Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trekking In Search of a Strong Female Character

So I went to see Star Trek the day it opened. I'm a bit of a Trekkie, yes I am. Not so much of a Trekkie that I can tell you timelines and star systems and all the planets that are in the Federation, nor am I that much of a Trekkie that I get into frequent fights re: Picard Vs. Kirk.

My vote's for neither, anyway. My captain is Janeway. I know, I know, plenty of people think Voyager is an inferior series compared to others, and in many ways, it is. Part of it is because, like so many other series, it is dependent on network whims. I believe another part of it is because a woman was in charge and nobody knew how to freaking write her. As the Hathor Legacy regularly points out: male = default, female = particular. Yeah, whatever.

In a lot of these kinds of shows, women die with alarming regularity. It goes way back when to the two choices a woman has: get married or die. That's generally the ultimate fates that women tend to have.

So I wasn't surprised when in Star Trek, based on the ensemble cast of the Original Series, had only one woman worth talking about: Lt. Uhura.

Plenty has been discussed about the problems with Lt. Uhura and Star Trek, at Shakesville, Racialicious, the Hathor Legacy being just a few places which have open threads on the movie, where we bitch about canon details and the stupid women's uniforms and how much Kirk was an asshole.

Me, my special love for Uhura stems from the episode "The Naked Time", in which a delusional Sulu is running around the ship with a fencing foil, shouting, "Richelieu, beware!" (Which in itself is already really hilarious.) He gets to the bridge, and grabs Uhura around the waist, saying, "I'll rescue you, fair maiden!" Uhura gives him an annoyed look, pushes his arm off her, and says, "Sorry, neither!" I was dazzled by her double denial of typical damsel fare.

If you haven't watched the movie, THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD.

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I must admit I was extraordinarily pleased with the way Lt. Uhura was handled in this movie - to be honest, I was actually pretty scared that they were going to fuck up her character and relegate her to Token Love Interest, of, shudderingly, Kirk. (For those not in the know, Kirk and Uhura had a famous "first interracial" kiss on TV, which wasn't actually the first, since DesiLu had accomplished that before, but Nichols was clearly black and Shatner was clearly white, so it was more striking, imho, ymmv.) Whilst in the original series she handled little more than communications and her talents weren't really built on throughout, the fact that she was an officer on the bridge was pretty groundbreaking at the time.

What we were given in this movie is a strong, high-minded, clearly intelligent, unflappable young woman clearly professional and dedicated to her duty, even as she takes on the Token Love Interest role.

Let's start with her introduction to the movie. Kirk is being an asshole and trying to get her name, and she gives him her surname. When a few other Starfleet officers come along to help her get Kirk off her back, she calmly tells them, I can handle this. Even as Kirk starts a barfight, she doesn't want an altercation to happen (even as she is impotent to stop the fighting).

I enjoy the fact that she doesn't get involved with the fight, because too often, the idea of being "strong" is inevitably tied up to the idea that one must be physically strong, particularly wrt to female characters, because women are weaker than men by virtue of being physically weaker, after all, amirite? As Patrick Stewart says about the movie Kill Bill:

"I condemn utterly films like Kill Bill. We are told it is about empowering women. All it does is empower a woman to kill other women."


It's the same pretty much elsewhere: a woman is only strong if she can kick ass, like Ellen Ripley. I got extremely annoyed when Girl Genius fans started applauding the lead character for throwing her tantrum. While it is a definite improvement over her early simpering, losing one's cool and screaming about how one is now in a position of power is not my idea of strength. Bad-assedness is tied directly to being able to challenge other people and win. It goes back to the idealization we have for power.

So even if Uhura never did get to do any rescuing or go on missions, that's okay by me, because she's needed most on the bridge, since her talents are best utilized there, not running around on Vulcan saving people or in the Romulan ship looking for Captain Pike.

The next improvement is that the writers actually gave Uhura a first name. Which is not divulged to Our Hero Kirk because, well, he's an asshole and she's not interested in him. All the other TOS bridge members got first names except Uhura. And it's not even an Americanized first name either, which is great, because Uhura was neither made "more black" to show racial diversity, nor whitewashed. She simply was, utterly, herself.

The first time we see Uhura's uber-smartness is when Kirk is hiding under the Orion cadet's bed, and we're treated to the sight of Uhura's undressing. He overhears her discussing the signal she intercepted, and wow, really, a female character being a conduit for plot development and getting important information that everybody ignores until it's too late? Say it ain't so!

I'm sure plenty of fanboys are freaking over how hot she is, which she is. I'm pretty sure most of them are also losing sight of the equanamity with which she kicks Kirk out - no indignant screaming, no freaking out, just a calm, "OK, funtime's over, now GTFO."

Now reflecting on the movie, I realize that the first hint we got of the Uhura/Spock relationship happening was when the cadets were being assigned to their respective ships, and Uhura is assigned to another ship. She confronts Spock and tells him, firmly, "I'm assigned to the Enterprise." Spock, although initially arguing that he didn't want to be seen as performing favouritism, re-assigns her and says, "You're right, I made a mistake."

I'm a couple of minds on this. Firstly, was she actually assigned to the Enterprise originally? If she was, then possibly Spock mucked with the systems so they wouldn't be on the same ship, preventing their relationship from developing any further, and preventing them from being emotionally compromised. It brings to mind Lt. Cmdr. Nella Daren, who requested a transfer after it was clear she and Captain Picard wouldn't be able to do their jobs the best they could on the same ship.

If she wasn't, then Spock was playing favourites (or simply didn't want to argue with her), and we'd have to explore why she was so insistent on being on the same ship as him - because she wanted to be close to him? Because the Enterprise is on its maiden voyage and it's a really awesome shiney ship, goddammit? Why not both? Either way, she knew she wanted to get on that one specific ship, and she got it, with no resultant "but we'll be too distracted to do our jooobbbss" bullshit from her boyfriend.

The next neat thing about Uhura is that she doesn't second-guess herself nor play down her abilities. When Kirk's confronting Pike on the bridge, he points out that Uhura intercepted the Romulan signal, and Spock confirms Uhura's talents. Uhura herself tells Pike that she can speak three Romulan dialects, and when ordered to take the communications station, she doesn't back away from the duty or act modest or whatever - she just does the freaking job.

It's a huge step away from what women are commonly expected to do - we've all noted studies in which women are observed to phrase sentences as questions as opposed to statements, so that we don't step on the widdle men's toes by challenging them directly and confidently. We're also told not to boast of our achievements or accomplishments because somehow men are easily intimidated by this. (Apparently.)

Maybe because there just wasn't enough time in the film for Uhura to do this. Whichever. Great effect.

Admittedly, the romance between Spock and Uhura was out of the left field for me - nothing in the Original Series ever points to the remote possibility of this. The closest thing to a Spock romance is Nurse Chapel's angsting for Spock's love. The closest Spock and Uhura ever get to is in an episode where Uhura is fixing something in the communications panel (the girl can do hardware, ya'll), and Spock sits down next to her for a few moments to check on her. She's obviously stressed and concentrating, and says something to the effect of, "I haven't done this in forever" and Spock replies, "well, press on diligently, you're the best person to do this." There was also that scene where they perform together, Spock on the harp, and Uhura singing.

So the turbolift scene weirded me out as it dawned on me that yes, Uhura's been assigned Token Love Interest. Boo. But! She's Token Love Interest to the Smart Guy. And when she asks Spock what she can do for him, he tells her, primly, "I need everyone to do the best job they can under the circumstances." She lets him leave the turbolift, obviously hurting for him, but she knows that this particular rejection isn't about her, nor his flaw in being unable to show emotion. It's a marked difference from Nurse Chapel's weepiness when Spock rejects her (albiet she was under intoxication at the time). And then Uhura goes back to do her freaking job.

Then there's that makeout scene in the transporter room. I liked it, because it was a very quiet, very dignified sort of smooching and non-teary farewell. I also liked it because Kirk did a double-take and that's when it drives home for most of us that Goldenboy Hero will not Get The Girl. Spock and Uhura exchange some typical loving words, and she issues the typical "you better come home," threat alongside the typical "I'll be keeping an eye on your signal if you get in trouble" watching out as he makes the typical "I'll be back" promise.

Plenty of people have discussed this and it's split between those who like it and those who don't. I like it, obviously, because I'm a sucker for cerebral romances, which Spock and Uhura certainly have. They're both professional, but unlike many romances, honest about their feelings for each other. There's no angst happening here, no weird misunderstandings or miscommunications which so often drive messy romances and pass for comedy. Because they can connect intellectually, Spock possibly feels freer to connect emotionally with Uhura, even if he is her commanding officer so it's probably not kosher. So maybe the making out is gratuitous, and the jury's still out on whether it's in-character for Spock, but still: Uhura, our Token Love Interest, is paired with an intellectual equal, which is refreshing after a slew of movies in which physical attraction is the main driver for most "relationships".

And anyway, who cares whether or not it's canon, because that got thrown out the window.

I can live with Uhura not being a Badass. We don't all need to be Badasses and going out to Kick People's Butts and we can be strong just by being the best we can be using our respective talents. For what little the writers gave us WoC, they gave Uhura all the punches she needs to be a really recognized member on the bridge.

The movie can do better in terms of diversity and how female characters are treated. It's kind of sad that this has been the one movie in which we saw true racial diversity in a LONG, LONG while (haha, post-racial America my yellow ass!) but I'm hoping what they did right here gets continued.

Star Trekking in search for strong female characters continues!

7 comments:

  1. To be fair, Spock actually has several love interests in the series. He had an honest-to-goodness girlfiend in This Side of Paradise, and love interests in The Enterprise Incident (the Romulan commander), The Cloud Minders (mostly just mutual admiration), and All Our Yesterdays (ready to give up his career for her).

    So while I don't see Spock/Uhura in the older stuff, I don't think a love interest for Spock is out of left field at all.

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  2. Uhura was super competent and it was great. I am so with you.

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  3. Uhura's had a last name for ages actually. I don't know where or when it actually came about but the 'Nyota' isn't new.

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  4. First name, not last name. :)

    Neither Uhura nor Sulu was ever given a first name in the aired episodes of the original series, and for a LONG time there were two opposing camps on what their names were.

    Roddenberry, when asked at some point, apparently gave Sulu's first name as "Walter" and Uhura's as "Penda". Someone else - and I really can't remember how this came about - pegged them as "Hikaru" and "Nyota". Those versions came into common usage in the paperback novel continuity, so anyone who reads the books has known those names for a loooooong time. But since nothing in the books is "true canon", there was always the possibility of them being overruled.

    Sulu's name was finally spoken in Star Trek VI as he identifies himself as captain.

    Uhura had the longest to wait.

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  5. It was pointed out that Uhura was top of her class and the enterprise is the flag ship; so getting on it is the PRIME assignment and in a straightforward meritocracy should go to the best person- which is why she demands to be there. She is saying this isn't about favouritism, this is about my right to this job as the best candidate.

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  6. Sorry for the lateness, I've just been signposted here by Feminist Avatar.
    I came out of the movie really liking the way they treated Uhura. So she became a love interest, but that wasn't made into her defining characteristic.
    As you said, her skills and abilities were integral to moving the plot forward and it was made quite clear that she is an intelligent and capable woman.
    I also thought the love interest gave more depth to the film and to both Uhura and Spock.

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