A Trek Through Gender Inequality

By Peter Wilkinson

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It is a world-renowned intellectual property. One of the greats. Few others can aspire to its coverage of the globe, or immersion into popular culture. For many of those less well versed in the various and myriad canon of science fiction, it, along with Star Wars, IS science fiction.

I myself am a fan. Not a huge fan, not a cosplay or convention or memorabilia type of fan maybe, but still a fan. Thanks mostly to my age, (advancing but not too advanced, thanks for asking) I am mostly a fan of the Deep Space Nine and Voyager era, though I remember clearly seeing many of the original series as a child. For a time back then those shows seemed to be caught in an endless loop on my childhood TV screen, shown repeatedly and out of order, giving them a certain fragmented feel in my memory. I am enough of a fan of science fiction in general however, that I have many times before ‘Geek’ culture had its current rise to prominence in the mainstream media, had to defend my interest in the genre against those non-initiates who find it absurd.

I’ve noticed that there are a series of standard attacks made on our beloved sci-fi. They commonly involve low budgets, poor special effects, and clunky, indecipherable dialogue that is all too often associated with Star Trek, especially the original series. Over the years I’ve defended this show (and others), and seen them defended over and again using a similar stock set of responses. It’s been said time and again, how liberal the original Star Trek was, how forward thinking. Questions of race and gender have been tackled in a way no other show did. It famously showed the first interracial kiss on American television. I myself have used these arguments to defend against the ridicule of wobbly sets and rubber foreheads, despite never having sat down and watched the entirety of the show. Why would I? I’m not going to buy the DVD for a dated series I have only a passing interest in. And then the 21st century happened. Thanks to one of these new-fangled streaming media things I now have the opportunity to, nay, the duty, to watch all of it – in the correct order. After all there is nothing worse than an uninformed opinion masquerading as the real thing, right?

And so I sat, and watched, and immediately had all my suppositions turned inside out like some sort of transporter malfunction. Why? I hear you ask. Were there no women on the bridge after all?

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura
Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura

Of course there were. As well as Lieutenant Uhura as a constant presence on the bridge we frequently see Ensign Rand, and Nurse Chapel, and others, but let’s look at that, shall we? While Communications are undoubtedly important, it is hard to shake the perception that they are just there to answer the phones and serve the drinks, after all. This is especially true as we watch Yeoman Rand tripping around the bridge in an unfeasibly short skirt with a tray of coffee cups, drawing admiring glances from the male crew. Is this the forward thinking humanist equality we were thinking of?

In the very first episode (The Man Trap), a shape-changing alien being takes the shape of various young beauties in order to steal the salt from the virile male crew members. Our heroes of course discover this, and bring the alien scheme to an end, but when the Doctor at first fails to believe this beautiful young thing is a salt eating monster, Spock proves it to him. Does he scan the beast with an elaborate sensor device? Or trick it into revealing itself with perfect logic and perhaps a well-baited trap? No, unfortunately not. Instead, our well-known intellectual icon proves the theory by beating the monster about the face with his fists, shouting ‘If she were Nancy, could she take this?’

I was shocked, and a little saddened. A lifetime of assumptions had been destroyed, and I looked forward to the next three series now with trepidation. What other horrors would I find? Surely this one example, taken out of context could not be the whole story. I was sure that the equality the show is famous for would be just around the corner in the next few episodes, or perhaps a later series. I am deeply disappointed to report that, seen in that context, there is no noticeable change from that poorly managed misogynist attitude over all three series. Episodes regularly devolve into an excuse to see Mr. Shatner without his shirt, or in a clinch with the bright young guest star of the week. Still I hoped beyond all reason, though that hope did begin to dwindle towards the end of season three, until, in the very last episode (Turnabout Intruder) a promising storyline appears.

Sandra Smith as Dr Janice Lester
Sandra Smith as Dr Janice Lester

Dr. Janice Lester, an old acquaintance of Cpt. Kirk from Starfleet academy, is apparently very bitter about her inability to become a Starship Captain on the grounds of her gender. And there the promise fades. Determined to get revenge on Cpt Kirk, (though it is unclear why she would hold him personally responsible for Starfleet Policy), Dr. Lester steals his body in a ‘Freaky Friday’ style body swap plot. Because those always work out so well, don’t they. And how do they discover that Kirk is actually a woman? Various characters describe ‘Erratic mental attitudes’ even stating that the Captain has never been this ‘Hysterical’ before. Sadly they weren’t describing her as humorous.

It is all very much a disappointment given my high expectations. But perhaps that is the problem right there. My expectations were clearly out of phase with the reality of what Star Trek actually was. For years I have believed the Star Trek universe to be a utopia in every sense, without war, disease, or sexism. I believed that there had been a genuine progression toward equality. And there had, of course. I had failed to take into account the years between the filming and the viewing. In 1966, such considerations were advanced, and quite shocking to the viewer. Now, such treatment is in itself horribly belittling toward women, but we should not undermine the achievements made here. As demeaning as we now see these early steps forward to be, we would not have come to a genuine platform of equality in later series, and perhaps throughout other media without them.

I had been seeing all of Star Trek through eyes more familiar with Voyager and DS9, where a female chief engineer, first officer or even captain are so commonplace as to be unremarkable. Now I have seen the true face of it, tarnished as it may be.

I am still a fan of Star Trek, possibly even more so than I was. But I no longer defend it for its lofty ideals, or its liberal agenda. Now I can enjoy it for its hilariously dated costume choices, and bad dialogue. I can laugh as it clumsily contrives drama from absurdity. I chuckle at men wearing bubble wrap bikinis and tinsel. I have watched it all, and doing so has freed it of the burden of bringing equality to an unfair universe, leaving it as just what I now know it to be. A funny, engaging and above all entertaining show that was genuinely ahead of its time.

Even if it is still a little behind ours. But then we are living in the future, after all.


bright red eyesPete Wilkinson is a wanderer in many worlds, one minute holding back the Shadow in Middle-Earth, and Piloting Starships the next. But not in Middle-Earth, of course. That would be silly.