The 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.
To 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.