From the edges to the center: Disability, Battlestar Galactica, and fan fiction


Madison, Wisconsin, United States

[0.1] Abstract—As a fan of Battlestar Galactica, I was intrigued by the inclusion of disabled main characters, but disappointed by the show's resolution of their stories. Fan fiction provided an alternate way to talk about these concerns, although many works fetishize or romanticize disability. I credit fandom for continuing to educate me and allow me to educate others.

[0.2] Keywords—Disability; Fan community; Fan fiction

Sasha_feather. 2010. From the edges to the center: Disability, Battlestar Galactica, and fan fiction. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 5.

1. Introduction

[1.1] I am a reluctant fan of Battlestar Galactica (BSG): I'm a hard science fiction television fan who tends to identify not with the main characters, but with those characters who live at the edges of the narrative. This is perhaps because I live at the edges of society's narratives myself: I am a queer woman with a disability. Television tells me exciting stories about people who are ostensibly like me, living in worlds that are supposedly not like mine, and yet that echo the oppressive structures of my world. The main characters in BSG, as in other U.S. television shows, are predominantly straight, white, male, young, healthy, and able-bodied. BSG did have characters of color, disabled characters, interesting female characters, and older characters. All of them piqued my interest in the show.

[1.2] My favorite character in Battlestar Galactica is Felix Gaeta. Gaeta is a quiet, intelligent military officer whose motives are difficult to discern. In the season 4 episode "Guess What's Coming to Dinner," he is injured by a gunshot wound and loses his leg, later getting a prosthetic. It was at this point in the narrative of BSG that this minor character went from being an intriguing, mysterious person to my favorite person in the whole of the large cast of characters. What would the writers choose to do now? How would Gaeta react to his disability? Later we learned via Webisodes that Gaeta is bisexual and was at this time in a relationship with a male character named Hoshi. My interest in the show went from moderately high to skyrocketing squeeful levels of fannishness.

2. Battlestar Galactica collides with disability theory

[2.1] I was excited about the show's promise of diversity for several reasons but particularly from the standpoint of disability: here was Laura Roslin, a female president of the colonies living with chronic cancer; Saul Tigh, an alcoholic executive officer who had lost an eye; and Felix Gaeta, a bisexual military officer who had lost his leg. These were recurring, main-cast characters. There was not a "very special episode" devoted to a disability topic, which is a standard trope on other shows. Characters were not magically or suddenly healed, which is a common science fiction and fantasy story line, but instead lived with their changed and changing bodies. Even when Laura Roslin's cancer went into sudden remission, she was not permanently cured. These characters existed in a world of high technology but with few resources and low population—a society desperate to hang on to all of its people, or so I thought. Their stories fascinated me in particular as a disabled fan: the complexities of living with a body that can be ill or injured, that does not magically heal, in a military world that is designed around healthy, able bodies rather than disabled ones. The contrast of the human bodies to the "resurrectable" Cylon bodies added a further layer of fascinating complexity, especially after the Cylons lost their ability to resurrect. Moreover, the Cylons wanted to reproduce human style, and some were masquerading as humans all along. Issues of embodiment were interwoven with the show's very premise: survival, war, and reproduction.

[2.2] The show let me down, and let me down hard, on these points. Battlestar Galactica showed its audience just how disposable disabled people are when Samuel Anders, after experiencing a traumatic brain injury and being hooked into the flagship via Cylon technology, piloted the fleet into the sun and oblivion. Felix Gaeta was executed as a traitor. President Laura Roslin died from her cancer at the end of the series. Humanity as a whole decided to abandon technology, without any mention of how this would affect particular members of the population, such as the child, Nicky, who used a dialysis machine. While it is true that for most people technology is a luxury, for people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, technology can be the difference between life and death. It is a harsh fact of life that people with disabilities are vilified, ignored, institutionalized, and disposed of, as when disabled people were left behind in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina (Fink 2009). To see these things echoed in science fiction storytelling—in American myth making—is heartbreaking and only reinforces ableism. When a high-technology, low-population society such as that of the Galactica treats its disabled people as it treated Sam Anders and Felix Gaeta, that is a bleak and hopeless message for the rest of the world.

3. Fannish interactions

[3.1] Fandom served as catalyst, refuge, and academy for me in this situation. I had a show I loved but that I had deep reservations about, an impulse to talk and read about it, and a desire to reclaim the characters and world. I wrote fan fic about Felix Gaeta so that I could move his story, the story of a queer disabled person, from the edges to the center of the narrative. A friend and I wrote about Gaeta experiencing his disabled body, being fitted with a prosthetic made from Cylon Centurion technology, experiencing pain and isolation, and struggling with acceptance and relationships (anna_bird and sasha_feather 2009). Writing this fic was an empowering experience for me; I made the character my own, saw into the possibilities of the show in a way I had not before, and saw story lines it could have explored but did not. Fannish involvement helped me see the show's failings, understand my own relationship to BSG, and understand how I could still love the characters on my own terms. Slash fan fic in particular allows writers like me to center queer characters and queer voices, and a great opportunity exists to center disabled characters in a similar way.

[3.2] While it is not difficult to find fan fic featuring disabled characters, often these works have problems. Tropes within fan fic tend to fetishize or romanticize disability, such as by using a disabling event as a simple plot device to bring two characters emotionally closer. Even the hurt/comfort trope in general could be seen as playing into this type. These tropes exist within the fan community, which includes people who have disabilities themselves, although those disabilities may be different than the ones we are reading and writing about. My own disabilities are chronic pain and fatigue, which are not uncommon among my peers in fandom but which seem to be underrepresented in the characters we read about. It is rare to find a character who is living and working, struggling with her or his disabled body, having relationships, perhaps developing a disabled identity. It is even rarer to find a character who is being politically active around disability or who has a disabled community. We cannot rely on canon sources to provide these characters because they do not currently exist or are extremely rare in the sources we are engaged with. Instead, as writers and artists, and especially as people who understand what it is like to live at the margins of society, we must create such characters by putting more of ourselves and our own lived experiences into our fiction. Let us value ourselves and our identities; let us center our own experiences.

[3.3] As a reader, I rarely find fan fic that speaks to my disabled identity—fan fic that I feel gets it "right" from my own perspective. In my limited experience reading fan fic in BSG, which is a relatively small fandom, I have read few stories that explore disability at all. Reading accurate portrayals of disability is a rare enough experience in all of fandom that I am very enthusiastic about stories I find that succeed. Two such stories are "Fair Trade" and its sequel "Moebius," by esteefee (2009a, 2009b), a pair of Stargate: Atlantis fan fiction stories. In these stories the main character, John Sheppard, has a disabling knee injury that causes chronic pain and some mobility problems. He hides his pain from people and has a hard time talking about it or asking for help. Such reticence is completely automatic behavior, tied into his personality, and he similarly hides the fact that he is queer and that he is intelligent. Sheppard struggles to form relationships and build community despite his closed-off nature. His chronic pain is a fact of his life that he works around and lives with. He must negotiate issues in his sexual relationship because of it. This is one of the few extremely well-done instances of disabled queer sexuality I've seen in fan fiction, or in any kind of storytelling, and agrees with my own experiences. Sheppard's disability is central to the story but so are his job, his romantic and sexual relationship, his friendships, and his passions.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] Fandom has given me inroads to developing my own identities, being political, and having community. The fannish impulse to create stories and art, analyze media, and engage with other fans can open doors, create community, and lead to new opportunities and even new career paths for fans. As a fan who has successfully found identity and community, I now feel that I can help others along this same path. Part of my goal in doing this is to create a more accessible and safer world for all people, a more welcoming space both within fandom and in the wider world. I do this by blogging, by sitting on panels about disability at conventions, by volunteering for disability access at WisCon, by continuing to educate myself as an antioppression activist, and by continuing to create fannish work such as fan fic and icons. I have rather accidentally become a fan who is known as a disability activist, and I am proud of that, but it is fandom itself that has helped forge my identity.

5. Works cited

anna_bird and sasha_feather. 2009. Mirror box. Fan fiction. Archive of Our Own. (accessed July 18, 2010).

Fink, Sheri. 2009. The deadly choices at Memorial., August 27. (accessed July 18, 2010).

esteefee. 2009a. Fair trade. Fan fiction. Archive of Our Own. (accessed July 18, 2010).

esteefee. 2009b. Moebius. Fan fiction. LiveJournal post, April 25, 2009 (accessed July 18, 2010).

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