Sexism and Feminism in Battlestar Galactica
Every Friday I eagerly find a television to watch Battlestar Galactica. It’s on Sci-Fi, and it’s one of the best and most politically relevant shows I have ever heard of. It provides nearly up-to-the-minute commentary on hot button ethical issues as well as extended, deeper probing of more fundamental problems. For example, the end of the third season (Crossroads parts one and two, aired March 2007) featured the trial of a former state leader for war crimes – two months after the hanging of Saddam Hussein and in the midst of arrests of former leaders for war crimes in Cambodia, Chile, Argentina and other nations. The episodes also commented more broadly on the nature of justice and the almost guaranteed lack of it for the unpopular. Baltar’s acquittal was portrayed as a lucky accident, possibly caused by nepotism – raising further questions about whether the means matter in pursuing the end of justice.
But aside from the nuanced political and social commentary, Battlestar is amazingly anti-sexist (especially in a genre characterized by the sexualization of hot babes for the viewing pleasure of the socially inept). Until this week’s episode, that is, and for that matter last week’s.
On political issues Battlestar’s taken both explicit and subtle feminist positions. For example, it breaks the silence on the connection between war and rape. Female prisoners can expect sexual violence, and rape is a particular tool of torture saved for women. Rape of prisoners is not about sex, Battlestar argues, it is about using a specific kind of power against women. This power psychologically harms women (another aspect of rape that never seems to get brought up in popular media) and this is unequivocally wrong. Moreover Battlestar discusses deeper implication of rape and power, showing that conquering societies feel they have a right to literally take control of women’s reproductive systems and that societies capable of conquering/warring are also capable of rationalizing rape (though it goes against the Cylons’ religious conviction that “God is love”). It also brings up the fact that women are often complicit in rape, though men are the direct perpetrators.
Subtle examples of feminist thought include refutations of the claim that women are not as physically capable as men. While it occasionally features the typical story of “woman is captured by man and cannot escape,” this is often subverted. In He That Believeth in Me, for instance, Baltar and one of his followers are attacked by two men. When it seems as though they are about to be murdered, his female follower fights off her attacker and single-handedly beats the shit out of both of them, possibly killing them. Number Six, played by Tricia Helfer, is undoubtedly the most physically terrifying person in the series. She’s extremely muscled (a feminist choice in our society, which portrays spaghetti-armed women as the most desirable) and she’ll crush your skull. Women take on physically and technically demanding jobs, like piloting and military work. Even Laura Roslin, the cancer-stricken president, picks up a gun or hikes around in enemy territory.
It’s also interesting when the show discusses abortion, traditional feminist territory. The President comes to the conclusion that the survival of humanity is more important that control over one’s body – a conclusion that many embattled minority ethnic groups have come to as well. Interestingly, there’s also no discussion of health effects (an ectopic pregnancy, for instance, is nonviable and must end in either abortion or organ rupture), which makes me think that the producers didn’t want to add too much nuance to the discussion and obscure the main point.
To say that Battlestar is anti-sexist is not at all to say there’s no sexism in it. There is, and I’ll get to the nature of that in a minute. But Battlestar has never, ever argued that women are any different from men in the essentials. Women are just as physically strong, just as capable of leadership, just as tough, talented, qualified, intelligent, principled, etc. What really convinces me that the Battlestar producers actually think women are equal to men, though, is that their faults are the faults of people. If a woman (man) has a moment of weakness or doubt, it’s because she’s (he’s) a fallible person and not because of her (his) gender. Women and men are equally emotional, equally corrupt, and equally subject to PTSD. Their characters are driven by their own personal quirks and not by their genders.
Battlestar’s sexism, then, is not the subtle sexism that pervades everything else in popular culture. It has been limited almost exclusively to the sexualization of women. The female cast is reasonably attractive, while many of the men are not. While there’s some of this for men as well, the female characters are most subject to being randomly sexualized – being naked for no reason, or more naked than their male counterparts. There are ocurrances like having the camera pan across them for no reason (especially across Tricia Helfer) except to look at their bodies. Etc.
Even this, though, has generally been tempered. Battlestar does not sexualize women in distress. Ever seen Law and Order? Those dead murder victims show no sign of the trauma they were under the moment of their deaths. They are pretty and death is the same as sleeping. This allows us to ignore the horror of murder and generally lets viewers forget that being entertained by violent death is totally fucked up.
Law and Order is just one of many, many examples that show just how twisted our culture is when compared to Battlestar Galactica. Women are only sexualized when it is appropriate for them to be so. When they are working, emotionally disturbed, injured, tired, deep in thought, on alert, or in a fight or battle, they are not sexual beings, period. Even if they are incredibly beautiful women whose function on the show at least in part depends on sexuality, they have plenty of space to play with that persona and are not sexually ready all the time. And that sexuality is rarely paired with violence – if it is, then it is clearly portrayed as wrong and never as titillating. (The exception may be showing Tricia Helfer’s legs when one of her characters was tortured for information. The point was that they didn’t give her enough adequate clothing, just a featureless sack, and that she was beaten everywhere. But as Susan Sontag points out, any image of violence that happens to an attractive body is to some extent pornographic. Thus they should have de-emphasized her nakedness, but I feel that was an oversight.)
So given this history, I was quite shocked when this week’s episode laid on the sexism really thick. In part the point of it was to show that the men making those sexist comments were douchebags, but there was no discussion or contention of them.
First off, the episode began with conflict among the Cylons about whether to lobotomize the lower function Cylons. The three models against it, including Numbers Six and Eight (played by Tricia Helfer and Grace Park respectively) argued their position against a One model, Cavil. At one point he gestures to each of them and says, “Millions of Twos [a male model] have that nose, millions of Sixes [female] have that mouth, millions of Eights [female] have those breasts, and millions of Ones have this brain [pointing to his own head]. We’re mechanized copies.” His point was that they should not break their original programming.
Right. This is way subtle, but it’s definitely there: to discredit the opposition, he is explicitly reminding the females of their sexuality. The mention of the male model’s nose was meant to make it seem casual, like he was picking random parts, but the mention of breasts totally negates that. Mouths could go either way, except it was on a woman and mentioned along with breasts. Plus Cavil’s character is such that he has been comfortable exploiting women for sexual purposes, so that is consistent. None of the characters object or acknowledge that he has employed sexist thought while justifying his disagreement.
The camera in this scene mostly focuses on Six and Cavil, emphasizing that this is a battle of her will against his, and to that extent a gendered battle. At the end of the episode, she alone orders two (non-gendered) soldier Cylons to kill Cavil and his two male allies, again emphasizing that this is her will against theirs. So because of that I believe that there is an explicitly gendered element to Cylon politics – despite the egalitarian “council” meeting structure they have demonstrated in the past. And the females are still subject to sexism within that (though apparently Cavil forgot that Six is a hardass zealot who likes having her own way. Also the only Cylon model that has successfully ordered her around is the female Three, whom Cavil permanently shut down, so I guess it sucks to be him).
Immediately after that scene the four hidden Cylons in the fleet, Colonel Tigh, Tyrol, Anders, and the President’s aide Tory Foster meet to discuss their position and try to figure out who the last hidden Cylon may be. (I’m just wondering why the hidden Cylons are always important people and not random civilians. This is one of the most contrived developments to date.) Tyrol suggests that Baltar may know something, and Tigh says, “Well he is accomplished at two things: lying in his cell and lying in a woman.” He looks at Tory, and when she objects he sneers, “You don’t have to get on your back for him, but…” with the implication that he is ordering her to have sex with Baltar. Which she does.
The other men do not object, which I don’t particularly find plausible. Sure, they’re in the military, but Battlestar has never set up this sexist dynamic before, and neither Tigh nor anyone else has ever implied, on-screen, that women should just put up with sexist language and manipulation. In fact about sixty seconds previously, Anders called out Tigh on saying that Anders’ wife Starbuck was crazy. This scene was creepy and unnecessarily crude, with undertones of men’s sexual control over women (for it has been established that Tigh is a man who will do whatever it takes, perhaps including coercing a woman to have sex).
Beyond this there’s the background sexist plotline of Baltar’s followers. The humans in Battlestar Galactica are generally polytheistic, and the Cylons are monotheistic, and there’s this big conflict between them in part over that. Anyway, Baltar spouts monotheism because of his connections with Six (whether he believes it is another question), and after his war crimes trial a bunch of his followers took him in. They are almost all young, hot women, plus one convenient plot device in the form of a sick child that Baltar “cures.”
There’s no real reason for all of the followers to be hot babes, unless it’s for Baltar to have sex with them. Which he does. What the hell? Why wouldn’t men or non-hot women also find monotheism compelling? What does this debate have to do with religion, anyway? Haven’t there been conflicts between polytheistic and monotheistic thought before this point? That would be the only plausible reason that a LOT of people all of a sudden adopted monotheism when Baltar first suggested it, but the series has provided no discussion of that. And again, there’s no reason for them to all be women except that sci-fi nerds want to vicariously get it on with a harem.
I’m hoping Battlestar Galactica tones it down in the next few episodes. As the show has gotten more and more popular, it’s incorporated more mainstream television conventions – pointless interpersonal drama, for instance. And more sexism for no reason may be one of those added conventions. Still it’s the best damn show on television, and I’ll enjoy watching with a critical eye.