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 tooYou 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.