Star Trek, 50 years on: A study in sexism
- Ivo Vegter
- 23 Sep 2014 12:19 (South Africa)
There are a lot of television shows that have not aged well. Few, however, are on the brink of celebrating their 50th anniversary, going strong with an on-going and very profitable movie franchise, and large, active fan base that delights in dressing up as their favourite characters for big conventions.
Pity, then, that it all started with a misogynistic, neo-colonial paean to statism and world government. This week, let’s look at the first of the unpleasant surprises upon re-watching a series so many Trekkies love: its shameful treatment of women.
The appeal of science fiction is that it tries to create a consistent possible future, given one or more assumptions about the present. This has great philosophical potential, and many a sound prediction can be heard through the fiction of futurists. And Star Trek certainly broke boundaries. It went, if you’ll excuse the pun, where no man had gone before. But science fiction, especially with hindsight, can also reveal humanity’s biggest conceits and most embarrassing prejudices.
For the big anniversary in 2016, the franchisee has promised yet another blockbuster film, fairly randomly named Star Trek 3. The first official episode aired on US network NBC in September of 1966. However, the original pilot, The Cage, long thought partly lost, is copyright 1964 by the Desilu studio, the fore-runner of Paramount Television.
It should have stayed lost. The same is true for the most of the original series, really.
Of course, the early sets and special effects were wonderfully crude. Cardboard boxes, papier-mâché, rubber masks, foil, bin liners, cellophane and polystyrene spears, they were often so bad it was a wonder the actors could keep a straight face. But the sets are not what really make you cringe, almost 50 years later. It’s the crass and blatant sexism that grates.
Throughout the pilot, a hot blonde tries to seduce the captain of the Enterprise. Her name is Vina, because Star Trek is childishly obvious in its plagiar.... sorry, intertextual references.
The captain is not the famous James T Kirk, who became famous for trekking through the universe in pursuit of skirt, but one Christopher Pike (played by Jeffrey Hunter - Ed). Pike is of altogether more robust fibre than Kirk, and longs merely for his horse and some country music. He resists the advances of the enchantress, who turns out to be one half of an alien plot to breed humans as slaves. (The 'Christopher Pike' character gets resurrected many times in the later series as captain and later Admiral, most notably by JJ Abrams in his latest two Star Trek movies. - Ed)
Having rejected his intended mate, Pike is offered two female crewmembers, a yeoman hottie in a short skirt named Colt, and a somewhat older hottie in a short skirt named Number One. And by “short skirt” I mean they have to wear shorts underneath. And the crew don’t appear to be particularly averse to being selected as breeding stock.
Of Yeoman Colt, Pike says stammeringly to Number One: “She does a good job, all right. It’s just that I can't get used to having a woman on the bridge. No offence, Lieutenant. You're different, of course.”
She’s different, all right. She was played by Majel Barrett, who had an affair with the show’s creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry. She would marry him in 1969, after he divorced his first wife of 27 years. (Majel Barret, of course, was the voice of every computer in every later Star Trek series, starting with the Star Trek: The Next Generation - Ed)
Anyway, this trio of temptresses are at Pike for what seems like much longer than an hour. Eventually, we learn that behind the illusions created by the aliens to lure Pike in as a stud, Vina is really an ugly old hag. She desperately needs to cling to the illusion of youth and beauty, because, well, old women are yucky. So Pike dodged a bullet, there.
Pike manfully resisted all three women in a breeding-programme plot worthy of third-rate pornos, but Yeoman Colt still bats her eyelids coyly at Pike, asking who he would have chosen, before Number One jealously shuts her up.
Neither audiences nor the bosses at NBC liked such an uppity female first officer, so Barrett promptly got dumped as Number One after the pilot. Luckily, Roddenberry was a serial adulterer, according to no less an authority than his son, Rod, who grew up disliking Star Trek. The Roddenberry casting couch was rarely empty, and the future Mrs Roddenberry was replaced on the bridge by a more suitable officer in a short skirt, Lieutenant Uhura.
Credit to the show for putting Nichelle Nichols, a black woman in a leading role. That really was ground-breaking, and she is right to be proud of that. Star Trek is known for its gratingly overt messaging, and her name, from the Swahili “uhuru” for “freedom”, is no accident. She has been an inspiration to many women, and black women in particular.
However, in Star Trek she was really a glorified receptionist, and admits in her biography, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, that being Roddenberry’s lover had a lot to do with landing the role.
Like William Shatner as Captain Kirk, she first appears in the first aired episode, entitled The Man Trap. If its title sounds dodgy, that’s because it is. It centres around a temptress who leads men to their deaths, and so on. It also introduces DeForest Kelly as Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy, who throughout the first series competes with Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock for the most lecherous grins, winks and nudges.
Although Shatner has a particularly unpleasant and patronising manner around women, it really is Spock that turns on the misogyny. He establishes his credentials as a legend among the kind of manly men who dwell in their mothers’ basements in episode five, The Enemy Within. Captain Kirk does a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde thing, and his bad side almost rapes Yeoman Janice Rand, played by Grace Lee Whitney. “How’d you like to have that as your personal yeoman,” a crew member had quipped in an earlier episode.
Kirk reckons she is “too much woman” to ignore, and leaves her quite discomposed after a violent struggle. Once everything has been smoothed over, and we’re assured that Kirk usually keeps his rapey side on a short leash, the stage is set for Spock. Cue his raised eyebrow, as he says to Rand: “The, er, impostor had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?”
Because naturally, every woman who’s just been violently manhandled wants to be ribbed about her assailant’s “interesting qualities”.
In Mudd’s Women, the Enterprise crew nominally disapprove of a slave trader who deals in women hopped up on magic pills to make them look more attractive for their future owners. However, two years later, Captain Kirk is ordered to conduct a woman named Elaan of Troyius (subtle enough?) to Elas (now?). She is the subject of an arranged marriage that she explicitly does not want, but that has the political blessing of various male leaders including the United Federation of Planets, which employs the Starfleet officers that crew the Enterprise.
Kirk has to teach the arrogant, ill-tempered Elaan some manners before she is delivered to her future husband, starting with how to eat with cutlery and say “please” and “thank you”. A more patronising situation is hard to imagine.
When she protests her captivity and marriage, Kirk says he has his orders, because he must have skipped the Starfleet Academy class on the Nuremberg Trials, and following orders is once again an acceptable defence for slavery in the 23rd century.
All women in the series are similarly dressed in short skirts or bikini-like garments, when they are not wearing diaphanous dresses that reveal acres of skin. Helen... sorry, Elaan of Troyius is no different, and her wedding gown leaves so little to the imagination that I’ll bet more than a few 1960s schoolboys spanked the monkey to it.
She turns out to have magical tears that bewitch men, and the siren duly takes advantage of Kirk and threatens the entire ship. Because women do that. If you don’t watch them, they break everything.
In Miri, the same Janice Rand tells her one-time near-rapist, Captain Kirk, that “back on the ship I used to try to get you to look at my legs.” Because women like to be objectified at work. Meanwhile, Kirk has this creepy Lolita thing going on with the title character.
In Charlie X, an unstable boy with a God complex (and powers to match) can’t get girls, and promptly turns to violence. It’s sort of like a school shooting plot for the 1960s.
A female crew member is delighted, on Shore Leave, to indulge fantasies of dressing up like a princess and being ravished by Don Juan.
In What Are Little Girls Made Of, they have an android sex doll that looks like a real, live, hot chick, except she does as she’s told. Banging!
There’s an entire episode about a daughter’s struggle to reconcile herself to the fact that her father was not a very nice guy. She finally does, and shoots him, but the experience leaves her insane. Women. They get so hysterical about their daddy issues.
In the Omega Glory, in a room full of men, Spock picks the one woman as the most likely to succumb to his mind control. She’s dressed in a Flintstones bikini.
Some of the male crew members take some rest in an Arabian Nights style pleasure palace, complete with belly dancers, and Scotty is fixed up with one of them. Now I’m a liberal lad, and if a sailor wants a bit of sport on his shore leave, I’m hardly going to stand in his way, but there are limits to my liberality. Here’s one. The ship’s doctor, McCoy, explains why his patient needs this R&R: “This is prescription stuff. Don't forget, the explosion that threw Scotty against a bulkhead was caused by a woman… As a matter of fact, considerable psychological damage could have been caused. For example, his total resentment toward women.”
Then, naturally, Scotty stabs the woman in a back alley. He claims memory loss during the hearing that passes for a trial. Surprisingly, he gets away with it, because the killer was Jack the Ripper, come back from the 19th century. That’s some pretty good lawyering right there.
We’re not done yet. See, this Jack the Ripper fellow obviously isn’t real. It’s actually the mellitus, cloud creature of Alpha Majoris One (told you Scotty’s lawyer was good). Spock supposes, in a stream of consciousness that is pretty amazing to behold, that whatever this thing is, it must feed on fear. He theorises that it “preys on women because women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.”
Women clearly should just man up and grow some mental fortitude, instead of letting ghosts kill them in back alleys while drunk Scots try to get into their pants.
In Bread and Circuses, Kirk is presented with a real slave girl, named Drusilla. Our virile captain needs no androids. He feigns incorruptibility, before concluding that he might as well take advantage of the situation. Fade from low-burning candles to the next morning.
The series is littered with endless such examples of dismissive lines about women, leering winks at women, or patronising treatment of women.
If all this had been satire, it would just have annoyed the feminists, and would have been as funny as the school-play tackiness of the sets. But it’s not, and it reflects not only Roddenberry’s own character.
Star Trek was aimed squarely at a well-educated, well-heeled and obviously male demographic, to whom it was presented as classy and cutting-edge. It also represents the work of many writers and directors. Among them was only one woman, Dorothy Fontana, who was disguised in the credits as DC Fontana, Michael Richards and J Michael Bingham. To paraphrase the show itself, she was more intelligent than she looked, but not logical enough to be allowed to patronise the audience like the men.
The original series of Star Trek was a product of many minds, and for all their ground-breaking work and overt moralising, all were okay with portraying women like weak-minded bed-warmers, servants, chattel and traitors.
The more recent instalments in the endless Star Trek franchise, despite nodding dutifully to political correctness, don’t seem able to escape the need to pander to a stereotypical macho male demographic.
Major Kira Nerys, played by Nana Visitor in the series Deep Space Nine, was a deeply religious freedom fighter, but she was also a bundle of hotness with daddy issues in that skin-tight spandex suit of hers. Dax, the symbiont, picked luscious Trill bodies for hosts eight and nine, in the persons of Terry Farrell (Jadzia) and Nicole de Boer (Ezri). Also, we certainly need to know that Jadzia likes it rough, and having outlived eight host bodies, four of which were male, she had daddy issues of a whole new order.
In the movie franchise, things aren’t much better. There’s this weapons expert in Star Trek: Into Darkness who will forever be engraved on viewers’ minds for stripping to her underwear, because, well, she’s Alice Eve. Who needs more reason than having it to flaunt it? Even the writer thought the underwear scene was too much, and apologised. As for daddy issues, check. Her father turns out to be the bad guy behind the bad guy, and she watches him die a gruesome death. Screaming, of course, as women do.
Star Trek, the original series, was rampant with gratuitous and thoughtless sexism. Its women were dressed in as little as possible, and if they were not docile, simpering, vacuous sexpots, they were evil, scheming sirens. And on that front, the franchise hasn’t got much better since.
Surprisingly, the crassness of the original series of Star Trek was neither its most enduring nor its least appealing feature. That will be the subject of a future column. For today, let’s accept that if Star Trek was a product of the sexism of its time, it is well past its sell-by date. DM