Battlestar Galactica is one of the most popular, most critically acclaimed and at the same time also most overlooked science fiction shows of the 21st century (no Emmy for actors, writers or directors, seriously?). Set mainly in space, at the brink of the end of humanity, it creates a very sobering feeling while at the same time generating an immense amount of suspense for the audience. The show’s characters are deeply flawed; they are traumatized and imprisoned in space, as there is nowhere else for them to go. The cast consists of a big ensemble where everyone gets their fair share of screen time. However, considered as the leading actors are Mary McDonnell and Edward James Olmos who play President Laura Roslin and Commander/Admiral William Adama.
At the time the show started both actors were beyond their forties, a rather untypical age for lead actors of a TV show, in particular for an actress. Back then – even more so then now – the main motto of the television business was “the younger the female, the better” and once an actress had passed her forties she was considered to have reached her pass-by-date. A way of thinking that thankfully was appalling to Ronald D. Moore, creator of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. He created the character of President Laura Roslin particularly with a middle-aged Mary McDonnell in mind to play her. He had previously seen the two-time Oscar nominee in the 2001 film Donnie Darko and knew he wanted to have her as the president of the universe on his show.
With Moore’s conscious choice of casting McDonnell as one of the lead actresses and the latter’s outstandingly captivating performance, a character that broke one glass ceiling after another was created, making the show to one of the most feminist at the time – a statement which is still true today. With many of her character traits and behaviors President Laura Roslin deconstructs stereotypical images of women, in particular of women who have reached middle-age.
Here are the four most significant stereotypes that Laura Roslin smashes into a million tiny pieces:
1. Stereotype: Women Cannot Be Good Leaders and if They Turn out to Be, They Must Be Mistrusted and Disliked
After the Cylons, artificial intelligent robots, attack the Twelve Colonies and wipe out the majority of humanity, Secretary of Education Laura Roslin is the only senior government official still alive. She takes charge and gives people instructions on what to do in order to ensure the survival of the human race. However, the moment she issues her first order she already encounters resistance. A journalist, male, demands to know who put her in charge. The sudden rise of power of a woman seems mindboggling to him therefore he immediately questions it. Roslin answers him confidently, like she was already expecting it to have her actions doubted. “The answer is no one”, she says. “But this is a government ship and I’m the senior government official, so that puts me in charge.” To establish her authority the statement is followed by a direct order which the journalist does not dare to disobey. In her essay Double Standard of Aging from 1972 writer and political activist Susan Sontag described several stereotypes about women, some of which are outdated; others, however, are still as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. One of these stereotypes reads: “The jobs this society deems appropriate to women are auxiliary, “calm” activities that do not compete with, but aid, what men do.” Taking over the highest existing office in the universe can neither be considered an auxiliary nor a calm task that only assists a man’s work. Laura Roslin 1, Stereotype 0.
In the very same episode Laura Roslin is sworn in as the President of the universe. She is shaking, terrified of the responsibility, yet ready to take it on. At no point does she appear to actually want the job; she even states not to like politics, making it clear that she did not ever have the ambition to achieve a higher office than being Secretary of Education. Nevertheless, she accepts the office because it is her responsibility and she has every intention of taking that duty seriously. With her promotion –despite involuntarily– Roslin takes on this stereotype once more and completely dissembles it.
The Commander of the Galactica, William Adama who represents the military counterpart to Roslin’s civilian power, is rather discontent with the new president. His son, pilot Apollo, is far more accepting of the new leader and in general follows her orders without questioning them. When Adama refuses to accept a request made by Roslin, Apollo makes sure to state that it is a “direct order from the president.” Upon this Adama responds in utter disbelief: “You mean the Secretary of Education? We are in the middle of a war and you’re taking orders from a school teacher!?” The Commander is clearly suggesting that he does not deem Roslin fit to be president. Commander Adama’s initial reactions to Roslin reveal that he did not respect her profession nor believed in her abilities even before she took office. This might have looked entirely different if Roslin had been a man. In her TED talk Why We Have Too Few Women LeadersSheryl Sandberg mentions that women only rarely receive the same recognition and respect for their work as men do. And if they are lucky enough to get recognition, they are usually disliked for their achievements as they make the woman look arrogant and competitive, character traits males in the same position usually do not get described with. It is much more likely that characteristics such as “determined” and “successful” are used to describe men. In Battlestar Galactica Laura Roslin eventually wins over Adama, earning his respect and his trust. However, this does not happen until Season Two, Episode Seven Home Part 2 when Adama accuses Roslin of breaking her word. He tells her he forgives her for it, whereupon Roslin reminds him that she never even asked for his forgiveness. Nevertheless, already at the very end of the pilot episode, Roslin and Adama come to terms with the fact that they will have to work together. They shake hands and he addresses Roslin with “Madame President” for the very first time, showing her that he accepts her presidential authority. With her self-confident, competent appearance and her dedication to humanity Laura Roslin makes Adama look past his prejudice about female leaders and manages to make him look at her as an equal counterpart.
2. Stereotype: A Woman’s Main Goal in Life Should Be to Marry and to Have Children
Laura Roslin is not married, never has been nor has showed any regret in this regard. She does not have children either, or any other kind of family (her mother died of cancer, her father and sisters were killed in a car crash). On the show it never gets mentioned that Roslin was forced to choose between family and career at some point in her life. It appears that she has chosen this way of living completely voluntarily. At no point during the series her marital status or her childlessness seem to cause her to be lonely or discontent. Society judges her but none of these judgments are based on her being unmarried or childless. Susan Sontag mentions in her essay that the main goal of a woman is considered to get married and to have children she can take care of. Unmarried and childless women are considered to have failed at life and are automatically assumed to be discontent, lonely, and frustrated. When a man is unmarried it generally is not assumed by default that he failed at life. Instead he is seen as a bachelor who is not ready to settle down yet. He is not believed to be lonely, unhappy or depressed. However, when a woman does not have at least either husband or child there is no purpose for her, her life is believed to be sad and meaningless. These gender roles were – and still are –enforced in particular by the media. Though it did improve significantly over the last fifty years it is a stigma many women still have to fight against today. On Battlestar Galactica Laura Roslin proves this stereotype wrong. She does not long to be married nor does she regret not being a mother, which again does not mean that she is opposed to either of these ideas. Roslin embraces her life as it is, not feeling any less as a woman for departing from the path society has predefined for her gender.
3. Stereotype: Older Women Are Supposed to Be Asexual Beings
Before the series started, when Laura Roslin was still the Secretary of Education, she had an affair with the President of the Twelve Colonies. He was married at the time, which she was aware of. The audience only learns about their relationship in a flashback in Season Two, Episode Thirteen Epiphanies when they are seen kissing and it leaves no room for interpretation that their relationship is indeed a sexual one. In The Double Standard of Aging Susan Sontag writes that for men it is somewhat acceptable to have an affair. Society sort of “understands” when a male cheats on his wife of several years to sleep with a much younger woman. Having an affair as a woman, even when unmarried, is much more frowned upon, especially when the woman has reached or even past middle age and the man she has an affair with is not her senior but about the same age or even younger than her. The Western culture has this impression that only young women can be involved in affairs while age does not seem to matter when it comes to men. The reason thereby is that an affair is all about sexual pleasure and a young woman is assumed to be able to arouse men significantly more due to her “flawless” body which is supposed to be without stretch marks, wrinkles and sagging skin. It is also believed that the importance of sexual intercourse decreases with age, especially for women. However, this is a very false belief as Rose Weitz writes in her essay Midlife Women’s Sexuality in Contemporary U.S. Film. She says that according to several surveys sexual activity remains a significant part of the life of many midlife women. Middle-aged women as well as women who have already passed middle age still have sexual desires and it is not at all unusual for them to be sexually active.
There is only very little the viewers of Battlestar Galactica get to see of Laura Roslin’s affair, apart from this one flashback. Yet it is enough for Roslin to not only break one but three stereotypes: 1. She is a middle-aged woman who is sexually active, 2. She has an affair with a married man and 3. Said man is not significantly older than her but about the same age.
For the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica Laura Roslin was not involved in any romantic or sexual relationship. She has a lot on her plate, getting used to being the president, additionally to fighting terminal breast cancer. However, at the end of Season Two something between the two leaders – Roslin and Adama – changes. They realize they can trust each other, they understand the burden of being in charge, the burden of having to find a way to lead humanity to safety. Their shared struggle connects them, draws them towards each other and eventually makes them fall for one another. Contrary to the majority of TV shows, back when Battlestar Galactica aired as well as now, their attraction and eventually their relationship does not get hidden in between scenes: it is actually shown, and not only hinted at. Roslin and Adama are both in their fifties which automatically makes their relationship an atypical one since there are sadly only very few relationships of people who have reached middle age portrayed on television. Weitz writes that the likelihood of portraying sexual or romantic activity onscreen declines with the age for both sexes. The audience knows such relationships exist, there are several hints that suggest so, but it is assumed that the viewers do not want to see an older couple kissing or sharing any other kind of intimacy. So moments that show the affection between an older couple usually happen in between scenes or even in between episodes, for no one to witness as if it were something unnatural. On Battlestar Galactica, however, the relationship between Roslin and Adama does not get hidden, it is part of the show and treated like any other relationship happening in the series. There are several scenes in which they kiss, hug or touch each other in a way that clearly suggests that they are more than friends and that the sexual part of their lives is far from over. In Season Four, Episode Fourteen there even is a scene in which Roslin and Adama are lying in bed together, wrapped in blankets, clearly suggesting they are not wearing anything underneath. It is a very tasteful and incredibly intimate scene, which is a rarity on television as well as in films. Battlestar Galactica is not afraid to show scenes that Western society considers inappropriate; the series is not scared of breaking free from the norm or defying preconceptions about middle-aged women and their love lives. Yet another stereotype Laura Roslin dismantles.
4. Stereotype: The Value of a Woman Declines Once Her Body Starts Showing Signs of Aging
Additionally to carrying the responsibility for what is left of humanity on her shoulders, Laura Roslin has to get used to the fact that she is going to die. The very first time she appears in on Battlestar Galactica she is sitting in her doctor’s office, getting her diagnosis: terminal breast cancer. According to the doctor she only has a few months left before the illness takes her life. At this point she is still in Caprica City, the federal capital of the Twelve Colonies. Right after the doctor’s visit, though, she gets on an aircraft to go to Galactica. A few hours later all colonies are destroyed and she is trapped in space, getting sworn in as the president of the universe. Roslin is in constant pain and yet she fulfills all her duties as the commander in chief. She does not reveal her condition at first, hides it actually, but it soon is common knowledge. She does not back down and neither does she let the men or the cancer prevent her from being the leader she believes humanity needs.
At the beginning of Season Four Roslin loses all her long, thick, dark hair due to her cancer treatment. It is a heart wrenching moment when Roslin touches her hair and all of a sudden the strand is not attached to her head anymore. She holds the loose hair in her hand instead and cries – a scene that was brilliantly written and incredibly well acted.
In an interview with for the Los Angeles Times Mary McDonnell talked about Roslin’s hair loss: “I come from really Irish genes and a sort of a big-hair family, and they’ve been important to me. I see it as part of the feminist situation, so it was hard for me to let go of it, much to the frustration of the casting people around me. So, I tried to approach that and sort of sympathize [that] basically Laura has my hair, so she would have a similar attachment”.
Diane Trusson from the School of Sociology and Social Policy in Nottingham, England conducted a study in whichshe talked to breast cancer patients who have lost their hair. She found out that with their hair the women lost part of their identity and that it is an incredibly hard choice to decide whether they want anyone to even see their bald head or not. Most women were concerned in particular about other people’s reactions. For Roslin it is very difficult to deal with the loss of her hair but she eventually manages to embrace it and decides not to hide. She usually wears a wig whenever she has presidential business to conduct. When she is somewhere in private, though, she wears a scarf or nothing at all, showing off her bald head. For Roslin looks were never as significant as for some other characters on the show, however she always is well dressed. Most of the time she is wearing an Armani business suit, heels and make-up. Roslin has an additional burden to bear by being the president. She is responsible for humanity, feels obliged to give them hope, to be a strong leader they can rely on. A bald head might have made her appear weak, sick and unfit for the office. If it were not for her position as the president, she might not wear a wig at all. She is not ashamed of her looks, not scared to show what the cancer has done to her.
As previously mentioned, there is a scene in Battlestar Glactica in which Roslin and Adama are lying in bed together, it is clearly indicated that sexual activities have been taking place at some point prior. They are wrapped in blankets but their shoulders and arms suggest they are both naked underneath. Roslin is lying there with her eyes closed and a smile on her face. She is neither wearing a scarf nor a wig. She feels completely comfortable lying next to Adama with her bald head, stating that she does not have a single care in the world at this particular moment. Susan Sontag mentions in her essay that “a woman’s character is thought to be innate, static – not the product of her experience” and that “a broken nose or a scar or a burn mark, no more than regrettable for man, is a terrible psychological wound to a woman: objectively, it diminishes her value”. Roslin defies this stereotype. She certainly struggles with the loss of hair and thedecline of her body, but eventually she embraces it and in no way feels ashamed or less valuable as a woman because of it which again makes her all the more beautiful to the viewers.
President Laura Roslin is one of the best written fictional characters the world of television has to offer. Brought to life by the exceptionally talented Mary McDonnell, Roslin shows just how strong and powerful a woman can be and how very little age matters. Roslin proves that it is merely a rumor that sex becomes insignificant to older women and also clarifies that with age beauty does NOT disappear. It is a common misconception that beauty has any relation to age or health and Laura Roslin clears up this misunderstanding. Even towards the end, when she is pale and bald, there is no denying that she is a profoundly beautiful woman. And oddly enough, even though she is an unmarried woman and does not have children, she dies as the mother of humanity with Adama’s ring on her finger.
The Double Standard of Aging by Susan Sontag
The Ideal Woman by Jennifer Holt
Why we Have too Few Women Leaders – TED talk by Sheryl Sandberg
Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture by Kristina Horn Sheeler & Karrin Vasby Anderson