Who would have thought James Cameron would turn out to be one of the strongest feminist voices in contemporary cinema, and yet he is.
It’s not merely that his films are populated by strong women -- they’ve been saving mankind since his first, 1978’s 12-minute sci-fi short “Xenogenesis.” What makes him a potent feminist force is the way he rides the mood swings and internal debates of the movement’s second and third waves, exploring what women want, how they define themselves and how society values their worth, albeit a bit sneakily and usually in some future world.
It’s easy enough to counter that Cameron’s greatest obsession is actually the technological possibilities of film, particularly in light of “Avatar,” with its bright blue, 3-D Na’vi race coming at a price tag of at least $310 million, and his decision to delay the film until computer software could match his imagination. But technology is just the brush he uses to paint the canvas. The hand that wields it is someone Arnold Schwarzenegger would probably dismiss as a “girlie man,” if only “The Terminator” hadn’t given the governor such a memorable character, so much loot, plus a campaign slogan.
Though the versions vary depending on the film, the story is much the same, a narrative arc grounded in the relationship dynamics between women and men (or some engineered facsimile), with most of the power resting with the femmes. It’s never particularly nuanced, there are no great depths plumbed, but the stories are striking for their lack of cynicism. The romantic in Cameron always wins the day. He is still a boy with his toys -- Cameron adores his machines and lavishes them with every care -- but they are ultimately in service of relationship issues.
Consider “The Terminator” series, beginning with its first edition in 1984. The premise: Mankind’s survival is tethered to an über mother figure. No virginal Madonna this, Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor is a sexy single waitress, not with child at the moment but very much with a mind of her own. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator is sent back from the future to destroy her, possible boyfriend material Kyle Reese is transported back to protect her, but Sarah soon figures out she has to take care of herself.
When “T-2" turned up in 1991, Sarah had taken a giant leap forward. By now she was a buffed single mother, biceps ripped, wearing wife-beater T’s. Her significant other is a cyborg -- the Terminator has switched sides, proving that women aren’t the only ones who change their minds. He has no commitment issues -- willing to melt into a vat of molten steel for her if necessary; never leaves his clothes on the floor, and the only thing he asks in return? To just let him know what she needs. Pretty much a dream relationship for women who, like Sarah, were looking to flex their muscles.
“Aliens,” the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 stage-setter, arrived in 1986 after Betty Friedan’s argument in “The Feminine Mystique” -- that having a husband and bearing his children did not a woman make -- had gained traction in the cultural conversation. Cameron echoed that in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, dropping her into the male action hero model as warrior and protector, a machine gun on one hip, a rescued child on the other.
By “The Abyss” in 1989, Cameron was having second thoughts about keeping women in no-man’s land. He served up a blue collar-white collar romance with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey, the engineer of a high-tech, deep sea oil rig, and Ed Harris’ Bud, the roughneck who runs it. The Brigmans’ divorce is in the works but circumstances in the form of a missing nuclear sub bring them back together. When one of the guys calls her “Mrs. Brigman,” she snaps, “Just don’t call me that; I hate that.” Before the film is over, Bud’s wedding ring will save him, Lindsey will risk drowning so that Bud can live, and when they both beat the odds, calling her “Mrs. Brigman” becomes the film’s resonant kicker.
In 1994’s “True Lies” we have the case of the workaholic husband trying to make amends, with the responsibility for making a relationship work shifting squarely onto the man’s shoulders. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Helen is not a happy woman -- frustrated by a boring job and her computer salesman of a husband (Schwarzenegger): “If I want to fall asleep, I just ask Harry about his day.”
Harry’s actually the spy who loves, and lies to, her. After a lot of James Bond-styled intrigue, a run-in with a terrorist faction that allows Cameron to blow up a lot of stuff, and the classic scene that required Helen to pretend she was a prostitute, it turns out Harry’s most important mission is not national security, but to make sure that Helen’s needs -- yes the woman has needs, professional, emotional, sexual -- are met.
By the time “Titanic” rolled around in 1997, Match.com was four years old and exploding and publishing sensation “The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right,” had spawned a sequel. Research showed that professional women were not so much looking for footing on the fast track, as they were leaving it to raise kids, leaving the glass ceiling to be shattered by someone else.
Into that backlash sailed Kate Winslet’s beautiful society girl, willing to break boundaries and be whipped by wind and salt spray on the bow of that giant ship and to fall in love with a boy (Leo DiCaprio’s doomed starving artist) whom her parents would never approve of. This very traditional romance, part Jane Austen, part pulp fiction, was embraced by women and young girls by the zillions, earning Cameron billions. Then the director mostly dropped off the map.
After excursions into documentaries that did not play to his feminine side, and TV, where he launched Jessica Alba’s career in “Dark Angel,” as a genetically enhanced teen who favored leather jackets and rooftop hangouts in a post-apocalyptic world, he was silent until “Avatar.”
So what can we draw from his latest feminista -- Zoë Saldana’s Neytiri, the Na’vi warrior princess who lives on Pandora, a moon being strip-mined to death by earthlings shaped by Wall Street greed, preaching profit at all costs?
In Neytiri, Cameron has both sharpened and softened his image of the female ideal, self-actualized and not inclined to suffer fools, particularly of the male persuasion. She wants a partner that is her equal. She’s sexually assertive but doesn’t mind being swept off her feet. She will fight to protect the environment and her people, though her preference would be peace. Her long, lean blueness redefines beauty in unconventional ways. Though it looks as if she might shop at Victoria Secret, her instincts and natural intelligence still demand respect.
Meanwhile, Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully spends most of the film just trying to keep up with her, when he’s not falling for her. She loves him, but refuses to lose herself in the process. In the end he is the one to give up everything, including his human form, to be with her. All in all, a woman just right for these times.