Captain Georgiou, Representation, & The Recent History Of The Future

Captain Georgiou sitting at her ready room desk; the shelves behind her hold decorative objects including a Malaysian wayang kulit shadow puppet.

Captain Georgiou in her ready room with a Malaysian wayang kulit shadow puppet behind her.

Two women of color, two hundred years from now, walking across the surface of another planet: when the first trailer for Star Trek: Discovery aired, it painted an image of a future. That image inspired furious online hate, salaciously quoted by baffled pop culture publications. But far more fans were ecstatic.

“One of my strongest memories for sure is seeing a Twitter thread of an East Asian female fan doing a cosplay of Georgiou and talking about the opportunity to cosplay a Star Trek captain just as herself,” says Ming, a Trek fan since childhood. “The big thing for everyone was seeing a Star Trek command team of color for sure.”

Andë heard about Discovery’s imminent first season in 2017, when a college friend told them Michelle Yeoh was in it: “I was feeling really homesick and out of place as one of the only non-white people in both the sci-fi and queer spaces on campus, and also the only Malaysian, so I kinda clung to Michelle as Philippa as a lifeline.”

“One of the great things that came out of weaving Michelle’s Malaysian identity into Philippa were the Malaysian Philippa Georgiou memes!” says Vee, another new Trek fan who started watching because of Michelle Yeoh’s casting. “I’m Chinese-Canadian myself so they often flew over my head, but I know the unique joy of seeing a meme that really speaks to the core of you and your culture.”

Philippa Georgiou meme by Rojak Daily, May 2017

“Georgiou was groundbreaking in so many ways,” explains Andë, “because hers was the first and only canonically Malaysian character I’ve ever seen in a big Hollywood sci-fi production, and her being Malaysian was not just something alluded to behind the scenes by the production team—it was confirmed onscreen.

“And her character plays into so few of the typical Asian character stereotypes! She is sarcastic and funny; she is in command and in control of the entire starship. She’s shown to be deeply flawed and capable of lashing out when she’s been hurt. Honestly, I could go on.”

“I loved how she used a telescope—how the show allowed her to have these idiosyncrasies, to be vulnerable and worried and tired and wrong, but still the embodiment of hope and compassion,” Elissa—a fellow mod of the ongoing Captain Georgiou fan event—wrote in her piece for ‘Heritage Day.’

“I had never seen a space show give an Asian woman such a significant role before.… I am a Vietnamese-American who took to sci-fi and fantasy at a very young age, but I don’t have the nostalgia for earlier Star Trek that a lot of fans seem to have—my parents and I never watched The Original Series or Next Generation together; I don’t have fond memories of the Voyager days. Star Trek had always somehow felt too grand for me to tackle. It was a classic, a monolith of science fiction—an American dream of utopia, of all the future could be. Seeing Georgiou onscreen meant that there was a place for me in this utopia—that there was a place for my family and my loved ones, that our faces and voices and heritage would not be elided to make room for what others saw as a bright vision. That utopia did not mean assimilation, homogeneity, erasure.”

As a white woman, I had been privileged not to lack representation of characters who resembled me or represented pieces of my heritage in Star Trek’s previous images of the future, and I had hoped that Discovery would, finally, do the same for more fans by portraying a woman of color in the captain’s chair. Along with my happiness at the representation Georgiou and Burnham were at long last creating for Trek fans of color, Georgiou’s character became a touchstone for me for her approach to losses and ethical dilemmas past and current.

From the first trailers, it was clear that Captain Georgiou had the kinds of principles I was no longer ‘supposed’ to aspire to. I was in my early twenties, learning that the older adults around me—professors, employers, family—didn’t always take kindly to my awkward, middle school PSA-worthy ethics regarding 21st-century dilemmas like harassment or drunk driving, and stumbling through the resultant losses of safety and communities. When I looked at Georgiou, a flawed, angry, grieving character trying to do the right thing, I saw a reflection of how I felt leaving a restaurant with a not-sober family member and finding my voice to say we needed to take a walk in the darkness before they drove—and she wasn’t prude or spoilsport or buzzkill, she was cool, sitting in the center seat of Star Trek’s pop-culture mythos.

Ming underscores that it can’t speak for every Asian American, and that it personally is a bit disillusioned about TV representation being overemphasized compared to more practical issues people of color face. “But Star Trek means a lot to me, I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, so it was very exciting for me to see a woman of color as captain, especially since Michelle Yeoh speaks audibly accented English,” it explains. “I was raised in the U.S. and I don’t have any accent, but both of my parents have very strong accents, so that especially meant a lot to me.”

“I think we, as under-represented people, have a certain hunger for quality representation,” says Vee. “To see a show with not only two women leads but two women leads of color was so uplifting. It brought so much joy to finally be seen by and be seen in such an iconic series as Star Trek.

One of Entertainment Weekly’s three August 2017 Star Trek: Discovery covers, which featured Georgiou prominently; the Entertainment Weekly feature’s first interior spread; and the first trailer for Star Trek: Discovery Season 1

“Of course, that joy quickly morphed into anger at the end of the two hour premiere. It felt as if we’d been had, done in by a terrible bait-and-switch. We were promised a woman of color as a Starfleet Captain, only to have her killed in such an unceremonious manner.”

“I was so mad when Georgiou was killed off in the pilot,” says Timothy Yu, professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “I was like, really? You’re going to give us Michelle Yeoh and this amazing character for one episode and then yank it away from us? I nearly gave up on the show at that point. Of course, it all ended up being part of the whole bait-and-switch of the first season of Discovery, so in retrospect I had to forgive them. But yeah, I was really upset by it at the time! It felt manipulative. I guess it kind of was, but intentionally.”

While some level of disappointment at the character’s being killed and eaten is near-universal for Captain Georgiou fans, thoughts on Mirror Georgiou—and the complex questions of representation and stereotypes the two characters raise—vary widely.

“I was 100% a fan who was not pleased with the way Prime Georgiou was killed,” says Vee. “To be frank, I was a fan who was irate that she was killed at all. It felt very disingenuous for the marketing and communications plan for this show to push Michelle and the ‘first woman of color as Captain’ line only to take her away within the first two hours.”

“I definitely would have much preferred if Prime Georgiou had stayed alive,” says Ming, “but I would even go so far as to say—this is definitely an unpopular opinion—I would have preferred that Georgiou as a character stay dead than Mirror Georgiou be introduced, because I feel like her continued presence on the show worked against and overshadowed the very limited time Prime Georgiou had of being, like, a decent person and a respected authority figure.”

Mirror Georgiou posing in her gold Terran Emperor regalia

The Terran Emperor Philippa Georgiou

Yu wasn’t sure how he felt about Mirror Georgiou at first, but warmed to the idea. “I think they did quite a bit with the character, so even though it was a little gimmicky, ultimately I forgave them this too.”

He says he can see how some people might see the Mirror Georgiou character as playing on certain racist stereotypes, like the villainous “dragon lady,” or evil, threatening “yellow peril.” While he thinks the show flirts with these ideas at times in the characterization of Emperor Georgiou, he ultimately finds the character to be compelling. “There’s this term coined by Jeff Yang, “rep sweats.” He meant it as a way of talking about when you, as an Asian American, are watching an Asian American character in media, you’re like: oh my god, are they going to be embarrassing? Are they going to be a stereotype? And I was definitely scrutinizing [Mirror] Georgiou throughout the show in that way. In the end, I enjoy the character, and Yeoh, enough that I was able to put away my doubts. And Yeoh was clearly having such fun playing the character. But I can also see that if that’s the primary or only way an Asian woman is portrayed in the show’s universe, it could seem problematic.”

Not all fans sympathized with the hurt and criticism around Prime Georgiou’s being killed off. “I remember a lot of pushback,” says Star Trek and pop culture blogger Anika Dane. “The fandom response was ‘it was always going to be that way and they [fans who cared about Prime Georgiou] should be grateful for what they got.’ I don’t blame anyone who quit watching after that.”

Jaymee Goh, co-editor of The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, notes that, while growing up in Malaysia with a great deal of Hong Kong cinema and thus a great deal of representation of Asian women everywhere means she’s a lot less personally troubled by the writers’ choices to make Georgiou evil, Hollywood is different. “Because Hollywood representation for Asian women is so limited, minorities who show up on screen often bear the burden of representing for the whole group,” she explains.

“As Asian women we get boxed into “pure lotus” or “dragon lady” archetypes, because there just aren’t a wide range of characters who are neither, who are also heroes. So it’s really fraught when a heroic figure like a Star Trek captain ends up being a villainous one instead, because it harks to white supremacist narratives of the Yellow Peril (and to a degree, the Red Scare). And since that’s most of her appearance since, aside from some other flashbacks, it does feel like a bit of a betrayal.”

Ultimately, Goh is most concerned with the larger picture. “Now, specifically speaking to U.S. stereotypes of Asian women, Tan Sri Michelle’s character inhabits both ends of the good-evil/lotus-dragon spectrum, and to me, that’s a win insofar as this one character goes. However, it’s meaningless when she ends up being the only Asian captain in Trek history who gets to inhabit these ends, and it’s meaningless when there’s a distinct dearth of Asian characters in the rest of the Trek universe who fall anywhere in across. … We as an audience should not be treated as second thoughts, or some sort of marketing box that has been ticked off. She is not the be-all, end-all, and we should see her as the beginning, not the one and only.”

“We can’t talk about the lack of Asian representation in media without talking about dark-skinned Asians, mixed-race Asians, Asians who aren’t Asian American, and a whole range of other experiences and identities,” says Andë. “I hope the reception surrounding her character shows that there is a demand for Asian representation outside of Asian American/British characters, and that Hollywood, and Trek, continues diversifying its casts to include people from all corners of the world.”

Picard and Isa Briones' character

Picard and Dahj, played by Isa Briones

In January 2020, in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard, a young mixed-race Asian woman character heavily featured in the show’s promotional material was violently killed off onscreen and replaced by an identical character played by the same actor. (Time loops aren’t just for the fictional side of Trek.)

A few weeks later, and a month before the beginning of the global crisis that would make fictional stories feel sometimes painfully irrelevant and sometimes painfully necessary, some fandom friends and I sat around in our various time zones, chatting and making plans for a fanbook—and, eventually, the current fan event, and the article I wanted to write for it—that would reach out to other fans who wanted to discuss and celebrate Star Trek’s brief but beloved sixth main-series captain rather than feeling as though she too had disappeared.

“I love Philippa for her warmth and kindness,” says Vee, “the quirk of her smile and the belief and hope she held. We weren’t in as dire a global situation as we are in now when the show first aired, but Philippa was this comforting and compelling woman who chose to believe in the hardest of times, and it felt nice to connect with that.”

Captain Georgiou delivers her last will and testament in a posthumous holographic message to Michael Burnham.

For interested readers, Captain Georgiou January – February is currently ongoing on Twitter, Tumblr, and Discord, and social events and fanbook submissions will continue afterwards. Short or long book/event contributions are welcome, and we’re also holding events like chat days and a collaborative playlist.

The experience of working on the fanbook and event, and the experience of conducting interviews for this piece, has been a reminder to me of the power of science fiction to bring people together in discussion of pasts and futures; of the experiences we share, and the experiences we don’t share and should seek to learn about.

“You can really tell that she meant a lot to a lot of people and had a huge impact on people who watched Discovery,” says Ming, “and even though I have a lot of mixed feelings surrounding the show, that’s really nice to think about.”

“I saw Philippa Georgiou, and I loved her,” fellow event mod Elissa wrote in her ‘Heritage Day’ piece. “I loved her humor and her wit and her quick thinking; I loved how she gave orders and how she sat in the captain’s chair. … I loved how much she saw in the expanse of the stars, and how despite her years of service and loss, she still saw beauty in them.”

Captain Georgiou’s most iconic line is about hope, a word inextricably linked to the idea of a future. At the end of the day, regardless of the shock-value death of the character, I look around at the moments of community, commiseration, awareness, humor, and hope engendered by this character and her particular science fiction story, and I know that the connections, ideas, and future stories inspired by this one are still alive with possibilities.

Editor’s note: One quote in this piece has been updated to clarify that other Trek shows other than TOS did air on TV in Malaysia.

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