It's been 27 years since Terminator 2: Judgment Day opened in cinemas and became the highest grossing film of its year. James Cameron's sequel to The Terminator also presented a landmark in CGI and visual effects that influenced a whole generation of action and sci-fi film. The Terminator franchise continues to this day, with a sequel-slash-reboot of the series arriving next year. Returning to the fold for the first time since T2 is Sarah Connor as played by the iconic Linda Hamilton. A promotional image for the movie revealed Hamilton back in action mode with aviator sunglasses, a shotgun and look of utter fierceness, and we couldn't be more excited for her return. Others have played Sarah Connor since, but nobody has nailed her prickly drive or forcefulness quite like Hamilton.
What remains so striking about Sarah Connor in T2 is her unlikeable nature. Sarah is sharp, abrasive, unruly and deeply damaged. She’s a woman who understands that she has no choice but to be a fighter, even at the expense of being a traditional mother, and the agony of living daily with the knowledge of how the world will end is crushing her. Men gaslight her, abuse her at her most vulnerable, and dismiss her as crazy yet she soldiers on, refusing to cower or become something that needs to be saved. The trope of the badass dude who eschews human contact and displays of emotion is nothing new, but the distinctly woman version of that is rare. Sarah is not emotionless, but she is hardened by her experiences and knowledge, and she’s keenly aware that she has little choice but to be this way if she wants to live.
It’s not just Sarah’s character or Hamilton depiction that broke new ground for action heroines — it’s her physicality. Make no mistake: Sarah Connor is built! Those biceps are the envy of many a gym rat. Hamilton did not mess around for this role. She trained for three hours a day, six days a week for 13 weeks, and also underwent extensive judo and military training. When she walks into a room, she exudes power and a real sense of "Don't mess with me." She is strong and capable and muscled in a way that, even today, is rare for on-screen heroines.
Big muscles are the ideal physical state of masculinity, especially in action films. Think of every actor named Chris in a superhero movie right now or the taut definition in Henry Cavill as Superman or Ben Affleck’s mad Crossfit gains as Batman. In the 1980s, almost every leading man toting a gun and sliding down buildings had Mr. Universe biceps and abs so tight you could grate cheese on them. By contrast, even today, action heroines are supposed to be lithe and more acrobatic. Evident muscles are discouraged, even as the default body type remains simultaneously skinny and curvy. In other words, heroines have to still look appealing to men. They can be “badass” with their big guns and martial arts prowess, but they must still be smaller than their male counterpart.
Women basically can’t win when it comes to our bodies. Anyone that even skirts the line of difference is declared unruly or worthy of shame. Plus size women can’t catch a break; black women’s bodies are shamed until they’re commodified by whiteness; anyone living with a physical disability risks becoming a subject of mockery and derision; trans, genderqueer and non-binary people have their identities questioned if they don’t look a certain way. In that context, a woman with big muscles feels like a lesser issue, but the policing of womanhood through our bodies cannot be underestimated. Linda Hamilton was one of many women who embraced a muscular form at a time when it was controversial to do so. It became a derisive shorthand to refer to a woman as having “Linda Hamilton arms”. Now, in 2018, such things seem positively revolutionary.
With Hamilton back as Sarah Connor in what will officially be the sixth Terminator film, audiences have been given another chance to embrace one of pop culture’s great heroes. Hamilton is now 61 and by merit of her age, she continues to push boundaries. In that promotional image, she is clearly an older woman, with greying hair and lines on her face, but that doesn’t soften her sharp edges or power. Hamilton gets to look her age and that’s incredibly exciting for an action hero. Indeed, it’s exciting for women in film as a whole, if only because we’ve been banned from publicly aging. Even the grandmother parts must remain impeccably glamorous, which isn’t bad but can be so limiting for everyone involved. Here, Hamilton is powerful and in charge and mature.
There’s been a boon in recent years of older actors having a career renaissance thanks to action films. Liam Neeson went from prestige actor to legendary action man in his 60s, thanks to the success of the Taken franchise and similar films. Keanu Reeves has never been more exciting or vibrant than he is as John Wick. Tom Cruise hasn’t slowed down since his 30s, but there’s still something kind of amazing about seeing a 56-year-old man hanging off the sides of buildings in Mission: Impossible movies. This is an honor that hasn’t been bestowed upon many actresses these days. Even Helen Mirren didn’t get to join in on the action when she joined the Fast and the Furious franchise, despite our strongest desires. There’s a major gap in the market for women like Hamilton to fill as older action heroines at the front and center of the drama. And clearly, there’s a hunger for it from audiences.
Hamilton is one of three women in that new promotional Terminator image, alongside Mackenzie Davis and Natalia Reyes. All three look powerful, like leaders and heroes, and there's not a man in sight. Hamilton carved the path forward, and now she gets to lead the way for generations past and present. It's good to see her back.