Where Women Have Gone Before

13Aug08

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a big fan of Bitch magazine, having a degree in pop culture studies, but obviously I don’t take it as the be-all-end-all of feminist pop culture thought.  Which is good, because then I read articles like Tammy Oler’s “Keep On Trekkin'” and can get slightly irritated.

I mean, I’m totally down with the point she’s getting at–how Star Trek established the tenets of broadcast fandom that we all know and love, and the various problems that exist therein.  Not to mention the mentions of people like Bjo Trimble.

But then she has to go and dismiss everything that’s happened in Trek since then with a few pithy paragraphs about how all of it’s been the same old hackneyed sexist drivel since then, which highly oversimplifies the issue.  It disappointed me because she seems, earlier in the article, to recognize the empowerment at hand within the original series, despite the clearly prejudiced viewpoints that were standard game in media back in the 60s.

And okay, Trek has a tendency to catsuits, and I’m anything but a Roddenberry apologist.  But to gloss over entirely too much in order to oversimplify the idea that Trek is old hat boring sexist business…I can’t buy it.

Not with the fact that all of the later series had episodes centering around their female characters.  That Beverly Crusher had command track skills despite her apparently overly feminine healer tendencies, and in fact took command at least once when she was the highest ranking officer.  That Guinan was the rock of the Enterprise-D.  That Kira Nerys was the survivor of internment camps and a former vigilante.  That Lily Sloane scrounged titanium to get humanity into space and risked a terrible death by radiation poisoning to check on that last chance.  That B’Elanna Torres kept Voyager running for seven years.  That T’Pol, despite the catsuit, was the Vulcans’ commentary on the inherent sexism in humanity’s space program.

And the villains and morally dubious: the Duras sisters, Sela, Kai Winn, Seska, the Borg Queen, Commander Donatra.  And fandom calling Captain Janeway a ball-breaker for her uncompromising attitude.

Tokens?  Maybe.  But I haven’t touched on every story in Trek.  And the woman-friendly programs Oler seems so keen on have their own downer moments.  From what I’ve heard, X-Files: I Want To Believe has a pretty domesticated Scully, and BSG isn’t afraid to have women play the occasional stereotype.  Oler’s frustration is somewhat misplaced–it should be directed at JJ Abrams, perhaps, or the notorious playboy Brannon Braga, not at the whole of Trek itself.

I realize there’s a limit on space in a magazine.  I realize that the canon isn’t the Best Feminist Thing Ever In SF.  But don’t write off Star Trek.  It may yet surprise you.



4 Responses to “Where Women Have Gone Before”

  1. 1 QoT

    Another fantastic post! The significant other and I recently rewatched the entirety of Next Generation (okay, we may have skipped the odd Really Boring Holodeck Episode), but I had actually forgotten how *scarily* kickass Guinan was. Like when Worf needed a heart-to-heart, and they’re doing a phaser training programme. Worf: “I normally train at Level 14.” Guinan: “Well, I guess I can dial it down for today.” And then she canes him.

    Definitely some problems with the ol’ Trek, but you’re absolutely right: it’s not all miniskirts and Orion slavegirls.

    I actually think one of the biggest nods to the female characters is in Star Trek IV, when good old Nurse Chappelle appears as *Commander* Chappelle, co-ordinating various emergency services on Earth. Career progression for the win!

  2. Thanks for reading, I was worried that my trekkist ramblings were off base…

    The thing about Guinan is that she can’t be discounted as merely the de facto wise woman; the hints regarding her abilities and past, like the one you mentioned, are interspersed throughout TNG and Star Trek: Generations. She’s meant to be a cypher, but not entirely, sort of like the Doctor on the latest DW. Actually, quite a bit like him, and I wonder if the RTD think tank got any inspiration from Trek.

    In the semi-canon novels, Uhura becomes the head of Starfleet Intelligence. Now THAT’S a movie I’d pay good money to see.

  3. Hi Bene,

    Loved your post. I agree with you that there’s a much richer, more nuanced analysis of Trek out there to be had (as well as many of the other shows that I mention in the article). If I seemed outraged at the Trek universe as a whole, then I missed the mark – the issue is clearly the way the series has been handled in its newer incarnations (you’re spot on by calling out Braga). However, there are a lot of feminist fans out there who have grown more disillusioned with the franchise (myself included, although I still miss ‘Deep Space Nine’) and who feel that newer Trek creators have bought into the whole ‘boys club’ myth of the show while legions of female fans have been ignored – and, of course, there’s a lot of female fans out there why bypass Trek altogether. My hope is that dialogues like this can debunk the myth that female fandom is somehow a new phenomenon, can connect newer sci-fi fans with a Trek-based legacy of female fandom that is completely ignored in mainstream media, and can help feminists who scorn Trek and its fans understand it a bit more.

    I would love to talk Trek in more depth – and I think it deserves it. It’s quite a conundrum for a fan: I don’t want to downplay the cultural importance of it (or of the women in it), but I also can’t pretend that it’s lived up to its promise. The same thing can definitely be said for X-Files. Who knows about BSG yet?

    In any case, enjoyed your response. Awesome blog!


  1. 1 Aw, shucks « Ideologically Impure

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