Over the last several years, Major Kira Nerys has become one of my very favorite Star Trek characters. She’s smart, outspoken, and deeply committed to the causes and people she cares about. But I wasn’t always her biggest fan.
I was in middle school when Deep Space Nine was airing, and in those days, I didn’t like Kira all that much. When we first meet her in the two-part series premiere, “Emissary”, she’s voicing her displeasure about the Federation’s involvement bin the operations of the station. The Cardassians have just been booted off Bajor, at long last, and the planet’s provisional government is working alongside the Federation to get the station back on its feet.
The first thing we see Kira doing is engaging in a heated debate with the Bajoran ministers by video call. She hangs up on them, only to turn her frustration toward Sisko. She tells him, “I don’t believe the Federation has any business being here.” He replies, “The provisional government disagrees with you.” And she responds, “The provisional government and I don’t agree on a lot of things, which is probably why they sent me to this god-forsaken place.”
So right off the bat, Kira’s attitude put me on the defensive. Part of this may have been due to the fact that, up until that point in the franchise, Star Trek viewers were used to adopting the point-of-view of the captain (or commander, in this case, as Sisko hadn’t yet been promoted). So if the first thing we know about Kira is that she is positioning herself as something of a foil to Sisko, we’re conditioned to be wary of her.
But to be honest, I think my initial reaction to Kira was more about internalized misogyny. I was 11 when the series premiered and I had already bought into painfully familiar tropes about how women are supposed to be agreeable, low-maintenance, and nice. The idea that women who voice oppositional opinions are seen as “bitches” has become something of a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason — because it’s often true that others will level these disparaging criticisms at women.
Much has been written about how, at least anecdotally, women frequently seem to use softer language, more emojis, and exclamation points in professional correspondences, likely in an effort to seem less “pushy” or terse. Pressure to seem friendly is likely more intense for Black women and women of color, as Nylon explores. And of course, there is a long history of popular language being used to cast assertive women in a negative light. When a man who’s in a relationship with a woman and — gasp — respects her requests is described as being “henpecked” or “whipped,” it sends the message that it’s unacceptable when a woman expresses her own needs. Women are supposed to go with the flow. We’re supposed to be pleasant and make things easier for others. We’re not supposed to have needs, desires, or boundaries of our own.
Of course, this is just scratching the surface of the issue, and we’re all familiar with the myriad ways in which girls and women are conditioned to be “likeable.” As a quiet, people-pleasing kid, I felt this to my bones, which is why Kira struck such a nerve for me.
If I had been the kind of kid who challenged what authority figures — and society at large — told me, I think I would have absolutely loved Kira from the very beginning. But that wasn’t me. I needed constant external validation. I wanted the adults in my life to tell me I was doing the right thing and was, therefore, worthy of love and acceptance. So for me to see a character like Kira — a woman who didn’t give a crap about external validation and consistently followed her own internal compass without always second-guessing herself — it simply didn’t compute. She was all the things I felt I wasn’t allowed to be. And the possibility that I could be wrong, that there might be a different way of approaching the world, was just too much for 11-year-old me to process, so I deemed Kira an unlikable character.
In retrospect, it’s a shame I didn’t give her more of a chance in those days for two reasons. First, there is so much more to her than her anger and I wish I had appreciated some of the other admirable qualities about her when I was kid. And second, her outrage, most of the time, is largely justified and I certainly could have stood to learn a lesson or two about the benefits of healthy anger.
Part of what makes Kira such a great character is her deeply felt empathy and compassion, which she demonstrates time and again. Over the course of her romantic relationship with Odo, we see her supporting him as he struggles to come to terms with his identity. She establishes a really beautiful connection with Ziyal, the daughter of her nemesis, and indeed becomes one of her role models. And in episodes like “Duet” and “Ties of Blood and Water,” we see her showing empathy for Cardassians who were involved, in one way or another, with the oppression of Bajorans. Kira’s enormous heart is as important to her characterization as her temper, and I think I would have enjoyed that about her if I’d been more open-minded when the show was airing.
What’s more, these days I see Kira’s anger as an asset. She’s not someone who flies off the handle at a minor annoyance. When she’s angry, it’s usually for good reason. She won’t tolerate injustice, and she won’t stand by when others are being oppressed. Having the confidence and courage to speak up in such situations is an invaluable virtue. It’s what has been behind much of the long overdue activism we’ve been seeing since Donald Trump took office, and we need more of it. Having the ability to summon that kind of strength is something I know I need to work on in my own life.
For example, in the season one episode “Progress,” a Bajoran moon is being evacuated and converted into a massive power plant. But there’s a man who lives there, Mullibok, and he’s not exactly thrilled about being dragged away from his home unwillingly. Kira feels the injustice of his predicament and gets angry on his behalf. While she ultimately ends up bringing him back to DS9, her anger at the situation is, I would argue, quite justified.
And in “Duet”, when she believes the Cardassian being held on the station to be Gul Darhe’el, who oversaw the torture of Bajorans at the Gallitep labor camp, she doesn’t hold back in voicing her outrage and her insistence that he be held responsible.
These are just a couple of the many examples of Kira passionately standing up for a cause she believes in. Time and again, Kira is the voice of righteous anger. She is the one who speaks out and holds others accountable. If others are averting their eyes from an injustice, Kira is the one who tells them to look right at it. And that’s why I’ve come to love her. Basically, my experience with Kira can be summed up by a quote of Sisko’s from “Progress .” He’s talking to her about her desire to defend Mullibok and he says, “When I first met you, Major, I thought you were hostile and arrogant. But I was wrong.”