My first memory of Star Trek, I was probably 5 or 6 years old, and I joined my father at the television. But the silicone rock creature traumatized me, and it was probably another 5 years before I became a fan.
Recently I started a re-watch of ALL Star Trek, in “star date” order (starting with Enterprise, the prequel). About halfway through my watch of The Original Series, I started reading various online reviews of the episodes.
The reviews generally increased my enjoyment of the episodes. They might observe issues or angles I hadn’t noticed, or explain interesting trivia. But I often found myself at odds with the evaluations, or even baffled by what was praised and what was criticized. While we all have different tastes and opinions, I began to wonder if gender played a role in many of these discrepancies.
Most of the reviews I read were written by men. And television in that era was mostly created by men. While some of the scripts of TOS were written by women, their works were often heavily edited by the men of the production team (which apparently included a number of ex-military men.)
Now, I never really cared for Star Trek’s original leading man. After watching Enterprise, I did gain new appreciation for how likeable and expressive Shatner is as Kirk, at least compared to Scott Bakula’s Archer in the prequel. But Kirk was famous for having a woman in every port, and I never understood why women would fall for Kirk. He’s short, his face is unremarkable, and he has no presence. Furthermore, when he kissed women, he always grabbed them roughly by the upper arm – OUCH! I would feel afraid if someone manhandled me like that. I found very few of Kirk’s romantic scenes at all romantic.
I read that the studio was surprised that Spock was attracting a lot of female fans. But I was definitely one of them. Spock was taller, had more striking features, was soft-spoken and intelligent, and none of this baby-bare chest – a real man has body hair, dammit! Spock, in his romantic scenes, was restrained, expressing his interest with subtler signs, never physically hurting a woman he was interested in. Definitely more my type.
But Kirk was a man’s man. I had a bit of a revelation about this after watching the Cloud Minders episode. The reviewers generally hated the skinny girl, Droxine, who was interested in Spock. I, on the other hand, had been very drawn to her character when I was younger – probably because I could see myself AS her. I suspect this is how many men saw Kirk. They wanted to be the average-looking guy who can make any woman fall for him. He can just reach out and grab the ‘prize’ (ie, the pretty woman). He puts duty ahead of all soft things, his peers are all men, he’s doing a man’s job like a man. And (almost) always gets the girl. And it was still a man’s world in the 60s.
Now, many of these reviewers did speak out against the sexism they noticed in shows. But most of it struck me as the “You aren’t allowed to say that anymore!” kind of sexism. Here is an article pointing out sexist moments from Star Trek – these are the kinds of things the reviewers generally mentioned.
Sexist dialogue and images were common on television when I was growing up. But I loved Star Trek for being more progressive in the bigger ideas. So when I noticed it missing the mark on the bigger picture, that bothered me much more.
In “Requiem for Methuselah,” an ancient man, Flint, had created an android, Rayna, who was so perfect that Kirk fell madly in love with her. Reviewers mentioned how unrealistic various aspects of the plot were, and pointed out that the main character recognized that he had gone too far. But no one spoke about the sexism inherent in a man creating a ‘perfect’ woman. Talk about objectifying women – the ideal woman is a manufactured object!
This android was perfectly beautiful, smart and helpless . . . every man’s dream? In the end, she could not survive; she died of strong emotion, as if this is what defines a real woman. Flint did not try to make another one. But when Rayna died, distraught Kirk could not get over her at all – Spock had to mind-wipe him so he could function. No woman had ever affected him like that.
This android is the only ‘woman’ that ever broke Kirk’s heart and she’s not a real woman. Real women aren’t good enough? I found it completely dehumanizing. But no one else seemed to notice how offensive the entire concept is.
But it was Turnabout Intruder, the very last episode, which inspired me to write this post. In it, Kirk is body-swapped with a crazy, murderous ex, Dr Lester. There were two gender-related issues in this episode which I felt all the reviewers got wrong.
Before the swap, Lester tells Kirk “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women.” This line has generated much discussion in the trekkie community. Many point out that there was supposed to be a female captain in the first episode, but the studio nixed it. Furthermore, Enterprise showed a female captain (set 100 years earlier than the original series). Therefore, they argue, it was untrue that Starfleet did not allow women to be captains. Many have reinterpreted this comment to mean that there was no room in Kirk’s life for a woman.
They are missing the very real point of how few rights women had in the 60s!! My mom went to college in the 50s, but the school she most wanted to go to did not accept women. She had to lie about the date of her pregnancy in 1965 because pregnant women were not allowed to work past a certain point in the pregnancy. Remember, the pill was not legally available for unmarried women until 1972! The unfair limits society imposed on women when this show was made were very, very real.
I would believe that the intention of the episode was to state that the Federation did NOT accept woman as captains. It may have even been added as a jab at the studio which would not allow a female captain for the pilot episode. The point wasn’t about ‘star trek cannon’ (which obviously didn’t really exist yet). This was a social statement about the limits placed on women at that time.
Somewhere in the episode, Kirk mentioned that this woman hated her own gender, and several of the reviewers ran with that. But they’ve got it all wrong – in that day and age, being a woman meant you had SIGNIFICANTLY fewer rights and freedoms than men did. Women who had ambition were blocked at every turn. Women didn’t hate being biologically female. They hated living within the narrow social construct of womanhood in this country in the 60s.
I think most of the articles about the sexism of star trek are judging a 50-year-old show by today’s cultural standards. But they don’t seem to have a very clear idea of what was considered to be feminist 50 years ago. Here is a great article discussing the ways that Star Trek was extremely forward-thinking on issues of gender at that time.
So that is the impression that this (older) women got re-watching a favorite show from her childhood.
Apparently there is going to be a new Star Trek coming out this year or next. I wonder how gender will be handled in that one? And I wonder how it will look 50 years later?