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Battlestar Galactica: Frakking Feminist—So Say We All!

The argument here is deeply confusing.

Battlestar Galactica
Photo: Syfy

Over at Slate a couple weeks ago, Juliet Lapidos wrote a column entitled “Chauvinist Pigs in Space: Why Battlestar Galactica Is Not So Frakking Feminist After All,” in which she explores the widely-lauded feminism ostensibly on display in the show. Lapidos calls it “conventional wisdom … that the show takes a strong stand against misogyny,” citing Elle, Wired, and a scholarly collection of essays on Battlestar called Cylons in America. Allowing for some advances, especially over previous depictions of women in science fiction, she ultimately identifies any perceived advances as “attention-grabbing,” with “plenty [remaining] to make a feminist squirm.” She devotes the rest of the column to exploring the ways in which Battlestar—particularly as belonging to the peculiarly misogynistic genre of science fiction—fails the feminism test.

To an extent, of course, Lapidos is right. The show rarely focuses on the naked or hypersexualized (much less gooed-up and reborn) bodies of the male Cylons; the show is made largely by males and for males, and it follows that the attractive women of Battlestar have their sexuality explored, visualized and, yes, exploited. In no way excusing this facet of the show, it is somewhat difficult to hold this against the show insofar as every other contemporary form of visual media, including those made by and for women, engages in this very same practice. That is, the hypersexualization may not be okay—much less something that honors women—but for television in 2009, it is simply par for the course. Regardless: point taken, and noted.

The rest of Lapidos’ points may be grouped into five categories, all of which are highly flawed criticisms. I will engage them case by case.

1. Cally as ultimate retrograde woman.

Lapidos examines the character of Cally (Nicki Clyne), and specifically her relationship to Chief Tyrol and the context of her death, with the final conclusion that Battlestar presents Cally as “a Victorian hysteric … driven to desperation [not] by a sexist social order but [because] she can’t contain her feminine irrationality.”

The examination is fair and careful, but the conclusion is seriously wanting. More than anything, Lapidos misses the point of Cally’s hysteria: it is not Tyrol’s (Aaron Douglas) poor parenting or (lack of) marital presence—such that it would of course make sense for her to seek divorce—but, rather, the devastating revelation that her husband is a Cylon and thus her own child is half-Cylon. This woman who was willing to sacrifice her own future on the Galactica in order to murder the saboteur Cylon who shot Adama, who partook in the insurgency on New Caprica, who lived for years in rabid hatred of all things machine, this same woman, Cally, discovers her husband and son are themselves machines, and the floor drops out. Who knows how crazy any of us would become in the discovery of such a life-altering and game-changing truth? It certainly has nothing to do with her “feminine irrationality.” Her sanity is her insanity at this atomic explosion of news.

Furthermore, there is no “message” about “the way to a man’s heart [being] through his fist,” as Lapidos states concerning Tyrol’s waking up from a dream and beating Cally to a pulp, precipitating their eventual relationship and marriage as a central event. The first rule of strong drama is that radically imperfect events happen in the context of radically imperfect human life, as lived by real, flawed, recognizable human beings. We know that, horrific as it is, in real life this event happens all too often. We have even seen it recently in the news with Rihanna and Chris Brown. My wife is a social worker and confirms the sad reality: Men beat up their wives or girlfriends, and separation comes, but promises are made, and then they reunite or even become “closer” (metaphorically or literally, as in the “deepening” of the relationship through marriage). Sometimes this is due to a lack of options, resources, or community; sometimes it lies in the past of either or both parties; sometimes it simply happens for no understandable reason.

Regardless, Battlestar Galactica is a truly great television show precisely because it explores and allows for these kinds of radically imperfect realities. As a male I do not receive a message from the story of Cally and Tyrol that endorses violence toward women; rather, I shudder at the terrible tragedy of real abuse in real relationships.

2. Every woman is dead, dying, or Cylon.

The argument here is deeply confusing. It is wholly unclear to me how the fact that every woman on Battlestar is dead, dying or non-human somehow contributes to the notion that “[w]omen—the human ones, anyway—just can’t hack it when the going gets rough.”

Some of the examples are flawed. Let us remember that by tonight’s series finale, we shouldn’t be expecting many of either gender to be left standing. The show is realistic about death, and we come expecting untold casualties in this gritty story of survival. Thus, to use Dee’s (Kandyse McClure) suicide as an example of “just one more woman dying” (my false quotes, not hers) is unhelpful and irrelevant, because she has been a main character from the very beginning in the miniseries, and she killed herself in the 10th-to-last episode. She “lasted” almost the entirety of the show’s run!

Taken along with Roslin’s (Mary McDonnell) illness and the revelation of other female characters as Cylons, this leads to a larger mistake made by Lapidos in her analysis: We must understand sickness or non-humanness not as weakness or an inability to “hack it” but, rather, as an investment in the powerful complexity and depth of these female characters.

Think about it: if the great majority of the dead/dying/Cylon characters were male, we might make the opposite argument, that “only” the male characters were interesting enough to be the “important” Cylons or “worth” killing off. Instead, we have utterly arresting portrayals of a cancer-ridden President leading her people home, of a confused potential half-breed who can’t find balance between heroine and screw-up, of an Admiral so consumed with power and authority that she is assassinated, of an intelligent machine utterly caught up into the drama of the future of human and Cylon alike—all played by incredible actresses who more than answer the call! I am at a loss for how this might in any way be to the detriment of women.

(At this point, it is becoming clear, and will become more so later in this post, that Lapidos and I surely share differing views about what might constitute “feminism” in a television show, and/or what might demonstrate a show like Battlestar faithfully taking a “stand against misogyny.” It is difficult to discern what Lapidos’ expectations are coming to the show: if it “takes a stand against misogyny,” so to speak, does that mean all differences between the genders or problems resulting from gendered humanity disappear or have been solved? No other such social problems seem to have been solved in the world of Battlestar; that is the value of the show in a nutshell. This is not Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The 12 Colonies of Kobol are no utopia. And going on the run from a hellbent genocidal enemy does not add to social cohesion. Battlestar Galactica explores issues of class, race, war, authority, governance, genocide, religion, politics, violence, revolution, prison, patriotism, torture, and the face of the Other. How could it not explore the twin issues of sex and gender? What would it mean for Battlestar’s universe to be “gender blind” as she mournfully requests later in the article? Battlestar Galactica is a gender-full world constituted by the rich variety of male and female that form what it means to live as human beings—both genders treated equally with the profound respect, honor, time, and richness they deserve. To do or be otherwise would be unfaithful to the reality of life as it is lived, and Battlestar is, if it is anything, a product of the artistic attempt to be faithful to the messy glory of lived life.

(In such a way do I potentially (likely) disagree with Lapidos. I state it only to make as clear as possible the potential differences beneath our analysis and understanding of the show we each obviously respect and (hopefully) enjoy, assumptions that make all the difference. I hope that, in my continued critique of her below, those differing assumptions will not make the conversation impossible, but rather guide and illumine the ground and depth of our disagreements for the sake of better communication.)

3. Friendship as sole possession of men.

Lapidos may be onto something in her recognition in the show of male friendship set over against female friendship. On the other hand, it is difficult to find any real core friendship explored in the series other than that of Adama (Edward James Olmos) and Tigh (Michael Hogan), which may imply that women are not being ignored, so much as all other friendships take the backseat to Adama and Tigh’s.

Beyond that, it is important to recognize the cross-gender friendships that populate the show, entirely (to my reading) ignored in the column. I hope Lapidos would not want to claim that for Battlestar to be somehow “truly” or “properly” feminist it must meet a checklist of demands for some arbitrary number of positive portrayals of women. To my mind, the point would rather be to create a world in which men and women are written, acted, and portrayed as the equally complex, particular, imperfect, and wonderful creations they are. In that sense, there can be no doubt that Battlestar Galactica succeeds triumphantly.

Thus we see Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) and Helo (Tahmoh Penikett), odd pair that they are, walking through life as old friends and constantly seeking and finding in the other a corollary, known point of contact. We see Adama and Roslin in adversarial respect, then in mutual friendship and only then in some kind of romantic relationship. We see Baltar (James Callis) and Gaeta (Alessandro Juliani) begin in scientific communion, transition into mutual respect, move to broken betrayal, and conclude, quietly, in redeemed confession. We see the intimate evolution of Adama and Athena’s (Grace Park) relationship grow to the point of respect and trust, and ultimately a uniform bestowed. And we see the transition from Roslin’s relationship with Billy (Paul Campbell) to one with Tory (Rekha Sharma), both unique and interesting in their own ways.

Such examples, among others, ought to disabuse us of any notion that friendship—that is, complex relationship that is gender-inclusive and non-sexual—is limited only to the males of Battlestar Galactica.

4. Rape as unexamined casual threat.

Here is one of Lapidos’ most potent critiques: what she calls the “insidious … casual threats of rape made throughout the series.” And when she says that “[r]ape is a trope on the show,” she is absolutely correct. Here, to her credit, she recognizes that the show does not condone rape, but she laments “that the writers drop sexual violence into the script so often without comment,” as well as the fact that the threat is only directed at women, which to her mind “negates the idea that Battlestar conjures a gender-blind universe.”

Again, I am unclear what it might mean for Battlestar to be a “gender-blind universe” and remain a compelling drama, to the extent that being “gender-blind” would in all likelihood entail characters being less imperfectly human than they are. If by the term she means a world in which men are threatened with rape equally as much as women, or that the show could offer more comment on the reality and violence of rape, I am not sure how to reply. Certainly in life, men are not excluded from the threat and horror of rape, and so a complete lack of attention to that fact could be construed as gender bias in the show. Two responses, however.

First, it seems odd, at least to me, to ask for a “balancing” of rape to both genders. The request sounds bizarre. Its oddness stems particularly from my second response: Rape is not a random human-on-human act in Battlestar. It is tied intimately with the fact that two opposing civilizations/races/forms of life view the one as somehow inferior in value to the other. Thus nearly every situation where rape comes into play is borne out in the context of human-Cylon hatred and violence. The human Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) orders subordinates to rape the Cylon prisoner; a human interrogator attempts to rape Sharon the Cylon (Park) to extract information (and simply for the torturous “fun” of it); a mutineer tells Helo he plans to “frak” Helo’s wife, Athena the Cylon; and the Cylons do their best to impregnate Starbuck, regardless of the effects on her, finding any violence done to the merely “human” subject negligible for the gain of furthering the evolution and progeny of the species.

Here is an extraordinary account of the depths of human depravity when viewing the Other as inhuman, monster, or without value. We think of Abu Ghraib or of eugenics. We know that this horror exists, and that it is so often done by men against women, or at least against “the enemy.” Is it somehow chauvinist that the violence has been perpetrated solely against women? I am sure that is possible, but it certainly seems to be missing the point.

5. General inequities between male and female depiction.

Ultimately, Lapidos finds no reason to excoriate Battlestar’s writers, as if they have been “sit[ting] around inventing new, technologically advanced ways to denigrate women.” Yet because, she writes, we still live here and now and not “then” in the world of Battlestar, “chauvinism creeps into the show.” Gender inequities remain.

I have no interest in putting down Lapidos’ wonderfully thought-provoking column, so allow me to make abundantly clear how much I appreciated her careful approach to the subject and grateful attention to the show. I similarly appreciate her critical, sensitive eye to the ongoing, tragic inequities between men and women that continue to live on, both in our world and in that of Battlestar Galactica.

I only hope to show that most, if not all, of her concerns are misplaced. I realize, of course, I am the exact demographic she names as Battlestar’s key audience: an 18-29 year old male sci-fi fan. Nevertheless, my small hope is that she might see in this phenomenal show not a mere rehashing of an old story that, explicitly or not, elevates men over women but, instead, a compelling, powerful and truthful story about real men and real women in the complex and disputatious struggle of human survival, which, here, happens to be named Battlestar Galactica.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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