A recent article in Slate calls Battlestar Galactica a safe haven for "chauvinist pigs." But all you have to do is look at representations of men in this show to see its feminist side. (NSFW)
Slate's Juliet Lapidos says Battlestar never lived up to the feminist agenda that its detractors accused it of having. If you'll recall, the new series' transformation of the macho pilot Starbuck from cigar-chomping dude to cigar-chomping chick caused a huge ruckus. And certainly many of the women on the show have mastered traditional male roles within the military and politics. But, argues Lapidos:
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 . . . [Also] 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.
Some of Lapidos' points are good - she points out that most of the strong female characters are sick or dying, and notes that Cally is a weird throwback to hysterical women of the Victorian era. She also explains that while men like Adama and Tigh have enduring friendships in the show, we see few women with such relationships to each other. Still, I think she's missing the point when she says that the show isn't feminist because the women are sexualized and because the story is not "gender-blind." And that's because the gender politics of this show cannot be understand without looking at how men in it are treated.
Men Are Sex Objects
While I think it's debatable whether the tubs of goo are the place where women in the show are sexualized, there can be no doubt that the male characters are treated like sex objects at every turn. Maybe the scenes with the naked hybrid in goo, or Cavil waking up in goo, are not very sexy. But certainly a shirtless Lee or Helo is. And they are shirtless a lot. For no reason other than to titillate us.
Not only that, but Lee is treated like a worthless slut by Starbuck, who constantly uses him for sex and then discards him for a hunkier, more marriageable guy (Anders). And Lee isn't the only man who is treated like a piece of sex meat for women to toy with.
Baltar, who is practically the embodiment of weakness and emotional hysteria, is repeatedly used as a sex toy by cylon women like Number Six, Tory, and Number Three (D'Anna). When Baltar is held prisoner on the cylon ship, he's virtually a sex slave. The cylon women keep him locked in his quarters, where he's never allowed to get dressed (he wears an awful robe the whole time) and his main duty (other than being horrifically tortured) is to sexually service Number Six and Three - often at the same time. And given that he looks terrified and cries practically the whole time, I don't think he's living out a sex fantasy. I think he's being sexually tortured and enslaved.
Other men who are used for their bodies include Anders, who is one of Starbuck's playthings; Tigh, who is Ellen's sex toy; and Gaeta, who is horribly used by Boomer on New Caprica.
Men Are Abuse Victims
Starbuck bashes Leoben's face with her fist, repeatedly. She waterboards him. She screams at him and throws him out an airlock. She does not rape him the way the human men rape the female cylons, because Battlestar Galactica is not a gender-blind universe: It is a universe where the genders are equal as workers, but still bear their slightly different historical burdens. And so women torture men, but not in exactly the same way men torture women. The cylons torture Tigh nearly to death on New Caprica. They even put out his eye, destroying a classic symbol of male virility and dominance.
And although men are not raped in the same way women are, I would argue that Baltar's torture by Head Six, as well as his torture on the cylon Base Ship, are very close to rape. What do you call it when Three physically brutalizes Baltar until he screams in agony, and then makes him have sex with her later? It is not erotic. It is violent and horrifying.
Women also rape each other. In last week's episode, Boomer escaped from prison, then beat the shit out of her sister Eight, Athena. She then tied Athena up and put her in a storage locker where she could watch Boomer have sex with Athena's husband Helo (who can't tell the identical cylons apart, and believes he's sleeping with his wife). It's a shocking and disturbing scene precisely because it's a form of sexual torture.
Also, one of the most harrowing rape scenes in the entire series is ordered by a woman - Admiral Cain - to be visited on her one-time lover Six. After she discovers the woman she's been dating is a cylon, Cain has her thrown in the brig and orders the prison guards to torture and rape her. The horrifying result, when we see the traumatized, raped Six lying on the floor of her cell and refusing to eat, is the first moment in the series when we truly understand why the cylons are often right to hate the humans.
The multitude of these scenes does raise the question of why BSG shows so many women being raped during torture, but not men. I think it's because as long as we don't have artificial wombs, a feminist world will never be completely gender-blind. One of the central fixations of this show is reproduction. The human president at one point outlaws abortion because she wants to increase the size of the ailing Fleet. And the cylons are constantly trying to figure out how to reproduce "naturally" without using the resurrection goo. This desire to use women as vessels for reproduction shows up in the way men and women are treated when they are prisoners of war.
Although men and women are equal on Galactica, there is one crucial difference between them. When you dehumanize a female prisoner, you turn her into a battered womb. When you dehumanize a male, you simply beat him any way you can.
Male Friendship Is Predicated On Violence and Drunkenness
There are no long-term close relationships between women on BSG, and there is only one long-term relationship between two men. Admiral Adama and Commander Tigh are the two highest-ranking officers on Galactica, the ship that leads the entire Fleet, and they are buddies from way back when the humans fought the cylons the first time around.
Their friendship is touching at times, but they seem incapable of expressing affection towards each other unless they are destructively drunk. And most of the time, their comraderie is shot through with rage and mistrust. They spend more time beating each other up than any other two characters, including humans and cylons at war with each other. And of course, it also turns out that Tigh is a cylon, so our only enduring friendship is not between two human men, but between a man and a machine. Because Tigh turns out to be a cylon, this one example of male friendship is also founded on a betrayal.
It is truly hard to say which gender has it worse in this situation. Is it more awful to be a woman in a world where women never have close relationships, or to be a man in a world where the only way you can express brotherly love is through violence?
Male Leaders Are Often Weak and Make Decisions Based on Intuition
I have always disliked Roslin's character, partly because she's a female leader who gets religion and bases her leadership on feelings. But viewed in the context of male leaders like Adama, Zarek, and Baltar, Roslin's weak-minded reliance on emotion puts her smack-dab in the middle of the old boys' club.
Adama is a great military leader, but he frequently lets his feelings for his son Lee and (almost) daughter-in-law Starbuck get in the way of good decision-making. Last season, when the Fleet was being menaced by cylons, he held up their mission for a whole month while Starbuck traipsed around in a ship with Helo and a sizable crew questing to find Earth, based on a vision she had. During that mission, Gaeta loses his leg, indirectly leading to his later mutiny with Zarek. He also appoints Lee head of the Pegasus after Admiral Cain is shot, which turns out to be a terrible idea because Lee isn't ready for a leadership role.
Meanwhile, Zarek and Baltar embody the weak-willed but power-hungry types who lurk behind true power trying to influence by manipulation. In Baltar's case, that often means sexual manipulation, especially when he creates his army of devoted fangirls. Zarek first manipulates the Fleet by claiming victim status when he's in prison, and gains political power for this reason. Then, during the mutiny, he secretly slaughters the entire Quorum rather than trying to lead them.
These are not male leaders whose strength and honor cast long shadows over a series of weak and ineffectual female characters. Instead, they are weak and compromised, ruled by the same hysterical emotions that women were once accused of possessing in such quantity that it disqualified them from leadership roles.
Men and Women Are Equals on Battlestar Galactica
If we define feminism as the critique of a world where men unfairly wield power over women, then BSG is post-feminist. In other words, that critique is no longer necessary in the world of BSG: The show more or less successfully depicts a universe where women and men are equal in the realms of work and family. However, BSG was not made in a post-feminist world, so there are all kinds of hiccups where you get retrograde characters like Cally, or naked cylon chick fetishism, that are relics of our own society, which still so desperately needs a feminist slap upside the head on a regular basis.
But I strongly believe that BSG should be considered a contender for the status of feminist story in the genre of science fiction - and indeed, in any genre of television. And this isn't just because it depicts women in positions of power, honor, and competence, but also because it depicts men as possessing the same weaknesses and flaws that women do.
The project of feminism isn't just about changing women's roles in society, but to change male roles too. You cannot have one without the other. That's why feminism, to my mind, shouldn't preach for a gender-blind society, but rather one where men and women share the burdens of life equally. As long as we are reproducing the old-fashioned biological way, it will be impossible for us to be gender-blind. But at least, in BSG, we get glimpses of what it might look like to live in a world both women and men can be commanders, fighter pilots, presidents - and both men and women can be sex objects, suffer from emotional overload, fear the physical wrath of the opposite sex, and gain power via subterfuge and manipulation.
Feminism, as BSG makes clear, won't turn us all into saints. It will just make us all capable of achieving the same levels of social power, as well as the same nadirs of social humiliation and defeat.