Friday, May 14, 2010

Breathe the Nish'ta (Stargate)

In the Stargate SG-1 season one episode “Hathor”, the titular character appears as a Goa’uld “goddess” who attacks the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. The one who formed the basis for the Egyptian goddess of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, to quote Jack O’Neill, Hathor is essentially a serial rapist who contributes to the System Lords by breeding Goa’uld through mating with humans. Hathor is an evil female presence capable of being defeated only by the women of SGC. While I suspect “Hathor” was written with the intention of being feminist, it flopped in its message and came out with a very poor portrayal of rape.

Hathor’s first order of business is seizing control of the Cheyenne Mountain Complex so she can control the Stargate. She does so with the aid of the pheromone nish’ta secreted from her breath, which enthralls men. Any man who inhales or comes into physical contact with the nish’ta becomes infatuated with and devoted to Hathor, making nish’ta the Goa’uld equivalent of a love spell, which in itself is equivalent to a date rape drug.
Armed with such a drug, she proceeds to literally rape Daniel and metaphorically rape O’Neill. She takes a liking to Daniel because he is the first to display a desire to help her when he, under the impression she’s a confused human woman, takes off her cuffs without nish’ta encouragement. She comes to appreciate O’Neill when she learns that he is responsible for killing Ra, her husband and rival for power. She repays them by making them her top servants, using Daniel’s DNA to create the next generation of Goa’uld, and using O’Neill’s body as host to a larval Goa’uld as her jaffa. Her first attempt to seduce Daniel fails, so she makes a second attempt with liberal use of nish’ta that proves successful off-camera. We next see him in a catatonic state, apparently from the effects of the drug. On-camera, she engages in a sensual jaffa-making with O’Neill, which also involves nish’ta. Stargate clearly implies that this is like sex with heavy breathing and Hathor pushing her lower belly into him. She wears a glowing jewel there, which causes the marsupial pouch that Hathor calls his “womb” to form in his stomach region. It’s a pretty obvious sex metaphor with the role reversal of him being the one to use his body to take care of her offspring.
Because all the men of the complex are compromised besides Teal’c, whose symbiont protects him, it’s up to the women with Teal’c to launch a counter-assault to retake the facility. After their initial attempt fails and the women are locked in a cell, they have a brief discussion about sexism in the military. Dr. Fraiser’s ex-husband once criticized her decision to join the Air Force, claiming it’s a “man’s army” apparently not knowing the difference between the Army and the Air Force. Carter chimes in about how she can’t fit in with the men of SG1. This gives Dr. Fraiser an idea of how to get out: draw the guards in by pretending to seduce them, which amounts to bad slapstick. The scene was probably intended to promote women in the military by pointing out the sexism involved in the institution, but it is ultimately self-defeating by having the characters resort to acting out some sexual fantasy. I think these elements could be done well given the right quality of writing, but that’s not the case here.
After their slapstick routine, the women go to rescue the men from Hathor. Hathor is in a Jacuzzi giving birth to numerous Goa’ulds, while Jack and Daniel hang around worshiping her. A battle scene commences, results of which include the baby Goa’ulds being torched, Jack healed, and Hathor escaping through the Stargate. As she gates away, the men come out of the spell, and things go back to normal. Dr. Fraiser collects the dead Goa’uld residue hoping to get some DNA, and Daniel notes that most of it will be his, which grosses out O’Neill. The sentiment expressed is something like “Eww, you had sex with the gross alien enemy!” or maybe just “Eww, I don’t want to think about you having sex!” rather than an acknowledgement of the seriousness of rape.
The plot of “Hathor” focuses almost exclusively on female characters, and it along with “Emancipation” was likely written to be feminist. I’m a little skeptical if it achieved such a goal, however, given the nature of Hathor’s threat. Hathor is essentially a succubus, hurting men with her promiscuous sexuality. In real life, these succubus myths historically were used as excuses to promote the subjugation of women. While I think it’s possible to have a villain of such characteristics and still have a progressive message, I don’t think that Carter’s group had enough of the right portrayal to make that the case here.
Elements of the plot presented in “Hathor” also appear in the season three episode “Seth”, featuring the titular Egyptian “god” (who I learned about as Set, but whatever) as a cult leader. Much like Hathor, Seth controls his people with nish’ta, but with a more powerful synthesized version that affects both men and women. It’s also worth note that the nish’ta variants are gender coded, with Hathor’s appearing the traditionally feminine pink/purple and Seth’s appearing a more traditionally masculine green. After Carter gets drugged with the nish’ta, she joins his harem and at one point sits with other women at the foot of his throne, looking up at him submissively. I would say that this is supposed to evoke discomfort in the viewer, as it is well understood how men have power to victimize women. This is in contrast to the “Hathor” scenes of men being victimized by women, in which I suspect we are supposed to see it as bad for the characters but enjoyable to watch for Hathor’s sex appeal.
In conclusion, while “Hathor” attempts to promote the female characters by having the men be taken over, the end result is rather problematic. The few points about challenging sexism are overshadowed by the poor portrayals of sexual assault. In order for society to become less sexist, these things have to be taken more seriously.

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