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 could be nasty and entitled, had dysfunctional relationships with boyfriends, drank too much, made professional mistakes sometimes, etc. She was who she was, and 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, wouldn’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. 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.
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 goodness-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 goodness-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 briefly 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?