Thursday, January 05, 2006

Lamest. Feminist Icon. Ever.

Over at Strange Horizons, Dan Hartland has an interesting write-up of the second half of Battlestar Galactica's summer season (am I wrong, or are most of the critical opinions about this show coming from genre insiders? Certainly it seems that mainstream venues can't stop falling over themselves to indiscriminately praise the show). Hartland makes a good argument about the importance of individuality and its acceptance within the show, and suggests that it is this ability to accept individuality--the huge range of human experience and personality--that separates good from evil on the show.
The Number Six stored in Balthar's mind exhorts us to consider the abused woman as an individual, a reality, rather than a scientific problem or icon. Balthar later observes that her catatonic state emphasizes more than anything else so far that the psychology of those Cylons who appear human is identical to that of the beings they imitate and destroy. When Cain, assuming command of the fleet, splits up the Galactica's crew on the grounds that Commander Adama is too close to them, and when Apollo is told by his new CO that he should not allow the problems of his friends to trouble him, what is really going on is a destruction of the very philosophy that has kept the understaffed crew of the obsolete Battlestar alive: their acceptance of individuality.
It's a good argument, despite some clunky supporting examples (it seems disingenuous to offer the reporter in "Final Cut" as an example of someone who learns to see past preconceived notions and recognize the crew's humanity, and it is downright incorrect to claim that Adama--who may be clinically incapable of thinking impersonally--attacks Sharon in "Home, pt. 2" because he forgets that she is a person), but more interesting to my mind is Hartland's criticism of Galactica's treatment of gender. Despite what mainstream reviewers may think, Galactica is at its core a very conservative show when it comes to issues of gender, although I haven't been able to decide whether or not this is intentional on the writers' part.

When it comes to sexual humiliation on the show, the men are seduced and the women are raped. As I wrote when I discussed the show back in September, all of its individualized villains are female, and two of those villains use sexuality as a weapon. On both Galactica and the Pegasus, there is a marked absence of women in positions of authority and command (in fact, with the exception of Admiral Cain, we've seen no female crewmembers on the Pegasus at all). And then there's Starbuck, who, whatever Laura Miller might think, is anything but a feminist icon.

Galactica
's writers can't seem to stop apologizing for writing the character as she is. Starbuck is violent and headstrong because she's trying to fill up the empty void inside. The fact that she's sexually assertive and promiscuous is a sign that she's a 'screw-up'. That she doesn't want children is an indication of trauma and the result of being abused as a child (by her mother, who was apparently also a religious fanatic). Starbuck, we're told, wants to think of herself as mean and unworthy, wants to believe that she's not worth respect and love. Her confident demeanor conceals, as the stereotype goes, a profound lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.

I wouldn't like to be seen as saying that I want Starbuck to be perfect and well-adjusted, but the shape of her disfunction infuriates me. When I watch her, I find myself constantly recalling that genuine feminist SF icon, Farscape's Officer Aeryn Sun, whose character starts out, like Starbuck, as a capable soldier who is incapable of recognizing her feelings and who treats sex as recreation. Aeryn grows and changes over Farscape's run, and although by the show's end she has traded in her role as an emotionless soldier for that of a wife and mother, it is an empowering journey. Aeryn is flawed and, as a person, incomplete, but at no point did Farscape's writers suggest that, in order to experience the full range of human emotions, Aeryn needed to be cured of her strength or her personality. "You can be more", she is told by love interest John Crichton in their first meeting, and more is indeed what Aeryn becomes. She casts away the parts of her training that, as she comes to realize, don't mean a damn, and opens herself to new experiences. At the same time, however, Aeryn holds on of the skills that have kept her alive and made her strong, and uses them to safeguard her new, more rounded existence.

Instead of suggesting that Aeryn's competence and strength are an armor concealing her inadequacies, as Galactica's writers seem to be doing with Starbuck, the Farscape writers recognized that those strengths were an integral part of Aeryn's personality, that they had to be added to, not stripped away. Like all complete human beings, Aeryn had to learn to be vulnerable (although it's worth noting that throughout their relationship, Crichton was always 'the girl', emotionally speaking), but the writers never tried to make her pitiable. Galactica's writers use pity as a shortcut to making us love Starbuck--poor abused, lost child--but it is that pity, and the pity that Starbuck feels for herself, that is the most off-putting aspect of the character. It tells us that Starbuck is shamming strength, and that she may never make the journey into adulthood.

There has been some indication of progress for Starbuck's character--her journey to Caprica seems to have rattled her and forced her to take a long, hard look at herself, and she did seem to have something approaching a normal relationship with Anders--and as I've said before, Galactica's near-real-time progression means that any change we see in the character will be slow and gradual, but I'm not at all certain that the roots of the problem have been dealt with. Whether or not they meant to do so, Galactica's writers are treating feminine strength as a problem or an indication of a problem (with the exception of President Roslyn, of course), and they will never be able to write feminist fiction while they continue to do so.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out the comments to Hartland's article. There's a very interesting and well-written discussion going on there about the show's strengths and weaknesses, and the point is made that Galactica is a conservative show in more ways than just its attitude towards gender.

12 comments:

Dan Hartland said...

Hi. :)

Good points all on Starbuck, and ones with which I agree. I quoted her as insisting she wasn't a commodity, and I think there she was speaking for the show's true position on women (which of course isn't the same as the Cylons'). What else her character says about the show's assumptions on gender is, yep, a bit muddier.

Initially, I was as uncomfortable as you were using Lucy Lawless's character as an example, but on thinking of her true identity I decided that, actually, it didn't make a great deal of different to the effect (as opposed to the possible motivations) of that film. After all, she may not believe it herself, but the lesson she teaches the fleet is the less the show is teaching us. Maybe. Possibly. You never know. :P

The Adama thing is more debatable, but I can certainly see your point. I can never decide whether I sympathise with Adama and his heart is in the right place, or, alternatively, he's an idiot who I want to smack ... and I rather like that.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Dan,

I agree that Galactica's writers have their hearts in the right place when it comes to issues of gender. Just looking at Roslyn, who truly is a feminist icon - smart, strong, tough, capable of great tenderness, a natural leader, and damn sexy - makes it clear that they want to write about a world in which women are considered as capable as men. They just don't quite seem to know how to do this. It's the same thing with the gender distribution on the ship. The presence of Starbuck, Sharon, and the other female pilots on the flight deck seems to suggest a fully integrated military, but you look at the extras and the one-off characters and, 90% of the time, they're male.

I sympathize with your ambiguous feelings for Adama. I've come to the point where I just try to accept him as he is. In a way, I think the viewers' relationship with Adama mirrors Lee's feelings for him - his flaws drive us crazy, but his good qualities remind us that we love him, and why. Most of the time, anyway.

Dan Hartland said...

Yeah, it's a confused show in some ways, and I do sometimes wonder if Adama's character is one of those confusions. The more I think about it, the more I think his hideously strong personal connections to, well, everyone are what blind him so often to the consequences of his actions - he can be petulant and, frankly, somewhat selfish. It's this conflict, perhaps, that sees him simultaneously cry over a Boomer corpse and then want coldly to create a new one at the first opportunity.

OK, so now I just want tomorrow to arrive.

adonis23 said...

Aeryn Sun may be all the things you described but she was also BORING. She could play one character note pretty well, but her range was extremely limited.

Repeat after me:
Starbuck is not a role model.

Galactica is a drama, with flawed characters whose flaws we are meant to believe and empathize with. Starbuck is a complex interlocking network of strengths and flaws which you seem to find offensive because they come too close to some vaguely defined list of stereotypical female traits which need to be avoided at all costs for the good of humanity.

But there are many, many women out there who share alot of her traits, for whom she represents the first time popular culture has given them serious consideration. They love the fact that she's aggressive without sacrificing any of her femininity. She gets what she wants, and she's a brat, but eventually, like the rest of us, she has to grow up. We love that, we recognize that in ourselvbes and others. And she has a big heart; a big, broken heart. This is a character we can really sink our teeth into.

Don't get caught up in analyzing her in terms of a few simplistic, politically derived, predefined stereotypes. Look at her with fresh eyes, as a real person, and give her a chance to tell you her story before you suffocate her with your own baggage.

The only way we, as self-aware beings, can exercise our ability to be self-aware, and to have free will, is by changing our minds, forming new behaviors and opinions instead of relying on primitive, hardwired reflexes. It can be painful to let go of the old, comfortable mantras, but fully necessary to avoid fossilization. We learn, we grow, we adapt. We see the world with new eyes, and like the sages said, the truly wise among us are those who can learn from every other being they encounter.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Aeryn Sun may be all the things you described but she was also BORING.

Gasp, splutter, choke, etc. We're going to have to very delicately agree to disagree on that point.

Repeat after me:
Starbuck is not a role model.


Did I say she was?

My objection to Starbuck in this post (which, since you've already read the later "Scar" post, you know I've since qualified) is twofold.

One, that thoughtless reviewers are treating her as the embodiment of feminist ideals.

Two, that Galactica's writers have, in creating the character, catered to blatant stereotypes about aggressive women.

This is something I wrote a few weeks ago, which I think better expresses my feelings towards the original concept of Starbuck:

I don't get the feeling that when the writers sat down to brainstorm Starbuck's character, they said 'what are some interesting issues we might give her?' I think it was more along the lines of 'here's a woman who is strong, physically violent, and sexually promiscuous, and therefore she must have these issues'.

And later:

I guess it boils down to this: I would consider a fictional character to be rounded and complete if I felt that its flaws and strengths were not defined by its gender but rather informed by it. Roslin is such a character - she's nothing if not feminine, and her femininity informs her strength, her tenacity, her ruthlessness and her willingness to play fast and loose with law and morality. None of those qualities, however, are explicitly derived from her femaleness. ... Starbuck's [flaws] flow directly from [her] femaleness, which is why I feel that they represent stereotypes.

adonis23 said...

Okay, I'd like to restate my earlier post in less patronizing tones, sorry if it came off as a little abrasive, I should be a more polite guest here in your "living room".

I think it's a lot more interesting, engaging, and ultimately more socially relevant to present a character like Starbuck who is flawed in ways that we recognize in ourselves and in people we know, and watch her struggle to become a better person the same way we ourselves are constantly struggling, than to give us someone like Aeryn who embodies one kind of ideal (toughness) and watch her transform into another kind of ideal (nurturing). Starbuck lives in a village with a family we can instantly recognize; Aeryn lives alone with five people in an environment which is minimally relevant to our own.
It just works better. Television, and storytelling, at its best manages to gain our trust by telling us that it recognizes the world we live in, and shows us how people we identify with do things we hate or admire for the same reasons we would.

Sure, you can tear the show apart and look for traits you despise, and I guarantee that you'll find them, because the show's creators are deliberately making it messy and screwed up in ugly real-world ways for all the reasons mentioned above.

But it's also unfair and untrue for you to allege that the main characters are being thrown together in a series of espresso- and deadline-fuelled brainstorming sessions. The interviews and blogs of Ronald Moore, David Eick, and the actors, indicate that the main characters were given very deep and deliberate care, and were informed by the actors as they grew into and delved into their roles. Starbuck especially was a character that Ron spent more time on than any other, very carefully giving her qualities that drive a rich vein of story arcs, and Katee Sackhoff brings a very intelligent, consistent, and layered approach to her portrayal.

Of course her flaws are related to her gender. Do you know anyone who's flaws, and strengths, are not? Gender is all pervasive and completely integrated into everything we are. It's unfair to the individual to say that they do something because they are a women or a man, but whatever they do, they will do as a women or a man.

This is not a bad thing. I see gender as an inescapable, and indeed poetic, vital and empowering aspect of our humanity. We'll get a lot more mileage out of life if we embrace it and transform it to suit our own individual expressive needs, rather than try to swim upstream and somehow deny it.

And THAT is exactly what I love about Starbuck. She's a woman who loves being a woman while hating any and all expectations people have for her (I'm now referring to miniseries Starbuck here). She'll be one the boys if and when it suits her, and she'll swear, drink, smoke, fight and frack with the best of them, better actually. Then just when you think you've got her nailed down, she throws in a disarming little girlish smirk. She's something entirely new: simultaneously playful, full of joie de vivre, and angry, dark, and aggressive, all in distinctly female ways. She may fit your stereotype, on paper, of just another hurt little girl with a tough exterior, but the beauty of this character is in her depth. She's both stronger and weaker than you think, and she'll surprise you. I think it's great that her flaws flow directly from her femaleness, because we don't get to choose our flaws and then "inform" them with subtle watercolor strokes - they explode organically in guache garishness and with alot of shrapnel, out of the basic core of our identity which in turn is inextricably a part of a physical, gendered body.

That's why we're human, not Cylons.

I also like the way that classic gender roles are (mostly) reversed in the Starbuck/Apollo dynamic. She's physical, emotional, external, and hates to talk about feelings; he's intellectual, analytical, internalized, and can't stop talking about feelings.

I've written alot more on this at TWoP:

http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?showtopic=3122148&st=390

Do you see what I'm trying to say?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I do see what you're trying to say. I'm not entirely certain that you see what I'm trying to say.

it's also unfair and untrue for you to allege that the main characters are being thrown together in a series of espresso- and deadline-fuelled brainstorming sessions.

That's not what I said. I'm sure Moore and his writers worked hard to come up with a character outline for Starbuck, just as they did for their other characters. It doesn't necessarily follow that the result of that hard work wasn't couched in stereotypes, or that the writers' starting assumptions weren't as I represented them.

Of course her flaws are related to her gender. Do you know anyone who's flaws, and strengths, are not? Gender is all pervasive and completely integrated into everything we are. It's unfair to the individual to say that they do something because they are a women or a man, but whatever they do, they will do as a women or a man.

You're not disagreeing with me here. As I said, I have no problem with flaws that are related to gender. My problems start when flaws are the result of gender, and are compounded when those flaws cater to stereotypes.

I certainly agree with you that the miniseries Starbuck was a delightful character - a wonderful mix of mannish toughness and girlish glee. I object to the character as she was expanded upon in the series, when the writers started falling over themselves to apologize for Starbuck's strengths. The character that emerged from the first season was screwed up in the most predictable, clichéd ways that undercut the very strength that was so appealing in the miniseries.

And again, I was to stress that it's not the fact that Starbuck is imperfect that bothers me. It's the way in which the writers chose to express her imperfections.

Someone wrote something very smart about "Scar" that I wish I'd quoted in my post about the episode. They said that the competition between Kat and Starbuck, their issues with one another and with themselves, had zero to do with the fact that they both happened to be women. The characters' gender affected the way that the animosity between them played out, but it didn't motivate them. It was a refreshing change, and up until "Scar" not something I was used to seeing in Starbuck.

And I know that I said we were going to agree to disagree, but this:

someone like Aeryn who embodies one kind of ideal (toughness) and watch her transform into another kind of ideal (nurturing)

is just too far beyond the pale. Dear God, did you even watch Farscape? This is so far from a description of Aeryn's character arc as to be in a different galaxy, which is precisely my point about the difference between her and Starbuck. Aeryn doesn't transition away from toughness. She's as tough at the close of the series as she was at its beginning, if not more so since over the series' run she learns to think for herself and reject the dogma that was instilled in her during her childhood. She learns to be nurturing - as well as friendly, happy, scientifically curious, compassionate and self-guiding - but that addition to her emotional arsenal doesn't come at the price of her toughness.

When Galactica's writers tell us that Starbuck is the way she is because she was abused, because she hates herself and thinks herself unworthy, they are essentially saying that toughness is something Starbuck has to overcome. That's something that Farscape's writers knew better than to even suggest.

The argument could be made that even at her worst, Aeryn was a more grounded, more emotionally sound person than Starbuck is, and that it is her screwed-up-ness that makes Starbuck interesting. I don't necessarily disagree with this, but I do feel that a) Aeryn still makes a better feminist icon and b) there are plenty of ways to be screwed up, and Galactica's writers could have found a more original one for Starbuck.

adonis23 said...

What I think they're trying to say about toughness is that it's only a given for comic-book heroes. The rest of us develop a tough skin to deal with the world hurting us, and to preempt it when it does so. It's a defense mechanism , a scar or a callous. Again, this goes for men and women, and if you insist on forcing every character analysis to focus on gender, I don't think that allows for a deeper exploration and understanding.

When Ron Moore and David Eick reveal, layer by layer, the cuts that are responsible for Kara's many emotional scars, they're not apologizing for her strengths. Rather, they're showing us that some behaviors are not strengths at all, and showing us why this person developed these particular coping mechanisms. Well-adjusted people don't push themselves to obsessively competitive extremes of obnoxious self-centeredness just to fill their need for recognition or validation (which says volumes about our society which basically expects all of us to be this way). If Kara's the best pilot ever, at such a young age, and the best shot, and a professional-grade athlete, and a gifted artist, and the best at cards, are we supposed to believe this with no explanation, just because she's a main character and they have to have her in as many scenes as possible? By actually looking at why she develops these abilities, in the lopsided way that real people are driven by fear of inadequacy to excel obsessively, they're actually being incredibly respectful of our intelligence as an audience, and it gives us a risher appreciation of her as a person.

I don't see any indication that this is playing to any female stereotypes, unless you choose to always look for them, in which case you will always find them. Lee starts out as a preppy yet moody clean-cut golden boy, but he gets deconstructed in a similar fashion. You could make the argument that his leaving his Pregnant Flashback Girlfriend shows "stereotypical male fear of commitment", but if you delve a little deeper, this makes perfect sense because of his issues with his own father, fear of fatherhood, his impossibly high standards for himself and others, which lead him to constantly reject them and criticize himself as not good enough. etc., etc.

My point is that they took Starbuck from a cartoon charicature (Han Solo lite), to being a complex and believable person who is dealing with phenomenal, life-crushing forces both in and outside of herself. They don't see her swagger as a strength, but as the facade that it obviously would be taken for in a real life person. That's a tremendous sign of respect for the charcater and the audience - we get to see exactly how and why she breaks down, then slowly learns to reassemble her life and grow up to be a stronger person. It's a fascinating journey with a multitude of resonances for men, women, lovers, parents, and children.

And yes, I did see Farscape, but Aeryn was always too cold and aloof to capture my imagination. That's not to say she's not a great character, I just don't see the same depth there as with Starbuck, or the larger range of interactions she is allowed because she gets to have several ongoing relationships with recurring characters in more of a "village" setting. Again, it's apples and oranges, so I'm sure we'll never settle this in any meaningful way (short of a celebrity death-match boxing round .;-)

adonis23 said...

In reply to the end of your post, Abigail, I think that creating a character just so she can be a feminist icon, or looking for icon-hood in existing characters, is a subversion of the very feminst concepts of gender equality that you as a woman, and I as a man, hold so dear.
In a truly gender-equal world, women and men can be however they want to be without being forced to walk a narrow, tortuous path through a minefield of gender stereotypes. In that sense, I think Galactica has tried to create a realistic vision of a society where nobody questions the capacity of women to lead or fight or share the bathroom with men. This is gender equality, which is not the same thing as gender neutrality - the women are still women and the men are still men, because damn it, we have different bodies, and speaking as a neuroscientist I can say that the dichotomy between body and mind (a historical artifact of Descartes' problems with the Church) has been obsolete for centuries.

If we really believe in a gender-equal world, we have to start behaving as if it already exists. Women have to be confident enough to become their own feminist icons. Don't wait for the TV writers to make one up for you. Enjoy the fruits of their labor as an exploration of one aspect of the human condition, and accept that it may or may not have relevance for your own life, but may nonetheless speak to others.

Sorry, I got a little preachy there at the end. I'll go away, but I hope some of this maybe makes sense.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

We seem to be talking at cross-purposes, Adonis, to the point that I'm beginning to wonder whether there's any value in continuing the discussion. You keep telling me that flawed and damaged characters are interesting and worthwhile. I've yet to disagree. I keep telling you that the way in which Starbuck's character was laid out in the first season caters to stereotypes and your response is to accuse me of seeing only what I want to see and being interested only in the fevered pursuit of my own agenda. I'm not quite sure how to respond to that. "No, I'm not"?

Because the truth is, I'm not always on the lookout for stereotypes in portrayals of women. I saw them in Starbuck, but I wasn't looking for them.

Now what?

I disagree with your characterization of toughness as merely emotional scar tissue. What of Roslin's toughness? What of Cally's and Dualla's and, hell, Adama's? Are they using it to cover up their pain and keep themselves emotionally cut off, or are they genuinely tough people? And if the latter, does the fact of their toughness prevent them from being damaged and flawed?

I really wasn't sure I was going to get into this, as this discussion up to now has been pleasant and civil, but that last paragraph in your second comment is not preachy. It's condescending as hell, and not something that you, as a man, get to say to me. Yes, there's something appealing, in a "Act as though you were living in the early days of a better nation" way, about the notion of bringing about a gender-equal society by behaving as though we live in one, but what that attitude boils down to, in the reality of our society, is willful blindness. When study after study show that women are still being discriminated against in schools, in universities, in the workplace and, yes, in the military, your suggestion amounts to pouring fuel on the fire. And as for saying that women have to be confident enough to become their own feminist icons... that's coming dangerously close to blaming women for their own situation. "Why can't those women make a go for themselves on their own? I did it, and I didn't have any stinking role models!"

I never suggested that characters should be written with feminist ideals in mind, nor was the search for icon-hood in Starbuck or any other character my idea (as I said, the original post was written partly in response to Laura Miller's parade of idiocy in Salon), but to suggest that feminist role models are somehow an outdated notion, and that the very desire to find them indicates some fundamental misogyny... dude, that takes some nerve. Our world is very far from ideal in many ways, not just gender-equality, and while I agree with you that people should be free to make their own way in life without having to deal with prejudice and stereotyping, the fact remains that I am going to spend the rest of my life bumping up against both. I don't think it's asking too much to expect an otherwise intelligent, thoughtful television show to put a little bit of effort into counteracting their pernicious effect.

Anonymous said...

I keep hearing feminist reviewers commenting on strong female characters retaining their femininity. A good thing of course, since most women are feminine, and they should not and do not have to give that up to be as strong as men (in every sense of the word).

However, I am wondering if most of these reviewers, or most people for that matter, realize that some women jsut don't have much femininity to retaine. We're not trying to "put on masculine covers" becasue we're "insecure". It's just how we are.

There are differences in the masculine and feminine brains due to the amount of testostorone they have. And sometimes, you will have a girl born with a "boy brain". I'm not saying that if a girl likes basketball she's "masculine". I'm just saying that some womens' brains are wired more like a typical man's than a typical woman's. So naturally, trying to fit into feminine rolls would be trying to be something we're not.

In essence, saying "This heroine is as strong as a man, while retaining her femininity" is like saying, "This heroine defies traditional gender rolls while remaining heterosexual." Just because she's tough doesn't make her gay, but at the same time, acting like gay people don't exist would be silly.

It's the same with masculine women and feminine men. Femininity is as important and powerful as masculinity, but the media should start to aknowladge that some women actually ARE masculine.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm not at all certain whether you're disagreeing with me.

It's true that some women aren't comfortable within the confines of stereotypical femininity (although I hardly think it's necessary to call on their brain chemistry as a justification for this preference - wouldn't a simpler explanation be that that definition of femininity is too narrow to contain half the human race?) and that there's nothing wrong with their choice to express themselves outside those confines.

This is, in fact, precisely the argument I make in my post, when I point out that, rather than simply stating that Starbuck is the way she is because why shouldn't a woman be tough and physically aggressive, Battlestar Galactica's writers fall over themselves to excuse her behavior. She's damaged, she's self-loathing, she's the victim of abuse. There's got to be something wrong with her, because otherwise why wouldn't she be girlish?

Femininity is as important and powerful as masculinity, but the media should start to aknowladge that some women actually ARE masculine.

Once again, exactly what I've been saying.

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