Star Trek: What’s LGBTTQQI2 Got To Do With It?
There has always been a sprinkling of queer presence in the Star Trek franchise, even though most of the representations have been fleeting and most often fail the ubiquitous “queer agenda”. Smile.
In this essay I will describe a brief overview of each of the five Star Trek series in relation to queerness, and then do a more micro level critical review and analysis, with a queer and anti-racist lens, of five specific episodes from the Star Trek genre, and two character analyses.
There is a certain irony in how we search for representation of ourselves within a mainstream network television context. How queer/ radical can it possibly be? We one thinks about the machinery that is selling advertising, and the effort to appear to as wide an audience as possible, and of course the inevitable “community standards”, leads network television to be somewhat of a dubious place to find good representation.
And while Star Trek has had a reputation for pushing against that, somewhat, what with the interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura, and other moments I’ll be mentioning in this essay, ultimately, there is a culture of conservatism, of being connected to the status quo.
And yet, we search, and sometimes we find. None of the episodes or representations we find are earth-shattering, but sometimes, it’s enough to just see a glimmer, and to know that shows such as Star Trek reach so many people, and can carry impact.
TOS= The Original Series
TNG= The Next Generation
DS9= Deep Space Nine
In TOS the homoerotic analysis of the connection between Kirk and Spock has been done to death, far more prolifically than I could cover in this space, and I need to confess that TOS was never my favourite of the series, simply because I was born too late to find the buttons and flashing lights “cool” in any way. This series was the birth of slash fiction though, for which we are all forever grateful – and which YouTube has made ever more visible and possible.
Then there’s TNG, the most mainstream and well-loved series. And it’s time for true confessions. When I was in graduate school many years ago I took a popular culture course in sociology and wrote a basic “script” for TNG as my final paper. The theme was on same-gender/queer attraction and what happens on The Enterprise when the crew no longer carries the restraints of heteronormativity. I will be discussing the only three remotely queerish episodes I could think of from the TNG archives, “Angel One, “The Outcast” and “The Host”.
The structure of the DS9 series was the most “unlike” the classic Trek framework. It was set on a space station, not on a ship, and the cast was divided, half Starfleet and half a motley assortment of folks who neither respected nor valued the presence on the space station. The presence of Starfleet at DS9 can be critically read as an occupying army, even as they were presented as benevolent. This is being told from their perspective of course. Politically, I fell this series took the most political risks, with the parallels between the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the occupied territories. Obviously looking into this in more depth is beyond the scope of this paper. This series also lacked the presence of a “hot babe” character, inserted to appeal to the “geeky straight boy” demographic, even though both Kira Nures and Jadzia Dax were extremely cute. The DS9 series is famous by now for one of the few amazing woman/woman kisses on network television, between Dax and her former wife Lenara, in “Rejoined”.
Then we come to Voyager, which, for the presence of four characters of colour (Tuvok, Chakotay, Harry Kim and B’elana Torres) is my favourite of the Treks. The character of the Doctor has always seemed queer to me, and the episode “Body and Soul” shows us the Doctor residing inside the body of Seven of Nine.
When Enterprise first aired, I called it a “white boy fest” It didn’t appeal to me, the characters we all fairly flat in terms of personality, and the lack of a strong presence of people of colour left me feeling unenthused. While I watched very little of it, my sources tell me there were no episodes with any queer content, either straight up (ha ha) or sub rosa.
Episode Reviews: Summary
There are two episodes featuring straight women which attempt to challenge both gender roles and sexuality (sometimes). TNG’s “Angel One” and Voyager’s “Body and Soul”.
As for an overt attempt to address both gender identity and desire, The TNG episode “The Outcast” was widely viewed at the time as an attempt to portray the “reversal” of what homophobia would look like on a genderless planet, in which some folks exhibited gender, considered unnatural.
I will look at the character of Neelix, the Talaxian cook, ambassador and child care worker from Voyager.
And while not technically queer, Dr. Phlox who is a Denobulan from the series “Enterprise” is from a race of people with a markedly queer take on relationships, monogamy and family structure. I figure he’s worth a mention.
And finally, two episodes featuring the Trill have always stood out for me as distinctive moments where sexuality, gender identity and sexual orientation combine: TNG’s “The Host” and DS9’s “Rejoined”. A fascinating species, they were the most radical species to challenge the mainstream audience around who gets to be what gender, and the attraction to partners that Trills may have throughout their many lifetimes.
This episode aired during the first season of TNG. There’s a planet in which women are dominant and men are submissive. The women are tall, statuesque, Amazon-like, and are the leaders of the small colony. Men are portrayed in more sexualized ways, are interestingly “feminized” since they are shorter and slighter than the women, have higher voices and have less body hair. Their attire is very much about revealing skin and being less intelligent and having less value than women. Yet the women are not similarly “masculinized” (more body and facial hair, deeper voices). This is of course to maintain commercial value to the viewers who are very restrictedly grounded in traditional notions of femininity.
Riker, who beams down with Yar and Troi, the two female bridge officers, dresses in the manner that men dress, and is giggled at by Troi and Yar.
But a pause for a moment to consider markers of gender and queerness, and how even in the ways the characters played out in this episode, including a make-out session between Riker and the leader, named Beata, heterosexuality was continually marked and reinforced. It seemed like a desperately challenging writing job, to switch the gender roles (somewhat) and yet to doggedly maintain heteronormativity.
One example of this inability to be removed from the here and now in which the episode is talking place, happens during the make-out session. Riker and Beata are about to kiss and he pulls back (perhaps a belated attempt to remain a professional and detached Starfleet officer) and she says, coyly, head turned to one side “Don’t you find me attractive?” This threw me out of the story. If we recall that the character is the leader of a community, and she is a member of a species in which women are dominant, that struck me as something that this character would never say. That is the line of someone who is has less structural power in a society.
And if we think about attraction and how it’s mostly sexually constructed, if the norm is large tall woman with short slender man, then wouldn’t Riker in fact, not be attractive to most women on Angel One? Wouldn’t he be a bit of a freak? Wouldn’t it be even queer to like a man such as Riker?
DS9 BODY AND SOUL
Before I get into analyzing this episode I would like to look at the characters of the Doctor, and Seven of Nine.
The Doctor was portrayed in very queer ways throughout the series. He had a queer aesthetic about him, and presented without the hyper masculinity that is so often portrayed as straight (Tom Paris, Chakotay, even Tuvok and Harry Kim are most assuredly straight). The Doctor is soft spoken and intellectual and a bit arrogant. He speaks in a sincere and often sing-song voice. He’s also portrayed as “soft” and emotional, in his struggle to become more than his programming as an Emergency Medical Hologram.
The character of Seven of Nine was introduced in Season Four. She was the first “babe” regular of the series, given that the other blond character, Kes, was more of a child-imp-elf than a babe. As a former Borg struggling to regain her humanity, she was the classic “fem-bot” of science fiction. A gorgeous woman by society’s standards, with robotic feelings and mannerisms, seemingly devoid of emotion who soeaks in the technical-geek way that the majority demographic of Trek loves.
I really enjoyed this episode, mostly because we got to see the character of Seen of Nine transformed. With the emotional and demonstrative Doctor “inside of her” and controlling her, the audience saw the character in ways we had never seen before.
So we have on mainstream television, the character of a straight woman, playing a character who is a straight man who is played gay. Victor Victoria, 24th century style.
The synopsis is that Kim, Seven and the Doctor are captured by a race of people who see photonic lifeforms, such as the Doctor, as illegal. The photonics on their world seem to have been used in subservient ways and have staged a revolt. To survive, the Doctor hides inside Seven, and takes over her body and functioning.
Seven is shown experiencing senses such as smell and taste, eating and enjoying food, getting thoroughly drunk, and being flirted with and responding to flirting. She’s bubbly and perky, exactly how the Doctor would be. Sort of. The male captain develops a crush on Seven, and the heterosexual and homophobic Doctor inside Seven, rebuffs him repeatedly. At the same time, the Doctor inside Seven develops romantic and sexual feelings for a female tactical officer serving in the medical bay on the ship that’s holding them captive.
In one scene, the captain prepares a romantic date with Seven, and when he kisses her, is quickly rejected by the Doctor.
Captain: I’ve never met a woman like you before.
Seven/Doctor: There are no women like me.
And in the goodbye scene between the Doctor and the captain the Doctor says “There are many women who would enjoy the company of a man like you, I’m just not one of them.” Love it!
The brief synopsis of this episode is there is a race of people, the J’naii, who are androgynous and do not live in a world with gender, which is considered freakish and unnatural. This premise is fascinating, since any first year student in women’s studies or gender studies should be able to tell you, gender IS freakish and unnatural. The levels of societal restrictions of behaviour based on gender are huge and immense. Anyone who has bumped up against the boundaries of how gender is performed can tell you what that’s like.
Riker, the epitome of masculinity, embodies the sexuality that had been imbued in Kirk. The Star Trek people didn’t want to duplicate these features in yet another captain of the Enterprise so all the “hot sex with aliens” storylines go to Riker. It’s Riker who falls in love with Soren, a J’naii who was born, as once in a while J’naii are born, with gender. She lives a life of secrecy and shame.
I can see how social issues needs to be couched within the content of “alien” cultures, since many mainstream folks would reject them outright if this show was straightforwardly about gender and sexual orientation, but of course it still irks me that it has to be couched, since it can then be misread.
Riker falls in love with Soren, their affair is discovered, and she is to undergo “psychotectic therapy” to restore her to her natural state, that of being genderless. Riker and Worf attempt an illegal rescue but it’s too late, she has already begun the treatment and no longer is in love with Riker.
I’d like to talk about the J’naii as a race. All the actors who play J’naii are women with stern faces and low-pitched voices. Like how most alient races are portrayed, they all have the same hairstyle. While this collapsing of difference is always annoying (even while one may see a Black or Asian J’naii or in other episodes Latino or South Asian Romulans) when dealing with gender, and genderlessness, the issue of looks and presentation become heightened. We are always looking for markers of gender, as it’s something that we’ve been taught to find real, and to make real.
The character of Neelix, the sexless boyfriend of Kes, the elf-woman-child is extremely stereotypically gay. He is a heterosexual man, yet he is in touch with his feelings, dresses in bright clothing, has a hairdo that defies description and all the jobs he does can be seen as stereotypically femininen. He’s the cook who’s cooking is made fun of, he gets people to talk about their feelings, he rarely expresses anger, he does child care for his god-daughter Naomi Wildman, he’s not in Starfleet (which has a way of de-masculinizing most men in Trek) he’s short and he’s a bit of a buffoon, therefore not a physical threat to anyone.
When I see Neelix with Kes I just get a lesbian-fag vibe from the both of them. She’s “cute” and “adorable” and has a femmy baby butch way about her, if that makes any sense. Neelix is simply gay, and fabulous.
There are a number of parallels to be drawn between Dr. Phlox and Neelix. Both are odd-looking aliens, the only of their kind on their ship, both present a softer, kinder masculinity, something almost always read as queer in Western culture, but the most queer aspect about Dr. Phlox is the way relationships are structured in his society.
So Dr. Phlox’s society states that everyone can have up to three spouses, and each of his three wives have two other husbands.
Yes it’s still heterosexual, since I suppose they figured they could only rock so many boats, but when I heard that first reveal I was quite impressed. Especially because the character was presented as a down-to-earth person, practical, and not particularly sexually alluring. Since all the yammerings about “sin” and “fornication” come about from the usual suspects when any talk of consensual polyamory, non-monogamy and alternative ways of demonstrating romantic love, relationships and child-rearing goes on in the mainstream. As we well know, showing in a positive light anything other than strictly heterosexual, nuclear family, and strict gender roles was a huge risk for prime-time network television, even if buried in a character that was marked with “otherness”.
And I like to think that in a society that open, that fluidity of gender as well as queer attractions and orientations, would go right along with their open practice of multiple marriages.
Beverly Crusher falls in love with Odan, a Trill and embarks on a rocking love affair. We learn the Trill are a “joined” species, with the essence of the person being not in the physical body they inhabit, but in the host, a squishy gooey stomach-looking thing that lives inside the outer shell, technically like a parasite inside a host body. The host of the Trill Odan becomes ill and dies. While waiting for the new body, Crusher realizes that the Trill needs a temporary body, and Riker (again, Riker!) volunteers.
The first fail is that Odan, inside the body of Riker, succumbs to his feelings for Beverly and they have sex. If Beverly, like the rest of us, is trained to look only at the physical body of a person, and if she’s never been attracted to Riker before, why would she be attracted enough to him to have sex with him? It seems implausible, and even a bit insulting to straight people, that they can just have sex with whoever, as long as it’s the correct gender.
So we all know how it turns out. Riker’s body starts to die, Odan is removed from Riker just in time, and the new host body arrives. Crusher says “Send him in” and in walks a woman (5 mins in video below). She stares at the woman, and rejects her as her lover Odan. After the surgery, Odan comes to see Beverly one more time, and again she rejects him. His signature move (smooth move by the way) is to take her hand and kiss the inside of her wrist. The female Odan does this, and leaves. The queer audience is left with the knowledge that Crusher has given up on a great love, simply because of her own homophobia. But we also know that of course this love affair had to end.
As the first introduction to this groovy species, we are set up for much more interesting combinations of Trill relationships with the character Jadzia Dax in DS9.
As a permanent member of the crew, all the Trill moments that DS9 explores, are from Jazdia’s perspective, unlike “The Host” in which it’s all from Beverly’s perspective.
Dax talks about having been a man, and having been married to various women, as well as the husbands she’s had when she’s been in other female bodies. Heteronormativity prevails, as well as serial monogamy, and of course essentialist notions of gender.
The idea that the host, Dax, has had multiple relationships, with women and men, lovers, spouses, partners, speaks to a queerness not seen before on Trek. Bisexuality is too pale a term to describe it, but the richness of this kind of sexuality held within people of a species is fascinating to me, and perhaps speaks to the best of any science fiction/ speculative fiction genre, in that it nudges our imagination to see and feel a world beyond what’s in front of us.
In “Rejoined” Dax is reunited with the host that was her wife from when she was Torias Dax. The rules of Trill are that once a host body dies, as Torias did, contact and interaction with past family members, including past spouses, is forbidden. Dax’s former wife, Lenara Kahn, comes aboard DS9 as part of a Trill science team.
The plot point of this “forbidden” stuff is interesting, as it allows other members of the science team, including Lenara’s brother, to police the behaviour of Lenara and Dax not because of homophobia, but because of the Trill rules. They would be acting this was if Dax the symbiont was inside a male host too, dontcha know?
And the kiss. Ahh the kiss. Super wow.
During some experiments, there is an explosion, Lenara is almost killed, and Dax risks her own life to save Lenara and realizes her feelings. She will risk being expelled from Trill, and dying when the host Jadzia dies. But of course, Lenara is not able to take that risk, and leaves, breaking both their hearts, and most of ours while watching this episode.
And while I love that this was done with Dax being in the body of a woman, what if the character of her former wife had been in the body of a man? Or if Dax was still Kurzon? That’s the thing with Trills, so many queer possibilities!
May Lui is based in Toronto, Canada and loves writing about pop culture and politics. Her blog is http://maysie.ca
Labels: Star Trek