Sexism in Classic Star Trek?

"Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That's the only planet in this galaxy can make that claim." -- Captain James T. Kirk

Despite the progressiveness of the Star Trek franchise, with a multi-racial cast, with its optimistic view of the future of humankind, one of the gripes about the Classic series was the way it portrayed women. There definitely was some 1960s sexism on display, from the mini-skirted outfits to Captain Kirk's lothario persona who unabashedly chased those mini-skirts in virtually every episode.

Kirk's womanizing personality was actually a humanizing trait for the character and it led to some great stories, including his out-of-wedlock son in the movies The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. And the revealing outfits can be explained by changing fashions every generation. Who is to say that the future won't see women embracing clothes that show off their feminine charms without it being seen as a subjugation to the whims of man?

The part that does hold some merit in the criticism is the way female characters were portrayed -- communications officers, nurses, assistants, concubines. No security personnel were women. All the major roles, from science officer, to ship's doctor, to navigator, to engineer were portrayed by men. It took decades for the franchise to finally show its first woman starship captain in the otherwise forgettable series Star Trek Voyager (and that series had to include Seven of Nine, a Borg sexpot; not that I'm complaining.)

Let me give creator Gene Roddenberry credit: he wanted to show women as authority figures and not as sexist cliches. In the first Trek pilot, he cast his wife Majel Barrett as "Number One," Captain Christopher Pike's right-hand officer and second-in-command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, but one of the reasons the network rejected the show at the time was the now-laughable-and-insulting critique that television audiences weren't ready to accept a woman in such a position of power. (Network honchos also criticized the "guy with the ears" but luckily Roddenberry stuck to his guns and kept Leonard Nimoy in the role of the half-human half-Vulcan Mr. Spock.)

Despite having to satisfy the biases of network executives, Star Trek still provided some great moments for women. Many people mention Lt. Uhura played by Nichelle Nichols as an inspiration. Other strong female roles appeared in the 1960s series, including Joan Collins as Edith Keeler in "City on the Edge of Forever," Mariette Hartley as Zarabeth in "All Our Yesterdays," and Diana Muldaur as Dr. Miranda Jones in "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" (she also starred as a different but equally compelling character in the episode "Return to Tomorrow" and played the ship's doctor Pulaski for one season of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

Even the smaller female roles left a great mark on the series. I was disappointed that two of my favorites didn't appear in the new Star Trek movie: Nurse Chapel and Yeoman Rand (although Dr. McCoy does call out for Nurse Chapel in the film.)

Yeoman Rand was a key character at the beginning of the first season of the original Trek. Unfortunately, they wrote her out of the series, probably since they were building up her romantic relationship with Kirk and they didn't want to tie the character down to a single love interest.

Nurse Chapel (also played by Majel Barrett, who also voiced the ship's computer) had some strong moments in the first series, particularly in the episode "What Are Little Girls Made Of" in which she finds her lost fiance Dr. Roger Korby on a planet building androids. The most intriguing part of the character was her subtle yet profound attraction for Mr. Spock which revealed itself in a number of episodes. I was hoping this might be explored in the new Trek film (instead of another path the filmmakers chose to take), but maybe the character will be fully introduced in a future sequel and that's a storyline for another day.

The famous opening narration of Star Trek used to say "space, the final frontier...where no man has gone before," and was eventually revised to "where no one has gone before." Despite all this, Star Trek was and is a great example of how science fiction can allow us to look at things like politics, religion, social issues, and even gender roles, and not only imagine "what if" but also aim a mirror at our current selves.


Karen said…
I think Zoe Saldana did a nice job in the new Star Trek. I wasn't expecting her love interest with you-know-who at all!

p.s. Cool blog!
Nick said…
Yeah, I think the cast in the new film is perfect. And thanks for reading my blog and for the nice compliment! I'll check out and too.
MediumRob said…
IIRC, Number One (as she was in the The Cage/The Menagerie) was also the one given the logic - Spock was a big grinny, angry guy. When they moved on to the second pilot with Captain Kirk, Roddenberry had to lose one or the other, decided to lost Number One and gave Spock the Vulcanian (as he was then) the logic.

It saddens me to know these things.
Nick said…
Don't be sad, Rob. Embrace it!

Seriously, another great thing about Classic Trek geeks like me is how we take continuity discrepancies and manage to fit it into the overall canon of the series. Fan-fiction and Trek novels have done a fine job of explaining every seeming discrepancy! Regarding Spock's emotional outbursts in the first pilot and the flashbacks in the "Menagerie" pilot (and he even showed more emotion than usual in the first few episodes) I just view it as Spock in his youth still coming to grips with the culture of his Vulcan heritage. But that's just the geek in me! :)