Not even going to pretend that this isn’t my favorite show ever, so take due note of my bias if you will. But take note also that at least part of my bias is due to the frakkin’ awesome women who populate this show.
Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is a post-nuclear apocalypse military sci-fi space drama in which the human survivors from a distant galaxy must flee their cybernetic annihilators and traverse the universe on a semi-religious pilgrimage to find the mythical planet Earth. There’s a longer and rather less confusing description over at Wikipedia for those interested.
Make no mistake: BSG is heavily male-dominated and skewed toward male viewers, par for course in the sci-fi and military genres. Despite that, the women of this show — all many and varied of them — are full-fleshed, full-fledged, full-of-mistakes human beings (or Cylons, but shhh spoilers!).
I could do a full run-down of all the complex women of BSG, but that might take me the better part of a week. Instead, we can run a few simple ways of checking how A+ is the writing of women in this show. First up, the Bechdel test which requires of a show that:
- It has to have at least two women in it,
- who talk to each other,
- about something besides a man.
BSG passes — as the women, like the men, generally have war and survival on their minds rather than romance. Though this does become an area where BSG starts to run into trouble, as its “gender equality” often crash lands in the vicinity of equality-via-equal-opportunity-machismo, i.e. the many gun-totin’ Viper-flyin’ shoot-first-ask-questions-later classic girlpower-type gals. On the other hand, the entire show is a post-apocalyptic military mission. In the BSG universe, violence is more than a norm; it’s life.
Anyway. Where BSG redeems itself, in my opinion, is that for classic narrative stereotype (read: trope), you’re as likely to find a woman occupying that role are you are to find a man. Cliches aren’t a great standard to be judging anything by, no; but good writing saves this show’s stereotypes/cliches, as (almost) all the characters have intense, complex, difficult backstories and personal journeys to grapple with. This makes the process of being, of work rather than identity, central to character in BSG.
What follows is a fairly arbitrary list of character types that you might find in most epic-proportion storylines, and select BSG characters who fit them. For the sake spoilers (and time), I’m not going into detail. Those of you who’ve seen the show, feel free to agree/disagree. Those of you who haven’t, please watch it.
- The Leader: Bill Adama (Commander of the Galactica, has a tortured relationship with his son); Laura Roslin (President of the Colonies, has cancer, may or may not be the prophesied leader of her people); Helena Cain (Commander of the Pegasus).
- The Mentor: Elosha (Priestess, friend and spiritual guide to Laura); Tom Zarek (misunderstood).
- The Renegade: Kara “Starbuck” Thrace (pilot, daredevil, troublemaker, general badass-in-chief); Louanne “Kat” Katraine (Starbuck 2.0).
- The Fool: Gaius Baltar (scientist, traitor, ladies’ man); Ellen Tigh (promiscuous, ruthless, effective).
- The Everyman: Galen Tyrol (maintenance officer); Cally Henderson (maintenance crew).
- The Tragedy: Felix Gaeta (tactical officer); Anastasia “Dee” Dualla (communications officer).
It’s not a perfect show, far from it. In fact there’s a Slate article that can tell you just exactly how not-feminist BSG can be. The article’s not perfect either, as it conveniently overlooks some broader trends in the general criticism of how BSG characterizes its women, but it’s food for heavy thought.
All told, I love BSG for its complexity of narrative, morality, and characterization. It’s also complexly problematic on many, many levels. But this was the show that drove home this point: you can like/enjoy something and also see how problematic it is; you can criticize something for its faults and also valorize it for its good.
The good in BSG is its complexity — not the least of which is the complexity of the women portrayed.