Is Battlestar Galactica the Most Feminist Show on Television?
For many years, the science fiction and fantasy genres had the reputation of being among the most sexist and exploitative of women. Today, a trip to the genre fiction aisles of your local bookshop or movie rental store is still likely to reveal cover after cover of scantily clad women clinging to beefy heroes. However, a quiet revolution has been underway for several decades, pushed by influential sff feminist works such as The Mists of Avalon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and today, the genres of science fiction and fantasy are not only overcoming their exploitative reputation, they are producing some of the finest portrayals of female characters ever written.
One of the poster children of this movement towards positive portrayals of women in SFF has been the Sci-Fi Network's reimagining of the 70's cult hit Battlestar Galactica. The show has even been described as "feminist propaganda" by some detractors, mostly those angered by the decision to make the original show's hard-drinking bad boy star pilot Starbuck into a hard-drinking bad girl star pilot. But is Battlestar Galactica really that feminist?
(Warning: This article contains spoilers for all aired episodes of BSG!)
The Women of BSG
Selected Character Profiles
Laura Roslin is the Secretary of Education, 43rd in line for the presidency, when the Cylons destroy the 12 Colonies in a serious of devastating nuclear attacks. As President, Roslin frequently acts as a sort of mother figure for the Colonials, but she is known as "Madame Airlock" by fans for her propensity to throw Cylon prisoners out the airlock. She has also been involved in attempted election fraud, kidnapping, and political assassination.
Kara "Starbuck" Thrace is the Galactica's star pilot, a hard-drinking, insubordinate, sexually liberated gambler whose brashness masks a deeply troubled young woman, a survivor of child abuse and personal tragedy.
Stunning and sexually aggressive, Cylon model Six initially appears to be a present for the fanboys. However, former model Tricia Helfer has turned her into not only one but more than four unique and fully realized characters, each with her own character and motivation.
Number Eight was created by the Cylons to love, an ability that dooms one of her copies to great unhappiness and leads another into acceptance by the humans.
Does BSG pass the Bechdel Test?
The Bechdel Test was created by Liz Wallace, but popularized by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. It is commonly used by feminists as a rule of thumb to determine how well a book, movie, or tv show portrays female characters. The rules are simple:
- It has to have at least two women in it
- who talk to each other
- about something besides a man.
Battlestar Galactica passes the first rule with flying colors. The main characters are roughly half female, and include a diverse range of roles and skills. They include the President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin, the star pilot, Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, the three most frequently seen and (arguably) important Cylon models, Three, Six, and Eight, the Galactica communications officer, Anastasia "Dee" Dualla, and engineer Cally Tyrol. The supporting female characters include the highest ranking surviving military officer in the 12 Colonies, a respected priestess, prophets, pilots, wives, mothers, activists, and a baby girl who is "the shape of things to come."
Needless to say, this capable and intelligent group of women can and does talk about nearly everything BUT their love lives, but interestingly, given the sizable female cast, conversations between women by themselves are surprisingly rare. Most female characters are connected, by rank, friendship, love, or mysterious hallucination, primarily to one or more male characters. At its most extreme, one copy of Cylon model Six exists only in the head of Gaius Baltar, though to be fair, Caprica Six is also visited by a similar hallucination of Gaius Baltar. Of the corporeal characters, President Roslin interacts primarily with Commander Adama, Starbuck and Dee with Adama and his son Lee, Eight and Cally with Chief and Helo, Six and Three with Gaius Baltar, etc..
Somewhat more disturbingly, most friendships (and even rivalries) between female characters tend to end badly. Starbuck and Boomer's friendship is torn apart suddenly and violently when Boomer's programming kicks in and she reveals herself to be a copy of Cylon model Eight by shooting Adama, Starbuck's mentor and father figure, in the chest. Roslin's friendship with the priestess Elosha is also ended with blood: Elosha's, and Starbuck's friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) rivalries with pilot Louanne "Kat" Katraine and Pegasus XO Kendra Shaw both end in death as well. In contrast, the most significant male friendship on the show, between Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, is depicted as having endured for more than 40 years, through marriage, divorce, and death, war, peace, and genocide, alcoholism, estrangement, and murder.
And, of course, the goriest ending to any relationship on the show is that of the lesbian relationship between Admiral Helena Cain and the copy of Number Six known as Gina Invieres.
- HNR: Battlestar Galactica set report
An interesting interview with Mary McDonnell (Roslin) in which she discusses Gina and the treatment of violence against women on BSG and the media in general
- Psycho Killer Lesbians From Outer Space
An unhappy fan's take on Razor, with some interesting counter arguments (and counter-counter arguments) in comments
- Battlestar Galactica: not so frakking feminist
There is something toxic in those vats of resurrecting goo, and even aggressive fighter pilots are not immune to it.
- The Men Who Make Battlestar Galactica Feminist
A response to the Slate article
The Cain/Gina Question
I enjoyed Razor, the BSG special about the Pegasus that aired between seasons three and four. Although I cannot like her as a person, Helena Cain is one of my favorite characters on the show. She did what she thought had to be done, and she did it without flinching. She is one of the strongest in a show bursting at the seams with strong characters.
Unfortunately, one of the things she thought had to be done was to order the torture and brutal gang rape of her former lover, Gina Invieres, when Gina was discovered to be a Cylon. Later, Gina escaped, shot Cain, and killed herself in a massive explosion that destroyed an entire ship and all its passengers and crew. Voila! The Evil/Dead Lesbian cliché lives on.
The show earns points with its casual portrayal of Cain and Gina's relationship - neither Kendra Shaw nor Cain's male officers and friends raise an eyebrow over the revelation of their superior officer's homosexuality. However, it is frustrating that despite the large cast of main and supporting characters and the supposedly progressive morals of most of the 12 Colonies (Michael Taylor, writer of Unfinished Business and Crossroads, Part One, among others, has stated that "[the Colonials do not make a distinction] between hetero- and homosexual preferences. I tend to think that in this respect, at least, they're a bit more enlightened than we are."), Cain/Gina remains the ONLY homosexual relationship ever (openly) portrayed on the show, and it ends in rape, torture, murder, suicide, and all-out tragedy.
Edit (12/12/2008): In the season four webisodes, it was revealed (to nobody's surprise) that Lieutenant Felix Gaeta was homosexual and in a long-term relationship with Lieutenant Hoshi, an officer stationed on the Battlestar Pegasus. However, the relationship has not been explored in any detail.
Battlestar Galactica's greatest strength as a feminist show is in its large cast of complex and fully realized female characters, one of the finest ensembles ever put on screen. In other regards, however, it falls prey to some of the cliches and problems of the media's portrayal of women in general. The perfect feminist show has not been made, and probably never will be.
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What the frak is going on with BSG?
More Resources for BSG and Feminist SFF
- Battlestar Wiki
The most comprehensive BSG resource on the 'net
- AfterEllen: Battlestar Galactica
AfterEllen.com's bloggers prove themselves to be true fangirls with a mix of intelligent and incisive commentary and good old fashioned drooling
- Feminist SF - The Blog!
An intelligent and passionate blog on feminism (or lack thereof) in science fiction
- When Fangirls Attack!
Gender issues in sff comics
- The Hathor Legacy
The Hathor Legacy is a network of blogs discussing the portrayal of women in both mainstream and genre books, comics, films, and tv shows
- Broad Universe
An organization that works to promote science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women