Sam Carter, Stargate SG-1

Not sure where to start on this character, and she may later have a full section of her own. Unlike a lot of others, she’s an ongoing controversy, as she’s on a currently airing show.

I should probably start with the general weakening of her character over the past few seasons, but it’s such an overwhelming topic I’ve decided to just go with specifics. Something occurred to me today:

Context Dictates Perception of Strength

When a female character is cast in a modern day sitcom, you don’t hold her to the same standards as a female character who’s out battling aliens. Maybe the writers on Stargate don’t know that – but I think they do.

Sam Carter’s background is a lot like Cagney on Cagney & Lacey, if anyone recalls that show. Like Sam, Cagney lost her mother early, was raised largely by her father, had issues with her father, and went into her father’s profession (NY cop). Cagney had issues, and the writers never tried to say she was a lovely person – she was nasty, she slept around and ran screaming from commitment, she drank too much, made professional mistakes sometimes, etc. She was who she was, an as a woman in 20th Century New York, it made sense. Most importantly, you didn’t have other characters insisting to the audience that you had to like her. She was what she was, just as many male characters are: flawed, sometimes someone you want to smack sense into, but also redeemed by some good qualities.

Now imagine if Cagney was taken out of the NYPD to a secret military facility to battle aliens who want to enslave all of humanity. You’d expect some changes, woudln’t you? Surely her priority and perspective would change?

With Sam, it was the opposite. She started out very gung-ho about joining Stargate Command. She seemed more interested in competing with men than in nailing one. In Season 2, when we first meet her dad – who runs roughshod over her request not to finagle special career treatment for her, and who is petulant about her refusal to divulge classified information to him – Sam handles him with aplomb. She cries upon finding out he’s dying of cancer and clearly wants them to get along for the time he has left, but she never lets him off with his unfair behavior. I admired the heck out of her in that episode – it’s not easy to stand up to the only parent you have, especially one as difficult and manipulative as Jacob. She did it well, and I could empathize.

Later, as they settled into the SGC and their roles, and she received a promotion and the respect she’d earned in a man’s world, I wouldn’t have taken issue with her looking for a man, if that’s what she wanted in her personal life. I did take issue with her choosing one of the few men on earth she can’t have: her commanding officer, Jack O’Neill. The adult thing to do – what I’d expect from the Sam who stood up to Jacob even as she was crying over his impending death – would be to realize, “Okay, there must be something wrong with me if I want the one man I can’t have – that’s really childish – I’ll do some soul-searching and get over this.” We all realize things like this about ourselves – it happens, we fix them, everybody moves on.

Not Sam. Instead of evolving, she devolves. By the time we get to Season 8, we’re looking at a woman whose big tragedy in life is: “I have so much going for me, but there’s one or two things I don’t have, and I can’t take it!” Worse, the writers for Stargate, unlike the writers for Cagney & Lacey, insist that Sam is great and doesn’t make mistakes, and we have to like her. Even though she’s now making professional mistakes that endanger teammates – arguably, due to her confusion about her personal feelings toward Jack.

The other context issue is: Sam’s teammates. Jack has coped with causing the death of his own son, doing god-only-knows-what in his black ops days, and being left by a wife of whom he still keeps photographs displayed prominently in his house, eight years later. Oh yeah – and he was tortured to death dozens of times by a Goa’uld a couple of years ago. Imagine being tortured, and even death not offering a way out. Imagine carrying the memories of all those deaths. That’s sad.

Sadder: Teal’c, the team’s alien turncoat, is fighting for the very freedom of his enslaved people. He’s given up his family, his status – everything to join this struggle. Before joining the SGC, he killed innocent people and annihilated villages and god-only-knows-what else when he was in the service of the Goa’uld.

Saddest: Daniel Jackson, the team civilian, saw both his parents killed when he was eight years old, and grew up in foster homes after his grandfather couldn’t be bothered to take him in. He was professionally disgraced because he wouldn’t give up his radical ideas (which proved true, though he can’t tell anyone due to the classification of the SGC). He lost his wife and brother-in-law to the Goa’uld (this show’s big bad enemy). He died of hideous radiation poisoning, and even though he ascended to a higher plane of existence, he was restricted from using his new abilities to help his friends, and very nearly had to stand by and watch two of them suffer unimaginably (Jack and Teal’c, of course – Sam suffering wouldn’t be ladylike, I guess).

Next to these guys, we have Sam: rough childhood, followed by a great career (two, really: astrophysics and Air Force, both men’s worlds), a repaired relationship with her dad, and eventually a fiance she seemed to really care for. There’s some other trauma: she’s taken as host by a Goa’uld (but it turns out to be a good Goa’uld whose memories help them out a lot). Um, that’s about it. Every guy she meets falls in love (not lust, mind you – true love!) with her.

But damn it, she doesn’t have Jack, and that’s just all there is to it!

For crying out loud, how are we supposed to interpret that? Characters are allowed to be flawed, allowed to be unlikeable and unsympathetic. But we’re not allowed to dislike Sam – we are reminded at every turn that she’s a really wonderful person who deserves to have everything she wants, including an Air Force career and an Air Force regulation-violating relationship with her commanding officer. She shouldn’t even have to transfer to another command, which would probably make the relationship acceptable. No, she should be allowed to stay right here, making not one minor concession toward her personal happiness.

I know some young people who think that way, and I refuse to speak to them until they grow up. How can we look at a forty-something woman and see this as anything but weak?


  1. Blarney says

    Sam Carter is a woman who wants a man. That is the most important thing in her life. Everything else: her work, her friends and colleagues, her family, and the safety of Earth, all fade into nothingness when compared with her desire to Get this Man. Is that really the story TPTB are trying to tell, or have they seriously gone off rails with this character?

    Sam once was a good officer, daughter, and friend; but all of that changed after her desire for Jack introduced to the show. Then, slowly everything else was stripped away from her. She stopped having any kind of real, character-developing interaction, with either Daniel or Teal’c. Only Jack was allowed to have conversations involving anything other than technobabble with her, and those were usually uncomfortable, and filled with stammering, as she desperately tried to get Jack’s attention in a sexual way. Then, in Grace, she admitted to a hallucination of Jack that she’d give up her career if she could just have him.

    Even the characters she interacted with were stripped away. First Martouf, who was a connection to Jolinar, then Janet Frazier, Sam’s only female friend, and finally her Dad. The only person now left is Jack. I guess that was intentional. TPTB wanted Sam to the be the perfect fantasy woman, who had no friends, no career, no life outside of her man.

    Most importantly, what’s to happen to Sam now? Her Man is gone; her reason for existance is over. She’s not a credible leader, nor is she invested in either the Jaffa situation or Daniel’s dealings with the Ascended. The only thing left for her is technobabble or another romance.

    That’s a shame. Sam is the only regular female character on SG-1 and she has no stake in what’s likely to be the story for next season.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s a good point: by making her character entirely dependent on Jack, she’s essentially written out with Richard Dean Anderson’s leaving of the show. While I can imagine a few ways for her character to once again become integral to the SGC next season, is this even something the writers care about? Or even see the need for?

    Do you believe they think she’s wonderful just the way they’re writing her? Or do you think they’re writing a caricature of female stereotypes, then playing innocent when they claim, “Well, gee, we thought she did the right thing” in whatever episode anyone cites as proof she’s gone ’round the bend?

  3. Blarney says

    I think Stargate’s PTB attitude towards Sam is comparable to Joss Whedon and Buffy. I’m one of those people who don’t think Whedon’s brand of feminism in any way resembles Earth-based feminism. In the last few seasons, Buffy became cold, uncaring about the people she was protecting, uninterested in the opinions of her “troops”, and abusive to her sexual parnter. She was the very picture of the male action hero: she was John Wayne without a penis. She also fell into countless media propagated sterotypes of the “feminist”. She was a bad leader, who’s decisions hurt her followers, yet she never seemed to really care. She emasculated all the men she was with. Each and every one of them was profoundly better off the further they got away from her. There was clearly something “wrong” with her sexually. Every single one of her sexual experiences lead to some sort of shame and degredation. What’s more, having sex with Buffy always “hurt” her male partners in some way.

    All of this is disturbingly anti-feminist to me, but none of it ever even registered with Whedon. Buffy was his gold-haired vision of feminist perfection, and anybody who disagreed was just plain wrong.

    I think something similar is happening with Sam and her PTB. In their eyes, she’s the best soldier, smartest scientist, and the prettiest “girl” ever to grace the Milky Way galaxy (and Pegasus too, once crossovers start happening). She doesn’t make any mistakes, and any mistakes she makes must be overlooked. So, we’re not supposed to notice that Sam abandoning her position and running across the battlefield in order to get to the no-so-injured-Jack in Heroes, endangered the mission and put lives at risk; all we’re supposed to take from that scene is an appreciation for the wonderful, pure love Sam has for Jack. When Sam puts herself in a position to give away vital security information to RepliCarter in Gemini, we’re not supposed to attach any blame to her for what happens next. Yes, her actions directly lead to Daniel being tortured and (temporarily) killed, all life in the galaxy being endangered, and the (permanent) deaths of Jacob and Selmak; but, we’re not supposed to see it like that. Sam wanted to help RepliCarter, because she’s a good person, who’s willing to give anyone, even deadly planet eating machines, a chance.

    RCC et al, don’t seem able to undersand that the audience will judge Sam by her actions and not their authorial intentions (another Whedon failing). The same applies to her endless pursuit of Jack. Sam uses, leads on, then discards Sam; but to PTB it’s all good because she’s following her heart back to Jack. Her 20 odd years in the military might have been nothing more than an attempt to please Daddy, but it’s okay, because she was just trying to be a good daughter. If she discards her career now, it’s fine because she’ll be doing it to be with the man she loves. What could be better than that? The fact that ALL of this is a pack of the most appalling stereotypes is something TPTB will never understand, no matter how hard you beat them with the baseball bat.

    So, no, I don’t think TPTB are trying make Sam into a caricature. I think they’ve got tunnel vision when it comes to her, and can’t see the consequences of the actions they write for her; or the reactions of the audience. To them, Sam is their golden-haired, vision of feminist perfection, and anyone who disagrees is just plain wrong.

  4. Graculus says

    The main problem I have with the whole Carter scenario is this: she’s working daily in an environment where women have only relatively recently been allowed, let alone welcomed. Her behaviour is then helping to support one of the reasons why it took women so long to gain a foothold in such situations in the first place.

    We seemed to be heading in a better direction with the character in season 2 and the whole Jolinar thing, but then maybe they realised it would mess with their leading man-leading woman cliche and dumped it summarily. Up to that point, Carter was looking more like a human being than a woman and that just wouldn’t do.

    Imagine the outcry (and rightly so) if you had a non-white character behaving in a way that reinforces negative stereotypes the way that Carter’s inability to be led by anything but her hormones does. But for her, it’s acceptable and even praiseworthy.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    I stopped watching Buffy in early season 6, because I had a gut feeling everything you’ve described would come to pass, and I suspect if I ever watch the later seasons, I’ll see them as you do. The only later episode I tuned in for was “Normal Again” in which we learn Buffy may be a mental patient dreaming the whole show – and based on the ending, I consider that to be the truth, and the final deconstruction of the whole show: Buffy’s whole vampire-slaying life is a delusion. She’s a legend in her own mind. An intriguing idea on its own – unfortunately, in light of her failures in those seasons, the message is “little girl can’t handle reality”.

    From the glimpses I got of later episodes, I do think I would read it as you do, if I watched the episodes through.

    The only logical conclusion to draw from what we see *on screen* with both Sam and Buffy is that they are really in love with power. Sam subjugates her own powerlust – which she’s in denial of (right along with the writers) – with this juvenile crush on her commanding officer. She doesn’t really know Jack, as we see time and again, so she can’t really love “him” – she loves the authority and power he represents. She wants to possess that sort of authority – not the man behind it.

    I believe an arc could be written to demonstrate that Sam has been slowly corrupted by power, and as the corruption intensified, so did the “crush” on Jack – her shield of denial. If she was now forced to see this clearly (something I *thought* was happening in “Gemini”, but if it was, later episodes deconstructed it), she could have an epiphany and consciously change herself for the better.

    Unfortunately, the writers want it both ways: they want to present a Carter who does these things without presenting a reason. That leaves us no choice but to assume they think, “Well, that’s what chicks do”. And yeah, I’ve seen such childish behavior in both women and men I’ve known – and I do not consider those people typical, healthy, or suited for work in a team environment. In fact, all of them are in jobs where one-to-one competition of a very brutal nature is key to success.

    I’m not suggesting I like the idea of Sam being a whackjob of any sort – it still smacks of “oh, the poor girl can’t handle it like her big male teammates”. But I am suggesting that even now, if the writers comprehended what they’ve done, *something* could be redeemed from the mess.

    Watch me not holding my breath.

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    Very well said, Graculus. I agree that her presentation reinforces the myths that have prevented women from being involved in the military, and still do limit their involvement (they are barred from Special Operations, for example). The male characters constantly defy stereotypes: Jack is supposed to be a military hardass, but he’s extremely caring when it comes to protecting his people. Daniel is supposed to be a geek, but he can fight well and dirty. Etc.

    Sam could have flaws that don’t involve her hormones. The writers opted to go a different direction.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    I got the feeling that early in setting up the series, Glassner and Wright realized they needed a primary female character to balance the overwhelming maleness. There weren’t a lot of realistic places to put a woman in a series based on a US modern day military installation, because unless I’m really reading the regs wrong, women aren’t supposed to be in direct ground combat or Special Ops. Sam had to be something really special to sell the idea the Air Force would bend/break its own rules to put her on the team. So they made her really super.

    At this point, IMO, they really should have sorted out exactly what her flaws were, then hung a lantern on them like they did Jack’s and Daniel’s. I really liked that her struggle in Singularity probably would have been the same had it been Jack or Daniel in her place: duty to protect a planet v. one tiny fragile life. That’s the heart of the show, in a way: what’s an acceptable loss in saving the world? And if you accept losses to do it, have you really saved anything? It was great to see her face the same exact struggle the guys have over the years, and she handled it beautifully.

    That never happened again, even in S2 or 3.

    I agree that the changing of the guard in S4 was disastrous for Sam, and it wasn’t good for the show in general, either. The early seasons managed to make some interesting social commentary in the subtext, if not overtly – about religion, about politics, about power, about war. Starting in S4, it was more of a light, fluffy adventure with a few gritty moments here and there. After some point in S7, there hasn’t been anything I could really take seriously.

  8. says

    (I know I’m way late to the game, but I only just found your site recently)

    I agree with everything you have to say about Sam. In fact, I’ve been trying to say it all myself for years now, but I’ve never been able to find the words to express it the way you have.

    I think from the very beginning, the PTB muddled the character. They didn’t let Sam grow on us; they tried to thrust her to the forefront immediately, where Jack and Daniel already were by virtue of it really being their story that was being told. I think the PTB were mildly threatened by the two natural main characters not being their creations; they wanted one of their own to emerge to be just as (or more) important. Her introduction was the first clue — what sane woman who was focused on her career and had spent years fighting for respect in a man’s world, would stride into that briefing room and spout those lines? But that was to show us how Sam was Strong and Independent and Important. It was reinforced by the first bits of background we got on her — she was a genius, and she would have been able to open the Stargate eventually if she just hadn’t been transferred; ie, Daniel’s accomplishments were trumped by the new claim that Sam could have done it without him. There was that line about how Sam “should have been” with that first team to Abydos — an inelegant and unsubtle attempt by the writers to establish Sam’s importance by implying that the story carried over by Jack and Daniel was as much hers as it was theirs.

    Those writers and producers managed not to ruin her right away, however, because they eventually settled down with the frantic waving around of her accomplishments and they let the character develop real strengths and weaknesses. I think “Singularity” showcases both — Sam is emotionally closed-off because she’s convinced herself that in order to succeed, she can’t allow herself to be vulnerable or show any sign of ‘weakness’ (which Daniel calls her on), but when it comes down to it Sam listens to her feelings and instincts and has the courage to stick by that sick little girl. So although Sam was initially a very hard character to like, by the middle of the first season she had settled into a character who could easily become likeable.

    But then there was a changing of the guard between seasons three and four, and I think that’s where the character became doomed. The PTB changed as new writers and producers were ushered in to replace the old ones. Some of these writers admit to not watching the previous three seasons (supposedly because they didn’t want it to interfere with their own visions, or something), so they really didn’t have much of a clue about the established dynamics. This new PTB didn’t care for or value the deep and enduring bond and friendship between Jack and Daniel, which had been a central theme of the series from the beginning. Nor did they care for the story arcs that had existed previously. Thus Jack and Daniel’s relationship was either ignored or actively broken apart, and the unfinished story arcs of the previous seasons were left to fall by the wayside. They really only took a surface glance at what had come before, without any understanding of what was really going on. So they looked at Sam and all her shiny accomplishments, and they fell in love with her. Here was an attractive female character who was arguably the smartest of the team, and (just as arguably) the most valuable. They looked at the subtle and harmless flirting that had gone on with Sam and Jack, and became obsessed with the idea that Sam and Jack were Meant To Be. Nevermind that all of Sam’s deeper and meaningful moments had been with *Daniel*, not Jack. Jack was the star and Sam was their new prized princess, and thus began her deconstruction.

    So Sam was beautiful and everyone loved her. She was a genius who could solve anything (and was an expert in everything that was even remotely scientific). She had success and was rewarded. But they didn’t give her the setbacks and flaws that the original PTB had grounded her with. There was no more attention paid to her trouble dealing with her feelings. Her self assurance and belief that she was always right was never challenged. Sam became perfect — she became the “national treasure”. And then she became an instrument of romance for which there was no basis.

    Sam didn’t know Jack on a personal level at all. Of course she cared about him and he cared about her, because the team was very close, but they weren’t actual *friends*. That much was always obvious just by looking at Jack and Daniel’s friendship and the contrast between the two relationships. There had never been any indication previously that either of them had deeper feelings for one another. The love came out of the blue when all that had been there before was the occasional mild flirtation. There was little to no chemistry between the two actors, and at least one of them was against the idea of the romance and it showed on screen.

    Making Sam perfect and establishing the romance between Sam and Jack eventually made it so that *all* there was to Sam’s character was her importance to the SGC and her feelings for her Man. She became a cardboard cut-out of a character because she had no deeper meaning and nothing else going on internally. The writers refused to give her any depth, even when she’d do something that implied that she had issues. She’d make monumental mistakes like abandoning her post or giving RepliCarter information, but she was never made to own up to those mistakes and while there could have been issues dealing with WHY she’d do stupid things like that, and she could have dealt with them, the writers chose to pretend they didn’t exist. Or she’d display terrible lack of mature judgment and chase her commanding officer around and lead on a sweet man who was devoted to her, but rather than really delve into her psyche and figure out why she was doing those things, the writers ignored it. After all, Sam had to be perfect.

    The new PTB who came to be in charge didn’t understand the character and they chose to focus on all the wrong aspects of her, which is how I think we ended up with the Sam Carter we have today.

  9. Jason Barnett says

    For crying out loud, how are we supposed to interpret that? Characters are allowed to be flawed, allowed to be unlikeable and unsympathetic. But we’re not allowed to dislike Sam – we are reminded at every turn that she’s a really wonderful person who deserves to have everything she wants, including an Air Force career and an Air Force regulation-violating relationship with her commanding officer. She shouldn’t even have to transfer to another command, which would probably make the relationship acceptable. No, she should be allowed to stay right here, making not one minor concession toward her personal happiness.

    I know some young people who think that way, and I refuse to speak to them until they grow up. How can we look at a forty-something woman and see this as anything but weak?

    This isn’t real life, as far as I’m concerned fiction should be better than real life. I make have to make sacrifices to be happy in life, but I don’t want the people I watch to have to. It’s a big part of what makes it entertaining for me.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s too close to deus ex machina for my taste. When a character’s struggling with something I can relate to, I want to see her resolve it in a way that inspires me, or makes me proud of her. Or I want to see her fail at it in a way that elicits my empathy.

    I don’t want the obstacle to simply go away because it’s fiction. That just makes me feel bummed out that real life isn’t so simple. 😉

  11. Jason Barnett says

    You know there’s a funny thing about SG-1 if you look at the list of problems you gave them. Jack, Daniel, Teal’c: everyone of there problems is a past problem. It’s part of their history. For Sam, the desire for a love life is ongoing.

    And to hearsawho, you complain that Sam was merely her job and her “feelings for her Man”, maybe I’m just not the sort to look deep but that seems like as much as anyone got. Of course I consider their primary motivation, the defeat of the Gou’ald and it’s entanglements to be their jobs.

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