Carrying a Torch for an Unattainable Man

I’ve always believed that any type of character is a valid character. There are people who go out of their way to be shallow, or weak, or to conform with stereotypes, and they should be represented right along with the deep, the strong and the unique. It takes all types to make a world, and every fiction is a world.

The trick is to put the characters in the proper context. If you try to pass off an underdeveloped character as someone we should find fascinating, we’re going to assume that’s all you think the person’s capable of. And when we repeatedly see you doing this with a particular gender, race or other pigeonhole category, we’re going to assume you’re one of those people who lack any interest in seeing things from anyone’s point of view but their own.

Being a writer who’s locked into one perspective is a bit like being a trial lawyer who can only argue one point: extremely underqualified. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

One of the most obnoxious stereotypes to me is the woman carrying a torch for an unattainable man. Why does it bother me? It’s not an issue of realism, because torch-carrying happens in real life. Maybe it’s an issue of it almost always happening to female characters? Sure, but female characters do other stupid things and it doesn’t bother me this much.

I think the difference is presentation, nothing more.

Scarlett (Gone with the Wind) is a stereotypical southern belle who gets displaced from her inherited social status by the Civil War. She was also written by a displaced southern belle, Margaret Mitchell, who could understand Scarlett from not only her gender perspective but – far more importantly – her perspective as a Southerner (which is a culture unto itself, particularly in that time period). Both Scarlett and Mitchell were too clever for the comfort of their societies, not content to be shrinking violets. What’s remarkable is the complete honesty with which Mitchell dissects Scarlett: Scarlett is ruthless, aggressive, sometimes disturbingly unconcerned for others’ welfare. She can also be brave and loyal to a fault, and Mitchell makes it very clear that our flawed Scarlett is the product of an equally flawed society. She, like the society, is doing whatever it takes to pick up the pieces after complete devestation. But like the society, she also needs to learn a thing or two about how her own selfishness contributed to her downfall.

Into that very rich and complex tapestry is the torch Scarlett carries for one Ashley Wilkes, the prototypical Southern gentleman. He represents the ideal of the South, what it imagined itself to be creating, when in fact it was really creating Rhett Butler, the self-loathing scoundrel who feels the pain of those upon whom his success was built, yet can’t disengage himself from the lifestyle. As the personification of the south, Scarlett idealizes and idolizes Ashley. She deludes herself into believing she really wants him, but when it finally looks as though she may catch him, she realizes it’s Rhett she wants. Ashley was just an illusion – the last vestige of what she wanted to imagine herself being.

How can I consider a presentation like that to be stereotyping women? While Scarlett’s pining, she’s also taking her father’s place to save her household. She’s ruthless and courageous. Everything she does is something a man in her place might have done as well, had he the same limited opportunities.

Another example – one I probably shouldn’t touch because I didn’t watch the last few seasons – is Scully in The X-Files. From what I saw of the first four seasons, you could have equally interpreted both Mulder and Scully to be carrying torches for each other. I don’t know if events in later seasons switched that past perception or not, but that particular issue was never a problem for me on The X-Files.

Unfortunately, Stargate SG-1 fans were less lucky: in the end of Season 7, we suddenly learned that Sam Carter had actually been pining away for Jack O’Neill all this time. Before that, it seemed there’d been some ill-advised mutual attraction they both decided to shove aside in favor of their duty and careers. I say “end of Season 7” and some fans will want to correct me, saying that it was “Grace” (mid-season) in which we learned that Sam’s feeling for Jack were so strong she’d put her whole life on hold. I beg to differ. In “Grace”, we learn that she’s been imagining she had some great love for Jack that kept her from opening her heart to other men… but what really kept her heart closed was fear of getting hurt.

That, I was okay with. In fact, I think I’ve been there myself. It was a realization that allowed her to see the truth and build something from it.

But the writers on Stargate are not all of one accord: a few episodes later, Sam got herself a boyfriend, and it seemed to be going well. But shortly after that, she was turning up at Jack’s house to tell him how she felt. She’s interrupted before she can get it all out – but that’s okay. At the end of Season 8, she dumps the boyfriend (now fiance) afer her dying father expires for no reason other than to tell her to ignore the rules and go get whatever she wants – which she interprets to mean Jack.

Margaret Mitchell treated Scarlett’s crush on Ashley for what it was: a childish delusion. The writer of the Stargate “Grace” seemed to treat Sam’s crush on Jack the same way. But other writers glamourize it to the point that we can only assume they think this behavior is befitting of the (im)maturity level women are capable of.

Meanwhile, Jack has had no recriminations whatsoever on the show for his utter failure to do anything about a subordinate officer having inappropriate feelings for him which he may or may not reciprocate. In fact, he’s been encouraged to find some way to get together with her while remaining her commander. I’m hoping they aren’t running these past a U.S. Air Force adviser anymore, because if they are, I’m going to have to expatriate myself good and proper.

Again, it’s all about presentation and context. By presenting the Stargate crush as a lovely romantic thing instead of a childish delusion, one writer has managed to damage two characters gravely – both Sam and Jack. Conversely, by presenting such a crush for what it is (Scarlett) or as something harmless and far from the only thing the characters have in their lives (Mulder and Scully), you give us flawed characters that we can still sympathize with.


  1. Jason Barnett says

    Sam constantly risks her life. She’s probably the most brilliant person on the planet yet she can only reveal a fraction of what she knows, she has to keep secrets from most people she’d date. Why should she have to sacrifice more? Transfering would potentially damage the world’s defense(that’s how important SG-1 is), plus for the right to display their feelings they’d have had to sacrifice the majority of their time together and trust others to protect each other.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Why should she have to sacrifice more?

    Because she willingly made a commitment to the Air Force that precludes a relationship with Jack. Her choice. Her commitment.

  3. sbg says

    Why should any of them? Why should romance play a major part in a show originally meant to be about a team of four, especially a romance supposedly between two people who cannot do anything about it without breaking up said team? Why should Sam’s romantic interludes be important enough to merit lots of airtime…but not Teal’c’s? Or Daniel’s? Or Hammond’s?

    I’m not sure many deny that any of the characters deserve personal time. I think many might argue its importance to the show.

  4. Jason Barnett says

    Daniel’s love life has had a pretty fair amount of screen time or at least it did. Searching for Sha’ri, then almost getting into a relationship with, what was her name, Laira? the Destroyer of Worlds who was amnesiac. And I thought there was an undertone with Sarah in my opinion, and now there seems to be something developing with Vala.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    So finding a better deal evacuates your prior obligations? You find that ethically acceptable?

  6. Gategrrl says

    Wow…so…if Carter had not joined the AF because she was awaiting her True Love Beyond All Time, she’d still be waiting, Jason. She met Jack while they were both IN the Air Force and *she wanted to be on HIS TEAM*.

    By your reasoning, no woman (or man) should go into whatever job is important to them on the off-chance they’d find their One True Love Beyond All Time, and screw it up because of those pesky rules that usually say that it’s unethical to bang your boss (or your underling).

  7. sbg says

    Sha’uri = highly relevant to the overall arc of the show at the time.

    Linnea = there was no relationship. There was a man who’d just lost his wife and was in a very fragile place. Also relevant to the plot in that episode.

    Sarah = former girlfriend, no romance on show.

    Vala = dear god I hope not, and if anything does come to fruition, you can bet your sweet bippy I’ll protest that as being as inappropriate as Sam/Jack.

    The Sam/Jack shoehorning in of inappropriate romance never did anything to advance or fit into the show’s story. It was a red herring, a daliance. A waste of screen time that they could have been using to film things relevant to the show and its mythology. IMO, of course.

  8. Gategrrl says

    The TPTB managed to “get around” the pesky AF rules by making each of those Carters civilians. However, I tend to think that the rules for civilians still holds true for them, also: Jack, after all, can’t screw with Daniel in his off-time because, he, too, reports to Jack.

    But if you want to put those pesky rules aside (and they’re there for a reason) – then, you could argue that the SGCs of those alternate universes didn’t have those rules. Hence, the writers could have Jack and Sam bangin’ away just like they had ’em smooching and screwing while a rebellion against Ra was going on around them, in Moebius.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    Jason, it really, really comes across like you’re just hear to argue your opinions about Stargate. That’s great, but it’s not what this site is for. Once again: this is not a Stargate forum. This is a place where we discuss the messages TV is sending about women. So what message do you think is being sent by Sam?

  10. Gategrrl says

    Sorry, Betacandy – I got sidetracked and contributed to the old, old, old, pathetic ship arguements. Habit, I guess.

    So far this season of SG, there haven’t been any shippy moments with Carter (that I’ve noticed) but that could change as soon as Jack shows up again for the 200th episode.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, from what I saw of S9, Sam was avoiding Barrett, flirting with Martouf… it was a little all over the map, but at least it was back to standard TV titillation.

    I guess my main objection to her being shipped with Jack is that I think it and other couplings like it just come off as an updated version of Boss chasing Secretary. Finally, women characters got upgraded to cops, lawyers, doctors and military officers, but they’ve reduced the impact by showing women as simpering, naive little dears who happily fall for the boss and recognize their places as his Second. Always his second. Always under him, in every sense of the word.

    It’s a porn kink and a backlash against equality, in one neat package.

  12. sbg says

    Ugh, now I’m having horrible flashbacks to the last 30 seconds of the CSI finale this year, where…you guessed it. The woman who was pining for her unattainable boss (btw, both of them have acknowledged several times that nothing can ever happen) was actually shown to be in an intimate relationship with him. Isn’t that romantic?

    Sure, until everyone finds out and starts noticing preferential treatment (even if there is none) or the relationship goes bad.

  13. Jason Barnett says

    It just seems to me when you bring up two characters from a show, any show, you should be willing to devote part of your arguement to that show, for context.

    And I think Sam is merely not willing to settle. She wants what she wants.

  14. sbg says

    If that were true, and what she really wants is Jack…then she would have transferred from the team a LONG time ago, yes? She’s not representing a woman who knows what she wants and goes after it very well, IMO.

    It would have been better if they’d made the self-revelation about her ultimate goals in life (id est, she’s a scientist and an officer in the USAF and that’s what she really wants to be) she experienced in Grace actually stick. Instead, she had this epiphany and then continued to waffle back and forth in a rather immature way.

    Everyone wants what they want.

  15. Jason Barnett says

    Yes, but they tell themselves “I’m setting my goals to high, I need to be reasonable,” things like that.

    Sam was needed on SG1. So was Jack. Either of them transfering out at the time would have been very selfish.

  16. Gategrrl says

    I think it’s so much more selfish for a person – man or woman – to stay in a job in which their feelings would compromise their work. I suppose many men and women are able to compartmentalize their lives to the point where they can seperate their personal feelings from their work, but not everyone can.

    On StarTrek: Next Gen, for example, in the episode where Worf was supposed to work with his former half-human/half-human lover, he had a LOT of trouble keeping his professionalism. In fact, neither of them could keep it in their pants, and the female character ended up pregnant with Worf’s son at the end of that episode (though you didn’t find out about him until the following year).

    The difference with NExtGen from SG, however, is that NG happens in a science fictional utopian type future, while SG does not: Stargate takes place supposedly during the present, with present morals and ethics at play, and definite consequences for actions made.

    I’d like to point out that in the military, no one is irreplaceable. Jack could have switched out and stayed at the Base. Sam should have switched out and stayed in the lab – with her expertise, she should have been ordered to remain there and not risk her knowledge in a warzone or dangerous unknown planets. That makes me wonder how irreplaceable Sam is, if her bosses thought they could do well enough without her if she died off-planet. Therefore, how would she be selfish by leaving the team? I think it’s the other way around.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    It just seems to me when you bring up two characters from a show, any show, you should be willing to devote part of your arguement to that show, for context.

    And I think you should learn to keep your comments on topic, like I’ve asked you several times already. If you don’t like how we write articles, may I suggest for about the fiftieth time that you take your comments to a Stargate forum, where they belong?

    I do have the technology to ban you, and in the future we will be banning people who treat this site as a fandom forum instead of an analysis site. I highly dislike going to such measures with anyone, but either you cannot comprehend what critical analysis is, or you feel entitled to splatter your thoughts anywhere and everywhere on the net, however disruptive they may be to someone else’s site, for which they pay substantial money to host and put great amounts of energy into.

  18. Jason Barnett says

    Nope, they need someone smart enough to deal with the offworld tech when it’s found offworld, so that it actually makes it back to the planet and doesn’t just get blown up by someone less qualified trying to figure it out.

  19. Gategrrl says

    You know what? I think you need to take this argument to Gateworld, where Sam Carter has many lovers (fans, that is) and you don’t have to prove anything to anybody.

    There are plenty of technical people who would work at the SGC. Carter may be good, but she’s not the only one.

  20. scarlett says

    Also at least one of those AU Carters didn’t even actively interact with Jack professionally – I got the impression that the Carter from Grace of God (s1) had an earth-based tech job, similar to what McKay did. They never went into the specifics of her job in Point of View.

    And incidentally, I thought the way TPTB threw those two storylines in was a sloppy way of giving the shipper what they wanted.

  21. scarlett says

    That’s something I really liked about Grey’s Anatomy… the fallout of Meredith’s relationship with Derek, especially after they’d broken up. She’d sacrified part of her reputation – so many people saw the situation as ‘intern sleeps with hotshot surgeon and gets plum jobs’ – and gotten her heart broken, then had to deal with the loss of the relationship while he was moving on with wifey. It ended disasterously, like you knew something like that was going to (odds-on, at least).

    And that’s what I hate about Stargate. A relationship like Sam and Jack is odds-on bound to end badly, and two people as professional at TPTB claim they are would never be that stupid. I mean, what were they going to do with Sam and Jack ever got together? Have them hold hands on missions and blithely ignore the danger around them?

  22. Ifritah says

    At first, I started thinking about all the movies and shows I’ve seen where the man was pining for the woman.

    And then I started realizing most of those were from a teenage prospective. Makes me wonder if that’s a way of saying that immature love from a guy is completely normal, but after he matures into a man, it’s the woman that starts falling over him.

  23. Ifritah says

    And I really wish I could edit my own comments, because prospective is really not the word I meant to type. (Perspective. Ahem.)

  24. sbg says

    Seems rather lose/lose for the woman in the situation Stargate’s PTB created to me. Either she’s a pining, immature child or she’s selfish. A very low opinion of women is being portrayed, if you ask me.

  25. Mecha says

    Yeah, I sorta think that’s the way of things too on first glance. My whole conversation about how the only guys who are allowed to think about girls when they’re not having sex are in ‘chick flicks’, or stalkers, or somesuch. Or comedies. It’s actually incredibly common in comedies for the ‘main male’ to come to a revelation about a woman who he done treated wrong. *beat* Of course, since they’re comedies, the main males are often immature/crude. And you could have a good time talking about how men aren’t allowed to worry about the girl until _after_ they’ve screwed up, which makes it okay (to apologize) as opposed to thinking about it spontaneously.

    I think the entire thing is a shame. If someone’s got romantic leanings, they’re adolescents, fools, or both most of the time. And since most women characters have to have ‘romantic leanings’, they get smacked with adolescence and foolishness. Isn’t there such a thing as adult romance where the girl doesn’t melt like butter?


  26. Gategrrl says

    You see psychopathic women on Lifetime (or in the movies) I wouldn’t say *all the time* but you know, those women want what they want, too, as much as any male stalker does, and it *does* happen in real life.

    I want what I want, too. If I really wanted who I wanted, I wouldn’t have married the guy I’m married to now, and probably would have made a horrible choice for a marriage partner. Wanting does not equal good choices.

    As the Stones say in one of their songs, “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”. And that’s true, with adolescent crushes and “wanting”.


  27. Ifritah says

    *Nod* Exactly.

    Such a good question!

    I can think of very few, but so many examples of the contrary come to mind that it drowns those few out.

  28. Ifritah says

    And apparently my quoting your last line about girls melting like butter decided to not show up. *Sigh* Well, pretend it’s in there after my nod!

  29. Jennifer Kesler says

    I didn’t even notice the typo, LOL.

    Unfortunately, no one’s developed a very good plug-in to allow comment editing yet. I’ll keep an eye out.

  30. Jennifer Kesler says

    Mmmmm, you mentioned my song. *drool*

    One big problem with the “she’s holding out for the real thing” argument is Pete. She agreed to marry him, and didn’t remember her great faithfulness to her non-romance with Jack until Pete had already moved to another city and bought a house!

    I gotta tell you, I would not be able to sleep for months if I let someone go to that much trouble and then I decided, “Oh, never mind, I’d rather hanker after someone I can’t have because I’ve mistaken myself for a Jane Austen character.”

    If this is how men want to be treated, no wonder I’m single. 😉

  31. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m thinking about writing an article about the Pete-Jack problem: either she was cheating on Jack with Pete, or cheating on Pete with Jack. By the time you get to Threads, it becomes impossible not to pick one or the other.

    By cheating, I don’t mean sex. I mean emotional attachment that goes beyond an accidental attraction of flirtation. For heaven’s sake, before she accepts Pete’s proposal, she chats Jack up to make sure he doesn’t want to shack up one of these days. Clearly, all this time she’s been dating Pete and claiming to love him, she’s still hung up on Jack. Then she accepts Pete’s proposal, which means it’s time to be an adult and stop thinking about Jack. But no, she waits until Pete’s moved to her city and bought her a house, and THEN suddenly realizes she’s being unfaithful to Jack.

    It’s called “stringing along” and when it’s happened to me on a far less serious level, I’ve reacted about like Pete did. Forget you, buddy.

    I can’t believe how many men defend her for this behavior.

  32. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’ve installed a “Live Preview” feature that types the comment out down below as you’re typing, so you can see if your HTML is working. :)

  33. Gategrrl says

    I’m not male, so that’s how I’ll have to qualify this post. But it is possible that the male viewers who think Sam is A-OK to string Pete along is because, more or less, Pete IS the sidedish they’re convinced they’d never be with such a desirable, hot-shot woman. They are *Jack*, not the shmoe Pete.

    I find that entire Pete/Jack/Sam triangle a complete fiasco and the most unromantic/unflattering portrayal of a woman “in love” as any I’ve seen on television.

  34. scarlett says

    It would also have been quite easy, and opened up a whole new story arc, to deal with Sam and Jack being together: put her in command of her own team so you have parallel storylines but still allows for interaction betwen Carter and the rest of SGI/Jack (I think they kinda did this with CSI, although I rarely watch it to know for sure.) If someone as professinal as TPTB claimed Sam and Jack to be liked one another, they would have arranged for one of them to transfer out.

    To NOT do this was incredibly sloppy writing, given how easy the alternative was, and, IMHO, a flimsy excuse for TPTB to flirt with the whole ‘star crossed lovers’ thing. It’s insulting.

  35. scarlett says

    I know one! It’s an Australian series, I’m watching the last of that particular arc right now. It’s cringe worthy, and makes you realise justy how unnerving it is to watch an adult pine.

  36. sbg says

    They really painted Sam into a corner with that whole affair. It was unfortunate for all characters involved. More unfortunate still – TPTB wouldn’t see it that way at all. I can’t not see it that way. And I still like Sam.

  37. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, that’s just it: it’s total hypocrisy. Lots of men and women are thrilled when someone cheats WITH them. Then when the cheater cheats ON them, what a horrible person the cheater is! And then they go off to commiserate with the person they stole the cheater from. Give me a break.

  38. Jennifer Kesler says

    It IS unnerving.

    It’s natural to get hung up on things when you’ve invested a lot in them, but as an adult, you should learn that it’s not healthy to dwell. While it’s really hard to say when to give up on an existing relationship, the question of when to give up on a non-existent relationship should be pretty clear.

  39. scarlett says

    Actually, come to think of it… watching Ben pine after Susie (the characters in the show I’m thinking of) was agonising to watch because I was EMBARRESSED as a human being that someone I had 99.9% of my DNA in common could, as an otherwise intelligent adult, make such an ass of themselves pining over someone who wasn’t interested (and they had actually had a relationship, short-lived as it was).
    And in this show they’d made an effort to show that Ben’s pining was part of a greater inability to enjoy a healthy relationshup. That’s something that really bothers me. Most of the time in such situation, TPTB make the effort to show that a MALE character who pines has greater emotional/commitment issues. But when its a FEMALE character, it’s portrayed as perfectly normal, as if women can’t aspire to anything above pining.

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