Jan 19 2012 5:15pm

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.

This article is part of Military Science Fiction on ‹ previous | index | next ›
Dominic van Berkel
1. Barometz
There's one thing that seemed - to me - to have a slightly sexist tone at the time: the baffled outbursts of "That schoolteacher!?" about Roslin, and various related remarks. I have to admit that in retrospect I may have been imagining that subtext. A little bit. I've been rewatching the show after buying the DVDs, and I've noticed much of what you mention - especially how natural many of the less-than-stereotypical relationships are.
Jennifer B
2. JennB
I loved this show. The first two seasons were so good that I bought the dvds, something I had never done for a tv show. (I have since bought Firefly and Avatar: The Last Airbender.) So many reasons to love it and the one outlined here was a major one.

Too bad the plot fizzled out starting at season 3. I couldn't bring myself to buy seasons 3 and 4. This show deserved a good solid ending.
Cait Glasson
3. CaitieCat
Came late to this show, but this is definitely one of the big reasons I enjoyed it.

I always got the sense that the scorn for "the schoolteacher" was fairly standard military scorn for a REMF, which they might have thought Roslin was (though, turns out, so not the truth!).

But that ending. Oy, that ending. Well, actually, pretty much everything involving Baltar and/or Caprica Six: the locus around which standard gender roles most showed up.
Liz Bourke
4. hawkwing-lb
I love the first and second seasons so much. So, so, so very much.

(My critical faculties see the ways in which it could have been better. The fannish part couldn't care less.)
Jamie Foster
5. JamieFoster
For some reason, SPOILERS

the way the adultery played out between Lee and Kara really struck me as one of those wonderfully gender-flipped-but-perfectly-in-character bits. Usually, in the media versions of these scenarios, it's the woman who would like to leave her marriage and the man who insists on fidelity to the institution and--it's implied--the comfort provided by a supportive, unknowing spouse that he may not necessarily have in this new arrangement. And on BSG, it's Lee who wants to break up their marriages to start fresh and Kara who insists that she doesn't: she'll cheat but not get a divorce, whereas Lee will get a divorce but not continue cheating. It's a really interesting and subtle flip of the usual way of showing things.
Adam Bodestyne
6. thanners
I really wanna go back and watch this show again, now.

At least the first couple of seasons, anyway.
john mullen
7. johntheirishmongol
I know this was a much more critically acclaimed show but it never had the joy of the original series. While I like the actress who played Starbuck, I hated what they turned the character into. The original Galactica was a great story to begin and then the money went away and everything was done on the cheap. I watched the new series until they got to the camp sequence and then I gave it up as too depressing. I felt the same way about SGU when it came out.

As for the discussion about gender in BSG, I thought this month was about MilSF and not about gender in MilSF, but so far a lot of the discussion seems to fall in that line. Sorry, but this is getting to be an obsession on this site and frankly there are other more interesting things to discuss in the original subject.
Michael Burke
8. Ludon
But the gender aspect discussed here was an important part of the military culture of the show. Men and women used the same facilities, shared the same quarters and were carrying out the same duties. Women were going out on combat missions and dying just as the men. This was at a time when many Americans were still trying to come to terms with the fact that women were finding themselves in combat and sometimes dying in the two wars being faught. We were looking at a culture that had many differences from our own and to recognize those differences we have to compare them to what we've 'known'. That's what this article is about.

On the "The School Teacher?" comment. That even Cain made that comment made it clear to me that the comment was a reaction to Roslin's precieved qualifications - or lack thereof - and not to her gender. I loved the whole thing at the beginning about Roslin thinking Bill Adama was trying to show off then Lee telling her that his father hates all that showmenship but he's doing it to help her "Feel Presidential." While that was setting the stage for the growing romance, it didn't have to be. The same gesture for a male President Roslin would still have worked. The military leader helping the civilian leader come to terms with the hand of cards dealt by fate.
9. ZCam
This made me think--my DH has been reading the Vinland Sagas (and sharing them aloud, as is his wont) and I was struck by what a stronger role women play in their society than you might find elsewhere.
Is there anyone who is familiar with ancient northern civilizations that could speak to that? I'm not conversant with it myself, but wondered if they might be a real-life example of how women were integrated successfully as strong people. From what little I've read so far, they would identify quite well with the female Starbuck.
Maiane Bakroeva
10. Isilel
I liked the Starbuck character on the whole and she certainly had some stellar moments, but I am a bit torn about the whole "she became a badass because she is so broken" trope. Not that it is not a plausible approach in and of itself, but it seems to be slapped on almost every action heroine in speculative fiction and hardly ever on her male counter-parts, who are allowed to be bad-asses for a variety of reasons or none at all.

Also that whole pregnancy/maternity of Doom storyline with Boomer 2? Not particularly enlightened or interesting.

But otherwise, yes, I really loved how BSG treated female characters and allowed them to be important and strong.

Like many here I really enjoyed the first 2 seasons of BSG and was bitterly disappointed by the rest of it.

The moral of the story is that if your villains are supposed to have an elaborate plan you'd better figure out what it is in advance and make sure that it deserves all the hype!
Kristoff Bergenholm
11. Magentawolf
Sorry, I still refuse to acknowledge the existance of the new BSG series.

Give me the old Starbuck back!
12. kenl
Took me awhile to get past the fact that they took all the original black characters and replaced them with women. That some gay homoerotic crap about starbuck and apollo made its way into turning starbuck into a woman but beyond all that...ignoring the original, it was excellent writing and a good show. It did a decent if not perfect job of showing diversity (one hispanic not trying to be hispanic and no real main black characters since everyone was sleeping with each other typical hollywood throwback attitude). Regardless the story held together well for 2.5 seasons. Then the reality tv crap kicked in and the who gets voted to be a cylon started and even then it was OK. still the illogical explanations at the end of the show and having primordial eve be half asian robot half white is a bit of a stretch. still yes too many women in the main character slots and the creation of new characters to offset them as most of the male characters did not appear in the original. I would have liked it better if it was called BSG. All in all I gave it a 7 out of 10.
13. MKHutchins
@Zcam -- Viking women did have a lot of rights, including the right to claim and own land, divorce their husbands, choose sides in a feud...I don't have any online references, but any decent book on the time & era should have more & actual examples from the law code. From what I've seen, it appears that women in warrior societies were generally treated better, maybe because childbearing was more valued. Compare, for example, Sparta and Athena (Sparta treated women much better), or look at the Aztecs, where girls were included in formal education.
Anthony Pero
14. anthonypero
Best. Show. Ever.

Can't wait for Blood and Chrome.

I actually liked the Finale, but maybe that's because I watched it shortly after the Lost finale. They obviously drifted a bit witht he Opera House, and had to make some crap up because of who the final five turned out to be... but then again, all things considered, and not being sure of a production schedule (because SyFy is, well, we know how bad they are as a network, enough said...), I think the ending was superb.
15. PeterM
The schoolteacher remark was made by adm. Adama to his son Lee.
I don't think it's a gender remark, when roslin was a male karacter, he (Adama) could have made the same remark.
Sky Thibedeau
16. SkylarkThibedeau
When it premiered it thought it too depressing but watched anyway and it grew on me. Unlike Trek or Cattlecar Ponderosa, the World of BSG-03 is our world with Space travel and Killer Robot Androids. It was Human. It showed our foibles and frailties.

It is Utopian only in that Kobolian norm is the egalitarian society we espouse to in the First World (Caprica if you will). Everyone is judged on ability and not race, gender , culture, or sexual preference. The only predjudices seem to be religious in nature(damn
Sagittarons and STO) or Speciest (human vs Toaster).

I find it stiking that most of the criticism of the series is that a higher power (Definitely not our Modern Monotheistic God) was guiding everything. Even in the Role Playing Game Battlestar Pacifica in Second Life, I got more grief over my characters religion (The Last of the Vestal Virgins) than for her gender or sexual preference.

Myself I thought the finale was good.
17. politeruin
I'm surprised there was no mention of the galactica crew showering together, thought it added a nice world building touch to show this lack of gender politics. Far as i remember it's never even mentioned as being an issue, which was neat.
Michael Grosberg
18. Michael_GR
An interesting scene in the miniseries was when Adama and Roslin discussed what actions they should take after the destruction of the colonies. Adama wanted to stay and fight to the death. Roslin thought they should run like hell and start making babies. And the thing is, if you watch the show, Roslin's view is presented as cold, practical and calculated to ensure long-term survival - while Adama's is emotional and illogical; an inversion of common gender roles in such situations.
Matt London
19. MattLondon
Some food for thought:

The depiction of Starbuck as the cigar-chomping, heavy-drinking, poker-playing bruiser, and casting her as a woman, indicates what a ridiculous cliche the "tough male hero" caricature really is. So many men are portrayed this way in popular entertainment, and the characters are always paper thin. Emily does a great job in this post of showing how BSG turned a lot of stereotypes on their heads, and the comments on this thread so far have shown that BSG messed with our assumptions about gender in really interesting ways. For what it's worth, I will say that I am glad they dialed back some of those aspects of Starbuck's character as the series progressed -- it gave her much more depth.

That said, the gender stuff in BSG is not perfect by any means. There were the jezebel Tory and chemically imbalanced Ellen. There were also horribly abusive relationships: Dualla is a glutton for punishment from the negligent Apollo, and worst, the gruesome beating Callie receives from Tyrol, who she then marries in the next scene. And this violence is never addressed! What was the show trying to say with that? "It's-okay-because-he-loves-me?" Yikes.
Michael Burke
20. Ludon
I never got the "It's-okay-because-he-loves-me" message from the Tyrol / Callie pairing. The message I got was that these were two people who shouldn't have been together and under other conditions wouldn't have been together. I've known couples who shouldn't have been together and in them I've seen that it was personality issues more than gender issues. And that violence was only partially addressed - in the scene where Tyrol meets with Brother Caval. Also. Remember that Callie brought pain and violence to the table by shooting Boomer - who Tyrol still had feelings for. This pairing and the distructive but still managing to find love Tigh marrage may not fit in with anyone's idea of a utopia but the BSG universe was not presented as a utopia. These pairings were a part of what made the world-building in the series so right for me.
21. politeruin
Yeah...i mean you could view the Baltar/Six pairing as being an abusive relationship which is overlooked because of the ambiguously self-inflicted nature of it. So it may be a bit more abstract but her physical presence becomes more defined as the series goes on.
Tom Cook
22. tomc
I gotta telya. I was appalled at BSG as Mil fiction. The only person who had any military discipline was the drunk XO. Every single other character regularly disobeyed orders or committed outright treason. Not once. Not twice. Ad nuseum.

Anthony Pero
23. anthonypero
I got the feeling that was because Commander Adama had been very slack with discipline towards the end of the Galactica's service, pre-attack, and afterwards, when he decided that Roslin was right, and they should try to survive rather than fruitlessly fight back, that military discipline simply wasn't going to be enough. They needed to be a true, full family, not simply a "Band of Brothers." And of course, ultimately, they couldn't really afford to discipline all but the most aggregious of offenses for more reasons than could be listed here.
24. Marfisa
Yeah, Starbuck's early cigar-chomping habit always struck me as distractingly exaggerated and over the top, to the point of verging on drag king-ishness. I'm not entirely convinced that the homicidally hardnosed depiction of the female commander of the Pegasus (I can't recall the character's name, but she was played by Michelle Forbes) was devoid of overcompensating "Iron Lady"-type stereotypes, either. This actually bothered me a lot more in the later two-part "Razor" episode where you get an up-close view of the heartbreaking results of her draconian kill-the-families response to civilians who resisted being drafted into the Pegasus crew--and the script goes out of its way to establish that she's a lesbian (with a noticeably more femme civilian partner). Although I suppose the latter is a more clear-cut example of the producers (probably) inadvertantly perpetuating homophobic stereotypes than it is of female officers in the BSG universe feeling they have to act tougher and more ruthless than the men. It's clearly no coincidence that Lee Adama is narrowly prevented from making a similarly brutally pragmatic command decision in the present-day scenes of the same two-part episode. The explanation his father gives for countermanding that decision seems to suggest that for Bill Adama, at least, opting for the more "impractically" merciful decision is something that you learn from being a parent and having to bear in mind that you will eventually have to explain your more questionable actions to your children--which may be even more difficult than having to live with the consequences of them yourself.
25. Priscilla
@kenl Adama isn't "a Hispanic." We're talking about a planet that never had Latinos or Spain or the Americas. And as for no black main characters, what about Dualla?

But I guess she's one of those "too many women".
Anthony Pero
26. anthonypero
@Dualla had green eyes and seemed more of an "islander" type. @Kenl obviously meant "African"... which just feeds into your point. It's ridicuous to apply real world politically correct expectations to a scifi/fantasy series not set in our universe.
27. Belu
I just started watching, and I'm not sure if I agree with a genderless power structure. If anything, the one aspect that bothers me the most about this show is that they refer to every person in a position of power as "sir." Basically, they are gendering all positions of power as male. Meaning that, when a woman adapts a position of political or military power, she instantly adops a male identity. If it were genderless, they would be adressed by their titles only.

Althouthough, I have to consent that in actions they did establish a genderless atmosphere, giving women equal footong and representation in different parts of their society, they still accent the power of men when they genderize titles.
28. Luc2013
I loved this show. Couldn't wait for it to get started after the 2-part pilot. Fine acting. Good scripts. Excellent storyline. Amazing graphics. Thought it blew away the Sifi competition while it was running. deserved all the accolades it received. Have re-watched the entire series, pilot, TV movies, and webisodes 3 times. That said, this was not a case of "gender neutrality" scripted into the storyline (as you would have your readers believe). This was a case of gender "role reversal" at its core. Premeditated... Purposeful... persistent ... and at times ... utterly delusional role-reversals from start to finish. In fact, it was so over the top (so often), that it turned what would have been a great sifi series ... into just another good scifi series.

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