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How Battlestar Galactica sets the standard for feminist television

The BSG Mystique



It's Friday night. I could be out and about, gallivanting, painting the town, kicking up dust, causing trouble. Instead, I'm at my house with a few friends, about to embark on a marathon of Battlestar Galactica. I am wearing black and gray layered tank tops, as if I were a Raptor pilot, which I am not. I'm drinking beer and learning the rules to BSG drinking games, of which there are many.

How did I end up here?

I am not into science fiction. Never have been, never thought I would be. I'm a nerd, for sure — one who misses school and loves to read — but sci-fi geekery always seemed to have its own flavor that was never exactly to my taste. All the sci-fi geeks I knew were guys, and the imaginary worlds they inhabited never seemed particularly lady-friendly. In their stories and video games, women seemed to occupy very limited space as either objects to be rescued or objects to be lusted after. Rarely were they peers, companions, friends or equals. Best-case scenario, there was one token lady badass wielding weaponry with Double Ds in tiny tees.

There's a classic gender studies rule for measuring the presence of women in media called the Bechdel Test, developed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985. To pass the test, a piece of media must have two women with names who talk to each other about something other than a man. That's it. It's not a test of quality — plenty of great stuff fails the test, and plenty of terrible stuff passes it — or a test of true equality. All it does is show that there are indeed women present who have the most basic level of agency. You'd be shocked at how many pieces of art don't pass this extremely low bar.

To my surprise — and endless delight — Battlestar Galactica passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Not only does it blow the test out of the water, much like a Raptor blows up a Cylon Raider, it sets the standard for what a truly feminist television show can be. While the test stipulates the behavior of a mere two characters, a real feminist show portrays a society that on every level includes women as complex, fully developed, non-stereotyped characters. Just as the male characters have weaknesses and strengths, hero complexes and human foibles, needs, wants, desires and motives, so do the women. The degree of human messiness with which the male characters are imbued is equaled by that of their female peers.

It seems natural and obvious that women would make up about half of any fictional world, existing in every level of the social hierarchy without being pigeonholed into sexist or sexualized roles. On screens of any size, however, it's remarkably unusual.

Which brings me to the particular joy of having stumbled onto Battlestar Galactica four years after it went off the air. Using the original '70s series as a jumping-off point, BSG creator Ronald D. Moore devised a rich, fascinating world populated by characters — including women — who are robust and dynamic, shaped by their immediate needs, their long-term motives, and their personal histories.

There's Laura Roslin, the schoolteacher turned president who treads the delicate line between steely resolve to do what must be done and empathy for every single soul she impacts. There's Kara Thrace, the moody fighter pilot, who is selfish, rude and always on the verge of caving to her demons. She is also immensely talented and strategically brilliant. There's Sharon Agathon, whose evolving identity embodies the biggest questions the show asks of the characters and viewers, regarding the meaning of a new world order and what matters in it.

In one episode I recently watched, President Roslin spent several minutes discussing political trade-offs with her personal aide, Tory, and a female politician from another ship. Several minutes later, Kara Thrace and another pilot, Cat, argued over flight strategy and the best tactics for their Raptor ships.

This isn't Sex and the City or Girls, which in many ways are explicitly about how women relate to one another. This is a sci-fi adventure about a band of people on an intergalactic quest, chased by robots, wrestling with questions of what it means to be human. Good luck finding another show — a show watched by men — in which substantial airtime would be occupied by women talking to each other.

When I say I want to see feminist media on my screen, it's not about idolizing women, or admiring them, or talking about how awesome they are. It's not about girl power over boy power. It's about creating the space for women to occupy the same range of roles as men, with the same complexity and internal consistency. The universe of BSG is one of the few places on television where women are not so much women as regular old humans. And isn't that what it's all about?


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