Home » Cinema and Television, Cultural Comment, June 2009

Light Years Backward: Women in Star Trek

27 May 2009 17,516 Views No Comment author: Ellen Lawrence

uhura1headlineimagehead I am a Trekkie and a woman and I am profoundly angry with Star Trek (2009).  I admit, that I did not go into this movie with high expectations. From the beginning of the hype, when this Star Trek prequel was announced as being in pre-production, there were foreboding pangs of dread.  Star Trek has always been about moving forward, that the future of humanity can and will be a more positive and beautiful reality than we know today. This promised future will not come from magic or from some fortuitous circumstance but rather the hard work and ingenuity of millions of people over time all working for a positive tomorrow; it wouldn’t be easy but it would be good. A prequel does not tell the rest of this story, but rather the beginning to which you already know the end. In the Star Trek ethos, a prequel seems inherently like a step backward.

Yet with carte-blanche to reboot the Star Trek universe, a prequel gives its creative team the golden opportunity to tell the greatest story of humanity’s future the right way.  To do all of the things that Gene Roddenberry and his team couldn’t due to the limits of the culture of the 1960′s.  Roddenberry struggled to get women on the bridge wearing sensible jumpsuits and functioning in positions of authority.  The unholy compromise that the network forced on the show: women wear mini-skirts or they don’t get on the bridge.  Unfair though this undoubtedly was, women were on the bridge and in the halls.  Women were introduced as anthropologists, historians, lawyers, and archaeologists when they sauntered on in their mini-skirted uniforms.  Alien species had female officers, leaders, and warriors as necessary. 1 Uhura and Nurse Chapel did not get nearly enough to do, but what they had was made great with their dignity, personality, and yes, their sexuality – always treated in a feminine yet personally controlled way. Kirk, for all of his womanizing ways, never treated them, or any woman, as less than a human being.  Even with the limitations of the period Roddenberry still managed to work women in his original concept onto the screen during the two-part  episode, “The Menagerie.” Number One, Majel Barrett’s (later Majel Barrett Roddenberry) no-nonsense professional on the bridge in a position of undisputed authority, made it to the screen despite the network.

Even the final episode of the original series speaks to the frustration of women when limited by culture.  Although the teleplay was done by Arthur H. Singer, Gene Roddenberry is credited for the story.  In “Turnabout Intruder,” Kirk’s former lover, Dr. Janice Lester, driven mad with the frustration and injustice of being denied a Captain’s seat in Starfleet because she is female, steals his body using ancient technology.  Kirk himself admits in the first five minutes that the system is not fair.  Although Lester makes a terrible captain, in the end we know it is not because of her sex; it is because society drove her to such lengths by their discrimination.  Folklore around the world abounds with heroines who must masquerade as men to save the day, why should the future be different? That is the tragedy that “Turnabout Intruder,” attempts to portray; the future should be different because it is the future, because we should have learned by the 22nd century that women are reasoning human beings and ought to be treated as such. Perhaps the seeming message of “Equal Pay for Equal Work or we go nuts” comes across rather oddly today, but the situation of unequal pay in the work force is dire and it is just as real 40-some years later. Even though the final line Kirk delivers 2 could imply in context that he doesn’t mind the glass ceiling of their Starfleet enough to combat it, the episode as a whole is a striking example of the problem of sexual discrimination and the mental strain it puts on women. Women should be allowed their power not because of the largesse of men, but because we are equal members of society who work just as hard if not harder than any man and deserve to be treated with the respect due any sentient beings in control of their own destinies.

Since the original series debuted each subsequent series has gotten better at portraying women. In The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, women are no longer just the disembodied voice of a computer or a mini-skirt clad yeomen. Women are doctors, security officers, captains, admirals, judges, and helmsman. Even more telling, the engineer responsible for the principal design of the NCC-1701-D warp drive is Dr. Leah Brahms, who kicks Geordi’s ass when he tries to make her into his own private holographic plaything. 3 Even Counselor Deanna Troi, often the butt of many a joke, is not to be trifled with; she is the embodiment of the female power of empathy and communication but never gives up challenging herself to grow, becoming a bridge commander.  [4 This is a pursuit encouraged by another woman, Dr. Crusher, who did so first.] When we last see Troi, yes she is getting married to Riker– but he is taking her name, and the long-established respectful relationship between them makes it feel like a natural character development rather than some sort of trophy-finish. Captain Janeway, the ultimate victory for women in Star Trek, was an excellent commander of a starship who led with authority without compromising her feminity or ever seeming “bitchy.”  4

Through the years of Star Trek, watching these beloved characters in their roles progressing as the show progressed it was good to feel hope. As a little girl, it was nice to be given the message that, “yes, young woman, you can be whomever you want to be and you don’t have to be a boy or a slut to do it.” 5 When I saw Star Trek (2009) the theater was packed with parents and children of all ages, from gray-haired people with grown children to parents taking their little school-age kids; in some rows there were three generations at least. In the whole theater there were only two seats left together and they were in the very front most right-hand row. As the movie began I heard a little boy a couple rows back, maybe ten years old at most, yell out in excitement, “We’re going to see Star Trek! We’re going to see Kirk!” When I heard that I smiled; how well I remembered being a little girl not much older going to see First Contact with my big brother and going to conventions with him when I was even smaller. I grew up on Star Trek and PBS the way other kids grew up on Nickelodeon, Smurfs, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so it made me happy to think that new generations were getting a Trek diet too. However, my smile turned upside down by the time the credits rolled and the more I have reflected upon the subject the more irate I have become.

Why does Uhura have to bully Spock into giving her a position she is qualified to get? In an enlightened future society a woman with unparalleled abilities in her field should just get the job that she is best suited to perform regardless of who she has a private relationship with. If a woman is the best communications officer in the senior class of Starfleet Academy then she should be on the flagship. Period. How dare Spock be more concerned with how things appear to be than the fact that an officer is qualified for the job. What made me mad wasn’t that Uhura rebuked him but the fact that a rebuke was necessary, my respect for Spock in the new timeline fell about ten decks for that. Apparently, nothing has changed in the 23rd century. An intelligent well-educated woman of the future still has to fight against the image of her sexuality to get a job she is qualified to perform and if she doesn’t have the eggs to fight for herself nothing will change. Maybe there would have been two minutes less of dialogue from the movie if Uhura had just gotten the post but I think it would have been far more powerful for everyone watching to see a woman getting appropriately rewarded as a professional in a business-as-usual manner.

This encounter between the two colored every subsequent interaction between Spock and Uhura for me. Between the scene composition, the dialogue, and that foundational scene that foreshadowed a relationship between Spock and Uhura the rest of their scenes always struck me as being very unbalanced. Uhura comes across in a suppliant way spending all her screen time as a member of the bridge crew attempting to nurture Spock. Yes, a communications officer rarely goes on away missions unless one is needed for some sticky piece of communications and the ability to coordinate messages both onboard ship and between ships is very important, especially in a combat situation. Yet, in this film I feel like we were just told by the expository powers that be: “Uhura is really freaky smart” without anything to back that up in action; the only job we got to see her do was nurse Spock who seems to have a rather striking number of mommy issues.  Being a wife and a mother is indeed a difficult and rewarding full-time job which women have been performing heroically for millennia. Indeed, my relationship with my fiancée is a sublime joy of my life; I look forward to starting a family with him. Yet, women are the personification of multi-tasking. As hunter gatherers women were primarily responsible for both childcare and gathering the bulk of the daily sustenance for the household, the original working moms. Nothing has changed in that sense, instead of digging for tubers women in western culture work full or part-time jobs, sometimes multiple jobs, in addition to being the primary child care provider. 6 In Voyager Ensign Samantha Wildman is a xenobiologist who gives birth to her first child, Naomi, while Voyager is stranded in the Delta Quadrant and her husband was still stationed on Deep Space Nine. With a lot of help from her Voyager family Ensign Wildman continues to do her job and raise her daughter. 7 Keiko Ishikawa, a Starfleet botanist, met and married Miles O’Brien while serving together aboard the NCC-1701-D where they also had their first child, Molly. The O’Briens have many ups and downs as a married couple over the course of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, going through both the strange problems of science fiction as well as the more understandable problems of balancing who works, who takes care of the kids, and where they ought to live. Keiko and Miles make it through together however and through all the compromises they make Keiko gets to be a wife, a mother, a teacher, and a botanist on the terms that are best for her and her family. In Star Trek as well as in life women should enjoy the freedom to choose the life they want to lead. A woman should be able to be captain of a starship or a counselor or an ambassador or a professional mom as they see fit.

Uhura being Spock’s lover is not inherently bad, not at all–what is disturbing is the fact that Spock doesn’t respect her and as an audience member you don’t get to see her do anything else. You know what would have made me happy? Instead of Kirk being an incredibly creepy voyeuristic- pervert and us hearing Uhuru talk about how she did this really difficult piece of communications work, why not just have a scene showing us Uhura in action translating different strains of Klingon and Romulan communications? Isn’t that the old adage of story-telling, more show less tell? That scene would have been so cool. If I had seen that scene and then seen Spock assign her to the Enterprise without a blink and then watched her be all nurturer extraordinaire I would have loved this movie so much more, I would actually be excited and filled with hope at the prospect of a sequel. But no. J.J. Abrams decided it would be better if Kirk got it on with an Orion woman 8 and then peeped in on Uhura innocently changing clothes. What a creep.

Somehow, I don’t think the original Kirk portrayed by William Shatner would have objectified Uhura or any woman enough to be a voyeur. I think he would have trained his eyes on the mattress springs and maybe jumped his eyes a bit when a garment hit the floor without actually crossing that line of behavior. I think that would have been more funny, as well as a softening moment for Pine’s character. But no.  Roddenberry struggled against a discriminatory system to use the guise of sci-fi to promote real societal issues. J.J. Abrams did not even try; he whole-heartedly endorses  the system and crosses a line that should not be crossed, telling all the boys in the audience by so doing, “It’s okay to objectify women, Kirk does and he’s cool!” I don’t think that this vision of the future looks all that rosy; it looks more bleak than today, not just for all the girls, but for all the people who think that this is okay. And for that I am angry.

Edited by Tracy McCusker.

  1. Why is it easier to accept the authority of a feminine woman in command when she is a Romulan Commander? I do not understand why women-in-power must be such an “other” scenario to people in our culture.
  2. “I didn’t want to destroy her. Her life could have been as rich as any woman’s if only…” Kirk never finishes the sentence. He trails off and then Kirk, Scotty, and Spock all turn around and walk into the turbolift. Was he going to comment on Starfleet’s system being wrong? Or suggest Janice should have been content to go as far as she could on her tether? We never know.
  3. Yes they become friends, but only when he treats her like a respected colleague and ditches the idea that she’s a toy.
  4. Though the writing of Voyager had its faults I could not fault her character or Kate Mulgrew’s portrayal.
  5. Parents, if you think your little girl isn’t getting that message then I have a starship I can sell you. Children are sponges, they absorb everything in their environment even if it might be years before they can put a name to everything they soak up. People are the same way as adults, sensitive to every message that gets reinforced in their consciousness; something advertisers certainly exploit.
  6. If anything this ancient balancing act has gotten harder to pull off with the loss of community support from female relatives and friends in a society that has become increasingly mobile and isolated. Even if a woman gets to be a full-time mother she is still taking care of the home in addition to keeping the kids which if you don’t believe that is a real job you have obviously never met a maid or entered a daycare. It is a job.
  7. It’s worth noting that Naomi’s oft stated dream is to one-day be captain of the Voyager.
  8. Another funny something for the fans, Orion women were introduced in the original series in “The Menagerie” as slave women who are actively trafficked as sex slaves because of the heightened sexuality of their species. The people of Talos actually tempt Captain Pike with the prospect of having one for his very own. Though fascinated by their beauty Pike is so disgusted with the very idea that he stalks off in a rage; I wish that such character was the standard and not the exception.

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