Before we even thought of starting our own podcast, the four of us Women at Warp hosts connected through Grace’s former podcast, All Things Trek. After Jarrah heard Andi being interviewed on the show, they connected to co-write a piece for TrekkieFeminist. Here’s a version of that first chat, on the women of TOS, covering Season 1 and Season 2 up to “A Piece of the Action.”
Jarrah: So before you started your First Time Trek project, 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.
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.
Andi: Yes. Well… The two that upset me most were “The Enemy Within” and “Wolf in the Fold.” 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.” But 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. 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: If you want the future to be better, you have to examine the past. That’s true with everything, including television.
I’m coming late to the game with this comment, but I’ve only just now read this blog. And I wanted to comment on the issue of the miniskirt uniforms, which are referred to both in general and in specific (in relation to Uhura).
Something that I have explained to other young women is the context of this costume. Back in The Day, the miniskirt was seen (believe it or not) as a form of women’s liberation. Taking control of our own sexuality, as it were. To my view, we had to get a little older before we realized that all we really were doing was playing into the hands of the men by sexually objectifying ourselves (and sparing them the trouble).
The miniskirts did eventually come in for much criticism, of course–both on the grounds of sexism and on the grounds of impracticality. And I was always quite amused by Gene’s attempt to retroactively make those short skirts acceptable, when he had male cast members (background extras, of course) wearing the miniskirt uniform. 🙂
It was Grace Lee Whitney who made the original suggestion to change the costumes from the pants/tops of the earlier pilots to the short skirts, because she had “dancer’s legs” and didn’t want to hid them. She also said that Nichelle Nichols was responsible for how short her own skirts got as she was “not going to be ‘out-legged'” by Whitney.
Sadly, over the ensuing decades we have not “come a long way, baby” in either the real world or the Star Trek world, as women continue to be irrationally sexualized in film and television, and self-objectified by young women who feel that their sexuality is power.
Thank you for an interesting conversation.
I write fan fiction as I wanted to create a character to cosplay, and got hooked on writing. I decided to correct a few things I didn’t like. It’s set in the Kelvin timeline and I’ve tried to write her without too many negative gender stereotypes- insecurity is one of my bad traits personally so I think they can be true sometimes but should be used carefully- and as someone who thinks deeply. She gets some pretty nasty injuries but is quietly defiant rather than shown as helpless.She did fight with her academy roommate over borrowed make up and shoes, but it gets resolved fast. I put that in because that’s like me and my sister but it’s mentioned in passing and not a major plot line.