Yellow Fever: Born Digital on Battlestar Galactica

Curator's Note

Sharon Valerii, played by Korean-Canadian actress Grace Park, is a young, pretty, highly educated Asian woman who has a white boyfriend, a steady job with a large organization, and is on a professional fast track. This is all-too-familiar figure in Asian American popular culture: sites such as bitterasianmen.com complain, well, bitterly about the preference of Asian women for white men and vice versa. The assimilation of Asian American women through intermarriage is a familiar theme in American media since World War II. In Battlestar Galactica, however, Asian women are literally unassimilable due to their biological differences. Sharon is an artificial life form, a Cylon, and thus an enemy alien. The identification of Asian women with digital machines (her “programming” made her shoot Commander Adama at the end of Season 1, despite her conscious loyalty to him and to the ship) is made especially clear in this clip from Season 2’s “Flight of the Phoenix.” Sharon proves her loyalty to her human captors by interfacing directly with the ship’s computer to disable an alien virus. The gory insertion of a fiberoptic cable into a wound on her wrist evokes horrified reactions from all of the crew, even the famously selfish Dr. Baltar, who has presumably seen blood before. In a show that frequently depicts all sorts of torture, including rape, this is a prolonged gross-out moment that visualizes the differences between humans and Cylons, who are derisively referred to as “toasters.” While the torture and rape of the blond and beautiful Cylon Number 6, and, in the next episode “Pegasus,” near-rape of Sharon herself effectively erases the differences between human and “artificial” women, evoking pity, empathy, and horror in the viewer and the characters, Sharon’s coupling with the fiberoptic cable makes her more alien than ever. She is indeed, in this scene, a “toaster”: a peripheral appliance that can help reformat the ship’s “hard drive” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toaster_%28disambiguation%29 for a wikipedia entry that lists both “Cylon” and “Video Toaster” as “disambiguated” alternate meanings for toaster. Only on the Interweb!) Does this scene encourage current media images of Asians as always-already digital, as “good with the computer” but not good at being loyal citizens, and as an alien threat? Does Sharon’s obvious suffering during her service as a network peripheral challenge this reading?

Comments

Ellen Rigsby's picture

When I first viewed this

When I first viewed this episode, I was surprised by the length of time spent on showing Sharon’s suffering while interfaced with the ship’s computer. In the context of the plot of the series, I do think that her suffering is supposed to get the audience to begin to identify with Sharon, and it does use the stereotyped current media image of Asian women to bolster this identification. Another aspect of the Asian stereotype is that of the “model minority”—Asians are supposed to integrate more easily and seamlessly into American culture than Hispanics or Blacks. This scene depicts Sharon in a model minority moment: she is obviously suffering for the good of humanity (which is figured as white). The audience identification with Sharon comes, I fear, not so much from empathizing with her pain, but rather from acknowledging that she is paying her dues to join the [del] white [/del] human club. The human club is still figured as white in mainstream narrative forms, but one can earn one’s way in, as did Ohura and Sulu back in the original Star Trek series, and as Sharon Valeri does here.

Roberta Pearson's picture

Lisa's reading of the Sharon

Lisa’s reading of the Sharon character within the intertextual frame of dominant stereotypes of Asian women is useful and compelling. I must say that until now this was not a foregrounded element of my own reading of the character. I had thought of her more in terms of the classic science fiction question, “What does it mean to be human?” as played out most prominently in the Star Trek series. The Trek characters who embodied this conundrum were Spock (white male), Data (white (golden) male), the Voyager Doctor (white male) and Seven of Nine (white female/babe). Seven of Nine’s being female enabled some new riffs on this classic theme. I’m wondering how Sharon’s being both Asian and female may be enabling even newer riffs? Do the contemporary identity markers of the human/hybrid character significantly alter the approach to the question?

Avi Santo's picture

While I agree that the

While I agree that the series does engage stereotypical representations of Asian women in order to illicit either empathy or suspicion from the audience, I also think that the series provides an interesting critique of the Asian American experience of always “having just arrived” no matter how many generations particular communities can trace back their ancestry in the US. Sharon Valerii must constantly and repeatedly prove to the crew that she belongs even though all of her memories tell her she’s always been a part of the twelve colonies. Does the fact that the series allows the character to voice these frustrations over where she belongs and have these linked to her horrific treatment by her friends and co-workers rather than simply some “inscrutable Asianness” actually work as meta-commentary on the liminal space Asian American’s occupy, or is it just a case of have your cake and eat it too?

Brander Rasmussen Birgit's picture

This is a really interesting

This is a really interesting scene and I also think it is notable how much attention is paid to Sharon’s suffering (does that make her more “human?”). Part of what struck me about it also the weird, voyeristic pleasure of seeing the long-drawn out physical violence she does to herself… cutting herself, which we see up-close, and then inserting the vire. It seems to me that the insertion of the wire has sexual overtones as well, and that makes me wonder what the drawn-out, close-up insertion is about. If her suffering makes her more human, does her ability to interface with (have intercourse with) the computer similarly, and at the same moment, mark her alien nature? Is this how her “Asian-ness” functions as well? Making her both assimilable (good model-minority) and always different? Obviously here, the “asian-ness” is entirely phenotypical, there is no asian culture element as such because they aren’t from earth. Also, what does it mean that both of the major cylon characters are women and that sexuality in some way is so foregrounded (either Baltar’s hypersexual-fantasy Number Six, or the raped and violated Number Six on Pegasus, or the pregnant and almost-raped Sharon Valerii)? Is women’s sexuality the enabling condition for some kind of “cross-cultural” (human/cylon) connection and how does race then affect that?

Michael Peterson's picture

I think Lisa's last question

I think Lisa’s last question is precisely the right one. I actually think it may be the _overt_ meaning of the scene and of much of her (plural) characters’ part of the narrative. Sharon is both martyred and sexualized here (does the very last shot in the clip show her in an orgasmic pose?), and, following Brander, I wonder if an underlying theme of the show is that sex with the femininized other will save _man_kind? But the show believes it has progressive racial politics, and invites viewers to root for Sharon: she is tougher and more moral than many of the human characters—“in spite of” being female, “Asian,” and, um, a Cylon, she’s NOT an alien threat. I didn’t find this a gross-out, and in contrast to the attempted rape scene, this seemed to me volitional, empowered—though that might be a measure of how much the Sharon-as-hero reading works on me. I also wonder if another fantasy may be available alongside the straightforward sexually objectifying one. I’m seconding Ellen on identification here. When Sharon does that, I go, “cool!” (Even though I also found it an infuriating instance of the show’s inconsistency about the actual physical makeup of the Cylon body). Lisa, isn’t Sharon “jacking in” in virtually the same fashion as William Gibson’s cyber-cowboys?

While I haven't really

While I haven’t really thought the symbolism through, I can’t help but compare the representation of Sharon/Athena here with that of the Cylon Hybrid (the female figure that pilots - or really IS the Cylon Basestar). The hybrid is treated almost as a religious prophet in some scenes, but looked down on by the Significant Seven (the humanoid Cylons) at other moment (D’Anna, for example, says the Hybrid doesn’t get a vote during the episodes with the Cylon Virus). I wonder if the ethereal representation of the Basestar interior and the religious overtones make the Hyrbid a Virgin Mary type figure (and perhaps D’Anna’s fall begins when she derides the Hybrid?).

Perhaps the Hybrid’s obvious permanent visual connection with technology makes her a more stable figure, whereas audience identification with Sharon/Athena in this sequence means that the insertion of the cable is symbolically an unwelcome (even if self-inflicted) penetration and thus disruption of her humanness. (Of course, I guess if we were to think in Haraway’s terms, that instability is still enormously useful in challenging boundaries and supposedly stable signifiers…)

- Tama Leaver

Ellen Rigsby's picture

Avi, I think you may be on

Avi, I think you may be on to something here, when you suggest that Sharon’s frustration works to comment on the liminal space Asian Americans occupy. I haven’t thought about this enough, but your comment reminded me of the scene where Sharon gets her new call sign, Athena. The names that get called out run the gambit from “toaster” to the one she eventually chooses—Athena. One might want to read scene as more meta-commentary on the range of possible subject positions for Asian Americans. Yes, it’s all representation by a majority/dominant culture, but there are qualitative differences and subjectivities in that range of representation.

I'm so excited to see a post

I’m so excited to see a post about this — BSG raises particularly compelling questions about race and representation. I’ve written:

I’d argue that BSG’s whole approach to race is hybrid: it complexifies racial categories by refusing bad scifi’s one-to-one correspondence between “alien” and “ethnic,” and then reinscribes them in casting and mise-en-scene; overdetermines them through these myriad details of lighting, scoring, costuming, and then effaces them by refusing to give these choices a narrative basis that is acknowledged as racialized. That is, it displaces race, in typical scifi fashion, onto an apparently racially-neutral human-machine enmity. But the show’s racial metatext is unavoidable: as Grace Park points out [in a clip from Attack of the Show, which has unfortunately been pulled from YouTube] it’s telling that Boomer, the character subject to the greatest physical and psychic violence, the greatest indeterminacy and uncertainty about her own identity, is played by an Asian-American actress. In North America, Asians are the immigrant group with the most ambiguous and fluid status, always suspended between white and ethnic, assimilable and alien (an insight I owe to Wendy Chun).

And Grace Park too discusses that last point in this interview: “Something similar [to Sharon’s situation] is immigrants and their children growing up in another country. Like myself , I’m a visible minority. In one way, this is my home. But I’m not white. So there’s still a difference. And if I were to go to Korea, I wouldn’t fit in there, either. Basically, you’re almost like a bridge. It’s like you’re between two kinds of established cultures or heritages or schools of thought.”

It’s the tensions and intersections between essentialist constructions of ethnicity and the more cyborgean formation that has been called “technicity” that I think Sharon’s portrayal particularly highlights. More in my vlog about Sharon.

Avi Santo's picture

I think Cyborganize has

I think Cyborganize has really hit the nail on the head regarding Sharon’s in-betweeness (unwanted/unclaimed by humans and cylons alike) as meta-commentary on the Asian immigrant experience, especially for generation 1.5. I am reminded of Lisa Sun-Hee Park’s “Consuming Citizenship: Children of Asian Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” which asks how these in-between generations struggle to fit in. Park argues that second generation Asian Americans try (but never fully succeed) to articulate their “Americanness” through consumerism. On BG, Sharon’s jacking in is an attempt to prove she belongs,but in the eyes of her crewmate (and perhaps the audience) only offers further evidence of her difference, even as she betrays her fellow Cylons as part of the bargain.

Lisa Nakamura's picture

It's interesting to see the

It’s interesting to see the range of responses to the fiberoptic cable insertion scene: I see in Birgit’s response a reference to female adolescent cutting, maybe, a sign of trauma in a postindustrialized context, but in Michael’s response a less grossed out and more interested perspective in how boundaries between the body and the machine are erased. I agree that the scene references jacking in, in both Gibson’s oeuvre and also in the Matrix films; in the Matrix films, however, it’s a pretty deodorized process (to use Iwabuchi’s term—kind of emptied out of grossness) because there’s no blood involved. The scene it reminds me of the most is one in the film _Alien: Resurrection_ when the android Call, also a human-looking artificial person, jacks into the mainframe computer using a port in her skin that looks like a mole. No blood involved in that one, but a similar uncanny look and feel.

The bodily means by which humans interface with computers is a really interesting and evolving area of study right now. Asians envisioned as having different, more privileged access in some ways is balanced in BSG by their figuration as permanent outsiders. I agree that Sharon Valerii represents the 1.5 generation in some keys ways, as Avi says, and that is a model minority.

I am also really interested in the idea of the Hybrid mapping onto sharon, because when I think hybrids in relation to Asian identity and race in this show, I think of Hera, “the shape of things to come.” Multiraciality is really feared in BSG, and I think that it’s pretty clear that we as the audience have to side against President Roslin, who was very close to airlocking the baby until her cancer was cured by her (again, ain’t BSG a great show!!!) The notion of a generation of hybrid humans with kickass Cylon mothers, hypercompetent females paired with sometimes feebler and always less vital male human partners, mirrors contemporary fears about changing family structures and threats to the patriarchy, I think.

Off to respond to some more of the fascinating posts about this show. Thank you to all commentators!!

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