Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Where Are the Strong Women in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"?

I knew nothing about Star Trek as a franchise before watching the 2009 movie, but I had heard a lot about why J.J. Abrams decided to tackle the project. He has said that he was attracted to the project because the female characters were "strong women." This phrase has become a favorite term in Hollywood and it's supposed to attract a female audience base, without uttering that most dreaded of dreaded words - feminism. Hollywood should be striving to provide us with strong female characters, but using the phrase doesn't make one-dimensional, one-note stereotypical female characters "strong." Nor does paying lip service to the female characters' intelligence or savvy, if those qualities aren't perceptible. I watched Star Trek in order to be entertained, but I was also hoping that I would see a rare sci-fi film with multi-dimensional, complex, and yes, strong female characters.

That's not what I saw. Of the four female characters, Kirke's mother is the first we meet. We learn two things about her - she loves her husband and she loves her new baby. That is all we ever get to know about her. Apparently, she has a job, but we are granted no insight into what sort of a person she is, what she wants, what she does, or anything else at all. It isn't possible to make a judgment call about how strong or weak she may be because her character simply has no depth or multi-dimensionality. Then there's Spock's mother (played by Winona Ryder!). We can intuit that she's fairly courageous, given that she's willing to marry someone of a different species and move to a different planet. Explicitly, we know merely that she loves her husband and son. Like Kirke's mother, Spock's mother lacks enough depth to really judge how strong or weak she is. Both of these characters fit into a stock character mold - the Loving Mother.

Of the younger generation, there are two female characters. There is Uhura and her green (literally - is that some sort of weird Star Trek thing?) roommate. The roommate appears in very few scenes and I'm not sure if we ever learn her name. In one scene, she hooks up with Kirke only to be interrupted by Uhura, and in the other she looks triumphantly at Uhura when she gets a better assignment than the smarter Uhura. From the dialogue, we learn that the roommate sleeps around - in other words, she's a "slut." The first scene has two purposes for the green roommate: 1) to show her as close to naked as possible and 2) to establish that Kirke is a stud even though he's having no success with Uhura. But that leaves this particular character in a highly cliche position: she's a slut and a bitch. It's the same misogynistic double standard we can't seem to shake as a culture. The green roommate sleeps around; she's a slut. Kirke sleeps around; he's a stud. The green roommate is competitive; she's a bitch. Kirke is competitive; he's macho - and he not only gets what he wants, but he's a hero.

Uhura is thus the only possible strong female character left. First of all, we're told that she's smart, but we see only one instance of her actually exercising her intelligence (unless telling Kirke to buzz off counts). It's also never even a possibility that she go on the more dangerous parts of the missions. Contrast that with the badassery we see from every major male character, even leaving Kirke and Spock out of the picture - the captain withstands torture and even though weak shoots the bad guys, Sulu turns out to be a whiz with a sword, 17-year-old (!) Pavel saves the hero and helps figure out battle plans, the Scotsman (MacDougray? MacDonald?) is so brilliant that he figures out some supposedly impossible beaming technology that saves the heroes. Uhura translates some stuff and her work is fairly unnecessary to the success or failure of the mission. While the male characters wear practical uniforms, Uhura and the other female characters wear miniskirts. And, completely unnecessarily, we see Uhura strip down to her underwear in one scene. I know Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, but that is pandering. Is Uhura weak? Not really. But neither is she a particularly strong character, except emotionally - the one kind of strength we as a culture are happy to consider female. In other words, the character of Uhura is a good girlfriend who does her job, but stays out of the fighting.

So, out of four female characters, we have two Mothers, one Slut, and one Good Girlfriend - nary a genuinely strong female character to be found. Part of the problem is that, for some utterly inexplicable reason, the film industry insists on considering science fiction as an inherently male-driven genre and thus caters to a male audience and alienates a female audience, thereby artificially enforcing their own misguided idea. (A similar process happens with romantic comedies, which cater to women and alienate men.) This is absurd. Give me a sci-fi movie with complex female characters in powerful roles, moving the plot forward and stepping in when heroic action is required, and I will totally be there. But at the very least, don't feed us this politically correct nonsense about "strong women" when it boils down to a smokescreen to cover the usual one-dimensional female bodies on display in their underwear.


  1. I love analysis like this, though I haven't seen the movie. Very clear and funny.

  2. I agree with everything you said, but I still really like the movie. Also, we need to watch Alien.