Review / 2: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender by Robin Roberts

While deep down an internet rabbit hole one day I came across a catalog listing for a book that sounded like a must-read for me: Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender, by Robin Roberts, who at the time she wrote this book, was a professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. Before I go into what I thought Roberts’ most interesting observations were, I have to acknowledge three big flaws about the book. First, I think the book is inaccessible to people who aren’t dedicated fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A reader should have, at minimum, an understanding of the main characters, their appearances and personality traits, and preferably be able to recollect significant episodes throughout the series. An average geek interested in feminist media analysis might be at sea. Second, a reader should also probably have at least an undergraduate degree in Gender Studies to appreciate Roberts’ analysis, which draws heavily on French structuralist feminist theories that were popular in the 80s and 90s, when TNG aired. Reading at least a little of the seminal works of the “big three” French feminists: Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, was definitely part of my Women’s Studies major at UBC, but it required a lot of grappling with as it involves discussions of psychology, philosophy, language, and bodies. To put it as simply as possible, the theorists Roberts draws on point at the language our society tends to use and characterizes it as masculine: created by men, for men. Feminine language or écriture feminine is supposed to destabilize and deconstruct what we know. It should particularly centre around women’s bodies and sexuality and should exemplify fluidity and collectivity while resisting hierarchies. Roberts’ justification for using this frame is that “science fiction as a genre that tries to represent what could be has more access to the as-yet-uncreated, what Clement identifies as an imaginary zone” (9). So right away, Roberts has narrowed her audience to hard-core Trek fans with Women’s or Gender Studies degrees. There can’t be that many of us. The third issue, then, goes to the critiques of French feminist theory. Critics have argued that these theories can reinforce rather than destabilize gender roles, by over-focusing on women’s bodies and characterizing traits like cooperation as feminine. In the introduction, Roberts says the theorists “stress gender rather than biological difference” but their (and her) focus on the body and biological processes such as pregnancy means that distinction is often obscured (9). And there are times in the book where I feel like using this kind of theory at all is grasping at straws. One example is Roberts’ argument that the character of Data is “a feminine stand-in” (92) because he is represented as Other and his role is sometimes used to highlight gender difference.

“In ‘The Most Toys’, Data is reduced to a collector’s possession, reflecting the position of trophy wife. In ‘The Quality of Life,’ Data encounters a new machine lifeform and risks his career and his captain’s life to preserve it. Finally, in ‘Inheritance’ Data confronts his own femininity and that of machines when he meets his ‘mother.’” (92).

But Roberts never says whether she thinks Data’s role as a “feminine stand-in” was conscious on the part of the creators, has been created and received on a subconscious level, or is consciously interpreted that way by the audience. I would have a hard time buying any of these in regards to Data. I don’t believe we yet live in a world (unfortunately) where gender is destabilized enough that a majority of people can understand it isn’t necessarily correlated with sex, appearance and character traits. And I don’t think there’s any clear indication that gender fluidity was intended for Data. Data is played by a (cis*) man and described through the entire run of the series using masculine pronouns (and as Lal’s “father”, Lore’s “brother” and Soong and Tainer’s “son”).

I wanted to make you female but your father insisted on a son. Oh, we argued about it endlessly right up until we were ready to assemble you.” – Juliana Tainer, “Inheritance” (S7E10)

The furthest I would go is to say Data’s character may help break down stereotypes and ideals of masculinity by exemplifying a range of character traits, aspiring to be able to express a full range of emotions, and striving to become “more human” rather than “a real man.” Structure and Content But Roberts definitely raises food for thought in her book, which is loosely divided into two sections. In the first, she analyzes female figures like “The Female Alien” and “The Perfect Mate”, In almost all cases, she finds complicated representations that often simultaneously embody “masculine” language and fantasy as well as resisting it. Roberts’ use of French feminist theory seems to work best in looking at representations of the female alien. According to Kristeva, the maternal body is, “desirable and terrifying, nurturing and murderous, fascinating and abject” (Roberts 1999: 19). Roberts is able to see the same contradictions in TNG on the female aliens’ bodies (20):

“… Star Trek: The Next Generation reveals contradictory impulses about gender. The radical feminist potential represented by the female alien shows what liberalism both desires and fears about female power. In early episodes, the female alien represents primarily what men fear, as in ‘Galaxy’s Child.’ In episodes late in the series, the female alien appears as what men most desire, as the episode ‘The Vengeance Factor’ shows. And in between, a balance of fear and desire occurs; ‘True Q’ illustrates this tension.”

Roberts further connects the powerful and terrifying female/maternal figure to a history of science fiction representations through a quote from Trek Producer Brannon Braga (24):

“The female body, as a functional instrument, obsesses me…my greatest fantasy is to be with the fifty-foot woman from those schmaltzy 1950s sci-fi films. That would be the ultimate: to actually crawl up into a vagina.”

Book Cover for Sexual Generations by Robin Roberts

The second half of Roberts’ book is more interesting to me from a sociological perspective, as it gets into how TNG represents social issues like abortion, LGBTQ rights, and rape. Roberts explains a common science fiction technique: defamiliarization, which is when contemporary human issues are explored using allegories about future aliens. The main example she gives is the episode “The Outcast” (S5E17), which uses an androgynous alien fighting for the right to identify as female as an allegory for lesbian and gay rights. “By defamiliarizing the site – alien society rather than American society – the viewer can attain some distance and perspective on our own culture’s homophobia,” Roberts notes (109), but acknowledges the creators abdicated greater responsibility to include regular LGBTQ characters in the text, forcing many readers to try to “reclaim” some or all of the characters originally written as straight (124). This certainly won’t be a revelation to anyone who reads or creates slash or gender-swap fan fiction or fanart. Also in the second part of the book, Roberts deconstructs the notoriously racist and sexist episode “Code of Honor” (S1E4), looks at how TNG episodes that put men in a maternal role help an audience empathize with the need to terminate a pregnancy, and draws positive lessons from episodes that depict rape with the female victims fighting back (such as “Sub Rosa” [S7E14]). Ultimately, Roberts’ book definitely shows feminist theorists why they should care about Star Trek (assuming they don’t get lost in all the titles of episodes they haven’t seen). I would argue with a lot of Roberts’ findings; I think she tends to overemphasize the deeper symbolism of characters and narratives without really trying to put herself in the shoes of average audience members and asking what messages they are realistically likely to take away. For that reason and the three weaknesses I cited at the beginning of this review, I think Sexual Generations is valuable reading, but needs to be looked at critically, preferably in a group. Sexual Generations: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Gender by Robin Roberts, 1999, University of Illinois Press. *Cisgender, or cis for short, is a term used to describe people whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth, as opposed to people who are transgender.

There is one comment

Join the conversation! Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s