Stargate SG-1: S01E03 “Emancipation”

Yeesh, this episode.

I hate this episode. I consider it the worst of the first seven seasons. I spent most of its runtime banging my head against everything in reach. The ’90s didn’t have a specific name for this, so to put it in today’s language: this episode is the epitome of bad allyship. It purports to be feminist, but has nothing to say about actual women. It’s just showboating and empty cliches wrapped in a layer of oblivious bro-iness.

A brief digression is in order. In college, I lived on a floor that housed a makeshift library of romance novels. I found them relaxing, because the prose was so lurid that it always made me laugh. Eventually I started to notice similarities in the story structures. After establishing the independent character bona fides, there would be a scene where The Man would see The Woman and be thunderstruck by her beauty. From this point until about halfway through the book, he would only think of her in terms of sex, while she would alternately be flattered by his attention and annoyed by his douchebaggery. Then an evil force beyond The Man’s control would snatch The Woman away, forcing him to realize that he now cared about her as a person and not simply as a set of walking boobs. The Woman would, of course, try to free herself, with varying degrees of success. Ultimately there would be some kind of battle between the forces of good and evil, and once good won, The Man and The Woman would live together happily ever after.

Sound familiar? Yes, in many ways, “Emancipation” is structured as a romance novel, and this is its first and greatest flaw: the writers’ idea of spotlighting Carter wasn’t to earn the audience’s respect for her through character development, but to get them to fall in love with her using worn-out romantic tropes. It feels like it was written by a teenager who’s been told all his life to respect women but who can’t conceive of why or how to do so. As a result, an episode that’s supposed to be about the inherent personhood of women is mostly interested in seeing how much it can objectify its protagonist before its runtime is up.

It gets even worse from there. See, the thing that makes romance novels palatable to a female audience, even if only for hate-reading, is that they are by and for women. They center around The Woman’s feelings and experiences at every step. Every romance novel has a scene, if not multiple scenes, highlighting the protagonist’s unexpected intelligence. Take the beginning of the Outlander episode “The Gathering,” in which Claire, a former nurse whose hobby is day-drinking, plots an escape. She carefully notes the changes of the guards, comes up with inspired pretexts to leave herself a trail in the forest, and figures out how to drug the people watching her. This level of competence is not just standard for romance novels, it’s arguably below average. Often The Woman deals with the forces of evil purely by her wits and with no male intervention.

But Carter, a captain in the United States Air Force, doesn’t do anything remotely unexpected or even, frankly, interesting. Her role for most of the episode is to smolder sexily, resist bravely, and otherwise stay put while the men fight over her. We don’t see her gleaning information about the culture the way the male team members do when they chat with Moughal. We don’t even see the aftermath of the various mistreatments she and the other captive women are subjected to. The episode isn’t interested in how Carter deals with her situation, because it’s not interested in her as a character. It’s only interested in the effect her womanhood has on the men around her. This flips the romance trope on its head: if romance novels are female fantasies, then “Emancipation” is a male fantasy, in which women’s rights are only valued as a shibboleth for expressing cultural dominance.

This unearned smugness taints Carter’s eventual victory, where she defeats the evil patriarchal warlord in combat. I think we’re supposed to be excited that she, and not a male SG-1 member, got the chance to do this. But watching it just makes me angry, because of the negligence of the men on her team:

  • When it first becomes clear that the culture SG-1 has encountered mistreats its women, Carter tries to point out that maybe visiting them isn’t the greatest idea. She’s promptly dismissed, because, you know, cultural studies! Never mind that they have literally thousands of other worlds they could visit for cultural studies. To be clear, this kind of dismissal of women’s concerns is what bad guys in romance novels do.
  • Next, when she’s forced — I say forced because, remember, O’Neill is her commanding officer — to exchange her uniform for a dress and confine herself to a yurt, do any of her male teammates put up a hint of resistance? No, they just ogle her, decide that this culture merits visits from an all-male team, and then leave to go party it up with the men who are keeping her prisoner. You know, for the cultural studies. And, I guess, for this random anesthetic, which definitely couldn’t have been discovered if they had tried to help her. Everyone knows new medicines vanish if they get within fifty feet of a woman wearing pants.
  • When they go back to save the girl, it’s not Carter’s arguments about human dignity that win the day, but the teenage boy’s argument that he’s, like, really in love. The male SG-1 members seemingly can’t figure out how to save a human life on moral grounds — nor do they seem familiar with the concept of a just war — but they dig deep when they realize male emotions are at stake.

And then, after all this, it’s Carter who has to risk death to prove her competence! At no point do her male teammates apologize for any of their behavior, nor are they ever held accountable for it. This is, effectively, normalization through depiction. Sure, the episode doesn’t endorse this casual sexism, but it doesn’t actually condemn it either. Instead, it seems to feel that the “Well, I don’t know what else we can do but play along” reaction, while not ideal, is the only one a reasonable man could have had. That’s why the final fight doesn’t look like a triumph of feminism. It looks like a way to let these guys off the hook. As long as Carter can win a knife fight, they don’t have to face their complicity in her suffering.

The most common defense against this kind of criticism is, “But how else were we supposed to show that patriarchy is bad?” This sometimes rings true, not because it is true, but because pretty much every popular narrative about overcoming injustice is junk. They all go like this: these people suffered in horrible ways, then a savior/revolution/societal shift just happened to come along to teach us better, and now everything is totally fine forever! The shallowness and complacency of “Emancipation” stem directly from, and highlight the dangers of, the simplicity of this cultural presentation. When we only engage with successful social justice movements on ELI5 terms, we end up objectifying not only the people who spend their lives fighting oppression, but also the narrative structure of the morality tales we tell about them. That’s why even story-writing professionals who were literally paid to use their imaginations couldn’t figure out how to talk about women’s rights without rehashing this cliched garbage.

I hated this episode so much as a teenager that I pretty much erased it from my memory, and I’m looking forward to doing that again. Tomorrow I’ll be discussing “The Broca Divide,” which will finally get us into the classic Stargate we’re all here for.

Ways this episode could have been improved:

  • We could have spent no time with the men, and instead only followed Carter’s POV, developing more female characters for her to interact with and learning about the world’s history and culture through them.
  • When Carter expressed her concerns after initially meeting the kid, and Daniel said “But we could study them,” Jack could have responded, “How are we going to study a culture that is obviously going to put one of my team members in harm’s way?” Then they could have formulated a plan for ensuring her protection while carrying out their mission.
  • When SG-1 saw Carter in the dress, instead of standing there slackjawed, they could have listened to her saying she couldn’t move or fight in it, and then gone back and negotiated that she could keep her armor and weapon as long as she wore a scarf over her head and mouth. Or they could have argued for an exemption for her on the basis that she’s foreign. I mean, non-Muslim women go to Muslim countries in Western dress all the time.
  • Instead of lingering seductively on the bodice-ripping and hair-pulling, we could have seen the physical and psychological aftermath of the punishments the villain inflicted on the women he was holding captive.
  • During the scene where the male team members are going after Carter, they could have admitted to each other that this wouldn’t have happened if they’d taken her seriously to begin with. Then they could have apologized to her after getting her out.
  • These are all minor tweaks that are meant to show how even small changes could have helped the episode make its point better, but the best course of action would have been to change the story entirely so that Carter could be the hero by doing her job really well. Thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long for that to happen.