Gotta Make Way for the Mother Superior: Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)

on August 16, 2007 in Uncategorized

One of my major projects with the book is to look at the history of superwomen, and see if any themes emerge.

Questions I’ve asked myself in order to discern these themes include:

Is the journey of the female hero essentially different from that of men?

If so, what are some of the archetypal elements of a feminine journey (and do definitions of “quest” and “journey” need to be expanded in order to encompass female experience, i.e. spiritual journeys rather than physical adventures?)

If it’s possible to make an argument that portrayals of male heroes have evolved, would this be the result of a feminine influence?

How do political trends and cultural zeitgeists effect how women are represented as heroic—particularly as mythically heroic?

Through observation of superwomen in modern myth, a striking theme for me has been the role of fathers. Many female heroes were either raised by single fathers, or mentored by father figures: Nancy Drew, Araña Corazon, Barbara Gordon, Joanna Dark, Lara Croft, Elektra Natchios, Chloe Sullivan, Sydney Bristow, and Veronica Mars to name but a few. It gives the impression that a woman cannot learn heroic values from another woman—only from a paternal source. Even Joyce Summers, who made efforts to be an integral part of Buffy’s world, took a backseat to the knowledge imparted by Rupert Giles and the patriarchal Watcher’s Council. When Joyce died, Buffy realized that she’d never paid attention to the particular life skills her mother had to offer and this left a tragic void in her spirit.

So if it’s fathers who most often raise heroic daughters, where does this leave mothers, or even heroic women who one day become mothers?*

In her book, The Sound of a Silver Horn: Reclaiming the Feminism in Contemporary Women’s Lives, Kathleen Noble relays an anecdote from Charlene Spretnak who describes an incident from a post-lecture question and answer session with the late mythologist, Joseph Campbell.

A student had asked why there were no roles in classic myth with which modern women could identify. Campbell answered by explaining that women are the hero’s mother, the hero’s queen, and the damsel in distress. He saw the feminine as the sacred, all-knowing, giver of life. But he never really understood that women want to be heroes too. While motherhood is heroic, having maternity be considered our only path to greatness is distressing indeed. Women want to seek, explore and discover; hell, we even want to conquer.

But after considering heroic daughters and their influential fathers, it appears that more often than not, while the female hero’s mother is dead, mentally ill, or otherwise unavailable, the male hero is, as Campbell observed, nurtured towards his destiny by mother. **

All this has me thinking more deeply about Sarah Connor.

She is the mother of a messiah; a protective lioness burdened with the duty to save the world by birthing the savior of humanity. She’s Mother Mary, but with a machine gun.

In Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors , Sarah will initially be addressed in the third chapter, currently titled “Women of Steel: The Buff and the Backlash.” The focus there is on female heroes in the 1980s, but my main interest in her will be explored in my chapter, “Always the Mother, Never the Messiah,” which will take on both women’s limits as mother, and women’s potential to make motherhood itself heroic.

A brief history of Sarah Connor begins with the first Terminator, a film that successfully mixed genres; it’s a love story, a work of science fiction, and a horror film. In it, Sarah is an unexpected hero. She evolves from unassuming diner waitress to damsel-in-distress, to archetypal Final Girl, and ultimately, in the last scene, the epitome of determination.

In T2: Judgment Day, we see a very different Sarah, one whose every move is informed by this consuming resolve. Her singular focus is to protect her son, John, and if possible prevent Judgment Day from ever happening so that he may not have to face such a tragic destiny. (And perhaps, so that she may one day relax her oppressive vigilance.)

While Terminator is most remembered for it’s original and intriguing story, T2 is most remembered for it’s special effects—and Hamilton’s astounding physique. It’s important to note that T2 has become so familiar—so ingrained in American popular culture—that it’s difficult to remember just how radical a character Sarah Connor was in this 1991 release, as well as how unexpected Linda Hamilton’s embodiment was, having transformed from soft, feathered, romantic lead to hard-bodied warrior woman.

I’ll write about this metamorphosis more in the book, but I wanted to bring it up here—as at the time it was truly a revolutionary depiction of a female action hero.

Previously, when contemplating these two movies and thinking about Sarah’s purpose in the narrative, I’ve regrettably pigeonholed her in the role of “mother of the messiah”—a cool action hero to be sure, but one whose sole purpose was to nurture the true leader. I feel late to the game (read: kinda slow), but it wasn’t until I watched the Comic Con 2007 screening of Sarah Connor Chronicles that I realized Terminator is a story about Sarah; not John, not robots, not the dangerous misuse of technology, not even Arnold Schwarzenegger—and that makes it, and her, ever so much more interesting to me.

The great failure of T3 was that it lacked Sarah—and it’s her story. Part of the project of Sarah Connor Chronicles is to correct the trilogy, and therefore, in the television branch of the Terminator mythology the events of T3 never happened.

Light Spoilers follow, but probably nothing you haven’t already come across on the net.

The extended pilot moved quickly. As in T2 and T3, there are both an assassin Terminator and a protector Terminator. Though it felt a little tiresome to see yet another machine after the Conners again, it was necessary to situate the franchise in the mythology and to give Sarah and John a reason to be on the run.

The year is 1999, two years after the original date of Judgment Day, and five years after the events of T2. By the end of the show we will transport eight years into the future and end up in the year 2007 (which will perhaps be changed to 2008 to coincide with the series premiere date).

The series begins with Sarah (Lena Headey of The Brothers Grimm) in the midst of a nightmare. Terminators are after her son, Judgment Day is breaking, and in an echo of a scene from T2, we see her shielding John (Thomas Dekker of Heroes) with her body, maternal lioness in full force; flames wash over them, and humankind is incinerated.

When Sarah awakes we learn she’s engaged to be married, a choice which seems out of character for the otherwise cautious Sarah, but one which will serve a narrative purpose.

Sarah sees the nightmare as a premonition and decides it’s time to change location again. After she disappears with John, her fiancé goes to the police where he is confronted by an FBI agent named James Ellison (Richard T. Jones). Ellison explains who Sarah is, what she believes, and what she’s done. It’s Terminator mythos 101 for the uninitiated.

The Connor’s arrive in New Mexico, where at his new high school John meets a friendly beauty named Cameron, played by Summer Glau (Serenity), and named as an homage to guess who? But as soon as he starts his first class a Terminator appears. Fortunately, Cameron is one as well. (When she said the iconic “Come with me if you want to live” the con crowd went wild. I suspect the audience was filled with Whedonians who couldn’t get into Ballroom 20).

It’s hard to believe that the T-800 in T2 was enough to convince Sarah and John to trust any Terminator that comes along and says it will help them. But John is still a child, and Sarah is clearly desperate. She’s a woman on the verge, and is doing whatever she can to maintain sanity. He son is still in denial and acts almost as if, if he just wishes hard enough, it will all go away. Sarah knows better.

“I’m not who they think I am! I’m not some . . . Messiah!” –John Connor
You don’t know that.” –Sarah Connor

Sarah doesn’t know for sure either—but it’s irrelevant. She must prepare John regardless; no fate but what she makes.

What I got from the producers of SCC that I didn’t get from the creative team of Bionic Woman was that they understand their character—as well as care about her. To make the show about Sarah, not about John (as in, The John Connor Chronicles) honors her place in the mythos. (And elevating Sarah to her rightful position as the narrative impetus is actually pretty radical.)

The producers noted that they are “very intrigued” with the character, Sarah, as well as with that now iconic phrase, “No fate, but what we make.” James Middleton said that he’s “always looked at the end of T2 and thought ‘My God! What does Sarah do now!?’”

The team wants to expand on the characters, while maintaining a sense of integrity towards the established cannon. There IS an arc, and there WON’T be a monster of the week. Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds) told that chases don’t work very well week to week–although the classic television series The Fugitive, The Incredible Hulk, and to some extent Kung Fu, followed this very formula. These series worked because the human element was the driving force. Richard Kimble, David Bruce Banner, and Kwai Chang Caine often put their own goals and safety in jeopardy in order to help others in need. At the Con Q &A, Headey praised Sarah Connor’s “great sense of humanity” –it’s likely Sarah will find herself torn over potentially compromising John’s safety and, as Cordy Chase often said on Angel, “Helping the helpless.”

The pilot was far from perfect. It felt like a made-for-television version of what should have been T3. And the fact that it wasn’t perfect concerns me because the Fox network’s track record with genre shows has been spotty. While X-Files, The Simpsons, and 24 were allowed time to find their groove, The Lone Gunmen, Firefly, and Wonderfalls were cancelled all too quickly, despite their charm.

*These chapters are particularly personal for me, as I am a woman who was raised by a single father from my teenage years on. Though my mother was emotionally available and very supportive during my formative years, I’d always identified more with my father than with her—at least until I was an adult and realized how much of her is also a part of me. Like Buffy Summers, I’d devalued the domestic sphere and worked in favor of my destiny. So in looking at stories that are told about superwomen and their parents, I’m also trying to answer questions about myself—and about how I grew up to be the person I am and about what choices I might make in the future.

**Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides, of the Dune, series is an archetypal example. As holy and powerful as his mother is, the Bene Gesserit, Lady Jessica, cannot be the salvation of that universe—no woman can. If Frank Herbert intended to honor the phenomenal women in his own life, why did he put a limit on feminine power? Why is it only the masculine who can achieve ultimate Godhood?

2 Responses to “Gotta Make Way for the Mother Superior: Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008)”

  1. Chrishka says:

    I loved to read this and would love to read more!
    Is your book on the subject out?

    What are your views on Ripley, Salt, Colombiana, the girls in Death Proof and Elisabeth Moons fantasy heroin Paksenarrion

    Sincerely Yours

  2. Thanks! The book is out, and available on Amazon.

    Ripley is discussed in the book (short take: LOVE her). Salt was alright – I was hoping for more, but I’ll likely discuss my feelings on her in another project. Haven’t seen Colombiana yet. Discussed the women of Death Proof at length in a project for Bitch media called Grrrl on Film.

    This is such an old post I have to ask how you came across it. Regardless, thanks for reading!

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