Samantha Carter is, to put it bluntly, a sci-fi legend. Why? Well, for a multitude of reasons. Such as, for example, the fact that she logged over 100 hours in enemy airspace during the Gulf War. That she's a high-ranking US Air Force official, and the sort of genius astrophysicist who drops multisyllabic words into conversation ever so casually (neutrinos? inertial? coronal mass emissions?! As I said, she's a genius).
That she's saved SG-1’s collective butt more than a thousand times over. Strike that; how about the fact that she's saved the WORLD a thousand times over? That she’s a warrior with a heart of gold and a mind of platinum. That she’s a loud and proud feminist through and through. That she trick shot three balls in a game of pool – a feat performed by Amanda Tapping herself with zero camera trickery, this writer hastens to add.
On top of being a Big Damn Hero, let’s not forget that Sam is also widely considered to be Earth’s leading expert on the Stargate and alien tech. Even in spite of Daniel Jackson’s attempts to wrest her well-earned title from her hands (not on Sam’s watch, Danny!).
Of course, every Stargate SG-1 fan worth their salt already knows all of the above. We know it in our very marrow, just as we know that all Stargates have a unique nine-chevron dialing address (except for that one time it launched Jack O’Neill into the depths of Asgard-owned Outer Space). I’m only reminding you of it all so that you won’t wrinkle your noses up when I tell you that Samantha Carter’s hair – her fabulously cropped and layered hair – is every bit as important a part of her character as… well, as everything else about her. Maybe even more so, quite honestly.
Samantha Carter’s Short Hair is a Big Statement
I know, I know; who the hell am I to reduce a woman to the sum of her follicles? But hear me out. Because if we journey backward through time via a metaphorical wormhole to 1997, it quickly becomes apparent that long flowing hair – be it Britney Spears-style waves, Naomi Campbell’s poker-straight tresses, Jennifer Aniston’s choppy layers (this was, after all, the era of the Rachel cut), or Gwen Stefani’s space buns – is very much in vogue.
This, of course, is nothing new; society has, ever since Eve first covered herself with that oh-so-striking fig leaf, laid out a very clear and stringent rulebook when it comes to heteronormative beauty standards – and one of the oldest in the book pertains to the length of our hair. Just take a gander at every Disney Princess’s glossy mane, and yes, I AM including sci-fi heroine Princess Leia. Sure, she kept hers up and out of the way via a bevy of intricate braided styles, but it was still there, just waiting to burst free come the time of Return of the Jedi (1983). Indeed, once it had come undone it was difficult to understand how all of that waist-length hair had ever been pinned up, to begin with. (One must assume it has something to do with the gravitational differences between our galaxy and that of one far, far away).
On 27 July 1997, though, the mold was well and truly broken when Amanda Tapping’s Samantha Carter burst through the Stargate and onto our TV screens, clutching a standard P90, dressed in combat fatigues and stomping about in military-grade boots.
Now, this in itself was something different; unlike the aforementioned Princess Leia, not to mention their female contemporaries in the Star Trek universe, Sam steered clear of flowing dresses and skintight leotards. Instead, she opted for something far more practical. Something that made it, you know, a mite easier to kick some serious Goa’uld butt. Above all else, something that didn’t provoke viewers all over the world to wonder aloud how she was outrunning her foe in trip-hazard skirts and inappropriate footwear (here’s looking at you, Jurassic World).
It makes sense, then, that she did the same with her hair.
“I only vaguely remember Sam Carter,” admits celebrity hairdresser Denise McAdam when I sit her down for a chat about the queen of sci-fi hairstyles. “But I definitely DO remember Amanda Tapping.”
Comparing the actor’s look to that of Meg “I’ll Have What She’s Having” Ryan, McAdam continues:
“Amanda's short hair in Stargate SG-1 was a very powerful statement. Because, going against the norm of the era, it immediately shows us that she's a confident and courageous woman - one who isn't afraid to try something new.”
Her comments echo those of Heather Garbutt, a psychotherapist at TCPC, who previously told Stylist magazine: “When women have short hair, it’s a statement of independence, a taking on of ‘the hunter’ role – traditionally considered to be a more ‘masculine’ and dynamic identity – rather than the more ‘feminine’ (as in, empathic and caring) ‘gatherer’ mantle.”
McAdam, however, disagrees with the idea that short hair on a woman is synonymous with a lack of compassion.
“The late Princess Diana’s hair was very similar to Tapping’s,” she says. “And, much like Samantha Carter, the People’s Princess was an incredibly caring woman, albeit one that knew exactly what she wanted and what she was going to achieve. She wanted to be noticed. And she wanted her voice to be heard.”
The Complexities of a Shaggy Long Pixie
Sam, of course, was similarly keen to make herself heard from a very young age. Named Samantha because her father, Jacob (Carmen Argenziano), had desperately wanted a boy, and it’s thought that this was what drove her to pick up a Ph.D. in Astrophysics (not to mention some extensive knowledge in quantum mechanics) while attending the US Air Force Academy. She was keen to prove herself and her worth to all – and she was tired of being overlooked and underestimated, a feeling which was only exacerbated when – despite having begun working on the Stargate program two years before Daniel Jackson joined – she wasn’t selected for the first off-world mission.
It seems as if Sam’s first onscreen haircut – not quite a regular pixie, not quite a bob, but a wonderfully shaggy “lixie” (that’s a long pixie to you) – was something not unlike an act of follicular rebellion. Or, quite possibly, a way for a slightly deflated Sam to remind herself that her voice mattered. Indeed, as Dr. Lauren Appio, a psychologist and career coach in Manhattan told Lifehacker, a short haircut can actually help to renew a woman’s sense of self-assurance after suffering a setback.
“I’ve found that people typically have an impulse to cut their hair after they’ve experienced stressful situations, positive or negative, where things have felt somewhat out of their control,” she says. “Making a significant change to your appearance can be soothing because you can see the immediate results of your actions, which reminds you of the power and agency you have in your life.”
McAdam agrees, noting:
“When I went through my divorce in the late 90s, I definitely looked a bit like Sam Carter and Princess Diana – maybe with a bit of Meg Ryan and even the remnants of Glynis Barbour thrown in. It made me feel strong, powerful, and like I could survive anything.”
It’s easy to assume that one short hairstyle is like any other; that it denotes a lack of imagination on both Sam’s and the Stargate SG-1 beauty team’s behalf, even. But, while short hair is practical, it is anything but boring.
“Sam isn’t the sort of short hair client who shows up every six weeks – same time, same day – for the same short cut,” says McAdam. “Just look at the constant reinventions she goes through, particularly in Seasons 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10.
“Yes, Sam is practical, but she’s also the rebellious edgy short client I love to work with, constantly changing the shape and color of her hair.”
It is this, McAdam tells me, that belies a more spontaneous, and more experimental, side to Sam. Something that feels delightfully at odds with her fondness for logic, science, and order. And something that beautifully ties into her willingness to dive headfirst into adventure at the drop of a Jaffa helmet, fall in love in all the wrong places, fight fiercely for her friends, and break all the rules when needed.
From Shaggy Bob to Pixie Cut
Take a closer look, and you’ll see that Sam’s hair shifts gradually throughout the seasons of Stargate SG-1. A smattering of highlights here, a dash of peroxide there. The lengthening into a shaggy bob in Season 4, only to be cropped back into a tighter, brighter, bolder pixie come Season 5. We can see the difference between the styles trimmed with scissors, clippers, and razors. And yet, despite all of these changes, Sam never stops feeling like Sam; she keeps her hair off of her face, which means we’re privy to every fleeting expression, every twitch of emotion. In a world of fuzzy televised pixels, she felt high definition.
This was largely because we could see Sam’s wide blue gaze at all times.
Think about it; Sam is a woman who is unfailingly frank, honest, and direct. She makes a point of looking people in the eye when she’s talking to them and holding their gaze as she impresses the importance of what she has to say. Her penchant for shorter hairstyles allows us to recognize this, even on a subconscious level, as it perfectly frames her doing so.
Samantha Carter’s Later Ponytail
Of course, some have assumed – wrongly, as it turns out – that her penchant for a shorter hairstyle was determined by her status as a serving US Air Force officer. Tapping, however, cleared up this “misnomer” in an interview with our good friend David Read for GateWorld, explaining:
“When I was in the Middle East on a USO tour all of the women that were on the base had long hair. It’s not an Air Force regulation that women’s hair has to be short. It just can’t touch your collar, and if it is long then it has to be in a ponytail or a braid or a bun.”
Despite this, it’s not really until the era of Stargate Atlantis that we see Sam with long hair – setting aside the Sams from alternate realities, that is. And this, again, was a seemingly deliberate decision, symbolizing Sam’s uncomfortable transition from a beloved second-in-command to an operational leader feeling well out of her depth.
“Her discomfort comes from the fact that she’s completely out of her element,” Tapping commented at a Sci-Fi Channel press event for Stargate Atlantis. “This is a woman who spent her entire career taking orders and being subordinate to a degree as per military protocol and is now suddenly in a position where she has – she influences people’s lives by the decisions that she makes.”
Noting that strength does not come as easily to Atlantis’s Sam as it does the Sam of SG-1, Tapping adds: “In a lot of ways for me as the actor it feels like playing a much different character. She’s not – she’s almost not as confident because she’s out of her comfort zone.”
Swapping Sam’s trademark mini mane for a (still utilitarian) ponytail was an easy way for showrunners to emphasize this emotional journey via a brilliant “show not tell” technique. Because, without her trademark decade-long crop, Sam looks… well, she looked softer, somehow, and completely unlike the capable soldier we’d come to know and love over the years.
“Women have always faced a battle to be taken seriously,” says McAdam. “And, while a first impression isn’t the be-all and end-all, our hair can make a huge difference, instilling us with feelings of empowerment whilst still looking stylish.”
And, explaining how Sam’s cropped ‘do is still making waves today, the stylist continues: “Many of us are returning to the office after lockdown, and we’re experimenting with short hair as we do so; Sam’s lixie is very much a beauty buzzword in 2022, and her influence can be seen in the popular ‘wolf cut’, too.
“She has granted us a bevy of short hairstyles that don’t take up too much time in the morning – I suppose that’s where the word utilitarian fits in – while still looking incredible.
“While the Sam styles of earlier seasons will require a barrel brush, those seen from Season 4 onwards are so easy to do; you can blast it with the dryer, add a little bit of product, and you’re good to go! The next day is even easier; just a spray of dry shampoo to wake up the roots, and you can take on the world – or the universe if you’ve got a Stargate to hand.”
Celebrating the Hairstyles of Samantha Carter
Of course, Tapping hasn’t said if she prefers to keep her hair on the longer or shorter side. Noting that the constant cliffhangers of Stargate SG-1 meant that it was impossible to grow her hair out between seasons, she told GateWorld that it was a “nice change” to grow it out for Stargate Atlantis.
“Sometimes it’s a little faster [to style] if I just throw it up in a ponytail and off I go,” she says. “[But] it’s really funny because I just did some DVD commentary on Atlantis and went, ‘Oh, man, I kind of look better with short hair.’”
Personally, I think Amanda Tapping can pull off any style she chooses – but Sam, for me, will always be the badass scientist whose short hair felt like a proud little feminist rebellion in the 90s and 00s. It was she who inspired me to go for the chop myself as a mere slip of a girl all those years ago (I’ve forever dabbled in short hair ever since). And it was she who taught us diehard Stargate fans that women don’t have to follow the crowd to be considered beautiful, so long as they stay true to themselves.
All hail, then, Samantha Carter, patron saint to all short-hair aficionados! Long may her follicles inspire us!
This article was first published on March 15th, 2022, on the original Companion website.
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