Post written by guest writer Audra.
One of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica, returned to TV last Friday night for its final 10 episodes. This series is relevant to our times in many ways, but it was especially on my mind last year during the election, because it is one of the few shows ever to feature a woman as president. (I think I can count them on one hand). Inevitably, BSG’s President Laura Roslin has inspired comparisons to both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. BSG gives us one of our few TV glimpses at what a female president might look like. So what does it tell us?
First let me say that I got hooked on BSG because of Roslin. She is my favorite character, and the glorious Mary McDonnell is so brilliant in the role that I always care about Roslin even when the writing is not great. Ultimately for me, though, BSG’s representation of a female as president left a lot to be desired.
During the first two seasons of the series, Roslin’s presidency had a lot of promise. She was a strong leader and served as an excellent foil to military man, Adama. I expected her to continue to grow in her role as president, building up the civilian government as a formidable force in the ragtag fugitive fleet. Unfortunately, instead of allowing Roslin to gain power in her own right as civilian leader, the writers resolved the civilian/military conflict by joining Roslin with Adama. She continued to become more powerful, but primarily through her influence over powerful men, rather than her skill in actual governing or winning over the public. The writers have never granted Roslin much legitimate authority as president (which I distinguish from her mystical authority as dying leader). For one thing, she has never been elected: she first rose to the office as the 43rd in line of succession to President Adar (with whom she was having an affair), and the second time through shady backdoor dealings with Tom Zarek. The extent of her behind-the-scenes sway over the Admiral also became even more apparent as their relationship evolved into a romance in Seasons 3 and 4.
The difficulty I have with the way Roslin wields authority is encapsulated in a scene toward the end of the episode Revelations: having finally arrived at Earth, Adama makes a big, emotional announcement that is broadcast throughout the fleet. But why is it Adama and not Roslin who addresses the fleet? She is the one who has been most committed to finding Earth. And more importantly, she is the president, and presidents, not military leaders, give speeches to mark major events. Yet it has been a pattern throughout the series that the Adama men give the big speeches, whereas the camera often cuts off the president just as she opens her mouth to make a speech. Her lack of grandiloquence, in this case utter silence, at significant moments renders her much less presidential than she should at this point in the series.
Of course a big part of the problem is that Roslin is the civilian leader on a series about the military. (If the creators had really wanted to break the gender mold, they would have made Roslin the experienced military leader and Adama the schoolteacher.) Whereas BSG has treated the military and Cylon arcs consistently, it takes on topics within the presidents purview, such as politics and civilian life, only sporadically. Maybe the shows inability to sustain an interest in non-military matters is inherent in its premise, a side effect of its being Battlestar Galactica instead of Colonial One (the presidential ship, where Roslin doesnt even live anymore), but it is unfortunate that the woman in power is of interest primarily in her relation to the military, where she is always second to Adama.
In episodes that do deal with civilian issues, Roslin is often not an especially good president and at her worst is an inconsistently used plot device. Her decision to ban abortion in the middle of a presidential campaign, for instance, suggests not only her ethical weakness, but also her weakness as a political tactician. The writers couldn’t seem to decide whether she instituted the ban for political gain or because she was worried about population decline, and she therefore comes across as ineffectual on both fronts: the abortion ban is no help in winning the election (she loses), and it is of course a nonsensical way to address population decline. If you want to encourage people to start families, you don’t make conditions worse by taking away freedoms–you raise the standard of living for children and give people hope for the future. But Roslin apparently can’t figure that out, despite the fact that she was supposedly an abortion-rights advocate before she became president. Instead, as we learn in Dirty Hands, former Education Secretary Roslin has children doing hard labor like some Dickensian workhouse master. We rarely see her do anything to improve civilian life in the fleet. Instead, especially in later seasons, she often serves as an authoritarian straw man against whom the brave young men of principle (Lee, Tyrol, Helo) must struggle.
Ultimately, Roslin is much more effective in her fated role as dying leader guiding her people to Earth than as president. As in many TV series, female power is associated with mysticism over personal accomplishment (See: Buffy, Sidney Bristow, Starbuck). And now that we know Earth is a wasteland, her major accomplishment is dubious at best. Will Roslin’s presidency be redeemed in the few remaining episodes of the series? Will she pull herself together after the huge disappointment of finding Earth and step up as a leader? Or will Lee have to swoop in to save the day? I sincerely hope that she at least has a noble end, since much like her real-life counterparts in politics, Roslin has brought me such hope–and frustration.