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

Sep 14, 2011 17:17

womenlovefest TIME!

Day 1: what gender-neutral society?
Day 2: why these ladies?
Day 3: Ellen Tigh

I was going to go in alphabetical order to avoid showing favoritism, but there have already been a couple of comments about Ellen! Possibly I have tipped my hand regarding my everlasting love slight bias.

Ellen is possibly the BSG character who suffers the most overt punishment for her femininity - to the point where we watch Saul kill her, and spend the next two years being told how sorry we should be for him about it. Ellen’s not-always-flattering performance of femininity doesn’t seem to endear her to most people, but naturally, I think it should.

In terms of fictional femininity, I’d categorize Ellen with Joan Holloway and Elena Gilbert. She’s one of those feminine archetypes who usually exist with only a bare minimum of characterization, molded against male needs and desires with no wants, needs, or existence beyond the wiles with which she ensnares male affections, nothing but femininity at its most suspect. Such a character is generally the target of contempt from all angles - boys don’t want to want her; women are justifiably tired of being told we should be her.

But these three characters are characters in their own right, and they put an entirely new spin on their respective roles not by being superficially different in any way, but simply by having fleshed-out personalities under that. Moreover, those archetypes are ones that real women bend themselves into  presenting as, as well, because sometimes it’s the best way to play to play the particular hand dealt to a woman who has the option of compliance with the physical and social demands of femininity in her particular setting. It’s not an option for everyone, or even most women, and it’s locked into a lot of kyriarchal expectations. But I don’t think we should demonize people for self-worth and self-preservation; I don’t think we have a right to expect martyrdom and self-effacement.

That’s not to say the Ellen Tigh persona of the first couple of seasons is a good person who is totally a victim of circumstance. She’s not. She’s a person who is looking out for herself and the person she cares the most about, and though she clearly loves Saul, she’s also not above using him for her own selfish goals. Ellen is ambitious, and does have self-interest. It’s not just about self-preservation, though she’ll eventually get there during the occupation and use those same tools.

But, in a world that closely mirrors our own, the ambition of women (particularly middle-aged women) is, almost universally, repressed and warped into the use of performance of femininity to position oneself as the power behind one throne or another. It’s several layers of compromised power: rarely effective and never respected, even if an understandable tactic.

Now, I AIN’T SAYIN’ SHE A GOLD-DIGGER.

Actually, no. Lie. That’s exactly what I am saying. Ellen Tigh is such a gold-digger, and she’s still a person, she still has hopes and fears and dreams.

And oh, yes, that rare treat on the Galactica, Ellen has a sense of humor. Ellen is quite a funny character, at times she means to be and times she doesn’t. And, is that where some of the general fandom attitude with her really comes from? That she not only sets out to make those patriarchal standards work for herself, but actually has the nerve to enjoy it? But under that, as well as the character’s own wicked, unapologetic sense of fun, there’s some real pathos. I laugh as much as anyone when she hits on Lee during Sacrifice. But still!

ELLEN: Lee, we are BOOZY, PHILANDERING SOULMATES.
LEE: ….I have no counterargument for that! But only because I am drunk and distracted by illicit booty, and not because it is in any way true!

It’s funny as hell. But we’ve just spent several episodes - and are about to spend an entire season - wallowing in Lee’s deep dysfunction that drives him to manipulate himself into being the piece on the side that Ellen’s always after. So why is Ellen both portrayed and received as a shallow, silly person for such a similar emotional issue? Why is her sexuality played for laughs? If there was some potent tragedy there, we missed out on it entirely; if there wasn’t, her unabashed carpe diem sexuality was a powerful, interesting character trait, particularly in a society that seems to have equally restrictive norms to our own concerning marriage and sex.

The occupation is a difficult subject for me, not because of any technical failures (it is, from top to bottom, some of the strongest storytelling the series offered), or even necessarily because of Ellen’s experience, but because of the misrepresentation of Cavil’s sexual abuse of her. Tigh’s abuse, horrifying as it was, fits a traditionally male-POW framework, and so the audience understands that he’s being tortured. Ellen, though, is portrayed as having some choice in sleeping with the enemy - even she convinces herself she was, well, doing what she always did and so it didn’t matter. But of course, coercion is coercion whether the knife is at her throat or someone else’s. Even before we know Cavil’s role in the whole thing, we know that he was going to do what he was going to do, and was targeting Ellen for abuse.

And, just as happens all the time in real life, everyone, including Ellen herself, blamed her for her victimization. Her betrayal of the resistance wasn’t admirable, but it happened because she thought (correctly) she would be vilified as a collaborator if she told anyone what was happening. That’s why she died. Because femininity and female sexuality is presumably suspect; because she showed any agency at all in her self-presentation, characters and viewers alike box her into a corner by presuming the worst of her motives. It is one thing to be a brave warrior and sacrifice one’s own life for a cause. It is quite another to lack even that power, and sacrifice either one’s own principles or someone else’s life. She was done wrong, on every level, by absolutely everyone. [1]

So imagine my bottomless joy (or look upon it and laugh) when it turned out that these less-flattering tendencies, the entire range of selfishness to self-preservation, are not solely the result of a person molded by a misogynist society into understandable if not particularly admirable behaviors. Subtlety, nothing. Ellen-the-construct was a conscious, vindictive negation of everything that was strong and admirable about her dignified, femmy self, a false consciousness imposed upon her by a sadistic asshole whose motivation was to punish her for his own dissatisfaction. When she does awaken and receive all of her self-knowledge, she’s still the acerbic, Bill-skeptical (GO TEAM), conniving lady I love, but she’s also wise, loving, and unselfish, with that desire for power over others becoming a desire for the power of knowledge, to understand the universe in order to make it better for others. And that is admirable, no matter what form it takes.

Anyway, I DON’T CARE WHAT NONE’A Y’ALL SAY. I STILL LOVE HER.

[1] Also, if Tigh had gotten his just desserts, we could’ve had him and Baltar as wacky odd-couple cellmates at some point. Do not try to tell me that would not have made the whole show ten times better; your argument is invalid.

feminism, haters gonna hate, sexuality, the author is boxed, bsg, femininity, hated women, bsg: ellen tigh, sexual assault

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