A Feminist Re-Watching of Stargate: SG-1, Season 1

"Stargate SG1 sketchcard" | Art by whu-wei. Used with permission.

Stargate: SG-1 is one of those shows that sticks with me. Yet, the older I get, the more progressive I become, and I wonder if the post-gulf war, pre-911 military sci-fi stands up to my feminist, pacifist, and socialist standards.

An ensemble based show that premiered in 1997 following a movie in 1994, SG-1 is carried by its four main characters. They are set up to present the fundamental conflict between scientific humanism versus militaristic forces. Jack O’Neill, retired air force colonel, and his alien buddy, Teal’c, fight on the side of militarism, whereas astrophysicist Samantha Carter and anthropologist Daniel Jackson represent scientific humanism.

Jack and Military Masculinity

I remember Jack to be affable, yet tough. In my rewatch, I was concerned what I perceived as tough might actually be an indication of toxic masculinity, but his humour and humility carry the show. Because he refused to blow up Abydos in the original film, we know that he doubts the chain of command, but still assumes he knows best. He is essentially date raped into marriage (a slightly more traumatic version of Daniel’s forced marriage in the original film), but despite being infected with an aging virus, he seems to treat his wife with respect. In fact, he treats all women honourably. Mostly. When forced to share a sleeping bag with Sam for warmth in an arctic climate, he says, “it’s my side arm I swear,” and comments on Sam’s crop top when she is suffering a primitive virus that makes her try to seduce him. He later says he is sad that “we’ll never see that saucy number again.”

But on the whole, he is a generous, humble guy, presenting a different idea of the military as seen in other movies and in the news. However humanized, he is concerned with defeating the Goa’uld and finding the weapons to do that.

Daniel and Western Humanism

Dr. Daniel Jackson is a gentle, kind anthropologist. The beginning of the series finds him where the movie left off: living on the planet Abydos with the Bedouin-like tribe and married to Sha’re—a woman who was given to him by her father. He is forced to accept her because if he doesn’t, she will be ostracised within her tribe. It is disconcerting that he takes a wife given to him, even if by the time the series starts, they are in love. His main motive to join the elite Stargate team is to find his wife and save her from the parasite in her.

Daniel challenges O’Neill on his more aggressive responses to conflict, and is always looking to respect the cultures they infringe on and protect the scientific discoveries as they find them. He is, wife aside, the generous, caring character I remember.

Samantha and Feminism

As one of my original feminist heroes, I remember Carter outshining most of her counterparts and avoiding the sexualization many women in sci-fi television face. Throughout the season, she proves to be the most capable person on the team. The series doesn’t highlight her difficulties as a woman in the Air Force, but doesn’t ignore them either. She complains to her friend, doctor Janet Frasier, that she sometimes doesn’t feel like “one of the boys,” but in every practical way, she outshines them with her scientific expertise and compassion.

When a young girl is implanted with a bomb that will explode if she is too close to the Stargate, she is ordered to bring her to an underground bunker so the explosion will not hurt anyone else. On a hunch, and on a case of conscience, Sam decides not to leave Cassandra on her own, but goes back to hold the little girl, even if she dies doing it. She balances intellect with compassion, and is not weak for either trait.

Carter’s relationships with the others in this season are deep, intimate friendships based on mutual respect.

Only twice in the first season does she wear sexualized outfits. In “Emancipation” she wears a traditional Mongolian dress when she is taken captive by a tribe that views women as inferior. The dress is low cut, but long. Carter does not instigate  a rebellion, although she would like to. It is only through her fighting—literally for her own life when sold to another man—that the women consider another way. Despite obviously being an attractive woman, she mostly wears practical, figure-hiding, army fatigues. Sam is not conceptualized as a sex object, but a skilled, intelligent officer. In fact, Teal’c, who rarely wears a shirt, is much more sexualized.

What’s more, her series storyline is not romantic. While she does get an episode-long romance, only Teal’c and Daniel have long-term relationships. Carter’s relationships with the others in this season are deep, intimate friendships based on mutual respect. Her commitment to the pursuit of knowledge reflects well on the series.

Teal’c and Racism

Teal’c, on the other hand, has some more complex issues that I originally did not understand. Former second-in-command to the “god” and main big bad, Apophis, he explodes into the series by self-emancipating, aiding SG-1’s escape from Apophis and starting a slave rebellion. Teal’c doesn’t need an army to save him; he saves the army. I was first a little disappointed that all the jaffa, including Teal’c, seem to be black, because of the history of slavery in America; setting up a racialized army starts the series off on the wrong foot, even though it becomes clear that the goa’uld (Apophis’s family) enslave multiple races within their jaffa army as the season goes on.

His character is established as an eastern stereotype, almost like a the combination of a Buddhist monk and an ancient warrior. He does not sleep, but meditates in a practice called Kelno’reem. He is often relegated to giving cultural intel, before coming through in the fight. However, he still forms deep, intimate bonds with his team, despite being a laconic introvert. He is an evolution of the native guide and ethnic warrior trope, but because he is self-emancipated, he doesn’t fall into the naive or helpless trope.

Historical Context: The Gulf War

The movie, produced during the height of the Gulf war, sets up Ra, played by an arabic man, as the leader of these dictatorial parasitic aliens. The series centralizes Egyptian gods as antagonists and while other goa’uld, living in hosts of multiple races, float in and out of the series, Apophis is clearly arabic.

This season complicates the hierarchy of military governance and refuses to downplay women’s contributions or the self-determination of people of colour.

As the Gulf war was fought in the middle east against mostly arabic people, and the series continued through 911 and the beginning of the War in Afghanistan, it is unhelpful of the show to centralize an arabic villain, and to perpetuate stereotypes that encourage xenophobia.

Government vs. Human Rights

The series also problematizes the idea of centralized government structures, as an episode with the Tollan people demonstrates. While other people within the military want to keep this advanced yet pretentious group on Earth, people within Stargate command recognize their human rights and organise their escape to connect them with the Nox, a similarly advanced civilisation.

I was surprised when I started to agree with a senator portrayed as an antagonist—one who protests the military ownership of the Stargate and its formulation of the Goa’uld as the newest “Barbarians at the Gate.” This time around, I recognized the salient parts of his argument. The American military, onscreen and off, have conceptualized many countries as “Barbarians at the Gate” and I too would want civilian oversight to decide if there should be a war. SG-1 ultimately disobeys their superiors in a “heck-yes” decision to take on the soon-to-invade goa’uld themselves, but what right do they have to do that? Whether or not they save the planet, militaristic desires cannot be denied and are often enforced by their superiors, sometimes as a detriment to the humans on other planets. Civilian oversight may have prevented some cataclysmic events in the show.

For the most part, the first season of SG-1 does hold up because it complicates the hierarchy of military governance but refuses to downplay women’s contributions or the self-determination of people of colour. Still, as Western Culture continues to be embroiled in conflict in the middle east, both in word and deed, I am uncomfortable with the way this season depicts and villianizes Arabic leaders. I hope this changes over the next nine seasons.

Hannah Foulger

Hannah Foulger

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Hannah Foulger is a British Canadian writer and theatre artist from Cambridge Ontario. A former MK and a disabled activist, she views her fantasy and sci-fi (largely film and lit-based) through a post-colonial and disability lens. She lives in Winnipeg, where she creates theatre and works as a disability service worker. In her spare time, Hannah consults for both Stargate Command and the Watcher's Council.
Hannah Foulger