Stargate SG-1 and the White Feminist

Stargate Emancipation Sam AngryThe other day, to avoid finishing the third season of True Blood, I started rewatching Stargate SG-1. Like many shows, the first season is really predictable, episodic, and cheesy. Despite that, I have fond memories of the Stargate franchise—it really grew as a show over the seasons, and the later episodes didn’t have the same problems that the ones in the first season had. This is a really good thing, since Season 1, despite being really fun and goofy, ended up having a lot of offensive material. Though Stargate SG-1 does really well talking about certain issues, such as slavery, the first season completely fails in others, like male rape.

However, it also set out to talk about women’s issues, specifically with the character Samantha Carter. And Sam is an amazing female character. Indeed, Stargate has a lot of well-written, well-developed female characters, but Sam was the first. And Season 1, Episode 3, “Emancipation”, sets out specifically to talk about oppression against women. Unfortunately, it does so in the worst way possible. Here is the Wikipedia summary for that episode:

SG-1 visits a planet inhabited by the Shavadai, a nomadic tribe descended from the Mongols. They regard women as property, and restrict their rights in the belief that to do otherwise would bring “demons” (the Goa’uld) down upon them. Carter ends up being ‘sold’, but when Carter beats a chieftain in hand-to-hand combat, the team changes the tribe’s opinions about the rights of women. Guest starring Soon-Tek Oh and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.

Yeah, you can imagine the problems I had with it.

I realize that this episode is about eighteen years old, but it does reflect a wider problem. The idea of the white feminist saving the women of color from oppression is just as offensive as the white savior trope—and the two are really similar. It perpetuates this idea that women of color need the help of white women to escape from or even understand their own oppression, as if white women are inherently better.

While I can appreciate what Stargate was trying to do by addressing this issue head on, and while I can also appreciate that the show hired people of Asian descent for the episode, “Emancipation” ended up being a sexist, racist mess, and it is a blemish on an otherwise good series. I didn’t like this episode as a child, and now, near twenty years later, I can actually see exactly what was so wrong about it.

Stargate Emancipation NyaTo start off, though the episode does have more people of color than it has white characters, all of them are either misguided, evil, or in need of being saved. SG-1 helps to guide the Shavadai to a better lifestyle where women are equal, beat up the bad guys, and save everyone else. It’s hard to believe that the Shavadai could even function as a culture without divine white intervention. Unfortunately, the problems don’t end there. Even though this episode has numerous PoC, the only female character who matters to the narrative other than Sam is white-washed, despite being a member of the Shavadai and having Shavadai parents. And that would be bad enough, but Sam is also considered to be more beautiful than the other Shavadai women because she has fair skin, blue eyes, and blond hair. In some ways, it is unrealistic that the Shavadai would think this if they have never seen a white person before. It would make more sense if they found her “freakish”, but that is not the way the narrative goes. The idea that she’s prettier because she’s white is incredibly racist. Already, in many Asian cultures, Westernized notions of beauty have taken over. Many women in Asian countries dye their hair, bleach their skin, or even get plastic surgery to look more Western.

In anime and manga, main characters will often have more Caucasian features, such as light hair and eye color. Even in something like DBZ, when Saiyans power up, their hair turns blond from black and their eyes turn green. Essentially, characters cannot be beautiful or strong unless they look Caucasian.

The myth of white people being stronger than people of color is another thing this episode sadly perpetuates. For the climax, Sam fights a Shavadai chieftain in a ritualistic battle to save the aforementioned white Shavadai girl. Sam ends up fighting, because otherwise the chieftain’s opponent would have been a frail, old Shavadai man. After defeating him in combat, the chieftain acknowledges Sam’s strength and lets the other girl live.

Now that the day is saved by Sam, the Shavadai decide that they will no longer oppress their women by treating them as property and making them cover their faces in public. Just like that. Life is certainly better now, right? Now that this one tribe is deciding to let their women do and wear whatever they want, sexism is dead! And thousands of years’ worth of cultural oppression is erased in two days. And the women who have grown up covering themselves completely hate their oppressive clothing they no longer have to wear—it’s not as though that clothing may have religious or personal connotations they hold dearly, amirite? And after spending their whole lives not showing their faces to the public under penalty of death, they are now comfortable and happy with showing their faces.



Of course, this is just one tribe, surrounded by many other tribes who still kill women who don’t follow these rules—other tribes the Shavadai have to trade and interact with—but it’s not like anything bad will happen.

It’s sad that an episode like this made it into the series. Once again, I appreciate what Stargate was trying to do, but I am completely offended that this is how the show went about it. As one of my friends pointed out to me, Western shows like to have more closure and finite endings for its audience. The problem is that this episode tries to put an end to a really big issue in a really short time frame. The Stargate franchise takes nearly ten years to discuss and end slavery, and it tries to end female oppression for the Shavadai people in one episode. Of course, there are other episodes later on that discuss sexism and misogyny, but thankfully we never see the Shavadai people again, and I cannot name off the top of my head another episode as racist and problematic as this one.

This entry was posted in opinion, racism, Reviews, Science Fiction, sexism and tagged , , , , by MadameAce. Bookmark the permalink.

About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.

13 thoughts on “Stargate SG-1 and the White Feminist

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  3. i’ve just recently started watching this series (i have way too much time on my hands) and i’m glad that other people have noticed this craziness…

  4. Weird that you’re just getting comments on this now. I just started rewatching SG-1 yesterday. I had first seen the series in 2007 when it was already pretty old and this episode angered me greatly back then. I went on the web and couldn’t find anyone ranting about it. I forgot all about it though after that.

    When I saw it this time I did the search again, and while I found some people complaining about it for totally the wrong reasons on some review sites, yours hits the mark. I think it really shows how we as a society are growing up and how much things have changed even since the nineties in regards to peoples’ awareness of racism, sexism and ethnic images in media. Thanks for the insightful post–it gives me hope.

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  6. Thanks for the great breakdown about what is so problematic with this episode! It boggles the mind that a group of people could sit down and decide, “Yes, here is the best possible way we can approach this”. I love Stargate and I think Amanda Tapping is an awesome actor, but I simply cannot stand to watch this episode.

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  8. This is a questionable analysis. The majority of protagonists are white because it’s US television and the majority of people in the US are white. It seems odd to complain that a TV show is being offensive for letting the protagonists save the day.

    I’m not going to claim to be colorblind, but I never noticed the racial thing before. It never came off as a story of whites helping non-whites. It seemed more of a parallel for real world situations US soldiers face when stationed in countries with different social norms that we as Americans would find unusual or even offensive.

    I respect your reasoning, but I disagree with your conclusion. For me, SG-1 was about accepting that people are generally the same despite those cultural differences and Samantha Carter is the ultimate feminist sci-fi character. She was confident and assertive. She wasn’t afraid to speak up when she thought others were wrong. She was a character of intelligence and class. She existed as a character on the show for her merits, not her appearance.
    Now Atlantis and SGU are another story. Atlantis had Tayla who was a woman of color, but she was chosen for her appearance. SGU the primary female character was a source of drama, deception, and sexual tension.
    SG1 was technically a more progressive show than it’s spin offs.

    • Personally, I think not noticing racial problems, even when we’re not being colorblind, helps lead into some of the problems I’m talking about in the post. To be clear, I’m not saying that those of us who don’t see certain racial issues are bad people—far from it—but being white grants us the privilege of not having to deal with those things, which makes them harder for us to see. America may be mostly white, but it is not as white as our visual media portrays it as. We only make up 63% of the population. I believe SG-1 was filmed in Canada, which is about 80% white, but it still takes place in America.

      I don’t think that a story about a white person saving people of color is inherently bad either. But our stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and therefore we have to look at them within the context of everything else.

      I love Samantha’s character. She’s someone I look up to a lot. She’s one of the first really good female characters I’ve been able to relate to. And her journey through the SG universe did impact me profoundly. But how well she is written doesn’t change the problems with this particular episode. The narrative of white people saving PoC has a lot of far reaching problems. To start, it can imply that PoC can’t help themselves. It can also imply that white people are better. These stories are certainly not written with those intentions in mind, but those are the lessons they can leave us with.

      What we consume in the media does affect us, and these stories can imply other things as well—namely that white culture is better and white people are more important than other people. At the end of the episode, all the women of color just accept more Westernized ideals for clothing, without any regard to what covering themselves means to them personally. The most important WoC in this episode is played by a white actress—so WoC are not even important enough for their own storyline to be about them. This episode isn’t offensive because it has white protagonists that are saving the day. It’s offensive because of how it went about it. The episode purposefully set up a non-white culture as problematic, and then it had white people come in and “fix” it.

  9. Reblogged this on One Half of Manic and Malice and commented:
    My partner and I are watching Stargate SG-1 from the first season because I never saw the show in order, and I just saw this episode for the first time last night. I felt the exact same way. I mean, granted this episode wasn’t as offensive as half of the racist white feminist nonsense you’ll see on Game of Thrones, but it was still horrible to sit through. If it didn’t feel like propaganda, it felt insulting and patronizing.

    Thanks for writing this.

  10. My partner and I are watching Stargate SG-1 from the first season because I never saw the show in order, and I just saw this episode for the first time last night. I felt the exact same way. I mean, granted this episode wasn’t as offensive as half of the racist white feminist nonsense you’ll see on Game of Thrones, but it was still horrible to sit through. If it didn’t feel like propaganda, it felt insulting and patronizing.

    Thanks for writing this.

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