ABW’s TV Corner – Stargate: Atlantis and why I hate it

In comments, Dead Man Walking said:

Another show that I believe has good minority characters is Stargate Atlantis. IMO, they are fair and balanced. Teyla and Ronin are good guys. Aiden is a rogue team member who became a bad guy. I don’t think that they can be more balanced.

Unfortunately I am going to have to disagree with his assessment of Atlantis. I think that it’s one of the worst shows when it comes to PoC portrayal and racial issues.

Stargate Atlantis CastI first formed this opinion in the Season 1 episode Letters from Atlantis. The one where the folks on Atlantis are recording video diaries for their families because the Wraith are coming and they’re scared they are all gonna die. Anyway, in between the main cast doing theirs, there is one female scientist I hadn’t seen before that they bring in for a bit of comedy. She’s Asian, and she spoke in the most stereotypical Asian accent EVER. Like 2 degrees up from ching chong talk. She tells her family all about how her job is wonderful and her boss is especially wonderful. Her comments about her great workplace are interspersed with scenes of Rodney, her boss, yelling at people, calling them stupid, being an ass — you know, typical Rodney stuff. And yet this woman paints him in a crazily fantastic light. Now, either they are playing up on the submissive Asian stereotype or they’re playing up the woman so in love she is too stupid to realize she’s being abused stereotype. Or maybe it was both.

At that moment, I started to wonder how many people of color I had even seen on Atlantis. (After I got over the shock of seeing something so horrendous on my TV, of course.) Upon examination of the reruns, I noticed that NONE of the scientists that came from Earth are people of color. That Asian woman doesn’t appear in any other episode that I’ve seen. Others tell me that there’s one black female scientist who’s never had a line. ALL of the rest of them are white.

The only people of color that come from Earth are in the military, and I think there are only two of them, Ford and Bates. Bates is overly aggressive and shoot-em-up, especially towards Teyla (for no good reason). Ford eventually becomes an intergalactic junkie (no stereotyping there, right??).

Alien CoC include Teyla and Ronan. Both of them are depicted, at first, as being backward, tribal people who are born to kick ass. Rachel Luttrell was even told by the producers to think of Teyla as a ‘simple island girl’. Wha?? Also, why is she the only person of color in her tribe? Everyone else from her planet is white, and we never see her parents. Also, where the hell does she get relaxer in the Pegasus galaxy? Teyla is Teal’c light, speaking in that stilted dark warrior way and being very one with the earth or something. Gah.

(Don’t get me wrong, I love Rachel and I know she’s doing her best with what she’s been given. But Jesus…)

Ronan is a whole other problem. He’s the typical wild warrior man actors of color are often asked to play. He’s shows as overly aggressive and uncivilized. One of the first scenes he has on Atlantis proper is him in the cafeteria eating with his fingers. Later on we find out that he comes from a civilization more advanced than Earth. So why the hell does he not understand utensils?

Atlantis inherited this problem from SG-1, but they take the racism to whole new levels. It’s a combination of no scientists of color with men of color as savage, wild men and/or drug addicts and aliens of color coming from supposedly backwards backgrounds.

Let’s not even get into the Michael as tragic mulatto storyline.

I don’t watch Atlantis anymore.

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28 Responses

  1. The Asian scientist shtick might’ve been meant in a third way: she’s lying to her family so they won’t feel sorry for her.

    But since I haven’t seen the show, I sure won’t argue that’s the case.

  2. The first full episode of SGA I ever watched was the one which showed Ronon’s backstory; it gave me a completely backwards view of what the show was like and who the central characters were. Every episode I’ve seen since has been a disappointment. I’d watch a show centered on Ronon, where McKay and Shepard are the sidekicks/background characters. As it is, meh.

  3. I’m curious what you thought of SG-1. I was appalled that the majority of CoC were Jaffa – a slave race of mighty and often self-sacrificing warriors.

    Aside from that, there were some interesting CoCs on it, but that one issue suggested a lot to me about how the writers think unconsciously about race.

  4. If it’s Star Gate related…. I don’t watch it. I pretty much given up on all things shown on the sci fi channel. 3 damm planets on how many ships on battle star galactica and how many are CoC?…off of three damm planets AND HAD the mother^()& nerve to kill Bill Duke? Hell.. I wouldn’t buy it if it came with a Black Belt Jones with 15 bonus minutes of whitey wackin action.

  5. I very much agree with your point. I disagree with a few details, but I don’t think they really change the point.

    One of the first scenes he has on Atlantis proper is him in the cafeteria eating with his fingers. Later on we find out that he comes from a civilization more advanced than Earth. So why the hell does he not understand utensils?

    He seemed to understand them just fine when someone pointed them out to him. He’s probably familiar with the fact that other cultures use utensils but wasn’t really used to it himself–eating with your fingers is perfectly elegant and tidy, btw, if you know how. (And having some sort of flatbread with meals helps.) No inherent conflict with the technologically advanced culture, imo. Of course, the show clearly intended it as an indication of what a “wild man” he is, but it need not be taken that way.

    As for the line about relaxer, um, I guess I’ll assume you’re being snide? Or implying that, since SGA has loads and loads of non-Terran humans whose phenotype matches our Terran category of “white”, that there ought to be more non-Terran humans matching our other Terran phenotype categories as well? If so you have a point there. While I, having the sort of appearance that makes strangers come up to me and ask, “What are you?” (Um, a person), enjoy seeing people whose appearances don’t fit the common categories, obviously to have one category (white) showing up on alien worlds in spades while the other categories are under-represented and covered up with wigs is not right.

  6. First,I am a elderly white male. Second I have no clue what CoC means, (Color of Color??). Tayla in my estamation is not a person of color to me, just an alien village leader that is 1.Was the leader to her people. 2. Can kick butt with the best of them and I for one am really glad she is on our side. Ronon, was captured by the wraith, and set up as a victum (RUNNER)so the other wraith could hunt him. His civilation was destroyed by the wraith. As to his unfamilarity with utensels perhaps the follwing is the story. 1 as with the middle east the Abrab civilization does not use knives and forks, but do use the right hand only. 2 after many years of being chased by the wraith and surviveing one would assume that if he managed to avoid capture he might be a little scrappy, and hard to control. As to the Jaffa in some sg1 episodes most of the Jaffa are not of color. In other eisodes most of the Jaffa are of color. So what? I did not notice the warith micheal race except that he became a wraith. I right now can not tell you what race the actor is. I think that you all are atrange, for as near as I can see everybody I see on the shows looks like me. You know 2 eyes one nose a mouth just under the nose etc. As for the Asian I have been to China, and Hong Kong, Taiwan Korea, Japan, Thailand, and believe me most speakers for whom english is a late learned second language do have an “Asian” accent. PS hers was not bad at all, and I do believe that she portrayed a Chineese national

  7. Re: Ronan using his hands to eat.

    Though I do understand that not all cultures use forks or utensils of any kind, I do find Ronan’s use of his hands troubling because it wasn’t depicted as a cultural thing but as a wild man thing. heck, if he’d been using a piece of bread to eat it would have been an interesting cultural cue. hell, if he hadn’t been shoveling it in but showing some kind of manners I may not have even noticed. As it was, I wondered if he’d been raised in a barn or something. Even when I (stereotypically) eat fried chicken, I do so with some restraint.

    Chief: You’ll find that the Colorblind Argument won’t hold much water around here. You may have the privilege to not notice that people are different from you culturally or racially, but that doesn’t make them so. “We’re all one race, the HUMAN race!” is just another way for folks to derail discussions of racism and we don’t like it when folks derail.

    Also, CoC stands for Character of Color.

    Also, you should probably look up the term “tragic mulatto” before trying to wrap your head around my comment about Michel. Right now you’re not getting it.

    Also, i have met many Asian people from many different countries in my time and I am well aware that they usually speak with an accent if they are not from a country whose main language is English or if they are the children of immigrants, and yet I have rarely heard them speak the way stereotypical Asians often SPEEKE DE CHINESE on my television. Just because *you* found nothing wrong with the way she spoke doesn’t mean I can’t. Considering the extreme insensitivity your comment displays overall, you’ll excuse me if I don’t take you seriously.

    Divya:

    “As for the line about relaxer, um, I guess I’ll assume you’re being snide?”

    Yes, I am. I mean, if we’re going to imply that Teyla is some strange native girl then why does she still have to conform to white America’s ideals about beauty standards and straight hair. Of course that could be the way Rachel always wears her hair and she may even love it that way. Still, it’s just one more thing that chafes amongst a sea of things that chafe.

    “Or implying that, since SGA has loads and loads of non-Terran humans whose phenotype matches our Terran category of “white”, that there ought to be more non-Terran humans matching our other Terran phenotype categories as well?”

    yes, that too.

  8. Yeah, there’s a bunch of places where I could disagree with some of the details you’ve provided here, but they’d only be interesting to people who are already invested in caring about SGA, and none of them change the fact that SGA has giant, honkin’ issues in how it portrays people of color.

    I was curious, though, just because I’m not sure how the wonders of combined genotypes can turn out and because I *am* still invested in SGA details–wouldn’t it be possible for a person with Teyla’s lighter skin tone just to have straight hair? It’s something I wonder about in terms of setting up backstory for fanfic about Teyla–is the only reasonable thing to assume that she does extensive treatment on her hair (or wears a wig or something), or can a possible fair assumption also be that what we see on Teyla’s head is just her natural hair? (I mean, I can also see where it’s fair for fanfic authors just to decide to leave the issue unaddressed, the same way very little Smallville fanfic tackled the fact that Lana Lang, as played by an actress who visibly has Asian heritage, had two white parents, but my first choice in fanfic is to try to have a logical explanation for what shows up in canon.)

    But, yeah, that’s a little bit of a sidetrack–no matter what might work as a fictional explanation for Teyla’s hair, the fact that the folks running the show felt the need to put those straight-haired, light-colored wigs on the actress is definitely yet another example of the show’s giant race issues.

    I mean, really. If someone said to me that they thought SGA was an example of a show that did a good job with characters of color, my first, honest reaction would be to assume they were being archly sarcastic.

  9. abw: Of course that could be the way Rachel always wears her hair and she may even love it that way.

    In the pics of her at a con her hair was nothing like that. I’m thinking she wears the wig only for the show.

    linabean: can a possible fair assumption also be that what we see on Teyla’s head is just her natural hair?

    Yes.

    linabean: But, yeah, that’s a little bit of a sidetrack–no matter what might work as a fictional explanation for Teyla’s hair, the fact that the folks running the show felt the need to put those straight-haired, light-colored wigs on the actress is definitely yet another example of the show’s giant race issues.

    Definitely. Especially when changing Black woman’s hair has years of racist ideas associated with it.

    Sometimes I try to tell myself that giving a straighter-haired actor (Jason Momoa) dreadlocks makes up for Rachel’s wig, but… yeah, it really doesn’t.

  10. The fact that they had to essentially kill off two of the main CoCs from the movie – especially when they had taken the for-Hollywood very subversive step of having the Hero’s “native girlfriend” *not* get killed off so that he was free to rejoin his people, sadder & wiser barf barf, but to go the opposite route where they are apparently going to live happily ever after in *her* culture – and then they gank her (and her brother, who was also heroic in the movie) away in the first episode and turn her into an Enemy Zombie so as to make it all about the manpain *and* free up the WASP Hero to be available for women of his own race – just a very bad start, for me. I never was able to get past them stuffing Sha’uri in the Refridgerator, myself.

  11. ABW, I feel you with a lot of your criticisms of the show. I think that they shortchange *everyone* in favor of the incessant Shep/Mckay focus– I’m pretty livid about how they have dealt w/ Weir’s character to.

    Dont get me started on Teyla of the Simple Island People. If you want to be truly terrified, watch the season 2 featurette where the writers and producers have geekgasms about how wild and fierce Ronon is… *shakes head* At the same time, Jason is pretty clear that this has been a unique opportunity to play something of an action character, given that he is not white.

    Rachel’s hair on that show gives me the heebies– i was so glad to find out it was a wig, and that she wasnt being forced to dye/process it.

    Re: Jason, they did not “give” him locks for the show, he’s been wearing them for many years, as displayed in this gratuitous manflesh vid: http://youtube.com/watch?v=sjXqKSxreNI

  12. *drools over manflesh*

  13. ABW: “I noticed that NONE of the scientists that came from Earth are people of color.”

    I have to disagree with you on this point. I am not sure of his race but I do believe Dr. Peter Grodin played by Craig Veroni is of color, likely of mixed heritage.

    However, I do agree with you on the portrayal of colored actors. The Ronan character annoys me the most. He is nothing more than a dumb, angry bulldog who is unleashed every now and again to woof and bite at the enemies. That’s it. It is a shame the powers that be decided he would be a better addition to the show than the more clever Lt. Ford was. I enjoyed watching Lt. Ford but I cannot help but roll my eyes when Ronan comes on the screen. His role on the show is useless. And, he is so stereotyped now that I don’t see what could be done with him even if they wanted to. I wish they would bring Lt. Ford back, minus the crazed drug addiction.

    Regarding Teyla, I shocked that you would bring up the hair and relaxer issue. Beyond it being such a trivial matter, there are plenty of women of color who don’t require relaxers–my mother is one of them. In fact, Rachel is mixed and may not need to straighten her hair in real life. There are greater racial issues to focus on, such as other issues you have mentioned, than wondering where her relaxer kit is hiding.

  14. which one is Dr. Grodin? I haven’t watched the show in a while, so i need reminders.

    Also, the comment about Teyla’s hair may seem trivial to you, but not to me. Firstly, that’s not even her hair, it’s a wig. Why they feel she needs a wig, especially considering exactly what kind of wig it is, I can only guess. My guesses are not in the favor of them being not stupid. Her hair being straight bothers me for several reasons. One, it’s part of the whole white ideal of beauty crap which tells black women that the only okay hairstyle is a straight hairstyle. Second, we are given no real reason why her hair should be this way. The actress may be of mixed heritage, but is teyla? What IS her heritage, exactly? She doesn’t seem to belong, genetically, to her tribe. Third, I don’t buy that her hair, even if it is naturally straight, would look liek that considering the lifestyle of the people as glimpsed, briefly, in the first episode. Worrying about survival, randomly culled by the Wraith, no electricity, but Teyla has time to gently curl the ends under every night? Or even the desire? Fourth, Teyla is obviously not meant to be “white”. And since, in the Stargate universe, the humans scattered around do seem to fall into Earth-human categories such as “Caucasian” or “Brown”, Teyla is, most likely, closer, genetically, to black people and, therefore, her hair would not look that way naturally.

  15. Yea the Genni are portrayed as evil white people so its racism against white people. Notice how the Genni look like Nazi’s from the early 19th Century. OMG that is so racist. If this sounds like nonsense to you then fine. Imagine how I felt when I just read this whole thing.

    Anyone can pick anything out of any show and fantasize about what is discrimination and what is not. Stargate Atlantis is really a great show just like Stargate SG1 was. Its people like you who like to go around ruining shows and looking for racism in everything they encounter. You’re nothing but a trouble maker who wants to start fights.

    Its people like you who cause riots and hate among different races. Thank god that you are just a minority of morons who are always trying to divide people. Most people will ignore your comments and enjoy the show.

    The wraith are portrayed as Vampires. Vampires are not even a race but a fictional group of characters who rose from the dead and feed on blood. If you ask me the Wraith look more like Goths. Again white people what a racist view lets boycott lol.

    As for Teylas hair are you a racist and suggesting that the Athosians a group of mixed people didn’t have hair straighteners.

    Stargate Atlantis is one if not my favorite show and I’m not just stand here and read this nonsense. The old saying a thief always thinks that people wanna rob him. So it is that a racist is always thinking that others are creating racist shows.

    Like I said before THANK GOD YOU ARE JUST A SMALL MINORITY OF MORONS LOOKING FOR TROUBLE. Most people from different races will ignore your comments.

  16. Yea the Genni are portrayed as evil white people so its racism against white people.

    Actually, there’s something much deeper going on with the Genni. Something you obviously missed in your rush to throw up a straw man argument.

    Anyone can pick anything out of any show and fantasize about what is discrimination and what is not.

    Oh sure, if they fantasize. But if they’re talking about real stuff, like I am and you’re not, it gets a little trickier.

    Its people like you who like to go around ruining shows and looking for racism in everything they encounter.

    *snicker* yeah, I’m the one ruining everything by talking about racism. Oh, you white people kill me… hehehehe.

    You’re nothing but a trouble maker who wants to start fights.

    you know, they said the same thing about Martin Luther King!

    The wraith are portrayed as Vampires. Vampires are not even a race but a fictional group of characters who rose from the dead and feed on blood.

    Wow, some people really don’t grok the context of multiple layers of subtext and context, do they?

    Anyway, sounds like hotdog here is having a typical White Liberal Guilt reaction. Say dude, before I dignify the rest of your comment with a response, how about you toddle on up to the top of the page and click on “Required Reading” I suggest you start with the post about white liberal guilt and then go to “How to suppress discussions of racism”. That’ll be a good primer for you.

  17. While I totally agree with what you are doing more often or not a character of colour is portrayed as a stereotype and its pathetic I dont feel that Ronon and Teylas characters are bad I mean they are strong leaders and needed members of the team. Yes all the scientist are some form of white what these two bring to the show is incredible and it shouldn’t be diminished. Ronon went through hell and survived so what if he ate with his fingers did he really have time to worry about etiquette while on the run? Ronon is stubborn but you can always depend on him and I love seeing a strong mixed race male character.

    Teyla is the voice of reason and she has a giant heart and who cares if she has a wig? I know that I want straight hair and a lot of other women are in the same situation or else these products wouldn’t be available.

    How about Col. Ellis? he is the commander of the Apollo and he risks his life to save the city.

    I don’t believe as hotdog stated your looking for a fight you just want people to discuss this issue because it is important. Pushing people of colour to get angry about this is great but you also need to teach them not to embrace and live the stereotype.

  18. Anyone else notice that the ancients (the most powerful and advanced race ever are all white). Not to mention that all their decedents that naturally carry the ATA gene are white as well with names like O’Neil, Becket, and Shepherd.

  19. Rising, the first episode in the beginning shows 2 ancients who are clearly not white and in the first episode of this season Sheppard gathers up the people on Atlantis who have the gene and not all of them are white. The problem is that all the ones that have the gene that have major roles are all white.

  20. you know, i have always wondered what was up with those two people. They show them looking all sad and stuff, but we never get to know, exactly, who they are and what is up with them. I kept waiting for that story to be told, but it was like “Hmm, we need some stuff here in the beginning, let’s just throw some random shit up in there.”

    also, in the episode with Old!Elizabeth, there was one Asian-looking Ancient. and a LOT of white ones.

  21. another note – one day we’re going to find out that the Furlings (the other other ancient race) are a bunch of space Africans who took a look around the universe and said “Fuck this shit” and found a galaxy not inhabited by stupid white folks and their progeny.

  22. Oh yes! I want the Space African Fanfic! Squee!

  23. Manami Hara was born and raised in Tokyo Japan. She played the Asian scientist whose accent bothered you so much. You have to consider the possibility that this might have been her genuine Japanese accent.

  24. RE: “Ronan is a whole other problem. He’s the typical wild warrior man actors of color are often asked to play. He’s shows as overly aggressive and uncivilized. One of the first scenes he has on Atlantis proper is him in the cafeteria eating with his fingers.”

    Ronon had been on the run from the Wraith (as the Wraith tracked him for sport) for seven years, traveling from planet to planet, trying to stay away from other people so that they wouldn’t become “collateral” damage.

    I saw that scene portrayed as a man who hasn’t had a lot opportunities over seven years to eat something more than “fast” food — something Ronon could eat quickly enough so as to not risk capture.

    The man was HUNGRY for heaven’s sake.

  25. I saw atlantis the 1st time when it was called deep space nine.

  26. I always get here too late :(

    I wanted to say THANK YOU

    I’m glad I’m not the ONLY ONE WHO NOTICED THIS

    Stargate (both SG-1 and Atlantis) seems to be rly subtly racist. :( I mean Atlantis is supposed to be this HUGE MULTINATIONAL THING, and let’s see, they have polish and french and british and canadian and american and russian and irish… hmmm

    they certainly have a lot of nations… just.. y’know.. the white ones >.>

    They have this habit of making their CoC be aliens . But what also rly bugs me is that who are the “bad gods”?

    They’re the Egyptian, Chinese, African and Japanese gods. The good ones are the Norse and Camelot myth characters!

    Worse than that the Ancients were ALL WHITE (as far as I know) and the first humans (white ppl evolve from black ppl? pah! impossible)

    the gods that were “good” in egyptian/japanese/chinese/african/etc myths are still evil, while the evil characters in the cameloy myth (like morgan lefay) are good. :\

    it’s stuff like that that rly hurts my enjoyment of the show completely!

  27. […] It’s also interesting that Teyla is the ‘mystical, soft spoken, yet fierce, beautiful, and powerful’ alien, a trope that is used with women of colour repeatedly, and Ronon is the silent alien who is a little trigger happy and sets people on edge when he walks into a room (hint: scary tribal warrior!). They are both characters from cultures apparently less advanced than Earth. I won’t even go into the part about 99% of the people from Earth are white. Angry Black Woman has a great post on this. […]

  28. […] also talks about SG:A here, breaking down the CoC timeline in Stargate Atlantis. Surprisingly, About.com also weighed in, […]

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