Cally, Dee, and Ellen: on the reviled feminine on BSG (part 2)

Sep 13, 2011 18:58

Day 1: what gender-neutral society?
Day 2: and here's why these three

Normally this whole thing comes after all kinds of halfhearted lip service to “WELL of course the BSG verse is GENDER-NEUTRAL” and the whole bit about how ours isn’t and therefore feminist analysis of BSG as constructed media is useful. But, though I understand and do not condemn the desire to sidestep that particular derail, I do fundamentally disagree on the premise, and I think it would obscure some of the issues with these characters.

Again, for the show to have employed enough thought that this isn’t a given is pretty fucking radical and did a lot to put the show head and shoulders above nearly everything else. But these characters still operate in a framework which, for most people, most of the time, places qualitatively different and normatively valued expectations on men and women. The inequality that dare not speak its name still exists, only as coded misogyny, where activities generally associated with femininity are still routinely devalued. It can be a bit trickier to call out coded misogyny, because that leaves the observer vulnerable to the rhetorical stylings of a-holes who choose not to know the difference between trends and absolutes, or description and proscription, but when has that ever stopped me.

Let’s go to my favorite lady for an example. The continued referral to Laura Roslin as a “kindergarten teacher” by whichever character hopes to discredit her at that moment is, absolutely, coded misogyny. It’s silly, right? Because who says ONLY WOMEN can be kindergarten teachers? Well, no one, out loud, but the vast majority of kindergarten teachers are women. Possibly the Colonial world differs from ours in this respect, but I see no reason to assume so, and in any event, the implication is there to build on our real-world assumptions.

This wouldn’t be a problem, if teachers were respected as the hardworking, well-educated professionals they are, but the way “kindergarten teacher” is the go-to phrase people drop like it’s the c-bomb suggests otherwise. And it is a deliberate attempt to strip her of her experience and gravitas, because they don’t say things like “that…CABINET MEMBER!” or “that…. POLICY EXPERT!” even though those would be far more accurate descriptors of the majority of her career. “Kindergarten teacher” carries the sting. Apparently, even temporary association with a feminized profession negates everything else one achieves in life.

Coded misogyny, but only just. And this is a tiny example - one that probably irks me disproportionately, for obvious reasons - but it’s a prime example of the unacknowledged constants underpinning in-universe and narrative treatment of women who tend toward compliance with femininity.

For another, more controversial example, I don’t think most of the distaste for Black Market is really about it being inconsistent with the ‘verse as laid out previously. Whatever the episode’s other (off-topic, for the very mature reason that I’m not in the mood) merits or failings, I think it is in large part, at least up until that last act, entirely too consistent with everything we wouldn’t admit we knew about the way women are regarded in their world and in ours, and it rips away the comforting pretense, if only for 42 minutes. WE ARE ALL LEE ADAMA, LAWL. My massive problem with the way nothing in the episode is ever mentioned again, and the way viewers are so loud and eager about despising and ignoring it is that the issues it raised were so manifestly not out of nowhere. We just want to pretend we didn’t hear about it. (And and and! I am not the only one who likes Shevon! HOLLA.)

And, of course, a lot of that discomfort turns on individual characters. Ellen, Cally, and Dee remind us that they - and we -are stuck in a sexist society. For all the exceptional women in the main cast, subordinate female femininity is nearly as much the default assumption in this society as it is in our own. They live by the rules of femininity in their world, which are not that different from femininity in our world, and because of this they end up secondary in their own lives and their own narratives.

The overwhelming tragedy of their stories is bad enough. Two of them get killed, one of them kills herself, none of them for reasons which were necessary for the overarching plot. Collateral damage, all of them. That’s distressing. Their perspectives are subsumed into their traditionally feminine roles - all of them as wives, Dee as an emotional support, Cally as a mother, and Ellen in all her Elleny glory - and then those positions seem to lead to a presumption that they aren’t particularly interesting and therefore would be a waste of screen time. That, in turns, leads to their perspectives being shut out, which leads to viewers being understandably displeased and not particularly fond of the characters and their storylines. Fine, some balls always get dropped, it’d be an unfortunate pattern on its own but nothing much worse than most other dramas.

But they get SO MUCH HATE, often by way of pretenses that boil down to how SHE’S SUCH A GIRL. And in a truly gender-egalitarian world, deciding that one is happiest as a feminine-presenting lady would not much matter to people either way! It would be like insulting the sky for being blue - sometimes it's true and sometimes it isn't, but it doesn't make much sense as a put-down. But instead, we’re disappointed in these women. We don’t hate them for being women, but we do hate them for choosing some degree of femininity. Because EW, why would you do THAT, when MASCULINITY, that’s where it’s at! WOOOO, WE LOVE STARBUCK!!! Why don’t they all just be more like Starbuck!!! Except feminism isn’t about liberating women from the ghetto of anything and everything which might be tinted with social expectations of femininity. It’s about creating a world where people can live freer, more fulfilling lives. [1]

It’s not about pushing modern femininity on anyone either. Kara Thrace is the Harbinger of Awesome exactly as she is. But modern femininity is not, you know, TAINTED BY ITS PROXIMITY TO A CRITICAL MASS OF LADIES and therefore become a contagion all Worthwhile Women should want to avoid. We want social performances currently operating as “rigid hierarchal gender roles” to loosen up a bit. Theoretically that could lead to feminine/masculine groupings of behaviors and characteristics changing or not making sense anymore, and that'd be more than fine by me, but in the meantime, they're a useful way to honestly describe the experiences of a lot of people.

I want to talk instead about how these women present femininity, in various ways, and how that’s used against them by the narrative and by viewers. How they’re all trivialized and belittled before being finally snuffed out. I want to do what I can to present my read on the show, where their femininity is honored as one type of laudable (if honest) self-presentation, where it develops them as characters instead of tearing them down. To try to nudge BSG toward shows like Dollhouse, Mad Men, and TVD, which present and respect the traditional object as subject in her own right.

BLAH BLAH LONGEST SETUP EVER. Three days of punch line are ready to roll. Well, two and a half days, at least. Pretty much.

(I don’t think we’ve ever talked about how badly I want to be Susan Douglas when I grow up. But in case it’s not painfully obvious, I WANNA BE SUSAN DOUGLAS WHEN I GROW UP.)

[1] Even writing this whole thing about valuing femininity, and even though it’s one of my favorite things about the character, I’m balking at mentioning Lee’s femininity as a point of comparison, as if it’s somehow a slam, or at least will be taken that way. Because it still sounds on some level like he’s failed at being a man, rather than he’s found a legitimate, value-neutral self-presentation, many aspects of which are, for whatever reason, heavily associated with women. And I do think the way his coming into his own in part by easing up a bit on the insistent butchness is more of a factor than we'd like to admit in some of the criticisms of his (excellent) development. “Non-normative masculinity,” as I tend to say, is a euphemism which doesn’t distance him too far from the tough-guy gun-slinging paradigm. You know, the good stuff from which no worthwhile character would wish to be exempt. Because it’s all about giving women the latitude to rise up to a normatively masculine standard - why would men want the space to change? I AM DISAPPOINT, ME. FOR SHAME.

masculinity, bsg, femininity, feminism, hated women, sorkinitis

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