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Starbuck’s Got A Gun (and A Cigar): Gender in Battlestar Galactica

The original Battlestar Galactica never quite felt like military SF to me, in the same way that it was hard to take in the military aspects of Star Wars. The characters were certainly part of an active military force, they had ranks and uniforms and followed orders, but that never led to a pervasive feeling of militarism within the universe.

On the other hand, there is absolutely no question that Ron Moore’s 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is hard-hitting military SF. And perhaps one of the more notable aspects of the series was that Moore chose to recreate that landscape with women at the heart of it.

The gender politics of Battlestar Galactica are fascinating in that… there are none. At least, not in the way that today’s society discusses them. While you can make arguments based on the positions of certain characters or how they conduct themselves according to gender stereotypes, that has to do with how the characters are written. I am talking about the way that Colonial society views men and women and their positions within culture. And it seems as though those labels that we are constantly applying to men and women are not in use within the BSG universe.

We never saw people question President Roslin for making emotional decisions that “no man would ever make.” Dualla wasn’t kept away from combat situations because she was “fragile” or “delicate.” No one ever told Starbuck that she was unfit for command because she was “hysterical.” The men in the Colonial military didn’t edge around female officers, nor did they harass them any differently than they did each other. Their hotshot pilot was a woman, but nothing about Starbuck’s character (or defects) was ever considered to be the product of her chromosomes. In fact, when Colonel Tigh confronted Starbuck in an attempt to reconcile their hostility toward each other, he boiled it down to a completely gender-neutral problem: he felt that his flaws were purely personal and hers had to do with acting professionally. (Of course, this isn’t true either, but we’re not here to discuss Tigh’s multitude of hangups.)

Often when fiction addresses oppression, there are two ways of handling it: the fictional world either shows you just how difficult it is to be oppressed (i.e. the women of the Song of Ice and Fire series), or an alternate reality is created in which these problems are balanced very differently (i.e. the power wielded by the Bene Gesserit of the Dune novels). But Battlestar Galactica isn’t bothering to tread that ground at all. It is instead offering a reality in which these harmful stereotypes probably never existed. It doesn’t offer an explanation, or attempt to guide us to that place through example. It simply functions, just as it is. Because of that, it might be an easy aspect to overlook in the series, if you don’t take into account how many women hold high positions of power throughout.

The lack of well-worn gender commentary was almost startling when it began. I can recall being surprised that no one ever insisted that Starbuck was simply “one of the boys,” playing hard to be treated like a man. On the other end of the spectrum, none of the male characters were called out for “weakness” when they displayed compassion. You were left with the impression that in Colonial culture, people were expected to act according to their natures, regardless of gender. That didn’t mean that you could avoid getting chewed out by your commanding officer when you screwed up, but it did mean that the go-to insult was never “get rid of those frilly panties and start acting like a real man.”

The character relationships only reflected that choice, and were richer because of it. Starbuck and Helo always had each others backs, but not because they were trying to hide all the burgeoning sexual tension between them — they were true best friends. Saul and Ellen Tigh were equally culpable in their destructive marriage. While William Adama was the commander of the Colonial military forces, he ended up making all of his decisions in conjuction with Laura Roslin. And though Adama had a son who he loved, all of his hopes and expectations were placed on Starbuck, not Lee. Truth is, the parable was swapped in BSG — Bill Adama had a prodigal daughter.

In fact, the only man on Battlestar Galactica who did have a tendency to treat women as objects paid dearly for his mistakes. As in, you know, he kind of caused the near-obliteration of his entire species. (Yeah, Gaius Baltar, that’s definitely you. Well, you and Brother Caval. He paid for it too, by the end.)

That doesn’t mean that BSG was perfect in its depiction of women, but then, perfect depiction is not really something that I think an audience can reasonably expect in this day and age. We live in a time when it is still common for the entertainment industry to include the token female character (maybe you’ll be lucky and get two of them). It made Battlestar Galactica, with its gender-balanced cast and female characters pulling all of the important strings, a real pleasure to watch while it was on the air.


Emily Asher-Perrin loves Gaius Baltar… he’s just so much fun to pick on. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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