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Surfacing the Female Leader: The Performance of Laura Roslin

I wasn’t going to blog on this until I had engaged the brilliant Mary McDonnell in her question and answer session at the Toronto sci-fi convention; however, she (sadly) had to leave to attend a memorial for one of the show’s producers–my condolences.

I’m in the process of organizing a paper on her character “Laura Roslin” and “her” relation to Western culture’s interpretations of female power. In my rush to develop my grant proposals on the position of the audience in post-restoration theatres and the intersections between theatre and activism, I have, sadly, put Laura to the side. However, meeting McDonnell and engaging in some interesting conversations with fellow fans has rekindled my urgency to discuss the character and her reflections of the tradition of the female leader’s body. Indeed, I’m reaching all the way back the mystics of the medieval era in order to examine how women in power become text; that is to say, how their bodies become the surface for ‘other’ discourses. One of the things which I find perhaps the most fascinating about “Laura” is the simultaneous omnipresence and absence of her body in the performance of leadership. Laura’s illness makes her body undeniably present insofar as it ‘escapes’ her attempts to diminish its presence through her countenance etc… , while at the same time, her illness renders the question of the gendered body perhaps a moot one. In a sense, her suffering both reveals and conceals the female body. I continue with perhaps too much philosophy below, but bear with me.

The suffering body, as Elaine Scarry has argued in her book The Body in Pain, cannot be represented in and of itself. That is, it requires ‘others’ to speak for it. Pain, for Scarry, is both universal and un-shareable. (Teresa Brennan has argued elsewhere that pain is perhaps the moment when the boundaries of the human dissolve most completely–an interesting point, which I will come to later.) But I digress, for Scarry, physical suffering is the paradox of simple presence: “…pain comes unsharably into our midst as at once that which cannot be denied and that which cannot be confirmed [by its sufferer]” (4). Pain, then, requires others in order to represent itself. Pain expresses itself through ventriloquism, an imitation which presupposes a split in presence (between the speaking mediator/performer and the suffering, inarticulate body).

The suffering body is a limit of mimesis (as a principle of absolute identity), but not necessarily the limit of catharsis (as a principle of partial identity). In displaying the suffering body in the performance of leadership, “Laura” engages with the subjunctive “as if” (Scarry 22) of pain as a relation of metonymy. That is, to ‘invent’ the suffering body is to represent it metonymically, through relations of partial substitution. “Laura” then comes to take on a series of discourses in order to perform pain. For viewers of the show, I suspect this prohibits reflection on the female body as a ‘absolute’ presence in leadership.

McDonnell makes a brilliant point in another interview discussing how her glasses symbolize yet another performance within Laura’s role. For McDonnell, the glasses act as a kind of mediating barrier between the femininity inherent in Laura’s leadership and her need to play the Machiavellian leader. She observes that glasses seem to act as an interpreter between the middle-aged woman’s countenance (in the political realm at least) and the world; almost as if we as a culture are not yet ready to view that which is the fact behind why so many female politicians have to adopt what might be considered very unforgiving demeanours: their very bodies. While she interprets this mediation as a result of the fact that women display their experience on their bodies, that they take-in the world differently from men, I would suggest that perhaps it simply that we as a culture are not ready to recognize female experience in this fashion. Indeed, if male politicians adopt what are understood to be maternal actions (crying, for example) they are criticized heavily. However, if women adopt cold and distancing politics they are praised and criticized in equal measure (ironically, in the case of criticism, for not being “feminine” enough). The feminine is, apparently, disavowed in the process of gaining political recognition. And this is where I will likely carry out the bulk of my discussion in the paper on the problematics of recognition. How do we ‘know’ people in a way that does not require an always-already formed knowledge of them; in other words, how do we know, how do we recognize without assuming a closed, or dominant bearing to others?

Teresa Brennan’s examination of the problematics of affective boundaries, of assuming that affects (emotions–though she wouldn’t like the use of this term) are owned, generated and contained by subjects might provide an answer. In the acknowlegement that we can be affected by others, that our boundaries do end and begin in others, that our intentions might not be solely our own, might lie the key to becoming more aware of our reactions to others. In other words, accepting that affects travel is to accept that we are not bounded; it is to stop living in fear of others. It is to surface the body so to speak. Until that day comes, however, McDonnell’s observations suggest another direction for understanding the feminine side to leadership.

McDonnell hits the nail on the head (yet again) with her observation here: “I read once in a Buddhist text, and it’s something I really responded to, that there’s a defensive way and an open way of perceiving life, or meeting life. In an open way, the image is straight back, open front – open heart. In a defensive way, the back is bent and the front is closed. I think the glasses were Laura Roslin’s attempt to keep the front open but protect it.”

I would translate this observation as what I (poaching from the equally brilliant Bettina Stuum) understand to be “bearing.” That is, our intentionality (as both a direction and a disposition) in our relations with others. An active bearing would assume an aggressive, or as McDonnell puts it a defensive, bearing, a kind of subjective lense on life. The person adopting an active “bearing” says “I am here” to life out of fear. While the person adopting a passive and more ethical (open to McDonnell) bearing responds to others; in other words, those adopting a passive bearing receive their agency and identity in an address from others (As Kelly Oliver has convincingly argued in her book Witnessing: Beyond Recognition) in a move which precludes the kind of performances which women leaders frequently have to put on in concessions to masculine ideas of leadership.

So where do we really have to look in order to recuperate the feminine side of leadership? Well, I would suggest it is not a question of looking; rather, it is a question of feeling. It is to give the feminine body what Eve Sedgewick suggestively calls “texture,” to read for the surface of the female body, rather than to inscribe upon it.

McDonnell has mentioned in an interview (I cannot remember the reference or I would note it) that she understands Battlestar as a show “searching for its femininity.” I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t know that Ron Moore’s answer of going back to the roots of survival–place–as a return to the maternal is perhaps the most adept answer to solving the deficit of female representation in politics, but it does suggest that women, as Luce Irigaray might agree, truly are the “elsewhere” when it comes to the political domain. Maybe, then, we just need to speak politics from that place, from our very womanly bodies…

~Kaitlin Blanchard