Being a Woman in a Man’s Science Fiction Universe

Lately The Girlfriend and I have been watching Star Trek: Voyager, the first Trek series to feature a woman captain. The transition is different from the shift to a black captain in Deep Space Nine — whereas Sisko’s blackness (like Geordi LaForge’s before him) was glaringly never made a theme, at least until very late in the series, Janeway’s gender seems to be creating all kinds of neurotic symptoms as the series desperately tries to repress the flagrant sexism of the Star Trek franchise. In the first season, for instance, there were at least ten episodes that turned on whether the ship could widen a narrow opening sufficiently to penetrate it. If it happened once, I’d say that I’m reading too much into it — but it was used so obsessively that it’s impossible to ignore.

It’s gotten more subtle as the series has progressed, but the repressed sexism is still operational. This is most notable in the infamous episode Tuvix, where a bizarre transporter accident leads to the combination of two characters (Tuvok and Neelix, hence the name) into a single entity. This new character has his own personality and consciousness, and when they finally develop a way to separate Tuvok and Neelix back out, he strongly resists as he doesn’t want to die. Reportedly there are many fans who believe that Janeway is essentially a murderer for forcing Tuvix to undergo the procedure.

Now this moral dilemma at first appeared to be so convoluted that even an analytic philosopher could never have come up with it. Yet as I cast about for potential analogies, a significant one presented itself: namely, abortion. The most immediate analogy is to the possibility of an abortion to save the life of the mother (Tuvix at one point says he thinks of Tuvok and Neelix as his parents). Yet one could also say that there are echoes of more “optional” abortions where a mother’s life will be significantly disrupted by a child — because although Tuvok and Neelix are “dead” in the sense of no longer controlling their own lives, they are still in some sense “alive” because Tuvok shares their memories and their emotional responses to certain friends, etc. Indeed, it’s as though the issue of two people being permanently and irrevocably “stuck” with each other (as with a mother and child) and the issue of the sentience of the fetus are separated out, but in such a way as to exacerbate both issues. After all, Tuvix is much more clearly a full-fledged human(oid) being than a fetus is!

The fact that Janeway makes the final decision is also an interesting displacement. Neither Tuvok nor Neelix have any agency in the situation, but it is a woman who decides to terminate the “pregnancy” for the sake of the “parents.” She is at once the “abortion doctor” (since the ship’s doctor refuses to perform the procedure and she does it herself) and the woman making the decision.

I’m sure we could analyze this further, and I definitely don’t want to get into a discussion of abortion as such — but isn’t it strange that this convoluted, abortion-like scenario only comes up with a woman captain? And isn’t it interesting that some fans still regard Janeway as a murderer while giving a pass to, for instance, the war crimes committed by Sisko on Deep Space Nine?

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12 Responses to “Being a Woman in a Man’s Science Fiction Universe”

  1. gerrycanavan Says:

    http://trek.fm/captains-log/2012/2/10/janeway-and-chakotay-the-relationship-that-never-was-or-was.html

    Here’s some background on the question of a Janeway-Chakotay romance as we were talking about on Twitter a while back (which I think ties into all of this, from the imagined fan reaction to Mulgrew’s insistence that it not happen). I’m surprised (but not all that surprised) to find out that they killed Janeway off in the novels, through a replay of the Locutus story that explicitly marks her as inferior to Picard. That she apparently finally slept with Chakotay right before dying is the icing on the cake.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathryn_Janeway#Fictional_character_biography

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    WHAT?! I thought she basically defeated the Borg permanently at the end of the TV show! I guess they had to take that back.

  3. Christopher D. Rodkey Says:

    While reading this, it reminded me of an issue of the original US Transformers comic where something similar happens–Megatron and Ratchet end up merging together– and summarized on this website (http://boards.idwpublishing.com/3/viewtopic.php?t=7920&sid=a37cf83b00ce2fa09feb988655360080, #2, down the page). As described in the summary, the merged creature begs Optimus Prime to kill it, and he nearly does, but then comes up with some solution to save both of them. As I remember, though, the implication is that by killing the creature, Megatron would be finally defeated, but a benevolent task is to save the loyal friend and the despised enemy.

  4. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Another point of comparison might be to the abortion episode of BSG: President Roslin goes on and on about how access to abortion is a fundamental right of the Colonies and that the religious fundamentalists are just going to have to accept that. They go ahead with the abortion, but then Roslin decides, “Hey! We are running out of people! In the middle of this genocidal war with robots we need more babies! No more abortions.” One last sacrifice, I suppose, to the gods of political correctness. I guess it’s good she banned abortion because Hera may never have been born and where would we be?

  5. Alex Wyman Says:

    I’ll just point out that I find it weird that, despite the big supposed ethical conundrum about separating Tuvix, there was never (to the best of my recollection) any debate on the series(es) about whether using the transporters counted as murder.

  6. Asteele Says:

    I think people’s reaction to Tuvix might have to do with tone. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the episode, but the overwhelming impression was that the crew was weirded out by Tuvix and looking around for an excuse to kill it.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s a common theory that they kill you on one end and rebuild you from scratch on the other, but they present it as though there’s some continuity in the process of the transporter — the “same” matter is ideally being transported through the “beam,” but there’s a pattern buffer to reconstruct you from scratch if something goes wrong. There’s even a TNG episode where they portray Lt. Barclay’s first-person experience inside the transporter beam, mid-transport. I assume this is why atmospheric conditions can render them unable to transport someone when they’re perfectly able to communicate with them, which would be incoherent if the transporter was just a matter of transmitting information.

  8. ben Says:

    Not necessarily; the amount that needs to be transmitted to reconstruct a person on the far side doubtless exceeds the requirements of voice communication.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The incident with Barclay is still my trump card here, I think.

  10. hoodie_R Says:

    DS9 was perfect. LALALLALLALLAALALALA. I can’t hear you! ;-)

  11. Adrian Says:

    One mind-blowingly subtle instance of sexism in the new films was revealed to me here: http://writingronin.tumblr.com/post/62832542567/thetrekkiehasthephonebox-the-reboots-uniforms

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Wow. The comparison with the Mirror Universe is especially striking.


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