Wednesday, January 21, 2009

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

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.

The absence of relationships between women is a problem, but it's also such a common staple of television writing that it's hard to condemn The Sarah Connor Chronicles too harshly for it--how many other series feature women who react primarily to men, sometimes because they're the only woman in their social or professional circle, and how many of those series can boast of Sarah Connor's achievements when it comes to female characterization? I was inclined, in other words, to think of Sarah Connor as flawed but still ahead of the pack, but recently I've come to realize that I don't care about the show's female characters as much as I do the male ones, that I'm less invested in them and less interested when they're on screen.

A big part of the problem is Jesse, who embodies so many of the clichés about kickass women that the show has been so good about avoiding when it comes to Sarah and Cameron. I greatly admired Stephanie Jacobsen's performance in Battlestar Galactica: Razor, but it would seem that what I took for a deliberate choice to convey her character's crushing feelings of guilt through blankness and flat affect was actually an expression of Jacobsen's limited range, as she has consistently failed to make Jesse a person rather than a performance. She struts and pouts and heaves her bosom (and while I realize that Jacobsen is the only woman on the Sarah Connor cast to actually possess a bosom, that doesn't mean it should be on display quite so often, nor that she should be constantly lathered with makeup and hair-product), but it's very rare for her to seem like an actual human being (the exception are the flash-forward scenes in "Alpine Fields," in which Jesse's overpowering sense of her own coolness is dampened somewhat, and also slightly more justified). We're meant to believe that Jesse is a complicated person, whose manipulative plans for John are somewhat counteracted by her love for and loyalty to Derek, but she comes across as an uneasy cross between the stereotype of the kooky girl who gets away with bad behavior because she's hot and mysterious (the risible conversation about inventing new words for sex soon after her introduction) and a total psycho. Since Jesse is the prime mover and shaker in the season's most important character arc, and since she will almost certainly end up as an antagonist to Sarah, her flatness is a serious problem.

Still, Jesse is only one character, and her problematic writing and acting aren't the only reason that I'm so much more interested in what happens to John and Derek (albeit, in the latter case, for a value of interested that equals hoping desperately that he goes back to interacting with the Connors rather than Jesse, because yet another point against that character is how she flattens Derek when he's near her) than I am in the show's female characters. What I've come to realize is that, reactive and occasionally passive as they are, Derek and John are at least changing. They have character arcs. These arcs aren't particularly interesting--John enacting just about every cliché of the rebellious, angst-ridden teen--or comprehensive--Derek doesn't have an actual story, and his arc mostly consists of him rediscovering his humanity after a lifetime of sublimating it--but they exist. The characters are not in stasis, which makes them interesting.

The same can't be said of Sarah, who is still the same person she was at the end of Terminator 2--angry about the life she was deprived of but determined to do her part for humanity's survival, capable of terrible violence but saddened by that capacity. Sarah doesn't change. She doesn't grow. In fact, as the series has progressed she's receded, become a blanker and less noticeable person. She's the window through which we see the other regular and guest characters (so many of the series's stories revolve around her meeting a new person, mirroring them for our benefit), and in playing that part she's become transparent. We know what Sarah boils down to--that tension between wanting a real life and accepting the warrior's life that has been thrust upon her--and we know that she's never going to be anything more than that, so we stop noticing her there.

(An obvious counter-argument to this is to point out that Cameron has been doing nothing but changing and growing since the series, and especially the second season, started, but frankly I have trouble thinking of Cameron as a female character. She, and Catherine Weaver as well, aren't women, but robots who looks like women. It seems strange to attach a gender to a creature who isn't properly a person yet, and though clearly I can't ignore the fact that the show's writers were making a statement when they chose to portray Cameron and Weaver using female actors, part of that statement are images like this, this, and this.)

What I've come to realize is that the stasis in which Sarah is locked is baked right into the show's self-definition. The Sarah Connor Chronicles isn't a series about a human resistance against an upcoming machine takeover and nuclear apocalypse. It's a show about people who are trapped, desiring a normal life but knowing that normality is a sham, that they have a job to do that is more important that their desires or moral qualms. If that's the story you choose to tell, character stasis is an inevitable result (as, I believe, is the slackness of the show's plotting and pacing--for the show's overarching plot to move anywhere would be in direct contravention of its mandate as a story about people who are caught on the precipice of disaster). Ironically, it is precisely because they are of secondary importance to the show's plot, and to the point the writers are trying to make through it, that John and Derek are allowed to grow and change (though of course John's growth is also foreordained in the Terminator mythology). Sarah, meanwhile, has to embody the show's spirit. For her to change--to accept the burden laid on her shoulders, or cast it off completely--would be to gut the show's message.

There's something almost perverse about taking The Sarah Connor Chronicles to task for not being feminist enough. Micole is absolutely right to say that it is Buffy's heir in many respects, and most especially the seriousness with which it regards its female characters and the roles it gives them. But the same flaws that make Sarah Connor an unsuccessful story are also starting to gnaw away at its feminism. At its core, The Sarah Connor Chronicles isn't a story, something with a beginning, a middle, or an end, but an exercise in replicating a single emotional note--the sensation of being trapped, of losing one's grip on normalcy, of losing control of one's life. Too many episodes do nothing more than to regurgitate the same story told about different people, who are thrust into the glare of oncoming apocalypse and have to choose whether to cling to their old life or survive by losing who they are. Just as the show as a whole is damaged by this unwillingness to take the story forward, the characters--the female ones, who most embody this dilemma, in particular--are flattened by it. Almost every episode of Sarah Connor tells a feminist story, about a woman who is the leader of the perhaps doomed fight to save the world. When that story is repeated again and again, however, until that woman ceases to be a person and becomes a meme, never changing, never getting any closer to or farther away from her goal, it also ceases to be feminist. I used to think that my desire for better plotting on The Sarah Connor Chronicles despite its unique treatment of gender was motivated by nothing more than my love of story, and that an improvement on that front would be nothing more than icing on an already satisfying cake (albeit an icing that, when all's said and done, I prefer to that cake). Now I think the two are inextricably linked--if Sarah Connor doesn't become a better story, it'll lose both.

8 comments:

Niall said...

Interesting post -- a couple of quick thoughts.

1. You're right that it's hard to see how Sarah can change in the context of her mission; the solution, it seems to me, is to find other ways for her to change. Buffy faced a similar problem, after all (as did Angel) -- Buffy herself was defined by a mission, and from one point of view spent the entire series oscillating between embracing that mission and rejecting it. But because that wasn't all there was to the character, she still changed significantly. In SCC, the most obvious ground for exploration would seem to be motherhood. You say there's no relationship between Sarah and Cameron; I think there's *something* there, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it develop in future episodes into something quasi-parental (not least as a parallel to Ellison's quasi-parental role to John Henry).

2. You note that John's rise is foreordained, and from the start I've thought the transfer of power from Sarah to him is going to be the trickiest thing for the series to negotiate. Except ... what if it doesn't? We knew from episode two that the series takes place in a different continuity from the films; and we know more recently that it's possible for people to come from different futures to this present, and if the future is changed they're not erased or changed themselves. So what if, in the end, Sarah wins?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

1. Buffy is a good counter-example to Sarah, because as you say she was also defined by an unresolvable tension between her mission and the life she wanted (though arguably the series's ending dealt a significant blow to the causes of that tension). I'm not sure what you mean, though, when you say that wasn't all there was to the character. So many of the changes Buffy underwent were strongly tied to her ambivalence about her role. Over the course of the series she learns to be a leader and a general.

That said, much of Buffy's journey had to do with her being a child who was growing up in front of us, which obviously doesn't apply to Sarah. I'd be happy for a greater exploration of the relationship between Sarah and Cameron (though not necessarily in the context of motherhood) - it's where the show seemed to be headed in the season premiere - but so far it isn't happening, and Sarah seems less and less interested in Cameron with every episode.

2. Wait, you're the one I got into an argument with, back when one of the producers basically came out and said that they weren't planning to prevent the apocalypse, about whether such knowledge made it impossible to enjoy the series. Now you think Sarah might win? It certainly doesn't seem to be the direction the show's story, such as it is, is headed in now.

Niall said...

1. The point I was aiming for is that, ultimately, when I think of Buffy, I don't think of her purely as a slayer, a leader or a general. By the end of the series she is all those things, but they are parts of her identity, not the whole of it: she is also a daughter, and older sister (and surrogate mother), a friend, a partner, etc etc. Sarah, at the moment, is as you say more or less just that leader role, but as with Buffy, I don't see any reason why she has to be -- I think the writers could profitably deepen most of her relationships with the other characters without, as you put it, gutting the show's overall message.

As for her relationship with Cameron specifically, you're right that it doesn't necessarily have to be in the context of motherhood; that just seems a potentially productive avenue because of the contrasts to and commentary on other other relationships within the series that it could generate.

Oh, and on Cameron herself, I think it's meaningful to consider her a female character in the sense that most of the people she meets -- and even some of the people she knows, such as John -- react to her as a woman. Her ongoing construction of self-identity is surely going to be informed by those reactions.

2. I'd forgotten the producers had said that, to be honest. I still think it's perfectly possible to enjoy the story if we know what the ending is; it just occurred to me, literally as I was writing my comment, that they have now laid sufficient groundwork that they could have a Sarah-wins ending if they wanted to.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think the writers could profitably deepen most of her relationships with the other characters without, as you put it, gutting the show's overall message

Well, yes, but they're not doing it. And, more importantly, I think that in order to accomplish this they'd have to tell new kinds of stories, to break out of the 'Sarah meets individual trapped by circumstances, imparts wisdom and inspires strength' template they seem to have settled into.

Vic said...

That's the best article about the show I've read in ages, but I think you are being a little too easy on them in a few places.

First of all, you are so spot on about the absence of relationships between women. It's not just about women not talking to each other, but needing to relate to anyone at all. I've often wondered about how many women there were in the writers' room and, even if there are at least two of them (Chaidez and Graphia) and they both kick serious ass, it seems to me that most of the writers aren't really interested in exploring women as women, but either as mystery objects (Weaver, Cameron), manipulative agents or sex objects with underhanded agendas (Jesse, Weaver, Riley, possibly Cameron), or as hardened soldiers (Jesse, Sarah to an extent). OK, this season we have Riley, who is actually trying to reach out to others, but this mainly comes across as a consequence of her traumas and emotional idiosyncrasies and not as the most natural thing in the world. Similarly, Sarah only needs to talk to someone (Sherman) when she starts going nuts.

Generally, when you just compare the level of development between different characters this season, the scales tip heavily in favour of robot//manipulative/cold with women and human/relatable/above board with men. Human women and male cyborgs just aren't getting the attention they should, even if their roles in the story are important. Instead of seeing Sarah grow and change, you have Cameron getting the big character episodes. Instead of seeing John Henry turn into a character in his own right, you see Ellison looking for his place in the story and Weaver looking all mysterious and pretty.

I've had the same change of heart about Jacobsen since Razor. The only episode in which she felt like a character to me was Complications – in the few scenes where she is flipping out about Fischer and you can actually tell that she cares about Derek and not just about pouting and posing for the camera.

Beyond that, I can count the number of times I've seen a distinctly 'female' scene on the show on the fingers of one hand. Examples would be Sarah trying to blow her brains out in the pilot to protect John, the implication in the pilot that she is using motherhood as an excuse to run away from life, Charley's wife's speech in Queen's Gambit about not being that girl, and maybe the 'waitress' conversation in Earthlings.

The female characters on the show may be all kick-ass and hardcore and whatnot but other than Sarah herself, they are completely unrelatable, they all have hidden agendas, they aren't interested in playing above board, and self-realization is just not a big theme with them. The best explored female character this season is a robot.

A few months ago someone argued in one of the forums that the portrayal of women on this show borders on misogyny. I don't know that I'd go that far, but to say that the show is not feminist just strikes me as the understatement of the year. ;)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Vic: I think you're going a little far. In principle, I'm not opposed to depictions which switch around the traditional division into emotional women and stoic men. Farscape did just that, and it's as feminist a piece of television as I can think of. I think it's possible for a character to be a cold, warrior type while still being complex and relatable - Derek, for example, was just this person in his early appearances on the show, though as I say his arc has been about moving away from toughness and regaining his humanity. The problem is, as you say, that human women (and male cyborgs, though to be honest I'm just not that interested in John Henry) aren't getting this kind of development, which leaves them comparatively flat despite the active and powerful role they take in the series. I also don't think the show is necessarily only interested in Sarah as a robotic warrior - it spends a lot of time delving into her pain, but it's a specific type of pain that, as I say in the essay, doesn't leave her much room for development.

Stella Omega said...

I'm afraid it's a function of TV entertainment.

No hero of an action series ever evolves past the tropes that define him (or so rarely, her) because emotional development is the realm of the soap opera, not action series....

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not convinced that's true, Stella. Or, at least, I'm not convinced that my favorite SF/action series of the last decade haven't been, at least in part, soap operas. See my comments about Buffy and Farscape above, for example - both shows whose characters, male and female, changed quite a bit over the course of their run despite being defined by a single character trait or dilemma.

You're right that a purely formulaic action series will never allow its characters to change. But there aren't many of those left these days, and I don't think The Sarah Connor Chronicles is (trying to be) one of them.

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