terminatorThe 1980s were marked by the presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), who was extremely popular – his approval ratings as an outgoing president were the highest so far.[1] In a time of post-imperial malaise and general US decline  (i.e. the Vietnam war and the Watergate gate), Reagan’s persona offered a feeling of confidence and solidity. As Richard Nixon puts it “’he restor[ed] America’s spiritual strength. He renewed America’s faith in its ideals and recommitted America to a responsible world role.’”[2] Reagan was himself coming from the Hollywood industry, “one of the most pervasive and influential features of American culture.” [3]  This interrelationship between Reagan persona and Hollywood were embodied by the action men of the 1980s, the hard bodies (e.g. Rambo, Rocky Balboa, Terminator…) On the contrary, the 1990s, witnessed the muscular hero changed to become a more internalized character and even a nurturing father, according to Yvonne Tasker.[4] It is correlated with George Bush presidency, who struggled to establish his political person torn between a caring figure as well as a “tough commander-in-chief.”[5]

If there is a shift from sheer action to family, would it mean that the male hero becomes necessarily more nurturing? How are violence and family mediated from the 1980s to the 1990s?

I will discuss this evolution throughout the evolution of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s persona, primarily through The Terminator (James Cameron, 1984), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and True Lies (1994), correlated with the US sociological and political contexts.

The hard body, in correlation with Reagan’s policy, is white, muscular and invincible. He is embodied – mainly – by Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger. These figures of sheer and raw masculinity have become mythical within popular culture. Their status of “unified national bodies”[6] imparted them an allegorical quality, forming a national identity, representative of Reaganian Americanness – tough, goal-oriented, assertive.  This would be, according to Susan Jeffords, a response to the “perceived deteriorations in masculine forms of power,”[7] – feminism, Civil Rights – which resulted in an emphasis on external facets of masculinity: the body in violent action. One can note that there is very little, or no development of the male’s character psyche and feelings. T800 in the first Terminator is the paragon of spectacular masculinity. The trailer[8] describes the machine as such “It can’t be reasoned with. It can’t be bothered with. It will feel no pain, no remorse, no fear.” The man-machine is thus a spectacular – and empty – shell, deprived of feelings and even of subjectivity, which protects it from any questioning.

T-800 is sent in the past to kill Sarah Connor, in order to prevent her form giving birth to John Connor, who will be the leader of the resistance against the machines. T-800 is thus the antagonist; however, it does provide enjoyment as it displays a manly-machine-man using weapons for a simplistic task, asserting the myth of a raw and unshakable masculinity. Steve Neale, building on Laura Mulvey’s male gaze, argues that these action films provide a narcissistic identification for the male viewer with an omnipotent masculine figure. The hard body engaged in violent actions, the sado-masochistic suffering of the body, constantly beaten and wounded, would allow for male contemplation of the male body, escaping the homosexual or feminine gaze.

It is important to acknowledge that another male characterisation coexists in 1980s Hollywood: the “new man” of family dramas or comedies, or shall we say the “babysitter/housekeeper”, who finds himself overwhelmed when it comes to take care of a child (e.g. Kramer versus Kramer, Three Men and a Baby, Mr Mom…) The “new men” become nurturing because of crisis: divorce, women more and more prominent place in the working environment…  These men end up being surrogate mothers, the latter being absent of these films. The absence of mothers can be understood as symptomatic of post-feminism backlash. Because of their more prominent role outside the house, the motherhood taken away from them might be a way to re-assert male indispensability in the family.

Surprisingly, in the second opus, the Terminator moves from being the villain to become the flawless hero and surrogate father for John Connor. The sequentiality of the Terminator series can be understood as a hammering of the continuity of White masculine supremacy.[9] According to Jeffords, the 1990s shift would be due the awareness of men that reckless violence would lead to self and general destruction.[10] Thus the shift of Schwarzenegger’s persona from evil to good might express the need for a more internalized masculinity, and it could also be correlated with George Bush presidency, as film critic Caryn James claims: “’The bad old Terminator reflected the heady Reagan 80s; the good new one is a perfect Bush-era Terminator, a machine as sensitive war hero.’”[11]

One might argue that the action hero of the 1990s could be a blend of the “new man” of the 1980s and the hard body. In Terminator 2, T-800 is still a killing machine. However, this time he is programmed to protect John Connor and become his surrogate father. As Sarah puts it:

[The Terminator] would never leave him. It would never hurt him, never shout at him, or get drunk and hit him, or say it was too busy to spend time with him. It would always be there. And it would die to protect him. Of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine was the only one that measured up.

It is a very pessimistic view of fatherhood and a critique of masculinity. Nonetheless, this portrayal cannot be contrasted with a loving mother, since Sarah cares for a greater cause but does not take care or emotionally bonds with her son. Her masculine behaviour and muscular body might be seen as a feminist subversive take on motherhood, but it can also be interpreted as the invasion of masculinity into the feminine space. As Susan Jeffords argues, it “puts her in direct competition for the Terminator’s role, a job – and a body – that she just can’t fit,”[12] while the Terminator, despite his robotic inadequacy manages to dialogue with John. John teaches him human expressions (“hasta la vista, baby”), them fixing the car is a typical scene of father-son bonding. It thus implies that women give birth, but it is the fathers who ensure upbringing and protection. Robert Bly argued that “ ‘women can change the embryo to a boy… only men can change the boy to a man.’”[13] John’s sending a cyborg from the future can be read as the fantasy of re-living one’s conception.[14] Therefore we move from destructive violence to a positive violence, because protecting John Connor equals ensuring human life, giving birth to a better future. Being at the origin of John Connor’s re-birth and humanity’s continuity grants the Terminator a reinforced facet of virility and potency: that of genitor.

However, this masculinity expresses itself only in times of crisis, which as Karen Schneider explains,

“functions identically in every case: it put families at risk only to bring about their salvation.”[15] In a masculinity challenged by the economical and foreign context, the family becomes a place of control, where masculinity can claim its authority and remain heroic. The role of the police is reversed from first Terminator, instead the antagonist, T-1000 takes the form of a police officer. It can be interpreted as symptomatic of a feeling of alienation, in a “society that is perceived as increasingly technologized, mechanized, routinized, and anonymous”[16] against which the male hero can resist by claiming his individuality and masculinity.

I would argue that True Lies reflects perfectly the 1990s duality within masculinity, torn between the nostalgia of Reaganian manliness and omnipotence and a shifting society, resulting in a re-assertion of the “good old values,” coupled with increasing chauvinism due to Middle Eastern growing menace. The family is threatened by external evil forces, paralleling the terrorist menace from the Middle-East and the US intervention in Kuwait from 1990 to 1991.

Harry Tasker is a secret agent who deploys all secret services available means to know if his wife is having an affair. The first sequence showcases the typical elements of action film: secret mission, gunshots, stunts and exotic femme fatale. After this exciting mission where Harry deployed his skills, he comes back to his suburb house and snoring wife. This sets the typical opposition between escapism and routine, between wilderness and domesticity. In his “normal” life, Harry is an absent husband and father. He does not listen to his wife, as she says she slept with the plumber to get a reaction, he replies “That’s good thinking.” His daughter Dana, in the throes of adolescence, is stealing, which he discovers thanks to a high-tech camera device. Harry needs a sophisticated spy device to realise that something is wrong.

Men’s relationship to their work and its interrelations with the private sphere is particularly interesting in this film. Harry was so immersed in his job he neglected his family. But it is thanks to his job – his secret agent means and skill –  that Harry will get his family back together. Harry reveals himself to be a bad father and husband, and he will try to reverse the situation thanks to his secret agent means and skills. In the case of women in the family comedies or drama, their job is also the cause why they neglect their family, and it is not the bias thanks to which they can reverse the situation. There is no questioning of the necessity of a man’s career in order for him to be complete, both on a public and private level.

Domestic scenes are characterised by darkness and dullness, often accompanied by rain to express this atmospheric mood. Schwarzenegger’s statuesque physique seems cramped both by his boring computer salesman cover and by the frames within the household rooms. Harry’s masculinity is actually more vulnerable within the family – fear of cuckoldry, insolent daughter – than when fighting with terrorists. The family is thus a place to escape from to a fantasmatic world of omnipotence and pleasurable thrills. Women, on the contrary, are not allowed to stepping outside domesticity for action, as Harry will cruelly make fun of Helen, punishing her for wanting a more exciting life – the latter being the result of Harry’s indifference. Harry will have Helen believe she is on a secret mission where she has to strip in front of him (not knowing who he actually is). This scene is “a (male) fantasy of retribution against the family and domesticity,”[17] where the woman can only be a boring housewife or a stripper.

As for his daughter, there is not much dialogue between them. His fatherhood is therefore more inscribed in his role as protector against external forces, which allow him to assert his masculinity both to the Other-antagonists and his wife and daughter. The few times we see Dana, she is either stealing or being held by a terrorist, which advocates for a keeping of the daughter within the domestic space: “At the end she is a happily integrated family member and appropriately feminised young woman.”[18] A real context of crisis offers the possibility to re-assert masculinity and Americanness in opposition the looming otherness, threatening the country’s order, and on a smaller level, threatening the family. Harry is capable of flying a fighter-jet, fighting a terrorist and saving his daughter at the same time. During the fighter-jet scene, Abu Aziz (the villain) gets hit in the crotch, which claims American superior – and rightful – hegemonic violence compared to the weaker, soft masculine body of the Other. The treatment of the Other would need further development, as it is an example of Orientalism. Otherness is represented as feminine, sexual – Junno Skinner –, deviant and dangerous – Abu Aziz –, re-asserting Schwarzenegger’s strength and superiority. Thus the Other is a device reclaiming the necessity of the father within the very domestic place.

To conclude, the spectacular yet empty masculinity of the Terminator, coupled with the “new men” epitomize Reagan’s tough persona as well as a need for reassurance in a time of sociological and historical shift (women’s emancipation, US decline). The 1990s showcase a shift towards fatherhood expressing itself through crisis, as Terminator 2. Lastly, True Lies, although comical, harshly claims the indispensability of the father figure, as “the traditional family must be asserted again and again – with violence if necessary.”[19]






















Jeffords, Susan. Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era. New Brunswick and New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994. “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?” In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, 245-262. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Neale, Steve. “Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and Mainstream Cinema.” In Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, edited by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark, 9-22. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Schneider, Karen. “With Violence If Necessary: Rearticulating the Family in Contemporary Action Thriller.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27, no. 1 (1999): 2-11.

Tasker, Yvonne. “The Family in Action.” In Action and Adventure Cinema, edited by Yvonne Tasker, 252-266. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.



The Terminator trailer:




Cameron, James. The Terminator, 1984.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day, 1991.

True Lies, 1994.


[1] Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick and New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 1.

[2] Jeffords in Hard Bodies, 3.

[3] Jeffords in Hard Bodies, 3.

[4] Yvonne Tasker, “The Family in Action,” in Action and Adventure Cinema, Yvonne Tasker ed., (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 253.

[5] Jeffords in Hard Bodies, 95.

[6] Jeffords in Hard Bodies, 13.

[7] Jeffords, “Can Masculinity Be Terminated?” in Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema, Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark eds., (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 246.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHz95RYUbik

[9] Jeffords, 247.

[10] Jeffords, 253.

[11] Jeffords, in Hard Bodies, 175.

[12] Jeffords, 250.

[13] Jeffords, in Hard Bodies, 9.

[14] Jeffords, 247.

[15] Karen Schneider, “With Violence If Necessary: Rearticulating the Family in the Contemporary Action Thriller,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 27, no. 1 (1999): 4.

[16] Jeffords in Hard Bodies, 170.

[17] Tasker, 260.

[18] Tasker, 259.

[19] Schneider, 11.