Starbuck Revisited

I’ve been procrastinating a post on Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck for a few weeks now, but given the most recent episode (the shock of which I will attempt to leave unspoiled in this post), it seems that this is the time to actually write it.

Scarlett wrote some great posts a while ago about the women of Battlestar Galactica, including one on this very controversial character. At the time, the most controversial aspect of her personality was the simple fact that they made this much-loved character from the original series and made her a woman. As people have gotten used to that, I’ve read a lot of criticism of the character itself based around the way the people around her are constantly working to protect her above all others, despite the apocalyptic situation in which they find themselves, despite her self-destructive tendencies, and despite the way she treats them in return, which ranges from obliviousness of their emotions to outright hostility and aggression. Nonetheless, I love Starbuck, in all her complicated glory.

Now, Starbuck obviously doesn’t deserve the kind of affection that the men around her show toward her–Adama, in a fatherly way, or Apollo and Anders in a romantic way, or even her friends and colleagues. But both her attitude and their reaction are entirely realistic for a woman raised in an extremely abusive environment. She’s constantly trying to prove herself, but refusing to believe the praise she receives. She has to put to the test the affection and commitment of anyone in her life, both because she has no idea how to relate and love outside of an abusive context and because she’s never going to accept that she deserves real love. So why do they all take it? Because she was abused, and the fact that she is vulnerable and scared and broken underneath it all is unbelievably transparent. And as Apollo made abundantly clear in the latest episode, they know exactly what she’s doing. Apollo tells his father that he’s pretty sure the only thing holding her together at all is her status as a rough, gruff, edgy pilot who gets to kill things and walk as one of the boys. They all wish they could save her, for real, deep down.

It troubles me to say this, but I think this portrayal reflects the real world. A woman who’s been abused, especially one who comes out of it with an attitude of strength (however thinly it veils her true feelings), tends to inspire a desire to protect her, as well as a tendency to forgive her a lot of crap. It’s not really my favourite real-world dynamic–I’m not a fan of the way a girl who has “been through something” can be placed on a pedestal and separated out from others because of it–but I’ve seen it play out. Starbuck is destructive and oblivious, the father and son Adama team place others at risk to save her, and everyone just keeps playing the game that no one can ever win, and continuing the cycle.

To sum: she’s not a pretty sight, our Starbuck. Nor does she really deserve all the slack she gets. But for better or for worse, she’s real (well, okay, realistic. I know she’s not actually real), and so is the reaction she inspires.


  1. scarlett says

    I’ve only watched up to the second half of s2 so far but I’ve read enough spoilers to know Starbuck is one fracked up individual. Everything she does makes sense, even her selfish, oblivious actions. I’d go a little further and say many of the men in her life are a touch unstable too, for putting up with her. (I think Apollo’s devotion to her stems from their relationship with his brother.) But ultimately what I love about this show is Starback, specifically that, although she’s brilliant at what she does, she’s not someone you’d want in your life, and they make no attempt to hide that.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Hmm. I have to say it struck a personal chord with me when you talked about abused women being placed on pedestals, because that’s just not been my experience, nor am I aware of having observed the phenomenon. I came out of an abusive family not with an “attitude of strength” that thinly veiled my “true feelings”, but with actual strength that came from recognizing what had been done to me and actively altering my responses and perspectives to avoid victim (or perpetrator) behaviors. Maybe that’s where I missed this whole “protective” boat, because I can say for sure no one but my mother has ever sought to protect me. Ever. In fact, people come to me for protection.

    So when I see characters like House or Starbuck getting loved by people who see them as “damaged” I laugh, because in my experience, people don’t respond that way. If they are themselves abused, they’re too busy licking their own wounds to notice anyone else’s – or care. And if they had a relatively stable upbringing, they just don’t know why the abused person “refuses” to fit in or doesn’t relate to them, and they reject her for people they can relate to.

    A psychiatrist I once knew confirmed the second part of this observation, too: “normal” people instinctively reject abused people without even realizing they’re doing it, or that it might be hurtful. It’s simply a question of being able to relate to the abused person – they can’t.

    I’m curious to hear more about what you describe, though. I am aware of a few abused people who have manipulated MY sympathies, but apparently I was the only person in their lives stupid enough to let them do it. Maybe I’ve missed something?

  3. scarlett says

    I always saw Starbuck and Apollo’s relationship as mutually destructive. They seemed like two screwed up individuals with a common history so they kind of drifted into being mutually destructive together.

    In my own personal history, I’m constantly dealing to improve my self-wortth so, when I see old friends who have very little value in themselves, I want to try and set them down the same path of discovering your own worth as I’m on. I know this sounds like crap when it’s written down, but I believe this is a large part of the reason so many people in Starbuck’s life put up with her; they’ve known her for a long time, she’s a link to their past, and on some level, they’ve been where she’s been.

    I hope this makes sense. I’ve had four hours sleep in the last forty:p

  4. Gategrrl says

    It’s a shame the show’s producers decided to “downgrade” the character from a kick-butt, flying ace who thinks completely out of the box, and into a Girl with Emo Problems to end all other Drama Other Drama Queens on the show. The only other character who could go near Starbuck in the personal fucked-up department is Baltar, in my opinion.

    When the show stopped being about escaping from the Cylons, and more about their psychological problems (which is interesting, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the realism) and screwed up sex relationships, it went off track.

    No wonder Katy Sackoff wanted off. Her character went from brash and cigar smoking, to a gordian knot of a messed Girl.

  5. Gategrrl says

    I meant to add at the end:

    Her character went from a brash and cigar smoking brilliant flying ace, and transformed into a gordian knot of messed up girl, without any reference to the brilliance underneath.

    Granted, they couldn’t have her save the fleet every week, or even every other week, but her character wasn’t given a chance to show her other smart side – the one that saved the fleet’s ass several times.

  6. Purtek says

    I had a lot of difficulty figuring out how to bring in the real world stuff because of exactly what Betacandy describes. I’ve seen both reactions, and they depend both on the abused person’s behaviour and on the person reacting. If someone constantly “plays the victim”, people often get frustrated, but an air of strength such as Starbuck’s goes a long way toward getting the “relatively stable” people on her side.

    “normal” people instinctively reject abused people without even realizing they’re doing it, or that it might be hurtful. It’s simply a question of being able to relate to the abused person – they can’t.

    And this, I think, is part of both those reactions–the rejection, obviously, and the praise. They can’t relate, but they make assumptions about how they would react, with “get over it”, meaning “don’t dwell on it, and definitely don’t talk to me about your problems” as a major feature. I’m fleshing out series of thoughts in my head (possibly for my livejournal) about the concept of “victimhood”, and how “victims” are supposed to behave, and the recovery reactions that get them praise. To bring in an analogy (sort of), psychologists describe the common roles that develop within a family with an alcoholic parent, one of which is that of the “caretaker”. Keeping in mind that Starbuck exhibits potentially alcoholic behaviour, and that the dynamics of alcoholism in a family often correlate to abuse, it’s not that big a leap to see the people around her going into caretaker mode. In the situation you describe with your friend, you probably weren’t the first or the last person drawn into the caretaker role in her life, as a Starbuck can run through a string of them. I’m leaving House out of this, because I think he is much more poorly written, and the nuances and beauty of his personality pretty much never comes through, whereas Starbuck’s does, as does the kind of history that Scarlett acknowledged.

    As to Gategrrl’s comments, that’s pretty much exactly the audience reaction that I’ve been frustrated with. I want to see strong female characters as much as the rest of us on this site, but I also want to see real, complicated, ambiguous and layered human beings. To paraphrase Tina Turner, I don’t need another hero, and while I’m glad Starbuck’s a tough, brash chick who can kick ass, I’m not watching Battlestar for its straightforward black and white, good and evil, strong and weak potrayal of the world. I think she’s far from “emo”, and very far from a “drama queen”, though f-ed up, I’ll certainly give you. Why Sackhoff wanted off, and whether this character development had anything to do with it, I can’t say, because I hate spoilers for shows I actually like.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    If someone constantly “plays the victim”, people often get frustrated, but an air of strength such as Starbuck’s goes a long way toward getting the “relatively stable” people on her side.

    Okay, it took me long enough to tease this out, but I’ve got what’s bugging me here.

    I think that Starbuck’s self-destructive behavior paints a “victim” sign all over her, just as plain as someone who constantly gets beaten up or something so obvious. A few people who know diddly about abuse might miss the signs, but most people recognize self-destructive behavior for what it is. Is she consciously playing the victim? I doubt it. But the effect is the same. So as I see it, she’s merely playing the victim very subtly, probably even unconsciously.

    That’s what I never did. That’s why I never got the sympathetic response.

    Now here’s what really bugs me. There are plenty of male characters who’ve both overcome tragic pasts and become heroes. Starbuck’s a hero, but her past still owns her. So while she’s doing lots of cool things the Patriarchy says women can’t do, by internalizing her abuse instead of overcoming it, she’s steadfastly remaining one thing the Patriarchy says women can be: a victim.

  8. Purtek says

    Betacandy, you make a lot of good points–I guess you’ve edited your comment, but in the original one, you said you weren’t trying to “win” an argument, and I’m not, either. The problem I’m having here is this kind of impressionistic, personal experience-driven perception is always different from someone else’s experience and perception, and whatever else this all is, it’s very personal.

    The thing about female characters “remaining a victim”, and plenty of male characters overcoming tragic pasts has got me thinking some more. I agree that I’d like to see that balanced out a heck of a lot more, but as I mentioned, I’m struggling with the demonization of the concept of “being a victim”. In real life, some women overcome, some women get screwed up; same goes for some men. I’d like to see both realities applied to both genders in media, sure, but I think it’s also problematic to start requiring every character with a traumatic past to have really gotten over it. The thing about being victimized, is that it makes you a victim, and while it’s all nice to dance around the idea that moving on, getting healthy and removing the victim aspect of your personality is entirely up to you, it isn’t, always. I realize that we’re on the same side here in looking for one female character who behaves in a healthy manner in response to something like this, but at the same time, if the realities of abuse are going to be exposed, we need portrayals of lasting damage, and I think Starbuck is such a great example that I appreciate and relate to her in that way.

    The male characters’ reactions to her, though, do actually bother me, even though I’ve experienced very similar things in the real world, and the point that you make about it always being men who overcome vs. women who end up damaged makes it a lot more like the 21st centure “damsel in distress”. Obviously, it’s a destructive message, both to women and to men who are struggling with legitimately getting past their histories.

  9. scarlett says

    I’m not sure how much relevance this has, so Beta, feel free to delete it, but I see a lot of parallels between Apollo and Starbuck’s relationship and my relationship with a close male friend.

    Basically, we screwed each other over royally, and fairly frequently. And we could both be utterly convincing at saying the ‘underlying reasons’ had been dealt with, when they hadn’t. Basically, I think we were two mutually destructive people who chose to hang out with each other because we didn’t look too closely at what utter rubbish our belief that we had owned our mistakes was. I’ve only recently decided to walk away, and with some distance, I realise how destructive our relationship was.

    I see that in Apollo and Starbuck. I see two people who cling to each other because of a shared relationship with his brother when what they should be doing is exploring and understanding their reasons for doing what they do. It’s often much easier to hang out with someone as screwed up as you then go and slay your demons. I’ve seen relationships like this in real life (outside my own) so I never had any gripes about it.

    I haven’t seen beyond the Kane arc in s2, so I can’t comment about her relationship with Anderson, although what I have seen seems quite unsettled.

  10. says

    I’m only about 8 episodes into Season Two myself (having also seen a couple of the current episodes and wishing I hadn’t), and let me say I love the Starbuck character, but there is something about the Lee/Kara dynamic that bugs me. It probably bugs me because I have an inkling it could be chalked up to underlying sexism. So a major theme we’ve seen thus far is that Lee is too cautious– he seems to wish he could be more like Kara, all action action action. But his character is too thoughtful. The two conflict over this in several early episodes.

    It came to me: no wonder Apollo resents Starbuck. Whenever he’s insubordinate, whenever he follows his instincts or his morals (siding with Roslin, believing Zarek’s political message) he always gets stomped all over. The consequences are huge for him. But when Starbuck is insubordinate, you’ll notice she somehow gets away with it. I think he envies her because she feels more free to go her own way, but also because he’ll never get away with the stuff she gets away with. I think it rankles in him that this especially holds true with his father. He’s jealous of the easier relationship Adama has with Starbuck.

    It’s this hint of “specialness” that might or might not be because she’s “the girl” that bugs me.

    Oh, and the mutually screwed-up nature of the Lee/Kara relationship rings true to me as well, because I also have had a similar dynamic with a male friend.

  11. scarlett says

    Purtek, I have a feeling we should hash this out personally, rather then boring everyone else :p I’ll email you in a few days.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with Kera as a character. I’m just asking for the same variety we have among male characters: women who’ve overcome, women who haven’t but are still heroic, women who haven’t overcome at all.

    As for the protection issue, I think I see more what you’re saying now: a man like Kera would not inspire protection or tolerance because according to our sexist society men don’t need protecting, just women. I.E., when Mike Logan on L&O talks about his mom beating the crap out of him as a kid, that’s for him to cope with on his own. Could that childhood violence be what caused him to slug a politician in his final episode on the original series? Maybe. Doesn’t matter. He lost his rank and that was the end of him. It’s not a perfect parallel, but there.

    I’ve also been thinking lately about something the male gaze causes: male behavior is simply accepted, while female behavior is analyzed. Why does a woman sleep with every man she meets? She must have daddy issues or some deep-seated neurosis! Why does a man sleep with every woman he meets? What do you mean, why? That’s just how men are.

    It’s ludicrous, of course. And it leads to an imbalance whereby women characters are several times more likely to be subjected to textual analysis than men characters. This creates the meta-message that women are generally products of their environment and background while men are what they make of themselves. In truth, we’re all a little of both, no doubt. Or maybe we’re all products of our history, but whatever we are now is our responsibility. Either way, there’s a false gender distinction being made – probably unconsciously.

    In some ways, I find it a relief that people assume I’m just a loner by choice rather than by lack of skills, because it’s the assumption they’d make of a man without social skills.

  13. Maartje says

    I don’t watch BG, so I can’t comment on Starbuck and I have no personal experience with abuse, so I won’t comment on that either.

    I disagree with the above post and the assertian that, to summerize: men are and women become. Men like to sleep around because they do and women sleep around because they have issues.

    I have watched countless hours of tv and one thing has always been a source of amazement about American television: Fathers are always either dead heroes or abusive/drunks and alive. Almost every main character of whom the father isn’t a main character as well has daddy issues. These daddy issues are also invariably used as excuses for both men and women.
    JAG for instance, is a veritable goldmine of daddy issues. The leading man has a dead hero dad and the quest to find out the truth about him has shaped his life. The leading lady had an alcoholic and abusive dad, so she became an alcoholic too. Even the comic relief side-kick had an abusive dad! It was a military show so half the cast was in the Navy/marine corps because their family was and the other half joined up as an act of rebellion (the women).
    On Stargate, another predominantly male written show, if you don’t have daddy issues it’s because you have son issues.

    So men get all the same excuses women get, but it always seems to be a bump in the road that will make you stronger, and for women it’s always an issue that needs to be resolved over lots of time and soulsearching.
    I do recognise a double standard in overcoming the ordeals in life, but not in the excuse department. Both men and women get analysed and get their excuses for whatever behaviour.

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    Maartje, my impression of American TV is quite different from yours. Even the Stargate example – I realize some of the characters who came after I left have daddy issues, but for the first eight years we had Sam’s daddy issues arcing over 4 seasons, while she crushed on her daddy-like boss. Daniel had no daddy issues. Teal’c wanted revenge for his daddy’s death, and that took up one episode.

    I’m not seeing how this fails to back up my point.

    Yeah, there are a lot of men with daddy issues on TV, but there are also a lot of male alcoholics, male sexoholics, etc., who don’t get analyzed. In fact, before the 90’s, or maybe even the 00’s, it wasn’t at all fashionable to analyze male characters, ever. Meanwhile, we get Vala, whose sexual behavior has to be psychoanalyzed (by an archeologist, no less) within her first few episodes.

    Here’s a really good example of what I’m talking about. How many American male cops over the decades have engaged in self-destructive amounts of drinking or whatever and NOT been analyzed? Meanwhile, the first real female cops we got were Cagney and Lacey – and OMG did we have to go through analysis about why Cagney would do these terribly unladylike things that all her male cop colleagues were doing without analysis.

    Right now, character analysis is fashionable. The underlying bias, which states that male behavior simply is but female behavior must be explained, remains the same.

  15. says

    I would be very interested to hear the reaction to the events of season 3 and Kara’s development. I’ve read a lot of negative reaction that (in season three) she has regressed.

    While it’s true that there is attention paid (perhaps too much attention) to her past – I liked the fact that of all the people trapped on space ships – she’s someone who says that she’s happy the way things are now. She disobeys and questions orders.

    I wouldn’t want her to be the flying ace playing poker all the time either. She would seem one sided. Your point is well taken though, if a male lead was abused, it would be an after thought, not a focus.

    So it’s probably no secret that I am a big fan of this show. It has a mixture of the scifi I like – as well as some of the flawed characters that I prefer. You watch the characters struggle with trying to determine who the enemy is. And in that terror – some one dimensional characters appear – but a lot of characters who have to figure out where they stand. And where they stand changes.

    In season three some of the women leads have children, so there is the tension of determining how to deal with the stress of family life and obligations and their careers. And it seems to me to be both the fathers and the mothers dealing with that dilemna. Some deal with it better than others.

  16. Gategrrl says

    Purdek said:
    As to Gategrrl’s comments, that’s pretty much exactly the audience reaction that I’ve been frustrated with. I want to see strong female characters as much as the rest of us on this site, but I also want to see real, complicated, ambiguous and layered human beings. To paraphrase Tina Turner, I don’t need another hero, and while I’m glad Starbuck’s a tough, brash chick who can kick ass, I’m not watching Battlestar for its straightforward black and white, good and evil, strong and weak potrayal of the world. I think she’s far from “emo”, and very far from a “drama queen”, though f-ed up, I’ll certainly give you. Why Sackhoff wanted off, and whether this character development had anything to do with it, I can’t say, because I hate spoilers for shows I actually like.

    I’d like to point out that one of the things I enjoy about BSG is its shades of gray. But, I’m also influenced by the previous character known as Starbuck on the original series. That WAS a “black and white” series. The original Starbuck was something of a gambling sleezebucket – some gray right there, even if stereotypical for a guy during that era.

    However, I stand by my original viewpoint, which is that the writing took the new Starbuck so far down into the Pit of Despair (along with just about everyone else), that her role became mired and almost completely defined by her sexuality – and not with her mind, which she lost to a great degree.

    ::shrugs:: I guess, even after all these years, the original show has templated into my brain, even though I enjoy this version. I DO expect my heroes to be flawed (they’re more fun that way). But I *also* expect them to have some redeeming qualities, also. Somewhere. And I like those redeeming qualities to be *shown* once in a while, to their advantage.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    I have a feeling BSG will be one of those shows we’re still analyzing 10 years after it’s off the air. There are so many ways to look at it; so many mistakes from some points of view, so many bold, good steps from others.

    And I’m still stuck in S2, so I really can only meta-comment on other people’s perceptions of it. 😀


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