Alicia Vikander and Linda Hamilton are the stars on everybody’s lips this week. That’s thanks to the release of a trailer for the new Tomb Raider filming starring Vikander and the news of Hamilton’s return to the Terminator franchise after 25 years.
While the two stories are distinct, there’s something incredibly heartening about seeing them side-by-side. After all, we are just now entering a new renaissance for women in film.
The original appearance of Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator back in 1981 came hot on the heels of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in 1979’s Alien. These were some of Hollywood’s first major women in science-fiction. Casting aside the Barbarella image that had gone before, these were real women, albeit in a science-fiction setting.
These were the heroines that set the bar for sci-fi. For the first time, women were serious heroes, not just damsels in distress. By that point even Princess Leia, first seen in 1977, had not fully broken that mold. For the first time, women were the leading characters, at least in science-fiction.
In many ways, Hamilton’s evolving role as Sarah Connor was a great metaphor for women in film. She starts The Terminator as a meek, quiet, damsel in distress. By Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Hamilton is front and centre, as Connor, a real hero. Unfortunately it was too good to last and Sarah Connor was gone by Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines.
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That’s a rather fitting description for the reality of female heroes in male-dominated environments. But that’s all beginning to change now.
A new dawn for women in film?
We already know that female directors are just as capable as their male counterparts. But for a long time, studios have been cautious about creating films led by women, especially in male-dominated genres like action and sci-fi. One only need look at Marvel’s box-office dominating cinematic universe to see that women are behind the curve.
That’s not to say there haven’t been some incredible female-led films since the 1980s. Salt, Kill Bill, Miss Congeniality, and Lucy prove that these kinds of films can work and rake in the dough. But it’s important to take those films in context. Not one broke into the top-20 grossing films the year they came out. The female-led films that did had women in much more traditional positions such as Twilight and Alice In Wonderland.
All that began to change in 2012 with The Hunger Games. Here we had Jennifer Lawrence as an realistic, bad-ass, all-action heroine at the centre of an action sci-fi film. It was the third highest grossing film, behind only The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. And of course, of the three, The Hunger Games was the only one not backed-up by previously-formed franchise.
Katniss Everdeen forced the studios to see what Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor had taught them before. That women can be action heroines too.
Since The Hunger Games, there hasn’t been a single year where a female-fronted action or sci-fi film hasn’t been in the top 10 highest grossing films of the year. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Mad Max: Fury Road are all evidence that female heroines are making a comeback!
A standalone heroine:
This article opened with Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider and its own significance to the issue. The 2018 release is important because it represents something that even the success stories listed above can’t boast: a feminist heroine who stands alone.
While there’s no denying that women have risen to the forefront of feature films, there’s still a sense that they’ve been smuggled in. Early marketing for The Force Awakens implied John Boyega’s Finn would be another male lead. Rogue One was always destined to succeed whoever its hero was, thanks to the power of the Star Wars franchise. Wonder Woman only happened after the character was given third billing in Batman Vs. Superman. Even in the feminist powerhouse that was Mad Max: Fury Road, the prominence of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa came as a surprise to many.
Since The Hunger Games we haven’t really had a female-led film that stood alone. Tomb Raider will be the first since that has a woman front and centre from the off. And yes, Tomb Raider is based off a series of games famous for objectifying women. However, since then, the games have really reclaimed the character of Lara Croft. No longer is she an adolescent fantasy woman. She has transitioned into the sensible, serious kick-ass heroine she always had the potential to be. It should come as no surprise that women wrote 2013’s Tomb Raider, the smash-hit game which brought Lara Croft back into prominence.
So now we have Tomb Raider, the first bonafide, female-led action movie since this renaissance began. Sure, it might turn out to be perfect, but it’s an important step nonetheless.
Getting women to the forefront of cinema is one challenge but keeping them there may prove an even greater one.
That’s why it’s so heartening to see Linda Hamilton return to the Terminator franchise after all these years. Just as she was one of the first to put female action heroines on the map, now Hamilton will be a pioneer again. This time she’ll be at the forefront of the discussion of Hollywood’s treatment of ageing women.
There’s plenty of roles out there for ageing men, even in action films. Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, The Expendables, and even Terminator Genisys are clear evidence of that. For women? Not so much. Star Wars, Terminator, Alien, and other major franchises have gone into prequels and soft reboots rather than welcome their leading ladies back to centre stage.
Could a new Terminator film with Hamilton in the lead, with the original director James Cameron in charge change that? We can’t know yet. But it’s a start.
A long way to go:
That’s not to say Tomb Raider and a new Terminator proves female equality is no longer an issue. There remains the tricky fact that women get less money than male counterparts. That leading men still vastly outnumber leading women. That women of colour are basically non-existent in leading roles. That behind the camera women still can’t get a break. That female actors still get questions reporters would never dare ask their male colleagues.
But cinema is changing. Maybe slowly, maybe cautiously, but surely that’s a small reason to celebrate.