I’ve been watching Star Trek (The Original Series) again. Six episodes in, and with the perspective of what we’ve learned in the last five decades, I find its portrayal of women shameful. It says a lot about the way we still think about gender relations and how we got here.
Understand where I’m coming from. I was a child too young to watch the original series when it aired in 1966 to 1969, but became a huge fan in reruns.
By the time I entered college in 1979, it was an article of faith that Star Trek was the preeminent show about the future, a program that challenged our ideas about humanity by viewing them from the viewpoint of a technologically advanced future. In short, it was the epitome of science fiction, and I worshipped at the altar of science fiction. Star Trek’s treatment of race, science, the concept of the alien, and the human soul was like nothing else on television — it led the culture forward. And it was great fun, with great characters and scripts by the world’s best science fiction writers, like Richard Matheson, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison.
I watched those repeats endlessly. As the treasurer of the United Federation of Star Trek Fans at Penn State, I joined my fellow fans in doing whatever we could to bring the show back on the air. I was a true believer in what Star Trek was trying to do and what it represented.
Fifty years since it first aired, and almost forty years since those college days, I took advantage of my subscription to CBS All Access, a subscription I bought only to watch the newest Star Trek series, and decided to watch the original series in the order the episodes were aired.
What were they thinking?
Slowly, unevenly, and not without conflict, our attitudes about the sexes have changed a bit since 1966. So, how did 1966 Star Trek look at women?
This review is based on the first six episodes: “The Man Trap,” “Charlie X,” “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Naked Time,” “The Enemy Within,” and “Mudd’s Women.”
In “The Man Trap,” the crew beam down to perform exams on an archaeologist Robert Crater and his wife Nancy, eventually to find that she has been replaced by a beast that reads minds, can appear as any other person, and preys on and kills people. Within the first two minutes, one of the crew is already being a pig. (I’m grateful to Chakoteya.net for providing all the scripts):
DARNELL: (seeing a young blonde) How do you do, ma’am?
KIRK: Something wrong, Darnell?
DARNELL: Excuse me sir but, ma’am, if I didn’t know better I would swear you were someone I left behind on Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet. It’s funny, you’re exactly like a girl that . . .
MCCOY: A little less mouth, Darnell.
Meanwhile, the only female officer on the bridge is already behaving like a schoolgirl:
SPOCK: Miss Uhura, your last sub-space log contained an error in the frequencies column.
UHURA: Mister Spock, sometimes I think if I hear that word frequency once more, I’ll cry.
UHURA: I was just trying to start a conversation.
SPOCK: Well, since it is illogical for a communications officer to resent the word frequency, I have no answer.
UHURA: No, you have an answer. I’m an illogical woman who’s beginning to feel too much a part of that communications console. Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady, or ask me if I’ve ever been in love? Tell me how your planet Vulcan looks on a lazy evening when the moon is full.
This is pretty mild compared to what’s coming in the next five episodes.
In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the Enterprise heads into an unknown energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy. On the bridge are the officers and several younger, female characters with the rank of yeoman, sort of a secretarial role. Naturally, as the music mounts, the strong male character reaches back reassure the yeoman, holding her hand as they head into the storm.
In “The Naked Time,” a disease gets the crew to reveal their innermost feelings. Sulu is a swordsman. Spock is a sentimental philosopher. Kirk is in love with his ship. And Nurse Chapel, of course:
SPOCK: What is it, Nurse?
CHAPEL: Mister Spock, (takes his hand) the men from Vulcan treat their women strangely. At least, people say that, but you’re part human too. I know you don’t, you couldn’t, hurt me, would you? I’m in love with you, Mister Spock. You, the human Mister Spock, the Vulcan Mister Spock.
SPOCK: Nurse, you should . . .
CHAPEL: Christine, please. I see things, how honest you are. I know how you feel. You hide it, but you do have feeling. Oh, how we must hurt you, torture you.
SPOCK: I’m in control of my emotions.
CHAPEL: The others believe that. I don’t. I love you. I don’t know why, but I love you. I do love you just as you are. Oh, I love you.
SPOCK: I’m sorry.
UHURA [OC]: Captain is en route to Engineering, Mister Spock. Can you take the bridge? Acknowledge.
SPOCK: I am sorry.
In “Mudd’s Women,” the entire male crew is transfixed by beautiful women brought aboard by a con-man. Half the episode consists of the men in the crew leering, forgetting to to do their jobs, and commenting on the women’s looks:
But the worst is in “The Enemy Within.” The outlandish premise of this otherwise entertaining and dramatic episode is that a transporter malfunction has split Captain Kirk into two parts, a genial but indecisive Kirk and an evil and paranoid one. Naturally, the evil Kirk gets drunk and goes to the quarters of his beautiful yeoman, Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), where he assaults her.
RAND: Oh! Captain, you startled me. Is there something that you . . .? Can I help you, Captain?
KIRK: Jim will do here, Janice.
KIRK: You’re too beautiful to ignore. Too much woman. We’ve both been pretending too long. (grabs her) Stop pretending. Let’s stop pretending. Come here, Janice. Don’t fight me. Don’t fight me, Janice. (kisses her)
KIRK: Just a minute, Janice. Just a minute! (forces her onto the floor, she scratches his face and gets away to the door which opens just as Fisher is passing by)
RAND: Call Mister Spock! Call Mister Spock!
Eventually, of course, Kirk two parts get reunited and back to normal. But back on the bridge, Spock leers at Yeoman Rand and says “The, er, impostor had some interesting qualities, wouldn’t you say, Yeoman?” The clear implication is that, after being assaulted, she really ought to appreciate the manliness of Captain Kirk, who just tried to rape her.
Gene Roddenberry and the male gaze
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wanted his new show to succeed. His philosophy reflected and expanded his fairly typical attitudes about sex. He and his writers created female characters in professional roles like bridge officer, psychiatrist, and historian. But in case after case, these women reveal that their only actual role is to be objects of desire for the males in the crew. The idea of a professional woman being satisfied just being a professional is absent. All the women wear short skirts, and leering and even assault are constant.
Yes, this is a product of the times in which this was created. But Roddenberry’s Star Trek challenged our ideas about race, freedom, leadership, and war. In the original series, he failed to do the same with gender. Women in Star Trek are maidens in distress.
Things matured in the rest of the series, but it remained dedicated to the “male gaze,” presenting women on screen for the enjoyment of men.
The subsequent Star Trek series were better. But Roddenberry’s original series remains a testament to the sexist attitudes of the 60s.
How does this bear on all the harassment accusations we new see?
I’m not blaming Star Trek for all the harassers out in the world now. They are responsible for their own actions.
But consider how media, like Star Trek, normalized their attitudes. If you grew up in the 60s, the boss chasing his secretary around the desk was a trope. Every woman in the workplace had to deal with attitudes just like what I’ve described here. And every man who even considered such actions viewed media like this and said, “See, that’s the way the world is.” If there was a moment to consider a woman from a more human perspective, and not as prey for the male predator, this media helped ensure that the moment would pass without additional reflection.
My own journey to awareness has happened over years of interacting with professional, intelligent women in the workplace and socially. I had plenty of sexist attitudes, and it’s interesting to me to view these episodes from the perspective of many decades and realize how far my attitudes have come — how what once seemed totally normal to me now seems completely wrong.
No one who harasses a woman can use this as an excuse. But I’d like to see today’s film and television artists create some art that undoes the sexist attitudes of the past — the pernicious attitudes that their peers have so effectively supported and contributed to.