Star Trek: Exposed Female Bodies and Ferocious, Forgotten Heroines

Seven of Nine, "Star Trek: Voyager"

This article attempts to avoid direct Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers. However, due to its discussion of the film, it’s obviously best to see the movie if you’re one of those people that dislike spoilers. River Song perhaps.

Last month the latest movie in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, premiered in cinemas and was greeted by the expected level of nerd fanfare. While the film is very successful in repurposing the standard futuristic-action-movie formula (faithfully adorned with a warp-core here and a Vulcan there to differentiate it from a Transformers movie) director J.J. Abrams has come under fire from longtime fans of the series for seemingly abandoning the principles of equality, diversity and philosophy that the original series aimed to embody.

From choosing to cast Benedict Cumberbatch, the whiter-than-white-isn’t-that-man-a-bedsheet Sherlock lead, as one of the franchise’s most iconic non-white characters to rather shamelessly lifting significant plot chunks of previous Trek movies, swapping around the character roles and branding it ‘nostalgic’, Into Darkness has some major narrative and casting issues hampering its attempt to be a brilliant movie. Which is a shame.

However Into Darkness‘s depiction of women may be the film’s biggest indiscretion against Trek philosophy as Abrams’ portrayal of feminist agency within the 23rd century feels more like something from the dark ages. While 2009’s Star Trek reboot may have elevated the centrality of Lt. Uhura within the ensemble dynamic of the Enterprise crew, it simultaneously ignored many opportunities to include further female characters within the newly realised universe. Classic Trek characters such as Nurse Chapel, Janice Rand and the fleeting but inherently promising Number One were all expunged from this new Trek narrative, while the Enterprise’s original commanding officer, Captain Pike, was installed as a central father figure for Kirk. The fact that Pike’s character was principally reinstated within Abrams’ universe, at the expense of other more established female characters who featured beyond a single flashback episode, is indicative of the new Star Trek‘s obsession with the exploration of the straight, white male figure at the expense of alternative identities.

So far, so sausage party. And while Into Darkness offered the opportunity to rectify this at least in part, what instead happened was this:

Carol Marcus, Star Trek Into Darkness

Yes, that is a woman in her underwear.

When a character as resilient, confident and intelligent as applied-physicist Dr. Marcus can only earn her place in a science-fiction film by parading around in her underwear, the ethics of direction must be called into question. The fact that Abrams was clearly so desperate to bear lady-flesh on screen is woefully apparent from the half-arsed narrative construct engineered to get Alice Eve half-naked: Dr. Marcus intends to defuse a mysterious torpedo aboard the Enterprise and so must change out of her standard uniform. (I presume it must have clashed with the torpedo casing.) As she begins to undress, Marcus instructs Captain Kirk (her direct commanding officer) to avert his eyes but Kirk naturally ignores this request and he (and the audience) enjoys a lingering view of modern feminism being thrown out the proverbial airlock. The whole issue has been bandied about extensively by this point. The film’s writer has actively apologised for the scene, labelling it ‘gratuitous’, and there’s been several excellent analyses of the film’s overall treatment of both gender and wider Trek ideology that eagerly rip the entire thing to pieces.

While I’m all for the media/long-time fans/general cinema-goers/those-with-brains actively sticking the boot in to patriarchal crap such as Into Darkness‘s first contact with Planet Boob, the grim reality is that the visual objectification of women within mainstream cinema is hardly anything new. The reason why people are up in arms about Dr. Marcus being pointlessly exposed in the hopes of giving some unwashed 14-year-old boys a pleasant moment to enjoy in the shower is because Star Trek isn’t just another colour-by-numbers dumbass movie with guns, robots and explosions, it’s Star Trek. For a franchise that brought people of different genders and ethnicities together for the very first time on television, in a time of racial tension even in the Western world, was an act of powerful revolution and change; a legacy that the series continued on throughout the first 35+ years of its history. From Star Trek: The Original Series to Star Trek: Voyager, women of all sexualities, mentalities and ethnicities have featured proudly and prominently and brought intelligent, complex and empowered female characters to the forefront of science fiction.

Captain Janeway, Star Trek: Voyager

To jump from Voyager, a television show featuring a female captain in the central role as well as several other intelligent, resilient female figures that took great pleasure in annihilating the Bechdel Test on a weekly basis to Abrams’ Trek is soul-destroying for me. From Captain Janeway to Seven of Nine, key women of Star Trek shaped my views of feminism, equality and self-empowerment from an incredibly young age and motivated me to view others equally and to, in time, accept myself. It’s an age that feels painfully disconnected from this new version of Trek in which, to quote an Into Darkness crew member, ‘Last time, Zoe needed to wear underwear, and this time it was Alice Eve’s turn. You know, it’s a rather large male fanbase, and JJ wanted to appeal to that.’

The most troubling word in that entire sentence is ‘needed’, the suggestion that even in a utopian setting women cannot function in a serious context as equals without bringing their overwrought sexuality along for the space ride. It makes you wonder whether previous incarnations of Star Trek really did enact any form of social change, when female characters are body first and brains significantly after in the 21st century.

For a lot of fans Star Trek resonates far beyond merely a television show, it paved the way for new ways of thinking about cultural identity and the world we live in. While previous iterations of Trek may not have been without their faults, their intentions were always aimed towards equality, inclusion and exploration of the self as a constantly evolving cultural notion. While the characters may feel nostalgic and the effects shinier than ever before, if Into Darkness is where we must ‘boldly go’ then I think I’d prefer to stay in the light.

4 thoughts on “Star Trek: Exposed Female Bodies and Ferocious, Forgotten Heroines

  1. It seems JJ broke the prime directive of political correctness. The franchise wants to capitalize on a younger audience, same old story. It seems money is the final frontier to overcome.

  2. Can’t help but feel illustrating this article with a picture of Seven of Nine in a silver catsuit somewhat undermines the thrust of it. Star Trek has never been afraid to use a little sex appeal to attract viewers, from the aforementioned Uhura, Rand and Chapel in the miniest of mini dresses, to Deanna Troi’s cleavage enhancing jumpsuits, to the skin-tight outfits of Seven and T’Pol. Sure, the Alice Eve scene was tasteless and gratuitous, but let’s not pretend Star Trek was previously above that.

    • I think the important distinction between previous versions of Trek and Into Darkness in terms of their portrayal of female sexuality is less about what the female characters wear but, instead, how they are treated because of those clothes. Yes, Star Trek can be accused of extensively portraying female characters in revealing costumes (from Uhura to Seven of Nine) but other characters around them never aggressively comment on their attire. The mini dresses of the 1960s from TOS may have been revealing but never do we see any of the female characters feel ashamed or embarrassed by their attire, nor do we witness any male characters actively sexualising them (as Kirk does in Into Darkness) because of their physical appearance. Just as the racial diversity of TOS is never explicitly discussed, it’s just something that’s there and it’s another way of saying ‘Well we’re all equal, this isn’t a big deal’.

      Granted, those costumes may have been designed to be sexually appealing but, as I said, my issue isn’t with the outfits but more the surrounding characterisation. Most people when they first saw Seven of Nine probably thought, “Woah!” but watch five minutes of Seven actually on screen and you quickly realise that she’s an incredibly formidable, proud, intelligent, private character. While her outward appearance may suggest that she is sexually available (and thus eager to be desired, eager to be accepted by men) the exact opposite is true of Seven’s personality, there’s no character more intimidating than Seven on Voyager and that quickly becomes her defining trait. Men aboard the ship aren’t lustful for her, they’re genuinely scared. (To reinforce the point, when Seven does go on a date she nearly breaks the guy’s arm.)

      It’s all that characterisation that’s missing from Into Darkness and that’s the frustrating part. If Dr. Marcus had seen Kirk spying on her and started screaming, threatened to cave his skull in with a hypospanner or report him to Starfleet command, it would have set an incredibly different tone to that present in the movie. As it stands, the scene carries a sense of false protest but no one challenges it, the camera lingers and it’s never addressed again. That’s the issue with the anti-feminist content of Into Darkness for me, not the sexualisation but the lack of emotional critique surrounding it that marginalises women as a result.

      (PS – There’s actually an academic analysis of Deanna Troi’s many outfits from TNG and their relationship to her wider characterisation in a book called ‘Enterprise Zones: Critical Positions on Star Trek’ if you’re interested about the subject.)

      • Just browsing the net after seeing the great improvement in the female dynamic in the new Star Wars movie and saw this article so I apologise for commenting so late in the day. However, even though they are light years ahead of previous incarnations, the SW characters are still grossly skewed in favour of men. Conversely, while Star Trek was always better in terms of the number of women it showed on screen, it struggled with their implementation. Voyager, I suppose, represented a high point but still maintained the 66/33 male/female split, with Wildman only ever appearing in ‘mom’ stories instead of ‘ship’s exobiologist’ stories, which is bonkers when you think about the show’s premise. Similarly, if you look at Janeway’s crew, if Chakotay had not pressured her to appoint Torres, she would have had no women among her senior officers at all. Women in Trek often fall outside the command structure.

        I agree that NuTrek has failed utterly in its implementation of women, with all the speaking characters filling mother, girlfriend, and potential girlfriend roles and showing far more skin in titillating situations than was needed.

        I was frustrated that Chekov was aged and shoe-horned in as one of the ‘Big Seven’ and that Number One, Rand (the original female lead), Chapel, and T’Pau, who were all present in TOS and in roles that could have been featured without changing the plot at all, were largely excised without any attempt to update them. Despite being a research biologist who became a nurse on a starship as a way to search for her fiance, and then later qualified as a doctor, NuChapel decides that nursing as a primary career is good enough in a universe where Vulcan women let the men do all the talking. I thought her express removal fro the crew was rather insulting to Majel Barret’s memory. Kirk’s mother was probably drunk in a shack with her abusive new bf instead of showing any interest in her son’s miraculously ludicrous promotion up the ranks.

        Rand could have been Pike’s yeoman or a security guard that helped take out Kirk (oh wait, NuTrek doesn’t have female security guards, silly me). I would have preferred to see Kirk beamed to the brig on Delta Vega with Rand has his security escort to set her up as his gal Friday early on – tiresome mutual attraction need not apply. Oh well.

        Star Trek Beyond does seem to have a woman as a prominent guest star and it looks like she might not even be a love interest but it will be more interesting to see what’s going on with the supporting characters when you strip out the top three women. Based on past experience, I’m not all that hopeful!

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