Where Have You Gone, Sarah Connor?


Remember Linda Hamilton (playing Sarah Connor) and her guns in “Terminator 2”?

Summer always makes me a bit nostalgic for childhood. I remember fondly the excitement of being out of school, the long days with nothing to do but read and the cool refuge from the hot Texas sun provided by a matinee of a summer blockbuster at the local movie theater.

Unfortunately, this summer’s action movies have left me nostalgic for more than the air conditioning. Only a few of the most highly anticipated movies of the summer feature more than one woman, and those women are primarily co-stars, not leads. After Earth and World War Z have wives who stay behind while the man goes on the adventure. Elysium co-stars Jodie Foster as a “bad guy,” but from what little information has been released on the plot, her weapon of choice appears to be government red tape. Even Monsters University only has one female student—and she’s a cheerleader.

To make matters worse, the characters who do get in on the action are mostly played by women who cannot believably fight. The Heat is a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, but it looks to be more comedy than action. The female hero of Kick Ass 2 is a young girl. And though Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3, Zoe Saldana as Uhura in Star Trek: Into Darkness, Gal Gadot as Gisele and Michelle Rodriguez as Letty in Fast and Furious 6, and Rinko Kikuchi as Pacific Rim‘s Mako Mori are supposedly tough, they are so thin that it’s hard to believe that they’re actually capable of action. In fact, though Uhura is present for two of the fights in the new Star Trek, in the first she mainly hides behind a wall, and in the second she merely fires a phaser—which, being a phaser, doesn’t even have any kickback.

This trend is disturbing but not accidental: The diets these women go on to prepare for their roles mean that no matter how much training they do, they’re not eating enough to build muscle. To prepare for her role as Catwoman, Anne Hathaway went vegan and was, by her own account, too weak to master the exercises. Not surprisingly she failed to build any muscle despite intensive training. Gwyneth Paltrow published her “elimination” diet in her book, It’s All Good, and indeed it does appear she does more eliminating than eating. And Alice Eve, whose totally unnecessary underwear scene as Carol Marcus in Star Trek: Into Darkness has prompted its fair share of criticism, told The Telegraph that to prepare for the role she ate nothing but spinach for five months. Perhaps that’s why she and her counterpart in the film, Zoe Saldana (who clocks in it at a whopping 115 pounds), spend most of the movie looking like they are about to cry.

I say we bring back Ellen Ripley. To prepare for her role in Aliens, Sigourney Weaver did dumbbell chest presses, squats, shoulder presses and rows—all with weights—and she didn’t diet at all. Did you hear that? Not at all. I say we bring back Sarah Connor. In Terminator 2, Linda Hamilton did basic soldier training and ate a high-protein diet, and, indeed, she has guns in her hands and on her arms. Or remember when a 140-pound Jamie Lee Curtis did a strip tease to protect her “cover” in True Lies? Now that was a motivated underwear scene. (Note to J.J. Abrams: Having Eve take her clothes off in the middle of rushing from one place to the next for no reason at all is simply objectification.)

These female heroes of yore were popular not just because they were badass: They were also fantastic characters. Unfortunately, the summer movie with the best female fights (and the most diverse casting) is probably going to be the one that provides the least opportunity for character development. Gina Carrano, an actual Mixed Martial Arts professional, and Michelle Rodriguez did almost all of their own fights for Fast and Furious 6, and those fights are pretty damn cool. But because Rodriguez’s character Letty has amnesia, she moves through every moment of the film when she’s not driving or fighting like she’s in a daze. Carrano as Riley never speaks more than one or two lines per scene.

Saldana, Eve and Paltrow are gorgeous and talented, and the problems with their performances are largely the result of underwritten characters. I don’t mean to body shame this summer’s starlets for being slender; I mean to shame Hollywood for asking them to starve themselves, and to shame a culture that thinks starving women are beautiful. It’s not a coincidence that many women action heroes are actually children—that’s about as big as Hollywood lets women get these days.

Media-savvy Geena Davis, in an interview about her movie The Long Kiss Goodnight (in which she played amnesiac CIA agent Samantha Caine who, like Jason Bourne, has forgotten who she was but not how to fight), explained why this matters:

Thelma and Louise had a big reaction, there was a huge thing at the time, that, ‘Oh my god, these women had guns and they actually killed a guy!’ … That movie made me realize—you can talk about it all you want, but watch it with an audience and talk to women who have seen this movie and they go, ‘YES!’ They feel so adrenalized and so powerful after seeing some women kick some ass and take control of their own fate. … Women go, ‘Yeah—fucking right!’ Women don’t get to have that experience in the movies. But hey, people go to action movies for a reason; they want to feel adrenalized and they want to identify with the hero, and if only guys get to do that then it’s crazy.

Long live Samantha Caine. Long live Thelma and Louise.

Cross posted at Bitch Flicks. For more images and stats on women in action movies, check out Feminist Fandom and follow Holly L. Derr on Twitter @hld6oddblend.


  1. Sally Rosloff says:

    Love this piece. I grew up loving the roles of Weaver and Hamilton, and miss them now.

    That said, I disagree with the implication that a vegan diet equals starvation and/or the inability to build muscle and would hate for people to get the impression that that is true. Starvation and lack of muscle come from not enough calories, of whatever type. There are plenty of healthy athletes eating plant based, and there is bit of an explosion right now in the books, websites and information on eating healthy plant based nutrition. Rip Esselstyn, the former firefighter, comes to mind as well as Dr. John McDougall, who has a website I follow with free information on eating healthfully.

    Eating nothing but spinach is not an example of a healthy plant based diet. Eating a wide variety of minimally processed, whole plant foods–fruits, vegetables, potatoes, legumes, grains–with minimal oil supports health and a healthy weight, as well as exercise.

    • Might I suggest you write with more clarity. Are you comparing vegan diets to plant-based diets? A plant-based diet does not necessarily exclude dairy, fish, meat, etc. It’s just a diet more focused and based on plants than others. If you’re talking about veganism – don’t be afraid to use that word. But please don’t misuse other words if vegan is what you mean.

  2. I like this article, except the low blow to the vegan diet. Did you ever care to think that maybe Anne Hathaway was weak because she was starving herself? Regardless whether she was “vegan” or not? There are plenty of strong, kick ass vegan feminist women who absolutely do not starve themselves and who are super healthy and always full of energy. “Linda Hamilton did basic soldier training and ate a high-protein diet” does that imply that it was animal protein and that’s the only way women should eat to be strong? Hahahahaha! Here’s an example of a strong vegan woman! http://www.veganbodybuilding.com/?page=bio_claudia

    • Thanks for the link to vegan bodybuilders! As a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, my understanding is that most scientists (and I do say most on purpose) agree that the amino acid chains responsible for muscle growth are only found in animal products. I don’t mean to diss the vegan diet, I only mean to say that it’s not a good choice for actors training for roles which require visibly large muscles.

    • Thanks Lady, I was going to say the same. All essential amino acids are found in plant foods. There are plenty of real-life body builders and other athletes who are vegan and have plenty of muscles.

      Otherwise, I love this piece!

    • Thank you! I was just about to post this! I’m vegan, and lift weights and rock climb and have absolutely no trouble gaining muscle weight! In fact, 8 years of being vegan and I’m stronger and healthier today than I was when I was vegetarian or omnivore. I eat, though. I think Anne Hathaway’s weight loss had more to do with starving herself and less to do with what she chose to ingest when she had to put something in her mouth to keep from passing out.

  3. Kirsten says:

    While I generally agree with the tone of this article: I have a problem with a pice of information that should have been fact checked. Anne Hathaway played Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) in the Dark Knight Rises NOT Catwoman. Also a vegan diet does not preclude weakness. There are many olympic athleates, many of them women, who are vegan and go on to great success in sports.

    Also, Pepper Pots character as a believable fighter? She wears a metal suit of armor to do most of her fighting. I have fibromyalgia- if I wore that suit I could kick some ass too.

    While I don’t doubt that we have a problem with women in the media- its a certain fact that we do. This article seems nostalgic, and looking back to the “golden times” rather than taking a realistic look at the big picture. Forgetting the problematic movies of the 80s and 90s, and not including the great movies of today (Katniss Everdeen should surely rank on a list of of todays female action stars) is poor journalism.

    • Thanks for the correction on Catwoman – I’ve fixed it. As a personal trainer certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, my understanding is that most scientists (and I do say most on purpose) agree that the amino acid chains responsible for muscle growth are only found in animal products. I don’t mean to diss the vegan diet, I only mean to say that it’s not a good choice for actors training for roles which require visibly large muscles.

      As to Pepper Potts, I suppose you could argue that the suit is made of some kind of Rearden metal that doesn’t weigh anything, but it’s hard for me to imagine a weaponized suit of armor that doesn’t take some strength the manipulate.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Sorry, but they are spot-on about the vegan diet thing. I realize that vegans are now horrifically offended to the core of their beings that someone said something mildly critical about veganism. *facepalm* Every vegan I’ve ever known (and I’ve known quite a few) looks like one of those pictures of starving people, all rib bones and vertebrae. They look pale, sickly, weak, and brittle. Whenever someone tells me, “Oh, I’m a vegan,” I’m thinking, “Well, duh, I mean, LOOK at you. A stiff wind would blow you away. My guess was either vegan or anorexic.” The only other people I’ve ever seen who looked as malnourished and physically weak as the vegans I know are the anorexics I know (who are in treatment, but still dangerously thin). I’m sure someone will immediately jump on me for voicing my opinion, but this is a viable criticism of veganism. I mentioned anorexia for multiple reasons – for all that vegans profess to be concerned with their health and the environment and state those as the reasons for their food choices, the truth is that obsessive, overly-restricted diets are often (not always, but often) covers for some kind of eating disorder in the first place. “Veganism” is a safe word that people with eating disorders use to hide their food/image obsessions from others. Vegans also often tend to not brook discussion about these issues, and won’t tolerate the mildest criticism of veganism no matter how valid, so we’ll see if I get slammed in the comments for daring to post something not “pro-vegan.”

    • I know this conversation has gone way off track, so I just want to start by saying I agree with all the movie-role-for-women points made in this article. Now my two cents on this comment: This is more a criticism of unrestrained dieting most likely due to mental health prob;ems, one can use a vegan diet to do that, but one can use any diet to do that. I am vegan, I have been either vegan or vegetarian for the last 35 years. I am not skinny (not trying to be either), and I practice martial arts (and yes, I have pretty good muscle development). I have had (non-vegan) people tell me that I must be doing vegan-ism wrong because I am not losing weight. I tell folks they might want to concentrate more on overall well-being than on arbitrary weight measures; I feel better when I avoid dairy (I already don’t eat meant), hence vegan. Having said that said that I know many people with body image and food issues who have used the excuse of “going vegan” to starve themselves; I knew one young woman who ate nothing but carrots for a month (she ended up in the hospital). That is not a vegan diet, that is eating carrots for a month. I knew a young woman in college who ate only raw vegetables one month, ate only skinless chicken breasts the next, and once told me that my rather steady diet of rice, beans and fruit (cheap and filling) would make me fat and unsuccessful. That is the sort of fear-based living and body-shaming and control that many people live with every day. I’d say we need to look at the messages inherent in mainstream media and popular culture that shows unhealthy female bodies as the norm and emphasizes fad dieting for health rather than taking care of the whole person in a balanced manner, which for many people means eating a plant-based diet. Focusing on what people do and do not put in their mouths is not the way to overall good health for individuals or for society.

    • “Vegans also often tend to not brook discussion about these issues, and won’t tolerate the mildest criticism of veganism no matter how valid, so we’ll see if I get slammed in the comments for daring to post something not ‘pro-vegan.'”

      This statement is a huge rhetorical fallacy designed to keep vegans silenced in this comment thread (and no, I’m not a vegan. I eat meat. Looking at this from a purely logical standpoint.) This is so eerily similar to many comments written by misogynist commentators on many gender-based articles, with the intent of keeping women & feminists silenced. Just replace “vegan” with “feminist” to see what I mean: “Feminists won’t tolerate the mildest criticism of the feminist movement no matter how valid, we’ll see if I get slammed for daring to post something not ‘pro-feminist.'”

      Get what I’m saying? It’s obviously OK to have an anti-vegan opinion (not that you need my permission in saying it’s OK, and again, I’m not even vegan myself), but don’t follow up your opinion with wording that silences the other side and discourages open discussion.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. I certainly agree that there is a serious lack of strong, non-waifish heriones in this year’s action movies, even when including Katniss.

    While I agree with the comments that the author’s timeline of strong and realistic heriones in the 90s and starved and too thin heriones of the 00s is too simplistic and doesn’t mention the invisible privilege these white, able-bodied actress embodied, I’m pretty disappointed with the comments overall. It is relevant to point out the small errors of the piece, but no one has addressed the overall message; this year’s summer blockbusters are void of strong women!!

    I would rather we feminists got good and mad about the lack of Thelma and Louise, Ellen Ripley or Sarah Connor type characters and films this summer. Instead it seems we’re too busy pointing out if the article misrepresents the possibilities of a vegan diet! Thank you Holly Derr for a good read.

  6. Yes, solid points made. You did, however, forget the most badass recent woman in film – Demi Moore in GI Jane. In TV, we had Peta Wilson in La Femme Nikita (a very under-appreciated series IMO) and Maggie Q in the new Nikita.

    Also, don’t be so American-centric to ignore that there are quite a few graceful, and still badass, Asian women in film (Michelle Yeoh comes to mind). Not quite the muscular type you refer to but still extremely capable.

    • I hated the Terminator series’s third movie..Sarah Conner Gone..and all that great line about creating your own fate,too.

      In the 3rd movie? In the end?
      It’s all true…..Everything’s gone to Hell, and it’s all been for nothing.
      Same for Aliens.Loved Ripley & Cat surviving, and Ripley, her lover, and her new “daughter,”surviving in Aliens(plural.) In the third version…bald heads, her “daughter,” and all are dead, all for nothing, and she falls into fire.
      The last one? Where she
      is “brought back” A mess and worse……No strong woman and saved loved ones, heading for a future hard won: Just bleak Nothing. Arhggh again…..BB

  7. Totally loving the discussion here. I just want to clarify that in no way do I mean to tell women what to eat or what to look like. I mean to say that there should be *some* women on screen who weigh more than 120 pounds, that action movies–which by their nature valorize physical strength–are a logical place for that, and that producers and directors of action movies should cast women in those roles who can and want to gain enough muscle to believably play the part. When a woman who has never worked out before is suddenly training 5 hours a day over 3 months in preparation for a role and 2 hours a day during shooting over an 8-month period, she is not going to gain muscle on a vegan diet, both because it’s very hard to get all the necessary amino acids that way and because it would be nearly impossible to consume enough calories. In no way do I mean say that people should not be vegan or that it’s not a sustainable long-term lifestyle. I mean to say that those actors in those situations won’t gain muscle that way.

    Mainly, I think we should all be allowed to look however the fuck we want, and that film should show the full range of possibilities, including women who have weight and muscle.

  8. Ripley is still one of my idols. I love her so much.

    Hopefully the all-female The Expendables will be a good one. My mother and I were talking the other day about how they repeatedly make Superman, Spiderman, Hulk, and X-Men movies, but popular female heroes like Wonder Woman and Storm have yet to get their own films in the 21st century. It’s really sad. I’ve just been watching Alias and Battlestar Galactica over and over again to satisfy my strong woman fix. Personally, I’d love to see Gina Torres and Michelle Rodriguez in roles as the main protags on the big screen.

  9. I loved the fight scenes between the women in Fast 6, it was seriously kick ass. As I recall, the character Giselle was a weapons expert, not so much a combat specialist. I do share your disappointment with women taking a backseat to all the action that the male heroes get to enjoy. But I believe Iron Man 3 had a strength, *SPOILER* in the final fight scene, when Guy Pierce (IDK the character name) claimed he had Pepper Potts almost perfect (after she fell to her “death”), Stark had a moment of sincerity when he said, “she was already perfect.” I liked that part. 🙂

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