This week Lindsay Miller wrote about Doctor Who (and if you’ve seen the comments, you’ll notice my endless love for the many incarnations of the Doctor) and s.e. smith wrote about the portrayal of strong female characters on TV. Since I am a big sci-fi nerd (all it takes for me to watch a TV show is the promise of aliens and/ or space ships; my habit is so bad and uncritical that I am currently suffering through Falling Skies and have previously endured The Event and even the remake of V), that I thought this was as good a time as any to revisit one of my all time favorite shows: Battlestar Galactica. Because: Battlestar Galactica has an entire gamut of strong female characters. Probably more than most contemporary TV productions.
Now, let me preface this by saying a couple of things: for a start, I won’t be really original. Lots have been written about this show. However, its awesomeness deserves that every now and then we go back to it and reminiscence in its complexity and amazing story telling. Second, as much as I love the series, it was not perfect. In fact, it was far from it.
To begin with how it was not perfect (or in fairness, how it was screwed up), we need to point to the staggering absence of queerness. The entire remaining human population of a dead planet was straight and cis. Oh yeah, with one exception that might escape everyone but the most hardcore fans: Felix Gaeta. If you blinked, you would have missed his queerness, though. Because it was only mentioned in one of the webisodes. And then he died. And he was a traitor. So, poor Felix was gay and suffered horribly in his last hours.
Back when the show was still airing, part of the criticism of its portrayal of women was that the only strong female characters were not human but in fact, Cylons. Juliet Lapidos wrote in Slate:
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.
But. But. But. More often than not, I identified with the Cylons. Their war against the humans wasn’t uncalled for. It wasn’t the result of a mindless need for destruction or extermination. It was the result of years of oppression. To me, that the Cylons had the more interesting female characters spoke of the overall complexity of wars and social struggles. If anything, it was humans, with their inability to see the reasons that led them to their own demise who were, if not deserving of their ill fate, at least complicit in the injustices inflicted on the Cylons.
And then, there is another trope of Cylon characters that are almost always overlooked: the hybrids. With their quasi religious utterances (one could say that they eerily resembled the streams of consciousness of psychedelic drug users; or in a more profane association, the hybrids seemed to be reading an unfiltered Twitter feed compiled from the totality of humans using the service at any given time). But the hybrids were not just passive, hypersexualized creatures, as it’s been suggested in the Slate article referenced above. They are also the givers of life. They are guides. They were thought to be prophetic, they seem to “run the house” (i.e. the central computer of the Cylon baseship). All of these, attributes often associated with femininity and womanhood.
I’ve written before about pop culture portrayals of addiction in women. One of the things I loved about Battlestar Galactica was how its narrative departed from the classic media depictions of women and substance use. At least two of the women in the show dealt with alcohol related issues. Kara Trace (Starbuck) often used alcohol as a way to deal with her emotions and the pressures of her job. Ellen Tigh, for me, one of the richest characters in the show, at some point dealt with what was hinted as an alcohol abuse problem. Also, both characters were much more than the casual references to the substances they used. Both were pivotal to understanding the motivations of Cylons and humans alike. Their roles were not “good” or “bad”, but instead, a complicated combination of traits and behaviors that represented the experience of being… human (see? the non human characters again speaking of our humanity?).
How could I forget President Roslin? Raise your hand if you watched Battlestar Galactica and got fuzzy inside thinking that maybe, the show reflected Hillary Clinton’s chances at the Presidency. Raise your hand if you thought that, perhaps, pop culture was anticipating an overall shift in how women are allowed to enter the highest political spaces. I know I did. And I was happy to see leadership, specifically female leadership, portrayed as something complex; something informed by our politics, yes, but also by gender and by the expectations that gender creates. In a time when women are expected to abandon womanhood in order to be taken seriously in politics (to become “one of the guys”), President Roslin was afflicted by a disease that is almost always associated with womanhood: breast cancer. And still, she led. With failures, with successes, with nuance.
And of course, there is the issue of racial representation. Whereas the show is clear in the fact that racial tensions are of a different nature to those we are accustomed to (i.e. it’s a matter of Human vs. Cylon for the most part), I found the diversity of actors and actresses who played the roles to be refreshing. There was Grace Park, playing Boomer; Kandyse McClure playing Anastasia Dualla; Lorena Gale, as the Priestess and Rekha Sharma as Tory Foster. All of them diverse women playing regular roles, as opposed to the usual TV “token” minority. All of them part of the story telling instead of a “concession” that writers usually make to appease potential critics.
It’s been almost two and a half years since the last episode of Battlestar Galactica aired. It’s been two and a half years since we’ve had a show where a diverse group of women played a central role in a major sci-fi production. Am I the only one who misses not only the show but the possibilities that the show presented? I just hope that in the not so distant future, there is another series that gives me the same joyful anticipation for each new episode.