Monday, December 03, 2007

Psycho Killer Lesbians from Outer Space

I have made little secret that I throughly enjoy SciFi Channel’s reincarnation of Battlestar Galactica (BSG). To my mind, the writing on the show has provided the most savvy political and social critiques to appear in television science fiction in decades.

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.


csdenton said...

This might sound strange, but I think I would have preferred if Admiral Cain was a gay man. True, the "killer queer" element would have still been there, but it would have been interesting to have a queer man cast in a "masculine" villain role, that of the militant tyrant.

It's having a lesbian cast as a traditionally "masculine" villain that really makes me slightly uncomfortable.

Antonio said...

From what I've read, BSG isn't doing too well when it comes to people of color either:

Alan said...

Hmmm... not really buying the killer lesbian stereotype here. Everyone on the show has done some really terrible things. Lee Adama, a straight man, destroyed the Olympic Carrier killing thousands of people, abandoned the folks on New Caprica, and screws around with another man's wife. Roslin, a straight woman, stole Athena & Helo's hybrid baby, she authorized genocide against the cylons, and she's executed cylon prisoners. Civilians were killed when Tigh, a straight man, instituted marshal law and he also authorized suicide bombings against other civilians. Ellen Tigh, a straight woman, collaborated with the cylons on New Caprica. Baltar, a straight man, betrayed all of humanity. And those are just a few examples of the screwed-up-edness of the straight characters on the show. It would be rather strange to have gay people be the only folks on the Galactica with no blood on their hands, because they really would be the only characters on the show with no blood on their hands.

I don't hear anyone, even straight guys, saying, "I'm so tired of seeing the straight man be the villain here. Why are straight men always the villains in SciFi" (Vader, every Star Trek villain, Sarris, etc.) If a SciFi villain doesn't have an exoskeleton, multiple arms, or 5 eyes, he's probably a straight man. What's the deal? We queers aren't tough enough to build an enormous superlaser-armed battle station and use our telekinetic powers to take over the galaxy? :)

I agree though that there should be more portrayals of queer folks on the show, but it's hard to think of a show about which that couldn't be said. I also agree that there is far too little shirtless Jamie Bamber action.

pacalaga said...

I just like the phrase "killer lesbians from outer space".
However, I have to wonder if it's more of a slam on powerful women who've given up the mommy track. Maybe the lesbian bit plays into that - she gave up being a housewife and -gasp- even gave up men! The horrors! o.0 It goes back to that old tired joke about why a woman can never be president (every month we'd go to war, but it would only last a week, etc etc)
Having not watched the show, I can only base that on your description. Interesting how we each see a different issue. Hey, it's a multipurpose slam...

Jackie G. said...

Like many other lesbian BSG-watchers that I know, I sighed to see the dead lesbian syndrome played out right before my eyes yet again.

I wanted like Cain for all that she was ruthless and crazy, but my blood ran cold when she pretty much authorized her underling to do whatever it took to get the information out of Gina (including humiliation). Given the way that said underling looked at Gina (and his later actions towards Boomer when she was taken into custody) told me that rape was on the menu.

That's deeply personal and a deliberate form of torture towards women.

Yes, Lee blew up the Olympic Carrier but it was put in a specific context: Dualla had lost their signal when they made the jump and couldn't positively confirm their identity.

Gaius has made so many mistakes because of his own greed and spinelessness and he's still breathing because some women think he's the messiah and spirited him off. And there have been times when he's show remorse for what he's done. Not enough to own up to it but he has. Ellen also showed remorse for turning over the members of the resistance before Saul killed her.

But Cain - you could see it in her face that having Gina tortured for information was personal as well as a tactical manouver which made it all the more chilling. Adama never authorized such behavior ever.

It's not about everyone having done something terrible. It is about how this one action was personalized in such a way as to feed into an ugly sterotype.

bardelf said...

I, too, have not watched the show, and find myself agreeing with many statements by pacalaga.

But my mind wanders...I think of gayprof wearing a shiny metallic spacesuit as he protects humanity from all evils.

vuboq said...

I want to be a killer lesbian from outer space when I grow up.

Anonymous said...

I mostly disliked the lesbian addition to Admiral Cain as it seemed such an obvious attempt to make her more interesting. The same thing just happened on "The Tudors"; what to do with an underused character? Make him bisexual -- that'll be interesting! You can almost here the writers' exclamation point in the scripts. (Fortunately, they're both attractive in that geeky/lanky British way -- in the tudors, not Admiral Cain)

I dislike the BSG film for both political and aesthetic reasons. The political reasons you covered quite well (even if I'm not sure that was what the writers intended), but I'm mainly disappointed because it was just so damn cliche. BSG is usually much more sophisticated and original than the tired trope of, in a pinch, make a character queer to make her more interesting. They can do better and the should.

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Well, I am now less unhappy that I missed the mini series.

meh meh meh

Doug said...

Although I found Cain's sexuality predictable and stereotypical, I didn't really expect anything different. Although I'd LOVE to see a real gay relationship on BG, again, I don't expect it. I'm not sure why my expectations are so low.

Anonymous said...

Never seen BSG, but this reminds me of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which a lesbian character was given a girlfriend. The girlfriend was then shot dead and the lesbian went homicidally insane, in an attempt to improve ratings.

The fans were not happy.

Adam said...

Oy, I think you're off the mark on this one and Alan put it best. ALL of the characters in BSG have terrible flaws or secrets, that's what makes the show so great and so human. You have a group of people who have lost EVERYTHING, their planets that they live on have been obliterated and so they are doing the best they can in the desperate situation they've been thrust into. The whole point of Razor was to show us more about admiral Cain, she wasn't always a bad person she just wanted to be the best in what she did - perhaps even in love she wanted to have the best. She prided herself on being sharp, like a razor, and that's what she was trying to teach her protoge, Kendra Shaw. You see that Cain is a woman of perfection when one of her officers urges her to take a break and she insists on staying on the Pegasus to make sure everything is perfect.

Imagine yourself in her position, a person who strives for perfection in everything you do, then you find out the person that you've shared a part of yourself with is responsible for the genocide of your people. I think a lot of us would react in a violent, perhaps even sadistic manner, towards the person that wronged us, gay or straight. Therefore I think you due the character great disservice by simply labeling her with the campy title of "Killer Lesbian from Outer Space."

To further Alan's point about all of the character's tragic flaws I need to mention Sol and Ellen Tye. I think that story is the most tragic out of all of the characters so far. Ellen literally whores herself out to a cylon to save her husbands life and ultimately achieves her goal, but in order to ensure her husbands continued safety she hands secrets over to the cylons. When Sol finds out he murders his own wife, who he loves deeply, because she's a liability to the survival of humanity. That is just plain tragic and it would be unfair to single out their alcoholism and sweep them into a category of "Irredeemable Addicts from Outer Space."

The overall theme in BSG is survival and about the sacrifices everyone has to make so that humanity itself can endure. So, I think admiral Cain's sexuality is inconsequential to her actions because it fits into the overall theme that all of the characters are subject to. There was so much more in the subtext about the kind of person she was and that, instead of her mere sexuality, needs to be paid more attention to in order to fully appreciate the great writing and acting in BSG Razor.

I still love you and I would have loved to have spoken about this over mulled wine :) Rewatch Razor maybe, give it a second chance.

GayProf said...

Chad: It would be nice if there were any out gay men in BSG.

Antonio: Yeah, I thought about discussing race in BSG as well(which is deeply problematic). My blog entries tend to be too long as it is. I will say, though, that I am annoyed that they convert the Latino actor(s) eye color to match the blue-eyed actors than vice versa.

Alan: One of the reasons that straight [white] men probably don't complain about negative images is because there are plenty of counter images of heroic straight [white] men. If Cain had been part of an entire constellation of queer characters, I would have felt differently. As the only one, though, she becomes much more problematic.

Pacalaga: I think the two issues are really intertwined. I should have said more, though, about comparing Cain with the other woman in power in the show (the president). In the latter's case (who I actually like as a character, but she has problems), she was not ambitious and did not seek power. She is often humble about her position and, therefore, seen as a more positive image of womanhood than Cain. The Admiral was ambitious and presented as suffering from the stereotypes of women who become "too hard" (which often also connotes a queer sexuality).

LadyJ: It also occurred to me that Cain's response to discovering that her lover was a spy was different from all the other hetero characters in the same situation. The (mostly male (all male?)) straight characters have tended to become more sympathetic to cylons upon the revelation. Cain, on the other hand, tossed her out to be brutalized by men.

Bardelf: I think of gayprof wearing a shiny metallic spacesuit as he protects humanity from all evils.

So you have seen me teaching?

VUBOQ: Don't dream it. Be it.

Olaf: I agree that the Cain sexuality bit was mostly about lazy writing (which I think also contributed to BSG producers not really thinking about the problems of that decision).

Les: It was a disappointment. The Doctor Who universe is looking better and better.

Doug: Maybe my problem is that I need to really lower my expectations... Or stop watching t.v.

Baron: As I wasn't part of the Buffy scene, I only heard about it through rumor. It all sounded bad, bad, bad.

Adam: If BSG returns in March with a wider variety of queer representations, I will reconsider. Should Cain become just one of many "queer" responses to the problem of genocide, I would accept your point. Alas, though, she is the only one (and a pretty sloppy only one).

This is also why I am willing to make allowances for Torchwood, which I think produced an equally problematic lesbian-from-outer-space episode. Yet, they have tried to balance it out by presenting a variety of queer vantage points through the course of the show. BSG, however, has only promised queer story lines and never (until Cain) delivered. They also promised that when [read "if"] a queer character entered, it would not be a temporary "one-shot" story line. I can't slice Cain or Razor in any other way.

I still love you, too. And I am always eager to have a drink.

dykewife said...

but it's true! all lesbians who are betrayed by their alien lovers and who are childless become bitter, evil, man hating, despotic murdering tyrants.

just like all gay men who are betrayed by their alien lovers will run to their special fag hag, cry on her shoulder and get drunk. then the poor unfortunate gay man will redecorate his house, all the while wearing a scarlet smoking jacket and drinking a martini.

Frank said...

I've often bemoaned the lack of lesbians in my life. Now I bemoan the lack of psycho killer lesbians from outer space in my life.

Anyway, I actually haven't seen the miniseries yet, and I'm less and less inclined to. I never really liked Cain to begin with, so a show that's at least partly about her never much interested me.

Why they don't just let poor Gaeta come out of the closet already, I don't know.

BTW, GayProf, have you watched any of SciFi's Wizard of Oz knockoff Tin Man? It has Neal McDonough running around in leather and deliciously tight pants, as well as the always-enchanting Alan Cumming. Leoban is also in it in the most fabulous leather jacket ever! Frankly, it's a bit of a mess besides the eye candy (the men and the absolutely AWESOME set and costume design), but I'd like to hear an academic's take on it. And I want to see your head explode upon encountering the astoundingly literal example of the Magical Negro trope I've ever seen. *LOL*

jeremy said...

Man, after season 3, I don't know why I'm still giving this show a chance. Razor flatout sucked. I don't give a crap about queer readings into it. I mean, if you're going to be as schlocky as Razor was, you might as well revert to 50's B-movie "Don't Let This Happen To You" sensationalism of lesbianism, right?
Lazy writing on TV="You of all people" and I think I heard that line twice in Razor. Its a lazy, bloated show now. It reminds me of me, and that's why it sucks.

Jen said...

Don't worry Frank, we're here for ya. We're aaaallllll around youuuuuu...

Roger Owen Green said...

I love Michelle Forbes. On Star Trek TNG, 24, and ESPECIALLY Homicide.
I'm just saying.

dpaste said...

I don't watch the show, but I agree that it doesn't matter how many negative portrayals of straight characters there are, when they are balanced by positive ones.

I challenge Alan and Adam to come up with one positive gay character on BSG. Then their refutation has merit. Otherwise, they have nothing to support their argument.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow - this makes me not want to see this now...I've been seeing the trailers for it. I really do need to start at the beginning with BSG - might be a holiday project, especially since the writer's strike means several of my current shows will be on indeterminate hiatus.

Anonymous said...

I haven't watched BSG except for a few eps of the first season, so don't feel qualified to comment, except to agree with those who adore Michelle Forbes. Her Ensign Ro was sadly missed when she left TNG.

My only comment is to disagree with those who found Tara's death on Buffy and Willow's reaction to be bad. I think it was really well done, completely non-gratuitous, and not stereotypical at all. I missed the character after she was gone, but the whole arc led to Willow growing as a character.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't seem far to tar Torchwood with the same queer-unfriendly brush as Razor. For one, the lead character on Torchwood is near the gay end of the bisexual continuum. For another, he's played by a gay actor, the crazyhot John Barrowman, who is surely destined to be shirtless on the show someday.

zombieswan said...

As a Buffy fan, I have to say that it's not exactly the same as what I think you're discussing here. Yes, they killed a gay character, and yes, some folks were mad. But they also killed off several main characters (Buffy's mom, for one) throughout the series. And on a supernatural show, dead doesn't mean dead forever, necessarily.

All that aside, they do show the remaining gay character becoming part of another gay relationship, becoming normal (no longer trying to blow up the universe), moving on, growing up.

I argue in my dissertation, actually, that the death of Tara puts the relationship firmly into an archetype of Demeter/Persephone/Lillith mythology, and therefore, is not just about the evil lesbian murdering everyone thing, but that, in giving Willow a real response, values the relationship more than you can say it devalues it.

But people were mad, yes. And they felt betrayed. And the show's writers were somewhat surprised, and had to defend the choices. So I can definitely see how frustrating this can be. Everyone wants fair representation now and then.

Why is it that redheads are always evil? Oh yeah, that's right. We are. :)

Anonymous said...


Because of you and an earlier post, I now watch Dr. Who and Torchwood religiously. Last weekend I got nothing done on Sunday because of a mini marathon. Are you happy with yourself?

And am I right? The poster before me wrote a dissertation based on something that happened in Buffy?

The TV show?

"Yes, I have a Doctorate in Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

oh man.

Oso Raro said...

Right on DykeWife! Killer Lezzies are always more interesting anyhow, especially when they push prams of brilliant children in front of buses while smoking cigarillos and karate-chopping their opponents while simultaneously copping a feel of their luscious, beautiful yet vulnerable go-go dancing molls (with too much eyeliner). The Fag variant is more sophisticated, of course, like having a dinner party on a corpse. Yummy! Paging Martha Stewart (who oddly enough, seems to combine both streams).

As a reality, unfortunately rare, but as an homage to how cinema, in this case Russ Meyer and Hitchcock, can create alternate realities, it is a nice vision.

Reginald Harris said...

I keep wanting to get into BSG, but haven't yet.....

How do we not come off as 'too serious' or 'killjoys' when we bring things like the "Killer Lesbian" issue up? Or should we even care about how we're seen? My partner was a big "Charmed" fan, but I was always bothered by how most if not all the evil characters had black/darkskinned henchmen (who were also usually muscular and hot....and they want us NOT to go over to the Dark Side?) while the heroines were saving helpless white people. I couldn't even enjoy SciFi's "Wizard of Oz" remix, 'Tin Man' for the same reason (leaving off for the moment how Toto became the black male not-entirely-100%-trustworthy 'Tutor'). I mention things like this to folks and they're either 'Oh, yeah, I didn't notice...' or say 'Its only TV!' Insidious thing, Popular Culture -- and a pain in the butt sometimes when you can't turn off being able to notice things like this.

goblinbox said...

I'm so glad you've explained the whole barren thing! Now I understand why I wanna kill people! It's not because they're stupid, it's because I'm childless and sometimes sleep with girls! Whew. I thought I was just aggro.

Anonymous said...

Whew, I keep procrastinating about making a comment...

One thought I had that *slightly* redeems Razor -- not in terms of fair representation but for being a little more than lazy writing -- but I got the feeling that part of the message of Cain was that her true downfall came from the unequal expectations she faced... or basically, she did got crazy because she's a lesbian -- if she were a straight man she would have been encouraged to have a support system like Bill Adama does, but for a lesbian a family life worked against her career and, thus, she didn't have a support system when she needed it most.

Of course, that's probably me overreading the early scene where she refuses time off to get some more work done.

And I do have to defend the lesbian death on Buffy. In many ways it was problematic*, but it also happened with two very developed characters. While I can understand the interpretation of "Dark Willow" as a bad stereotype, the reaction I had was one that said the end of a lesbian relationship (I'll wait for Whedon to show a similar comfort with gay men before I take that as a comment on all same-sex relationships) can be just as painful as any other relationship, especially when its an unnatural end, like a gunshot death.

Plus there were a couple more things, I like about Whedon in this case. For one, there was that episode where Whedon had a tantrum and put together an episode where Buffy and Riley spend an entire episode having sex after fighting with the network over a lesbian kiss. It only works if you know the story behind it, but I did like Whedon's "I can show Riley and Buffy fucking but I can't show Willow and Tara kiss? Fine! I'll have them spend an entire episode fucking! That's okay as long as Willow and Tara don't kiss, right?"

I also liked the specific circumstances behind Tara's death. (I won't spoil it.) I thought it was dramatic and made an needed point about gun violence.

*Some of those problems can be assigned to cluelessness and circumstance. Whedon admitted there was a bad association with the two finally having their big love scene right before Tara dies, but the reason they did it was a "this is our last chance to do a love scene between the two". At least they've admitted it was a stupid story and sound interested in learning a lesson from the mistake. (Maybe I just have lowered expectations since most creators would react to those criticsms by calling the critics stupid.)

zombieswan said...

I totally forgot I made this comment and came back to find I need to make a response to another comment. Hopefully this doesn't sound snarky-- I am a little defensive about it though.

To clear it up: I have a Doctorate in Literature in English, which took lots of classes on boring people like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville to get.

I have a specialty in media studies. I happened to have one chapter that discussed the feminism in Buffy from a mythic/feminist/thirwave/ gender as performance & power perspective.

In the current academic climate, it's hard to get a job (there are currently 42 in the entire south, more than 200 for the job where I'm on the market). So it doesn't matter what you write your dissertation in the humanities on, in some ways, cause it's just another blip on the hopeless radar.

I chose to do something that I felt would be fun (whether I was right about that is a longer story and I won't clog Gayprof's comments with that). So.

If you've watched Buffy, the series, you wouldn't mock it being something sophisticated & smart enough to write about. I too was sceptical about it at first, then I watched two episodes and was blown away. It isn't as stupid as its name makes it sound. If I said "I have a chapter on the way Shakespeare discusses blah blah blah" there wouldn't be any snickering, but I wouldn't have anything very original to say about it... Shakespeare has been DONE.

BtVS has it's own peer-reviewed academic conference, with lots of smart Doctorate type people there.

But yes. I finally. I will own it: I DO have a Doctorate in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What do you think of that?!

Asher Abrams said...

Arggghhh! I haven't seen "Razor" yet but I've been a huge fan of the new BSG from the get-go. This is disappointing.

In "Babylon 5" - which I also loved - the one queer relationship was between Ivanova and Talia Winters, which also ended tragically. Same stereotypes too - ballsy woman leader, etc.

And going slightly farther afield, there's Volyova's crush on Khouri in Alastair Reynolds' "Revelation Space" series. Same story: aggressive, masculine (and Russian) lesbian in a one-sided love affair, tragic ending.

This wouldn't bother me if we were talking about Ted Sturgeon's "90% of everything". But we're not talking about crap, we're talking about first-rate science fiction. It's just so damn depressing.

Asher Abrams said...

BTW, found your post on a search for "lesbians from outer space". heh ...