The Rule about Movies:
1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man
—The Bechdel Test
Watching Babylon 5, I frequently find myself thinking about that thing that appeared in the internet’s strobe-light consciousness last November: the real lack of overlap between the shows Democrats follow and the ones Republicans do. For me, Bab 5 is an early example of that divide. Its themes and values make it a thoroughly liberal, progressive show, despite its glancing resemblance to more conservative milSF.
We’ve already had an “organized labor is good” episode (By Any Means Necessary) and an “authoritarians are bad” one (Eyes). This one, though less overt than those two, is in the same category for me. It focuses on a marked area of difference between the left and the right: the roles that women play in society, and the value and validity of different, gender-linked, forms of conflict management.
The two subplots are almost entirely detached from one another, so I’ll cover them separately.
On the one hand, there is the “fighting men, appeasing woman1” storyline: Shai Alit Branmer, one of the war leaders of the Star Riders clan has died. His second in command, Alit Neroon, is bringing the body back to Minbar, but has turned the journey into a ceremonial tour. On Babylon 5, he tries to make it a causus belli as well. He goes out of his way to offend and confront Commander Sinclair from the start. And when the body vanishes, he becomes even more aggressive. He threatens to restart the war, suggests that he “have [his] ship assume the job of taking this station apart”, and even breaks into Sinclair’s quarters to search them. And Sinclair, though not provoking Neroon in return, is all too easily baited into shouting back at him. It’s classic to the point of stereotype, and not unlike the previous episode in tone. That bugs me. The entire clash oversimplifies the confrontational mode of disagreement, leaving it no natural outcome but the most violent.
Delenn cuts against this escalating aggression with stereotypically feminine conciliation. She intervenes in the conflict whenever it takes place in her presence, and sides alternately with each of the antagonists as she tries to defuse their clashes. Many of her interventions are the sort of thing that I do as a moderator:
Neroon: These are my requirements, Commander
Sinclair: This is my station. I don’t take orders here.
Neroon: Impetuous. Is this how you reacted on the Line, Commander?
Sinclair: This isn’t the Line.
Neroon: No. We were in control there.
Sinclair: How would you like to…
Delenn: It’s been my experience that discussions of old battles only interest historians. What do you think, Commander?
Sinclair: I think I have a station to run. Now if you’ll excuse us?
But her peacemaking efforts are rather undercut by the fact that she is the one who has stolen the body. And until Sinclair finds out about it and confronts her, she seems willing to trust that Neroon will somehow give up on his search and accept a mystical explanation. That seems unlikely; there’s no groundwork laid for that kind of outcome. Given his behavior in the episode I’d actually expect him to end up pushing war onto the humans first. And I’d expect Delenn to have seen that. The fact that she caused the conflict, and this lack of perception, really undercut the portrayal of the classic “feminine peacemaker” stereotype2.
In the end, Delenn stops appeasing and changes to confrontational mode, ordering Neroon to seek a meeting of minds. And I’d say that just about redeems the subplot, because the resolution that he and Sinclair come to is consistent with their roles as warriors4, as problem-solvers by conflict. One of them has won, the other lost, but they both respect each other for the fight. As a multiculturalist, I approve: the lesson is that there is more than one way to deal with disagreement, and that you have to use the tools native to the problem at hand.5
(Neroon, by the way, becomes a recurring character. He grows and changes substantially over his own story arc. And in the end, his conversation with Delenn about whether Branmer was properly considered a member of the religious or the warrior caste is beautifully ironic.)
The other storyline concerns Alisa Beldon, a young girl from Downbelow whose latent telepathy becomes suddenly and overwhelmingly active. Talia thinks she should join PsiCorps, but Ivanova is reluctant to let her go. While she’s struggling to decide, Na’Toth offers her employment in the Narn Regime, supplying genetic material to allow the Narn to breed telepathy into their species. And in the end, she takes Delenn’s offer that she join Minbari society, where telepathy is less a job than a calling which telepaths are supported in following.
This is conflict resolution by negotiation and empowerment. Ivanova and Talia are contending over Alisa, but they both resist the temptation to use their different forms of authority to do more than force a stalemate. Ivanova insists that Alisa has to stand trial for theft, and thus cannot leave the station, but doesn’t actually put her on trial. Talia demands that Alisa be sent to join PsiCorps as the law requires, but allows her time and emotional space to choose her own path. Both persuade and argue, but do not command or compel.
Interestingly, this subplot doesn’t just pass the Bechdel test; it actually fails the reverse Bechdel. There are only two male characters even peripherally involved in it, and they don’t talk to each other. Dr. Franklin takes care of Alisa’s medical needs, but plays no decisive role in her future. And Ivanova consults Sinclair early on to get his permission to follow her best judgement. Other than that, all of the main players are female: Alisa, Talia, Ivanova, Na’Toth and Delenn. That places the conflict resolution in this subplot firmly on the distaff side of the gender divide.
Alisa is a cipher throughout the episode. She has virtually no personal characteristics apart from a rather gormless desire to be liked6. I’d have expected her to be more marked by the early loss of her mother and her two years supporting herself alone in Downbelow after the death of her father. Her only expressed motivation is a desire to be financially secure, and her only emotional reaction is after she touches Na’Toth’s mind and finds it disturbingly alien. In the end, I saw no reason, no thread in her narrative, for her to take Delenn’s offer.
Although this curious blankness as a character makes her final choice less comprehensible, it does allow her to be a kind of Everygirl as she chooses among her possible futures. And they’re pretty much the same range of choices that we women all wrestle with: Talia wants her to have a career; Ivanova praises marriage and children. Na’Toth’s offer is the other side of marriage and children—the committment to live with someone deeply alien to yourself and have offspring who will partake of that alienness. And Delenn’s proposal is the final choice: a life of service, giving up one’s own direct benefit for the good of others7.
This episode is written by D.C. Fontana, whom I first encountered as an Old Trek writer. Her scripts for that show frequently tackled the theme of difficult choices: both This Side of Paradise and The Enterprise Incident require Spock to pick between love and duty, emotion and logic. And Journey to Babel, also hers, includes a theme of bullheaded masculine conflict mediated by a woman. Although I don’t recall her previous scripts being so overtly about the experience of women, I’m not surprised by these themes appearing here.
One point I did not like in the episode was right at the end. Alisa has already picked the fate of Bremner’s body out of Delenn’s mind and reported it to Sinclair. That’s a breach of the Minbari’s mental privacy, but an unintentional and necessary one. However, when Sinclair asks Alisa what else she saw in Delenn’s mind, and Alisa answers him, they conspire against her mental integrity with no pressing need. The yield: a single mysterious word. Chrysalis.
- I am aware that the Minbari have different gender relationships than we do. But this episode doesn’t go into that at all. And the more aggressive, warlike character is played by a distinctly male actor.
- Also, while we’re picking at that subplot, how does she cremate the body, and if cremation facilities are available on-station, wouldn’t Garibaldi or Neroon check to see if they’d been used?3
- And, while I’m at it, how does that scrap of cloth end up outside the carrion-eaters’ quarters?
- Note that Neroon, after giving Sinclair a Minbari fist-across-chest gesture, offers a human handshake. His hand is too high—clearly this is an alien gesture to him. The fact that he does it is as powerful as Sinclair’s offer of a message of respect. These guys have genuinely reconciled; they’re not just making nice.
- As a mediator by nature, I do feel shortchanged. But I can understand how the elision seems reasonable to other points of view.
- Not helped by the bubbly California teenager persona the actress projects. This is probably the worst acting in the series so far.
- Sometimes this is a religious vocation. Sometimes it’s just an ailing relative and a lack of support network.
The next entry will discuss the two-part episode, A Voice in the Wilderness.
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Originally posted and discussed on Making Light.