Guest post by Justin Anfinsen.
I wouldn’t go as far to call myself a science fiction nerd, or a Star Trek expert by any stretch, but science fiction has always held a soft spot to me. I love the range of imagination that is displayed when people speculate about what life will be like in the future. Space ships, lasers, time travel, hyper drives, alien civilizations, artificial intelligence, the sky is the limit. Though it seems that while people’s imaginations ran wild imagining what science and technology would look like 100 years into the future, more often than not they left behind the equally important idealization of social equality and gender roles.
I always appreciated Trek’s vision of the future even if I wasn’t a religious fan of the series. Here was an idea of the future that proposed humans had grown together and formed a federation for the exploration of space in a primarily non-military role. The world economy had evolved past the use of money as we would recognize it today and we had entered into a new era of industrialization and progress. When the original series premiered its third season on CBS in 1968 it included an episode where Captain Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura, the episode is widely (and somewhat incorrectly) cited as the first scripted interracial kiss on television. Regardless of the motivations behind the kiss, it was a big deal back in 1968 and it served to establish how the society in Trek was more forward thinking than its contemporary audience.
I enjoyed director J.J Abrams’ first Star Trek film; it was a fun summer popcorn flick, the action was nicely framed and executed, the characters were likeable and diverse, and the style of future retro was different. So I went into the sequel, Into Darkness, more than a little excited. I’m not too concerned with giving a full review here; suffice it to say if you have seen the first film, you also saw this one. Kirk learns how to lead, Spock deals with his emotions, a man wants revenge for something, space adventures ensue, blah, blah, blah. So yes I was disappointed, but there was something besides the “been there, done that” plot that rubbed me the wrong way.
Trek was about showing what an advanced civilization could accomplish, and it does, except for one thing. Its female characters who are along for the ride. While the technology is spinning along in the year 2258 (yeah, I looked it up) the role of women was left back in 1968.
The crew of the USS Enterprise has women aboard; all but two are background characters. I guess we have to give credit to Trek here just for representing women at all on such a small ship. Look at the Death Star from the Star Wars films, a space station we are told is the size of a small moon, but do we see any women aboard at all on this massive structure? Nope, total intergalactic bro fest.
Before we break down the lead characters, let’s talk for a bit about what they wear. The men get to wear the typical shirt and pants Star Fleet uniform, a totally practical choice of attire for space adventures. The women aboard the ship get the standard issue Star Fleet mini skirt uniform (the original series was guilty of this as well). I have nothing against the mini skirt as a piece of clothing, I’m not offended by the sexy-ness of it, I’m just upset that such an impractical uniform would be given to women just for the sake of sex appeal. Sh*t happens all the time in space, often you are running for your life; pants work great for this… a mini skirt? Eh…even in other Trek series this was fixed. When Captain Janeway was the captain of the USS Voyager, she got to wear the same jumpsuit as her male co-workers. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone dressed the same. I don’t know why it has to be so impractical here…oh wait, screw the setting, these movies are supposed to be sexy for teenage boys.
The two women that feature prominently (meaning they get to speak) in Into Darkness are Lt. Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Carol (Alice Eve). In the first film Uhura was a large part of the crew; she was smart, intuitive, and was a good counter point for Kirk. Here, she gets to go on one exciting mission where a fight happens, then once back on board she fades into the background with the rest of the B-characters and we never really see much from here again save for a spat with her boyfriend Spock. Uhura’s problem is not that she is an uninteresting character; it’s that she is not given anything to do for 80% of the film. Her existence is pretty inconsequential. It’s a shame too; in the 20% we see Uhura, she is an interesting character with a strong personality, is assertive, is very good at what she does, and is not afraid to speak her mind to her male superiors.
The big offender here though is Alice Eve’s character Dr. Carol Marcus. Carol joins the crew as a science advisor and as we find out later is the daughter of the Star Fleet Admiral who has gone all war crazy and wants to blow up the Enterprise. Her presence, like Uhura’s, is pretty inconsequential. She has two main purposes; the first is to scream helplessly like a B movie queen whenever something terrible happens (which is often). Her second function is to be half naked. There is a scene where Kirk and Dr. Carol enter a transport together, Dr. Carol needs an outfit change for some reason so she warns Kirk “not to peek” but he peeks of course, because that’s what Kirk does. So we are treated to a shot of Alice Eve standing in her underwear. It’s very awkward because the scene goes on for a few seconds longer than it should, and Alice Eve visibly looks uncomfortable, she doesn’t quite know how to act when she is just supposed to stand there and be eye candy.
The scene serves no purpose. We already know Kirk likes women because prior to this we saw Kirk having a threesome with some alien sex kittens. It’s sexist, out of place and justifiably was the source for many a complaint and backlash against the writers. One of the film’s writers, Damon Lindelof, recently issued an “apology” over the scene via twitter.
So now we know that Lindelof does not quite know what he should be apologizing for. I don’t find his actions to be misogynistic, but they were ignorant. His thin defense of “But the mens were naked too!” shows how widely he missed the point. Yes, congratulations, you showed men and women can be equal as sexual objects, now how about we get a woman to sit on that Captain’s chair? No? I thought as much…but I will give credit where it’s due, he owned up to his mistake and said he would be more mindful in the future.
I don’t go into films ready and willing to critique every portrayal of women, but in turn I expect not to be treated like an idiot. So don’t sell me a narrative that has the facade of being an advanced civilization beyond where we are now, only to give me a society that places women behind where we are. It’s clear that JJ Abrams and his creative team have no intention of taking equality “Where no one has gone before;” his, along with his writer’s idea of what equality means, is more lost in space.
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