The iconic character of Sarah Connor, originally played by Linda Hamilton, was first introduced through James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator and its 1991 sequel Terminator 2: Judgement Day. The story of The Terminator centered on Sarah being relentlessly pursued by a human-looking machine known as the T-800 (the titular “Terminator", played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) that has been sent back in time to kill her. Seven years later, a sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day was released, also directed by Cameron, which took the story into several new directions.
In the sequel, audiences were taken by surprise when the Terminator that had been such an effective antagonist in the first film was re-introduced as one of the heroes. Instead, a new, far more dangerous terminator, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick) appears as the villain, this time sent to kill Sarah’s son John Connor (Edward Furlong). In order to survive and protect the future, Sarah must undergo a huge transformation in character. She begins the first movie as a young college student making a living as a waitress and evolves into a self-reliant musclebound hardbodied heroine by the end of the sequel.
At first Sarah Connor is a friendly individual who lives with her college roommate Ginger. She has no immediate aspirations in her life and is struggling to find some form of meaning. Her helplessness is made clear when she encounters what she believes to be a stalker (actually Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn, who has been sent from the future to protect her from the Terminator) and immediately calls the police. When she first encounters the T-800 at the nightclub Technoir, she can only stare helplessly as it aims its laser-sighted pistol towards her forehead.
Sarah only survives this encounter due to Kyle’s interference. Much of the rest of the movie centers on the two of them running away from the T-800, and Sarah is constantly looking for protection. During this time, Sarah is forced to become more self-reliant as everybody she depends on is killed. Even after she stops, faces, and destroys the Terminator, she is still shown to be in a panicked state of mind. While Sarah may be unsettled by her experiences with the Terminator, this final confrontation begins a major shift in her personality which is developed much further in Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
In the second film, Sarah becomes something more closely resembling a middle-ground between the wise-guy action heroes of the 90’s, such John McClane in Die Hard, and the hardbodied action heroes of the 80's such as Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II. This becomes evident during the climax in which Sarah is shot in the leg and later impaled through the shoulder. Much like the wise-guy heroes of the 90’s she does manage to show pain. She cries out as the T-1000 slowly runs a massive rod through her shoulder and she is visibly limping afterwards (she had also been shot shortly before that).
What puts her on a level with the hardbodied heroes is that the despite the obvious agony of her wounds, she keeps getting up and fighting. Even during that scene where she is impaled, Sarah never gives into the T-1000's simple demand: "Call John". Linda Hamilton’s co-star Arnold Schwarzenegger, known for playing hardbodied heroes and in this case a literal example, actually endures far more physical harm than Sarah. She gets hurt, but The T-800 gets an arm ripped off, loses an eye, and is temporarily shut down before finally being lowered into a vat of molten steel. This makes Sarah Connor more of a hardbodied hero than the literal hardbodied hero.
In Terminator 2 Sarah’s body is used as a far greater spectacle than that of the T-800. One notable aspect of the hardbodied action heroes of the 1980’s was their muscular display. Stallone made this image famous with the Rambo films and Schwarzenegger himself has done this numerous times in his earlier action films like Commando. It's a trademark of the genre for the lead male actor to have few clothes on by the end in order to allow them to display their impressive muscular body, but that is not quite what happens in Terminator 2.
Instead, Schwarzenegger spends most of the film with shirts and jackets and much of the bodily spectacle focuses on the abuse he takes rather than on his muscles. By contrast, the majority of Sarah’s wardrobe throughout the film wholly exposes her muscles and puts them on display for the viewer. This also deviates from her wardrobe in The Terminator, where the more conservatively dressed Sarah Connor was less exposed. Muscular display has traditionally been associated with men, which makes Sarah’s character appear more visually striking.
In a similar vain to the hardbodied action films of the 80’s and even the urban vigilante films of the 70’s such as Dirty Harry, weapons are heavily romanticized in both Terminator films. In The Terminator, numerous characters are equipped with large guns, particularly the T-800 and Kyle Reese, whose weapons become an extension of their character. At the same time, Sarah never holds onto a gun until the final scene in The Terminator, where her handling a revolver is used as a visual indication of her growth as a character. By the start of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Sarah is far more comfortable around firearms, to the point where she has an entire cache containing a huge array of weapons. This leads to a development where Sarah herself starts to become more like the Terminator she had previously fled.
The parallels between Sarah and the T-800 as seen in the first film become especially clear in one scene of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. This scene happens right after Sarah has learned of the work of Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), whose programs later ultimately led to the creation of Skynet and, though indirectly, both the T-800 and T-1000. She decides to kill him in an effort to prevent the apocalyptic future from being realized. The scene begins with Miles in his home working on a program when a red dot appears on his back, quickly calling to mind the T-800 aiming its laser-sighted pistol at Sarah Connor’s forehead in The Terminator.
Unlike Sarah, Dyson is not aware of her presence nor is there anyone to save him. A close-up reveals Sarah outside the house, coldly looking through the scope of an assault rifle, and her finger wrapping around the trigger. In another close-up, Miles bends down after his son accidentally drives a remote-controlled monster truck into his foot, just as Sarah fires. The next close-up shows Miles sitting up in shock and staring out his window. Miles’ reaction is followed by another close-up of Sarah, but this time with the camera almost facing her directly—literally staring down the barrel of her gun. When she begins firing she only stops once, in order to reload, before she runs out of ammunition.
When she is finally forced to discard her weapon, Sarah proceeds to draw a pistol and walk just as coldly towards the house. Miles stands, and she immediately begins to fire on him. She shoots three rounds before finally hitting him in the shoulder. What distinguishes her from the T-800 is that she still shows her humanity when she breaks down after confronting him directly, creating a parallel to the way in which the previously emotionless T-800 is now being humanized. This scene shows her full capability, but also emphasizes that she is not completely transformed by her experiences.
Having men attempt to protect Sarah is crucial to emphasizing the transition in her growth as a character. All three of the men who attempt to protect Sarah Connor (Kyle and two police officers) die over the course of the first movie. The establishment of law enforcement’s futility against the T-800 eliminates its status as a source of protection leaving Sarah Connor with no one to turn to except Kyle. The transition continues as Kyle is wounded while escaping from the Terminator. This forces Sarah to take on a more active role. Finally, Kyle’s death puts Sarah into a position where she has to rely exclusively on herself to survive by seizing an opportunity to crush the Terminator with a hydraulic press.
A similar situation also occurs in Terminator 2: Judgement Day. During the climax, the T-800 is temporarily disabled by the T-1000, putting Sarah into a position where she is unable to rely on its assistance. When the T-1000 threatens her son, Sarah is able to save John’s life. Similar to how Kyle saved her in The Terminator, Sarah manages to stall the T-1000 by shooting it multiple times with a shotgun. This fails to kill the T-1000, but does save her son’s life and puts the T-1000 into a vulnerable position. While it is not Sarah herself who ultimately destroys the T-1000, this particular action manages to buy time for the T-800 to reactivate and take the other terminator by surprise.
Sarah Connor goes through a very clear shift in personality over the course of both The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, going from a passive woman with everyday problems to an action heroine determined to avert the potential end of humanity. This is emphasized by a wide range of elements including her treatment of guns, her general appearance, her attitudes, and the role of the male characters. Across both films, Sarah develops into a more “masculine” figure reminiscent of the types of heroes traditionally played by men. While The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgement Day were not the only action films of the period to introduce a strong-willed heroine in a leading role (The The Terminator was released between Alien and Aliens, the latter also by Cameron) they helped to popularize it and create a path for later action heroines.