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Revenge of the Feminerd: Counsellor Troi and Telepathic Rape

Troi holding her young son to her chestEarlier this week I posted about some of my geek peeves and one commenter brought up her frustration with gender roles on Star Trek, specifically mentioning Counsellor Troi. While I think women's roles on Star Trek generally improved in Deep Space Nine and Voyager, I thought it was worth dedicating a post to Troi and looking at how Trek dealt with the issue of psychic rape.

One of my first memories is being five years old, sitting on my older brother's lap on the living room carpet watching "Best of Both Worlds". I may have had nightmares about the Borg for weeks, but I was also hooked on Star Trek. Now, Counsellor Troi is one of the less feminist Trek women – she was the damsel in many damsel-in-distress-type scenarios, a stereotypical emotional chocolate eater, and she constantly sought male validation to deal with her self-doubts about her ability to command the ship.

But to five-year-old me, Counsellor Troi was more appealing than Disney princesses: beautiful and serene and intuitive, but also she got to go on cool missions and sit on the bridge of the Enterprise and tell the Captain the truth about his own motivations. Troi was the first action figure in my Trek collection, and when I started reading Star Trek novels in grade 6, I always went for the ones featuring her.

So as an adult feminist re-watching TNG and reflecting, I feel the need to complain about how Troi was treated, particularly around the instances when Troi was psychically raped.

While not quite a psychic attack, commenter Minuet brought up the Season 2 episode "The Child,",in which Troi is forcibly impregnated by an alien presence. After a very brief discussion about choice in which Worf suggests aborting the baby in case it's a security risk, while Data argues having the child would provide opportunity for further study, Troi says she's going to have the baby. The implication of the scene (and the whole episode) is of innate maternal instinct, as Troi's been listening to the baby's heartbeat right before she makes her declaration. When (spoiler alert) the baby starts growing super quickly and endangering the ship and decides he has to leave/die, Troi is devastated.

The episode that creeps me out even more than "The Child" is Season 5's "Violations." In case you're not familiar with the show, Troi is an empath, which means she can read people's emotions. In this episode, a bunch of aliens called the Ullians are visiting the Enterprise, and they happen to have unique mental abilities. After chatting with Jev, one of the Ullians, Counsellor Troi returns to her quarters. When she gets there she has a flashback to a sexy memory of Commander Riker, which gets scary when he begins to try to sexually assault her. His image then turns into that of Jev and Troi falls into a coma.

Yes, Jev attacks other crew members who also fall into comas, but Troi is the only one whose attack carries a sexual dimension, instead of it being a way of incapacitating people who are suspicious of him.

The thing that pisses me off most about this episode is a scene at the end where Picard declares that the Ullian legal system will have to punish the attacker, since the Federation has no law that would address that type of crime. So even if the Federation is out-of-touch enough to not have laws against psychic rape, how about saying it's assault? He forced himself into her mind and as a result she fell into a coma. Even if the memory part wasn't "real," the fact that she had resulting physical incapacity should've made it a chargeable offense.

The next instance of Troi being a victim of psychic rape is disgustingly similar and occurs in the movie Star Trek: Nemesis.

In Nemesis, Picard's clone (the bad guy) Shinzon is creepily into Troi and uses his Viceroy's psychic abilities to force himself into her mind while she's having a romantic encounter with her now-husband, Riker. I couldn't find a clip of the scene on its own but this fanvid does a good job capturing part of the scene, and the general creepiness of Shinzon's encounters with Troi (trigger warning for sexual violence):

(Spoiler alerts in this paragraph) Again, the way they deal with the telepathic assault is way less than feminist. They mostly act like it's not a big deal. After being examined in sickbay, Troi says she was violated and asks to be relieved of duty, saying she thinks she's become a liability. So it's not because she was just raped and needs time to process and heal, but because she's worried about the ship. Picard refuses and later in the movie she's even ordered to reconnect telepathically with the Viceroy in order to help the Enterprise in battle.

This scene can be seen positively – when she guides Worf's hand to locate the enemy ship and fires, she shouts, "Remember me!" So it can be seen as her refusing to be a victim, but it also seems like an immensely painful experience that wasn't really her idea to begin with, so it still weirds me out.

The way Counsellor Troi's assaults were portrayed exoticized the situations, making them alien. Not taking them seriously made it seem like psychic rape wasn't even necessarily a crime or that it wouldn't have the same kinds of impacts as physical rape. I'm not saying she should've been incapacitated, but they should've scrapped the telepathic rapes altogether or at least acknowledged that hey, this is a really serious thing that most people would find extremely traumatic.

I think Troi deserved better than this. And so did feminist Trekkies.

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Comments

21 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Funny you should write about

Funny you should write about this because, although I'm not especially a Star Trek fan and have never seen an entire episode, I do recall seeing that particular scene ("Violations") sometime in the past (possibly when my husband had it on) and being repulsed and horrified at the narrative and how it was filmed. I hadn't realized that Troi has been the victim of such assaults in other episodes and can't imagine why a seemingly progressive program such as ST would sink so low as to depict sexual violence-as-sensationalist-plot-line. I've never been able to really watch any part of it since.

Cheers,
Marjorie

I think

I think part of the issue with Star Trek has always been the conflict between the progressive, feminist Roddenberry vision vs. what the networks will allow and think viewers want to see. We saw that from the very beginning when they said a woman couldn't be first officer after the original series pilot episode. That carried on, as I mentioned in my Monday post, to the conflict about whether or not Star Trek could have gay characters even in the background of scenes. I'm not sure how much that factored into these storylines but I'm a Trekkie for the Roddenberry vision and think it's super unfortunate that the studios got to derail it to such an extent.

(Other examples of this were that they adamantly refused to have a woman captain until Voyager and brought in Seven of Nine and her ridiculous costumes to try to attract young male viewers. I didn't watch much Enterprise but some say that it took a big step backwards in terms of gender roles, which might partly due to it being an attempt to bring back greater numbers of viewers and because Gene Roddenberry had been dead for a few years and Majel Barrett-Roddenberry was getting quite elderly)

Actually, there were at least

Actually, there were at least two female Starfleet captains prior to Voyager. First was the unnamed woman captain of the USS Saratoga in the fourth movie (The Voyage Home). Then came Captain Rachel Garrett, captain of the Enterprise about 20 years before Picard (in the TNG episode, "Yesterday's Enterprise".) Not to mention female commanders of Romulan warbirds in TOS ("The Enterprise Incident") and TNG ("Face of the Enemy").

By the way, I'm in total agreement about the whole mind-rape thing. I've loved Star Trek for over forty years. All the same, I've always deplored the fact that, along with a galaxy of new and wonderful opportunities for women, the series has all too frequently featured new ways to exploit and degrade us.

Enterprise

Enterprise has male-rape. Trip, the chief engineer, got tricked into having sex with an alien in a way that he wasn't aware was sex. Much like how I was assaulted as a child. He got pregnant, and was mocked by klingons.

Voyager also has Belanna Tores (also, the cheif engineer...) accidentally getting Pon Farr, and tried to force herself on Tom Paris, telling him "just let it happen"

Not quite helping gender roles...

I am a huuuuuuuuge trekker

I am a huuuuuuuuge trekker and I am happy to hear someone talk about the psychic rape that happens in TNG way to often. When I saw Nemesis, I was horrified by the rape scene- and seeing as that is my favorite star trek movie... I'm just glad that there are feminist trekkies/trekkers out there looking out for this kind of thing..... ALSO, right on to
DS9! Major Kyra is the shit.....

A friend & I have been

A friend & I have been discussing the violations of Troi's autonomy thru the TNG series as we recently rewatched it. We recalled the specific episodes discussed here & the scenes in Nemesis. But we were surprised just how frequently it happened in every season of the TV series.
For me, as a girl, Beverly Crusher was the woman I identified with. Troi bothered me. It wasn't until rewatching as a feminist adult that I realized what really bothered me was the way she was treated by the show's writers & producers, as well as by some fans. Looking back at how she, Beverly & women in general were handled in Star Trek, I'm profoundly disappointed. It seems lazy. Regarding the Troi violations, it's like no one could think of another way to discuss important topics without the metaphor of a woman being violated in some way. And why was it almost always Troi? What is it about her? It also seems hypocritical. There were things ST got right. I am a Progressive & Feminist in huge part b/c of ST. But the franchise has failed in many areas, this in one. And tho there are plenty of things I liked about the Abrams reboot, I fear that we won't see progress regarding women characters. It'll either stall from the improvements made in DS9 and Voyager, or backslide.

Agreed

Hey Jenni,

If you remember some more specific episodes with this type of thing I'd love to hear about it. I had a feeling I was forgetting at least one when I was writing it. If not, no worries.

And thanks for mentioning the Abrams reboot. I admit I really liked it (although am choosing to put it in its own separate canon in my head because otherwise the ending would destroy all the TV canon) but yeah, not so awesome with the gender roles. Uhura was cool but the scene with Kirk ogling her from under the bed was not. But we shall keep our fingers crossed and see.

While I completely agree that

While I completely agree that the neglect to understand the significant trauma of psychic rape is disturbing, I also think that the amount of victimhood attributed to trauma is problematic. This is coming from someone who has been assaulted in a back alleyway by two strangers.

"After being examined in sickbay, Troi says she was violated and asks to be relieved of duty, saying she thinks she’s become a liability. So it’s not because she was just raped and needs time to process and heal, but because she’s worried about the ship. Picard refuses and later in the movie she’s even ordered to reconnect telepathically with the Viceroy in order to help the Enterprise in battle."

Although this may sound like persecuting the victim, I disagree that Troi is being disempowered here. In fact, that Troi should be portrayed as so focused on protecting the ship despite her traumatic experience gives her much agency. Giving her character significant duties to the ship and its crew keeps her from being negated as an incapacitated victim. Of course we need time to process and heal, but focusing on our functionality as proactive participants in our society is perhaps, imo, one of the best ways to survive rape, continue living, and most importantly, continue living powerfully.

Good point

Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree that it's open to that interpretation - I thought the most problematic aspect was that Picard orders her back to work - it should be up to her ultimately. But I think I'm also viewing it that way because of the overall pattern. Like you say, she does to some extent reclaim her agency at least.

Isn't there also an episode

Isn't there also an episode where Crusher gets raped by a ghost (or was it psychic as well?)? I remember her walking down the stairs of some building and having an orgasm because someone/thing is causing her to feel that way. When I rewatched the series a few years ago I noted all of Troi's various rapes and other sexual assaults as well as this one. Thanks so much for bringing attention to this!

YES! I remember being really

YES! I remember being really disturbed when I watched that episode... it's basically an abusive relationship situation. The ghost controls her mentally and physically and, yes, also rapes her. More than once. I can't recall the rape aspect being really discussed. but the rest of the crew is concerned about the intensity and power dynamics of the relationship.

Trekkie Feminist Here

What fun! FYI - The theme of what my husband calls the 'mind f***k' is not only present in TNG with Deanna Troi, but also occurs in Babylon 5 with telepath Lyta Alexander. Also, anyone ever notice how Deanna's purple outfit gets progressively tighter? Everyone else gets the black bottom half of the uniform, but Deanna was always in that ridiculous unitard. Deanna's role as an empath also cashes in on the stereotyoe that women are more emotion than reason oriented.

and OMG this scene! why did they never do one of these with Riker and Jordi or Picard or something! ARGH
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ZMjxbXwph4

While Enterprise is certainly a step backwards for gender roles, e.g. female Vulcan T'pol highly sexualized to the point where it is the only ST series that I categorically refuse to watch. Another example of women's bodily functions over their ability to reason, with a Vulcan no less!

In terms of Voyager - it seems good overall but there are issues. For one, from the outset you get the feeling Tom Paris's initial womanizing attitude is placed on the bridge in order to offset the female presence of captain Janeway. Then, as Paris becomes fleshed out as a character, Chakotay takes over the role of the mitigating masculine presence.

And oh man! The stuff they pull with B'Elanna, who is half-Klingon. Not just sexist but racist and sexist.
See episodes: S1E13 and S3E16 where B'Elanna's Klingon side emerges, always hypersexually and requires here repression.

I could go on...

In general the way Star Trek

In general the way Star Trek handled telepathic rape is annoying as shit.

Spock is a powerful telepath. Spock is never raped. Sometimes he's overwhelmed by a telepathic encounter he willingly entered into, but no one ever forces a telepathic connection on Spock. Spock does, in fact, force a telepathic link on an unwilling female Vulcan (to get information, and it's not sexualized, but still).

T'Pol, from Enterprise, may not be a particularly powerful telepath -- the canon suggests that when she lived, Vulcans were in excessive denial of their own telepathy, and only "healers" were trained in it, and "melders", Vulcans who freely practiced the mind meld, were ostracized -- but she is still a Vulcan. And she is mentally raped (with an explicitly sexual dimension to it.)

Troi is an empath. Troi is psychically raped, with a sexual dimension to it, twice. And as you point out it's mostly ignored.

Picard's not a telepath at all. There is no sexual element portrayed in what the Borg did to him. He is devastated by it and suffers the effects years later.

Seven of Nine has her nanites taken from her in a sexualized way.

Tuvok is telepathically assaulted. He's a black male security officer. He defeats his assailants, and there is no sexual component to the attack. The exact same species accuse B'Elanna Torres of telepathically assaulting a man of their species, and it's only after the attack on Tuvok that they are able to prove that Torres was victimized, not an attacker. (She's telepathically null enough that she didn't *know* her memories were being violated, but they were.)

When women are telepathically assaulted, it's highly sexualized. When men are telepathically assaulted, it's presented as a physical attack. And it happens to women more often. Seriously, if Spock is powerful enough that no one ever manages to attack him, why isn't Seven of Nine in total control of her own nanites? Why did the writers of Enterprise decide, first, to have a Vulcan telepathically assault T'Pol, and then later establish that the Vulcans are stigmatizing melding at all (something that seems bizarre, given that 100 years later Spock will meld with anything that moves...)

And Vulcan was a founder of the Federation, so how exactly is it that Federation law has nothing to cover telepathic rape, when 200 years before the Ullians attacked Troi, renegade Vulcans were telepathically raping other Vulcans? (Yes, I know, Enterprise is full of retcons, but TNG came after TOS and in TOS Spock uses his telepathy every other episode, so what, this has never come up before?)

Thanks

Thanks, Alara. Great points & thanks for the other examples. It is interesting to notice how psychic assaults against men aren't sexualized in the same way on Star Trek.

One of the issues I always

One of the issues I always had with TNG (which for the most part, I liked), was the difference between Crusher and Troi. Even visually, the two female crew members always seemed diametrically opposed: Crusher was the brain, in her Starfleet uniform and doctor's coat, and she was clearly designed to be read as "matronly," with her teenage son and generally less-sexualized demeanor. Troi, on the other hand, was routinely outfitted in clingy bodysuits and was exoticized to an almost comical point. In addition, both women are confined within "nurturing" roles: a counselor and a doctor, both mainly concerned with physical and psychological well-being of the rest of the (male) crew members, rather than being focused on the technical or military aspects of the series. It's been a while since I've regularly watched TNG, but I know Troi has an ex-husband (or the equivalent of such), and that Crusher and Picard have a mutual sexual attraction, but I still find the trope of the "polemic women" to be irritating, While it's refreshing to have more than one token female on the bridge, it's still not terribly progressive to have the only two main female characters to be confined in such ways. Does anyone feel that the same thing happened to Dax and Kyra on Deep Space Nine?

I do remember certain

I do remember certain episodes where Kira was sexualized more than usual. Especially episodes dealing with her love interests (which were frequent enough). She, like Deanna Troi, had a non-Star Fleet outfit that was more revealing. I thought Jadzia Dax was less sexualized and less confined to a role of nuturing but Ezri Dax was definitely confined in the way you mention. Perhaps because Jadzia was more frequently associated with her predecessor Kurzon (called 'old man' by Sisko all the time) she was less sexualized?

I forgot to mention in my previous post my love for Kaylar - Warf's half-Klingon partner. She was awesome.

That's true. Jadzia was

That's true. Jadzia was occasionally sexualized, but the identities of Jadzia and Kurzon were often conflated, resulting in Jadzia being somewhat sexless at times. Nevertheless, I totally loved Jadzia Dax when I was little--I liked her cool spots.

Kaylar

Kaylar was fantastic! The actress gave her so much more than the script provided. From the first moment she appeared I could already tell she was mature, confident, intelligent, practical and witty. AND very attractive too. She was more than a match for Worf and was a woman very comfortable in her own skin. She didn't need others to validate her worth. I was so sad when Kaylar died. Adding her to the regular cast would've been amazing.

I think I would object to the

I think I would object to the word "confined" as you use it to describe nurturing roles. Just because nurturing roles are associated with the female gender doesn't make them negative. As a feminist and a psychology major, I really respect Deanna's emotional intelligence, which she displays as an excellent counselor. I'd even argue that her psychology training and empathic abilities would ultimately make her a better commander once she pursues that route in canon. I was totally intrigued by this article, but I definitely object to the idea that just because Deanna is doing "women's work", she is not a feminist character. Yes, some of the situations (i.e., the sexual and psychological violence) the writers put her into are problematic, but I think the character as a whole is a remarkably strong and admirable woman, who is soundly capable of doing her job as an integral member of the crew.

That's totally fair, hanet. I

That's totally fair, hanet. I wasn't intending to say that putting women in caregiving roles is always negative. What's problematic is when it becomes the only option. I think Voyager and DS9 did a way better job on that because they had nurturing women (Ezri, Keiko, Kes) and mothers (B'Elanna, Keiko again, Kira sort of) but had a greater diversity of overall roles for women so it didn't seem like there might be a barrier for women trying to enter command, engineering, etc. Of course we did have Tasha Yar around for the beginning of TNG but I think it was a pretty bad move to kill off the only woman in a non-traditional occupation.

So yeah, I don't think Troi wasn't a feminist character because of her job, just that it was too bad that the writers kept putting her in these damsel-in-distress type of scenarios. And there's nothing wrong with women characters filling caring roles - just saying it's good if there are more options so it doesn't start to feel like they're there because they're women and that it's a given that caring is what all women are best at.

Fighting Back

I'm not a true ST fan. I watched all the ST original DVDs and I'm working my way through STTNG. I'm on Season 7 right now and was laughing at the "Dark Page" episode because I thought the big reveal would be Mrs. Troi getting attacked like her daughter in "Violations". I guess Maques just had that look about him.
Anyway, while what happened to Troi in "Violations" is disturbing and even offensive to feminists, as a womanist, I'd just like to comment that what I most admired about "Violations" was that Troi FOUGHT BACK against her attacker. How often do you see that on TV? Usually the victim of rape just submits and spends the rest of the show dealing with it while the perp walks away with no justice.
Maybe if more young women saw more examples in the media that it's OK to stand up to jerks and say "No! I won't let you do this!" before unleashing the mace, there would be less dating violence.