The Woman Problem in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek
I’ll say this upfront: I like the Star Trek reboot. It’s shiny and exciting and Chris Pine is oh so dreamy, not to mention pretty smart. I like that they’ve invented an alternate reality so the events of Star Trek: TOS can still exist and be mined for inspiration without forcing this franchise to be just a remake. But JJ Abrams and his writing staff have a problem… a pretty glaring woman problem. They have yet to put a woman on screen who gets to be her own character, instead of just an appendage to a male character. Oh, if you haven’t seen the movies…
Star Trek (2009) has only one woman in the main cast – Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura. Despite the anemic female population of the film, it does manage to pass the Bechdel test. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel test is a set of three criteria that measures the presence of women in media. To pass the test, the medium must have (a) two or more [named] women who (b) talk to each other (c) about something other than a man. Star Trek squeaks by on the grace of a 90 second conversation between Uhura and her roommate, Gaila, about a strange Klingon transmission the former heard in the Long Range Sensor Lab. What’s that? You forgot that conversation? That’s not too surprising – not only is it really short, but as she’s talking, Uhura strips down to her bra and knickers. Gaila is already down to her skivvies, since she and Kirk were just about to bang. And in an exemplary case of male-gaze camera work, the camera pans up Uhura’s body as she’s undressing, giving us the view Kirk has from under Gaila’s bed. This brief conversation ends up being critical about 20 minutes later, and the movie tries really hard to keep you from noticing it…until it gives Kirk the chance to save the day.
Later in the movie, we come to find that Spock and Uhura are romantically involved, which is unique to the reboot. From the moment we first see them kissing in an elevator, Uhura ceases to say or do anything useful or substantive. It’s like the movie didn’t know what to do with her if she wasn’t another character’s love interest. In a conversation between all of the main cast members about how to proceed against the villain, Kirk, Spock, Bones, Chekov and Sulu all manage to contribute something meaningful at least twice. Though the camera pans to Uhura a few times, she remains silent. Finally, after Spock gives a long explanation about how the villain has created an “entire new chain of incidents,” Uhura speaks, but only to reiterate what Spock just said. Though she’s initially shown as a brilliant, talented woman who can stand up for herself, all that is quickly dispensed with so she can be “Spock’s Girlfriend.” Pretty pitiful, first movie.
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) doesn’t do much better. For one, it doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test. But newcomer Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) does get to join the Gratuitous Underwear Scene Club, in what must be one of the most transparent opportunities ever to see a pretty girl half-naked in a movie. Uhura, despite a badass scene negotiating with Klingons, spends most of her screen time complaining that her Vulcan boyfriend isn’t emotionally expressive enough. Dr. Marcus’ big scenes involve being clumsily hit on by McCoy and being useful to the team by being an important man’s daughter. I haven’t yet had the chance to rewatch Into Darkness, so further analysis is forthcoming, but trust me, it’s not doing it’s female cast any favors.
When TOS first aired in 1966, it was imagined as a hopeful look at the future. It was one of the first popular TV shows to feature a racially diverse cast. Following iterations have continued in the tradition of socially progressive story-telling, including further race and gender diversity. Voyager features Capt. Kathryn Janeway, Star Trek‘s first female captain. No, it hasn’t been perfect – Uhura was never a main focus character and she was called upon to use her sexuality as a weapon on at least one occasion; Deanna Troi was mostly useless and played directly to the “women as nurturers” trope; Capt. Janeway is still the the only female captain; people of color are the minority in every generation – but it always tried to push boundaries and question cultural norms. This new franchise has so much potential, and as I say, I do really like the movies. So please, JJ, take a cue from Gene Rodddenberry, and try to give us female characters with more than one dimension, okay?