What does it mean for a woman to seek power?
This charged question is still coursing through our national political dialogue in the United States, where six women have already announced that they are running for President in the 2020 election. It is also front and center in Star Trek: Discovery, as we follow L’Rell’s journey from acolyte of a messianic male figure to High Chancellor of the Klingon Empire. How women claim power for themselves—and how we respond when they announce their intentions—remains a thorny issue that is far from resolved in the Star Trek universe as well as our own.
“But I am no one…”
At first, it never even occurs to L’Rell to conceive of herself as a leader. Such humility and self-effacement is to be expected. A woman’s natural role, we’re so often encouraged to believe, is in service to a man—expending her talent and labor for his benefit rather than being so vulgar as to desire her own glory. And as L’Rell serves her kinsman T’Kuvma from behind the shadows, neither she nor any of the men around her finds anything particularly remarkable about this state of affairs.
Hillary Rodham Clinton herself commented on this cultural expectation after the 2016 election, noting that she had experienced high approval ratings while serving President Barack Obama as Secretary of State. As she told The New Yorker, “I was running something in service to someone else. A man. Who I was honored to serve. And so I knew that if I did get into the Presidential race again I would face what women face when you are not serving someone, but you are seeking power yourself.”
We all witnessed what Secretary Clinton faced, and how the country has fared since, thanks in large part to its misogyny and racism. An unqualified, incompetent white man failed up—all the way into the White House—by pursuing a divisive policy agenda that gleefully perpetrates grave harm on marginalized people.
This is our reality in the United States today, much like it is on Qo’noS in the 23rd century. What’s considerably different in L’Rell’s case is that, at the end of Season 1 (“Will You Take My Hand?”), a small group of women effectively installs her as High Chancellor of the Klingon Empire. In a novel twist on Shine Theory, it is chiefly women—Specialist Burnham, Admiral Cornwell, and Emperor Georgiou—who elevate another woman to a position of supreme power. In doing so, these female leaders decide the fate of a vast swath of the galaxy, including the Alpha Quadrant and the Beta Quadrant.
L’Rell’s path from this point forward will never be the same.
“I am that leader.”
On a Mo’Kai ship, L’Rell addresses the leaders of the twenty-four Great Houses. She begins by invoking the legacy of a man—T’Kuvma—in much the way Secretary Clinton did during the 2016 campaign when she promised she would preserve and build upon President Obama’s greatest achievements. L’Rell knows full well that she must frame her rise to power in terms of serving others if she is to have any chance of being accepted. The hall is silent, with the Klingon leaders hanging on her every word until she reveals her intention to rule.
“A new leader is needed to fulfill my Lord’s vision,” L’Rell says. “I am that leader.”
The chamber erupts in laughter. A female? Ridiculous.
Undeterred, L’Rell holds up a device controlling a hydro-bomb that sits deep within the core of Qo’noS. She informs her future subjects that they have a choice: unite as one behind her leadership or suffer the destruction of their homeworld. “The unification of our race begins now,” she asserts. The leaders of the Great Houses may not like it, but there’s no question who is in charge now.
“You may call me mother.”
When L’Rell appears before the High Council in Season 2 (“Point of Light”), she has grown more confident in her ability to lead. Gone are the references to T’Kuvma and serving others. L’Rell’s source of authority is now herself. “As your Chancellor, this dynasty springs from me,” she boldly declares.
However, a power struggle is brewing. Kol-Sha attempts a coup in which L’Rell, Tyler, and their baby are nearly assassinated. Emperor Georgiou intervenes again, this time on behalf of Section 31, making quick work of the insurrectionists. Georgiou then immediately warns L’Rell that her perceived feminine weakness is a threat to her rule. Whereas a man seeking power may have a partner and child and indeed might even be respected for doing so (looking at you, Beto O’Rourke), this is rarely, if ever, true for a woman.
In the exchange that follows, possibly a first for Star Trek, two women discuss how to overcome patriarchal opposition to their ambitions. “Every minute you remain here, your councilors must reorganize their tiny male brains to rationalize why it isn’t them standing on the dais,” Georgiou flatly says. “They will assume that all your decisions are Tyler’s. He is a liability. Can you kill him?”
L’Rell is outraged at the mere suggestion of murdering the man she holds so dear, but she soon understands that she must eliminate the liabilities that a consort and child represent. As Mary Chieffo pointed out in a recent Women at Warp interview, L’Rell has to transform herself into a figure like Queen Elizabeth I of England, who never bore children, if her rule is to survive.
So L’Rell subverts the very concept of motherhood, the role women have been told for generations is their sole destiny, and turns it into a lever of power for herself. It’s extremely painful to banish the two people she loves most of all, but she is a true believer in the cause of Klingon unification. L’Rell makes this sacrifice for what she sees as the good of her people. (And, as we see later in a touching scene in Captain Pike’s Ready Room when L’Rell and Tyler learn that their baby has become the monk known as Tenavik, perhaps the estrangement will not be so final or total after all.)
In a momentous speech to the High Council, L’Rell pretends that she has killed Tyler in retaliation for slaying her baby, adding that Kol-Sha valiantly defended the child in a show of Klingon unity before meeting with his untimely demise. Proclaiming that she will never again bear a child, L’Rell says, “Now you are my children, as I raise this family to greatness! Do not refer to me as Chancellor, for I deserve a fiercer title. From this point forth, you may call me Mother!”
The Klingons roar with approval. L’Rell’s reign as Matriarch is confirmed.
Female power and the fight for a better future
What does L’Rell’s journey tell us about the challenges women face when they claim power? In far too many cases on Qo’noS and on Earth, women are still expected to cloak their ambition in terms of service to others and make painful sacrifices. Women, particularly women of color, still endure withering assaults on their legitimacy the instant they defy gender norms by seeking or wielding power. Just ask Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
It is also true that, with so many women running for President and in the halls of Congress, we now have a fuller range of representation when it comes to female leadership and power. This is something L’Rell does not yet enjoy as a solitary female sovereign in a heavily male-dominated Klingon environment, but it is closer to the Federation ideal. Though Captain Janeway was not permitted a lover for fear that she would somehow come across as compromised, we see far more women in positions of authority in Starfleet than we do in the Klingon Empire—especially on Discovery.
And, as on Discovery, many women in the United States are standing in solidarity with one another. Women have responded to the malignant actions of this Trump administration by revoking Republican control of the House of Representatives; electing over 100 women, including many women of color, to the House; declaring their candidacy for President in record numbers; and establishing the first-ever majority-female legislature in the state of Nevada. Our fight for equal dignity and self-determination is far from over.
When we last see L’Rell at the close of Season 2, she is charging headlong into a battle that will decide the fate of all sentient life in the universe. “Today is a good day to die!”, she bravely yells in Klingon before ordering her forces to attack Control’s rogue AI fleet. And, interestingly, Tyler is there serving as her right hand, perhaps indicating that as L’Rell consolidates power, she will feel less obligated to observe traditional gender norms.
Whatever the challenge before her and whatever the stakes involved, L’Rell rises to the moment, exercising her own unique brand of female power in the process. America’s women are doing the same. We are not no one, after all. We are those leaders. And our leadership will make the difference in winning our own incredibly consequential fight for the future.