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Uniforms and Gender in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek

By Taylor Marvin

Via Kelsey D. Atherton, blog the Trekkie Has The Phone Box has an excellent post detailing the problems with women’s uniforms in JJ Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Unlike men’s uniforms, those worn by most women in Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness do not identify the wearers’ rank. Of course, this is problematic in paramilitary Starfleet, but it’s also emblematic of the Abrams’ reboot’s view of women as a whole: the rebooted series does not invest female characters with command responsibility in the same manner as male characters, despite their position in the chain of command, so rank insignias are unnecessary. As the piece concludes, in the franchise “women aren’t scripted as officers in the same way that their colleagues who are men are.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t even a logical hole given the rest of Abrams’ Star Trek universe. In Abrams’ Starfleet, after all, cadets on academic suspension can leapfrog an entire starship’s chain of command and receive field promotions to First Officer, catastrophic losses are accepted without comment (Star Trek spoiler: the destruction of the fleet over Vulcan), romantic relationships between bridge officers appear routine, and (Into Darkness spoiler) Kirk is surprised that flagrant disregard for protocol merits demotion. Whatever the other failings of Abrams’ vision of Starfleet, excessive focus on military efficiency is not one of them.

As the piece notes, this is particularly problematic for Lieutenant Uhura, the only reoccurring female character in the rebooted series. While Abrams’ Star Trek has made the character a gifted linguist, in and of itself a specialization with cultural feminine overtones, Uhura is depicted as capable but unprofessional, and is implied to have slept her way to her position (though of course, unprofessionalism extends to all characters in Abrams’ reboot, so it is unclear if Uhura’s portrayal is due to her gender).

Star-Trek-Into-Darkness-Alice-Eve

Additionally, female characters in Abrams’ Starfleet most commonly wear miniskirted uniforms, echoing those of the original Star Trek series. But the cultural connotation miniskirts carry today is distinctly different from when Star Trek was first aired:

“Additionally, the cultural context of the miniskirt has changed. While it was once seen as a symbol of liberation, it is now interpreted as one of objectification. That is not to say that the miniskirt is inherently one or the other, but that a very clear message is sent within our own cultural context today when the vast majority of the women seen onscreen are wearing it.”

I think that this is an important point. The rebooted Star Trek can insist that its women wear miniskirts as homage to the original show or to maintain canonical consistency, but it is important to remember that when the original Star Trek was produced women in command position were extraordinarily rare in Western militaries. In the 1960s it was not immediately unreasonable to depict far-future female military officers wearing short skirts. But today we know what women in military uniforms look like:

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

US Army photo by Sgt. Kandi Huggins.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible that women wear miniskirts in Starfleet. But narratives can only be understood through the culture in which they are produced. In 1960s America, miniskirted officers could be understood as the product of a liberated future, or at least one as liberated as the biases of the era would allow — Deep Space Nine’s female executive officer, and former terrorist, would have to wait a few decades. But today, when what women in military uniform look like is universally understood, putting Starfleet officers in miniskirts can’t be seen as anything but regressive.

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9 Comments Post a comment
  1. In all seriousness, I think that we need not only pant-equipped females but skirted men shown, too, if we really if we want to show that the future is liberated. TNG tried this for a while I and I think they had the right idea.

    -Wes from Star Army

    October 1, 2013
    • While I understand that a two hundred million dollar film isn’t going to take risks like that, I do agree.

      October 1, 2013
      • It makes me sad how risk-averse Hollywood is right now, and there’s no easy way out of it. Spielberg made waves not too long ago talking about this being a sort of film industry implosion IIRC, and how as a result we get remake after remake instead of new stories. Are we going to have to, as viewers, eventually abandon this Charybdis of mainstream film to seek more creative pastures via crowdsourced or indie sources?

        October 1, 2013
        • I have no idea. I think a lot of it is the trend towards enormously expensive blockbusters that have to succeed across the world market, making taking chances on new characters or stories too risky. On the other hand the biggest film of recent times, Avatar was an original property, but of course it was about as “unoriginal” as an original IP can be.

          October 1, 2013
  2. Jhon #

    LOL!
    OK well let postulate that in the future we have a militarily that is civilized as opposed to the rather foolish BS we now see masquerading as the USSA Armed farce. As such that military would as even Roddenberry put it be first a Scientific Discovery force, and only second a military.

    And Intelligent scientific society would likely drop socialism in all and any forms as we see it today. And the women would sure as hell not resemble the generation of Y failure we see today.

    Designation of Gender would likely be reinstated at the expense of some of the “Great Experiments” we have seen in the USSA and the USSR.

    October 24, 2013
  3. It’s a film, not real life. Besides, in Star Trek the original series many of the female crew members also wore trousers or longer skirts. It’s not impossible to imagine women as in the real military have a choice to wear trousers or a skirt for normal day duties.

    As for a mini skirt, a mini skirt is far more practical than a longer skirt, women play many sports in a short skirt and plenty of women like to wear a short skirt.

    March 1, 2014
  4. AJ #

    If you watch the female extras in the new Star Trek movies, there are three different duty uniforms. Pant/tunics, short-sleeve dress and long-sleeve dress. All of which can be seen in most of the bridge shots or engineering if you look past the main characters. People just need to pay attention.

    March 13, 2016
  5. A few days ago, Uhura actress Zoe Seldana posted this Instagram photo which shows the new uniform she’s wearing in Star Trek: Beyond: https://www.instagram.com/p/BC_YpXfop6S/ – You can see on her new uniform, which closely resembles the TOS ones, she has her rank stripes visible on her cuffs. It’s an improvement!

    March 19, 2016

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