Wednesday, August 8, 2007

"I Never Read It": Star Trek and The Representation of African-American Women

by David Greven, Ph.D
Assistant Professor of English, Connecticut College

Lily (Alfre Woodard) in Star Trek: First Contact is an African-American woman freedom fighter in the ravaged Earth of the twenty second century, on the verge of the titular first contact meeting with the Vulcans that dramatically changes, in the Trekverse, the course of human history. Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise is only present at Lily’s Earth because they have followed a Borg sphere on its journey backwards in time, in an effort to retrocolonize the Earth, so resistant to Borg assimilation in the 24th century. First Contact is Picard’s Ahab film, in which, in his maddened, vengeful determination to destroy the Borg, who have infiltrated Enterprise, he resembles Melville’s tormented and terrible anti-hero in his hunt for the mythic White Whale. (The Moby Dick references are nothing new for Trek—they also saturate Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

At one point—after Picard has denounced the fierily masculinist (and often hysterical) Klingon Worf (Michael Dorn) as a “coward”—and ordered the Enterprise crew to fight the Borg hand-to-hand if they have to—anything to avoid blowing up the ship—Lily storms into Picard’s ready room. She lights into him, attacking him for essentially ordering the crew to commit suicide by fighting hopeless battles with the Borg, when if Picard simply blew up the ship, they could all at least survive. “I forgot,” Lily says, “Captain Ahab always has to get his whale.” “What?” Picard angrily responds. “You do have books in the 24th century?” Lily challenges him. After Picard demands she leave, Lily shrieks, “Blow up the damn ship, Jean-Luc!” Thunderously, Picard bellows, “No! Noooooo!” With that, he bashes his glass display of model ships throughout the centuries, which loudly shatters. He says,
They invade our space and we fall back. They assimilate entire worlds and we
fall back. Not this time. The line must be drawn here—this far, and no further.
And I will make them pay for what they’ve done!
Interestingly, Picard speaks in the language of postcolonial discourse, accusing the Borg of cultural invasion and colonization by assimilation—charges that have on occasion been leveled at Trek’s premise itself. But his vividly infuriated speech falls on resigned ears. “See you around, Ahab,” says Lily. At this reminder that he verges on Ahablike tyranny, Picard iterates one of the most famous passages from Moby Dick:
He piled upon the whale's white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate
felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a
mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.
Picard now realizes what he has been becoming—a tyrant. He owes this revelation to Lily, the triumphant close-reader of classic literature who can—to the elation of humanists everywhere—marshal the moral power of great literature to stop wars, prevent strife, illuminate human psychology, force Picard to recognize his own potential evil. But Picard’s extraordinary revelation produces another one. About the canonical classic she liberally referenced, Lily reveals, “Actually, I never read it.” She has quoted from Moby Dick but never read it.

Trek is a mythos that staunchly prides itself—to a fault—on its intertextual and avowed connections with the Western literary/aesthetic tradition. Given Trek’s old-fashioned liberal humanist belief in the importance of great literature, it is highly ideologically suspect to have a black woman character simultaneously deploy the Western canon’s cultural power and disavow her own familiarity with it. For Lily to announce that she has never read the text is for Trek to deny the intellectual, thinking life of African-Americans and women in one fell swoop.

I don’t write this to make a pro-canonical-reading point (though that’s implicit) but to call attention to the way in which this moment strips Lily—the black woman—of an intellectual power she has claimed for herself as it bestows not only this intellectual power but also the entire Western tradition upon Picard—wrenching it loose from Lily—in the process. Picard emerges as the rational, learned white male who is the proper, reasonable custodian of Dead White Male literature—who can effectively quote from it and glean its insights. Lily becomes the conduit for Picard’s access of Western cultural power, even as she is disenfranchised from it. What could have been one of the great moments in Trek—Picard’s angry speech is pretty darned awesome—remains a pitiable instance of myopic, naively racist Trek thinking at best. The black woman facilitates white male power, a process uncritically replicated throughout Trek history. Star Trek: First Contact harkens back to the Classic Trek episode “The Changeling,” in which a crazed robot erases Uhura’s brain, leaving her a tabula rasa. Nurse Chapel has to teach her how to be a functioning adult again, from scratch, even teaching her Swahili. By taking away the power of knowledge from the black woman and entrusting it to the white woman, here, the episode is not commenting on the shared history of the oppression of women across color lines—and the shared struggle over civil rights issues—so much as it is rendering a strong, capable professional black woman an infantilized figure in need of benevolent white guidance. A similar maneuver occurs in Star Trek: First Contact—after having been challenged by Lily, Picard emerges as the knowledgeable one who has to instruct Lily in the ways of the humanist tradition. I'm much more forgiving of Classic Trek than I am of Star Trek: First Contact in terms of these representations, but Trek has yet to give us a truly strong, resilient African-American woman character whose strength and resiliency are supported by the larger series and do not emerge from the power and appeal of an actor’s portrayal.

*David Greven has authored many articles on film and television. For more, see Action Chicks and Reading Sex and the City, as well as his book, Men Beyond Desire: Manhood, Sex, and Violation