So last night the final episode of Battlestar Galactica, without a doubt the best show on TV in recent years, aired. I’ll be putting up a review of it on my entertainment blog, along with some reflections about the final episode.
But today I wanted to talk about an issue raised in a recent article on Slate.com. In the article the writer goes on at length at how BSG, a show known for very strong, powerful, female characters, is actually pretty sexist and unpleasant towards women.
Let’s consider one of the paragraphs from the article.
Perhaps because science fiction has historically appealed to men who don’t leave home much, the genre has often used alien mores and alien technology to rationalize pornographic depictions of near-naked women. (Think Jabba the Hutt forcing Princess Leia to wear that ridiculous gold bikini in Return of the Jedi.) Battlestar is no exception. When Cylons die, their memories download into an identical-looking body on a resurrection ship. This process, almost without exception, happens off-screen for the male Cylons, but when a fembot dies she flies through a vaguely fallopian-looking tube then wakes up nude in a vat of goo.* Overtly, these are birth scenes. But they are hypersexualized—with lingering thigh-shots and orgasmic-sounding gasping. Cylon ringleader Ellen Tigh’s resurrection in this season’s “No Exit” is among the most egregious: Covered in gelatinous lubricant, she writhes and moans. On realizing that a Peeping Tom robot has been observing the whole process, she gets a creepily post-coital look on her face.
The writer has a point about showing off scads of female flesh, though it’s worth noting that in the last couple episodes Anders was laying shirtless in a hybrid vat. And she’s right that the producers do try to make it at least a little titillating. Hey, they know their audience, and while the fanboys aren’t tuning into the show just for glimpses of bare flesh, it doesn’t hurt.
However she choose a terrible example to cite when talking about Ellen Tigh resurrecting. First, the character was panicked cause she didn’t know what was happening and because she thought the Centurion was probably going to kill her. Once her memories kicked in, she calmed down and didn’t get what I would even remotely describe as a “post-coital” look on her face, especially since she felt vaguely mothering to all the Cylons.
But then we have the next part the writer goes on about.
The most retrograde character is Cally, an air-maintenance specialist on the flight deck. For years, she’s harbored a girlish crush on her boss, Chief Tyrol, to no avail, until, at last, a breakthrough happens thanks to a broken jaw: Cally wakes Tyrol up from a nightmare and in a fit of angry confusion, he beats her to a pulp. Remorseful, he visits her in the hospital, and shortly thereafter, they marry. This sends the implicit message that the way to a man’s heart is through his fist—a heartily un-feminist concept—but the strange circumstances surrounding Cally’s marriage are less offensive than her death scene. On realizing that Tyrol is a Cylon, Cally tries to kill herself along with her child. Then another Cylon comes along, saves the baby, and tosses Cally out of an airlock. Presumably the writing staff is trying to grapple with postpartum depression—Tyrol doesn’t help enough with the baby, pushing Cally over the edge. Yet they do so in a melodramatic, and ultimately nonsensical, fashion. Here we have a society that permits divorce and seems to have plentiful free day care, and yet an otherwise functioning member of that society acts like a Victorian hysteric. The take-away is not that Cally has been driven to desperation by a sexist social order but that she can’t contain her feminine irrationality.
Ok, there’s a lot of, well, crap here. First, while events were largely as she described them, she leaves out important details. Like the fact that Tyrol was not in control of his own actions at that point and that their marriage happened at some point during a year-long gap in the show when most everyone was living on New Caprica. Besides, the fact that at that point the entire population of humanity was down to about 50,000 people forced folks into situations and relationships they might not have otherwise been in, something Tyrol himself mentions at one point.
As far as Cally’s attempted suicide and infanticide go, well, now, come on. I don’t know where the author got the idea this was all about post-partum depression. I think there was an element of that, since clearly she was having problems well before she found out Tyrol was a Cylon. But it’s quite clear from the script that what pushed her over to being in an airlock was the fact that she found out she was married to a Cylon. I don’t think most of us would be functioning in a rational fashion after finding out something like that.
Cally’s death is an example of a worrisome trend: The main female characters are all dying, dead, or not human. Ellen, Sharon, D’Anna, and Tory Foster—all strong female characters, have all turned out to be Cylons, and Starbuck was recently revealed as a half-Cylon hybrid. Adm. Cain, for a time the highest ranking officer in the military, was assassinated; Cally was murdered; Dee, Capt. Lee Adama’s neglected wife, committed suicide; and Starbuck’s rival, Capt. Louanne Katraine, pretty much did, too—she sacrificed herself while guiding civilian ships through a dangerous star cluster. The president, perhaps the most-talked-about example of Battlestar’s great female leads, is dying of breast cancer. In isolation, none of these cases has much significance. But taken together they suggest a troubling, if unintentional message: Women—the human ones, anyway—just can’t hack it when the going gets rough.
By contrast, the male characters on the show not only have a better chance of survival; they’re also more likely to improve their quality of life through friendship. Adm. Adama and Col. Saul Tigh have an intensely loyal, decades long relationship; so intense, in fact, that a favorite fan-boy pastime involves splicing together the pair’s intimate moments and putting them on YouTube. (See “Brokeback Galactica,” for example.) Battlestar does pass the so-called Bechdel test: At least two female characters talk to each other about something besides men—a very low feminist bar. But the Adama-Tigh bromance has no female equivalent, and more often than not, the women bicker among themselves, forming unhealthy rivalries rather than supportive partnerships.
Felix Gaeta, Tom Zarek, Colonel Fisk, all the male members of the Quorum of Twelve, Billy, the guy from the Pegasus who saw his whole family killed, the XO on the Pegasus, and Gaius Baltar all spring to mind as male characters who either were “bad” guys, or were killed off.
I suppose the author is trying to make the point that while there were male characters who had Bad Things happen, there weren’t any female characters who did not have Bad Things happen. This is true, though really I can’t think of any of the male characters who didn’t have Bad Things happen to them at one point or another.
In fact, I’m far more annoyed at the other-than-straight characters on the show. The first was Admiral Cain, who turned out to be quite unpleasant, and the second was Felix Gaeta, whose sexuality was never mentioned on the show, only in webisodes, and who wound up leading a mutiny and being executed. True, Lt Hoshi, Felix’s boyfriend, is treated better, but again, no mention of his sexuality is made on the program itself.
Even more insidious than the lack of female friendships are the casual threats of rape made throughout the series. In Season 2, a “Cylon interrogator” attempts to violate Sharon, a Cylon pilot and the only East Asian on the show, but her husband Helo intervenes in the nick of time. In this season’s “The Oath,” Helo fights with a mutineer—”Frak you,” he says (that’s Battlestar’s four-letter-word variant), and the mutineer responds, “Sorry, I’m saving myself for your … wife.” He means it. Rape is a trope on the show: Starbuck finds herself in a bizarre insemination farm on the Cylon-occupied planet Caprica, and Adm. Cain orders some cronies to rape and torture a Cylon in “Razor.” Naturally the show doesn’t condone rape, but it’s discomfiting that the writers drop sexual violence into the script so often without comment. If nothing else, this pervasive threat—directed only at women—negates the idea that Battlestar conjures a gender-blind universe.
Fun fact: rape is often used as a weapon against women in the real world! By showing that it’s used against women in this show, the writers aren’t saying “hey, it’s ok to rape!” Oh, and real cute there in pointing out that Sharon is the only East Asian character. Not only is this wrong (Felix Gaeta again, played by an actor who is half-Italian/half-Chinese), but it’s clearly a veiled swipe at the “fact” that there aren’t many minorities on the show. Well, aside from Sharon, Dee, Gaeta, Tori, and the black Cylon whose name I can’t remember. Though I’m sure she’d look at that list and go, “Ah-ha! Look how these characters were treated, etc!”.
But this digresses slightly. Yes, rape is used as a weapon against some of the women in the series, just like it is in the real world. And the problem here is… what? That it’s not used as a weapon against any of the men? So what? It’s seldom used as a weapon against men in the real world and frequently is against women.
You’d have to really be reaching to find a show like BSG to be sexist or degrading to women. This little essay frankly reads like the sort of thing I’d expect some “womyn” from the Evergreen State College to be behind, but it bears no real resemblance to reality.