He may have a reputation for being difficult to work with on set despite claims he has “turned a new leaf” in recent years. And while many websites dedicate their time to discussing the James Cameron audiences do not get to see, there is one aspect of his work we do admire – the creation of some of the most iconic and badass female characters in film history.
In an age where the “boy’s club” still rules Hollywood at every turn, someone like James Cameron doesn’t need to anything to win brownie points from anyone at this stage. With multiple Oscars and being responsible for 2 of the biggest selling films of all time (‘Avatar’, ‘Titanic’) the idea that he would pander to female audiences is certainly the last thing on his mind.
Which makes his female characters all the more important in a landscape where women have to fight tooth and nail to even prove they can be the driving force of a major blockbuster film. Let’s not forget how Kate Winslet became the break-out star of ‘Titanic’ which launched her own Oscar-winning career in a stratospheric way. And both Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver in ‘Avatar’ were no wallflowers and whose stories were pivotal in this film, which is set to have 3 sequels.
And speaking of Sigourney, in a recent interview with Vulture to talk about the 30th anniversary of ‘Aliens’ at San Diego Comic Con, James Cameron talked about how Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor from ‘Terminator’ have become iconic characters which are now benchmark figures for current female badasses like Furiosa from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’.
When confronted with this idea, he seemed to agree.
“I would concur with that. She’s a world-class actress, as Sigourney is. Even in the middle of an action scene, she’s acting, she’s so heartfelt,” he said of Charlize’s performance in the George Miller film.
‘Aliens’ producer Gale Anne Hurd, who is also best known for her more recent work as executive producer on ‘The Walking Dead’, spoke about how Charlize’s character did more for revitalizing the ‘Mad Max’ franchise than the title character himself (played by Tom Hardy).
“You can’t remember the guys in [Fury Road], but you remember her. It should have been called Furiosa,” she said.
James points out the difference between a great performance and a performance that becomes an iconic marker in film.
“Well, Tom Hardy’s a great actor, but he’s not as memorable in that film as she is. These iconic characters come along every few years. Hollywood tries to do it from time to time, but…” he trailed off in the interview, and it’s not hard to finish the sentence. We have a feeling he is alluding to the way female characters are creating in-authentically that does not do them justice, which then feeds into the typical narrative that women-led films can’t win big at the box office.
Right on cue, James points to the behind-the-scenes problem, one we have talked about at length here. The “disproportionate amount of female directors“, as he put it, compounds the problem of why we don’t see more complex female protagonists in lead action roles. And there is a simple explanation as to why Mr. Cameron doesn’t have a problem with doing the opposite of what the boy’s club in Hollywood is.
“I’m basically a pretty hardcore feminist, so I have no problem writing a script in which the males become subservient to the females, which is what happens in Aliens … It’s up to Ripley to win the day. There aren’t too many male writers and directors who feel comfortable doing that. I guess it’s deeply hard-wired,” he said.
A couple of things here: 1. it is AWESOME to see one of Hollywood’s biggest and most-lauded film directors openly and unashamedly claim he is a feminist, and 2. we need to see more of this because men in power like James Cameron have the privilege of not fearing backlash in a way that, say, an-up-and-coming female director who is just trying to get her foot in the door might.
In the Comic Con panel where Gale Anne Hurd was also present, she mentions something that some male directors do which doesn’t exactly make for an empowered female character.
“They create a character with all male characteristics, and cast a woman to play it. And that doesn’t work either!” she said.
It should be noted that in the first ‘Alien’ film in the franchise which was directed by Ridley Scott, the character of Ripley was originally written as a man, but then gender-swapped when Ridley decided it would make for a more compelling story. In this case it is clear Sigourney Weaver was given the space to balance the feminine and masculine in a way that did the character justice, and the rest is history.
James Cameron understands it is not just about the overt gender representation, but the psychology and emotion behind a character that makes it all the more realistic, and he realizes this is an important reason why we need to see more women directing action films.
“It has to be written from the standpoint of a female psyche, which at least has some sort of nurturing and emotional connection that is processed differently. You’ve got to write to that, you know what I mean?” he said.
In his point of view, there is one aspect of ‘Terminator’s’ standout female character that made her the action icon she is even today.
“Sarah Connor became iconic not from the first Terminator but from the second one, where she was a mother. The same thing with Ripley: As good as Alien was, I don’t think Ripley would have had the stature as an iconic strong female character without the mother aspect, without the emotional aspect. Her strength is an emotional strength, and it’s an intellectual strength, her native intelligence as a survivor,” he described.
In a profile from 2012 on his billion dollar filmmaking career (!), the Guardian’s Hadley Freeman makes special note of his iconic female characters in a genre that highly favors machismo and masculinity.
“Despite his displays of machismo Cameron has written some of the best roles for women in cinema,” she writes.
Even back then the Oscar-winning director’s perspective on the lack of well-written female characters and why it was happening was consistent.
“I didn’t even think it was that remarkable when I did it with Terminator – it’s remarkable by its absence in other Hollywood movies. I do think Hollywood movies get it wrong when they show women in action roles – they basically make them men. Or else they make them into superheroes in shiny black suits, which is just not as interesting,” he said.
He also makes a point of letting readers know he doesn’t just do it because it’s the right thing to do.
“To me, it’s just another challenge. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s an engineering challenge, a scientific challenge, a writing challenge – for a man to write a woman and make her interesting to women as well as men, it’s a challenge. Maybe it’s just a quest to understand women who are sometimes inscrutable,” he said.
It’s not just enough to have a Ripley, a Neytiri, a Sarah Connor or even a Furiosa among the many male-led action franchises that dominate Hollywood. We need more and more so that it becomes as part of the norm as the numerous male characters that immediately come to mind when the words “action film star” are uttered.
“Hollywood is also a culture that rewards a certain type of beauty and behavior pattern, so that it’s hard for actresses to emerge that are amazing, strong actresses. I don’t mean physically strong, but strong in their emotive power, who can take a movie and carry it and be the one on the marquee. You think of people like Tom Cruise and Matt Damon who carry action franchises and it doesn’t happen as much for women because they’re not handed that bat to hit the home run,” said James in the Vulture interview.
From his mouth to the Hollywood studio executive’s ears. Talk is cheap, but clearly James Cameron has the walk, and the accolades, to prove his incredible female characters are no just about tokenism. We hope more powerful people in the film industry wake up to the fact that it really is about interesting and complex characters, exhibiting strength and power in a number of different ways, not just the way one particular gender views it.
Want to hear more from James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, Sigourney Weaver and others from the ‘Aliens’ 30th Anniversary Comic Con panel? Watch the video below: