Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Sexism and Feminism in the Star Trek Universe

Sexism and Feminism in the Star Trek Universe

Part 1 of "Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement of the 1960s"
by J. William Synder, Jr.

It was during the late 1960's that the contemporary feminist movement began. Major progress in women's rights in America was still years off, but the movement was gaining strength in the face of backward and reactionary ideas. Star Trek was almost destined to collide with the movement for women's rights in some way or another. Star Trek's attitude towards women was intended to be progressive from the very beginning. However, circumstances would not permit this progressive attitude of women as full equals to their male counterparts to achieve its proper position. Instead, the series seemed to embody the 1960's status quo as far as relations between the sexes and the role of women was concerned. Star Trek had the opportunity to have a woman play a character in a clear authority position but it instead backed off, preferring to use regular female characters that either came just short of what was originally envisioned or reaffirmed the traditional roles for women. According to Karen Blair, the rest of the female characters that appear in Star Trek are shallow, femme-objets that are disposed of at the end of each episode (292-3).

In the earliest conception of the series and during the first pilot, the script called for a character by the name of "Number One," the female first officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise. A strong, cool, almost emotionless character, she was intended to have experience and knowledge of ships' operations superior to that of the Captain (Compendium 9). Number One (she was never given a proper name) did make it out of the notebook and into the first pilot for the series, "The Cage", produced in 1964. Portrayed by Majel Barrett, she comes across as an extremely competent, authoritative officer committed to duty. When Captain Pike is forming up an away team to investigate the crash of the S.S. Columbia on Talos IV, Pike purposefully leaves her behind, not because she is a woman, but because he feels her to be the ship's most experienced officer, and she would be needed most on the ship should anything happen to the away team. When the pilot was shown to NBC executives, who in turn approved more work to produce the series, they ordered that Number One be cut from the format. According to a behind-the-scenes look at Star Trek hosted by Leonard Nimoy that was produced a few years back, their rationale was that the audience would not be able to identify with a woman in such a powerful authority position on board a starship (Nimoy). Unfortunately, the sexism of the 1960's was preventing the establishment of a progressive character because of traditional attitudes. Along with Number One went her costume design that differed very little from the costumes for the male characters. Throughout the rest of the series after the two pilots (The second pilot, the one finally accepted by NBC, was titled "Where No Man Has Gone Before"), all the female members of the crew were dressed in short, skimpy skirts instead of the trousers that Number One and other female characters wore during the pilots. (Although her character was cut, Ms. Barrett returned to the series to play Nurse Christine Chapel, a character more in line with what the network executives had in mind.)

With the demise of Number One, Star Trek's portrayal of women was to be, at best, ambivalent- wavering between an implicit belief in women as equals but an unwillingness to exemplify, in a tangible way, what was being professed. In general, "the Enterprise's female crew...are a generally placid lot, passively observing the action or servicing the male endeavour" (Greenberg 63). The characters of Lt. Uhura and Yeoman Janice Rand speak to this ambivalence well. Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, is the highest ranking female officer to serve aboard the USS Enterprise during the three years that the series ran on network telvision. Lt. Uhura serves as communications officer and as fourth in command of the Enterprise (Gerrold 141). To have a woman in such a prominent position on board a starship with her responsibility is truly amazing for a television show in the 1960's (Editor 37). She is almost never portrayed as a stereotypical woman incapable of accomplishing anything without male assistance. As a strong, fierce character, she can take care of herself quite well. In the episode "Mirror, Mirror", Uhura's task is to divert the attention of parallel-Sulu from his helmsman's post so that Engineer Scott can divert power to the transporter room necessary to send her, Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, and Lt. Cmdr. Scott back to their own universe. Taking advantage of parallel-Sulu's desire for her, she moves in to "divert" his attention with a seemingly sexual advance, only to violently slap him back once the indicator light on the helmsman's position warning of the power shift has gone out. She then defends herself quite nicely against the angry parallel-Sulu with a knife. Nichelle Nichols had much to do with portraying her character and fighting for her character's status. Ms. Nichols, during an interview with David Gerrold, mentioned that in the script for one episode, Lt. Uhura was to assume the helmsman's position because all the senior officers were on a planet, but the script was rewritten to exclude that action by the Lieutenant. Nichols "pitched a bitch" over being written out. "When you're out in space, in a dangerous situation. you're not going to have some female that goes, 'Ooooh, Captain, save me, save me!'" (81). Ms. Nichols was bound and determined to secure a prominent place for Lt. Uhura and the rest of the women aboard the Enterprise. (Much also can be said about Uhura as a Black in a prominent position aboard a starship, but this will be discussed later.)

Unfortunately, another prominent female character on board the Enterprise was not as progressive as Lt. Uhura. Yeoman Janice Rand, portrayed by Grace Lee Whitney, comes to exemplify the ultimate "dumb blonde" and damsel in distress in a skimpy outfit that could possibly exist in a male dominated environment. Her main duties aboard the Enterprise entail having Captain Kirk sign orders, bring him coffee, and a host of other duties typical of a secretary for a male chauvinist pig. Yeoman Rand gets especially bad treatment in the episode "The Corbomite Maneuver" (airdate 11/10/66), as she appears as a "glorified maid" who enters the bridge to bring the Captain hot coffee and to make sure that he takes his pills (Compendium 32). The episode also includes a rather snide remark by Captain Kirk about what he was going to do to the individual who assigned him a "female yeoman". The series did back off of the overt sexism directed towards Yeoman Rand, but nevertheless she remained a sex object for the male members of the crew to gaze over. During the episode "Miri", Yeoman Rand remarks in a delirious state that she had always tried to get Captain Kirk to look at her legs. She now openly asks him to look at her legs, which are now discoloured due to the disease caused by the Life Prolongation Experiment attempted by the native adults of the planet several hundred years earlier. She is also captured by the children and held until Captain Kirk comes to rescue her. Eventually, the character was written out because of Ms. Whitney's bouts with alcohol and diet pill addiction (Interview 88). Ironically, Ms. Whitney not only loved the outfit the show gave her to wear, but also the roles the show had for her - she thought that "[when] we put legs into the format I think that helped sell the series" (Interview 87). While other actresses, particularly Nichelle Nichols, were pushing for larger, more important roles, Ms. Whitney helped to perpetuate classic sexism and sex roles during the series through her portrayal of Yeoman Rand, and the writers, producers, and network executives seemed more than happy to oblige her.

As far as other female roles in Star Trek are concerned, Karen Blair proposes in her article "Sex and Star Trek" that female roles in the series have sought to "affirm traditional male fantasies in a most direct and unenlightened way" (292). Blair maintains that the female characters, especially those created for specific episodes, fall into Simone de Beauvoir's concept of femme-objet, an objective view of women in a male-dominated world. Her focus is on three episodes, "Requiem for Methuselah" (airdate 2/14/69), "Wink of an Eye" (airdate 11/29/68), and "The Mark of Gideon" (airdate 1/17/69), and the female guest stars that are presented and then "disposed of" at the conclusion of the episode. In "Requiem..", the Enterprise has come to a planet inhabited by a mysterious Mr Flint and his android "daughter" Rayna in search of medicine for a plague that has broken out on board ship. The beautiful Rayna is extremely intelligent but appears to lack human emotions. Flint enlists the aid of Captain Kirk in getting Rayna to develop her feelings, only what actually happens during her emotional awakening is that a conflict between her love for Flint and her love for Kirk results in her death. According to Blair, Rayna is a "femme-objet par excellence," an android cast in the male image of what is female created by Flint to keep him company. "The supposed moral is that one can't program or control love, but a feminist perspective demands that one ask what kind of love, for what kind of person, living what kind of life" (293). In the episode "Wink..", the Enterprise is responding to a distress call from a planet claiming that only a tiny portion of their race still exists. The aliens are, in fact, living in an accelerated state enabling them to beam up with the away team and take over the Enterprise without anyone noticing. The men of the planet are sterile and the women are, therefore, left with no other option than to secure men from spaceships that happen to respond to the distress call. Deela chooses Captain Kirk to be her mate, but Kirk does not oblige her wish to take him back to the planet. She gets little if any sympathy for her endeavour. In "..Mark..", the female character Odona has volunteered to spend time with Captain Kirk so that she might acquire the various deadly diseases Kirk has been exposed to during his lifetime. She does this so that she would act as a carrier of deadly disease that would start to cure her planet of its dreadful overpopulation problem. Odona ends up receiving the viewer's approval. "Odona, the germ bank, is applauded; Kirk, the sperm bank, is unthinkable" (293). In short, Blair feels that Star Trek fails to provide female viewers with any female characters that serve as "viable role-models" in a male-dominated ideological environment (292-294).

Clearly, Star Trek gives rather short shrift to women at almost every turn. It turned down the opportunity to break new ground in the area of women's rights and opted for a largely passive and secondary role for its female characters. This is reflective of America during the late 1960's where the feminist movement was starting to gain momentum but failed to exert the force that it came to during the early 1970's.

*Original article published here. Permission granted for academic purposes. Visit the homepage J. William Synder Jr.

[Trekdom editorial insert: According to Bob Justman and Herb Solow's Inside Star Trek, network executives told Roddenberry to lose Number One because of Majel Barrett's acting. Also, Grace Lee Whitney disputes the claims that onset inebriation caused her dismissal. See our review of her book.]