In her newest documentary, #GayNrd’s resident filmmaker Jessie Earl, takes a look at how the Star Trek franchise has treated women throughout its five decades of existence.
Star Trek: Discovery has ushered in a new era of fandom unseen in the history of the franchise. And I can’t wait for Season 3. I’m also excited about Lower Decks. And everyone’s still riding high off that Star Trek: Picard trailer.
I mean, Seven of Nine is back, what could be wrong?
It’s not as if a high-profile former Trek cast member would say anything inflammatory in the age toxic fandoms and rage culture—right?
“Did you watch the original series? It was extremely misogynist. That’s what it was for years and Picard followed that to a certain extent. Roddenberry himself was that way,” says Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway.
Well, Mulgrew and the Janeway character are much beloved by Trek fandom, so a broad comment about a 50 year-old TV franchise made during the “swinging 60s” a very sexist time in the United States. Certainly everyone involved in the franchise would concur, right?
Scene: Trek commentators hating on Mulgrew set to Carmina Burana.
This was the catalyst that was the impetus behind this mini-doc. How do can I reconcile Star Trek’s legacy—the franchise synonymous with progressive thinking, and ahead of its time representation and inclusivity with the reality that its pioneering creator Gene Roddenberry, was also virulently sexist if not out right misogynistic?
It’s time to Nerd Out.
THEY MAD? YEAH, THEY MAD.
So I think the best place to start is to describe why people are so outraged at Kate Mulgrew’s statement.
When Star Trek first aired in the 1960s, its entire mission statement as a series was to confront precinct issues of racism, sexism, misuse of political power, fascism, and many others in a way that few, if any, shows of the time were doing. The most obvious way it did this was in the stories themselves. Episodes tackled everything from eugenics, racism, abuse of political power, the dangers of tribalism—and yes, not every episode landed but still, Star Trek and the stories it told were certainly more politically-minded then most of the shows on television at the time.
Star Trek is often most remembered for its more subtle yet subversive tactic in tackling issues of inclusion and diversity… simply including minority groups as part of the cast. The original series featured high ranking bridge officers that included a Black woman, an Asian man, and a Russian.
Considering that America was still dealing with the historic shockwaves of internment camps for Japanese-Americans, the African-American Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, these inclusions were far from apolitical casting decisions.
Martin Luther King Jr. himself was supposedly a huge fan of the series for this specific reason. Trek showed a future for humanity where distinctions between identity were celebrated, rather then derided.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations as they say. Anyone could be a part of Starfleet, and could hold a respected position. This was and is Trek’s most enduring legacy.
In an oft told Nichelle Nichols story, that’s become nearly apocryphal as time goes on, she talks about how she had planned to leave the show after season one for a starring role on Broadway and the huge Trekkie who talked her into staying.
Nichols says: I went on a Friday evening shortly before the end of the season to let Gene know that I wouldn’t be returning to the show, he looked at me like I was crazy, “You cannot leave,” but he realized how serious I was and he knew I was passionate about singing, and he said, “I know what your dream is and so forth but don’t you see what I’m trying to do?
He said to take the weekend and think about my decision and how important this show is and how it was a first, and if I leave, well he didn’t know what to say, but he said take the weekend and that way I could take the time to really think about what we just said and come back Monday and we would talk about it and if you really want to leave then, you’ll go with my blessings, but realize I want you to know that what we are doing here is really historic.
The next night was Saturday and I was due to be a celebrity guest on a dais at an NAACP fundraiser at UCLA.
One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s your best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs]
So I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!” and I… I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.
I just couldn’t say a thing and he began to tell me how important my role was, what an inspiration it was.
And you have to understand we were in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, people were regularly being attacked by dogs, and marchers were being hosed on the television every night, real life things, and here I am in this futuristic thing on TV and he was so complimentary, he told me “I was so important and the way you have created this role,” and I am just looking at him and looking at him and I remember I just kept hoping he’d never stop talking.
Because his voice is just… you know the voice. And I finally just start saying, thank you so much Dr. King and I am shaking his hand and still shaking from nervousness and I said thank you so much and I am really going to miss my co-stars.
And at this his face totally changed, and he said “What are you talking about?!” and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, “Stop! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!”
And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, “Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be! As intelligent, brilliant, people! People in roles other than slick tap dancers, and maids, which are all wonderful in their own ways, but for the first time we have a woman, a woman, who represents us and not in menial jobs, and you prove it, this man [Gene Rodenberry] proves and establishes a precedent that validates what we are marching for because three hundred years from today there we are, and there you are, in all our glory and all your glory! And you cannot leave!”
And I did not leave.
So, I went back on Monday and told Gene that if he hadn’t replaced me and still wanted me to stay that I would, and I’ll never forget him sitting behind that big desk that he had and he said, “so that’s your decision?”
I said I’d like my letter of resignation back please and I told him what had happened while meeting Dr. King, and I don’t know if you know what Gene looked like, but he was a big guy and was like 6’3” with that hawk nose and a great sense of humor and this brilliant mind and a futurist and—whatever great things you heard about him are just a small part of what that man was.
I looked down at him sitting behind his desk when I told him the story and I finally shut up, and a huge tear is rolling down his cheek. And he said, “Thank God someone understands what I am trying to achieve.”
And he reached down into his drawer and pulled out my letter of resignation and handed it to me, it had already been [laughs] torn up.
It’s a legacy that continued in future iterations of the franchise. Next Generation included a man with a disability, Deep Space Nine sees a Back man as the lead, Voyager included a indigenous crew member.
Discovery has queer people and tons of people of color.
Mulgrew’s portrayal of Janeway on Voyager, was the franchise’s first female lead. Janeway was even promoted to Admiral before the older Jean-Luc Picard was in-universe.
Star Trek’s veneer has always presented it as a show with a clear progressive, social justice, and inclusive agenda. It’s part of its DNA. It’s honestly why I don’t get when fans yell about Star Trek being too diverse. I mean, what show were you watching? Are you sure you didn’t turn on episode of TJ Hooker by mistake? But as part of Trek’s entire 50 year history, It’s featured numerous strong women both as main and recurring characters as well as behind the camera with writers like DC Fontana and Jeri Taylor or the first female director to direct a Star Trek pilot, Hanelle Culpepper.
And there’s no dispute that its noble legacy all stems from the creator of the series—the great bird of the galaxy himself—Gene Roddenberry.
Roddenberry, is rightfully seen as a progressive icon in the eyes of many. And it’s impossible to ignore how much his message has influenced so many over the years. Not just with the millions of fans around the world, but in very tangible ways, from political views informed by Star Trek to the technological advancements that were inspired by it.
Whoopi Goldberg, for example, stated that “He was a man who was able to reach out through my television and explain to me that I had a place in the world and in the future.”
This is what has many Trekkies angry at Kate Mulgrew’s statements. Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry have become synonymous with this forward thinking view of the world. So to become critical of Gene Roddenberry or The Original Series feels like ignoring or attacking the core positive message of the entire franchise. Roddenberry put a black woman on the bridge of the Enterprise during the 1960s for heaven’s sake.
How could a man who built created one of the most potent fictional messages of diversity and optimism possibly be considered a sexist?
What complicates Rodenberry’s legacy is that despite all this, Trek’s history with women has been… well complicated, right from the very start.
In the series original unaired pilot “The Cage,” Star Trek featured a woman in a prominent leadership role, a shocking casting choice for the time: Number One. She never got a name beyond that, and was the Enterprise’s first officer under Captain Pike. Portrayed by Gene Roddenberry’s future-wife Marjel Barret, Number One was shown to be a confident and competent commanding officer. And what’s more, if you notice, Number One actually wore clothing that wasn’t much different from her male counterparts. She was seen as an equal… for the most part. This character is perhaps one of the most cited when trying to acknowledge that Star Trek, and Roddenberry specifically, were more progressive when it came to representing women.
But a closer reading of “The Cage” does complicate things. Within the first few minutes of the episode, we’re shown that Captain Pike has discomfort with women being on the bridge. While it’s played as a funny moment, we see a tacit acknowledgement here that “Number One” seems less of a woman, less feminine, particularly because she’s more serious, less focused on beauty. As wonderful and progressive as her character is, this plays into the idea that being a woman means you’re inherently less worthy of or capable in command roles, and that by becoming more masculine, you’re suddenly more competent, at the cost of your beauty or femininity. Even further, the rest of the episode features a storyline where Captain Pike is given the choice e of which of three women he wants to breed with.
So while “The Cage” certainly did feature a “strong female character” in every sense of that trope, it was far from a perfectly sexist-free opening salvo for the series.
What’s more, NBC turned down the original pilot of Star Trek, requesting that many of the characters be recast. Leonard Nimoy himself noted in Star Trek Memories that executives particularly balked at Number One because they felt that audiences wouldn’t be able to identify with a woman in such a power position of authority. Majel Barrett would continue on the series, but in the role of Nurse Chapel, a “suitably more feminine” role.
When the series actually went to screen, there were two more regular prominent female characters on the show, Lt. Uhura and Yeoman Janice Rand. Uhura was a high-ranking officer aboard the Enterprise, technically fourth in command, though she never actually took charge of the Enterprise outside of one episode of the Animated Series.
A highly competent officer, she never required a man to help her do her job. She was also quite capable at defending herself . A lot of this had to do with actress Nichols herself, who often advocated for her character’s portrayal.
A notable incident is a scene where Uhura is to assume the helmsmen position that was written out of the episode. Nichols apparently grew angry, yelling “When you’re out in space, in a dangerous situation, you’re not going to have some female that goes ‘oooh captain save me save me!”
However, even Uhura wasn’t above sexist tropes. In the episode “And the Children Shall Lead,” Uhura’s worst fear is revealed to be growing old, again a common sexist idea that women only real fear is losing their beauty. And who can forget the infamous fan dance, though this didn’t occur until the movie Star Trek V several decades later.
Yeoman Rand, however, couldn’t have been more different. Rand was often the subject of the male gaze, wearing a skimpy outfit and having her body ogled at by both the camera and the characters. When she wasn’t the ships glorified maid (“The Corbomite Maneuver”) she was the classic damsel in distress—possessing no agency—and waiting for Captain Kirk to come rescue her.
In the episode “The Enemy Within,” Captain Kirk gets split into a good Kirk, containing his kindness and a bad, more animalistic Kirk. Kind of like me before and after I’ve had a cup of coffee in the morning. The bad Kirk goes on to attempt to rape Yeoman Rand, to the point where Rand has to physically scratch him off. Rand informs McCoy and Spock, who question the good Kirk, in front of Rand. This is incredibly bad practice, as we know that rape survivors shouldn’t be placed in the same room with their potential victimizer. Good Kirk quickly denies the accusations, and Spock and McCoy quickly believe him, despite evidence to the contrary. They then proceed to gaslight Rand to the point where she doubts her own memory of the situation. At the end of the episode, the two Kirk’s are made whole, and Rand apologizes to Kirk. We’re still dealing with today—the notion that when women get raped, it’s their own fault. She shouldn’t have dressed that way or been in the wrong place.
But to put the capper on the whole affair, in the last moment of the episode, Spock himself seems to suggest that Rand wanted the evil Kirk to rape her. It’s honestly one of the most out of character and disgusting moments in all of Star Trek.
The dialectic between the portrayals of Uhura and Rand fundamentally informs what treatment of women on board the Enterprise amounts to.
Uhura, while a generally positive portrayal of a female character, and a woman of color from that matter, wasn’t wholly exempt from sexist treatment by the show. And Yeoman Rand exemplified everything wrong with the show’s treatment of women.
Speaking of which, after the series pilots, female crew members often wore skimpier and skimpier outfits, especially in comparison to their male co-stars. Women were often shot with high-key lighting and soft focus, to idealize them and highlight their beauty. The show’s myriad of female guest-stars weren’t given much better treatment. Women characters were often, as researcher Karen Blair said,” there to affirm traditional male fantasies in a most direct and unenlightened way.”
There’s a lot of reports, some from Gene Roddenberry himself, that this was often done to appease the egos of some of the main cast members on the series.
Indeed, these issues of sexism were often so blatant that future iterations of the franchise felt a need to address them head-on, in order to try to explain why a future that was touted as being progressive and inclusive could still supposedly harbor sexist attitudes.
Star Trek: The Next Generation initially included a much stronger lineup of female role models. In fact, Tasha Yar was the ship’s security officer, a more physically demanding and aggressive job than was typical for female characters. While Dr. Crusher and Counselor Deanna Troi were given more female-coded nurturing roles, they also had more agency than their 1960s counterparts. Crusher was a scientist through and through, remaining steadfast in her convictions, like in the season six episode “Suspicions.”
Troi was also part of the bridge crew, and emphasized the importance of expressing emotions, even with male characters, a message we still sadly need today. She even got her command training at one point in the series, proving she could be command material. Dr. Pulaski, who replaced Dr. Crusher for season two of the series, was also often shown to be a grump and crotchety but well-meaning doctor in the vein of Leonard McCoy, personality traits not often given to female characters at the time.The show even had strong recurring female characters, including the ambitious Commander Shelby, the confident Admiral Nychieve, and one of the best female roles for an older woman on television, Troi’s mother Lwaxana, once again played by Majel Barrett. Hell, even the opening of the show was changed from “where no man has gone before” to “where no one has gone before”, using much more inclusive gender neutral language.
While things were certainly better, TNG was far from perfect. Episodes like “The Naked Now” showcased female officers getting infected with a virus, following men around searching for sex. Tasha Yar even wore a backless top and seduced numerous men. Like she needed to do that. Sorry, it’s probably just my attraction to really badass female characters but, I always had a thing for Tasha Yar. And Riker. Sorry, what were we talking about?
Behind the scenes, things were also initially tumultuous for the real-life women on the series. actress Denise Crosby who played Yar, left the show mid-way through season 1, citing that she felt like she wasn’t being utilized enough as an actor. However, years later in an interview with VICE, she stated that “sexism was involved” but didn’t elaborate much further.
Gates McFadden also left the show at the end of season one. Executive Producer Rick Berman stated that she was fired by head producer Maurice Hurley “had a bone to pick with her” and didn’t like her acting, and hated her hair of all things. McFadden herself stated years later “They felt that they had too many women…I understand why Denise wanted to leave. They didn’t use her. Our characters never had one scene together. I never had a scene with just Troi. The women didn’t count enough to have scenes together….” In another interview she also stated “I didn’t feel particularly that they were receptive to a female walking in and telling them about a great script idea… I was trying to navigate stuff and I was always was somebody filled with ideas. I think that totally contributed to my being let go the second season … I was from a background where you were encouraged to speak up with your ideas. It was about being passionate about what you were doing, it wasn’t about criticizing what you were doing … I think I lacked an awareness of how it could come off in a different way. It could be threatening to somebody.
Her season two replacement, Dr. Pulaski proved so unpopular, that with some prompting from Patrick Stewart, McFadden came back to the series. Yet, sadly, it came at the cost of Dr. Pulaski actress Diana Muldaaur losing her job, showcasing how often, sexism still leaves victims even when its impacts are trying be rectified.
This treatment of women behind the scenes of the series sadly wasn’t confined to The Next Generation either. Deep Space Nine’s Terry Ferrel also faced hardships, putting a lot of the blame on then franchise show runner Rick Berman.
The problems with my leaving were with Rick Berman. In my opinion, he’s just very misogynistic. He’d comment on your bra size not being voluptuous. His secretary had a 36C or something like that, and he would say something about “Well, you’re just, like, flat. Look at Christine over there. She has the perfect breasts right there.” That’s the kind of conversation he would have in front of you. I had to have fittings for Dax to have larger breasts. I think it was double-D or something. I went to see a woman who fits bras for women who need mastectomies; I had to have that fitting. And then I had to go into his office. Michael Piller didn’t care about those things, so he wasn’t there when you were having all of these crazy fittings with Rick Berman criticizing your hair or how big your breasts were or weren’t. That stuff was so intense, especially the first couple of years.
She finally decided to leave Deep Space Nine at the end of season 6 after continually mistreatment and a take or leave it ultimatum from Berman.
Back in front of the camera, while Diana Troi actress Marina Sirtis never left The Next Generation, the treatment of her character sometimes left something to be desired. For one, she had a stereotypical love of chocolate [scene]. Ok, I mean who doesn’t love chocolate… besides my partner, she hates chocolate, which I honestly don’t get.
Another recurring theme with Troi was her being the center of several rape metaphors, seen in the episodes ‘Violations’ and ‘The Child,’ and in the movie Star Trek Nemesis. For the next few minutes I’m going to be discussing depictions of metaphorical and literal sexual assault, so if that bothers you, skip ahead to the timecode below. In “The Child,” Troi is forcibly impregnated, inciting arguments about if the baby should be aborted. Troi ultimately has the baby, and it promptly ages quickly and dies, kind of like my hopes and dreams.
This episode, which is terribly written and relies on the kind if exposition that was a staple of Trek, isn’t necessarily problematic and actually provides some decent discussions revolving around abortion rights.
“Violations” is mildly worse. Here, a telepath named Jev invades Troi’s mind pretending to sexy Riker memory, as if Troi wasn’t already having those, and then attempts to sexually assault her, putting Troi in a coma. After implicating the wrong man, Troi is again attacked, and finally manages to capture Jev. It gets even worse in the end of the episode where Picard declares that they can’t even punish the attacker, as the Federation doesn’t have any laws that would address that crime. Nothing. No laws on any type of assault. I mean, she’s literally put into a coma. And the Federation has zero laws governing telepathy, despite the fact that they have several telepathic alien species, including one of their founding members Vulcans being telepaths? In the end, while this episode certainly does have some worthwhile moments, it doesn’t really handle its subject matter with the delicacy that it probably deserves.
Star Trek: Nemesis is arguably the most egregious example of this. Troi, once again, gets mind raped, this time by the villain Shinzon’s Viceroy, who forces his way into her mind while she’s having a sexual encounter with her now-husband Riker. Yet, the movie never really discusses this attack in any meaningful way. She suffers no PTSD or resurfacing tramau from again having to face a rape from someone who looks like Riker. There has got to be some really complicated conversations going on in that marriage. There is some lip service paid to the fact that Troi feels violated and asks to be relieved of duty, but not because she was just raped, but because she would be liability. So instead of a professional counselor being aware of her own mental health and well-being, she’s worried about being harmful to others. Yet, in a rather uncharacteristic and callous move, Picard ignores her request, and even orders her to telepathically reconnect with her assaulter later on in the movie. It honestly brings up some really unfortunate echoes of Yeoman Rand in The Original series. Certainly, unlike Rand, Troi does get her empowerment moment, defeating the Viceroy but the victory seems an afterthought and Pyrrhic at that.
Rape or its metaphor occurs disturbingly frequently across the franchise: on Star Trek. Deep Space Nine’s Jadzia Dax had her Trill was forcibily taken from her in the episode Invasive Procedures; Enterprise’s T’Pol is similarly telepathically rapeed in the episode “Fusion” when another Vulcan forcibly mind melds with her–she even contracts an illness from it in the episode “Stigma,” a heavy handed and hackneyed allegory to HIV/AIDS.
Spock himself, in a scene that at least attempts to capture nuances not seen in the past, forcibly mind melds with his protege and his appointed successor, Lt. Valeris, played by Kim Catrall, in The Undiscovered Country upon learning she’s a spy.
Voyager’s Seven of Nine get’s perhaps the most interesting “rape” narrative when it comes to physic rape metaphors in the episode “Retrospect.”
“Retrospect” is essentially an episode about the dangers of false rape allegations. When women come forward with accusations of rape, they are almost always accused to be making up the allegations. This despite that fact that most studies put the number of false accusations somewhere around 5%, though considering that those numbers are usually based off of reported rape figures, and that only about 10% of women are believed to actually report their rapes, the actual number may be only .5%. But regardless, even with the official number of 5%, that means that 95% of rape allegations do turn out to be true. Yet, almost every single woman who attempts to press charges against her assailant often face vitriol, harassment, and sexist abuse for coming forward on the assumption that she’s lying.
Rape allegations do happen, and they can ruin the falsely accused life. So to discuss that on Star Trek isn’t a completely ridiculous notion. But the prevalence and endurance of the theme, is an incredibly delicate one for a go-to for such a venerable franchise. Even episode writer Bryan Fuller had reservations, stating “I initially had my concerns because we were trying to distinguish it from a TV movie about date rape [….] We […] removed the sexual elements.”
In the episode, Seven of Nine attacks a man Kovin seemingly without provocation, so when the doctor finds evidence of residual trauma and memory earsure, The Doctor attempts to use his new psychiatric programming to help. Upon using hypnosis, The Doctor gets Seven to remember being assaulted by Kovin. However, we eventually learn that these were false memories, created due to the Doctor’s bias towards wanting to believe Seven and his lack of experience. These false memories lead to Kovin to being accused of assault, and eventually his death. The episode ends ambiguously, with both The Doctor and Seven having to live with their remorse, but with the acknowledgement that while neither of them is blameless, they also didn’t act with malice nor were wholly responsible for the situation.
In the end, the episode actually does a fairly good job of reconciling the disparate threads. While I have some reservations with the episode, like how Janeway doesn’t treat Seven with much empathy throughout the episode, even when it’s possible she was the victim of assault, overall the episode manages to discuss the dangers of the issue at hand without overall diminishing the weight of accusations of assault or rape.
Listing out all this instances of women facing sexual assault storylines is not an attempt to say that they automatically make the franchise sexist or misogynist.
Considering that one in three women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and Star Trek’s desire in tackling prescient issues is daring in of itself. In aggregate, it paints a broad picture of how women were used on the series. Some storylines are good, some are bad. Some are both at the same time. It’s worth praise them for both their successes, and while also acknowledging their failures. And that’s a theme that I’m going to come back to later.
Then there was the preponderance of slim fitting body suits—particularly Troi and Seven of Nine.
Sirtis once stated “So, [after wearing a uniform in the first episode] I got a cleavage, and all my gray matter departed. Which was sad, because originally (I know this is gonna shock you), Troi was supposed to be the brains of the Enterprise. So when the cleavage came, all that left, and I became decorative, like a potted palm on the bridge.”
By the time we get to Seven of Nine in Voyager or T’Pol in Enterprise, it’s embarrassingly obvious flesh peddling. Enterprise certainly up-ed the franchise’s sex ante. And while other characters like Hoshi Sato found themselves in skimpy outfits and sexy situations from time to time, actress Jolene Blalock who played T’Pol often found herself in sexual situations, such as the defcon chamber scene, scenes where she was tied to Archer, seducing a Ferengi, and sleeping with Trip. She even had Star Trek’s first nude scene.
And she’s a Vulcan. #sigh
When the show was about to be cancelled, executives even attempted to save the show by adding more cleavage to the character’s costume. Blalock was not happy, telling SFX magazine “You can’t substitute tits and ass for good storytelling. You can have both, but you can’t substitute one for the other, because the audience is not stupid. You can’t just throw in frivolous, uncharacteristic… well, bull and think it’s gonna help the ratings!”
It’s also worth mentioning her the JJ Abrams Kelvin Timeline movies, and specifically Star Trek Into Darkness. That movie in particular caused a minor controversy for a scene where the character of Carol Marcus undresses in front of Captain Kirk, seemingly only so we as the audience can be “treated” to a shot of her in her underwear. Yay?
On the earlier series Voyager, Seven of Nine herself was treated similarly, brought onto the show to up the series sex appear, often having the actress where a skintight catsuit that showed her… Borg assets.
Seven’s role on the show is even more fraught because of the animosity it created behind the scenes between Seven actress Jeri Ryan and Kate Mulgrew.
Voyager executive producer and Star Trek franchise showrunner Rick Berman stated “Kate was sort of the Queen of Star Trek at that point. She hung out with astronauts, she hung out with Hillary Clinton and she was the spokesman for women in leadership roles, and for a lot of things. All of sudden, this busty, gorgeous blond baba appears who took away everybody’s breath. I literally once remember some press being on the stage and just sort of pushing by Kate to get to Jeri. So there was a little antagonism that exist right through to the end of the show with those two ladies.
However, when one dives deeper, it really appeared to be more than simple jealousy. When Kate Mulgrew came onto the show, she understood the importance her character had towards being a representation of a strong, confident woman in a leadership role. She, rightfully, knew that the character was going to be a role model for so many female fans of Star Trek. She even had a strong rule that Captain Janeway not be sexualized. It was this stance, Kate Mulgrew believes, that led to the series creators bringing on Seven of Nine, who to Mulgrew represented a diminishment of women due to the character’s sexualization. Mulgrew stated ““I said, ‘I’m not going to sleep with Chakotay, it’s not going to happen. I said you’re just going to have to go somewhere else for it, so they got this very beautiful girl to come in.”
Mulgrew did have a point. Seven of Nine, in my opinion, was a strongly written character, one who fit into the noble tradition of outsider characters in Star Trek who strive to learn more about what it means to be human, allowing the writers to comment on the human condition. She was the show’s Spock, Data or Odo. Yet, despite the character’s nobel intentions, she was also the show’s sex appeal. And Mulgrew’s disdain for the character soon devolved into something worse.
According to Harry Kim actor Garrett Wang, “In the beginning, Kate’s anger was not directed toward Jeri Ryan, it was directed toward the character of Seven of Nine. She was the female captain, and now you bring in this borderline Tits and Ass character. When the writers/producers said no about getting rid of her, she kept complaining. Finally her anger turned toward the actress playing the character, Jeri Ryan. That’s when it became horrible.”
At one point, Kate Mulgrew allegedly demanded that Ryan not be able to use the bathroom because it took her too long to take off the catsuit. Ryan herself would state “The situation with Kate was very… difficult. It was not a fun work experience, particularly the first season. It was very difficult. I completely understand why. I get it, believe me, but it was very difficult. I had mornings, that first season especially, where I’d be nauseous before I went to work that morning, because I was so stressed. The second season wasn’t a whole lot easier…Overall, this was not my favorite work experience for that reason.”
The entire cast felt the stress of the situation. Chakotay actor Robert Beltran commented, “The crew was uncomfortable, the actors were uncomfortable, and there was no reason for it. During filming it could go very beyond what I would have tolerated. If it had been the other way where it was me being insulted and Kate was a man, I probably would have taken a swipe at the guy. But that’s me.”
Years later, Garret Wang would open up about the situation, even beginning to cry in front of the audience. The whole situation left very visible scars, and is perhaps emblematic of how, when there exists a patriarchal air of sexism and misogyny at play, women often feel the need to attack and blame each other, because they feel like they have no power to stop the actual root of the issue, which was the sexualization of women that was determined by a mostly if not exclusively male executive staff.
So, in the end here, what are we left with. Well, we’re left with what is ultimately a mixed bag. I can understand many of you out there seeing this really long video as a hit piece, a long rant by an SJW who hates Star Trek, and wants you to think that it was a horrid, sexist piece of trash. But that’s not what I’m saying.
I mainly focused on the franchise’s flaws when it comes to women, but Star Trek has given us truly worthwhile, stunning, iconic and important portrayals of women and women’s issues. You cannot talk about representation of women of color, a legacy that has been continued in today’s Star Trek Discovery, without acknowledging the extreme importance of characters like Uhura. Kira Nyers on Deep Space Nine was one of the complicated characters on television to that point. How many genocide survivors turned terrorists can be said to have been given such a nuanced portrayal, even by today’s standards. She, along with the powerful performances of characters like Troi, Crusher, Pulaski, Tasha Yar, Kira, Janeway, T’Pol, Jayla, B’Lanna, and so many others are power female role models ingrained in the very fabric of the series legacy. Go to any Star Trek or fan convention, and you’ll find countless stories of girls who were inspired by these characters, and by Trek in general. I myself consider Jadzia Dax, the woman who someone managed to be both tough as nails and still decidedly feminine, to be one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. Even Seven of Nine was a deeply nuanced character, and one who fans still consider to be an important moment in Trek fiction, as evidenced by the Trek community’s excitement for her return in Star Trek: Picard.
And Star Trek shows every sign of building upon its legacy of strong women. Regardless of your feelings of Star Trek Discovery as a whole, you can’t deny that it has some of the most well balanced and amazing treatments of gender than any Star Trek series before it. The show features a female lead, yes, but also so many strong and diverse women, from Tilly to Burnham to Admiral Cornwell to Nann to Detmer to Owo to Number One to Georgoei to Arium to Poe to Doctor Burnham to L’Rell to Jet Reno. It allows for some power subtle moments of diversity. In the episode Project Deadalus, we have an all-female away team. No big deal was made of it, it just was. And that honestly made me start to cry when that actually hit me. We just have three female characters on an away team, and it’s no big thing. They have an action scene, an emotional beat, and more. What a far cry from TOS. And that’s is reflected behind the scenes of Discovery too, from more women in the writers room like Kristen Beyer and new showrunner Michelle Paradise to directors like Marta Cunningham.
And yet… and yet, Star Trek, like pretty much every single major cinematic release of the past 100 years, has been incredibly flawed. Women were sometimes treated as sex objects, gawked at by the audience in order to service male fantasies. Women’s issues were sometimes given the weight they deserved, and other times played for jokes or ignored completely even when demanded by narrative. Real-life women behind the scenes, especially cast members, were treated as disposable by executives. We could say that all these moments were products of their times, and that’s not necessarily wrong. But I always hate that argument of “well, it was the 1960s, that’s just how things were”, as if somehow when something crappy was done in the best means that it doesn’t and didn’t have tangible effects on people living at that time. Have we learned and grown since then. Yes, but only BECAUSE we’ve looked back and acknowledged what we did wrong. That’s what Star Trek is all about, acknowledging the hardships of our best in order to recognize how to move forward.
And that, I think, it really what Mulgrew was trying to say when she called the original series misogynist. Star Trek was certainly progressive in so many ways. Mulgrew herself understood that more than most. It’s why she took the role of Janeway so seriously. Yet, like Mulgrew herself, we have to acknowledge that even when we try to be our best, we sometimes fail.
“Let’s be very straight about something. This is on me, not Jeri. She came in and did what she was asked to do. No question about that, and she did it very well. It’s on me, because I’d hoped against hope that Janeway would be sufficient. That we didn’t have to bring a beautiful, sexy girl in. That somehow the power of my command, the vicissitudes of my talent would be sufficient unto the day, because this would really change television, right? That’s what dug me the hardest… And that hurt me. I found it sort of insulting. And, of course, she embodied the part, this beautiful girl… I’m sorry it has to be part of this legacy, and I probably should have comported myself better. I should have been more philosophical about it, but in the moment it was difficult.”
And that brings me to the final part of this video; Gene Roddenberry himself.
It’s painful to criticize Roddenberry—his enduring legacy of kindness, inclusion, and goodness—and point out his flaws.
For a fan like me, the disappointment is that he failed to live up to his own ideals. In one speech, Roddenberry reportedly said “We don’t want to infer that it would be a better society if women ruled, because as we all know, women are goddamned cunts!” A Next Generation writer Tracy Torme stated that Roddenberry told him “women will suck the marrow out of your bones.” Back during the TOS days, apparently “He would have women walking from Bill Theiss’s fitting rooms through to his office in the skimpiest outfits so he could perv them.”
These are things that we know. Roddenberry often showcased sexist tendencies and actions. In many ways, not just in this one, he failed to live up to ideals that he himself came up with.
Criticizing Rodenberry, seems to undermine or preclude all the amazing things that Star Trek did—putting a Black woman on the bridge, casting a diverse ensemble—surely that wipes away all the bad things as a result.
In the end, that’s humanity. We fail. We mess up. We do some terrible terrible things. And we also do beautiful things.
Actually, do you know who said it best?
Gene Roddenberry: “We must strive to be more than we are. It does not matter that we will not reach our ultimate goal. The effort itself yields its own reward.”
Watch the documentary below.