What James Cameron Doesn't Get About Strong Female Characters

After the director's controversial remarks about 'Wonder Woman,' it's time to remind Hollywood that audiences are looking for well-developed, multidimensional protagonists.
TriStar Pictures/Photofest; Warner Bros./Photofest
Linda Hamilton in 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day' (left) and Gal Gadot in 'Wonder Woman'

James Cameron didn’t invent the strong female character, but from his recent comments you might think he believes he did.

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.

While some may think Lucasfilm’s recent run of female leads are too much, the Star Wars films are actually just starting to scratch the surface of varied stories for women. Things get much more interesting in the extended universe, but the original trilogy gave us Princess Leia, another icon who was multilayered, and the barely there Mon Mothma. The prequels gave us Padme, who started out a royal and a diplomat, but could also fight if the situation called for it. The Force Awakens gave us Rey, Maz Kanata and Captain Phasma, three very different women. And Rogue One had the earnest yet somber Jyn Erso and a revitalized Mon Mothma, who unfortunately still didn’t get much development. That’s eight films and seven female characters.

The last few years have had a run of interesting female characters who can certainly fight but have a bigger story to tell as well. Katniss from The Hunger Games, Hanna from Hanna, and Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa. This year saw Fury Road's Charlize Theron pick up another fighter, the spy Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde. And what about Dafne Keen’s turn as Laura (X-23) in Logan? But are we limiting our scope to just action films when we discuss these characters? Because there’s a lot more out there. Hidden Figures and Spider-Man: Homecoming had several, varied female characters with significant roles. The Zookeeper’s Wife, Their Finest, The Glass Castle and Colossal were all female-focused. What about female characters like Garance Marillier’s Justine in the cannibal horror story Raw, Holly Hunter’s Beth in The Big Sick, or Mckenna Grace’s Mary in Gifted?

Cameron continued by saying he doesn’t know why the film industry is so bad when it comes to depicting powerful women. “There are many women in power in Hollywood and they do get to guide and shape what films get made. I think – no, I can’t account for it. Because how many times do I have to demonstrate the same thing over again? I feel like I’m shouting in a wind tunnel!”

Hint: it’s sexism. Sure, there are women in positions of power in Hollywood, but they’re still up against a century of “this is how things are done.” As much progress as we think we’ve made, women in front of and behind the screen getting equal footing in the industry is still going at a snail’s pace. The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy was doing heroic things on film in 1939. Did we see a run of young heroines on screen in the 1940s? No, they went right back to being love interests. So you can understand why, in 2017, when a female-led film as successful as Wonder Woman happens and we see Hollywood floundering, we can get more than a little frustrated.

For her part, Jenkins responded to Cameron’s comments on Twitter saying, “If women have to always be hard, tough and troubled 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.”

Jill Pantozzi is a pop culture writer, critic and host focused on geek-friendly topics.