Talking Women in TOS with FirstTimeTrek

I first heard of Andi and her First Time Trekker project to live-tweet her spontaneous first reactions to all the episodes of Star Trek when she was interviewed on All Things Trek. When I heard she was a fair ways into watching TOS (she started with TNG), and knowing she’s a feminist, I wanted to chat with her about women in TOS and why that’s important to look at. Here’s our chat! You can follow Andi and read her amazing and often hilarious episode tweets at @FirstTimeTrek and she’s also on Tumblr at firsttimetrek.tumblr.com

Jarrah: Hey, Andi! Thanks for taking the time to do this. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your project and where you’re at currently?

Andi: Hi! So, I’m Andi and I’m a geek. I had a lot of geek fandoms before this but had always resisted getting into Star Trek. Basically, I knew I would love it too much. Plus, I have this contrary nature, so the more people would tell me to watch Star Trek the more I would resist! Because I had resisted it for almost 12 years, when I finally decided to watch it, I felt like I had to make it special. So I decided to live-tweet it because I know how fun it is to watch your friends watch something you love for the first time, and to hang on their every expression. I honestly thought I’d do it a few episodes and lose interest, but the reaction was surprisingly positive and the live-tweeting made it so fun that I just kept going!

Jarrah: It’s super fun to read, too!

Andi: Awww, thanks! And now, much to my constant surprise, people actually ask me to talk about Star Trek, which is surreal but awesome.

Jarrah: Cool. So where are you at now with your project?

Andi: I am about halfway through The Original Series. I just finished “A Piece of the Action,” which was super enjoyable. 

Jarrah: So I wanted to talk a bit about TOS. From reading your tweets and listening to a couple of interviews you’ve done, it’s clear that you’re interested in how women are portrayed in Star Trek. Did you have any expectations about how things would be for women in TOS?

Andi: Creeping dread? My followers know extremely well how feminist I am and when I went to go to TOS I got a lot of tweets from followers I trust that basically amounted to, “BRACE YOURSELF. MISOGYNY IS COMING.” So I had a good idea that it was going to be painful.

The 3 "Mudd's Women"

Jarrah: I know I wasn’t really as ready for the sexism when I started doing my feminist re-watch. I hadn’t noticed it when I was a kid, so what I remembered was how Trek values diversity, and I didn’t realize some parts were going to be so awful. *cough* “Mudd’s Women” *cough*

Andi: Yeah, there were a few episodes that legitimately upset me. Like, not just “Ugh, that was terrible, oh well,” but genuinely emotionally difficult.

Jarrah: I definitely want to get into specific episodes, but how do you feel TOS is stacking up overall against that expectation?

Andi: Some of it was expected and just earns a sigh, like short skirts or the number of times a female crew member brings something to Kirk to sign and that appears to be her only function. Some of it was really terrible, like the rape culture and the amount of throwaway love interests for Kirk. Also, as talented as both Majel Barrett and Nichelle Nichols are, I have yet to see truly impressive characterization for either of them.

Jarrah: Ok so I was going to ask what you think the single worst episode was for women in TOS (of the ones you’ve watched). But maybe we should make it the top two because I’m looking at the one’s you’ve watched and I know it might be a tough choice. 

Kirk grabs Janice in her quarters

Andi: Yes. Well… The two that upset me most were “The Enemy Within” and “Wolf in the Fold”.

Jarrah: I so hear you.

Andi: And by “upset” I mean after ”The Enemy Within” I had to take a soothing bath. I almost didn’t keep watching the series. And then I almost didn’t finish “Wolf in the Fold”. Sadly, there are so many episodes I could talk about that are immensely troubling. I mean, you can kind of laugh at the fact that Kirk needs to bed every alien babe in the cosmos, but those two episodes are on another level. I think it’s because they featured very explicit violence against women.

Jarrah: It’s also just treated so badly“The Enemy Within” implies all men have a dark side (that evidently includes rape fantasies) but without that side they’re basically emasculated and unable to function and make decisions. And in “Wolf in the Fold” a female crewmember dies and Kirk’s only concern is how to get Scotty off the hook. 

Spock, Kirk and McCoy confront a tearful Rand

Andi: Yes! Also may I add that in “The Enemy Within” the standard operating procedure for a victim of sexual assault appears to be having that victim in the same room as her attacker? Rand has just been violently assaulted by her romantic interest, her boss, and the man who literally has the most power possible over her and there is no empathy for her whatsoever.

Jarrah: Just like in “Wolf in the Fold,” the default response is to prioritize the male attacker’s reputation

Andi: All that was bad enough, but we get to the end and Spock makes like a nudge, nudge, wink, wink aside to her that amounts to: “Hey that guy who almost raped you had some interesting qualities, didn’t he?” It was horrifying. Something about Spock’s misogyny is even more troublesome for me than any other character. I believe I tweeted it as, “Misogyny isn’t logical.” If Spock’s mindset is pure logic, sexism shouldn’t even occur to him much less manifest in such a disturbing way. I know Spock is written and performed by imperfect and illogical silly humans, but I want him to be better. 

Jarrah: I think there’s another time when Spock talks about women being innately too emotional, but I can’t remember which episode.

Scotty holds Sybo, who has just been stabbed

Andi: In “Wolf in the Fold,” he says they experience more fear, which is why the fear monster targets them. “Wolf in the Fold” is viscerally very distressing because we actually have three women very brutally murdered. And the most horrifying scene to me is when the murdered crew member is laying on the ground with the knife in her and her STUPID MINISKIRT is so jarring. The miniskirts are ludicrous, especially if you aren’t standing. Uhura constantly has problems when she’s sitting or horizontal, but when they are on a murdered crew member…it’s brutal. She’s still over-sexualized, even as a murder victim. Also, the lack of concern for her death is very disturbing. Man, I am getting upset all over again. I will never, never again watch that episode.

Jarrah: Definitely. Are there any episodes that you think have done a better job of portraying women?

Edith Keeler speaks to Kirk

Andi: “City on the Edge of Forever”. Edith Keeler remains the best-written female character TOS has done (that I’ve seen) and that includes Uhura, Rand, and Nurse Chapel. She has a purpose. And yes, she’s a love interest, but for the first time you can see why Kirk would be interested in her because she has a fully fleshed personality. She’s not just wearing a metallic bra or a short skirt. She’s not just there.

Jarrah: And she doesn’t have some of the stereotyped gendered traits of others like being manipulative, unhinged, super needy, insecure, etc.

Andi: Exactly. She makes sense. She’s not a “psychologist that suddenly forgets basic psychology to manipulate Kirk” or the “anthropologist that abandons her duties to hit on Kirk in the middle of a crisis”. If I never see another throwaway female character fall in love with the villain I will be a much happier feminist. Also, “Mirror, Mirror” is interesting 

Jarrah: “Mirror, Mirror” is a cool one.

Kirk sits with Marlena in the Mirror Universe

Andi: Yes, “Mirror, Mirror” is interesting. Because the Mirror Universe has more explicit misogyny but it works within the context of the episode. And Marlena is another female character that makes sense. Her only agency in the Mirror Universe comes from the power of her male counterpart. So obviously you pick the most powerful man. Yet you can also sense that this is a smart, capable woman who resents that this is her only choice. Plus, the fashion was on point. Marlena had one of the few very cool costumes I’ve seen on Trek. Sexy, but elegant. Really bright colors. I like fashion and mostly Star Trek fashion is hilariously bad. So I always make note when it works.

Jarrah: At Star Trek: Las Vegas, the actress that played Marlena, BarBara Luna, said she really appreciated the part because it was one of the few roles she was asked to play that wasn’t a racial/ethnic stereotype with a fake accent. She loved that Marlena had her own motivations.

Andi: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that episodes that either treat women with more respect or basically leave them out altogether tend to be the best episodes Trek has to offer. For example some of my other favorites – “Arena”, “A Piece of the Action”, “The Trouble with Tribbles” – have little to no female characters. Normally, that wouldn’t be a good thing, but at least they aren’t offensive.

Jarrah: Interesting. So changing course slightly, I don’t know about you, but when I talk about women in TOS and the ways in which the representations were problematic, sometimes people tell me that, “Well, that was the 60s,” implying I should shrug it off. Have you had that reaction or others when you talk about women/gender in Trek?

Andi: Yes, absolutely. I get it. People love Star Trek. Not only do they want to romanticize it, but it’s also a pleasant fiction that these issues aren’t still problems now. The worst comment I ever got was, “Well, get over it. TOS was a man’s world.”

Jarrah: Ugh, not cool.

Andi: I absolutely think it’s very, very important we discuss these issues. Problems don’t go away because you are silent on them.

Jarrah: Absolutely! And TOS was the foundation for all the Trek that came after, even more so now with the reboot movies and comics. We have to be honest about the problems there were.

Andi: If your love for Star Trek can’t hold up because I’m pointing out that there was misogyny, you don’t really love Star Trek. Also, I think people get defensive because they know I’m right and that there were problems.

Jarrah: I also think it’s weird how there’s this feeling that if you talk about gender in Trek you’re somehow hating on it and must not be a real fan. But people who want to go in-depth critiquing, say, the science or issues with continuity, no one questions your love for the show.

Andi: No one is going to get angry when science geeks deconstruct the science, but they sure as hell get angry when feminist geeks deconstruct the gender dynamics. That stems from misogyny being something that very few people want to tackle. It’s easier to ignore. That’s true of racism as well, really any oppression. Addressing tough social issues takes work and it is no fun at all. Much easier to just LOL at tribbles.

Jarrah: For sure. One thing I’m glad to see is more work being done to show us what really happened behind the scenes on each episode. Particularly, Marc Cushman’s These Are The Voyages books are very good. Even though they’re not feminist per se, they give us a lot of material to better understand how each episode got made. Because I think there’s an oversimplified myth that everything progressive in TOS was Roddenberry’s original vision and everything problematic was the networks/studio not letting him have his way. Now, I have massive appreciation for the things Roddenberry did envision, but he had an active role in many ways and he wrote “Mudd’s Women,” so we can’t treat him like a saint.

Andi: Apparently he liked going on set to check out the revealing costumes as well.

Jarrah: Bob Justman and Herb Solow’s book, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, makes it seem like the atmosphere had a lot in common with Mad Men.

Andi: I can get behind martinis with lunch, but not much else.

Jarrah: Ha!

Andi: If you want the future to be better, you have to examine the past. That’s true with everything, including television.

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