What I wish I could unlearn from Star Trek TNG / 1: Women are equal to men. In theory.

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.

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About Marie-Pierre Renaud

I am an anthropologist living in Quebec city, Canada. I specialize in native studies and anthropology of health. I am a geek. I founded and now co-manage The Geek Anthropologist blog. I am working on transforming my memoir into a book and journal articles. I like to knit while watching Star Trek. Reach out to me for collaborations! https://mariepierrerenaud.co/

There are 29 comments

  1. Simon O

    Interesting read, thanks. The only thing I can say in defense of TNG is that while it may be more conservative than you would’ve hoped, it was still wildly progressive compared to other shows airing at the same time.

    Mosty popular shows when it firs aired in 1987 included Cheers, The Golden Girls, Airwolf and Murder, She Wrote.

    While I’m not hugely familiar with American TV of the era, None of the shows I know from that period were doing anything _at all_ to advance equality. In fact, most of those I remember were incredibly sexist, where the woman’s place was either in the kitchen or on the heroes arm.

    So, you’re right, it’s not perfect but damn if it didn’t inspire me (and millions of others) to try and make the world a fairer, more civilised place.

    Like

    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      Thanks for stopping by! I’m glad you found the post interesting.

      Star Trek TNG is my favorite Star Trek series and because I grew up watching it, it had a huge impact on me. In fact I’ve written elsewhere on the blog how much Star Trek feels like home for me. So believe me when I say the critical comments I share in this post and the ones that accompany it in no way diminish my love for the show. I also agree with you that for the time, the show was progressive. Yet at times there are inconsistencies and subtle forms of sexism which lurk within the scripts.

      It’s also important to understand the context in which I wrote this piece: I had been binge-watching TNG in order for the first time in years and I was seeing the series with new eyes. I was reflecting on what impact the show had on me as a kid, hence the title of the piece.

      Finally, I also agree the show was inspiring and much better than many other shows on TV at the time, and today as well!

      Thanks again for your comment!

      Like

  2. luc

    Troi becomes much more important as the series progresses, and Marina Sirtis also improves vastly as an actor, especially from seasons 2 to 3. I simply cannot imagine a season 1 Troi doing more than she already did; it would have failed miserably simply because the actor was so far behind the rest of the cast at that point.

    I also think you’re dead wrong about Beverly Crusher. She’s not a traditional “caregiver”; she’s a doctor, the Chief Medical Officer for a ship with 1,000 crew members on board. You may not like her personality, but she’s constantly standing up to Captain Picard throughout the series, and she saves the ship many times over the years. She’s also very forceful in the final episode, after she has divorced Picard. And what about Dr. Pulaski? Although she’s a bit stiff, she’s every bit as forceful as any man on the show. In fact, her character seems to be an exact replica of Bones from TOS, including her dislike for using the transporter.

    Yes, men play a more important role overall in the series than women, but the women aren’t just there as eye candy (with the exception of Troi’s cleavage through the first 5 seasons) like they are in TOS, which is horribly sexist even by the standards of 1966. Watch TOS through and find a woman whose role isn’t purely as a love interest for one of the lead men or as someone that one of the men needs to protect. Uhura is the closest you’ll get, and they can’t even film her straight on because her skirt is too short.

    Some other strong women in TNG: Tasha, her sister, all the female Klingons that ever speak, every female Romulan, many female Kardassians, and let’s not forget the Borg Queen. Roh. The engineer that Jordi has a crush on and eventually marries in the alternative future.

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  3. Matthew Blandin

    Ravinj mentioned the episode where Riker hooked up with a feminine member of an androgynous society, and there was also the episode where Data made an android “offspring” and allowed it to pick its own race and gender. Those are about as close as I remember ST:TNG getting to the issues discussed in this post.

    I think it did a better job than a lot of other shows made during the same time. It’s like the original series – it was far better than its contemporaries in terms of gender equality but watching it with the lens of our society today makes it seems quite unequal.

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    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      It’s true that we have to consider ST:TNG as a product of its time, and in that sense, it was indeed ahead of most other shows on TV. But still today, the Star Trek franchise, with the new movies for instance, stays remarquably far away from the theme of homosexuality. There were a few hints in DS9, most made by or relating to Dax’s character, about homosexuality, yet it was nothing substancial.

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  4. Mr. Data

    Well, my take on Star Trek TNG was, they let an good opportunity go when they had Ensign Roe leave the series. She was a great contrast to Crusher and Troi, two characters that I never really liked that much, but tolerated. Roe on the other hand was tough, strong minded, spoke up to authority, and had real command capabilities, unlike Troi and Crusher. But I think it had a lot to do with setting up DS9. They needed to end her storyline so they could build up Kira’s character.

    And I bet you can guess who my least favorite character was. Wesley Crusher. Watching old episodes of him now, especially in the first season, is like gritting my teeth. He was annoying in general. I kind of liked the ones where there was a drug use on the ship and he intervened, and the one where he was involved in a cover up at Star Fleet Academy. Other than that, he was a throw away character. The show still leaves me with fond memories though. Even with all the annoying episodes involving Troi’s mother. Ouch, those were bad.

    Like

  5. Lisa M. Alter

    I may be a bit older than some of you. I remember seeing ST:TNG as it originally aired. I remember the first episode clearly. Many of us (we gathered to watch) were a bit confused/dismayed by Troi. Eventually she became the subject of humor to us. As people have noted above, her empathic ability provided a great advantage and it was rarely used. As such, Troi’s character was stunted.

    I understand her “sexy” garment is a dress uniform. She does wear a traditional uniform occasionally. The non-traditional uniform could be her way of appearing neutral/friendly. This might be perceived as her effort to be non-confrontational with staff seeking help, as there is a considerable stigma associated with many mental health issues. With non-crew, it could be considered as putting them off-guard so they would forget that she is both an officer and partisan.

    As for the show’s overall themes, we had nicknames for various shows: the “Data gets laid” episode” and the “Just say no” episode”, the “Rashomon” episode and the “Data is a toaster” episode. You get the idea. The attempt to portray current political themes always appears dated after the fact. This is true of almost every movie or television show that reflects then-current events. No help for it that I know of.

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    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      Your comment reminds me of a piece by The Geek Twins which they published recently. They wrote about Troi’s cleavage, which was apparently the topic of much debate and jokes at the time TNG was airing.

      Your comment about her uniform and her role as counsellor makes sense: it could be that she is trying to appear less as an officer and more as a listener, a source of help. Yet this is not adressed in the episodes, except when she is asked to wear her Starfleet uniforms like all her colleagues.

      Of course, there are several inconsistencies in Star Trek, as in many TV shows.

      Here is the link to The Geek Twins piece I mentionned: http://www.thegeektwins.com/2014/06/7-bizarre-facts-about-deanna-trois.html.

      Like

  6. Lunar Archivist

    While I agree with you that Deanna Troi often failed to live up to her potential – especially in the earlier seasons – I have to disagree with your assessment of her skill set.

    My memories of the exact nature of her powers are a bit fuzzy, but, near as I can recall, Troi was an empath, which means that she could pick up strong emotions and thoughts. Needless to say, having such an ability would be of great strategic value since it would allow you to size people and dangerous situations up with a greater degree of certainty than most people, much like someone who can read body language extremely well.

    Taking that into consideration, I think she would easily be able to cut through the BS of men “expressing an interest in her in a very upfront, almost predatory, fashion” since all the posturing, machismo, and bluster in the world can’t fool a woman who can essentially read your mind and intentions.

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    1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

      Thanks for providing this input, it’s a very good point indeed! She is indeed someone with whom pretense is hard to pull off.

      But in my opinion, even if she could ”cut through” the pretense as you say, what we saw on the screen was still a woman who did not talk back to the men who acted in macho way towards her. While as adults we can imagine different reasons why that might be the case, I think children (and several adults probably) simply don’t think that much further than what they see. That’s why I find her character problematic on so many levels. Then again, that’s my opinion.

      As you say, it’s true that Troi had greater potential than what we saw in most of the episodes, and I also agree that her empathic abilities were of great strategic value.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lunar Archivist

        No problem. I always enjoy trying to provide constructive input. 🙂

        As for Troi not talking back, it’s possible that she simply doesn’t see any reason to because of her empathic abilities. I vaguely recall one episode where she temporarily lost them and her demeanor went from being cool and collected to more emotional and frustrated, which shows just how intimately her power set and behavior are linked.

        Alternatively, it’s possible that Troi has just developed an incredibly thick skin towards the offensive and socially questionable behavior of others. With a mother like Lwaxana, developing an extreme tolerance and open-mindedness towards embarrassing, condescending, or offensive behavior would practically be a survival instinct. 😛

        Still, she had some pretty big moments in later seasons…like the time she and Data saved the ship after everyone lost the ability to sleep and the time she masqueraded as a member of the Tal Shi’ar to infiltrate a Romulan vessel. That second one had an especially big payoff many episodes later where she actually trumped both Geordi and Data with her knowledge that Romulan ships were powered by an artificial quantum singularity.

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        1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

          Again, some excellent points!

          I agree on all counts. It could indeed be that she has a lot of patience and a very thick skin. As you say, when she lost her abilities, she also completly lost it. Being a empath probably helps one to stay cool and collected in front of bad behavior. And yes, she did occasionnaly rise beyond what we came to expect of her, once writers on the show gave her more attention. Then again, it did take a long while for her character to benefit from some much needed development.

          I think in the later seasons of TNG and then DS9 the writers did a much better job at developping female characters and making them matter as much as the male characters. Then with Voyager a women was made Captain, but her character was not well written in my opinion.

          Constructive input is that much more fun to recieve when the topic is Star Trek!

          Liked by 1 person

      2. Lunar Archivist

        Constructive input is always great if the two people involved have fun with it and don’t result to name calling or yelling expletives at each other. 🙂

        Since you’re analyzing “Star Trek” and its portrayal of female characters, I’m kind of curious: what’s your opinion on “Number One”, the unnamed, female second-in-command of Captain Christopher Pike from the original pilot for the series “The Cage”?

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        1. Marie-Pierre Renaud

          Having a woman as a first officer was bold for the time, and the way the episode was written actually states it: Pike mentions that he is uneasy with having a woman on the bridge, which indicates that even in the future, even if a woman is the first officer, women on the bridge are a rare thing. The episode could have been written to suggest that having women on the bridge, or serving as any kind of officers, would be normal in the future.

          The episode also explores male fantasies, in the end.

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      3. Lunar Archivist

        “The episode also explores male fantasies, in the end.”

        Hmm…are you referring to the whole underlying premise or the Talosian asking Pike to choose one of his female crew members as his mate?

        As bad as that is, at least it’s no “Turnabout Intruder” or “Spock’s Brain”. ^_^;

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  7. Melissa Bradley

    Bravo! I share many of the same opinions watching TNG. It did not bother me so much when I was watching it at the time, but now that I go back, I do see the flaws with Troi and other female characters. I guess I accepted it at first because with Yar and Crusher, I was seeing women on TV in more powerful roles thatn I had previously seen before.

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  8. scottfack

    Thank you for your excellent post. I started watching TNG sporadically when I was in my mid-teens.

    As I got older, like you, I started to watch it again. Something started to bug me about TNG, and you’ve hit the nail on the head about the female leads (except Tasha Yar, who only lasted part of the first season) as being cast in the roles of caregivers. I do think this did change later in the series, however, when Jeri Taylor came aboard and pushed for not only older crewmen and crewwomen aboard the Enterprise but also meatier stories for Deanna and Beverley (Deanna wanting to become a command level officer, Beverley being a command level officer, even taking command of the Enterprise-D in “Descent”). There is definitely a difference between females in leadership roles from the first few seasons to the last few seasons of TNG.

    Had Taylor’s influence stayed strong in Voyager, I think it would have been a better show. Janeway (in my opinion) was written as a somewhat schizophrenic character: following the Prime Directive sometimes, blowing it out the airlock other times; being the caring mother-like figure to the crew sometimes, kicking butt and being pigheaded to them other times. Kes could have been a strong character, but she was written out in favour of Seven of Nine for sex appeal partially. Thank God that that got toned down somewhat in favour of Seven’s intelligence, almost becoming Spock-like / Data-like in her role as the series progressed.

    I think that TNG’s gender inequality was to do somewhat with Gene Roddenberry. He created the show with a sense of a few outdated ideas (skants/skirts being one of them) and I think that influence started to show. It would’ve been interesting to see what the show would have been like had Commander Shelby (Best of Both Worlds) stayed on, because I feel she would have been a very strong female character (like Kira Nerys). Also Ensign Ro would have been a strong female character had she been a more regular role. And let’s not forget Admiral Nechayev, who, at first, was a bit adversarial but became more fond of Picard as time went by.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      A good point: I’m still watching season 5 of TNG, and I’ll probably reach season 6 next week. I know I can look forward to some important changes with characters soon.

      About Voyager, I’ll have to start watching the series all over again soon, since many people have been commenting about Janeway lately, saying she was to extreme and sometimes hard to follow. I admit that I don’t remember her that way. Maybe that’s because I don’t see a contradiction between kicking butt and being a mother figure.

      I don’t understand why Kes had to be written out, and although I understand why Seven of Nine was given such an outfit, I was never happy with it. Honestly, as soon as the crew encountered the Borg, the show became a lot more interesting, and I think ratings would have gone up with or without that tight suit of hers.

      I agree that the original series gave a bad start to Star Trek on the gender issues front. It’s one of the many reasons why it’s not my favorite series.

      Like

      1. scottfack

        I noticed that Troi and Crusher got more meaty roles in the later seasons. “Disaster” in Season 5 is a good episode in the fact that Deanna suddenly realises she’s the acting captain and despite having the rank of lieutenant commander, she has very little training to fall back on. I think that was an excellent moment for the series because it kinda acknowledges that they know they were following stereotypical roles for both Deanna and Beverley. To me, this was their turning point.

        Janeway and most of the characters on Voyager were written poorly. This isn’t the actors themselves; this was the characters being uninteresting and one-dimensional. “Dark Frontier” is the perfect example of poor writing and consistency, as this was the moment I thought, “The writers have no clue.” Janeway fiddles with her comm-badge and Chakotay says she’s uneasy about something. She asks how he knows this, and he replies that she always fiddles with her comm-badge when she’s nervous. It’s season 5; she’s never fiddled with her comm-badge! And that’s just the start. Starfleet knew of the Borg 10+ years earlier and never bothered to tell anyone, including the captain of the flagship of the fleet, anything about them? They just let a small civilian science vessel with a child aboard traipse off after such a deadly race? Okay…

        Janeway went from caring, compassionate Janeway to psychotic, I’ll-do-anything-to-win Janeway, from episode to episode. “Equinox, Part 2”, where she leaves Equinox crewman Noah Lessing to be killed by the nucleogenic life forms because he won’t give her answers to her questions, and Chakotay stops her would be the moment Janeway would have been removed from command if she were CO of any other starship. It just was… really bad. I would say her character is almost schizophrenic or bipolar in her reactions. Again, this isn’t Kate Mulgrew’s acting; this is the writers’ bad writing.

        Seven of Nine was a good character and more and more interesting as she grew, but they really needed to dress the poor woman properly. The catsuit thing made me cringe. I mean, if you have it, flaunt it in the 21st century, but, in the 24th century, you’d think they’d have her dressed in something more appropriate. And anyone can be sexy without dressing so revealingly that you knew what they had for lunch. You’d never see Quark or Neelix or Jake Sisko or even Kasidy Yates dressed in anything so… revealing…

        Like

        1. thegeekanthropologist

          I just watched Disaster, and I agree it’s interesting to see Troi try to take command. I also really like Ensign Ro’s character. She should have appeared more regularly.

          As I’ll watch Voyager again, I’ll pay attention to the details you mention. I agree Seven of Nine was a great character with a bad outfit. Although I have to admit many other female characters in Star Trek have revealing that are too revealing in my opinion.

          Like

  9. Pablo Gustavo Rodriguez

    I agree that “the series is a product of it’s time” and I would add that it´s also a product of USA society and culture in that particular time. And so it projects its own image to the future. Occidental cultures easily accepts changes in technology but are reluctant to changes in moral values and family and gender models. This types of changes are slower. No one can expect blood from a turnip. It wouldn´t be fair to judge an old series using current accepted values.

    Like

    1. thegeekanthropologist

      Thank you for your input!

      I agree that as a product of its times, TNG must be judged accordingly. However, more recent Star Trek series are still based on many of the notions I want to bring to light. I fact, the notions I criticize are still very much considered common sense.

      It’s absolutely true that Star Trek projects a future that is highly technological and idyllic, but only regarding values that were already the norm at the time.

      Like

  10. ravinj

    The TNG episode “The Outcast” came the closest of any to confronting issues of gender/orientation. It’s the one where Riker has a tryst with a female-identified (and therefore gender-deviant) member of an agendered species/race.

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    1. thegeekanthropologist

      I never did get into Babylon 5…But watching TNG now, I continuously feel that the mysteries are obvious and that the technology makes no sense. It’s most likely the effect of knowing the end to the story already, and knowing how much technology has already advanced in the last 20 years.

      Like

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