The Women of Babylon 5: Talia Winters

In previous entries in this series, I have praised Babylon 5 for treating its women characters like people, and not like stereotypes or plot devices. But even a great show like B5 is not perfect, and its treatment of Talia Winters is one of the show’s biggest failures.

Talia Winters is the resident commercial telepath assigned to the Babylon 5 space station. She was taken by the Psi Corps as a small child, raised to be loyal to other telepaths rather than to humanity as a whole, and now uses her telepathic abilities to ensure good faith in business dealings. And despite having more episodes centered around her in the first season than any other character but Commander Sinclair, she receives some of the least real development of any character.

In one episode, we learn that while Talia was still a student at the Psi Corps Academy, she became lovers with one of her instructors. In another episode, we learn than while Talia was still an Academy, she  mentored by an older  student named Matthew, and later placed into an arranged marriage with him. In another episode, we learn that as an Academy student, she was mentored by an older student named Abby. In a later episode, we learn than as an Academy student, she was mentored by an older student named Lyta (who will get another column for herself).

These might seem like character development, except that each of these parts of Talia’s background are introduced in an episode where they are relevant, and then never mentioned again. Did Psicorp have a policy of giving each student a series of student mentors? We don’t know, because each of these mentors is described as if they were the onyl student mentor that Talia had at the Academy. Talia’s background isn’t really hers, it is whatever the episode at hand needs.

Talia could have been an interesting character. Instead, she was just a plot device.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s too bad – a lot of what you mention has great potential for backstory. Arranged marriage? Modern day participants often claim that because their societies prepare them for arranged marriage, they learn early on how to get along and respect one another, and it works better than when kids choose mates for themselves. Her take on all this – her response, her experience – could have been extremely revealing and engaging. Too bad they missed that boat.

  2. Patrick says

    Exactly. Instead, we learn about the arranged marriage when her ex-husband shows up on the station, and never have it mentioned after that episode.

    We never really get an idea of what it was like for Talia growing up in the Psi Corps.

  3. Anne says

    I didn’t warm to her either – as you say her telepathy was a plot device and every telepathic experience she had seemed to result in her fainting or swooning and acting violated. Same kind of things that were annoying in Deanna Troi, but Talia was supposedly a trained professional.

    Still, the subplots developing around her when she left were making her more interesting. I’d have liked to see her return and I missed her more than I thought I would.

  4. Maria V. says

    I missed her a lot too — I thought the world of Psi Corps was way more interesting than B5, especially the stuff with Ivanova.

  5. Anemone Cerridwen says

    I’ve never seen this show (no TV), but I suspect that telepaths in general function as mirrors for the people around them rather than as people in their own right. Jungians talk about “anima woman”, and Jean Shinoda Bolen talks about this with respect to her Persephone archetype.

    I would really like to see this developed, somewhere, sometime, from the point of view of the telepath rather than everyone else. I think there are some feminist issues here, since it seems to be women more than men who fit this stereotype, and it seems to be about being receptive rather than aggressive around other people.

  6. Maria V. says

    The Queen’s Bastard deals with some of this issues. Belinda, the bastard in question, has psychic powers. She uses them like telepathy. Javier, the son of a rival ruler, also has psychic powers, which he uses like telekineses. One of the constant underlying themes is that Belinda’s powers are the way they are because she’s a woman, and is used to having power through subterfuge. Javiar’s never had to learn subtlety so his are all pretty blatant. This shifts as the series progresses (in some really interesting, believable ways) but I really liked that premise — essentially they both have the same abilities but have just been conditioned to use them differently.

  7. says

    The telepath role is often involves being overcome with empathy, which is not a role we traditionally cast men in. This is another interesting point since there’s no reason it has to be written that psychics receive the emotions of the people they’re reading. They could just receive the information about what the person’s feeling instead of feeling it themselves.

    Actually, there was an episode of Buffy in which she could hear people’s thoughts for a day in high school. If memory serves, she didn’t feel their feelings – she just heard all their normally unvoiced insecurities and worries, heard people thinking how much they liked or disliked her, and eventually heard a guy planning to go on a shooting spree at the high school, which she then prevented without swooning all over the place from empathy. So it can be done.

  8. Anemone Cerridwen says

    I had a chat with a fellow sensitive about receiving years ago. We both picked up on vibes really easily, and as a result we were both concerned we would project them just as easily. She decided that most people are pretty deaf that way, and that you can think and feel as loudly as you like and they’re unlikely to notice. On the other hand, I’ve been accused of using telepathy to lean on someone, to push her into deciding to throw out some of her junk. She told me to leave the room while she considered, and I thought that was fair enough.

    One of my concerns is that telepathy is so often portrayed as an add-on to a person’s abilities, like blonde hair, rather than part of how they breathe/sense/think. How do they know they’re telepathic in the first place? How do they know everyone else isn’t like them? I read somewhere recently a woman thinking everyone had visual-touch synesthesia like she did because no one told her they didn’t. It just doesn’t look realistic to me the way it’s handled in fiction. TK/spoonbending I can see as something people can just learn, but telepathy is a sensory issue, much more complex. Can you actually get it to the point where it’s like reading text on a page?

    I figure that if fiction really took telepathy/telempathy seriously, it would address the issues of what it’s actually like to be a sensitive. Unfortunately, in a world without any training, that would involve boundary issues – not so much fun. I think you have to learn to filter the information properly in order to separate what you’re thinking/feeling and what others are. For that you need elders who realize you’re picking up on all this stuff in the first place and who can help walk you through it.

    One of the writers I used to read (Anne McCaffrey? Marion Zimmer Bradley? Mercedes Lackey?) had one of her characters instruct “imagine a wall” as a means of protection. Useless advice in my experience. Walls are made out of decisions, not pretty pictures.

    At any rate, I think the interpersonal invisibility of the person who is a sensitive could be addressed better, even if there’s no understanding of how the difference itself works.

    I’m not familiar with The Queen’s Bastard. I’ll keep an eye out next time I’m at the library.

  9. says

    Anemone, because most people don’t believe in telepathy to the extent we’re talking about with these characters, I can understand why a writer wouldn’t try to, say, interview people claiming to be telepathic to find out what it’s like to be them. Even if the writer believed in it, how would she sort out the scam artists from the real deals?

    We’re still trying to get writers to recognize that women are real, and that maybe if you have no idea what it’s like to be one, you should talk to a few before attempting to write one. ;)

  10. says

    FWIW, I re-thought this a little. Serial killers are no further from most writer’s experience than psychics of any sort. Interviewing serial killers is about as problematic as interviewing psychics – because of the psychology of serial killers, you can’t trust anything they say about themselves. And while the FBI and psychiatry can tell you a lot, they’re always revising their knowledge as more info comes to light or people come up with theories that fit the facts better than previous theories.

    And yet, I can tell which serial killer shows are written by people who have done some research, and which ones are the product of someone making it up as they go along. I don’t expect every TV sociopath to remind me of sociopaths I’ve actually known, I do expect them to conform to the basic rules of abnormal psychology. Similarly, you should be able to expect TV telepaths to at least ring true to you. If writers put out enough effort, some of them should hit on something familiar. Or at least consistent unto itself.

    • Maria V. says

      I wonder if part of that is because of gender, though? I mean, serial killers are normally men in TV shows, and men are normally the norm. Their behavior/motivations often fail within the masculine norm. I think with telepaths, they’re often characterized as extreme versions of the feminine, itself an abnormal starting place.

  11. Anemone Cerridwen says

    Telepaths are generally typed as extreme feminine. But Marion Zimmer Bradley had an extreme masculine type of telepath in her Darkover books. The Alton Gift involved forced rapport – getting inside someone’s head and imposing your will – which reminds me of stereotypical male domination (actually, it reminded me of my father), and tended to occur in male characters. So they could go with a masculine type. But perhaps that’s too close to home? Or maybe they just haven’t thought of it. And if they did think of it, would they develop the character a whole lot more than if it were just another female telepath?

    Heck, you could even have a serial killer male telepath. Now there’s a story. I’m being cynical.

    What I started thinking after earlier comments is that, really, no character works well unless the details are there. So maybe telepaths who aren’t working as characters would work better if they were based on real people, with natural abilities exaggerated, rather than simply just being made up.

    • Maria V. says

      Yeah, at the time MZB was writing the Alton gift, she was still thinking of herself as a feminist writer. I heard, though, that her trust was editing the series to cut out some of the feminist content, so I wonder how they read now.

      Also, with the Alton gift — while it was written featuring masculine characters, didn’t it femininize them in some way? I felt like their coloring (particularly the emphasis on their pale skin and its ability to reveal their emotions) might’ve done that

  12. Anemone Cerridwen says

    The pale skin wasn’t racism? I don’t think of very pale skin and blushing (if that’s what you mean) as feminine because I see it so much in men as well as women.

  13. says

    Reading the last few comments, it hit me: the male telepath is a Sith Lord or Jedi Knight. “You don’t need to see their identification” says Ben Kenobi, and the soldiers mindlessly accept his will for their own. FAR OUT! KICK ASS! GO DUDE!

    Because that’s masculine and therefore cool.

    Now, how much more help would it have been if Kenobi had *received* some insider info from the brains of the Imperial generals? A fucking lot more help. But that would still have been perceived as feminine, so that would have been neat, but NOT nearly as fascinating or enduring as the memory of Ben Kenobi making two soldiers let them past a security point.

    Kenobi penetrated those soldiers with his brain instead of his cock. Had he received info about the inner-workings and latest plans of the Imperial army, that would’ve been vaginal in its receptiveness. Kinda cool, but ewww!

    I’ve had two moments in my life where I said something and the person (guy, in both cases) I was talking to got a blank look and repeated what I said. In both cases, they thought it was wicked cool and told everyone we mutually knew that I had done “the Jedi mind trick.” More than twice, I have accurately sensed someone’s well-hidden intentions in time to avert a potentially scary or depressing situation – I’ve gotten some stunned looks for that, but of course, it’s nowhere near as amazing as making someone repeat your order for coffee. Even though it’s a helluva lot more useful.

  14. Anemone Cerridwen says

    So what’s the difference between telepathy and hypnosis? Do they grade into each other? Are they the same thing, with one possibly a subtype of the other? There’s a dissertation topic for you.

    Actually, there’s an alternative to the vagina metaphor for sucking information out of people, and that’s the female mosquito going for blood. (Unlike with vampires, the males don’t bite.)

    Which then leads into vampire bites as a method of data download, instead of just an infection route. Or you could do it with any body fluid exchange. Ew. Ok, I’d better quit now.

    Although there is Starfire (DC character) who learns new languages by kissing their speakers.

    And I do think it would be cool to download data into your mind from computers by touching them.

    Telepathy – not just about fainting anymore.

  15. Maria V. says

    BTW — I thought of a male character who’s a telepath who gets characterized in a way drawing on both stereotypes of female telepaths and male telepaths — in Graceling!

  16. says

    Having just now watched Season2 of B5, I’m surprised you didn’t mention how she was written out of the show: Evil Dead Lesbian Ahoy!

  17. SunlessNick says

    As far as I know, she wasn’t written out deliberately; Andrea Thompson wished to leave (possibly for some of the reasons outlined above, I don’t know). JMS decided he didn’t want anyone to be able to say there wasn’t a developing relationship between them, so he rushed it in.

    Though of course, as you say, the result was Evil Dead Lesbian.

  18. Alexander says

    While I like Lyta, one disappointing thing I recently realized about her is that no time is spent developing her disillusionment with the Corps. Multiple episodes are used to bring Talia to that place, but between Lyta’s first and second appearances she’s already gone from business telepath next door to full-tilt rebel and even worked with the Mars Resistance. To be fair, the badness of the Corps is well-established by the time Lyta comes back, even if her personal experience of it isn’t.

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