The beauty of sci-fi is that you can always hope for improvements in the future—to technology, society, equality. As a female, you prize the idea that there will be, not a genderless future, but one where gender doesn’t determine one’s career path. The military is one such place in which the future offers promise—the promise, for instance, of being the best pilot in the fleet without compromise. Unfortunately, sci-fi is written in our time. Our gender stereotypes continue to influence how our futuristic counterparts behave, even in a setting where you’d think women might finally have a shot.
In Battlestar: Galactica, the fantastic change of gender for the character of Starbuck indicated that we really were looking at a new imagining of a series that had previously given us Jane Seymour and other women in gauzy togas or strappy bondage suits. This new Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) was the best pilot in the fleet—a hard drinking, card-playing, fast flying counterpart of any man in the squadron. Interesting then, that the writers would start this new season by weakening her character in the most stereotypical way imaginable: by proving that even if a woman can be an equal in every other way, when she becomes a mother, she’s no longer a threat; that women, no matter what ass-kicking ability they’ve demonstrated in their stories to date, can be so affected by their potential to procreate that they’ll fall into the maternal role, to the detriment of their development.
These first four episodes of the new season have Starbuck reduced in unbelievably short order from a fighting prisoner who attempts escape daily by repeatedly killing of the Cylon Leoben, to a character unable to think of anything but the toddler imprisoned with her. The very possibility of it being Starbuck’s child undoes any military training we might have assumed she’d have absorbed as a pilot. By having Starbuck believe this ruse so quickly, the writers negate everything viewers have been led to believe about her character, especially when she lapses into the doting bedside mother role after KC hurts herself.
This is a woman who, in Seasons One and Two, re-purposed a Cylon raider while ignoring a broken knee, airlocked Leoben after torturing him, got into a brutal fistfight with Six after taking a suicide mission back to Caprica and sport fucked the next President of the colonies. Hell, that Starbuck would have fragged the girl along with Leoben, not just because she presumed her to be Cylon, but to prove she couldn’t be manipulated so easily. Revealing the true mother of the child onboard a military ship further diminishes Starbuck in her best environment. She takes her revenge in the fourth episode where she plays out her anger with the tribunal, but I’d like to think it’s a reaction to being exposed as fundamentally weak rather than a display of grief over her displaced motherhood.
Starbuck isn’t the first in the tradition of diminishment by way of enforced motherhood in other sci-fi tales. In Aliens, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is as competent as the Marines she volunteers to assist in their return to the planet where she and her crew first met the monster. To diminish her competency in this setting, she is made the caretaker for the last surviving child colonist, Newt (Carrie Henn); as the main character, and a female, she can’t be accepted unless her rightful role as a mother is foregrounded. The female Marine Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) is played as stereotype the other way. As the film’s only other substantial female character, she has to be extra butch so that it’s clear that “normal” women can’t be warriors. In fact, the entire franchise is devoted to taking Ripley through the four stages of perverted motherhood. There’s the potential of pregnancy with a chestbursting offspring (Alien), surrogate parenthood (Aliens), actual pregnancy with said offspring (Alien 3). And then, wackily, Alien Resurrection makes her both mother and child simultaneously. I guess when you’re a female action sci-fi character set to lead a franchise, you’d better pack a diaper bag.
The Terminator series—by James Cameron, writer-director of Aliens—takes a hapless waitress, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and puts her into action mode with the thought that she’s destined to give birth to the rebel leader who will save humanity. At the end of the first film, she’s headed off to learn how to prepare her child for his pre-ordained task. But with the second installment, along comes motherhood, and Sarah’s suddenly crazy. At first it seems that it’s everyone else who’s crazy—she’s become unhinged and institionalized because she legitimately fears the return the return of hordes of human-killing cyborgs. But it soon becomes clear that Sarah actually is damaged to the point where she can no longer make rational choices. This plot element adheres to a long tradition of underscoring womens’ presumed inability to act as competent warriors. Once a coolheaded assassin and physically fit fighter—a talent she demonstrates again during her escape from the mental hospital—once she’s reunited with her son, she’s transformed into a simpering idiot who happens to know how to kill people. In fact, the presence of her son makes her fail in her plan to take out genius inventor Myles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), future architect of the artificial intelligence program that allowed machines to decimate humanity. In the end, Sarah must enlist the help of—surprise—more men to save the world.
The mommy track recurs on Farscape with officer Aeryn Sun (Claudia Black). Born aboard a command carrier as part of the warrior race of Peacekeepers, she managed to make it through the entirety of the series processing her upbringing in a warfighting culture without the question of progeny—that is, until the series closer, which revolves almost completely around her regaining her baby and giving birth. All that warrior tradition boiled down to a two-hour finale about labor and delivery.
I’m all for characters with complexity and depth, but it doesn’t have to be like this. Space: Above and Beyond never trotted out the baby for their lead pilot, Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke). The female Marine pilots in that series did the same things as their counterparts and were as competent in battle without the motherhood angle being brought into play. Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager managed to lead her entire crew across multiple quadrants of space and back to Earth. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Major (and later Colonel) Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) was a resistance fighter on Bajor prior to becoming an influential liaison for the station as well as first officer. In all three cases, the characters’ military competency was never called into question by their ability to procreate, nor were their storylines made subservient to their decisions whether or not to make (or raise) children. These were strong, complex female leads for whom motherhood wasn’t depicted as “something missing” from their lives, or even as “an elemental part of their existence.” Let’s hope the Battlestar: Galactica writers take a clue from these female commanders instead of whatever sci-fi Ann Coulter has been supplying their ideas on military women’s roles from thus far. It would be a pity to waste the possibility of societal progress on the “women as breeders” motif.
A first-time contributor to The House Next Door, The Diatribe is a Los Angeles-based military officer who enjoys science fiction and military films, and works in the entertainment industry in an undisclosed location.