Galactica’s Feminist Utopia, part II: Rape

In my last post, I talked about how Battlestar Galactica tried to present a post-feminist society, and how some elements, like the Twelve Colonies’ approach to abortion and the portrayal of the sexual double standard don’t quite add up. This time around, I’ll be looking at the show’s various rape scenes, and what they tell us about the sexual politics of the human fleet.
The fact is, there is a lot of rape on Galactica. At least four rape scenes come to mind immediately – the prisoner’s  attempt to rape Cally on the Astral Queen (Human on Human), the Pegasus crew raping Gina (Human on Cylon), the Pegasus interrogator’s attempted rape of Sharon (Human on Cylon) and Leoban’s creepy psychological rape of Starbuck (Cylon on Human.) As you can see, the situations and motivations vary a great deal, but it is, with one possible exception that I’ll get to in moment, always male characters raping female ones. Although rape is not about sexual attraction primarily, this imbalance still seems unlikely in a world where women are not seen as inherently weaker than men, and where the perception of sexual domination is not seen as inherently masculine.
The entire point of this character is for horrible things to
happen to her – wait a minute, that’s every character.
The first of these examples is notable only for the way in which the writer’s use Cally time and time again over the course of the show. A viper technician, Cally is the quintessential cute character – there is innocence about her, especially early on, and therefore threatening her is a way of evoking a particular emotional response in the audience, much like kicking a puppy. But in a world where femininity is not equated with vulnerable, Cally, who despite her technical specialty is still a military officer who has undergone field training, does not seem like the ideal target for this technique. Billy, the President’s civilian attaché who is also present on the mission, would be much more “innocent”.
This brings us to a valuable and important point – whatever the sexual politics are within the universe of the show, any attempt to emotionally manipulate an audience will still be based on the sexual politics of our universe. The problems of the heterosexual male gaze continue to follow Galactica in spite of their attempts to make gender a non-issue.
The next example, the human treatment of the Cylon prisoners, presents a much more complicated situation. Aboard the Pegasus, it is revealed that gang-raping the number Six model Cylon known as Gina was a way the crew took out their anger at the Cylons as a race. It is implied that women took part in this behavior as well. In Galactica’s hangar deck, some pilots brag about it to Tyrol and Helo.
Pegasus frat boys.
Vireem: Oh I heard you guys even got yourselves a cylon. Heard she’s a hot one too.  
Gage: Like to get me some of that cylon stuff, huh? A little of the oh-yeah, oh-yeah. 
Pegasus frat boys: (laughing) 
Tyrol: Okay, you know what guys that’s enough, guys. Just shut up.  
Vireem: Ohh, sensitive. You got a soft spot for the little robot girl, do you?   
Vireem: You remember when Thorne put that “Please Disturb” sign up on the brig? 
Gage: I got in line twice. 
Vireem: Oh, I hear that. Remember she was just laying there, like, with that blank look on her face.   
The Pegasus officers are posturing for each other, and for Tyrol and Helo. This is why they mock Tyrol for being “sensitive” – its a ritual designed to reinforce gender identity. They’re using the rape to assert their masculinity in a situation where their inability to defend the human race from destruction by the Cylons has made them feel weak and powerless. The entire interaction of this scene is predicated on masculinity being mixed up with power and control. But would that definition of masculinity even exist in a society that had moved beyond these defined gender roles?
The third rape portrayed on Galactica is probably one of the most realistic, since it’s the only one where we see real consequences throughout the rest of the show – the number two model Cylon Leoban’s rape of Starbuck. Starbuck, with her liberated sexual attitude, her constant insubordination, and sheer badass combat ability, is the show’s ultimate example of female power and agency. She controls her own plotlines and makes her own decisions. Throughout the first two seasons no one, not Apollo, Adama, Helo, or Tigh, can exert control over her, though all of these powerful men attempt to at some point.
Then season three rolls around. The Cylons have captured New Caprica. Starbuck is separated from her husband and forced to live with Leoban in a mockery of domestic happiness. The cell looks like a typical suburban home, but of course there is no escape. Leoban is trying to get Starbuck to love him. Over and over again she kills him, and over and over again, being a Cylon, he resurrects. Finally, he brings home a young girl, claiming it to be their daughter. At first Starbuck determinedly ignores the little girl, but this neglect causes the girl to become seriously injured. Standing over the bed, she finally submits to Leoban, seemingly emotionally as well as physically.

Starbuck struggles with the shame of having let herself be manipulated in this way for the rest of the series. In a sense, this is the counter to the use of Cally’s vulnerability to evoke our emotional responses. Rather than threatening a character who is implied to have no power, we see the show’s most powerful character lose that power completely. But nonetheless, the male-female paradigm typical of 90% of rape plotlines remains intact, with all the assumptions that come bundled with it.
It can’t be rape! It’s on a comfy bed!
There is, however, one case of female-on-male rape on the show, and it is perhaps the most disturbing of all. When Baltar is a prisoner on the Cylon base star he does have sex with two of the female Cylons on a fairly regular basis, and this is portrayed as completely consensual. The two Cylon women have complete power over him, and threaten to kill him several times. At one point the number three model known as Deanna even tortures him then immediately has sex with him. It’s hard to see how this isn’t rape. Still, the music, camera angles, and set dressings all present it in a much more positive light. In other words, beautiful women forcing you to have sex with them is portrayed as a good thing.
The problem is that gender norms are not just a set of rules that can be changed at will as part of world building exercise. If you want to commit, absolutely, to portraying a world free of gender discrimination, you must be prepared to deconstruct any cliché or trope or image you intend to use, scrub it for sexual assumptions, then put it back together. That might be impossible, and even if it’s possible, it would likely result in a show losing a certain amount of emotional resonance. While I applaud Galactica’s attempts to address these issues, I can’t help but feel that if they weren’t prepared to take it all the way, maybe they shouldn’t have set down this path at all.

About The Author

Nathan Comstock holds a Bachelor's degree in Theatre from the College of Wooster, where he won several prizes for writing things. He hopes one day to write things for a living, though "what sort of things?" is an important question he is still trying to answer. When not writing or watching TV, he enjoys performing at spoken-word poetry venues around the city and sometimes playing music with fellow ACP writers Jonah Comstock and Chalkey Horenstein.
  • poo_dragon

    Good article! I feel it’s just about titalation, hype, and viewing figures, personally. I’m extremely critical of such storylines, whether they appear in book, tv, or film form….and I believe I’m correct in saying “with good reason.”

    Unfortunately, we presently live in very greedy and cynical times. I feel that *usually* (as in 99.9r% of the time), when you hear a person defending such content appearing in entertainment media, they forget what the ultimate goal of the companies that market this stuff actually is. And I feel that because it’s such a serious subject matter, that people have a tendancy toward “reaching” for an answer as to why the content’s there, and what it means. I feel they’re overthinking, as it were. And that the reason for such material’s appearance, within entertainment media in the 21st Century, is actually far more simple and straightforward – greed. Just simple, callous, greed.

    …Of course, the writer of the book, the movie, or the tv show is absolutely going to deny that as the case lol. We can’t expect them to admit to it. That’s just my feeling on the matter, for what it’s worth. Again, very well written article.