Multiracial Battlestar Galactica

Curator's Note

In this moment of crisis, the camera pans over the faces of many key characters revealing a crew that includes men and women of many racial backgrounds. This is typical of BSG — the show represents a society that has “gotten over” race. However, the show can only illustrate that race “doesn’t matter” by having a racially diverse crew; the audience can only read that diversity as significant because it recognizes racial difference. Does racial diversity end up signifying futurity the way technology also does? How does the varying degrees of character development further or compromise this representation of a society “without race?” And what does that mean in a show that is, on another level, very much about group-difference and hostility between humans and Cylons? The anxiety in this clip is caused by the appearance of an “unknown” ship and is relieved when the ship turns out to be, not hostile other, but friendly self. We later find out, of course, that the Pegasus is not exactly friendly and not exactly like Battlestar Galactica. Is it a coincidence that the Pegasus crew is not as racially diverse? If diversity and “tolerance” are marks of Battlestar Galactica, how are racial ideas and anxieties displaced onto the ultimate Other, the Cylons? In the series, the greatest anxiety attaches to the “miscegenated” cylons who have human form. What do we make of the anxiety, fear, and desire which they arouse? And I use the word arouse intentionally as the two most developed Cylon characters, Number 6 and Sharon Valerii, are both female, very attractive, and romantically involved with humans in some way. Are these female Cylons bridges between the two groups, are they “La Malinche” characters (see wikipedia), or something else entirely?


Avi Santo's picture

You raise a couple of

You raise a couple of interesting points, Birgit. First, I think you have successfully hit upon a representational quagmire when it comes to promoting notions of color blindness on television. To visually represent it, the audience must pick up on a particular set of visual cues, namely racial and ethnic differences. Since we, the audience, see race and the BG characters don’t (perhaps the twelve colonies were founded by Stephen Colbert descendants?), the BG universe is presented as more tolerant than our own. Of course, much of the narrative thrust of this series suggests otherwise, since the characters regularly react with mistrust, anger, fear, and prejudice towards “others,” now displaced onto the equally racially diverse Cylons. So what is the difference?

I think this is the second point that comes through for me in your comment — which also has a longstanding representational history — which is that as biological notions of racial difference become blurred (but not totally erased) by cultural/behavioral divisions, self/other antinomies break down and are reasserted along different ideological lines. We may know longer “see” race, but we “feel” it at the level of “values”. In the BG universe, these lines are often about religious zealotry. The cylons might look like humans, but their belief system codes them as other (as does their DNA, biology is still alive and well). For me, the clear parallel is with the re-imagining of the Arab/Muslim “other” post 9-11 as someone who on the surface can successfully pass for a member of the American melting pot, but lurking underneath is something frightfully “other” that can be traced back to a set of “cultural values” supposedly shred by all Arabs/Muslims (these terms are often interchangeable in Western popular rhetoric, though the fact that Islam crosses racial/ethnic lines is significant, since it makes visual cues even more difficult to detect).

Ellen Rigsby's picture

Birgit, The first part of

Birgit, The first part of your comment, that we can only represent that race doesn’t matter by representing a diverse group is a problem that is evident in a lot of science fiction, mainstream and not. I do think it racial diversity ends up signifying “enlightened” or “progressive” futurity. Bigots, slavery, and separatism tend to be signs of backwardness, sickness, or just plain evil. To some degree, the humans can be united in diversity because they are fighting the Cylons. BSG tries to complicate this by raising the question of whether the Cylons are really evil given that they were enslaved by the humans, and whether the humans are really good, given that there are racial and class tensions still alive and well in the humans. Avi calls this a representational quagmire in his comment below. His comment goes on to talk about race functioning at the level of values, but also that it lurks below the surface, as in the post 911 example of Arabs and/or Islam, in which the fear is that at any moment members of those groups might turn out to be terrorists. Or, as Birgit mentions, the Cylon Sharon might turn out to be an assassin. So at the level of representation we end up with ambiguity, or potential but not actual significance. I haven’t gotten beyond this when thinking about the representation of race in science fiction, though it feels like there ought to be more to say.

Lisa Nakamura's picture

Birgit: I also noticed that

Birgit: I also noticed that the crew of the Pegasus is not racially diverse in the same way as Galactica, and that that seems to be of a piece with its masculinist, brutal, and uber-military culture. The Pegasus also had a female commander who I remembered from Star Trek: Next Generation as Ensign Ro, who was really popular with female viewers because she was an identificatory figure for queer women. So it seems that the Pegasus’s difference has to do not only with a lack of racial diversity, but with feminism gone awry.

I agree with you that racial “tolerance” is prioritized in BSG on the level of the show’s discourse about itself, but that of course the type of casting and the deployment especially of the female characters are extremely racialized. Adama’s assistant, “Dee” is basically a pretty black receptionist like Uhura was in the old Star Trek, and as we’ve discussed already, Sharon is a bridge between the humans and the Cylons, since she’s a sexual and reproductive point of connection between the two groups. Interesting how Cylon women and human men can get it on successfully and are extremely hot for each other, but it doesn’t work that way with Cylon men and human women; Leoben is just gross and Cara kills him several times before he will finally go away. This mirrors the exoticization of women of color in Western societies, but the invisiblity of men of color as sexual creatures. This is really well documented in regards to film: I’ve shown “Slaying the Dragon” about the representation of Asian women as hypersexualized, and there’s a new one called “the slanted screen” that i haven’t yet seen that deals with Asian masculinity on screen.

Michael Peterson's picture

Related to your point, Lisa,

Related to your point, Lisa, is the way Starbuck has available to her a relatively broad scope of “female masculinity” while Sharon’s power rarely gets beyond “feisty.” If she’s had a fight scene like the one between Cara and Six on Caprica, I’ve missed it (this complaint may contradict my arguing on Monday that Sharon is a hero figure some of us want to identify with). On a different note, is it possible to argue that this multiracial dilemma Brander sums up here is somewhat interesting to the extent that it trains the audience in a kind of binocular vision, constantly seeing how our ‘verse is different from BSG’s? If race as we know it is dehistoricized (well, ahistorical would be better) in the show, couldn’t that mean that it’s actually historicized on our side of the screen?

Kathleen Fitzpatrick's picture

If she’s had a fight scene

If she’s had a fight scene like the one between Cara and Six on Caprica, I’ve missed it

No, if anything, Sharon has been repeatedly put in the position of passively taking physical abuse, such as in the scene on Caprica early in season one in which Six beats her up, so that she can pass as having been captured by the Cylons.


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