Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Studies In Space Sapphism

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy Philip Sandifer's TARDIS Eruditorum blog, and that's not an opinion that has changed just because he's given a shellacking to what was for three years my favourite TV series, Babylon 5.

That said, there's something in that essay that needs further consideration, because it reads as a re-statement of a common criticism levelled at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and whilst the arguments and counter-arguments have been done to death regarding that show (specifically, whether it heaped too much misery upon its lesbian characters), it's worth looking at them in this new context.  Well, I think it's worth it.  Mainly, I just spent twenty minutes writing a response over at Phil's place, only for my computer to eat it (what kind of gimpjelly designs a mouse with a hair-trigger "previous page" button millimetres above where the thumb is supposed to rest), so I might as well get a blog post out of a re-write.

This is the line in the essay that bothers me:
It tries to be brave and do a “lesbians are OK and people have fluid sexualities” plot between Ivanova and Talia, but ends up burying it so deep in the mix that it feels like the show is ashamed about it, and furthermore seems to only do it so that it can then tragically destroy the couple because, after all, lesbian couples only exist for searing tragedy.
This is unfair in at least two different ways.  Most obviously, whilst I have no idea how much responsibility Straczynski bears for Andrea Thompson's departure from the show (for his part, he's always insisted the problem was that she had unrealistic expectations of how large her role should be; I've never heard her side of the story), it's clear it wasn't a storytelling choice made by the showrunner to split the characters up.  Moreover, the actual split - brought about when Talia proves to be a sleeper agent for some rather unpleasant people - was played as a Major Plot Point first, and as a personal tragedy for Ivanova second.  Hell, the next time Talia is mentioned the implication is that it's Garibaldi who was most affected by the revelation, with Ivanova being the one to talk him out of blowing his stack.

In other words, it's difficult to see "Divided Loyalties" being an episode interested in generating "searing tragedy" for its lesbian couple.  The point that the relationship itself was buried deep in the mix makes more sense, though we should consider US genre television as a whole here.  The second season of B5, in which the entirety of Ivanova and Talia's relationship takes place, was broadcast in the same year as Deep Space Nine used a lesbian kiss during sweep's week.  Now, the episode in question is really rather lovely, and doesn't come across in the least bit exploitative, so I'm not inclined to criticise the writers, but the fact that Paramount considered this the sort of storyline they wanted to push during a week usually reserved for action-heavy stories, major league special guest stars and the like casts some doubt on the idea that a months-long homosexual relationship would sit well with the powers that be. A full five years later, Joss Whedon would come within a whisker of resigning as showrunner for Buffy because Fox were being assholes about the idea of Willow and Tara being allowed to kiss on-screen.  To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin, Straczynski's show wasn't ashamed of gay characters, the suits in his profession were.

Seventeen years after Susan Ivanova awoke and was surprised to find Talia not in bed beside her, there has still not been a single explicitly gay character in Star Trek. For all it's progress in portraying lesbian characters Buffy played Andrew's latent homosexuality entirely for laughs.  And both of those are points about 21st century television.  If there's another example of a genre show - or any show in the US - making so little fuss of including gay characters only halfway through the '90s, I'd like to hear about it.  B5 deserves far more credit for what it did that Sandifer is prepared to grant.

Another problem with the "lesbians = searing tragedy" brush-off is that searing tragedy was absolutely what B5 was about when it came to romance.  Yes, Ivanova lost her gay lover.  She also discovered that a former long-time boyfriend had become a xenophobic killer.  Dr Franklin hooked up with a woman who turned out to be a drug addict who stole from him to feed her dependency.  Garibaldi lost Talia - admittedly in a different way to Ivanova - and then had to spend months working for the love of his life's new husband.  Once that got resolved, he almost pissed it all away again by, er, getting all pissed again.  Both Sheridan's wife and Bester's lover got themselves lobotomised to be fitted into Shadow vessels.  Zack Allen and Marcus Cole both chased their hearts desire for years without success, and the latter ended up sacrificing his life for his unrequited love.  Lyta Alexander fell in love with a guy who set himself on fire, Londo for a dancer who broke his heart and came back to him in a body bag.  Lennier was so badly crushed by the pressure of his feelings for Delenn that he broke the moral code he had dedicated his life to, setting in motion a chain of events that (we're told) eventually led to his death.  The only woman we ever saw Vir engage with romantically turned out to be running a concentration camp.  And if we get to include the (supposedly canonical) spin-off novels as well, then Sinclair had a crappy time of it too, losing his fiancee to an unfortunately-located temporal rift.

Drama revolves around misery in love, of course, but that's a fairly impressive list of horrors right there.  Aside from the functionally asexual Na'Toth and the briefly alive Warren Keffer, the only main characters to get through without any kind of major romantic trauma was Delenn, who pretty much just got lucky, or G'Kar, who staved off disaster by just fucking as many hookers as he could.  The fact that one float of this near-endless parade of hideous maladjustment happened to be Sapphic strikes me as unworthy of comment for any other reason than noting that at least it was there. 

In fact, if you want to talk about unfortunate subtexts in Babylon 5's romantic plots, I'd suggest bypassing Susan and Talia altogether and focusing on how much time was eaten up by male characters pining for unattainable women (whether because they weren't interested or weren't around, due to being on other planets, in other times, or presumed dead), and how those stories more than once developed into attempts by said male character to prove themselves worthy of the women who clearly weren't interested.  If there's a more perfect encapsulation of pre-pubescent boyish fantasy than watching Ivanova go to pieces because she never really appreciated Marcus until he sacrificed himself for her, I've not seen it.

But that whole lesbian thing?  That was OK.


Anonymous said...

A fan directed me to this post. Thanks for the good analysis.

To your points: no one, including Andrea, has ever disputed that it was her choice to leave the show, abruptly, to pursue other work and opportunities. So we had no choice but to wrap up, very quickly, a story I'd planned to play out over time. I wanted them to be the first open same-sex couple in SF television. I'd gotten both the network and studio and the actors involved on board. (Claudia's book even mentions my meeting with her and Andrea to discuss it and be sure they were good with it.) Her sudden departure torpedoed all that. If there was high drama and tragedy it may have filtered in from our reaction. In addition, for such a major character to depart so suddenly you can't just whisper it and move it, it has to be a big story point (as was Sinclair's departure). There was absolutely no agenda beyond that.

On B5 I always made sure that at the tables in the Zocalo and elsewhere we saw same-gender couples sitting together. I think what matters is that by the time of our show's setting, frankly no one cares what your gender or sexual preference is any more, it's simply a non issue, just part of who the person is. As it should be.

J. Michael Straczynski

SpaceSquid said...

*Picks jaw up from floor*

Thank you very much for responding. I should note that my hedging regarding the nature of Ms Thompson's departure was by way of admitting ignorance, not an attempt to imply anything. And yes, I agree entirely that it had to be a major development; my line on that came out as closer to a cheap shot than I intended, sorry.

Anonymous said...

No problem. One can only get pertinent information by being willing to ask impertinent questions.


SpaceSquid said...

Say, you don't happen to know Captain Enrique Montoya, do you?

For a brief mad moment, I was going to write "Captain Inigo Montoya" there instead. Which, I think we have to admit, would have been awesome. Mandy Patinkin; White Star. *Drops mic.*