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Beam Me Up, Sociology!

The first episode of Star Trek I remember watching was the Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” (S3E26).

I was not quite five years old but I wanted to watch whatever my older siblings were watching. I sat on my sister’s lap in the living room and could not take my eyes off the TV screen. When the away team beamed to the Borg cube and found Picard’s uniform in a drawer, it scared the pants off me. And seeing Picard turned into Locutus…I had nightmares for weeks, but I was also hooked. Since then I’ve watched many classic episodes, every Star Trek movie and every episode of TNG, DS9 and Voyager, some repeatedly.

The women characters were my role models growing up. I wanted to have the compassion of Troi, the strength of Kira, and the smarts of Captain Janeway. Going into junior high school I put aside some of my geekier pursuits to try and fit in with more “popular” kids, but when I got to university I started meeting more and more adults who were geeky and proud of it, who thought it was cool that I was a Trekkie.

I went to the University of British Columbia, where I studied Sociology and Women’s Studies and graduated in 2007. Even before that I was getting active in progressive political and feminist activism. My activism and my study of sociology emphasized thinking critically about dominant social narratives. I learned to investigate our social systems and structures, to ask about who benefits and who gets left behind.

One of my absolute favourite parts of my studies was media analysis. I loved investigating media messages that others might not question. I even published a somewhat tongue-in-cheek paper in the University of Lethbridge Undergraduate Journal deconstructing the heteronormative representations in the movie March of the Penguins.

Doing feminist sociological analysis of the media means analyzing the power relations behind the scenes as well as the impact on-screen representations have on society. In the realm of geeky media, I’m a big fan of Fringe, new Doctor Who, old Star Wars, and anything by Greg Rucka, and I’m a casual fan of Sailor Moon, Planet of the Apes, various graphic novels, Vikings, Euro board games and RPGs. But nothing is as much a part of me as Star Trek.

I had always felt like there was common ground between my feminism and the values of Star Trek. When Star Trek first aired in the 1960s it was a pioneer in representing people of colour in non-stereotypical roles, and while the women were almost always sexualized the show had explicit messages of gender equality.

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Through the years Star Trek brought us complex, strong characters who were women, people of colour, and people with disabilities (unfortunately though, almost no LGBTQ characters). The show emphasized non-violence, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the importance of empathy, the power of cooperation, and the value of IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.

I first started applying feminist analysis to Star Trek in a formal way in 2013 when I started my second blog Trekkie Feminist. Heavily influenced by my background in sociology and women’s studies, I initially began by asking: “What lessons do we learn from Star Trek and how do those relate to how we think of women, people of colour, LGBT people, and other marginalized groups?” I started by deconstructing each episode, one by one. I also ran episodes through the Bechdel Test as one quick and consistent measure I could use of women’s representation.

While I was analyzing the TV episodes (an ongoing project – there are 716 episodes and 12 movies!) I also started reading up on what was happening behind the scenes, and this led me into another sociological concept: subcultures. A subculture is a group of people within a larger culture who identify themselves as part of the group and often have their own beliefs, interests and even specialized language.

Trekkies are a subculture, and there are probably sub-subcultures within that. But I became interested in asking what women’s role was in that subculture. I knew female fans like Bjo Trimble and pioneering screenwriters like D.C. Fontana had played pivotal roles in the history of Star Trek, but did it go beyond that? What influence did female fans have on the representations we saw on-screen, and how early did that start? For instance, I was surprised to find in a 1977 book titled Letters to Star Trek, letters from feminist fans objecting to original series representations, despite the widespread belief that those representations were just a given at the time the show aired.

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These are all questions I’m still exploring on my blog and at conventions – I’m speaking for a second year on Mary Czerwinski’s Women of Trek Fandom panel at Star Trek: Las Vegas this summer and ran a panel last year at Geek Girl Con called “Is Star Trek a Feminist Utopia?” I’m looking forward to bringing you some of my thoughts on these issues, as well as some reviews of the academic literature on Star Trek.

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2 comments

  1. I remember and interview with Kate Mulgrew done at about the time ST:Voyager began. She discussed playing Janeway as a woman that had grown up without gender inequality. I tried to consider her performance in that light. I remember some people (including myself) thinking that Captain Janeway behaved similarly to Captain Kirk. Food for thought.

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    1. Thanks for providing your input, it’s a very good point indeed!

      Interestingly however, she has to tell Harry Kim not to call her ”sir”. His uncertainty reveals that she is likely the first female officier he has served under. So, while it would be logical to assume that Janeway grew up without gender inequality if the future Star Trek depicts is indeed an idyllic one, some elements in the show remind us that the writers had a hard time creating a coherent representation of such a future. The result of such incoherences, sadly, is that they can futher enforce the impression that gender inequality is natural, normal: viewers themselves find it new and perhaps strange to see a woman in the captain’s chair, and they might feel (consciously or not) that if Harry Kim is uncertain about how to address her, it’s because it is indeed odd for women to occupy this role.

      There are several examples of gender inequality in all Star Trek series, in fact, despite the fact that characters themselves frequently denounce the gender inequalities that used to affect humanity in the past. Again, these are in my opinion due to a certain lack of coherence on the part of writers, but also to a lack of vision, and sometimes restrictions imposed on them by networks. Much could be said about the almost total abscense of LGBT characters, for instance.

      Food for thought, as you say!

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