor -- the original Cameron tough woman -- provides the backbone of the series's first two flicks, both written and directed in typical female-hero-heavy fashion by Cameron. In The Terminator, Connor is a waitress who finds herself on the wrong end of a gun, then grabbed by some guy with nary a "Come with me if you want to live!" I'm still trying to wrap my head around all the time and space jumping throughout the franchise, but Connor grasps it right away, ditches the apron, and rises to the occasion, bent on both saving her son and thwarting a nuclear holocaust. This was 1984, by the way: Connor and Cameron were way ahead of their time. If the character were created today, she might still be ahead of her time.
By the time Terminator 2 rolls around, she's hardened, literally and figuratively, trained in guerrilla warfare, running guns, and wearing a headband. But Connor retains a crucial part of her femininity. Now she's more than just a mother -- she's the world's mother. Today there are rumors that she'll be back for future films in the franchise. (Please note "She'll be back" should be read Schwarzenegger style.) Connor's courage and selflessness make her a woman to look up to and not just as a model for killer biceps.
Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Aliens
The most iconic Cameron movie character was written as a male for Alien. Thus she bears the trademark of the male action hero: she doesn't wait to be saved -- she saves herself. Yet they made her a woman. But it was in Cameron's sequel, Aliens, that Ripley hit her stride, becoming the heart of the story and the mother of all tough movie ladies. She's not the window dressing typical of her gender in genre films, but her self-reliance is balanced by femininity as she plays surrogate mother to the orphaned Newt (Carrie Henn) and finds herself attracted to Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn).
Sure, Ripley is terrified by the towering aliens, but she faces them head-on, wielding everything from a pulse rifle to a hydraulic front-end loader as she attempts to save the space marines, Newt, and herself. Ellen Ripley doesn't just play against gender stereotypes; she obliterates them like so many evil aliens. The character, as written by Cameron for the sequel, is not defined by the men around her or ordinary notions of womanhood: Ripley is defined by herself and her own actions. Characters so well drawn are rare, and that doubly applies to women. She's not just a strong female character, however -- she's simply one of cinema's greatest heroes.
Cameron's Other Women
There can be no overstating the importance of Ripley and Connor. They are the 1A and 1B in the history of tough movie women -- the kind of characters who can comfortably be mentioned alongside Rambo, John McClain, or any action hero played by Stallone, Bruce Willis, or anyone else. But Cameron's surprising fascination with creating unusually strong -- but never stereotypical -- women doesn't end there. Take, for example, Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis) of True Lies. She seems a homely, frightened housewife trapped in a comfortable but boring marriage. Flash-forward 30 minutes into Cameron's pic, and she's sexy, attracting the attention of men, and capably rising to the level of her superspy husband (Arnold Schwarzenegger) when thrust into his world.
Then there's the blue-skinned Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) of Avatar, the otherworldly next step in Cameron's great ladies. Like Ripley and Connor, she's the strongest person -- not simply the strongest woman -- around in Avatar. That counts for something. Many movies have strong women, but in Cameron's flicks the women are regularly the strongest characters around, even in a sea of beefy action dudes. And don't forget Max (Jessica Alba), the genetically-engineered protagonist of the TV series Dark Angel, or Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), the gender-bending hothead marine of Aliens. Even Rose (Kate Winslet) of Titanic is a little tougher than you'd think.
Yes, Cameron has proven that he's not afraid to center his fictional worlds around strong women. As far as I'm concerned, he can boast about that all he wants.
Check out Terminator 2: Judgment Day on Sun., Mar. 13, at 8PM | 7C.