Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek, Uhura and Structures of Authority

I'll admit it up front - I'm not a huge fan of the TV Star Trek, but I've watched enough when I was younger and recently to know what's up in that series. I've never seen an episode of the original 60's Star Trek, but I know enough from being familiar with pop culture to know the main characters. With this disclaimer, I'll continue. If you haven't seen the film yet, I'm going to discuss plot points and spoilers so be warned.

I was really excited to see Star Trek and I can't quite put my finger on why, but when I saw the movie, I wasn't disappointed. As someone with little knowledge of the series before this, I enjoyed the plot, the introduction of characters, the action, and frankly, I'm finding it harder to turn down shows with my new favorite Zachary Quinto.

However, as is too common, I felt the women characters were lacking in some way.

The main female character in the film is Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana. She's a communications specialist on the bridge on the ship. She is clearly characterized as the brightest in her field, smart, talented and not afraid to speak her mind. Jha'Meia at Rebellious Jezebel Blogging comments that she displays a different kind of power, one not tied up in physical strength but in intellectual, emotional and social strength (see: her first scene in the bar). Additionally, as typical with the main female character, Uhura gets romantically paired with someone. Different from usual action films where the lead man persuades the lead female (note: usually not a lead character but the woman with the most screen time - there's a difference, if subtle), Star Trek pairs Uhura with Spock as opposed to Kirk. I found that move particularly interesting, especially since I personally admire intellectual skills over others.

People have said that Uhura has a lot more to do in the reboot than she did in the TV show, but honestly, she didn't do that much. True, one could argue that this is because of her peripheral role in the plot, perhaps on the same level as Chekov or Sulu. However, that just explains away her lack of action as opposed to addressing the fundamental flaw that women aren't in lead roles in the supposedly egalitarian society of the Enterprise. It critiques the symptoms as opposed to the core problem, a problem that remains rooted in the gender politics of 1960 due to the nature of the film as a reboot.

There's also a lot going on in the movie with women as motivation for a lot of the men's actions - Kirk's father saving his mother and the rest of the ship, Nero driven by his wife's death, Spock by his mother's death. I'm not quite sure what to do with that yet, but other people have addressed it to some extent.

All in all, it could have been a lot worse women-wise. I wasn't a big fan of the mini-skirt uniform. However, in the second-string role Uhura plays, her character does a great job. It's just that by rebooting the original, the film reinforces the structures holding her in that position and not advancing women to other roles of authority.

For more discussion of the women of Star Trek, look to Shakesville, the Hathor Legacy and Racialicious.

EDIT: In looking for pictures for this post, I found this gem from CNN:

Compared to the original on a CBS Consumer site:

Now there's a not-so-subtle way of erasing women and women's experiences. Thanks, CNN.


Sarah said...

I think your commentary is spot-on. I noticed that Sulu, Chekov, and Scotty all got some moment where they were able to use their talents to save the day, even though they were not lead characters. And yet, the brilliant Uhura basically just talked about her accomplishments, and then provided an emotional anchor for Spock. That's pretty much it.

Yes, it does. said...

Star Trek sucks anyway. Don't waste your time.

wondering said...

Not just erasing women, but PoC.

lindsay said...


If I remember correctly, Uhura does confirm her intercepted transmission early in the film, tipping off the crew that it's a set-up. However, it's also first brought up by Kirk and confirmed as valid by Spock. One could say that it needed to be verified by Spock because Uhura was a new crew member, but I don't remember anyone doing that to Sulu or Chekov.


Yes, even moreso.

Hattie said...

This was mostly noisy mindless entertainment for the 12-24 year old boy in all of us. But I did love the new Spock's nose, slight form, and those soft tender lips. Umm Umm. The old Spock, well...
More seriously, what this film does is confine actual women to a few stereotypes: the hot smart and snappy black girl, the woman giving birth in emergency circumstances, the loving mom telling her boy how much she loves him, the odd (in this case, green) girl who never is more than a quick lay, and so on. The men are the ones who display all the more subtle feminine characteristics of charm, humor, friendship, romance, and so on. It's kind of like white guys playing Indians in those old western movies.
After a hard day of brainwork, my friend and I enjoyed this film, letting the noise and chaos wash over us, cheering the boys on with their derring do and enjoying the interludes of "human interest."
This was a functional piece of work with mass appeal.

Amelia said...

Anonymous so-and-so had two comments rejected. Sorry!

Prudence said...


I watched the new Star Trek film and I liked it very much because it did a full circle back to the original series and relied on the character development rather than the special effects and explosions.

There are two things happening with this film because it's a prequel.

Firstly working in its favour are the fact that the majority of people who came to see it would already know the characters and would expect to see those main characters, so perhaps they didn't need to do too much work on the character development as people would fill in the gaps from their own knowledge. We might have expected to see more female characters, but they would always seem like minor characters because they were not from the original series, so in the end this actually worked against the film makers modernising the character list to add more women.

Secondly because it's a prequel they are limited to the original characterisation. The addition of a woman, and what's more a black woman, into the 60s series was very forward thinking at the time. She was a well developed character, but she's really the only female character anyone remembers from the series, although some more women appeared in the ensuing films. So they were not really able to make the star fleet prior to the original series into a hive of female acceptance, if it didn't tie into the events which were supposed to happen after it in the original series. Plus they were not going to be able to make Uhura more developed in her youth than she was in her 30s/40s. I think their choices were fairly restricted really.

However I totally agree that she could have had some more of a hero's part in the film, she didn't actually have to be romantically involved with anyone but at least she went for the brains. I also agree she could have had a longer skirt and still been a valid character!