WOMAN: At the Heart of James Cameron’s Filmmaking

James Cameron Movies and Feminism - Aliens

Hollywood’s most renowned epic disaster, action thriller and sci-fi blockbuster storytellers have been men who habitually and safely bet box office fortunes on, well, other men, with plots pivoting around men. One of the most honorable exceptions remains James Cameron.

Other men have directed occasional movies about women, largely in other genres. Sure, David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992), Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), Sidney Lumet’s Gloria (1999), Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Kill Bill (2003, 2004), Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire (2011), George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and their kind are action movies, thrillers or sci-fi blockbusters, but such films are very unlike the collective filmmakers’ unashamedly, disproportionately male-driven fare. In comparison, Cameron’s work stands out with his stories that repeatedly revolve around women. Ridley Scott’s output comes closest — Alien (1979), Thelma & Louise (1991), G.I.Jane (1997), Hannibal (2001) — but fades against his overpoweringly male-led filmography.

In 2017, Cameron ironically became a whipping boy following his creative critique of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Yet, for all the feminist trolling she directed at him because he is “not a woman,” it is Cameron who has been taking creative and commercial risks by celebrating vibrant female characters for some 40 years — not supporting acts but leads who are central to the film’s success or failure. Cameron goes all in, no safety net to speak of.

Unlike Jenkins, feminist film oracle Molly Haskell welcomes both perspectives (via RogerEbert.com): “There are times when maybe a man is better able to identify with a woman than a lot of women are. A lot of directors in the past proved that… Ideally, we should be able to embrace characters not of your own sex. An artist ought to be able to. If they can’t, you should wonder why… It should be considered one of the criteria by which we judge an artist, his ability to identify with or empathize with other people.”

Cameron’s output epitomizes that creative empathy, however incompletely or imperfectly. Uniquely, he transcended one-dimensional portrayals, serving different kinds of “strong” women. Even when the filmmaker hasn’t directed a female lead, he’s obsessed with foregrounding her agency. Witness his brave screenplay and production of Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

Cameron didn’t just direct Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986), but also wrote her character, Ellen Ripley. She’s no bimbo, nor is she a mindless action-babe with a lust for bullets and blood. Ripley defends the defenseless, stands up for what’s right, supports courageous men and confronts cowardly men. In crises, she’s better able to take the long view by applying knowledge to problem solving. Ripley doesn’t shirk from leadership of a largely male crew; she isn’t shy of accepting sensible solutions from men or shutting them up when they’re nonsensical or have endangered the public. Male android Bishop, devoid of typical misogyny, rescues her when she needs rescuing most. Ripley’s crew carry barely any misogynist or feminist baggage; they complement each other’s roles and don’t compete. When studios dawdled over re-casting Weaver as Ripley, Cameron put his foot down. He saw in her what others didn’t. Weaver secured an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in an era when the Academy barely acknowledged the lead performances in sci-fi or action films, instead focusing on art direction, special visual effects and sound.

Cameron is no different with The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Humanity hinges on the choices a woman makes, the decisions she takes, what she says, what she doesn’t say. Like Ripley, Sarah Connor isn’t merely another female lead, but a character more vital to the plot than most leads in movie history. She’s not just the mother to a future savior (Edward Furlong as John), she shows him how to lead. Sarah teaches her son that freedom isn’t a petty preoccupation with your self-expression or identity but rather an ability to rise above both, to count where it matters in the fates of others. She takes no prisoners but cares enough for her child and all of mankind to hone her resolve. Connor lives to save, not to merely survive. Far from meekly accepting her alloyed fate — embodied in the masculine T-1000 (Robert Patrick) — she metaphorically grabs it by the throat and wields anything to fight back — paperclip or pistol. Her allies? All men who grow to regard her: Kyle Reese, John and even Model 101. Every scene pulsates with possibilities around how real-life men can choose to respond to women who lead.

Cameron’s women in Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) display an unapologetically feminine and ultimately redeeming side; for men, that is. As the Titanic sinks, Kate Winslet’s Rose rises. She transforms from a timid girl into an independent, even radical woman. Rose sports — and spits — her sassiness. She isn’t afraid of backing her beliefs, even when making life and death choices. Rose tears free of a suffocating mother, to become her own woman. And she snubs an enticingly wealthy “success” (Billy Zane as Cal) to embrace an impoverished “loser” (Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack): “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!” Jack doesn’t create that power in Rose; he merely finds it. Later, an aged Rose looks back with fulfillment. She’s no less a woman because she’s learned from a man.

James Cameron Movies and Feminism - Titanic

As Avatar’s Na’vi planet Pandora sinks, Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) rises. She transforms a naïve but instinctively manipulative Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) into a wise “freedom” fighter. Neytiri teaches him that courage lies not in firepower but in being true to yourself. Bravery lies not in fighting, but in fighting for what’s right. Jake is no less a man because he’s learned from a woman.

Titanic’s Rose is as unafraid to learn about life and living from Jack much like Avatar’s Neytiri is unafraid to teach Jake. If anything, they relish a more fulfilled “self” because they’ve dealt with the “other” bravely, wisely and humbly.

Cameron’s feminism isn’t about an all-knowing, all-achieving femininity (or masculinity) but about understanding when to learn, when to teach, when to defy, when to defer. The filmmaker sparkles when he shows audiences the fate-bending force of men who master the art of dancing with women: forward, back, this way, that, twist, turn, give-take. When it clicks, that dance needs no band or orchestra — it powers a music all its own. One can see this quite literally in True Lies’  Tango sequence and the Titanic protagonists’ ecstatic whirl amid bagpipes and beer, and also in nearly all of Cameron’s hero-heroine duo action sequences.

Many filmmakers, especially men, frolic in the lazier, more exclusivist-adversarial man vs. woman status quo. Others, especially women from milder genres such as Debra Granik and Chloé Zhao, sagely echo Cameron’s spirit.

“I think that’s also very important for feminism: bringing men and women together instead of making them enemies.” – Chloé Zhao (via Seventh Row)

Cameron deserves more than a pat on the back.

James Cameron Movies and Feminism - Titanic

Avatar goes beyond Neytiri with Dr. Grace Augustine (Weaver), Trudy Chacón (Michelle Rodriguez) and Mo’at (CCH Pounder). All of the women are morally superior to the men, on the strength of their respect for life and nature — they are intellectually and emotionally superior in how they brandish their skill and daring. When Chacón refuses to mindlessly attack the Na’vi, she snaps, “I didn’t sign up for this shit!”  Neytiri and Chacón are on par with their men, if not superior, even in physical prowess. And there’s not a God but a Goddess (Eywa).

Titanic’s strong women “breathe,” such as the irrepressible Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) and Rose’s widowed mother, Ruth Dewitt Bukater (Frances Fisher). Both sail but only one enjoys the ride. Rose draws her doggedness from each woman but ends up with a style all her own.

In The Abyss (1990), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s Lindsey Brigman — the designer of the rig that’s central to the plot — is the sharpest knife in the draw, not eye candy. When it matters, she chooses to go into potentially fatal deep hypothermia to save the life of Bud (Ed Harris).

True Lies is Cameron’s light-hearted, hugely entertaining take on masculinity and femininity. Only this time, it is farce. Unsurprisingly, many who missed the filmmaker’s blindingly obvious comic-creative cues skewer this movie for its poor portrayal of women! On the contrary, female lead Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis)  knowingly demonstrates how easy it is (or should be) for both women and men to laugh themselves and each other.

James Cameron Movies and Feminism - True Lies

Cameron’s idea of womanhood (or manhood) isn’t smug but one at equal ease. It’s about laughing and being laughed at. His on-screen feminism may be aspirational and more than a little ambitious, but it’s always entertaining. Cameron doesn’t want you to sit and take notes for your Ph.D., he wants you to have fun! Recall the feisty banter among marines in Aliens.

Hudson (as Vasquez expertly goes through her pull-ups routine): “Hey, Vasquez, have you ever been mistaken for a man?”

Vasquez (who lowers herself from the bar, turns slowly and goes pat): “No, have you?

Frankly, if you’re up for it, you may find in Aliens a spectrum of womanhood (from fantasy to fact) brimming with promise. Newt (Carrie Henn) represents all that’s ideal in a woman but unrealized, unformed and untested. Aspiring to be fearless, she innocently asks Ripley, “Can I dream?” Weaver’s character represents ideals that are fully formed — tested, proven, real and therefore transformative, even miraculous. Ripley’s line “Yes, honey, I think we both can” captures the hope (and promise) of fully realized selves. The Queen Alien represents the all-consuming caricature that a woman can become, if she allows goodness in her to be overpowered. A feminine creature, she’s only slightly more grotesque than the masculine, colonizing the Weyland-Yutani corporation that’s trying to clone her.

Isn’t it tempting, then, to see whole new worlds to be had, fuller lives to be lived if Ripley wins? First, by protecting Newt from growing into a devouring, self-centered Queen and instead growing into, well, her own Ripley. Second, by destroying symbolic alien “eggs” before they hatch, burning up (with a flame-thrower, no less) the worst expressions of womanhood, while they are yet mere threats, well before they become promises of destruction.

Cameron, who often writes or co-writes his movies, demonstrates that men, so often casual perpetrators of violence and discrimination against women, can just as easily be partners. He leads by example in the only way he knows how — as writer, director, producer, storyteller. Instead of demanding that Cameron step aside or step back, can trolls ask Hollywood’s action or sci-fi blockbuster women (and men) to emulate his fascination with women protagonists? Of Cameron’s blockbusters, he’s had a woman producer alongside him in four and women in lead or critical roles in all eight. Cameron’s women challenge men where they must but collaborate where they can. And they usually battle patriarchal greed, selfishness and lust for power. If you’re looking only at the way Cameron’s women carry their pulse rifles or shotguns, then you’re missing the point: look at the way they carry themselves.

James Cameron Movies and Feminism - Aliens

Cameron won’t get it right every time, but he’s got it right enough. There’s no harm in everyone having a go at his allegedly imperious off-screen manner — that he’s mellowed doesn’t excuse past behavior. But few men have painted on blockbuster screens with such empathy about how a woman feels in a man’s world, and how (with a bit of creativity) it could be so different. When Cameron’s on-screen women talk, it’s like they’re talking to men off-screen, misogynist or not.

“We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.” — Brigman, The Abyss

“You are like a baby, making noise — don’t know what to do.” — Neytiri, Avatar

“I felt like I was standing at a great precipice with no one to pull me back, no one who cared or even noticed… I’m standing in the middle of a crowded room, screaming at the top of my lungs and no one even looks up.” — Rose, Titanic 

If you’re looking for feminism, don’t look at James Cameron — look at his films. The writer-director has stayed defiant, deliberately writing women so indelibly, and so imaginatively, into the heart of the epic-disaster, action and sci-fi blockbuster in a way that no other Hollywood man or woman ever has.

Rudolph Lambert Fernandez (@RudolphFernandz) is an independent writer writing on pop culture.