This week I look at how women are portrayed and how they interact with other characters in the sci fi/thriller classic The Terminator.
(Find out more about 3 tests I’ll use to guide the conversation in Women, Men, and Movies or just read on.)
A young woman, Sarah Connor, must flee from and ultimately fight a cyborg from the future intent on killing her.
(Does a named female character talk to another named female character about anything other than a man?)
Who’s Talking To Whom
As in the discussion of Ex Machina, where I referred to an A.I. designed as female as a woman, I’ll refer to the Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a man.
Women To Women:
Our hero, Sarah Connor, and unnamed female restaurant coworkers talk about:
- Sarah being late
- Who will care about a bad work day in 100 years (a little foreshadowing)
- A news story about a different Sarah Connor being shot and killed
Sarah and her roommate, Ginger, talk mostly about men and cover these topics:
- Ginger’s boyfriend
- How they look before going out with their dates
- Sarah’s pet lizard
- Sarah’s date, who cancels on her
- Sarah going to a movie
Sarah talks to an unnamed female door person about:
- Using the pay phone (remember those?)
- The cover charge
Men To Men:
In the first spoken words of The Terminator, an unnamed male driver talks to himself when he sees what looks like a naked man appear in the midst of lightning.
Unnamed male punk rockers talk to each other about:
- A naked man approaching them
The Terminator talks to many unnamed male characters, including the punk rockers, a hotel guest, a gun shop clerk, a phone booth occupant, an intake officer at the police station, and a hotel clerk, about:
- The Terminator being naked
- The rotting smell from his room
- Guns and how they work
- The Terminator’s attitude
- Wanting to see Sarah
- “I’ll be back” (the classic line)
- The hotel address
An unnamed drunken man in an alley talks to himself, to Kyle Reese (who has come from the future to help protect Sarah), and to policemen about:
- Bright lights
- Reese stealing his pants
Policemen talk to Reese about:
- Trying to get him to stop running
- The date and year
One unnamed policeman also talks to another about Reese having his gun.
Lieutenant Ed and Detective Hal (who I don’t think ever has his name spoken), talk briefly to the press (to say No Comment) and talk to each other about:
- Two Sarah Connors being dead
- Reaching the remaining Sarah
- Using press/TV to reach out to her
- How they look
- Reese’s story
Reese and Dr. Silberman, a (male) psychologist, talk about:
- Future war
- A computer defense system
- The machines’ plan to kill Sarah
- Time travel
- The Terminator
- Reese’s mission
- That Reese can’t go back to his own time
- The Terminator will keep going until it kills Sarah
Max, Ginger’s boyfriend, tells the Terminator “Don’t make me bust you up.”
Reese speaks one line to the Terminator at the end to tell him to “Come on.”
Women And Men:
Sarah talks to male customers and a bartender about:
- Food orders
- Complaints about poor service
- Not touching the TV (when a news story about a second Sarah Connor’s death plays)
The Terminator talks to the first Sarah Connor he visits to confirm her name.
Max, Ginger’s boyfriend, talks to Sarah on the phone about:
- Sex (when he thinks Ginger answered)
- An apology (when he realizes it's Sarah)
Max talks to Ginger when she gets on the phone about:
- Sex (same words he said to Sarah)
Sarah and Lt. Ed, Det. Hal, and Dr. Silberman talk about:
- Sarah being followed
- Where Sarah is
- Ginger’s death
- Whether Reese is crazy
- What Reese told her
- Reese being deluded and/or on PCP
- Trying to sleep
- Her mother
- The many cops in the police station
Sarah and Reese talked the most, including about:
- Reese’s line, another classic: “Come with me if you want to live”
- Whether she’s hurt
- Doing what Reese says
- Reese is there to protect her
- Sarah’s targeted for termination
- Cyborgs from future
- Reese being from the future
- What a terminator is and whether Reese can stop it
- Nuclear war
- The defense network and machines
- How John Connor led the resistance to the machines
- Time travel
- Reese’s injuries
- What John is like
- That Sarah’s a legend
- A message for Sarah from John
- Fighting machines in the future
- Reese’s childhood
- Reese’s love for Sarah
- What women are like in his time
- Dealing with emotional pain
- Continuing to fight
The Terminator and Sarah talk about:
- Where Sarah is (when he’s pretending to be her mom)
- That they love each other (when he’s pretending to be her mom)
- Sarah tells him he’s terminated
Sarah, a boy who takes her photo, and a gas station attendant talk about:
- the photo
- how much she'll pay for it
- a storm coming
People and Machines
People talk to machines in addition to the Terminator, including Sarah talking to her and Ginger’s answering machine to ask for Ginger’s help, which tips the Terminator to where she is, and Sarah talking to a tape recorder in the end in a message to her unborn son.
A lizard and Sarah’s offhand mention of going to a movie save The Terminator from failing the Bechdel Test.
That the film barely passes surprised me. I’ve watched it many times. In my memory, it passed right away because of Sarah’s conversation with her coworkers about the other Sarah Connor’s death. But we never hear that coworker's name. I also had not remembered how much of her conversation with her roommate was about men.
I also noticed on this watch how many more unnamed characters are men and how much more often men talk with other men (named or unnamed) than do women.
Still, Ginger and Sarah do talk about Pugsley, the lizard who, while male, probably doesn't count as a man for purposes of the test. Go Pugsley.
Women v. Sexy Lamps
(can a female character be replaced by a sexy lamp without affecting the plot?)
Despite that Reese is sent to protect her, he is not the protagonist. (In a different movie, one I would never have been interested in, he probably would have been.)
Sarah's choices for better or worse drive the story. Had she been a sexy lamp, Reese would have found her and spirited her away. When the Terminator tracked them down, Reese alone would have had to fight and the outcome would have been far different.
Our other named female character (yes there is only one other), Ginger, plays a small role. But she influences the plot.
She is sympathetic when Sarah’s date cancels and supportive when Sarah decides to go out alone. That decision means Sarah’s not there when the Terminator arrives. Also, Ginger’s struggle to survive brings the Terminator into the living room when Sarah calls, which is why he hears her talk to the answering machine.
So while Ginger doesn’t make a huge difference in the plot, I think it’s enough.
The Terminator passes the Sexy Lamp Test.
(does a female character have her own narrative arc that does not support a man’s story line?)
Sarah goes from struggling in her work as a waitress (who says she can't balance her checkbook) to a woman who fights first alongside Reese and then alone to defeat the Terminator.
In a way her storyline supports a man’s—specifically that of her future son, John Connor. Reese says Sarah is a legend for training John to fight and preparing him for the war. Also, the machines send the Terminator to kill her specifically to keep John from being born.
The larger point, though, is to save the world and the future, and the story revolves around Sarah.
Sarah has her own narrative arc that drives the movie. The Terminator passes the Mako Mori Test.
Bechdel: BP (barely passes)
Sexy Lamp: P
Mako Mori: P
Did I Like It
The Terminator is my favorite movie of all time. (Check out the Reel Chat podcast for an in depth, fun conversation among filmmakers about it.) I love how circumstances force Sarah into an impossible situation and she rises to the occasion. Her growth is gradual and believable.
While I was disappointed The Terminator didn’t do better on the Bechdel Test, for a 1984 action film it’s less surprising that few women talk to each other and more surprising that Sarah is the protagonist.
While initially a target/victim, she takes every step she can to protect herself.
When she sees the news story in a bar and grill, she tries to call the police. When she can’t get through, she goes out among people and later into a crowded club where she's more likely to be safe. She follows Reese’s advice when the Terminator is pursuing, but when things are quieter she reevaluates to decide what makes sense.
She accepts the explanations the police give at first because they're logical and more plausible than Reese's. But when later events prove Reese is telling the truth, she throws all in with him, learning as much as she can as quickly as possible. And when she’s alone, she fights as hard as she can despite serious injuries and intense fear.
She's a strong, sympathetic woman hero, and the story is tightly plotted and exciting.
Next Week’s Film
Terminator 2: Judgment Day. What else?
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