Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Dissatisfying Roles of Women in Star Trek: Into Darkness

(obviously, spoilers below)                     

Despite its efforts to catch up to the times (and its obligation to move beyond them), the role of women in the new Trek film is tainted by old-fashioned attitudes. It seems that despite the success of more gender-balanced or even female-centric science fiction and fantasy shows, the cultural assumptions regarding the capacity or viewer acceptance of women in adventurous roles prevail today. For one thing, the male-to-female ratio in the recent films remains as deeply off-balance as in the original series. More importantly, the film’s prominent women—Lt. Nyota Uhura and Dr. Carol Marcus—have their femininity emphasized above all else.

Uhura is “the girlfriend,” the one who can snap Spock out of non-emotion or bloodlust alike by appealing to his capacity for love. While she exhibits bravery, linguistic prowess, and the ability to shoot a phaser, there is, from beginning to end, a woman-behind-the-men quality to her—and this is not merely because Kirk and Spock are central to the story and happen to be male. While Uhura steps forward boldly to negotiate with the Klingons, the lens focuses on her curves and legs as she approaches, and the sexual manner in which the commander grasps her neck and prepares to stab her seem like yet another disempowering example of the “male gaze” of the film at large. (If I were confident that Kirk would have been filmed in the same way, this would not be an issue, but I just don’t see that happening.)

Meanwhile, Marcus, who was a respected scientist in The Wrath of Khan, has become “the admiral’s daughter.” She’s seen and treated either as a daughter or a sex object, and her skills are taken for granted. What happened to the scientific prowess that the original Marcus possessed? This Marcus is essentially presented as cute and harmless, even if she knows how to disarm a weapon. Since the metaphor of her capacity to disarm did not extend to her effort to talk her father out of destroying the Enterprise (he simply swept her up like a runaway child as she screamed and ran, surely a reckless act while being “transported”), her “cute and harmless” image prevailed.

Even when the logical Spock discovers Dr. Marcus’s subterfuge upon boarding the Enterprise, it is assumed that she is harmless and trustworthy merely because she is the admiral’s daughter—“daughter” being the key word. Marcus’s primary function has become relational: she is the runaway, the love interest, the naively brave emotional creature who believes that her very presence can save the ship because her father’s the admiral. Appealing to her father’s humanity and old ethical code is admirable enough—but while Spock and Kirk manage to check each other’s morality through the power of their personal connection, their characters and motivations are fleshed out beyond their relationships alone. The Dr. Marcus of this film would lose the bulk of her identity without her relationships.

Then there’s the scene in which she strips in Kirk’s presence:

Now, I should preface this analysis by noting that James T. Kirk has always been presented as exceedingly flirtatious and an archetypical intergalactic slut (no negative connotations intended). It makes sense that his 60's-style bravado and unapologetic sexuality would remain unhindered even as social attitudes towards female sexuality have changed over the decades. This in itself is not an issue—but the way that the strip scene is played out in the current film is.

In the first of the new Trek films, a nearly-naked Kirk hid under a bed and observed Uhura stripping. That he was caught almost-naked himself seemed fair, and Uhura’s annoyance with her Orion roommate, who had brought yet another lover home, conveyed an equal degree of promiscuity on the roommate’s part as on the baby-captain-in-training’s. While the gaze was still undeniably Kirk’s (forgetting the name of the Orion woman, the voyeurism as Uhura sheds her clothes), the scene was rendered relatively egalitarian by Kirk’s semi-nudity. While unarguably gratuitous, it tied into the plotline involving Kirk’s ongoing efforts seduce Uhura and eventual shock to discover that she was involved with Spock—his antithesis and, at the time, nemesis.
In this new film, Kirk winds up ogling a half-naked Dr. Marcus for no reason other than gratuitous sexual tension as she changes into a sensible suit in which to disarm a missile. He himself remains fully clothed as he stares. The fact that Marcus is the only person to strip during a time of crisis and be referred to more for her beauty than for her brains demeans her character and makes her “brave acts” less noteworthy—would her contributions be taken as seriously if she weren’t considered as hot? And if she can’t do her work in a dress, why is she wearing one on duty in the first place?

This brings up another issue: the skirts. Now, if Starfleet’s mission is supposed to be exploratory rather than militaristic, there’s nothing wrong with people wearing skirts if they want—but I’m glaringly aware that none of the men on Trek wear skirts (and please correct me if there actually were men or gender-neutral people in skirts on the film). The women-in-skirts outfitting polarizes gender in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. There’s no real purpose for this. It doesn’t increase freedom of expression because officers don’t appear free to choose. Even if Trek producers don’t want to acknowledge that there is more of a range of gender expression among human beings, they surely cannot deny that there will be aliens with more or fewer forms of gender than human beings have. There are animals in our own world that have multiple genders, or who are asexual. So once again: what is the purpose of the dresses vs. pants outfitting other than nostalgic homage to a style based on 1960s convention?

I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with dresses, relationships, or emotionality in themselves. Uhura’s relationship with Spock adds an enjoyable dimension to the new films. That the unethical, warmongering Admiral Marcus could have a principled daughter adds another dabble of complexity. If only there had been more of an emphasis placed upon Carol Marcus’s processing and defining her principles against the backdrop of her father’s betrayal. Kirk essentially lost a father figure in this film, and Marcus lost her father; rather than a glorified speech at the end, Marcus and the too-quickly resurrected Kirk may have spent a few moments processing those deaths and the delicate balance between relationship and principle—the very focus of the film since protecting “one’s own” and vengeance were considered justifications for preemptive war.

In any case, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for Star Trek to create complex, meaningful roles for women that equal those of the male characters. It’s supposed to be set in the 2200s, after all.


  1. I saw your post linked at Racialicious. I just got home from seeing the movie about a half hour ago, and more or less agree with your points. While it did seem like Uhura got more to do this time around other than opening hailing frequencies, I agree with you that she was simply "the girlfriend" in this film. A lot of her actions were in response to worrying about Spock. I would've loved to have seen her be more developed as a member of the Enterprise crew, not as Spock's girlfriend. Granted, Spock's Vulcan, but even if he weren't I doubt they would've had him worrying about Uhura every few seconds.

    "This brings up another issue: the skirts."

    Surprisingly I saw some women in the background wearing the long-sleeved shirt and pants combo similar to the men, but I did not see any men wearing skirts.

    I think the issue with these action flicks like these is that there's a stereotype that men sell these movies, that people only want to see men in leading roles and taking action. I want to see more women kicking butt and taking names in these action movies. Contrary to popular belief, women can do more than be girlfriends, wives, mothers, and eye candy.

    1. Yes, it seems that they don't think having equal, powerful roles for the women will engage (men? the audience at large?). There's always been a stereotype that science fiction fans are mostly male, and Star Trek has generally been 2/3 men, even when they thought they were breaking ground with a female captain. It's nice to see them do a little more with Uhura than in the original series, but I think she could have had a deeper role still and done even more!

      Thanks for mentioning those background women's outfits! The skirts do seem like they're one-sided eye candy material...