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Star Trek Into Feminism: Three Ways the Sci-Fi Series Needs to Change

Star Trek has a reputation.

For almost fifty years, the disempowered and the marginalized and the outcasts have held up Star Trek as a show that said, "This is what we can aspire to: a humanity that has evolved beyond inequality and oppression". The show presents a vision of Earth that has moved beyond racism and classism, beyond ableism and sexism and homophobia. As a life-long Trekkie, it is tempting to agree with this reputation. Me and Star Trek, hand in hand, running through fields of wildflowers on a soft-focus sunny day while I gaze upon them longingly. Oh Star Trek! So progressive! So feminist!

But this reputation is not reality. The reality is that, at best, Star Trek is like a well-meaning but misguided friend who thinks that they are far more progressive than they actually are. Depending on the topic and franchise, Star Trek's track record varies from "mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era" to "fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV."

Over time, some things did improve. I think Deep Space 9 was probably the high-water mark for the show not being inadvertently offensive. That improvement wasn't a magical, happy coincidence. It came about as the result of actors, the fan community, and the writers being willing to call Star Trek on it's failings and say, "Here is where you need to do better. I don't care if you had the first interracial kiss on TV, no one gets a free pass." But in recent years—culminating with the movie released last week—the producers of Star Trek have retreated from the high-minded origins of the franchise faster than you can scream, "There are four lights!"

Now more than ever it is important to remind ourselves what a giant mess Star Trek has been at times, so that we can push back before things slide so far into darkness that they become unsalvageable (did you see what I did there?). I could write a book about all of Trek's transgressions, but I am busy hatewatching Voyager at the moment so for today I will raise only three specific examples that illustrate the larger problems, and how they handled them in the most recent movie:

ONE: Despite the Star Trek's United Federation of Planets representing a utopian, egalitarian, non-sexist society, their peacekeeping force Starfleet still expects female military officers to dress like this:

Uhura wearing a tiny red dress

You can argue that the costume designer created this outfit because, "Hey, it was the sixties, they didn't know any better!" To which I would respond firstly with, "That's no excuse!" and secondly with this quote:

"We've hired a pretty girl and I want to keep her that way. Think of something that we can take and make her look a little alien, and still get the idea she's from another planet, but she's still gorgeous."

These were the instructions executive producer Rick Berman gave makeup artist Michael Westmore regarding the character Ro Laren, who was introduced in 1991. It's not at all surprising to be confronted with evidence that Hollywood expected a female actress to be attractive first and everything else second. But, THIS IS STAR TREK. If your TV show about how great things are once humanity stops making sexist decisions guides its costume choices with sexist thinking, you are doing something wrong. Gene Roddenberry may have had his faults (like being a philanderer who for much of his life was also homophobic), but the guy had a dream. He dreamed of a future where the women of earth had set aside their petty differences, shedding their prejudices and donning skimpy outfits so that he could ogle them a little before cheating on his wife. And also if we eliminated hate and poverty and everyone lived in peace, that would be good too.

Roddenberry created Star Trek to be more than a TV show. It was a roadmap to a better future, and the show itself was part of that map. Unfortunately, not everyone who came after him really believed in that map, or cared about where he dreamed that we would go. Which is how we ended up with this entirely absurd shot of weapons expert Carol Marcus in the new movie, from a tacked on scene designed to illustrate that not only has underpants technology not advanced in the past 250 years, but we are still stuck with the male gaze as well.

Rachel McAdams in her underwear


TWO: Trek's handling of race has always been a mixed bag. From the beginning, the franchise has always made a strong commitment to having a multi-ethnic cast. That's worth praising. But beyond the surface-level, Benneton-esque composition of the crew lies a troubling pattern in how aliens are depicted in the Star Trek universe. If the shtick of species is to be barbaric, or uncivilized, or quick-to-anger, they will almost always be portrayed as being dark-skinned. Like this species from the 1987 episode Code of Honor

a dark skinned alien

From the aggressive Klingons, to the greedy, unscrupulous Ferengi, to the violent Kazon of Voyager-era, Trek is awash in aliens-of-color used as proxies to represent the worst aspects of human behavior. Star Trek is by far from the sole offender in this area (George R.R. Martin could teach a master class in repurposing offensive ethnic stereotypes), but that it has so much company does not mean it is any less deserving of condemnation. During The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Voyager especially, Star Trek was frequently guilty of paying lip service to the evils of racism while portraying dark-skinned aliens as barbaric, portraying non-human species as easily stereotyped and one-dimensional, and equating the Federation with humanity (despite containing over 150 member species, humans are frequently portrayed as the only ones that matter).  

Into Darkness does not break with this tradition. The Klingons in the movie are violent and untrustworthy, which is an extra slap in the face since the Klingon homeworld of Qo'noS is supposed to be a stand-in for Pakistan.  Beyond this, the movie maintains the series' commitment to diversity among its casts by adding a demographic that the ship was sorely lacking: a thin, conventionally attractive white woman.

THREE: While Star Trek has frequently preached equality, it has never been a leader in the area of LGBT characters or sexuality. Despite being the wellspring from which slash fiction originated, Star Trek almost never brings up the topics of sexual orientation or homophobia, and on the few occasions they do they invariably fuck it up. This is Soren:

SOREN - a genderless alien

Soren is a J'naiil, a race of aliens that have supposedly evolved beyond gender, but have not evolved beyond being judgmental assholes. Soren secretly feels female, and her and Commander William Riker fall in love. When the J'naii authorities find out they brainwash her back to "normal." The whole episode is supposed to be a condemnation against homophobia, but at the same time they intentionally cast a female actor to play Soren because the producers were too homophobic to have Riker kiss a man. I could count on one Malcorian hand the number of same-sex smooches that have occurred across 30 seasons of Star Trek. When asked about the shows failure to address these issues, former producer and noted beard aficionado Ronald D. Moore said, "The truth is it was not really a priority for any of us on the staff so it wasn't really something that was strong on anybody's radar.... Somebody has to decide that it's important before you do it."

Contrast that to when Abrams learned that there had never been a gay crewmember in the history of the show, he expressed shock but said that it was not in his list of priorities for the movie (unsurprisingly, they did not trouble themselves to incorporate any LGBT characters into the movie, unless you count the two feminine aliens with tails with whom that Kirk has a three-way).

I think these quotes get to the heart of the issue. Star Trek, Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, and pretty much any other beloved genre series you can think of are flawed shows created by flawed people. The writers and producers and creators of these shows are overwhelmingly white, male, straight, cisgendered, and frequently oblivious, but not evil. We need to recognize when these shows fail to be good allies. We need to talk to the writers, and remind them of how they can do better, and why it's important. We need to call them on their shit. I don't know about you, but I always dreamed about living on the Enterprise and hanging out with Data and his cat. If that is ever going to happen we're all going to have to do better.

 

Read more feminist writing about Star Trek, including the race of Khan in the new film

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Comments

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true on all counts. one of my

true on all counts. one of my biggest complaints about the new movie.

however: not rachel mcadams, but alice eve.

Fixed that!

Sorry about that, I screwed up the name as the editor. It's changed now.


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I would just like to say that

I would just like to say that while "The Outcast" certainly missed its mark as a commentary on homophobia, speaking as a trans woman, I actually thought it worked quite well as a commentary on transphobia, and I always identified with Soren.

Would it have worked better with a male actor? Certainly.

Seriously.

And Jonathan Frakes, of all people, was 100% on-board with that, apparently. But hey, he wasn't the one making the call.

Yes! Exactly. We have to

Yes! Exactly. We have to give props where the props are due, but constantly remind ourselves that there is still work to do. It is great that we have decided that we don't want racism, sexism or any other discrimination anymore, but now we have to do the hard work of digging the remnants of it out of ourselves, And it is pretty deep down in there.

I agree with you! However

I agree with you!

However here's what I see happening all around me.

A outspoken LGBT ally, Macklemore has been criticized for on numerous occasions for not being gay...even though he is an ally willing to stand up and support his fellow man, donate and participate in causes for the forward progress on gay marriage rights and understanding of the misinterpretations of what it means to be gay. He gives a huge portion of his song profits to groups to help them. Why the backlash?

As a straight person, when I read things like this I get really confused. I want to know what I can do to help LGBT rights, but when I see someone who is doing so being told he's out of his element and to let someone else have the limelight, it leaves me torn.

It's similar to my sentiment in middle school (in the earlyish 90s) when my fellow classmates (and I) were wearing LOVE SEES NO COLOR shirts and a black girl came up to me and told me I had no right to wear it because I was white and it was meant for colored people to stand up and speak about the oppression of colored people. How confusing is that!?!

I consider myself a forward thinking person...it hurts me when I am told that I am not allowed to feel empathy for people who are oppressed. What do I need to do to feel comfortable enough to speak up for my fellow man? How can I be an ally as a straight white woman?

I understand your issue with

I understand your issue with being a white person trying to be an ally to minorities in the world. While I can't speak succinctly about Macklemore's difficulty over LGBTQ rights (having no real information about the matter), I think I understand what you are asking about "love sees no color."

Frequently, people cite a level of color-blindness as a method to show their support for minority rights against racism. However, color blindness goes to the level of "I don't see color. Everyone is the same" when in fact the people are not the same and are not treated the same. Saying that love sees no color discounts a person's experience of oppression. So, while your heart might have been in the right place in saying that color doesn't matter in terms of love, it erases the struggles that minorities face in loving those that they do, in living in a society that devalues their being because of their skin color.

If the same idea applied to gender, then the t-shirt could read something about gender being irrelevant in the world. Now, that would be great.
If it were true.
But as a female, I am treated differently by the media, my coworkers, my bosses, and general society. So, if I heard someone say that gender doesn't matter in the world, and everyone is treated the same, I would heartily disagree and hardly consider them an ally. Any kind of blindness regarding a social issue is generally not seen as a move of support so much as erasure.

I hope that helped explain it a little. I can understand the struggle to understand what is okay, and what isn't in terms of social movement. What I would say is ask someone you know and trust. If you come to them openly, chances are they would happily explain what they feel as a member of an oppressed minority.

I totally agree with point

I totally agree with point one. It always bothered me that Uhura wore that little uniform dress, Troi wore the form-fitting and low-cut jumpsuit (my husband totally had a crush on her), and that shot of Alice Eve. However, I should point out that some producer from the movie regretted how that shot turned out and said it was too gratuitous (which I agree with).

In regards to point two, I can definitely see that as well, however, several Klingons were played by white actors. And, I wouldn't necessarily call the Klingons barbaric, but more militant. They're actually my favorite alien species in the whole series. I also didn't see how Qo'noS was a stand-in for Pakistan, either. I also don't see the Ferengi as "dark skinned" either, nor Kazon, but maybe I'm just not seeing it?

"because the producers were too homophobic to have Riker kiss a man."

I'm sorry but I have to ask, is this verified? Or is that just your perception?

I have to point out that it's equally problematic to add an LGBT character for the sake of having an LGBT character.

"...too homophobic to have Riker kiss a man."

I don't have sources to hand, but I've read it several times that Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker) specifically said (at the time) that he thought the character should be played by a male actor.

It's true, the Klingons were

It's true, the Klingons were more aggressive than they were barbaric, and I like them a lot as a species, but it's not like they started out that way. That characterization was something they transitioned to towards the end of TNG and during DS9 as actors and fans pushed for a more multi-faceted portrayed of their species.

The Pakistan connection comes from the heavy-handed allegory in STID about the post 9/11 hunt against terror (http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/9-11-looms-large-over-star-trek...). You have a terrorist hiding out in an inhospitable, unfriendly terrain, and Starfleet wants to use long distance remote controlled weapons to execute him illegally even though there is a risk of it antagonizing the native population of that area.

The producers and writers of Star Trek have stated that one of the problems they faced was how to incorporate a GBLT crewmember into the show organically. However, it was raised when they were first fleshing out the cast for TNG (one of the producers objected, making comments about having an "ensign Tutti-Frutti". And that it was planned to have same-sex couples in the background during the episode "The Offspring", but that was nixed by a producer as well. (http://www.salon.com/2001/06/30/gay_trek/)

I really, really support

I really, really support having LGBT characters portrayed on TV, as I am not exactly straight and well, to be honest, depictions of people like me are never talked about in a positive manner, but it absolutely has to be genuine and honest and not thrown in for the sake of diversity.

I really do think at the time, audiences weren't ready for that kind of relationship to be shown on TV, remember the Ellen controversy? Attitudes have changed drastically since then (thank goodness), and now, if the series were to come back in another form, I could easily see more than one LGBT character on the show and have it be natural and not forced.

I haven't seen the episode in question in the article, so I can't say either way, but it could have been due to the climate at the time. But I do wish that they had gone that way, because Star Trek has broken ground in many ways (Kirk and Uhura kissing was the first interracial kiss on TV, and her being an officer and in a high-ranking "military" position, to name two).

I really do hope that the series comes back in some way, it would be awesome.

Now that i think about it, I

Now that i think about it, I totally see the connection with 9/11, drones, and Pakistan. Good thinking.

Regarding the first point.

I think it bears mentioning that Gene Roddenberry's vision was frequently thwarted by the television industry. In the original pilot the first officer/science officer was female and dressed quite differently than Uhura as pictured above. The pilot was played to test audiences, and supposedly the female viewers strongly disliked the character. The point is, Roddenberry originally clothed his female officers the same way he clothed his male officers.

Second, if you watch the Star Trek Next Generation pilot closely, you'll see there are men wearing mini skirts in background scenes. There's speculation that this was done on purpose to give a sense of gender equality, and to ease the way into a new frontier sans mini skirt.

I haven't seen the new film yet, but after hearing JJ Abrams talk about it, I'm not sure he took Roddenberry's vision terribly close to heart.

Yes! The skant! The skant

Yes! The skant! The skant is great. It is definitely true that there are boundaries that Roddenberry tried to push only to be thwarted by the network. I am not hating on Star Trek, trust me. I have a painting of JLP on my living room wall. Just as their successes don't forgive their failures, their failures don't invalidate their successes. But when we forget about or gloss over these failures, we are that much more likely to suffer gratuitous underpants.

You are absolutely right we

You are absolutely right we have to keep on producers, studios and writers to make sure they reflect the vision of what star trek has the potential to be! It hasn't lived up to its ideals and the new movie was a step backwards in multiple ways. Though at least public attention got Lindelof to apologize for the gratuitous shot and promise to be more mindful in the future, though we'll have to see if he lives up to it.

At the same time this article felt like it was tackling a lot of ideas but not really getting into some them? Especially in the race section. Like I wanted a little more clarification on how you interpreted the different races and what those races were because even though I watched a lot of trek I didn't know all of them.

The jabs at Roddenberry's infidelities felt like cheap blows and are pretty irrelevant to evaluating star trek as a text imho.

your third point

while you are correct that there has never been an oppenly LGBT person on any of the series it should be mentioned that in the book series titan that followed Riker after leaving the Enterprise there was an openly gay character who was married to another man on the ship

Utopia is a target that we fail to reach

The author develops a strong argument for Star Trek to be a production of flawed people. The utopian future depicted in most Star Trek series has made it a frequent target for criticism as groups that struggled in the present wish to see their struggles in the future, either resolved or at least an intelligent discussion of them free from the social conventions of the present.

The series has resorted to gratuitous lady flashing before; an egregious example is the first episode of Enterprise, which features T'pol, the vulcan female second in command, stripping down and rubbing some sort of futuristic hand sanitizer all over as the camera lingers on her curves.

The examples offered by the author, however, mostly stem from episodes over twenty years old. The race of African people depicted in TNG is from 1987 and was in the first season of TNG. The uproar over the episode was present on the set, there are rumors of a blow up between Patrick Stewart and the African American members of the cast over a racist remark associated with the episode.

The episode dealing with transgender individuals in TNG was also created in 1991, over twenty years ago. By way of contrast, the Enterprise episode, Cogenitor (season 2, episode 22) features a strong defense of the rights of transgender peoples. Aired in 2003, the episode is entirely devoted to the problems associated with rights denied to transgender persons and the tragic consequences that can arise from denying an individual those rights.

Enterprise, while many fans least favorite incarnations of trek, covers the most socially pressing themes of its time. From the consequences of rape, the stigma associated with some diseases as well as a consideration of transgender issues. This series, created in the 2000's when these issues were better discussed, offers many fine examples of social commentary on the pressing social issues of the day.

I argue that the trek series should be considered historically, as products of their time. Their shortcomings reflect the shortcomings of the time when they are produced. Looking back, they are better seen as expressions of the past whose ideas and prejudices may still be with us. Seeing the inadequacy of the past as a way of addressing the problems of the present is Star Trek turned on its head.

Ultimately, I feel that Star Trek offers much more than it denies, at least in the series. The utopian vision of the future is something to strive for and in conversations on how best to reach that goal of a utopian society we may find ways to move past the prejudices associated with Star Trek's temporal failings.

Pilot

For what it's worth, in the original pilot for Star Trek TOS, Rodenberry cast a female first officer (Majel Barrett), and she wore a suit identical to the men; pants, no mini skirt. Also, Captain Pike (captain in the pilot episode), though traditionally handsome, was not a womanizer. Not sure why they switched from Pike to Kirk after the pilot, but I do know that NBC demanded the changes in wardrobe, and also that Majel Barret be relegated to ship's nurse. In other words, some of the sexism in TOS wasn't Star Trek's fault; it was the stupid sexist NBC execs.

Live Long and Edit.

Zach -- you describe yourself as "a life-long Trekkie," but go on to describe the series' reputation as varying from "mediocre but still better than most other shows of its era" to "fucking hypocritical bullshit that makes me swear at the TV." Why are you a trekkie if you have only this narrow, negative opinion of the franchise? Or are you attempting to convey that these are the opinions held by people other than yourself? Or the opinions of people other than yourself AND the millions of others for whom the show is an intrinsic aspect of their lives and their identity?

Your glaring failure to set out the parameters of the discussion and your apparent disdain for the fandom kept me from enjoying this article. It's not that I doubt you like the show on some level. It's that you're not very good at writing, and you think it's clever to be cynical.

LOL

couldnt agree any more.