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Posts tagged ‘Star Trek’

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).


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.

Star Trek and Ethnicity

By Taylor Marvin

The cast of Deep Space Nine. Via Memory Beta. No idea why Bashir’s head is so tiny.

Robert Farley has some fun  pointing out that Star Trek’s Starfleet is fairly… monochromatic. Of course, this isn’t surprising: Star Trek in all its iterations is an American show, and while its run has taken some fairly revolutionary progressive leaps, the show is still intended for a mostly American — and mostly white — audience.

I do think it’s interesting how much trouble American audience have internalizing just how large the world’s Asian population is. If Starfleet really is a perfectly meritocratic international organization, we’d expect roughly two fifths of human starship crews to be of Chinese or Indian descent, assuming world demographics haven’t drastically altered in last three hundred years (as Farley notes, Star Trek’s internal canon suggests that it has). While American audiences accept this on a factual level, few science fiction narratives actually depict world demographics as they actually are — Americans are used to seeing a white-dominated society, and perceptions of a future inclusive utopia are baselined around the demographics of early 21st century American, not world, society. It’s telling that when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine did introduce a non-white lead the producers selected an African-American actor rather than one of Asian heritage, a choice that reflects Americans’ perceptions of what constitutes a “minority”  (though apparently the role was not written with a specific ethnicity in mind and actor Avery Brooks was selected on the strength of his excellent acting, so maybe this is reading too much into into the casting).

If the Star Trek universe reflected all of human society rather than just contemporary America’s, the show’s string of mostly white characters are all drawn from a minority of human society. It’s understandable that American audiences have trouble imagining a Starfleet that doesn’t reflect the ethnic composition of their own society. But presenting the Federation as at its core fundamentally American — both culturally and ethnically — does speculative fiction a disservice. Science fiction often strives to rigorously imagine future science and technology; why should ethnicity be any different?