Review by Anne Collins Smith in FEMSPEC Vol. I, Issue 2, 1999.
The Exploration of Gender in Deep Space and Sacred Time
In Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen identify Star Trek as a cultural myth:
"To treat Star Trek as American mythology ... is simply to say that much of Trek's phenomenal appeal has to do with its ability to confront and express, in a gratifyingly mythic way, some of the central concerns of American culture." (4)
Employing a pluralistic analysis that considers and often adopts a variety of theoretical approaches, the authors examine a number of aspects of the Star Trek mythology and the way in which it both expresses and confronts our cultural assumptions and issues. The purpose of this review is to assess the authors' discussion of gender roles and relationships in this mythological context.
In the first chapter to deal specifically with gender issues, "Celestial Femininity," Wagner and Lundeen observe that Trek's perspective on gender roles extends not only to the regular characters, but to the alien cultures they encounter, thereby universalizing and reinforcing the gender perspective of the times in which the series were made. Thus, the characters of Star Trek: The Original Series (henceforth "TOS"), which displays a mostly-conservative attitude toward the proper role of women in society, find this attitude reinforced in their encounters with other races. By contrast, the explorers of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth "TNG") Star Trek: Deep Space Nine ("DS9"), and Star Trek: Voyager, which display a somewhat more progressive attitude toward the role of women, find that other races hold the same limited-progressive attitude.
The authors develop these insights by reference to the periods in which the series are set. For example, they make a compelling argument that Kirk's conversation with Lenore Karidian in the TOS episode "Conscience of the King," in which he asserts that "a woman is always a woman," should be read as a reassurance that the feminist movement of the 1960's would not succeed in turning women into people. They also relate later episodes such as TNG's "The Outcast" and DS9's "Sanctuary" to the debate over the social construction of gender that became prominent in the 1980's and 1990's.
Lundeen and Wagner make thoughtful use of contrary-to-fact reasoning to point out "blind spots" in the logic of the episodes which result from the preconceptions of their writers. They propose a scenario interrogating gender roles that could have resulted from the precarious sexual politics of the original pilot "The Cage," in such an exciting way that I found myself wishing it had happened as they speculated. The assumption of universal heterosexuality displayed in the TOS episode "Metamorphosis" is laid bare when the reader is led to consider an alternate solution of "The Companion" (who is female) forming a relationship with Commissioner Hedford (also female), rather than joining with her to become the mate of Zephram Cochrane (who is male). Likewise, the identification of the creature in the TOS episode "Man Trap" with the legend of the succubus becomes clearer when the authors observe that the crew never consider the obvious solution of providing the creature with salt so that it does not have to kill. (This insightful analysis is somewhat marred by the authors' claim that Kirk kills the salt vampire "with grim zeal." In fact, the creature is killed by McCoy, with tremendous regret.)
In their discussion of female characters on TNG, Wagner and Lundeen point out the conservative assumptions beneath the liberal exterior: the important and powerful women characters introduced in the pilot all embody characteristic feminine roles as nurturers and protectors. In an intriguing statement, they claim that certain characters in later episodes, although played by women, could just as well have been played by men. Shelby, the ambitious officer who threaten's Riker's position in "Best of Both Worlds," is cited as an example. When a character's importance to the script is essentially gender-neutral, and the producers choose to cast a woman in the role, stereotypes and assumptions about proper female roles can be, if not neutralized, at least substantially mitigated.
The authors' discussion of Captain Janeway's sexuality is, I think, particularly well-thought-out. They contrast her options for sexual behavior with those of male captains such as Kirk and Picard; they place the difference between Janeway and her predecessors in the double standard that our contemporary culture still applies to autonomous male sexuality and autonomous female sexuality.
The chapter ends with a frustratingly brief discussion of the character of Seven of Nine. As Lundeen and Wagner rightly state, "the difficulty of placing Seven of Nine within the familiar semiotic polarities of gender, power, and sexuality is what gives her such an engaging potential for mythic explorations of these polarities." Unfortunately, perhaps because of the timing of the book's publication (i.e., it had to be finished being written before many of Seven of Nine's episodes were available), the reader is left to ponder just what these explorations might be.
In the next chapter, "The Perfect Mate," the authors take on the complex issue of relationships in Star Trek, discussing both marriage and friendship. Again, the shift in perspective between the 60's (TOS) and the 80's and 90's (TNG, DS9, and Voyager) comes into play; Wagner and Lundeen demonstrate a causal relationship between attitudes toward marriage in the social atmosphere of the times to the portrayal of marriage in the series produced in those times. They make important distinctions about changing social attitudes toward marriage as reflected in the series, particularly in regard to increased sexual freedom for men (which is supported in Trek) and increased self-identity for women (which is not).
Even more interesting, however, is their discussion of the foregrounding of friendship in Trek. Friendship between men is often validated over and against sexual love between men and women; an obvious example may be found in the TOS episode "Amok Time," where Spock's marriage to T'Pring, a Vulcan woman, is disrupted and his close friendship with Captain Kirk is affirmed. The authors discuss and reject several popular analyses of the Kirk-Spock relationship and male bonding in Trek in general, and then propose their own distinction: that Trek celebrates and values philia (friendship) over eros (sexual love). Eros is viewed as dangerous, unstable, and closely allied with violence; friendship, on the contrary, is characterized by loyalty, selflessness, and stability. This is true even between heterosexual pairs: Lundeen and Wagner cite a Voyager episode in which Tom Paris refuses to have purely lustful sex with B'Elanna Torres, a decision supported by the script as the correct one; their later sexual relationship is founded on philia. While ideally philia can take place between people of any gender, the authors rightly decry the lack of woman-woman friendships in the series.
I was surprised not to see a discussion of homoerotic fan fiction in the sections dealing with male bonding. A casual reader might infer that Wagner and Lundeen intend to privilege academic perspectives over popular perceptions to the extent of excluding the latter. I should observe, however, that some of the resources now available, such as the anthology Theorizing Fandom and the history Boldly Writing, both of which offer invaluable documentation of the fan fiction phenomenon in the voices of the fans themselves, had not yet appeared when Deep Space and Sacred Time was being composed. As a fan who is deeply aware of the resentment fans bear toward academic exploitation of fandom, I would rather have homoerotic fan fiction omitted than misrepresented, and so I support the authors' decision in this matter.
The analysis of gender in Deep Space, Sacred Time consistently demonstrates a number of the attractive qualities of the book. The authors are clearly familiar with the Trek universe, with the history and evolution of sociological theories and social attitudes, and with Trek scholarship. Their decision to pursue a pluralistic rather than a monolithic approach permits an unusual breadth and richness. Moreover, they are able to weave these elements into an insightful analysis which reflects a skillful and imaginative application of general theories to specific episodes, characters, and themes.
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