Since my blog’s creation last September, I have written about my (anthropological) perceptions of science-fiction on a few occasions.
In From Science-Fiction to Anthropology: there and back again, I described in detail the curiosity Star Trek and other sci-fi franchises have sparked in me for otherness and extreme alterity. This, I believe, is one of various elements that have led me to study anthropology, which in turn, brought me to be much more critical of the themes science-fiction explores.
I also wrote about representations of indigenous peoples in science-fiction on two occasions (1 and 2) and published a short post about native representations in video games on NOT YOUR USUAL FOLKLORE, my second blog.
I recently started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) all over again. It had been years since I had seen many of the episodes, and I wanted to watch them in order. In a matter of speaking, watching TNG is like reliving my childhood. There are many episodes I had seen recently, but others that I only vaguely remembered. Watching them in order also gives me a much clearer sense of the series’ evolution. However, it inevitably gives me clearer picture of what is wrong about the messages it conveys.
I learned many important life-lessons and discovered many things thanks to Star Trek. Jean-Luc Picard was an important role-model for me, being an intellectual, a strong leader and fan of good tea. DS9 sparked my interest in music from the 1940s and 1950s. Kathryn Janeway was a great female role-model, as were B’Elanna Torres and Kira Nerys.
But this week, I wish to present considerations about things I wish Star Trek, specifically TNG, could have addressed differently in a series of three posts. I will be posting on Wednesday and Friday about western hegemony and human superiority. Today’s theme is gender roles.
Women are equal to men. In theory.
While watching TNG, it’s easy to notice that most of its great characters are male. Ambassadors, negotiators, scientists, experts, military strategists, the crew of other ships: the great majority of them are males. And who follows them around, enduring solitude and hardship? Their wife, or their female assistant (A Matter of Perspective S3 E14, We’ll Always Have Paris S1E24).
One character I find particularly interesting is Deanna Troi. Let’s leave aside, for now, the fact that she doesn’t wear her Starfleet uniform but some feminine, and somewhat revealing, clothes and shiny jewelry. Let’s also set aside the fact that her job is a little cliché for a female character: she, like the other important female character of the show, Doctor Crusher, is a caregiver. Let’s also forget, for a minute, that her role is pretty minor on the bridge, and that in many of her scenes, all she does is reveal emotion through facial expressions.
Instead, let’s briefly consider her romantic relationships. Most of the men who take an interest in her express it in a very upfront, sometimes almost predatory, fashion. Even when their advances are inappropriate, or expressed in front of her crew mates, she responds calmly and seems flattered. She even ends up dating some of the men who act like jerks around her (Loud as a Whisper S2E5, The Price S3E8).
I had not noticed these elements when I was younger, and now that I do, I realize the show subtly supported the notion that women are second to men in terms of potential and that their role is often to hide in the men’s shadow and support them. Of course, TNG is not the only TV series which presents women this way. Despite decades of feminist criticism towards western societies, and certain progress in some areas, men and women are not equal in western thought.
It is interesting that a television show which seeks to portray an idyllic future should present women in such a way, despite the fact that its characters make insist on gender equality in various episodes (Code of Honor S1E4, Angel One, S1E14).
Of course, many efforts were made with TNG to create a series which was oriented towards gender equality. The opening sequence went from “where no man has gone before” to “where no one has gone before”. In the first season, you can spot a few guys sporting the short dress uniform, inherited from the original series and now worn by both men and women. Some female characters, like Tasha Yar, are strong warriors.
But TNG pretty much only went as far as that, and still remained very oriented towards old divisions of gender. The progress was conservative. And, as was the case for the following series, gender issues were not explored in-depth. Barely any mentions of homosexuality were made. I can’t recall a character wanting to change sex, or cross-dressing. The authors took limited risks, but in doing so they painted a future where many people can’t see themselves. I suppose it could be said the series is a product of it’s time, And DS9 and Voyager did portray women in more powerful positions and as being more independent.
It’s hard for me to evaluate the impact watching TNG as a child had on me, or on my perception of myself as a girl. I do know that one of the many reasons why I admire Captain Picard is that he was respectful to women and treated them as equals: the same can not be said of Kirk in TOS, in my opinion. The portrayal of women in the show certainly seems outdated to me now, and probably did contribute to make me feel, without realizing it, that women aren’t naturally the heroes.
Still, the show did portray a woman as chief of security, for a time, and periodically portrayed other female characters as ambassadors, scientists, warriors or experts. It could be that watching this show did not aggravate my perceptions of gender roles when I was younger because, at the time, TNG was actually going, even if only slightly, beyond the standards.
I’ll just have to put the series in context for my kids, I guess.