Feminism and the Figure of the Fembot (Part 5.2 of 7)

V. Fembot Fatale: Gender and Consciousness Performance in Battlestar Galactica

From left to right: Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, Karl "Helo" Agathon, Number 6, Sharon "Boomer" Valerii
From left to right: Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, Karl “Helo” Agathon, Number 6, Sharon “Boomer” Valerii

Sharon, the other Cylon character mentioned previously, is also a character highly coded with ideas of motherhood. Unlike many of the other female characters on the show, the audience never sees Sharon act sexually. At most, Helo and she share a few on-screen kisses, but any sexual relationship they have beyond that is kept squarely off-camera. The only time we become aware that Sharon and Helo have been intimate at all is when she realizes that she is pregnant with his child. The audience learns that the Cylons intended Helo and Sharon to fall in love from the first. Seeking ways in which they can naturally procreate, the Cylons surmised that while just fornicating with humans was not producing children, having a Cylon and a human who were in love copulate may have been the step they were missing. The first of the main characters to bear a child after the Cylon attack on the colonies, Sharon is immediately identified as all that is good and right for a woman to be in the universe in which the story exists. Strong, intellectual, but deeply attached to ideas of love and partnership, Sharon is devoted to the idea of raising her child with Helo as a family. Even though she is a Fembot, motherhood is foremost on Sharon’s mind.

Boomer and Chief Tyrol
Boomer and Chief Tyrol

This bears a sharp contrast to ‘Boomer,’ the other version of Sharon Valeri. Boomer is shown as a career military woman. A lieutenant in the Colonial Army, she is young, vibrant, and active. She takes charge over men, ordering those under her freely and confidently. Whereas the audience sees no sex scenes involving Sharon, Boomer has several scenes in which she engages in her illicit affair with the ship’s crew chief, Tyrol. She initiates every one of these scenes, their setting usually being a supply closet or some other potentially public place. Boomer never talks about family or having a child, and even though she clearly loves Tyrol, it becomes obvious that she has no intention of settling down any time soon; just as it becomes increasingly obvious that she is actually a Cylon. Programmed to think she is human, Boomer acts as a sleeper agent, performing various kinds of sabotage aboard the ship that she can never remember doing. The climactic moment comes when she attempts to assassinate the Commander and she suddenly realizes that she is not human, but Cylon; not friend, but enemy.

Kara "Starbuck" Thrace
Kara “Starbuck” Thrace

The final character under examination here is Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace. There are few characters in the show that subvert expected gender performance more than she does. Not only is she an enlisted woman of rank, she is the ship’s best fighter pilot, well-known for her dangerous, yet effective stunts that she pulls during battle. She smokes cigars, always wins at the high-stake poker games she organizes, and has a myriad of sexual partners throughout the show. Some of them she has a legitimate emotional connection to, even though she may fight against it, but some of them are also just one night stands. She gets what she needs out of an on-camera tryst and then leaves. Her cropped blonde hair only emphasizes her rejection of traditional female gender roles. Many of her actions are motivated by emotions of rage, revenge, and guilt. Starbuck never lets anyone get in the way of what she wants and she never lets anyone get close. When a doctor tells Starbuck that she should consider having children, if only for the continuation of the human race, she rejects him violently, refusing to even talk about the subject.

In Battlestar Galactica, the issue of reproduction is especially pertinent for obvious reasons. In order for their species to survive, “We have to start having babies” (Moore), as Commander Adama realizes aloud at the end of the miniseries. The cylons are equally concerned with carrying on their race to its fullest potential for political, as well as deeply religious, reasons. In this climate it is no wonder that issues of gender politics come to the forefront, right alongside the issue of machine intelligence and consciousness. Winding these two issues together, the female characters of the show become the sites in which most these questions are played out.

Why then would the writers reject a link that has already been well established in science fiction, that of the Fembot being the Femme Fatale? It is a challenging picture of femininity that this show presents to the viewer and one that is not immediately apparent. The Fembots are at first perceived to be Femme Fatales – it is a knee-jerk reaction that the creators do nothing to immediately contradict. But as the show progresses, it becomes clear that it is these ‘Fembots’, these mechanical women, who are acting in the way our society deems acceptable. In the end their actions end up benefitting the society as a whole, even if at first it seems they are only there to destroy.  Conversely, it is those characters who are supposed to be the most “human” that perform femininity in a way that ultimately injures those around them on a personal and societal level. While they use their sexuality as a weapon and their rejection of gender performance as a show of resistance, it leaves them unsure of who they really are. Without a gender to perform, there is nothing constituted. They are adrift in a sea of identity and sometimes lash out angrily at those who try to show them a path.

In the end, this does return the show to a classic science fiction moral, one that is found frequently in stories of artificial intelligence gone amuck: It is from within our own society that threats emerge. The idea is that so-called ‘subversive’ machine intelligence only highlights our own human failings. In the case of the Fembot, the failing underscored is a failing to come to terms with sexual and gender based identities.

Works Cited

Moore, Ronald D., and David Eick. “Battlestar Galactica.” Battlestar Galactica. Sky1. London, UK, Oct. 2004. Television.

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Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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