Blog Spotlight: Let's Hear It For the Girls? Sarah Connor Thoughts

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A few weeks ago, Micole wrote a short piece about the qualities that make The Sarah Connor Chronicles unique in the television landscape.

I want to say something passionate and convincing about Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, something that will convince you all that this is the BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION, that will make you watch it, that will reprieve it from the imminent danger of cancelation, something about the prominence of women and women relating to women and women not talking about men and about the uncharacteristic depictions of men too

You can find my reaction at the time in the comments, concentrating mostly on the show's failings in the realm of plot while acknowledging its (sadly unusual) strengths as a depiction of women in positions of power and responsibility--strengths which are the main reason I continue to watch the show despite finding it disappointing, to the point of being almost completely unengaging, as a piece of storytelling. I've been thinking about The Sarah Connor Chronicles a bit more recently, though, and writing about it for another venue, and I've started to wonder whether even on this level the show might not leave much to be desired.

Sarah Connor's chief virtue as a depiction of women is that its female characters are the instigators, motivators, and chief actors in its story. It is, happily, no longer uncommon to encounter stories in which women are central, powerful beings, but it's still unusual, even in television series with a female main character, for that character to be the source of the show's story, the person who makes that story happen. Women can be strong, smart, commanding, and in control, but they are rarely the authors of their own life. Instead we get Dana Scully, whip-smart and capable of reducing grown men to jelly with the flick of an eyebrow, but constantly beaten and buffeted by the actions of the shadowy, male, members of the conspiracy, and--more importantly--constantly reacting to the actions of her male partner, tailoring her behavior, choices, and lifestyle to suit his desires and safeguard the things he cares about. Or we get characters like Buffy in that show's early seasons, or Sydney Bristow throughout Alias's run--brilliant tacticians who are frequently in control of the immediate choices in their lives, but who are either unaware of or powerless to affect the big picture, and therefore end up the puppets of men. Even Aeryn Sun, to my mind still the gold standard for depictions of strong women on TV, wasn't the chief mover and shaker on Farscape, and her actions were frequently determined by Crichton's choices or by her desire to ensure his safety.

I like Buffy, Dana Scully, and Aeryn Sun very much (and thought Sydney Bristow had her moments), but it was enormously refreshing to come to The Sarah Connor Chronicles and find an approach to the writing of women that put those characters at the center of the story, as its primary actors. Women, both recurring and regular, drive the show's plots, and men react to their actions and follow their lead. This is more than simply to say that women are important to either the story or the male characters. On The Sarah Connor Chronicles, women call the shots. They are the strategists and often the tacticians as well, and the male characters' choices and actions happen as a result of and a reaction to those made by the female characters. Male characters are driven by their subservience to female characters: John by his obedience to Sarah, fascination with Cameron, and affection towards Riley; Derek by his loyalty to both Sarah and Jesse. Ellison craves Sarah's guidance and leadership, and when she refuses to act towards him in that capacity, he turns to (what he believes is) another woman, Catherine Weaver, for it. Charley is torn between his loyalty to Sarah and Michelle, and though the latter's death as a result of his actions on the former's behalf was greeted with cries of refrigeration, I think it's telling that instead of galvanizing him, Michelle's death destroys Charley and takes him out of the game as Sarah's potential ally.

It's a supremely enjoyable reversal of the more common division of power and influence in television, but something that started to occur to me as one fan after another has praised the series for it is that there's an insidious flipside to Sarah Connor's constant harping on the theme of reactive men circling around far-sighted women. It buys into the fallacy that a woman's strength, perhaps even her worth, is measured by the amount of power and influence she wields over men, and that relationships between women are not important, and certainly not where one would expect to find games of power and dominance. And then I realized that there are almost no relationships between women on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah, Cameron, Jesse and Riley are, all of them, focused on John, with Jesse sparing some thought for Derek. Depictions of women whose primary emotional investment is in other women are rare on the show, and mostly relegated to guest characters (Lauren Fields and her sister in "Alpine Fields"). When Riley takes Jesse's kindness towards her in the future and immediately after their arrival in the present as an indication that they share a bond, and attempts to strengthen it, she is brutally rebuffed--to Jesse, Riley is nothing but a tool, an instrument with which she hopes to affect John.

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