Note: This article contains spoilers through the current episode of Battlestar Galactica.
The best fighter pilot in the 1970s television series Battlestar Galactica is a cigar-smoking womanizer. The best fighter pilot in the current television series Battlestar Galactica is a cigar-smoking woman. This sex change, according to the actor who played the original character, Starbuck, is proof of an insidious feminist agenda: “There was a time—I know I was there—when men were men, women were women,” Dirk Benedict wrote in the May 2004 issue of the magazine Dreamwatch. “But 40 years of feminism have taken their toll. The war against masculinity has been won.” Is Benedict right? Is Battlestar—now in its final season—the televised culmination of the feminist movement?
The conventional wisdom on Battlestar is that the show takes a strong stand against misogyny. Last April, Ellecalled Battlestar “the most feminist show on TV.” In January, Wired ran a lengthy blog post praising Battlestar for conjuring “a gender-blind universe.” And in Cylons in America, a scholarly collection of essays about Battlestar, one writer argues that in “this new world, the clear-cut boundaries between women and men have become murky—women have more power and command more respect than they used to, the men seemingly less.”
Granted, Battlestar’s women are a far cry from the leg-exposed lady officers of Star Trek or the bust-exposed Deanna Troi from Stark Trek: The Next Generation. There is a female president, Laura Roslin; numerous women in the military, including Adm. Helena Cain and the aforementioned Starbuck; as well as female freedom fighters. Men and women spar, sometimes physically—not in a domestic-abuse sort of way, but as two equals releasing aggression—and they share the burden of childrearing. The Cylons, a race of humanoid robots, revere female “hybrids” who function something like high priestesses. Yet beneath these attention-grabbing markers of gender parity, there’s plenty to make a feminist squirm.
Perhaps because science fiction has historically appealed to men who don’t leave home much, the genre has often used alien mores and alien technology to rationalize pornographic depictions of near-naked women. (Think Jabba the Hutt forcing Princess Leia to wear that ridiculous gold bikini in Return of the Jedi.) Battlestar is no exception. When Cylons die, their memories download into an identical-looking body on a resurrection ship. This process, almost without exception, happens off-screen for the male Cylons, but when a fembot dies she flies through a vaguely fallopian-looking tube then wakes up nude in a vat of goo. * Overtly, these are birth scenes. But they are hypersexualized—with lingering thigh-shots and orgasmic-sounding gasping. Cylon ringleader Ellen Tigh’s resurrection in this season’s “No Exit” is among the most egregious: Covered in gelatinous lubricant, she writhes and moans. On realizing that a Peeping Tom robot has been observing the whole process, she gets a creepily post-coital look on her face.
The most retrograde character is Cally, an air-maintenance specialist on the flight deck. For years, she’s harbored a girlish crush on her boss, Chief Tyrol, to no avail, until, at last, a breakthrough happens thanks to a broken jaw: Cally wakes Tyrol up from a nightmare and in a fit of angry confusion, he beats her to a pulp. Remorseful, he visits her in the hospital, and shortly thereafter, they marry. This sends the implicit message that the way to a man’s heart is through his fist—a heartily un-feminist concept—but the strange circumstances surrounding Cally’s marriage are less offensive than her death scene. On realizing that Tyrol is a Cylon, Cally tries to kill herself along with her child. Then another Cylon comes along, saves the baby, and tosses Cally out of an airlock. Presumably the writing staff is trying to grapple with postpartum depression—Tyrol doesn’t help enough with the baby, pushing Cally over the edge. Yet they do so in a melodramatic, and ultimately nonsensical, fashion. Here we have a society that permits divorce and seems to have plentiful free day care, and yet an otherwise functioning member of that society acts like a Victorian hysteric. The take-away is not that Cally has been driven to desperation by a sexist social order but that she can’t contain her feminine irrationality.
Cally’s death is an example of a worrisome trend: 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.
By contrast, the male characters on the show not only have a better chance of survival; they’re also more likely to improve their quality of life through friendship. Adm. Adama and Col. Saul Tigh have an intensely loyal, decadeslong relationship; so intense, in fact, that a favorite fan-boy pastime involves splicing together the pair’s intimate moments and putting them on YouTube. (See “Brokeback Galactica,” for example.) Battlestar does pass the so-called Bechdel test: At least two female characters talk to each other about something besides men—a very low feminist bar. But the Adama-Tigh bromance has no female equivalent, and more often than not, the women bicker among themselves, forming unhealthy rivalries rather than supportive partnerships.
Even more insidious than the lack of female friendships are the casual threats of rape made throughout the series. In Season 2, a “Cylon interrogator” attempts to violate Sharon, a Cylon pilot and the only East Asian on the show, but her husband Helo intervenes in the nick of time. In this season’s “The Oath,” Helo fights with a mutineer—”Frak you,” he says (that’s Battlestar’s four-letter-word variant), and the mutineer responds, “Sorry, I’m saving myself for your … wife.” He means it. Rape is a trope on the show: Starbuck finds herself in a bizarre insemination farm on the Cylon-occupied planet Caprica, and Adm. Cain orders some cronies to rape and torture a Cylon in “Razor.” Naturally the show doesn’t condone rape, but it’s discomfiting that the writers drop sexual violence into the script so often without comment. If nothing else, this pervasive threat—directed only at women—negates the idea that Battlestar conjures a gender-blind universe.
My hunch is that the gender inequities on Battlestar are unintentional; the writers don’t sit around inventing new, technologically advanced ways to denigrate women. Yet because the writing staff lives on Planet Earth in 2009, not on Capricia in the distant future, chauvinism creeps onto the show. There is something toxic in those vats of resurrecting goo, and even aggressive fighter pilots are not immune to it. So Dirk Benedict can rest assured: Men are still men, and women are still women.
Correction, March 5, 2008: This article originally stated that the resurrection process happens off-screen for the male Cylons, without exception. Actually, Cavil, a male Cylon, resurrects in the episode “The Ties That Bind.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)