You can’t be a woman and a leader

Since the 1980’s, we’ve been seeing a lot of female characters start competing with men for jobs, promotions and acclaim. Sounds like real life… until you notice that that a woman character capable of being in charge always suffers one of two fates: either she never gets put in charge, or she’s put in charge and quickly shows she can’t handle it. Women can kick ass when they’re acting as rogue agents or under someone else’s command, but we still can’t have them shown as successful leaders.

In real life, women are held to different standards by most people, who’ve been trained by society to value different traits in women and men. When a woman calmly and effienciently gives out instructions, she’s far more likely to be judged as unfair or unpleasant than a man issuing orders in the same words and tone. The traits that make a good man and a good leader – authoritative, capable, direct, effective – are indistinguishable. But the traits that make a good woman – cooperative, supportive, requesting rather than ordering – are contradictory to a leadership position. So one of the biggest issues a real woman faces in the real world is the difficulty of choosing between being a good leader or a good woman in the eyes of others. Knowing those others will most likely judge her first as a woman, then as a boss, no matter how she approaches them. If she “fails” the woman test by choosing to be a good leader, she risks never even getting a chance to be an effective leader before losing command. And if she fails the leader test by being a good woman, she won’t get command in the first place.

I’d love to see a show where a woman is #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field, and she struggles to be a good leader while enduring criticism for not being nice enough, or supportive or cooperative enough – in other words, not being a good little woman. Instead, over and over, we see the female leaders deconstructed into mere females again, thus restoring the balance of the status quo.

I’m going to use Stargate yet again, because – unfortunately – it provides rich, eloquent examples of pandering to the status quo. But there are a number of other series making the same mistakes.

Sam Carter is arguably #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field – astrophysics – and she’s also an Air Force officer. On the surface, particularly on first viewing, she gets a lot of respect from her commanding officers and often saves the day. She’s alert, efficient and effective in the field, and she’s brilliant and quick-minded in the lab. But all of these powerful and independent traits are boxed into the supportive and cooperative role of second-in-command, lest she compromise her femininity by becoming a leader (because that is, sadly, how many viewers would interpret her giving orders to men).

As time passed, Sam should have learned to command in her own right. Instead, in later seasons, we’re more likely to see her losing control of a situation. In one episode, she’s in charge of finding out where two officers disappeared to, but the civilians studying the evidence have been called off the case behind her back, by the general. Sam is pissed, but not because the general hasn’t filled her in on the details she needs to do her job – her attitude is framed with hints that it’s all about her concern for one of the missing officers. It’s okay for a woman to get upset about a person in need, you see: it would be quite another for Sam to go to the general and say, “May I speak freely, sir? Why didn’t you tell me what was going on? How can I do my job if you’re calling the shots without informing me?” That would imply leadership, which would (evidently, in the producers’ minds?) detract from Sam’s value as the only full-time woman on the show.

How about another episode in which she attempts to brief a room of Air Force pilots on flying a space craft she helped to design? They demand to be brief by Colonel O’Neill, the only person who’s actually flown the experimental craft, although she did fly second-seat on the very same mission. O’Neill is, at the time, in the body of a teenage boy (it’s sci-fi, folks, what can I tell ya?). He takes over the briefing for her, and we discover that even in a teenage body, O’Neill is a true commander. Sam is not. Sam is a true woman.

But what about another episode in which Sam rescues the entire captured crew of a ship? Unfortunately, the whole rescue is lost in a flurry of hallucinations meant to explore Sam’s unconscious mind – which turns out to be as lacking in insight as her conscious mind. Even ignoring this, it’s notable that she’s completely on her own as she rescues the crew – no one above her or below her in the chain of command. It’s acceptable for a woman to kick ass on her own. But to kick ass as a leader of others?

In one of the later seasons, Sam actually becomes the commanding officer of her unit. Unless I’m mistaken, at no point in that season does she actually issue a command on screen to either of the men under her. The one time she tries to get one of them to do what he’s told without argument, she wheedles him, speaking his name in a soothing, questioning voice: her tone says pretty please? For me? After that, as part of the backstory between seasons, the team is disbanded and Sam goes to a new post. In the first few episodes of the current season, the team reforms with a brand new white male commanding officer. Sam returns, and it’s only natural that she take back her old role of second fiddle. But if you strip off the how and why, what we have is Sam being demoted back to her acceptable role as a skilled woman, instead of being allowed to show that you can be a woman and a leader at the same time.


  1. SunlessNick says

    Can I ask…

    There’s an early episode (season 2 or 3) where Jack O’Neill is removed from the SGC (as part of a sting, but the reast of the team don’t know that). Another colonel is assigned to the group above Carter, which she accepts without complaint, while both Daniel and Teal’c protest, saying that she should be put in charge. Personally, I repect the choices of all three characters there, but I’m wondering how you see it? (As I see Carter in a more positive light than you, but am finding your perspective interesting to read).

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s “Shades of Gray” from S3. The reasoning General Hammond gives her is that he wants a colonel on the flagship team, not a major. That’s the sort of assessment generals make, and Sam is right to respect it.

    Throughout the first three seasons, Sam was learning, growing and maturing as an officer. It was S4 when the writers seemed to start seeing Sam less as military officer and more as a leading lady. My examples in the above article are all from seasons 6 and 7.

  3. scarlett says

    I got the impression from SoG that Hammond wanted to put in someone he already SUSPECTED of being a technology theif to lead the flagship group. I assume SG1 get the plum jobs so it would make sense to give a spy such a plum position. The first time I saw the ep, I agreed, that Sam was the obvious choice for leader. But when you realised they were trying to weed out traitors it made more sense.
    I went from watching season eight to starting over again at season one, and the contrast was amazing. You don’t see it much watching the eps chronologically because her degeneration is a slow thing, but going from Threads/Mobeius to CofG etc, it’s a stark contrast. You go from a simpering Girl to a trained combatant determined to prove her mettle.

  4. Jason Barnett says

    You know Sam was the only actual military member of SG-1 when Jack was on it, and just plain and simple ordering hadn’t always worked for Jack when he tried.

    Remember Teal’c trapped in the Gate because he had to take a final shot at a Gou’ald, or Daniel beaming himself up to that alien ship when he wanted to negotiate despite the fact Jack was getting ready to have a bomb sent up?

  5. Casey says

    “I’d love to see a show where a woman is #1 in a traditionally male-dominated field, and she struggles to be a good leader while enduring criticism for not being nice enough, or supportive or cooperative enough – in other words, not being a good little woman.”

    That happens a lot in sci-fi anime and it PISSES ME THE FUCK OFF! (mostly because instead of telling everyone to piss off and just does her job/HATERS GONNA HATE, more often than not the Strong Female Character ends up kowtowing to patriarchal norms/softens up/falls in love with the protagonist/gets pregnant and learns her place. I mean, come on, it’s the fucking future, can’t we just ACCEPT a woman in an authoritarian role as someone’s captain or boss or WHATEVER~!?!?!

    Answer: No, I guess not. :(

    • says

      Well, the British series New Tricks does feature a woman who could not care less if people think she’s too masculine or not nice or whatever, and she’s awesome. There is one dodgy moment in an ep with Honor Blackman where, at first, I thought Pullman was choking on Blackman’s character saying Sandra had become a man and given up her femininity to compete with men. She got really upset, but at the end of the ep, she’s drinking beer and burping while eating a hamburger, which signaled that she has no qualms if people think she’s too “masculine” or whatever – she just thought Blackman’s character was vile. Which she was. 😀

    • Jayn says

      Metioning sci-fi anime makes me realize again just how much I love Ghost in the Shell (just wish there were more females in S9). While there’s some interesting dynamics going on between her and both Aramaki and Batou (who clearly loves her), they never evolve beyond the level of confidante.

      It also reminds me of why, despite liking the show overall, Glass Fleet kinda pissed me off. One of the females makes such an abrupt flip (literally from one appearance to the next) that you start to wonder if she’s been replaced by aliens.

      • Casey says

        I like Ghost in the Shell but at the same time I feel guilty for liking it because Motoko is essentially a Chick with a Dick and she’s all sexualized and scantily clad (mostly in the movie where she’s naked for no raisin)…but I’m pretty sure the show passes the Bechdel test!

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