Why, exactly, I love Xena.

October 5, 2008

I’ve been pretty effusive recently, and was all geared up to babble gleefully again about the MUSICAL episode that I just finished (!), but after revisiting this article (which I linked to a while ago) I wanted to see if I could put into words why I loved the show so much.

I think it really comes down to the fact that I don’t have to worry with Xena. Any time I watch something new, there’s this tension in me, this fear that it’s not going to be as good as I want it to be. The more I’m enjoying something, the more worried I get that it’s going to go sour. It doesn’t prevent me from enjoying things (even when they’re flawed), but it does cause me to be constantly analyzing what I’m seeing as I see it, which I enjoy, but which isn’t exactly relaxing.

So, for example, even though I enjoy Babylon 5, and it hasn’t had even a small slip of poor writing, I can’t quite let my guard down with it. I think that’s why I write so much more critically about B5 than about Xena– even though my verdict is basically always positive, I’m still evaluating it as I watch. It’s a little silly, but it’s necessary, because if I encounter something sexist when I’m not prepared for it, it hurts. I take it personally. Living in a patriarchy as lovely as ours, obviously I can’t be that sensitive all the time or I’ll go catatonic. So I learn not to get emotionally invested in things until after they’ve proven they’re not going to insult me (or until they’ve proven that they will, but in small, predictable ways, in which case I’ll leave the walls at the necessary level but at least I won’t have to worry if they’re at the right level.) It means that I can’t completely enjoy something until the second time I’ve seen it; the first time around, I’m still figuring out how nice it’s going to be to me.

With one exception: Xena has earned my complete trust. I can just watch it, no thinking, no wondering if I need to be on guard– just sit back and giggle at the jokes. It’s unbelievably fun, to see something safe and new. Every episode is just a bunch of pleasant surprises, one after the other– and if anything looks iffy, I can just say to myself, “it’ll surely be all right by the end of the episode,” and keep giggling along.

Of course, now the question is, why am I so confident in Xena? Part of it is simply that I’ve already seen three seasons of it by now; individual episodes are new, but the show’s core has already proven itself to me. But more than that, it’s a universe that’s just so full of women of every kind of personality and experience, any negative portrayal is balanced out by dozens of positives. (By negative portrayals, by the way, I don’t mean female villains– I mean female characters that aren’t fully-developed, and rely on sexist stereotypes. Which I’m not sure I’ve seen, actually, but if I did, it would be sufficiently balanced out by all the others.)

An example: in “Debt,” I was a little worried that Lao Ma was being glorified for being an excellent woman, rather than an excellent Daoist, given the ways that her philosophy overlapped with traditional “feminine” values, but ultimately decided that it was a ridiculous notion to think Xena was trying to make any kind of statement about “womanhood” as a universal. We love Xena and Gabrielle and Ephiny and all the others as individuals, and we love Lao Ma as an individual as well. Because they have beloved women who aren’t “perfectly feminine,” they can have one that is without making (or seeming to make) any unfortunate statements along the lines of “a good woman is nonviolent” or “a good woman doesn’t seek credit for her work.” These are traits of Lao Ma, not of Monolithic Femininity.

Another benefit of this surfeit of female characters: we can see many different definitions of femininity and value all of them. This is a distinct point from the one before– the female characters are varied as people, and they’re varied as women. Too often, as part of being a “strong woman,” the “woman” part is under-emphasized (or eliminated) to get across the “strong” part. But as Cathy Young says in the article that prompted all this thought, Xena was “unapologetically strong and unapologetically female.” And so is Gabrielle, in a completely different way. And Callisto. And Aphrodite. And Ephiny. And so on. They are female people, and neither trait is sacrificed to the other- a rare balance.

And even if there is some kind of exaggerated parody character– which Aphrodite very much is, and which several other women are at various points– the whole is balanced. For every woman who goes to an extreme, there are at least two perfectly ordinary women who show that it’s just a matter of that woman being a bit imbalanced. There are men around, in a variety of interesting roles, but that’s something easily found everywhere; Xena offers me a rare glimpse into a universe that, in its fundamentals, looks a lot like my utopia: women are people, and they are women, and nobody makes a big deal out of it.

All in all, it’s just icing on the cake that it’s also a damn good show.

(for more posts on Xena, look here!)


Lesbians in science fiction: give me more!

September 22, 2008

Earlier, while talking about the possibility of a relationship between Talia and Ivanova in Babylon 5, I commented,

I tend to err on the side of lesbians. Otherwise there aren’t enough.

In other words, when there is subtext that makes a lesbian relationship plausible, even if it’s never stated by the text, I will take that wiggle room and assume that the relationship is there. I’ve talked before about how this holds true for Xena, but I find that I do it a lot. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were pretty much official, in my mind, and after Talia spent the night in Ivanova’s room (and her bed), I believed in them as well. All it takes is a close relationship between two women, and I’ll take the chance to slip myself in.

What’s odd is that there are so few close friendship between two women for me to read into in the first place. I mean, even in the stuff with huge casts– Harry Potter? Hermione and Ginny speak, on occassion, but that’s it. Lord of the Rings? It doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. Can you believe that? Nine hours and it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test! I tried looking at my bookcase to find more examples, and even though I’ve got a lot of kick-ass women, they’re all in relationships with men; the few that are single (even if temporarily) are always surrounded by male friends. It’s no wonder that I started settling for imaginary lesbians years ago.

Even my very favourite sci fi author, Lois McMaster Bujold, who has included every other letter in the acronym, has managed to forget the L. I was surprised to realize this, since she had a recurring hermaphrodite character (ah, the future!) as well as an entire novel from the viewpoint of a gay man. But nope, no lesbians!

In fact, the only lesbians I have on my bookshelf are Rosethorn and Lark (bisexual, but together) and Daja (totally out!!) from Tamora Pierce’s books. They’re awesome (!!!), but written for young teens, and while I still enjoy them, they’re an afternoon’s light read and not really up to the task of being my Only Lesbians.

Ooh, also: Trouble and Her Friends. It’s and OLD cyberpunk book that I stumbled upon in my Gender and Cyberculture class, and it’s all about this group of hackers who banded together because they were gay (an impulse I totally get). I don’t want to spoil it, but it doesn’t end with with death for our main lesbian couple, unlike a lot of lesbian love stories (see: Battlestar Galactica. Well, actually, don’t; I don’t like that show much at all.)

Originally, I wanted to talk about how I always play as a boy in Harvest Moon, so that I can give myself a feminine name and marry the girls, and just pretend to be a butch lesbian, but instead I’m going to leave this as a desperate attempt to think of excellent female characters who loved other excellent female characters. If you can think of any, whether they’re Officially gay or not, please let me know! I finally have some gay friends now, but it gets a little lonely sometimes, in the world of science fiction.

Babylon 5, “Confessions and Lamentations,” and what it means to be Mysterious.

September 17, 2008

There’s been a subplot growing throughout season 2, in which Delenn and Sheridan are spending time together on a more personal level. I’ve been enjoying the chance to get to know Delenn better as a character, but I’m still wary of the romantic undertones.

Now, when we first met Delenn, we didn’t know anything about her or her race (we didn’t know anything about any of the aliens!). But whereas Londo and G’kar, in their constant personal conflict, frequently revealed both themselves and their cultures to the audience, Delenn and the Minbari seemed doomed to remain ever-Mysterious. The show loved to tease us with the Mysteries– who was Delenn, really, and why was she on B5? What’s the meaning of the title “satai”? What did the Minbari do to Sinclair, and why did they want him in charge of Babylon 5? Why did they surrender, anyway?

These mysteries made for excellent plot, but terrible character development– it’s very difficult to relate to a character whose primary trait is Mysteriousness. But as the mysteries were revealed (all with appropriately-fascinating stories, by the way; we weren’t being led on for no reason!) it left more room to also reveal the personalities behind the mysteries. It would have been simply impossible to dedicate time to Delenn’s conflicted standing within the Minbari, or her frustration with the Great Council, or even her unmanageable hair, if the Minbari were still covered up with the blanket label “Mysterious.”

And the episode I just finished, “Confessions and Lamentations,” does a great job of illustrating the ways in which our relationship to Delenn has changed. First, it continues a subplot from a previous episode– Sheridan took her out for a human-style meal a few episodes back, and she has returned the favor by inviting him to a ritual Minbari meal. Whereas earlier on, the Minbari rituals were treated as Mysterious (but important)– as with the extremely formal Rebirth Ceremony in the first season, which the main characters studiously attended, but certainly didn’t understand. Half of them were too nervous to eat the ritual fruit, and afterwards, Sinclair’s girlfriend suggested that it could very well have been a marriage ceremony (leaving me, and probably all the other viewers, wondering how Delenn would tell him they were married.)

It’s a good contrast to the ritual meal in this episode: the fundamentals are similar (it’s a ridiculously complex ritual, which forced poor Lennier to spend two days without sleep to cook it) but the show (and the captain) approach it with a very different attitude. It’s something funny, now– the comic relief in what turns out to be a dark episode. We laugh with poor Sheridan as his food just keeps eluding him– the look on his face when Delenn said they had to meditate after every bite!– and it ends with Sheridan accidentally falling asleep. Even Lennier seems to be aware of the humor in the situation– when Delenn says that they must do it again some time, he looks at her as if she were mad, then gives a visibly strained smiled to Sheridan. “Oh yes,” he says. “Of course.”

We don’t have to worry nearly so much about ill effects of the ritual or shady motives of the Minbari– this is someone we’ve become comfortable with, so we can have a bit of a laugh at her culture’s expense, just as we’ve done with the other alien cultures at times. No one felt quite safe eating the fruit of the Rebirth Ceremony, but here Sheridan happily shares an entire meal of foods he can’t identify.

Later, we also see some pretty significant glimpses into Delenn’s emotional state. Mysterious Figures don’t get worried (or excited)– it would ruin the mystery. But here, we see Delenn full of righteous indignation as she insists upon being allowed to comfort the dying Makab, and with nostalgic joy recounting a comforting story from her childhood, and then utter despair when Sheridan re-enters the isolation room, and of the four thousand people who entered, only she and Lennier are still alive.

We’ve been seeing more and more of Delenn’s vulnerability lately– especially with the human and Minbari negative reactions to her change, and her feelings of isolation– but I think this is the first episode in which we see her cry. It’s also the first time she calls Sheridan, “John.”

And that’s where little red flags start popping up for me. I LOVE seeing characters get developed and humanized, and I’m THRILLED that we seem to be headed towards a much better understanding of Delenn, but I’m wary of the possibility of a romantic relationship between her and Sheridan.

It’s not that I object to the relationship itself– it ties in with her character’s desire to strengthen bonds between the humans and the Minbari, and they do seem to like and respect each other. It’s that too often, developing a female character involves sticking her in a relationship with one of the male characters, and making her story completely dependent on his. I think Delenn is too plot-important in ways separate from Sheridan to disappear entirely within the relationship, and the writers of B5 have consistently impressed me so far, but old habits die hard and I can’t help being just a little worried that we’re going to see more of Delenn The Girlfriend rather than Delenn The Awesome Ambassador.

I’m putting my faith in the writers for now, though. I just hope I don’t get burned.

Babylon 5, “GROPOS,” and women in combat.

September 7, 2008

When a huge ground force is stationed at B5 for a few days in the season 2 episode “GROPOS” (a nickname for “ground pounders,” or infantry), it was pretty obvious that we were only spending time getting to know some of the soldiers because some or all of them were going to die at the end. I don’t mind predicting this kind of thing, though, because the journey tends to be the most interesting part anyway.

And this one was no exception. I loved Elizabeth “Dodger” Durman. When three men threaten Delenn (remnants of hostility from the Minbari war), she comes in fists flying to defend Delenn. She clearly holds her own in the brawl following, and, pleasantly, her defense of Delenn isn’t presented as a ladies-defending-ladies thing, but rather a that-guy-is-a-jerk kind of thing.

Dodger is delightfully self-sufficient. Since women are actually allowed into combat in this universe (unlike in the twelfth century, which is apparently where we’re living now) she has to face the prospect of death regularly, like all the other soldiers– and she does it in much the same way: living exuberantly whenever she has the chance. She drinks unapologetically, revels in her fights, and wants to get laid. She picks out Garibaldi because he keeps her from being thrown in the brig for starting the brawl over Delenn…and because he has a “cute butt.” (Did I mention that she’s also delightfully unselfconscious?)

Garibaldi likes her well enough, and they get dinner, then head back to his room, where they make out passionately and I once again am bewildered by Garibaldi’s fuzzy, balding head. (I think the problem is that his hair is too long). However, the camara is lingering a little too long on their make-outs– uh oh! Garibaldi decides that he needs to vomit up his whole relationship history and tell Dodger that he doesn’t want to screw this up, so they should take it slow. I was kind of bewildered…what in the world made Garibaldi think she wanted a relationship? She was only going to be on B5 for three days, tops! And even if she survived (and he was one of the few who knew how unlikely that was), she wouldn’t be returning to B5 afterwards. It’s practically the definition of a fling.

But then Dodger gets awesome and tells Garibaldi all this! “You think I wanted to set up house?” she asks, incredulous. “I don’t have that kind of time line. I’m a soldier. I face death every day. That’s the job. I deal with it by living every moment to the fullest, because I know I don’t have a lot of moments. But fine. You’ve made yourself clear.” And she heads out.

And lo, she is right, because even though they patch things up and make out passionately (again!) before she’s dispatched, she doesn’t return. And lo, Garibaldi is heartbroken (but probably not so heartbroken that he won’t have forgotten her entirely by the next episode…). And I was surprised that he didn’t know better, since he was ex-military himself. Front-line ground troops don’t really get to make long-term plans. Especially if those plans involve spending a lot of time in a specific place.

I’m actually really sad she’s gone– she was such a great, flamboyant character. But hey, you know what else is great? The story line would have worked exactly as well with the genders flipped. Really! Dodger is a soldier and a woman, and yet her responses to soldiery are basically the same as all soldiers’! What a shock! No rubbish about being distracted by her feelings, or distracting her fellow soldiers with her sexiness, or fraternizing with superior officers…none of the sexist rubbish used to object to women going into combat! Not even a nod to the idea that women are weaker and need protection. Nope, she and her fellow female soldiers (of whom there are a lot) kick ass in their barroom brawls! And it’s not waif-fu either; they’re buff, and they fight like buff, trained soldiers.

Which I guess is just another reason I’m sad to see her go. Sigh. She would’ve made a great friend for Ivanova 🙂

Babylon 5, Ivanova, and female bonding.

September 6, 2008

Ivanova’s been making friends with the other women of B5 in the last few episodes I’ve watched, and I have to say, I’ve been enjoying the show’s interpretation of “female bonding.”

There’s a tendency, in popular culture and especially in film, to treat everything women say to each other as trivial. It’s why screenwriters are taught not to pass the Bechdel test— people will tune out what the female characters are saying, so you can’t have them say anything plot-important, and everything in a film must further the plot.

But even when Ivanova is talking to other women about trivial things (defined as “feminine things,” like hair and PMS), Babylon 5 does a good job of taking the conversations seriously.

For example, the most “feminine” conversations I’ve seen Ivanova have so far have been with Delenn, explaining how to wash one’s hair and what it means when you have “the oddest cramps.” But rather than playing the conversation as girls tittering away like birds, or omitting it entirely, it’s a touchingly human moment for Delenn (I mean, the only thing more human than growing long hair is complaining about how to style one’s long hair.) And Delenn’s human transformation is definitely plot-critical.

Ivanova has also recently accepted an overture of friendship from Talia. The tension between them has never been portrayed as anything like a cat-fight, a fact for which I am eternally grateful, but their reconciliation was also framed as overwhelmingly human, rather than feminine. (Note: I don’t think those two ideas contradict, but most screenwriters seem to.) Talia sought Ivanova because she was struggling to come to terms with her new relationship with the Psi Corps, and Ivanova is the only person she knows well who has a history with the Corps and might be sympathetic. Again, the Psi Corps (and Talia’s place within them) are a pretty big deal plot-wise, so it’s taken seriously, especially when Talia takes off her Psi pin to talk to Ivanova.

In other words, these are fully-fleshed, human relationships between women! I think I’ve written many times before about how frustrated I am when films act like strong women are by necessity unique and isolated; it perpetuates the myth that a strong woman is an exception, and that she must associate primarily with men in order to be a strong woman. Which is rubbish, of course.

I’m really looking forward to seeing both these friendships grow, if only because extra screen time for Ivanova is never a bad thing.

Babylon 5, “Soul Mates,” and marriage.

September 6, 2008

In the season 2 episode of Babylon 5 titles “Soul Mates,” we have a sudden influx of spouses. Talia’s ex-husband, Matt Stoner, and Londo’s three wives all arrive on-station to cause headaches for their spouses.

The plot revolving around Talia was frustrating in the ways her plots always are– it seems like nobody, even she, can remember her past (like, say, who was her mentor in her first year at Psi Corps– she’s had three now!) or her goals for the future. Just last episode, she was “completely loyal to Psi Corps” (in Ivanova’s estimation) and even concealed information from Sheridan to protect the Corps. But in this episode, she longs to escape! Madness.

(EDIT: This madness is explained in the “next” episode, “A Race Through Dark Places,” where Talia meets a number of telepaths fleeing Psi Corps and comes to sympathize with and defend them. I put “next” in quotes because it was actually intended to air before “Soul Mates,” and although the incorrect order is preserved on the DVD it’s still pretty clearly wrong.)

But more frustrating was the sudden appearance of Londo’s wives. He’s whined about them before, and how much they nag him and spend all his money. But now he has been granted a special dispensation from the Emperor, allowing him to divorce all but one of his wives. Hurray! he says, and calls them all to B5 to decide which one to keep. The two he divorces will lose their social status and their money, a fact he is just overjoyed to relay.

Daggair is generally critical of Londo, but goes honey-sweet in his presence, trying to convince him she’d be a political asset. Mariel is always sweet, and plays up her sexiness and youth. Timov thinks the whole thing is ridiculous and derides Londo for putting them all through it.

Basically, we have a spectrum: a shrew (Timov), a shrew-cum-gold-digger (Daggair), and a gold-digger (Mariel). And Londo is deciding which of these three “burdens” he will have removed.

Now, these were all arranged marriages, but I was still upset that there was so much vitriol directed towards the wives. It was meant to be a humorous sub plot, but I just couldn’t laugh when Mariel and Daggair are each trying to seduce Londo, and actually consider his proposal of a competitive threesome. It only fails to happen because Timov, when invited to “show her feelings for him” like the others, slaps him and storms out. (Well, and because it’s a PG show.) I don’t think sex is inherently debasing, but there did seem to be something debasing in this scenario…the fact that it was the only way they could secure their futures, that it was compelled rather than desired. That’s not what sex should be about, and that’s not what marriage should be about.

The thing is, I knew Londo would pick Timov (the shrew) because to have him reward gold-digging behavior would be unacceptable, somehow. I don’t think the writers felt they could get away with endorsing that kind of message– that you shouldn’t tell men what you think of them, you should lie and offer sex or else the men will throw you to the streets. And they did a good job with that decision, but not the best job possible.

You see, the problem with Mariel and Daggair was that neither of them really respected him. When, at one point, Londo’s life is threatened, they talk about how much better it would be if he died, because the divorce hadn’t been ratified yet so they’d all live richly. We later discover that Mariel had actually poisoned him herself in an attempt to bring this about (and Daggair may have been in on it). I would say it makes sense to divorce a woman who would prefer you dead than alive.

Especially when Timov is the alternative. It’s not so much that she hates Londo as it is that she recognizes his flaws and is more than willing to point them out. Since he does the same to her, it’s in some way a healthier dynamic than the cloying lies of the other two wives. Especially since there is an undercurrent of respect– Timov shares Londo’s blood type, and though she reflects for a while first, she does go to give Londo the blood transfusion that saves his life. However, she keeps this secret.

In fact, Londo makes his decision without knowing that Mariel and Daggair sought his death, or that Timov saved his life. He chose Timov, even though, as she says, she will never be what he wants her to be, because “with you at least I know where I stand.” This is an admirable sentiment, preferring the honesty of her ambivalence to the sweet lies of the other two, but it is a sentiment that would have been strengthened if he’d known about their actions regarding his life.

As it stands, it seemed almost as if he’d chosen the one option sure to infuriate all three wives. I can only hope he learns to appreciate her honesty a little more in future, and we will be subject to less of his whining about the terrors of wives.

Because honestly, that trope is what bothers me most in all this– the idea that wives are somehow annoying. Newsflash, guys! You don’t have to get married if you don’t want to! Why is it funny to act like associating with your chosen life mate is some kind of burden? I guess I’m just a humorless feminist, but if I was allowed to get married, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to let people know that I liked my wife.

Babylon 5, Doctor Franklin, and “food plans”

August 21, 2008

I was wary, watching “A Distant Star” (the fourth episode of season two of Babylon 5) when Dr. Franklin started instituting “food plans” for our three protagonists. I’ve been reading a lot about fat acceptance these days and really oppose the idea that thin = healthy and that therefore doctors (and everyone else) should shame people into losing weight.

Now, with Garibaldi, Dr. Franklin had a legitimate concern– being shot in the back tends to be hard on a body, and it’s quite possible that fatty foods, spicy foods, anything “exciting” would be hard for his system to handle. But then Sheridan comes by and Dr. Franklin prescribes him a diet (oops, “food plan”) as well, on the basis of nothing more than ten pounds. “This is rabbit food!” Sheridan cries. I was worried the subplot would end up reinforcing some pretty negative ideas our society has about dieting– that anyone can be thin if they just discipline themselves, that thin people are automatically healthy people (and virtuous people) and that healthy food can’t be yummy.

BUT THEN! The show completely surprised me. Ivanova comes in for her physical, and the doctor says, “Oh, I have a food plan for you too!” and Ivanova says, “I eat well, and I exercise every day, even though my foot is broken– I don’t need no stinkin’ food plan!” And the doctor says– “You’re missing some important nutrients, like calcium and iron. You need to eat more, especially dairy and meat.”

“But I’ll gain weight!” Ivanova says.

“Yes, you will.” says Doctor Franklin. And that is that.

I couldn’t believe it! A doctor admitting on a TV show that being thin isn’t inherently healthy, and that in fact, gaining weight is sometimes healthier! A doctor giving out a “food plan” that recommends eating more, and more of those “evil” meats and dairies!

The subplot played out really well overall, actually, especially one scene where the three of them are eating together. They have three different plates in front of them, representing three different dietary needs: Ivanova has a big plate of pasta with a creamy sauce, and some pale rectangles (bread? meat? something alien?) because she needs more, especially fatty foods; Garibaldi has a mix of plants and what I’m pretty sure was bread, because he needs bland food but still enough to fuel his healing process; and Sheridan has a huge salad, because he’s been overindulging after several years without fresh food available, and his body’s aching for some plants.

Naturally, they all swap– Garibaldi gets Ivanova’s mess of pasta, Ivanova takes Sheridan’s salad, and Sheridan gets Garibaldi’s balanced meal. Of course, they also swap back when Dr. Franklin sees them, but it was still a great moment. It showed that there are different kinds of diets that are healthy, depending on who is eating them, and also that there are different kinds of diets that are desirable. (I’m using the word diet here to mean simply “stuff you’re eating” as opposed to “bizarre rules about what you can’t eat because you’re trying to lose weight”)

It drives me crazy to see the “typical” healthy foods, tofu, fresh fruits and veggies, and so on, presented as if no one actually likes them. I adore tofu– I think it can be delicious, and much better than meat. Not “rabbit food” at all. So I appreciate seeing Ivanova reaching eagerly for that salad, not because she wants to lose weight, but because she genuinely prefers it to pasta.

It also drives me crazy to see “typical” healthy foods (especially salads) being presented as automatically the healthiest thing for a person to eat. It completely fails to take into consideration what our bodies actually need– a person who exercises every single day like Ivanova needs more calories. (I mean, Michael Phelps would probably die if someone tried to restrict him to salads.) So I really appreciated seeing Ivanova being told she had to change her diet for her health, and looking glumly at her big bowl of pasta. It was completely not what I expected from an old sci fi TV show (not generally bastions of feminism) and it really brightened my evening.

But then, I always end up loving Ivanova.