I know Sarah Connor tops everyone's list of hardcore badass female characters, but they're usually referring to T2 Sarah Connor, or the Sarah Connor Chronicles Sarah Connor. And that Sarah Connor is totally, 100% an amazing hardcore badass character.
But for my money the most amazing Sarah Connor is the Sarah Connor of The Terminator - the nice, normal, soft young woman who is confronted with an unbelievable, extraordinary situation, a situation in which she is hunted by a serial killer who turns out to be a robot from the future who will literally kill anyone and everyone between itself and her, for this totally insane reason: she might someday have a kid who'll start a war against the future robot overlords.
And the only thing standing between her and this literally unstoppable killing machine is a guy who a) claims to be from the future, b) clearly has terrible PTSD, c) reveals that he's been in love with her for essentially his entire adult life, and d) is wearing smelly hobo pants.
Oh, but there’s one other thing standing between Sarah Connor and certain death, and that thing is Sarah Connor. Because Sarah Connor is a total hardcore badass. Even here, where she’s soft and pretty and wholly unprepared for being hunted by a robot programmed to kill her and everyone standing between it and her, Sarah Connor is a total hardcore badass.
Over the course of the film, Sarah sees people - including a precinct building full of cops - maimed and murdered because of her, because they're trying to protect her, or just because they got in the way. She learns that every other ‘Sarah Connor’ in LA has been brutally murdered. She learns that her roommate has been brutally murdered. (Later she’ll learn that her mother has been brutally murdered.) She totally falls for the smelly hobo-pants-wearing, seriously emotionally compromised nutcase from the future and then sees him die to protect her.
But at no point does she give up, close her eyes, and pray for the darkness to come. She just keeps fighting.
And, as importantly, she keeps fighting not because she believes she’s the future mother of the messiah or whatever, but because she herself is a fighter. She doesn’t know her smelly-hobo-pants-wearing paramour impregnated her. She almost doesn’t really believe him about being from the robot war-torn future. This Sarah Connor – soft, pretty Sarah Connor – doesn’t fight to save the world, or make it safe for her (possible) future son, or to teach anyone any important lessons about preparedness and survival or whatever. She fights for herself. She fights to survive.
Hardcore badass male characters fight for themselves all the time. But there always has to be an excuse for a female character to fight, because it’s apparently so damned hard to believe that soft, pretty girls can and do discover their hard inner cores and very bad asses just to survive. And that excuse, more often than not, boils down to ‘a man.’
And that’s what makes this Sarah Connor such a hardcore badass. And, moreover, that’s what makes this Sarah Connor so special, and so vanishingly rare among even hardcore badass female characters. She’s not fighting because of a man. She’s fighting for herself.