Thursday, June 7, 2012

Battlestar Galactica and Homosexuality

A while back I watched a Feminist Frequency video which was about the since-cancelled Sci-Fi show Caprica, a prequel and spin-off of the very popular reimagined Battlestar Galactica of the early 2000's. In this video Anita Sarkeesian talks about the character Sam Adama, young William Adama's uncle, who is openly gay but the show doesn't make a big deal out of it. As Ms. Sarkeesian explains, this is a fantastic step forward for media depictions of homosexuals of both genders, but it is far from perfect. Sam Adama is an enforcer for a criminal organization in Caprica and ruthlessly murders the organization's opponents with somewhat phallic knives. Thus Sam Adama is gay, but presented to us as an evil character because he participates in violent murders. I definitely encourage my readers to look at this specific video which I've linked below, and look at more of Ms. Sarkeesian's thought-provoking work.

For many years American media has had overall negative depictions of homosexuals of both genders. In part this can be traced back to the Hays Code initiated in the 1930's and which continued to hold sway over film-making until the 1960's. The code prohibited films portraying anything other than a narrowly defined system of morality which, this being the 1930's, included mixed race relationships and homosexuality. If homosexuals of either sex were included at all in films they were depicted as inherently evil and immoral as a result of their sexual orientation. Fortunately there is no such code today, but American media continues to struggle with its depiction of homosexual characters. When they're depicted at all they're either a combination of outdated stereotypes, such as camp gays or butch lesbians, or their sexuality becomes this huge deal and we go through increasingly dramatic story arcs focusing upon their gayness. Or sometimes even both. There are gradually increasing examples of normal well-adjusted people who just happen to be gay in media, but there are still struggles.

An example of this ongoing struggle with the depiction of homosexuals in media is two homosexual characters from Battlestar Galactica, the precursor to the above-mentioned Caprica. Through its four-season run BSG has two main characters who are revealed as homosexuals, Lieutenant Felix Gaeta and Admiral Helena Cain. I do want to state that as far as I remember the sexual orientation of both Gaeta and Cain were purely incidental aspects of their character rather than being a dominating characteristic. However, out of the diverse cast of BSG who occupy a number of different positions on the moral spectrum, the two main characters who happen to be homosexual also happen to be..well...evil. If it was a coincidence on the part of the writing staff it is an unfortunate coincidence and one we should actively work to avoid. However, if the fact that both main characters who are homosexual also end up as evil was an intentional act on the part of the creators, (And let me just say now that I'm not saying it was intentional, just including that possibility for the sake of completeness.) then the media's depiction of homosexuals is a larger issue than we may realize and definitely should be addressed.

Lieutenant Felix Gaeta

Lieutenant Felix Gaeta 
I initially had doubts about including Felix Gaeta in this post at all. For much of BSG's run Gaeta is firmly in the camp of the sympathetic human protagonists. In fact Gaeta's knowledge in both computer programming and scientific research dramatically helps the survival of the humans on numerous occasions; during the Cylon occupation of New Caprica Gaeta goes so far as to risk his life infiltrating the puppet human government and rely vital information to the human resistance. So for most of his time on the show Gaeta is a likable supporting character of the cast.

However it is during the fourth season of the show that a few important things happen to Gaeta. First, we discover that Gaeta is a homosexual and was in a romantic relationship with Lieutenant Louis Hoshi, when previously Gaeta's sexual orientation hadn't been really discussed. Second, Gaeta loses a leg due to an accident and becomes wracked with pain from phantom limb syndrome and becomes increasingly bitter and withdrawn. Finally, and this affects the whole fleet, Admiral William Adama and President Laura Roslin agree to a truce with Cylon rebels to help increase humanity's chances of survival. Many humans within the fleet, including Gaeta, are angry about this decision and feel betrayed by their leaders.  Gaeta then organizes and leads a mutiny aboard the Galactica against Admiral Adama and though it meets some initial success, the mutiny eventually falls apart and fails. Most of the mutineers are simply imprisoned in Galactica's brig, but Gaeta and another high-ranking conspirator are executed by firing squad and their bodies dumped into space.

Now Gaeta and many of his fellow mutineers had plenty of rational motivation for rebelling against their leaders, including the perceived betrayal of humanity by the creation of a truce with the Cylons. However, as a viewer I had two lasting memories of Gaeta after the series ended:

  1. Gaeta was a homosexual.
  2. Gaeta was executed for treason. 
Although the show does not connect those two facts, the fact that Gaeta's a homosexual is only revealed an episode before he leads his failed mutiny. So those two facts are literally the last two things we ever learn about Gaeta before he dies. I hope no one thought that Gaeta's homosexuality had anything to do with his decision to rebel, but it is an extremely unfortunate coincidence and an unflattering end to one of BSG's two homosexual characters.

I will end this with a final comment on Lt. Hoshi. While Hoshi does survive the series to the very end and was in a relationship with Gaeta, Hoshi was never developed as a character to the level Gaeta was and remained a C-lister at best.

Admiral Helena Cain

Admiral Helena Cain
While argument over whether Gaeta was actually evil or not is still an excellent matter for debate, Admiral Helena Cain was from her introduction was a clear antagonist to the more level-headed William Adama (then a Commander). Cain, much like Adama, is in command of what she believes to be the last functioning battlestar and responsible for the continued survival of humanity. Commanding the Pegasus, Cain quickly becomes consumed with a quest for revenge against the Cylons. When an early attack against the Cylons goes sour, Cain ignores the opportunity to escape and fight another day. Instead, Cain chooses to push the attack and suffer heavy casualties as well as personally executing her second-in-command for cowardice and insubordination. When the Pegasus discovers a surviving fleet of civilian craft, Cain orders all useful personnel press-ganged into service and strips the civilian ships of their Faster Than Light drives, effectively stranding them in space. When civilians resist this brutal treatment, Cain orders her marines to quash dissent with violence. These actions are brutal, but necessary for the continued survival and operation of the Pegasus and can to an extent be justified. William Adama faces some similar problems to the ones that Cain faced and seriously considered more ruthless options, however because he was surrounded by and listened to good people Adama ended up choosing more compassionate decisions than Cain. As the characters themselves state, Adama could have easily ended up acting like Cain if it were not for his advisers.

Where Cain crosses the line into outright villain territory, in my opinion, is her treatment of her Cylon prisoner. The Cylons created a number of artificial humans to infiltrate human society and help weaken it from within and provide intelligence for the Cylon armies. One Cylon infiltrator, under the alias Gina Inviere, works as a computer programmer to put Cylon malware in the Pegasus's computer systems. During her time on the Pegasus Gina becomes romantically involved with Admiral Cain and the two pursue a relationship. However when Cain discovers Gina is a Cylon agent she has Gina immediately incarcerated and orders her crew to begin a ruthless interrogation. Cain specifically instructs her crew to use tools such as fear, pain, and degradation in their interrogation and they ultimately end up using techniques such as torture and gang rape. ...yeah....

Listen, I don't want to get into a huge moral discussion right now because it's neither the time nor the place. I feel like it should be sufficient for all my readers to agree that rape is inherently wrong in all its forms, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. The simple fact that Admiral Cain not only knows her subordinates are carrying out regular gang rapes of a prisoner, but also she effectively orders her crew to do it makes her just as guilty as the rapists. If not more so. If I had to point to a single human character as irredeemably evil in a world of largely grey moralities...I would point to Cain. Again, I do not think that the writing staff intentionally made the homosexual character of Cain this complete monster and I am willing to accept that it was an unfortunate coincidence. A really, really unfortunate coincidence. Ultimately Gina escapes from her cell and kills Admiral Cain in Cain's quarters. As a viewer I saw it almost as a karmic execution of Cain, her sins finally being avenged, and felt little to no remorse over her passing.

During its run, Battlestar Galactica was a flagship show on the Sci-Fi channel and made it ask what it meant to be really human. We saw plenty of Cylons become compassionate and likable characters, and plenty of humans become ruthless and heartless bastards. Out of all the conflicting moral situations on the show, I came to see Admiral Adama and President Roslin as the moral leaders who make tough decisions, but ultimately the right ones. We also experience a wide range of relationships, from the dysfunctional Tigh marriage to the loving mixed marriage of Cylon agent Athena and Karl Agathon to the rampant womanizing of Gaius Baltar. Yet out of all these characters we have only two homosexuals, both of whom come into direct conflict with Adama and Roslin who, again, in my opinion represent the closest thing BSG has to a moral authority.  Even if this was not intentional, to a viewer it sends a message that homosexuals are somehow inherently bad and will definitely fight against proper morality at some point. In an age where homosexuals are struggling for civil rights equal to those of heterosexuals, for the American media to continue portraying them in a negative light is both unrealistic and in some cases harmful to their cause. Perhaps as viewers it is time we not only demand a realistic depiction of homosexuals (and other sexualities) in American media, but a positive and accepting depiction as well. It may not stop all the gay-bashers, but it will definitely stop spreading misconceptions and bad stereotypes we could all do without.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Alan Turing,  23 June 1912 - 7 June 1954. Without him, it is probable many more lives would have been lost in World War II and our modern computer-run society might not have been possible. 

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