by Bryan Hill
“Thank you, Sarah for your courage through the dark years. You must be stronger than you imagine you can be. You must survive.”
– Kyle Reese
The year is 1985, my family just got cable television, and there was a chrome nightmare coming to get me. James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR is the first memory I have of being afraid of a film. That damn endoskeleton grinned at me through the screen, clearly wanting to snatch me off of my grandmother’s couch in Saint Louis, Missouri. Back then I couldn’t even pronounce “uncanny valley” or “techno-horror” but none of that mattered.
That metal skeleton wanted to get me. It had glowing red eyes, human teeth and it wanted to [email protected]%$ing get me.
Hope came in the form of a young woman named Sarah Connor, a diner server that started her day getting ice-cream shoved in her apron and ended it saving the world (and me) from Cameron’s nightmare fuel. Once I knew Sarah Connor won, I watched the movie every time it played on cable. It’s probably as responsible as STAR WARS for my love of science-fiction. Sarah Connor, with her big hair, her high waisted jeans and her homemade stick bombs, changed my life.
Her story taught me how to overcome my fear. She was hunted. Terrorized. Wounded. Sarah learned that she was the only hope to save all of humanity and despite having no belief that she could do it, she turned into a warrior and ended the story driving into the dark horizon, prepared for the “storm” of the future armageddon.
Sarah Connor’s journey, like many mythological heroines, was a path of suffering. In twenty-four hours, she lost everything and gained the burden of having to protect the world from an evil only she could understand. She’s the Joan of Arc of science-fiction action, deemed insane, motivated by impossible knowledge of the future, a prisoner and a pariah who always found strength and purpose in her misery.
Confrontational, empowered women are often deemed insane, or at least disruptive. They’re ostracized and criticized and their path is made lonely by gender bias and the jealous fury of patriarchal institutions. Cameron didn’t protect his character from that truth. He bravely spared her no evil in his fiction. I’m not certain if James Cameron thinks often about gender bias, but he shattered it by putting Sarah’s hand through the glass ceiling of mythological narratives and when the shards landed in her fist she screamed, pulled them out, and kept fighting.
As a young man, growing up flooded by images of popular culture, I’m sure watching Sarah Connor affected my view of women in heroic narratives. I was a kid and this woman stopped that metal ghoul from getting me. By the time I read Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolff I was safe in the knowledge that no Terminators could crush my skull under their chrome heels. Sarah Connor, mother of the future, made that possible.
In Sarah Connor’s suffering and triumph I trust.
THE TERMINATOR experience rarely happens for me anymore in pop-culture (there are only TWO terminator films. That nonsense that came after doesn’t count). I fear that in the noble interest of representation, across both genders, stories have lost the will to put their characters through Hell. What seems like empathy is really pandering, a pat on the head from an establishment that believes we have forever lost ourselves in the pursuit of comfort. I fear that now Sarah Connor would be judged because she uses a gun, because she’s too sinewed with muscle, because she bleeds and fears and wants to quit before she accepts her destiny. Sarah is often wrong. Sarah fails. She pays the price for her failure. Repeatedly she’s knocked down and has to force herself to stand.
Sarah Connor, like most enduring, mythological heroes, is rarely comfortable and never safe.
Would James Cameron be punished now for putting Sarah through Hell? I’m not sure. I hope not. I am certain that James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR is why when I write fiction on a blank page I don’t automatically start typing about a man.
There is no shame in suffering. There is no shame in injury. There is no shame in failure unless we allow that failure to claim our will. Those are the lessons that mythological fiction can teach all of us, but those lessons will get lost if the stories lose the courage to teach them.
Evil is real, sentient or not. We live in a world where life is fragile. Bullets tear through flesh. Blades pierce us like butter. It takes years of sacrifice and training to mould yourself into a person that can stand in the face of destructive violence, and no battle, won or lost, leaves you without scars. This is the truth of life. If we punish artists for depicting real evil and its consequences, we’re asking them to lie. We’re reading those lies. We’re choosing to arm our spirits with swords made of glass, and when the dragons of our lives come for us — and they will come — those lies will fail us.
When we fall, what stories will we have to teach us how to stand again?
To be clear, I’m not advocating depicting trauma, of any kind, simply for the sake of it. I do believe that stories must be responsible in their presentation of events and no reader deserves to be punished at the whim of a sadist.
I also believe that stories are critical to how we develop our own sense of our possibility. They can lead us to strength and understanding that we may not have known we have. I fear, as a culture, we’re losing our faith in ourselves. We have stopped looking into the abyss and now we ask our institutions to tell us the abyss isn’t there at all.
Tell us a lie that makes us feel safe, we say.
Then the lies fail us. They don’t make the abyss go away.
The lies won’t stop The Terminator from getting me.
Once upon a time, villagers fled the rage shriek of the Arch-Dragon, but one woman ran to the sound. She picked up her spear, digging her armored heels into the mud. Her journey began the moment she heard a tale of a woman who also faced the flames, who was burned, and scarred, and broken, but found the will to stand. To fight. To endure.
That dragon feared that village woman. It is for her that he rose from the abyss. He sought to wound her and shatter her so that no others would follow her against him. He screamed his flame into her and dreamt of the taste of her flesh.
She knew she would suffer, but she knew suffering would not shame her or kill her. She faced the beast and destroyed it. For the village. For herself. The other villagers had no way to thank her, no offering worth her sacrifice. They did the only thing they could do, they made her immortal. They gave her the power to inspire generations to grow up and become her.
They told her story.
Bryan Hill is a comic author and screenwriter. Currently he writes POSTAL for Top Cow where he is also story editor. Find him on Twitter @bryanedwardhill