Opposing the Binaries
In most of these binaries, Starbuck is coded masculine, yet she is in fact a woman, played by a female actor. Because of this conflict, the expected binaries must be re- evaluated for their empirical truth.
“Female action heroes confound binaristic logic in a number of ways, for they access a range of emotions, skills, and abilities that have traditionally been defined as either “masculine” or “feminine.” As female characters who take up the central spaces in the traditionally “masculine” genre of action cinema, they derive their power from their ability to think and live creatively, their physical courage, and their strategic uses of technology” (Hills 39).
Starbuck shows all these aspects of power over the course of the first season of BSG. Her ability to think creatively is particularly showcased when she is brought into the strategy session in HOG. Adama tells her he needs her help because he needs “serious out of the box thinking” (HOG). Once she has joined the planning team, Adama explains that she was brought in because she is not “weighed down by conventional thinking” (HOG). In other words, her help is necessary because she is a creative thinker. The plan she crafts is successful and, though she cannot actually fly the mission, it is primarily thanks to her creative thinking that the Colonial Fleet will have enough fuel to continue on in the series.
Though it could be argued that after a major holocaust any survivors would learn to live creatively, since to do otherwise would mean death, Starbuck’s particular brand of creative living goes beyond developing new homes and new ways of providing food. She uses her creativity to save the lives of other survivors through her superior piloting skills and her ability to look at situations from a different perspective. In the Miniseries, during the final battle between the Cylon and Colonial forces, Apollo’s Viper is damaged and it appears that he will be left to die, since he has no way of returning to Galactica before they retreat to safety. Instead of choosing to retreat and have the certainty of saving herself, Starbuck conceives a radical maneuver to use her own ship to propel his back to the ship and shelter. The maneuver is dangerous and requires extreme precision to avoid head-on collision and death for both participants. Starbuck, however, is so much in control of her ship that she can manage the rescue in the midst of a violent space battle. Her creative life choices save Apollo’s life.
Starbuck’s physical courage, is demonstrated in a bar fight aboard the Cloud 9 in CD. She is clearly marked as injured, moving with a limp and using a cane, but she still participates in the fight when her wingman becomes involved. As a visibly injured person, she has more obvious weaknesses than an uninjured combatant. Her opponent has an easy target, which he uses to take her down, and she keeps fighting, turning the sign of her injury, her cane, as a weapon. It takes great physical courage to go into a fight where one knows one is at a disadvantage. In Starbuck’s case, a bad fall or hit could exacerbate her injury and put her out of commission for more time or even permanently. With all this information, she still defends her comrade.
Though the premise of BSG frequently deals with the dangers of technology and the
ways in which technology misused can turn on its creators, Starbuck’s uses of the technology available frequently mean literally the difference between life and death. In CGH, it is her ability to interpret a Cylon Raider, a fusion of technological and biological, that allows her to escape the barren moon on which she is stranded and rejoin the Fleet. Confronted with a mix of veins and wires, circuitry and flesh, she is able to intuit connections between the Viper with which she is familiar and the foreign Raider, then use her piloting skills to her own advantage. This ability to correctly link an alien system to something within her area of expertise shows a technological awareness that is very powerful.
However, it is not merely the power of female action heroes that labels them as something outside of the binary definitions of masculine and feminine. “The female action hero poses a challenge to gendered binaries through her very existence: … most particularly, her labour and the body that enacts it, mark her out as ‘unfeminine’” (Tasker 69). Starbuck’s work, being a pilot, a soldier, and a mechanic, is labeled by our culture as unfeminine. This attitude is evidenced both in the smaller percentage of women in the actual military and the smaller number of women in such roles in media. However, despite the lack of perceived ‘femaleness’ in her job, Starbuck’s body is in fact extremely feminine. The Cylon agent, Number Six, is shown in various states of undress and her garb is always extremely revealing, but her build is tall and thin and flat-chested. Lt. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii is equally boyishly built, though she is dressed in pilot garb most of the time, as Starbuck is. As a mature woman in a high-profile career, President Laura Roslin is typically seen in business suits that do not accentuate her female attributes. As well, she is diagnosed with breast cancer, attaching a stigma to her body as diseased and therefore not sexual. By comparison, Starbuck has curves that are visible even in her typical attire of khaki pants and double tank tops. She has the largest breasts and hips on the show, therefore objectively and disregarding any question of occupation or personality, Starbuck has the most female figure. Despite this, she is perceived as the most masculine woman on the show because of her chosen career and actions.
Starbuck is not the only woman warrior whose body and personality do not work together under the gendered binary. Body awareness is a major concern for young women in modern society, but the culture resists women who are fully aware of and present in their bodies in all situations, as women warriors are.“Regardless of context, [her] body is wedded to her sense of self and is always relevant to the action at hand” (Early 59). Starbuck is always completely physically present. When she is jogging, she runs without what some would consider a typical feminine concern for sweating or staying out of the way. She encounters a tour group and her response is not to try to get around it without disturbing the guide, it is to yell “Make a hole” and continue on her chosen course (Mini). When leading a stealth team, she is in the lead, her footfalls silent and her balance forward on the balls of her feet, indicating readiness and an immediate capacity to spring into action (BD). Her sense of self is always directly tied to her physical readiness as she shows in 33. When told to take stimulants to allow her to remain awake during a span of more than five days without sleep, she talks about how the stimulants would affect her vision and her piloting capabilities. Without those qualities, she feels she would not be Starbuck and therefore would not be fit to perform her duties.
In her article “From ‘Figurative Males’ to Action Heroines”, Elizabeth Hills discusses the dichotomy between ‘masculine’ profession and female embodiment.
“As an active, heroic and technologically competent woman she is more similar to action heroes than she is to traditionally passive heroines… However, this does not make her 'figuratively male' Being composed of the speeds of action rather than the speeds of passivity, active heroines such as Ripley are becoming something other than the essentialized concept of Woman held in a mutually exclusive relation to Man Furthermore, if action heroines become empowered and even violent through their use of technology, this is not to say that they are somehow no longer 'really' women, but that they are intelligent and necessarily aggressive females” (Hills 45-6).
In her unique and eloquent way, Hills sums up the issue with the debate over the relative masculinity of action heroines. Regardless of their behaviors, action heroines are women. They fulfill the characteristics of the female sex. Whatever else she may do, Starbuck is genetically female, possessing the female reproductive organs (a fact explicitly addressed in the second season episode “The Farm”). To say that she is masculine or a “pseudo-male” because her attitude and personality do not meet a specious and exclusive definition of femininity is ludicrous and narrow-minded, yet people persist in forcing each gender into a constricted pigeonhole.(Hills 38) “Modern action heroines are transgressive characters…because their coexistent sexuality…destabilizes the very concept of gender traits as mutually exclusive” (Brown 50).
Female Role Model
The concept of the woman warrior as a stand-in for a man, so far removed from ‘femininity’ as to be unrecognizable, relegates the woman warrior to a position in which a woman should not wish to emulate her, because to do so is to betray her gender. That viewpoint derives straight from the perception of gender as divided into mutually exclusive binaries. If a trait is locked to one gender or the other, any person who exhibits a characteristic designated to the other gender is a freak or a mimic.
“If the action heroine is a figurative male, the importance of signs such as muscles, self-reliance, competence, and control within the economy of masculinity is not really undermined but reinforced. But if the action heroine is read as a dominatrix the exclusivity of gendered traits is truly brought into question because one set of gendered signs does not replace the other; instead, the boundaries are confounded because they are combined” (Brown 69)
Brown explains that dominatrix in this context is not a sexual fetish term, but a description of a confluence of power and gender that allows for interpretations without restrictions of binary thinking. Specifically, a dominatrix is able to be both physically and socially powerful in a way that is traditionally reserved for men, without losing any part of her essential femininity. By describing woman warriors in these terms, one can hold a woman up as an example of power without trespassing into male spheres, giving each individual the opportunity to manifest the qualities he or she feels without reproach.
This system of thinking allows a much broader scope of role modeling, making Starbuck able to be described as “a role model for young women: competent, responsible, assertive, and confident, albeit appealingly flawed” (Early 55). Her competency is established in the Miniseries when even her nemesis, Colonel Tigh, admits to Adama that she is the best pilot he has ever seen. This thread is solidified when she is assigned to instruct new pilots, as one would have to be proficient to teach skills to newcomers (AOC). This also supports her status as a responsible part of Galactica’s crew, ensuring the continuation of the pilot corps in the aftermath of great devastation. Her assertive nature is displayed in 33 when she scolds Apollo for allowing his emotions to detract from his performance of his duties. Despite these positive qualities, Starbuck is far from perfect. She drinks and brawls and her abrasive personality brings her into conflict with her superior officers. By presenting her as less than perfect, however, the character is made more relevant. Humans are not perfect, if Starbuck was, she would be beyond the compass of attainability for a viewer. This way, she is relatable as an equal.
All the way through the season, Starbuck is fully present and in control of her own body, which is unusual for a female character. Often women are portrayed as being uncomfortable about their weight or their shape, stemming from Western culture’s obsession with the female body as imperfect. Starbuck counters this
“not only because of her lithe, muscular body, but because she is entirely comfortable living, fighting, and loving inside of it. Unlike most television women, she neither denies nor exploits her own sexuality. What better model for positive female behavior could we present to girls maturing amid insistent virgin/whore stereotypes, and in a culture in which eating disorders run rampant” (Pozner 13).
She is only shown as uneasy with her body when her activity is curtailed by injury. In every other situation, beginning from her first appearance on the show. Her athleticism is displayed in her morning jog around the ship, while her choice of running gear, baggy sweatpants and sweaty tanks, presents her as a woman who is not concerned about flaunting her sexuality, giving credence to her commitment to the activity (Mini). Later, after the injury that takes her off the pilot roster, she remains comfortable enough with her body to change in a co-ed bunkroom without making apologies for her appearance. Perhaps the most telling example of her physical comfort is her choice of clothing for the Colonial Day party at the conclusion of that episode. She wears a dress, the only time she is seen in a skirt across the run of the series, that is short enough to reveal her knee injury. She is not embarrassed by the scars of battle, she displays them because they are a part of her. This straightforward attitude towards her body is empowering and offers a welcome change from the typical media approach to the female body.
In most respects, the woman warrior, and Starbuck in particular, represent a change from common stereotypical attitudes about woman. She continues the trend set up by Joss Whedon in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as explicated in an interview with Kathleen Tracy. “This movie was my response to all the horror movies I had ever seen where some girl walks into a dark room and gets killed. So I decided to make a movie where a blonde girl walks into a dark room and kicks butt instead” (Tracy 6) The blonde is frequently, due to societal expectations, seen as the weakest, least powerful member of any group. There is a perception of blonde women, particularly those who are petite in stature, as vapid and unable to protect themselves. That perception is overturned, both in Joss Whedon’s seminal girl power drama, and again in the character of Starbuck. The actress, Katee Sackhoff, is a blonde and it was suggested early in the casting and filming process that, as a blonde of under average height, it would be impossible for viewers to take Sackhoff seriously as an action character. At a Battlestar Galactica convention in November of 2007, Sackhoff noted that the producers insisted that her blonde hair be cut very short to suggest a more butch appearance. Over the course of the show’s four seasons, Starbuck’s hair got progressively longer and no one doubted that she could still kick any butt she wanted to. By subverting expectations, Sackhoff and Starbuck expanded possibilities for the blonde in the eyes of popular media.
All of these qualities combine to answer Marleen Barr’s question, “How can women co-exist with men, retain their female characteristics, and function as powerful individuals?” (Barr 61). Starbuck models many good qualities that any person would be wise to adapt. Her perseverance through her struggles in CGH and her persistence in working through her injury over the next five episodes are a testament to strength. Her comfort in her own body serves as an example to those who are cowed by a media intent on telling people why the way they are is wrong. She exhibits a commendable self-sufficiency that should encourage women to rely on themselves instead of depending on another person to fulfill their physical and emotional needs. And her professional pride makes one want to find a skill in which she too can shine and be proud of her efforts. Starbuck stands as a symbol of the heights to which a woman may aspire if she does not allow herself to be stopped by artificially imposed binaries and expands to her fullest potential.