The Human Rights of Cylons “as a Race”

Curator's Note

BSG often simplistically asks whether the Cylons have rights (every time a human says “she’s just a machine!” the flattered audience knows better). The question is so loaded that any competent viewer surely extends basic human rights to Cylons (indistinguishable-from-human ones, anyway—Centurians and Raiders are a “slippery slope”).

A liberal politics of “race” is deployed to make that move. BSG speaks often of human and Cylon “races” (as does discussion of the show: for example, one legal blogger discussing genocide compared humans and Cylons to Hutus and Tutsis). The show believes that race is meaningless (demonstrated by “colorblind” casting and characters), yet uses the concept to argue for the personhood of Cylons. If they’re a race, killing them all is genocide.

And waterboarding, rape and electric shock(?) is torture. From ep108 (the first two parts of my clip): “Flesh and Bone”: Starbuck’s water torture of the Cylon Leoben. She offers the machine rationale with gusto, but as she witnesses his suffering (and “touches” him through the airlock glass), begins a disturbing relationship that includes her captivity in season 3 and appears to culminate in his faking their reproductivity with little Casey.

Ep307 repeats the overworked motif of Balthar saying something to Six-in-the-head that means differently IRL: “don’t stop!” (second part of clip). This time, however, it’s actually interesting, as he seems to be pleading for torture to continue, because he wants to be believed in.

These examples of are “white on white” violence, if you will, but Sharon’s survival of attempted rape in ep210, which I didn’t feel like recirculating, is racially coded: white male soldiers fighting over the body of an Asian woman. Is torture of white humans by white Cylons (and vice-versa) used to “prove” their mutual capacity for suffering, and thus shared rights? The rape-based torture of the Six held captive on Pegasus fits into this pattern, eventually pairing with Balthar’s torture (though note the radical difference in the “sex” involved in their tortures). But Sharon has already actively demonstrated her worth to and worthiness of humanity; is her “interracial” love, and the still-unresolved outcome of this “miscegenation,” not trivialized, pruriently instrumentalized, by the scene in which Helo heroically saves her from what they used to call a “fate worse than death”?


Ellen Rigsby's picture

Michael, I think the white


I think the white on white violence you refer to in BSG (the water boarding and the torture of Balthar by D’Anna) shows the audience what BSG means to have as its racial politics: race becomes important when it is expressed as an essence. The ultimate example of this is genocide. “Race” as such does not matter except when someone asserts that it does, and then the appropriate rhetorical response is that it matters as a means to personhood (as in a rights-bearing legal entity), not as a means of making distinctions. (I believe you’ve gotten at this in an earlier post this week with regard to Arabs and Islam and the ways that Americans elide these groups and link them.) The problem here, is that at least in the American context, the legal concept of personhood is thoroughly tied up in race. So my question, perhaps to the writers of BSG, but certainly to all of you, is if we have reached a point where essentialist conceptions of race are back doors to racism, then where do we locate those inalienable human rights? Arendt asks this in _Origins of Totalitarianism_…

Michael Peterson's picture

Ellen: Thanks for putting

Ellen: Thanks for putting that so much more clearly. Yes, we could even say that the show is at some pains to show that it “doesn’t care” about race, but that it does care about racism. This is a kind of foundation, or window-dressing, depending how you look at it, for the more complicated dynamics of identity that others have been raising all week. In terms of your last question, specifically with regards to BSG, has the show been on a trajectory towards essentialism (of cylons/humans) or away from it?

Lisa Nakamura's picture

MIchael: such excellent

MIchael: such excellent questions! I do think that there is a strong move towards essentialism in BSG, but that there are a few escapes from the binarism of cylon/human status: as you point out, one of these is through miscegenation, or rather it’s product, which is the Cylon-human mixed child, Hera. (something that hasn’t been mentioned so far in terms of the almost-rape of Sharon; she’s pregnant at the time. Surely another layer of abjection in play here. Helo’s defense of her “fate worse than death” may have something to do with this, I think, since it’s his baby).

I do think that the other escape is much more politicized, if that’s possible: Cylons who are “friendly” can bridge that biologized gap between these two groups. Caprica (the friendly 6) and Sharon seem to move both physicallly and morally between the two groups. The fact that they are both women who are erotically involved as mothers and partners with white men on this ship seem inseparable from this, but so does their “friendliness” to the humans. Perhaps the political allegory here has to do with the potential for individuals to transcend their own group identifications if they want to badly enough. This notion of reidentification through individual action has a lot to do with images as well from films like Spielberg’s AI, in which artificial humans can be “real” through their desire to be.

on a last note: every time I pass a Wet Seal or Cache store in the mall, I think about 6’s stripper fashion sensibility. Any thoughts on why she dresses like a pole dancer on holiday? Is this supposed to reflect Baltar’s preferences? She is always wearing them, as far as I can tell, as does Caprica. Is this maybe a reference to the “pleasure model” replicant in Blade Runner, who also wears some punked out sexy fashions? In any event, part of the pleasure of tuning in every week has to be witnessing the next fashion egregiousness on display.


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