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18 November 2010, 12:00 pm 2 Comments

Television: New Gay Icons — Battlestar Galactica’s Kara Thrace

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

I’ve been grousing a lot here about the arbitrary, if not insulting, recent designations of fly-by-night “gay icons” and I’m not the type to complain blindly without offering up some of my own alternatives. Granted, this is as personal and arbitrary as anyone’s preferences are, so I can’t say that this designation is universal. Just something to think about, I guess.

WARNING: There are Battlestar Galactica spoilers intrinsic to this article. Proceed with caution if you have not seen the whole show.

Battlestar Galactica, which many people (this author included) feel is the best TV show of the last decade, is rife with gay themes and characters. The latter, unfortunately, often fall into the “evil homo” category. Felix Gaeta plotted to overthrow Battlestar’s regime and was executed, and it was his secret love for Gaius Baltar that spawned so many atrocities on New Caprica.  Admiral Cain and her lover Gina, respectively, tried to ruin everything and and blew up luxury space stations. The queer themes, however, are easier to support

Without ruining to much, Battlestar is a show about the end of the world. Cylons, robots who look like humans, rose up against the people of earth and destroyed the planet. Roughly 50,000 human survivors drift through space on a handful of ships trying to find a habitable planet. Since the cylons look like humans, and we don’t know who they are, many characters (Sharon Valerii/Number 8/ Athena in particular) undergo very painful and dangerous coming out processes. Familiarly, they begin to develop inklings that they are “something else” and must figure out how to stay welcome in their communities after that knowledge is divulged.

The character with the most gay resonance, however, ends up not to be a Cylon at all. Though the true nature of Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is never revealed (again, spoiler alerts) she is alternately thought to be a cylon, a harbinger of death and an angel. To Ms. Thrace herself, though, she is just a woman in trying circumstances trying to figure out where she fits in. The labels others attach to her never quite fit.

I often think of Starbuck as the most queer-friendly character in an incredibly queer-friendly show. To rewatch BSG’s first season (where I believe that picture is from) is to be shocked at just how butch Starbuck was when she was introduced. Though she is never given overt lesbian overtones, and is involved with a number of desirable men (and Gaius Baltar), she is introduced as the prototypical tomboy. She drinks, gambles, beats up boys and never quite fits in with many of the show’s other women. Usually because she is too good at what she does and inspires rivalry in her peers.

Her season one haircut alone is enough to qualify Starbuck as a “gay icon” but I think it runs a little deeper than that. Because Starbuck, in season three, responds to a brutal year of imprisonment by growing out her hair. And unlike many shows, where grown-out hair signals a woman’s assent to success and acceptance, Starbuck grows her hair out when she hits rock bottom.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe there are many movies or TV shows where the tomboy wins. Billy Elliot and Glee are positive examples of boys who decide to embrace their feminine side against persecution and come out on top. The tomboys, though, are either non-existent or serve as living examples of how much better a girl’s life can be if she would just cheer up and act “pretty.”

As an antidote to this, Starbuck’s time with long hair  finds her hemorrhaging  friends, alienating people and losing her skills at all the things that make her special. Her boss and de facto father figure calls her a “cancer” at this point, and any of her other stereotypically feminine characteristics fall away. In a climactic late season moment, Starbuck finally sees that she has lost too much and chops her hair off with a knife. It is only then, that she rejects what is typically expected of a woman, that she can finally fulfill her “special destiny.”

I think it’s easy to forget that gender is not just a trans issue. The roots of all gay persecution, I believe, are widespread discomforts at people acting outside their gender. Thus, boys who kiss boys are acting like girls, and boys who act like girls are punished. It’s a small moment in a large, grand show, but I think it’s Kara Thrace’s haircut that actually cements her as a viable and relevant queer icon.

(I could write another six paragraphs or so about other gay themes throughout BSG, but this isn’t the time or place. Maybe sometime in the future.)

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  • James said:

    Great article, love this show. Granted the only gay characters on the show wind up being villains, the fact that no big deal is made of their gayness is what I admired in this show. The concept of a society that has advanced beyond stigmatizing sexuality.

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