Star Trek sucks at gender

by Penny Robo

Penny Robo

Since that first pilot episode (a “proof-of-concept” designed to pitch a potential television series to a network or studio) back in 1965, Star Trek was not content to adhere to the conventional wisdom of what constituted a “normal” cast. The second in command of the expansive and powerful starship USS Enterprise was a woman, after all. The episode then proceeded to jettison that intriguing presentation of equality in our future by specifically commenting on the unusual nature of a woman holding a position on the bridge, and then… well, then the rest of the episode happened.

This pattern would continue for another half a century; Star Trek’s writers and producers would do their best to present what they thought what was a better version of humanity, constantly hampered by their own limitations. The effort was noble, but the inability to learn except by the infusion of newer, younger blood into the creative team was a singularly frustrating hallmark of the franchise.

Whether it was the ceaselessly rational half-Vulcan first officer Spock (himself replacing the female 2nd in command from the first pilot) casually remarking that women are more emotional and quick to fear, or the fandom having to contort the wording of a character who claimed that women weren’t permitted to be Starfleet captains, the series buoyed back and forth between women being equals and women being merely tolerated by their more capable male counterparts. It wasn’t till the second feature film, 13 years after the show’s cancellation, that a female character was shown in a position of authority without it needing to be commented upon in some manner.

The prevailing story was that Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, wanted more diversity on the show but was constantly countered by the studios, who demanded he lose a woman as second in command. Of course, we know now that he was a total horndog who was looking to get into the pants of the actresses on his shows, but that still didn’t take away from what he did give: on the bridge of the ship we had a black woman in the midst of the civil rights movement, a Russian during the middle of the Cold War, and an asian character played by a man who had spent part of his childhood growing up in a Japanese-American internment camp. These weren’t accidents by any means, they were declarations of intent.

But those intents were still hampered by the people actually writing the show who, apart from a couple of notable exceptions, were straight white men.

The Deep Space Nine episode “Rejoined” tried to tell a story about lesbian relations using the framework of the two characters’ alien nature (carrying symbiotic creatures who retained memories of past hosts, the two women had been a heterosexual married couple in a past life) to transfer the “forbidden love” aspect of their relationship from their being women over to a social taboo against rekindling past romances from other hosts. To its credit, the episode has virtually every character show support for the potential relationship, completely ignorant of why any aspect of it should be even remotely troubling. It was Trek’s first same-sex kiss and performed by what are, at their core, Trek’s stand-in for trans representation (intentional or not).

Unfortunately, we also have The Next Generation’s episode “The Outcast”, an episode so completely clueless about what it’s trying to be that it accidentally becomes something else entirely. In an episode written (incredibly enough) by Jeri Taylor, it went in with the goal of telling a story about gay rights and the evils of conversion therapy by transposing homosexuality onto an androgynous alien species devoid of any sexual differentiation; no males or females.

This would seem to pose an obvious issue: sex and sexual orientation are not only two different things, but each have their own social issues to work through. Add in that the episode fluidly switches between the concepts of sex and gender, as the writer looks to be unaware of any difference, and you’re in for a ride. At one point the writer (a woman) has the secretly female-identifying alien guest star inquire about why all the women (and only the women) wear makeup (!) while all the men appear to give no effort to alter their appearance. It’s an absolute treat of strict gender role advice literally seconds before it’s said that men and women are equal. It’s fucking baffling. It’s kinda gross. And the episode has no idea what the hell it’s doing, character-wise, between the actual plot beats.

This was more than 25 years after the premiere and the franchise still couldn’t wrap its head around something as simple as the idea that gender roles need not be mandatory.

The hope was that Discovery would put an end to Trek’s 50-year dance around sex and gender but alas… in a cast full of women, unless you’re white (in which case your character flaw “adorably quirky, and maybe autistic but we’ll never say”) you’re dead, evil, or a mutineer. They stepped up to the plate with a portrayal of a man suffering from PTSD from torture and sexual abuse, something frequently glossed over and in dire need of public awareness, only to abandon the entire thread and repurpose it into a springboard to show the murder of a minority character purely for shock value. After all this time the virtuous goal, if incredibly flawed execution, of showing a future for humanity freed of our modern social shortcomings has appeared to have taken a step back.

The days are gone of Whoopi Goldberg holding up production to get permission to say “two people” because she refused to say “a man and a woman” when talking about intimate relationships, or of Avery Brooks demanding to reshoot his final scene because (DS9 spoilers!) he understood the implications of having his character, a black man, abandon his pregnant wife, and so forced the production to have Sisko promise his return.

Instead, we’re in the days where a character is created fill a checkbox, and any efforts to pay mind to the implications of such an assignment are beyond the conscious efforts of the writing staff. It’s like TOS all over again, but without the benefit of knowing that an exec is peeking over their shoulder, telling them that an interracial kiss could spell trouble; 5 decades later, every shortcoming is imposed by the creative crew’s lack of fucks instead. There’s more Trek to come in the future, however, and for all we know it may learn from its mistakes. When that’ll happen I haven’t the slightest…

“Maybe a year. Maybe… yesterday.”

I can only hope that the inclusion of more people like me will be used to tell stories to inspire our next generation, and that we not be used as a shield against criticism.

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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