BSG: Dehumanizing the Other

My geek cred suffered for a few years while Battlestar Galactica was on TV...I missed out on the entire season. So I borrowed the DVDs and am working through them now slowly. I'm on Season 2.5 now, so lay off the spoilers, please!

The basic premise is that Cylons (robots that look like humans) have declared war on humanity and infiltrated the fleet of starships.  The remaining survivors have to deal with outside attacks and internal suspicions of Cylons in their midst.

There's another war going on, however: how much can you dehumanize the other? They regularly call the Cylons "toasters" and have no guilt over killing them in combat no matter how human they look. The crewman who illegally killed a Cylon in custody barely got any punishment.  Another (kinda...) Cylon in custody is called a "thing" regularly by even the Commander.  And yet there are some who treat the Cylons like people, with dignity and grace. It is this internal conflict of how to be at war with the other without demonizing/dehumanizing the other (even if they are really not human) that is really interesting.

There's a scene that is really painful and exemplifies this conflict.  (I am outlining basic points without revealing who Cylons are.  Please be respectful of this in the comments) In the episode Pegasus (Season 2.0, Episode 10), a female Cylon in custody is raped (or attempted rape...there are alternate scenes) by an officer who has raped and dehumanized another Cylon in custody.  She survives and the scene ends with her crying with a blanket held over her body.  You cannot watch the scene and not see the Cylon as a human woman who has just been violated by people who do not treat her as a human, and is saved by people who do.

But that's not the scene I'm talking about.  In the next episode Resurrection Ship (Season 2.5, Episode 11), the Cylon is examined for trauma by a doctor who has this poignant exchange:
Doctor: Your fluid and electrolytes levels are stable. [minor edit for spoilers] You do have a cracked rib though. Hairline fracture, which means it's gonna hurt like hell for a while. But, I'm not seeing any signs of permanent damage from the attack.
Cylon: The attack. Is that what we're calling it now?
Notice how it is a non-human who is commenting on how inhumane it is to refer to rape as anything other than rape. And a subtle reference to this internal conflict of dehumanizing the other.  It is easier to violate the other when you don't see them as human (even if they aren't human in the sci-fi show, they are at least humane).

I am reminded of a 2007 courtroom case where the judge outlawed the use of the word "rape" a rapist's trial!  They could only use the term "sex" (not even "sexual assault").  Feministing's commentary is worth reading.  Here's a snippet:
Bowen testified for 13 hours at Safi's first trial last October, all without using the words rape or sexual assault. She claims, not unreasonably, that describing what happened to her as sex is almost an assault in itself. "This makes women sick, especially the women who have gone through this," Bowen told the Omaha World-Herald. "They know the difference between sex and rape."
When we dilute violence by calling it names other than what it is, then we do injustice (again!) to the victims.  And a sci-fi show about treating even non-humans like humans exposes how our language in our real world dehumanizes human women!  Powerful. Poignant.

I did not expect to write about rape and science fiction today, but I cannot let this moment pass without reviewing the way how our language dehumanizes human experience.  I hope you got a little notion of that from this post today.

Thoughts? (please, no spoilers!)


Anonymous,  May 5, 2010 at 10:16 PM  

Well, my geek cred is long gone, so I may be missing something. But cyclons are things aren't they?

Maybe I need to go back and watch the episode where Picard proves Data is sentient.

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