Sexism and Star Trek

We still have a long way to go as a culture when it comes to sexism. Patronizing, objectifying, or otherwise stereotypical portrayals of women, for instance, abound in pop culture. And yet in my recent viewing of just a handful of original Star Trek episodes, I can’t help but think that we’ve made significant progress. A random sampling of those episodes revealed plots that crucially depended on sexist presuppositions — they would be incomprehensible if you didn’t presume that women were ultimately feeble creatures who are easily captivated by a display of male power. It’s not a character flaw of an individual woman, but the condition of woman as such.

In the episode that introduces Khan, for instance, the ship’s historian falls instantly in love with the villain and submits to his abusive behavior with little argument, agreeing to betray her crewmates. While she does rescue Capt. Kirk, she ultimately decides to go into exile with Khan. In another episode, an evil double of Kirk created by a transporter malfunction tries to rape a female crew member, a recurring character who by all accounts appears to be a normal adult woman — and later in the plot, she uses that experience as a jumping-off point for sharing her sexual attraction to him. Now I think that the latter plot would be considered far beyond the pale in contemporary culture, even for something like Family Guy. In the former case, it’s conceivable, but her behavior would have to be thoroughly explained — most likely through some type of explicit mind-control powers.

This is not to say that we’ve done enough or “arrived,” of course — it’s more to point out how deeply, incredibly fucked up things were to begin with.

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17 Responses to “Sexism and Star Trek

  1. beatrice marovich Says:

    I realize that this is probably not at all where you want to go with this. But on the subject of TV content and sexism (or what might amount to its diminishment)… I’d be interested to hear your read on MLP (that’s, you know, “My Little Pony”). There are, apparently, already a bunch of “bronies” out there (http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/06/bronies-my-little-ponys/). You’ve heard of this?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I’ve heard of the idea, but I always somehow hoped it was just a joke or internet meme, not a real phenomenon…

  3. beatrice marovich Says:

    I mean, I think it’s real to the extent that anything done in the spirit of irony these days is real. There has been internet feminist debate over whether the show subtly embeds some homophobic or racist stereotypes (http://msmagazine.com/blog/2010/12/09/my-little-homophobic-racist-smarts-shaming-pony/). But the thing that many people keep saying about the show is that it’s surprisingly good. Apparently the plot lines are good, the animation is good, and it seems to commend some counter-normative roles for women. Which is, I guess, still relatively rare in major network animation (I don’t have a TV, I don’t watch much TV, I don’t really know). Apparently the brony line of defense is simply that they like the show because it’s good, not because they have a pony problem. Some people have argued that this signals shifts in masculinity. But where I think it’s relevant to the discussion about Star Trek, perhaps, is simply on the level of fanboy culture. As someone who’s watched very little Star Trek, the deepest association I have of it is as a historical hotbed of fanboy fanaticism. Apparently MLP has now become something of a hotbed for fanboy fanaticism, itself. I think this is fascinating. On the one hand, we might say that it’s evidence of the amelioration of rampantly sexist television stereotypes (fanboy culture is confounding the world by embracing dancing pink horses). On the other hand, those who do find MLP limited (ie; subtly racist and homophobic) might argue that the bronies are a group of fanboys who are congealing around yet another cluster of stereotypes about females and femininity…

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Interesting to think of fanboy culture in terms of gender politics. The gender stereotypes become a bit more refined in the Next Generation — Counselor Troi is portrayed as the more empathetic woman (she literally has an inborn ability to experience others’ emotions much more directly), while Dr. Crusher is very motherly, and of course both characters are in caring professions. There was an episode of TNG, written by a woman actually, that introduced a new character who was kind of a stand-in for the typical Star Trek fan, and he had built up this entire elaborate fantasy about Troi, the “goddess of empathy.”

    A tougher female character, Tasha Yar, was ultimately written out of the show (and then killed three times over in alternate timelines) — in the second episode, they had her seduce Data, apparently to prove she wasn’t a lesbian. They tried that type of character again with Ensign Ro, but they seemed to have a hard time keeping her in the rotation as well — and again, in one of her first appearances, they had to make a point of having her sleep with a male character.

    Of course, one would have to address at this point the fact that homosexuality does not exist in the Star Trek universe. As The Girlfriend has pointed out to me, even inter-species dating is allowed, but homosexuality never enters anyone’s mind…

  5. cruth01 Says:

    Look, Yeoman Rand had long been in love with the [i]good[/i] Kirk, which is why she was so hurt and confused when the evil Kirk attacked her. It wasn’t the assault that kindled feelings inside her, this was an ongoing attraction, and of course when evil Kirk made his inappropriate advanced, she demurred.

  6. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “Of course, one would have to address at this point the fact that homosexuality does not exist in the Star Trek universe. As The Girlfriend has pointed out to me, even inter-species dating is allowed, but homosexuality never enters anyone’s mind…”

    It does in DS9… in the alternate universe… in one evil character (and then two more for a one-off joke in season seven). And there was a really tedious episode where Jadzia kisses another female trill, but that’s set up as them being (heterosexually) married in previous host-bodies, so I don’t think it counts. I think this also came up in one of the TNG episodes with a trill, in dialogue. (Also worth mentioning: The episode “Profit and Lace”, where Quark gets a sex-change operation to flirt with a soda magnate, is really painful to watch.)

    I’m pretty sure none of these issues ever comes up in Voyager, and I don’t believe anyone watched more than five or so episodes of Enterprise but I’m guessing it’s not there, either. But Intendant Kira definitely goes both ways in DS9.

    And apparently, the episode “The Outcast” in TNG was supposed to be about LBGT issues; I only remember it for sucking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Outcast_%28Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation%29

    And since this comment is already shamefully nerdy: That “Ms” article feels like a joke. It seems pretty clear that the writer never actually watched an episode (she only quotes the website and clips she found online — oddly, since the show has full episodes online), and she misses basic facts like “The white princess you mention has a black sister, also a princess” (actually black, not grey like the ones she saw — and there are ample random grey-toned ponies, like the mayor of the town the show takes place in). The show is a well-made children’s cartoon, which can’t be said for the 80s things the article compares it to.

  7. maartenschumacher Says:

    Wait a minute. You do realize that bronies masturbate to MLP? That they make explicit erotic fan art of the ponies having sex with eachother? Funny how you guys are taking it as an example of improved gender relations because I think it’s precisely the opposite; an index of a crisis in men-women relationships.

    My theory is that precisely because of emancipation, a growing number of young adult men don’t know how to relate to women anymore, they don’t know what the “rules” are for courtship. They don’t understand that the old patriarchal gestures (holding the door open, slapping the ass, etc) still function, but only when performed with an ironic distance, assuring the girl that you don’t really see her like that. So then the brony escapes into the fantasy world of My Little Pony, where such nuances don’t exist, where there is no confusion about gender roles.

    The exploitation that was only implicit in patriarchism becomes explicit in bronydom; the sexual object of the brony shifts from a real woman (who does not know what she wants from him) to a innocent, desexualized object. The same goes for the weird “waifu” subculture: they are mostly Japanese young men who are “married” to a pillow with a picture of an anime girl on it. No joke. What is worse, these bronies openly admit to their obsession, and defend themselves with the language of identity politics: they are “discriminated” against by the PC Police, but they will never give up until bronydom is accepted, no matter the personal cost, etc. What is also worse: Warner Brothers openly celebrates bronydom and the writer of the show attends the brony conventions, where the bronies dress up as their favorite characters of the show.

    I think we should condemn this thing in the harshest terms possible.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I don’t think we were lauding bronyism so much as wondering aloud what it says about contemporary gender relations.

    It was amazing that they could only address LGBT issues by making heterosexuality into queerness (in “The Outcast”) — they could only address it by postulating the fantasy of total androgyny, which seems revealing in itself.

  9. ben Says:

    You do realize that bronies masturbate to MLP?

    I’m very, very willing to bet that this is not a universal characteristic of bronies. (Especially if we understand “brony” to include women, aka pegasisters).

  10. ben Says:

    “They don’t understand that the old patriarchal gestures (holding the door open, slapping the ass, etc) still function, but only when performed with an ironic distance, assuring the girl that you don’t really see her like that.”

    I’m also willing to bet that there are yet women who still appreciate sincere, unironic door-holdings (not to mention ass-slapping, when in the proper context). I am willing to bet this regarding door-holding because I know such women. Of course I also know women who would be put off by a man who held the door (or pulled the chair, etc.) for women but not for men. If it were really true that the rule had changed from “hold the door for women” to “hold the door for women, but ironically”, there wouldn’t be a problem, because there would still be a clear rule. In fact, in the real world, women are, shockingly, various.

  11. mattintoledo Says:

    I do hold the door for everyone, men and women. And I don’t mean walk through and hold it so they can grab it. I mean hold it open and let them walk through first. In general, the variation with women is just their degree of appreciation (usually from appreciative grin to “Oh, why thank you!”) but men are very often uncomfortable with it. There have been men who insist that I just go through.

  12. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “The same goes for the weird “waifu” subculture: they are mostly Japanese young men who are “married” to a pillow with a picture of an anime girl on it. No joke.”

    It *is* a joke, though. The number of people who actually fit the picture you’re thinking of is probably in the single digits. Those few weirdos make for interesting stories, so they get press (like the piece on “Niisan” and “Nemu” in the NYT magazine a few years back), but they’re not representative of any sort of trend.

    The name gives it away — “waifu” is a word 4chan made up, not the name of an actual Japanese subculture at all. Japanese otaku do talk about “ore no yome” in the way that 4channers use “mai waifu” — to indicate character-specific fandom, usually associated with collecting related character goods (“presents for my wife”). Nothing to do with actually “marrying” anything, let alone a pillow. Google makes clear what the usage of these terms is. The words are used light-heartedly; their users don’t actually think they’re married to Sailor Moon.

    Plenty of stuff to criticize in these areas, but “there is a subculture of young Japanese men marrying pillows” is not one.

  13. cruth01 Says:

    “I do hold the door for everyone, men and women. And I don’t mean walk through and hold it so they can grab it. I mean hold it open and let them walk through first. In general, the variation with women is just their degree of appreciation (usually from appreciative grin to “Oh, why thank you!”) but men are very often uncomfortable with it. There have been men who insist that I just go through.”

    I hate that, you’re inserting yourself too far into my day. And if there’s two doors, then we have to switch places again, or I look like a douche. Stop it.

  14. Eilif Verney-Elliott Says:

    Excellent critique. Also homophobia (or homo-exclusion) in Star Trek, where are the LGBT characters?

  15. Joe Says:

    What do you think of Kira and Jadzia Dax on Deep Space 9? Or what of the explicit engagement with culturally enforced sexism when it comes to episodes focusing on Ferengi society?

  16. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I haven’t watched enough DS9 to have an opinion.

  17. jholbo Says:

    Re: “Star Trek” you’ve missed the best episode of all, for post purposes. Namely, the one in which there’s some super powerful alien force – a cloud or a crystal or something like that. And at first it seems like the crew is doomed because this alien is so much more powerful. But then they realize it’s ‘female’ – because it’s voice is female on the universal translator? – and then the captain and doctor and the rest of them start chuckling. It’s just a girl! After that point, it’s clear this alien is going to be naturally easy to dominate. (Sorry, my memory of the episode is rather hazy.)


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