Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Everyone is the Same (Stargate)

So, I’ve been watching a lot of Stargate. I’ve seen most of SG-1 and a little of Atlantis, and you know what I’ve noticed about the characters? “Every damn one of them is the same!” That’s a line from the SG-1 episode “The Other Side” in reference to racial characteristics of a genocidal faction of white supremacist alien humans. While not quite that bad, the show Stargate SG-1 has displayed a consistent lack of racial diversity in its characters, often showing preference for white characters unrealistically given the fictional context.

The whole premise of the show involves the Goa’uld taking segments of various Earth cultures and depositing them around thousands of Milky Way planets. Why they all would speak English is beyond me, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for the sake of the show, understanding that it would be easier for the creators to not have to hire people to teach the actors how to say their lines (though they can’t even agree on the pronunciation of “Goa’uld”). What bothers me is that most of these alien cultures are formed primarily of white people, even when well-established that the Earth cultures they came from wouldn’t have had any white people at all. Early SG-1 episode “Emancipation” depicted Asian Simarkans who were descended from Mongols, but then a couple seasons later there was “Learning Curve” with the entirely white Orbanians who were descended from the Aztecs. This remained the trend.

Many other alien human cultures encountered tend to have a mix of white and black races, which are usually the Jaffa such as those encountered on Chulak. I also recall this situation in the people of humans in “Beast of Burden” who enslaved Unas. This makes some sense given that Goa’uld often trade Jaffa when one System Lord conquers another’s outpost, and the humans of “Beast of Burden” could be the descendents of that kind of mixed population. It doesn’t, however, explain the general lack of Asian people among populations not dominated by Yu. The only Asian Jaffa I’ve seen are Yu’s as well as two Sodan kids who giggle at Mitchell. There really isn’t much racial diversity among the colonies, and what there is tends not to make sense.

So, then in season four there’s the episode “The Other Side” with the Nazi-like Eurodans. The Eurodans present themselves as an innocent people victimized by a superior enemy, and they are willing to trade cold fusion technology to Earth in return for fuel for their shields. They seem like the perfect allies, with only their leader seeming vaguely disturbed by the black Teal’c’s presence to hint at their true nature. Then the leader makes some comment to O’Neill about keeping Teal’c on Earth next time, which makes O’Neill suspicious. He and Teal’c go snooping and find that the Eurodans in stasis all look the same, which is white. At the same time, Carter learns that the enemy is referred to as the “breeders”, a people with no respect for “genetic purity”. The enemy the Eurodans were fighting turns out to have been the good guys, and SG-1 helps them defeat the Eurodans before escaping through the Stargate. It’s a good episode with a good message against racism that doesn’t go the path of “Emancipation”, which has an overly direct message about the evils of sexism that makes the episode somewhat difficult to watch.

What strikes me as odd, though, is that SG-1 never encountered racist cultures before. Considering how many entirely white civilizations they encounter, it’s surprising that there’s no commotion over the fact that Teal’c is a completely different color of human being. Sometimes people react fearfully toward him because of his Jaffa mark, which makes me wonder why he doesn’t wear a hat, but the color of his skin is only made an issue in the episode where the villains are specifically the villains because they are racist. Characters can be racist without being total baddies, though, and just have prejudices as part of their personality flaws. They did manage to have McKay be sexist without making him a villain, just excruciatingly obnoxious.

Speaking of the SGC, there is a definite lack of persons of color who are actually characters on the show. I’ve seen a lot of black guys walking around the base in the halls, so it’s not that the SGC itself is racist, and instead that the show doesn’t hire persons of color for major roles. Teal’c is kind of the token black character and he’s an alien turncoat not really in the U.S. Air Force. Most persons of color on this show are Jaffa or Goa’uld hosts like that of Apophis and Ba’al, members of exotic foreign cultures, while the good guys at home are white.

The homogenous casting also has some unfortunate implications with regard to Stargate’s pre-Darwinian take on evolution, where every being changes for the better until Ascension. According to this, lower life forms turn into modern humans, modern humans turn into superpowered psychics, and superpowered psychics turn into godlike Ascended beings. This is a set pattern that happened before ages ago with the Ancients and can be seen happening at the time of the show. So, it’s unfortunate that all of these superior forms into which beings evolve happen to be white. Oops.

Even the Replicators are all white when they make human forms for themselves. This isn’t out of evolution per se, at least insofar as the path to Ascension, though it’s hard to tell when the writers don’t understand evolutionary theory. The Replicators find the body of their creator Reese and build themselves in her image, which is humanoid, but they aren’t clones. It would make sense if First was a direct carbon copy of Reese and the others would show a variety of designs working outwards from the Reese model, but that’s not what they do for some reason. Reese is a black girl. First is a white man and all other human-form Replicators are white. How does that work?

Now one reason they could have wanted the Replicators to be white is because of the relationship Fifth pursues with Carter. If Fifth were black, they would be treading into controversial interracial territory. I hope that’s not the reason. That was controversial back in 1968 with Star Trek, and I would have hoped we as a society would have gotten substantially better since then. Not that having the Replicators be black wouldn’t raise its own host of issues given their villainous nature, but I think it would be a good deal better than the current scenario of little bug-shaped machines transforming themselves into the superior forms of white people.

In conclusion, Stargate SG-1 has a definite lack of racial diversity that leads to some overall racist implications. I’m not accusing the show creators of being individually racist, at least not significantly. With the possible exception of the Replicators with regards to my interracial controversy hypothesis, I think this is the fault of institutional racism among the people in charge of casting. The context of the fictional settings where no one is racist toward Teal’c would indicate that the people don’t have to be white, but that the casting directors are just more inclined to hire white actors. I suspect they only hire people of color for minor characters to try to look racially diverse, which would explain a background Asian extra randomly placed in Camelot of all places. I’m a little hesitant about posting this now because I haven’t seen the whole series, but even if Ba’al gets Asian Jaffa and black Replicators show up in the last episodes—which I sincerely doubt—I think I have a good point regarding the majority of the series.


Catchafire said...

Institutionalized racism eh? Kind of like referring to one set of people as "Asian" and the other as "black"?

I agree with your article on ALL points. One of the reasons why I was attracted to the show was because of Apohpos and because he was... Black. As the show gained in popularity, we quickly see how minorities were phased out of the show. It is a bit comical, but what can you do?

Anonymous said...

100% true indeed

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more...

Anonymous said...

There may be a trilogy of Stargate movies in the works. Hopefully, this trilogy will not suffer the same lack of racial and cultural diversity so prevalent in the Stargate series and all of its derivatives thus far.


Unknown said...

The obvious over population of white actors has long been a problem. Sometimes, like in Stargate it is painfully obvious. This is just as annoying as at American 'NESS of almost all shows, even though so many are made in Canada. It's always America that saves the day. I'm so over American TV having a monopoly of the tv world