This ranty article is a reaction to this Reddit comment, which I had the misfortune of reading. Who in turn, is reacting this post over here that talks about the erasure of women as active, fighting figures throughout real history. The argument being put forth by Reddit user Vashra Araeshkigal is that Starbuck, a character re-imagined for the new Battlestar Galactica series, is nothing more than ‘a vagina placed on the old Starbuck‘, who was originally a male character, and therefore she is not a decent female character at all, let alone a “decent woman” – whatever that is – because she is not “feminine” enough. I’m addressing this because I’ve stumbled across this view in real life, let alone on the internet. Here is the full quote surrounding that delightful excerpt (my emphasis in bold):
Rather than create a strong female military character (which is, to be fair, what I think the writers were *trying* to accomplish), they simply put a vagina on the old Starbuck and moved on. The result was a woman soldier (sort of) who never looked more uncomfortable and awkward than when she was in a beautiful evening gown at a political event. She struck one as one of ‘those girls’ who had a mouth like a sailor and the morals of an ally[sic] cat.
The point Araeshkigal is trying to make (to begin with) is that Starbuck’s feminine qualities have been trivialised just because she’s a soldier, and because the writers weren’t good enough at making a “strong female character”, her inherent femaleness has therefore been compromised. This point is not a bad one as feminine traits are often viewed as negative qualities and are frequently downplayed in the pursuit of “strong female characters”, which is frequently misinterpreted as “a physically strong woman who can punch things, hates flowers and doesn’t cry”, rather than a fully rounded human being who is capable of the same range of emotions as male characters and who isn’t driven purely by infatuation.
But before I get onto the real bullshit that comes out immediately after that quote, I want to dissect the idea that it’s wrong for a ‘woman soldier (sort of)‘ (why ‘sort of’? I don’t understand what this is referring to – that’s she’s ‘sort of a woman’ or ‘sort of a soldier’? Either meaning is utterly stupid.) ‘who [has] never looked more uncomfortable and awkward than when she was in a beautiful evening gown at a political event.‘
First of all: Starbuck is a soldier. She is, by all credentials and experience and literal screen time proof, a soldier. With this in mind, it is not surprising that she spends her life, day-in-day-out, wearing uniform that ranges from fatigues to “formal dress”, which is the Battlestar navy-blues with gold trim. She is accustomed to dressing in practical clothing. As a military personnel living in a time of war her profession is practically constant, and even before that, she presumably lived on military bases where we know she taught and examined new fighter-jet pilots.
Is it so hard to believe, then, that Starbuck might feel ‘uncomfortable and awkward’ wearing clothing that she rarely associates with herself? Even when we see her playing cards during downtime she is wearing slack uniform. Even when she is preparing for bed, she wears sweat pants and a thermal bra. Her attire is simple, bland, regimented and often unflattering, because looking beautiful is not high on her list of priorities. Of course she’s going to feel uncomfortable in a dress, and especially so if she’s wearing a ‘beautiful evening gown at a political event’ because she has been stripped of the “outer-skin” that is familiar to her – the clothing she usually wears in stressful situations, let alone casual ones. To dismiss the idea that clothing affects self-esteem, especially for women, is just ignorant.
Let’s move on to the statement ‘one of ‘those women’’. In four words Araeshkigal has managed to Other a range of women who are, apparently in her eyes, a sub-group who are worthy of being looked down upon, particularly as she further elaborates upon this point by saying ‘who had a mouth like a sailor and the morals of an ally[sic] cat.’
The phrase “one of those women” is never used in a positive context because it is used to segregate women who behave in a particular way; women who do not fit with some binary the speaker feels is worthy of inclusion or their respect. But because Araeshkigal has chosen to point out that Starbuck has ‘a mouth like a sailor’, we can assume that Araeshkigal partly disapproves of Starbuck because she talks in a manner that Araeshkigal later defines as ‘uncultured’. I also get the impression Araeshkigal has never spent time with actual soldiers (she says she has a friend who is a veteran soldier but this is not the same as actually hanging out in a military environment), the majority of whom swear a lot regardless of their gender.
I can only guess what ‘the morals of an ally[sic] cat’ means, but given that Starbuck is prone to smoking, drinking and disrespecting officers, I can only assume this is what it’s refering to. Her loyalty to Adama, however, is very rarely in question and she’s not even that promiscuous, so again, which “morals” are being questioned here are rather vague. Regardless, I don’t see why her manner of speech or personal morals make her a lesser person, let alone a lesser woman.
Araeshkigal goes on to say (my emphasis):
And if my husband winced because our daughter saw this brash and uncultured female as a role model, should I curse him for being misogynist or sexist…or admit that *he* was recognizing something also true which many “Feminists” ignore:
Every trait of the *feminine* (not feminist) seemed out of place on our not-quite-Lady Starbuck, which means the baby was neatly thrown out with the bath water. This was not a heroine. It was a hero with an inexplicable sex op!
Aside from this very narrow minded opinion on how a woman should and should not behave in order to be “cultured”, the idea that female soldiers must uphold their “femininity” rather than explore it is a bullshit ideal that can cripple the character’s developing personality. It is based on the idea that femininity is sacred and present in all women in exactly the same way. Araeshkigal’s opinion of a “real lady” – whatever one of those is – is that Starbuck must be comfortable with her feminine traits and especially comfortable with displaying them.
Going back to the point that Starbuck is not the sort of person who enjoys flaunting the traditional image of being a woman, why the hell is she less of a woman if she’s uncomfortable with being made to dress and act in a manner that is outside of her comfort zone? Her feminine traits were not ‘out of place’, you simply chose to ignore that they were displayed in a way that you are not familiar with, and apparently disapproving of.
Femininity does not lessen a character but nor does it necessarily make one “better”, and Starbuck’s femininity was dealt with according to her environment and job status. The idea that any woman who asserts her identity, let alone her authority, by “behaving like one of the boys” (which is moot in the Battlestar universe as no one believes in that kind of gender pigeon-holing or classification) therefore ultimately makes her ‘not a heroine … [but] a hero with an inexplicable sex op!‘ then you need to take into account either the sadly small sampling of women in your life, or perhaps apologies to the multiple transgender women or gender fluid people you have just insulted, like myself. Thanks. And that’s not to say that Starbuck identifies with either of those labels, but the insulting implication of this quote in general still stands.
I lived on a Royal Air Force (RAF) base until I was seven and joined the Army Cadet Force (ACF) when I was twelve until sixteen, the latter involved practical training and experience with real life soldiers – quite a significant number of whom, you may be surprised to hear, were women.
So many women feel they need to overcompensate for their gender when working in the army, myself included even as a cadet, since discrimination against their capabilities is still prevalent even with the Pentagon lifting the ban on women in Military Occupational Specialties in 2013. This is on top of the sexual assault and harassment a disproportionate amount of female soldiers face from their own comrades.
I was expected to teach basic training courses or command squadrons, and if you cannot learn to shout like a man or put a soldier in their place for talking over you, I can tell you now, it is very easy to have your authority undermined. Hints of femininity in the army will still be met with groans and sexist remarks, which is perhaps where Starbuck’s characterisation stems from – this observation that many female soldiers overcompensate for their gender. As I said earlier, her gender isn’t discriminated against in Battlestar, but how she perceives herself compared to other women is still relevant. Araeshkigal’s veteran friend may well seem like Mum to her children, baking sugar cookies in her wonderfully feminine way, but I’m willing to bet she has a whole different persona when actually doing her job.
To quote directly from Helen Benedict’s article The private war of women soldiers (2007), who interviewed twenty female veterans:
“There are only three kinds of female the men let you be in the military: a bitch, a ho or a dyke,” said Montoya, the soldier who carried a knife for protection [against the soldiers on her own side]. “This guy out there, he told me he thinks the military sends women over to give the guys eye candy to keep them sane. He said in Vietnam they had prostitutes to keep them from going crazy, but they don’t have those in Iraq. So they have women soldiers instead.”
Pickett heard the same attitude from her fellow soldiers. “My engineering company was in the first Gulf War, and back then it had only two females,” she said. “One was labeled a whore because she had a boyfriend, and the other one was a bitch because she wouldn’t sleep around. And that’s how they were still referred to all these years later.”
And just to elaborate the point further:
She said the men imported cases of porn, and talked such filth at the women all the time that she became worn down by it. “We shouldn’t have to think every day, ‘How am I going to go out there and deal with being harassed?’” she said. “We should just have to think about going out and doing our job.”
I cannot think of one military woman in my time on army bases who did not change her mannerisms when in a room full of male soldiers. This ranged from mimicking the male soldiers’ speech and behaviour, to keeping a firm and stoic indifference, to occasionally behaving in a softer manner when the atmosphere was calm and casual. The aim for many female soldiers is to make their male comrades forget that they’re speaking to a woman, as the stigma against their competence is still very real.
And although women in Battlestar are no longer perceived as hysterical or incapable of being soldiers, they are still sexually drooled over and harassed. Such as Caprica Six in Season 4 who is sexually abused, repeatedly, in her prison cell by Saul Tigh and in Season 2, a “Cylon interrogator” attempts to violate Sharon, but her husband Helo intervenes in the nick of time. To quote Juliet Laidos:
Naturally the show doesn’t condone rape, but it’s discomfiting that the writers drop sexual violence into the script so often without comment. If nothing else, this pervasive threat—directed only at women—negates the idea that Battlestar conjures a gender-blind universe.
But I’m not here to argue if Battlestar is a feminist show. It tries pretty hard and it does pass part of the Bechtel test, but it does fall down on a variety of things. So let’s get back to the point of focus: Starbuck’s gender, which has been insultingly dismissed on the grounds that she is an uncultured, manly woman.
So perhaps the problem is that we don’t see Starbuck in enough situations where she can show there’s a deeper level to her personality? Again, I don’t think so. She’s tricked into thinking she’s a mother, which leads her to subconsciously reassess the way she behaves, and a very tender display of loss when she learns she’s not a mother after all. We see hallucinations of her difficult and shunned relationship with her own mother, which tells us why she joined the military and why she hates herself. Starbuck makes a choice between the man who makes her feel comfortable with who she is and the one who actually satisfies her, bringing to light her sexual interests and respect for herself. In fact, if it’s “harmonised feminine” soldiers that you want, then look at Dee, look at Sharon, look at Caprica. Battlestar Galactica doesn’t lack effeminate female soldiers who are comfortable with their gender status, but I find it quite engaging that Starbuck is not comfortable with it, because this status is more frequent among real female soldiers than Araeshkigal seems to be aware.
But this still doesn’t address the fact that Araeshkigal is basically saying “there comes a point where you’re no longer a ‘real woman’”. To quote (still my emphasis):
In trying to correct the scaly llama paradigm, too many works of fiction swing the pendulum so far away from all things feminine that one can barely call the heroine “female” before it’s all said and done.
What Areshkigal has done is confused the concept of poorly written female characters, often mistaken for “kickbutt woman with no onion layers”, with her perception of what is an acceptable woman in terms of behaviour and morals. To rephrase, if I want to sit with my legs open, swear like a sailor, call myself Bitch Please the Badass and behave like the most un-effeminate stereotypical man you can possibly think of most of the time, my gender is no less of a woman. I am simply not what you are comfortable with.
The fact that Araeshkigal feels there comes a point where you can no longer call yourself a woman is fucking absurd. I’m sorry, you’re too manly. Go away and learn to feminise yourself a bit, then come back and call yourself a female.
Now, these manly ladies in other works of fiction can be boring as a rock because they have been written by really shit writers. The fact that manly female heroes exist is not the problem. The problem is some writers are making that their entire gimmick and forgetting to give them character development (which, by the way, does not mean they have to become more effeminate). They’re forgetting to give them in-depth relationships and multiple personas: this is how she acts when she’s at work and this is how she acts when she’s with her sister, or her child.
They don’t break the character. She’s so ballbreakingly badass that they don’t totally destroy her world, or let her break down because something shit happened. She’s one constant persona who occasionally dips into feelings of loss or shock or ‘oh no, am I strong enough to beat my enemy?’
The Battlestar Galactica military is pretty good for having a decent number of women in combat and positions of power (one of my favourites is the understated Admiral Cain) without any of them ever being blamed for making mistakes “because you’re a girl”, so it can be argued that Starbuck doesn’t need to overcompensate for her gender by being “manly”. This is the future, the power structures between men and women have somewhat changed. There’s a female president. Starbuck should have been the perfect opportunity to create a fighting woman in touch with her “inherent femaleness”! The writers worked hard to create a gender-blind universe!
I think you just don’t like her inherent Shut Up I Don’t Have To Enjoy Dresses For You.
You know what’s still pissing me off, though? The earlier use of ‘uncultured’. People like Araeshkigal are living in a bubble and it’s important that they step outside their class divide and learn a little bit about those ‘uncultured’ people being referred to. Every avenue of society has a culture and flux of creative output outside of your current perceptions.
To end on a positive note, Araeshkigal concludes her vague statement by saying:
It’s as though we cannot work through our cognitive dissonance to have a woman who is BOTH a solider[sic] and a wife or mother or daughter or whatever. And that is very sad…because THAT is the truth that is still being missed.
Yes, this is a problem, making females soldiers sacrifice their ability to engage in relationships that affect their development – such as the bond between mother and daughter – never letting them show different sides to their personality, and many are still driven by: The Power Of Love Negates My Need To Have A Life Beyond The Man And His Need Of My Protection. There are aspects of Starbuck that could have been further explored, like her existential crises and her relationships to other women, but she is no less of a woman simply because she does not behave like a “cultured lady” by today’s stereotypes and your expectations. She still feels a range of emotions, she still reacts to things. She is the agent of her own destiny.
She is a really awesome character who feels most comfortable when she’s not pressured into acting as if she has inherent female conditions to fulfill. She’s a person. And a complex one at that.