Well, okay, mostly I just watch for dreamy Jamie Bamber and Tahmoh Penikett to take their shirts off. The social and political critiques are just gravy.
Imagine my dismay over the very queer-unfriendly BSG miniseries Razor. Not only did Bamber stay fully clothed (Again, why do they think I am watching the show?), but the story fell into some of the most cliched stereotypes of lesbians known in pop culture. Even before I sat down to watch it, I knew things weren’t going to go quite right. AfterEllen revealed the lesbian sub-sub-plot the day before Razor aired. The AfterEllen folk, knowing that the producers probably didn't mean harm, tried to be generous with their reading of the show. Fortunately, my gravitas doesn't leave me with any similar inclination.
Without going into a lot of the details, the basic premise of BSG involves the almost total genocide of humanity by a group of robots (cylons). The cylons, for inexplicable reasons, appear both in a shiny metal form and in a covert-human-looking form. The covert human cylons spy on the actual humans, often with sexy results.
All that remains of actual humans are a scattering of civilian spaceships and a couple of military ships. For much of the show, though, the two military ships were unaware of the other’s existence. The titular Battlestar Galactica was commanded by Lee Adama (played by the scenery-chewing Edward James Olmos). Adama leads the battleship and a fleet of aging civilian ships (including the President’s ship) on a mission to find a peaceful future on earth.
The other military ship, the Pegasus, appeared unexpectedly in season two. As a narrative strategy, Pegasus served as the darker alternative to Galactica. Whereas Galactica focused on survival and preserving humanity, Pegasus waged a merciless campaign of guerrilla warfare.
The original story arc about the Pegasus revealed that the commander of the ship, Admiral Cain (played by the underrated Michelle Forbes), became cruel and blood thirsty. Unlike the sure and steady Adama, Cain’s command style made her as lovable as Captain Bligh. Before meeting up with Galactica, Cain shot her second-in-command for questioning her orders, forced civilians into military service aboard her ship, and threatened to kill the families of humans who resisted her orders. A cylon, whose torture Cain authorized, ultimately murdered the Admiral.
Fans apparently responded to the notion of an anti-Galactica and Cain’s character had some interest. As a result, SciFi and the BSG producers decided to film a miniseries that would tell Cain’s full story and fill in the exposition of her collapse into revenge. This is where things went kinda wrong.
One of the “surprise twists” of that miniseries was that Cain had a lesbian affair with the cylon spy on board her ship. Cain's decision to torture her (and seemingly her slip into nuttyville) resulted from the betrayal of this lesbian relationship. Yeah, we are back to old stereotypes about killer lesbians from outer space whose love affair leads them to kill, kill, KILL!
Battlestar producers (and ardent fans) have defended the decision to make Cain’s insanity at least partially related to this relationship is a claim that “sexuality doesn’t matter in the Battlestar universe -- Nobody thinks twice about being gay or straight.” They argue that Cain’s relationship to the cylon was the same as the heterosexual relationship between the male-character Baltar and a female cylon.
Those claims would be a lot more convincing if we had seen any other explicitly queer characters on Battlestar before Cain. Likewise, it is Baltar who rescues the tortured cylon from the deranged Cain. Seemingly the straight can have complicated responses to their betrayal. Lesbians just want blood.
It’s not that I need every queer character or relationship to be represented as perfect. One of the problems with claiming that “sexuality doesn’t matter,” though, is that it rarely means that queer characters get a fair shake. On the contrary, while Battlestar has been preoccupied with every possible variety of heterosexual relationship, queers have been totally absent. Making the sociopath Cain into the only explicitly human queer figure only plays into some pretty tired stereotypes.
Really, it has been a tough year for lesbians in science fiction. The British-import Torchwood also could not resist an episode about killer lesbians from outer space. In one episode, an evil alien seduces one of the main (and usually straight-identified) female characters. The lesbian alien then encourages her to betray her friends and possibly destroy the earth. Queer sexuality was imagined as both inhuman and dangerous.
To my mind, though, what distinguishes Battlestar and Torchwood’s killer-lesbians-from-outer space is that the latter has also had positive images of queer characters. Indeed, the central hero of the show considers himself “omnisexual” and frequently mentions relationships with both men and women. Meanwhile, Battlestar’s producers have only delivered empty promises of better (read “any”) representation for queers on their show.
Perhaps what also makes Battlestar’s claims that “sexuality doesn’t matter” suspect is that the miniseries itself named sexuality as the key difference between Cain and Adama. Why did Cain go wrong? The wise Adama authoritatively tells the audience that it was because she lacked the same [heterosexual] relationship that he had with the [heterosexual female] president and because she lacked children. He explained to his (all-too-shirt-wearing) son:
- Now, you don't have any children, so you might not understand this, but you see yourself reflected in their eyes. And there are some things that I've thought of doing, with this fleet, but I stopped myself because I knew that I'd have to face you the following day.
Apparently since Cain was a barren husk of a woman, she was more than willing to do cruel and unusual things that the good patriarch Adama wouldn’t possibly consider. Without the cure-all of biological offspring, the show tells us, Cain lost her humanity and turned into a bitter, bitter killing machine.
I am not impressed with the notion that sexuality is only irrelevant when discussing queer characters, but critically important to the formation of hetero characters’ motivations. Producers might claim that sexuality is no big deal in the BSG universe, but it still clearly matters here at home.