Gender & Power in Science Fiction

As a supplement to my thoughts on gender and power, I want to look at the series Battlestar Galactica in more detail.  I love the first three series of this show and it has plenty of interesting things to say about gender.  In Season Two, the episodes ‘Pegasus,’ ‘Resurrection Ship Part 1’ and ‘Resurrection Ship Part 2’ offer a disturbing take on the question of what happens when women try and appropriate masculine prerogatives.

Spoilers Alert!

Adama is in command of the Battlestar Galactica, a military ship tasked with protecting a civilian fleet escaping from the Cylons, a race of machines who have destroyed the human’s home planets.  Adama is authoritarian, charismatic and highly honourable.  He does screw up sometimes, but his intentions are never in doubt.  He is a caring, if tough, father-figure to the people under his command and is much loved in return.  Now, I think Edward James Olmos is amazing, I love the character of Adama and it’s also great to see a Latin actor in such a powerful role.

But in Season 2, the show does something troubling with gender, providing Adama with a female counterpart, Admiral Cain, who commands the Battlestar Pegasus.  The Pegasus has been through the same experiences as The Galactica, trying to survive and evade the Cylons; and Admiral Cain is, like Adama, a charismatic leader, totally dedicated to her ship and the people under her.  Cain is played by Michelle Forbes, an actor I also like very much.

The Pegasus and the Galactica catch up with each other and despite the doubts of his friends and the President, who sense that something isn’t quite right about Cain, Adama (still a commander at this point) honourably hands over authority to her as his superior officer because he respects the chain of command.

As the episodes progress it becomes apparent that while the Pegasus has been in the same situation as Galactica, it has followed a very different path. There is a horror story beneath the facade and its source lies in Admiral Cain.

Cain, it turns out, is pretty much a monster.  Her crimes include pillaging civilian ships for resources, then leaving them without defences to the Cylons, as well as brutally killing anyone who questions her authority.  Most disturbingly, in terms of the representation of the character, she has allowed, even encouraged, the gang rape and torture of a female cylon prisoner by her men.

Not satisfied with being the Phallus, Admiral Cain decides to have the Phallus.

Photograph of actor Michelle Forbes in Battlestar Galactica. She is wearing a blue uniform and holding a small knife up at shoulder height.

While on the surface of the narrative Battlestar Galactica seems to want us to believe that Cain’s gender plays no part in this horror story, the subtext strongly implies that her gender is crucially at stake.  After all, the main signifying difference between Adama and Cain is gender.  Cain has attempted to do the same things as Adama, but not only has she failed, she has turned into a monster in the attempt.  She is coded as a bitch, ball-breaker, sadist and the text hints (surprise! surprise!) a lesbian.  She starts hitting on Starbuck (another problematically masculinised woman in the series) almost as soon as she arrives and I’m told that the lesbophobia is brought out even more strongly in the BSG movie Razor. Adama has made a terrible mistake in letting Cain take over because the chain of command is already fucked by the fact that she’s a woman and possibly a lesbian – unless the lesbianism is simply the logical representational result of her being a woman in power.

Probably inadvertently, the show says something interesting here about the cultural construction of male and female power and authority.  In the show’s representational economy Adama is allowed power and therefore has no need to become a monster.  He certainly has the potential to be ruthless, but his assured position somehow makes actual brutality unnecessary.  In order to be equally powerful, Cain has to be a bitch, sadist and coded dyke who uses men to sexually terrorize other women.

After Cain has been shot dead by the woman she “raped,” the President promotes Adama to Admiral, restoring him to his rightful place and making sure that his authority cannot be usurped like that again. The episode ends with an impression that the natural order has been restored.

President Roslin is also an interesting figure in the show.  She is powerful, charismatic and able to inspire devotion, but the price of this power seems to be a pathologization and hysterization of her body.* She is permanently weakened by the fact that she has cancer, is religious and has clairvoyant dreams and visions, all of which make her appear unstable.  Adama is close to President Roslin, but he does not share her beliefs and is not associated with the “irrational.”  None of this means that Roslin is necessarily wrong; indeed, she may well be right, but again the show seems to be expressing some anxieties regarding female/feminine power or, at the very least, ascribing certain kinds of power to women and other kinds of power to men.

Further interesting approaches to gender, race and power can be seen in the world of Star Trek.  On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean Luc Picard is presented as a kind of Daddy figure for the entire ship:  charismatic, assured, honourable, trustworthy, a showcase of traditionally masculine humanist virtue.

It is interesting to note that the franchise’s next male captain, Sisko, is a bit more problematic because the actor is black.  Sisko has a lot of Picard’s virtues, to be sure, but he is slightly more unstable and “feminised,” in that he has an irrational side and becomes involved with the local Bajorans’ spiritual life, taking on a role of a spiritual leader, having visions and dreams.  Sisko is also allowed to be a more emotional and loving character than Picard.  I’m not saying that one representation is “good” and the other “bad,” it’s more complex than that, but the fact that the producers cast a black actor and brought this “feminised” element into his character seems unlikely to be a representational co-incidence.

When they decided that it was finally time to put a woman in charge, the panicky depiction of Captain Janeway suggests that the writers found they could not simplistically slot a female body into a role traditionally ascribed to men.  If the show did not directly pathologize Janeway, the fans soon picked up on a pathologizing, hysterizing undercurrent, dubbing the captain “bipolar” due to what they perceived as her erratic actions and violent mood swings.  I saw an interview with Kate Mulgrew in which she said that they were in such a panic about casting a woman in the role that they could not leave her hair alone and drove her up the wall by constantly changing it in the series.  Her feeling was that the producers were themselves a little hysterical about it all.  As far as I can remember, Janeway is hardly ever allowed to get laid in the series, whereas both Picard and Sisko are allowed sexual partners.

By the way, I love and watch all of these shows and I am not suggesting we should throw up our hands and swear never to set eyes on them again because they have some dodgy gender politics. They all have many more interesting things to say about gender, race and sexuality than I’m implying here and science fiction is pleasurable precisely because it engages with and reflects on society and offers us fantasies which tell us something about where we’re at.

And what do these representations tell us? Perhaps that we’re still struggling with the eighteenth-century enlightenment civil himanism which posited a distinction between (presumptively white) male and female virtue rooted in deep, internal traits belonging to masculine and feminine essences.**

* In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault argues that ‘the hysterization of women’s bodies’ is crucial in the development of ideas about ‘sexuality’: ‘the feminine body was analized — qualified and disqualified — as being thoroughly saturated with sexuality whereby it was integrated into the sphere of medical practices, by reason of a pathology intrinsic to it’ (104).

** Drawing here on Andrew Elfenbein in his book Romantic Genuis: The Prehistory of a Homosexual Role (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), pp. 22 – 23.

Cross posted to Flaming Culture

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