This is the next post in my “strong female characters” series. Last week I covered the fantasy genre (technically YA fantasy, I suppose, because I wrote about Aravis from The Chronicles of Narnia.) This week I’ll switch to sci-fi, and I’m going to switch from books to TV. (I know, shame on me).
But even though I’m a lover of books and a writer of novels, TV shows and movies are great story-telling mediums, and highly important to our modern culture. How women are portrayed on the screen is perhaps even more important than how they’re portrayed in books, because that visual medium is more pervasive.
And again, true to my penchant for not covering the newest and hottest thing, I’ll be discussing a strong female character from an older TV show. And by “older” I mean the early 2000s. So, old but not that old.
Sam Carter from Stargate: SG-1
I’m not sure if I should preface her name with “Captain,” which was her rank at the beginning, or “Colonel,” her rank by the end of the 11 seasons she was on, or “Doctor” (as in Ph.D.) Samantha Carter is one of the four headlining characters of the interstellar travel team SG1; she and her compatriots (her commanding officer in the Air Force, a nerdy archeologist, and an alien warrior – all three men) travel around the galaxy fighting bad guy aliens and saving Earth repeatedly. Classic sci-fi premise.
Traditionally, science fiction is not always a genre in which women really take the forefront as complex and valuable characters (some notable exceptions are Princess Leia from Star Wars, and Lt. Uhura from classic Star Trek). Those women are the exception rather than the rule; many women in sci-fi (if they’re even in the story at all) wind up being either the “hot space babe” or the “tough chick with the ray gun.”
Samantha Carter is neither of these. So what are some of the elements that go into making Sam a strong female character?
Bravery or boldness. Absolutely. One doesn’t attain the rank of Colonel in the Air Force by being a coward. Sam doesn’t hesitate to shoot any kind of weapon or run headlong into danger to complete the mission or save a teammate. She can be the “tough chick with the ray gun” when she needs to be, but this is not the be-all and end-all of her character.
Intelligence or creativity. This is where Sam really shines. She has a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics (yes, that’s actually a thing). One of the unique features of the show Stargate was its heavy reliance on history, linguistics, archaeology, astrophysics, mathematics, and chemistry to drive the plot. This made academic geeks like myself very happy, and also required that several of the characters be brainiacs. Sam (and the archaeologist Daniel) are the brainy nerds of the group.
Sam’s nerdiness is more often than not what saves the day, as she figures out how to hotwire an alien gadget or why a planet’s sun is about to explode. And the other characters (all men) greatly respect her for it. They know she’s the smartest one of the group, and as much as the leader Jack complains about Sam’s technobabble, he trusts her intelligence and her instincts. None of the male characters feel emasculated by the fact that the woman of the group is often the one who saves the day.
Faults and weaknesses. So after I’ve expounded upon Sam’s abilities as a soldier and her scientific brilliance, one might wonder if she has any weaknesses. Faults and weaknesses are necessary to have a realistic, well-rounded character – male or female; nobody wants to read (or watch) a story about a perfect guy or gal.
Sam’s greatest strength is also her weakness – she thinks too much. Like a true scientist, she excels at making the simple complicated, which can be difficult when it comes to non-science stuff like personal relationships. She’s a workaholic, and her scientific mind has trouble “just letting go” of things. And also, as brave as she is in a battle situation, she struggles with fears when it comes to personal things like family relationships, friendships, or love.
Character development. Sam starts out as a bit of the “tough chick.” She makes sure she can run as fast and shoot as far as the guys, and flashes her Ph.D. under anyone’s nose who doubts her. This is understandable, because, as a woman in the military, she’s used to being treated with a gender bias. When the members of her team get to know her and start treating her as a regular human instead of “the girl on the team,” she is able to tone down the “tough act” and be herself. Over the course of the show, she grows as a leader. And she overcomes some of her weaknesses, like learning to connect with her father and heal a rift with her brother.
Femininity. Underneath all of her tough soldier behavior and scientific genius, Sam is still a woman. She occasionally commiserates with other female characters about the dumb things that men do. When she’s off duty, she takes off her camo and flak jacket and wears skirts and jewelry and sometimes even heels. She has girl bonding time with her (unofficial) god-daughter, and even occasionally goes on dates.
The writers of the show (and the actress portraying her) made Sam into a fully-developed character. She’s equal parts soldier, scientist, and woman, and her character is a perfect blending of all of these elements.
And, just for fun, I’m including this fan-made video of Sam Carter in action. Yes, this video features nothing but her soldier side, because shooting up aliens makes for a more exciting music video than watching someone do algebraic equations on a whiteboard. Anyway, enjoy this strong woman of sci-fi!