Michael’s Burden

Michael stands in the red angel suit after landing on a strange planet 930 years in the future

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery Season 3

In the finale of the third season, we watched Michael Burnham become captain of the USS Discovery. Those who’ve watched from the beginning know that Burnham has endured a great deal of loss and suffering on the road to the captain’s chair. At this point, she’s carried these burdens across several seasons, and has shown growth both as an individual and as a Starfleet officer.

However, since she’s earned that heavily-coveted fourth pip, a great deal of discourse has sprung up in the fandom surrounding whether or not the character actually earned the promotion. Before defining precisely why Michael Burnham deserves her flowers, let’s review the facts leading up to this season’s last moments:

  • Michael Burnham is a trauma survivor. As a child she suffered the loss of her parents, then moved abruptly from that severe emotional event to an emotionless Vulcan society and somehow still maintained her humanity.
  • Michael consistently puts herself in physical danger for the sake of the mission and her crew. From the beginning of season one when she performed EVA (ExtraVehicular Activities) both with and without a life suit, to the end of season two where she flung herself through space and time 930 years into the future, Michael has, can, and will make the difficult decisions when the need arises.
  • Michael knows the fullest extent of herself. Since being drugged at the Mercantile by the Emerald Chain, Michael has been forced to come to terms with the complexities within herself multiple times over the course of this season.
  • Michael believes whole-heartedly in the ideals of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. She may not always follow orders or stick to the plan, but her actions are always fueled by her humanity and the power of connecting with others.

When we objectively measure her character traits against those of previous captains (particularly the male ones), we’ll find that multiple commonalities can be drawn. Archer’s devotion to defining Starfleet and establishing the Federation; Kirk’s cavalier, self-assured initiative; and Picard’s knack for diplomacy are all evident in Michael Burnham’s decision-making process thus far. Sisko’s ability to maintain a strategically cool head during a crisis is apparent in Michael’s actions, as well. So if intellect, skill, wit, and candor are all considered to be desirable attributes in the male captains that came before her, why are some fans having such a hard time accepting the promotion? If the character has overcome every physical and emotional obstacle placed before her, why is she met with such vitriol when she’s rewarded for her efforts?

Bunrham kneels on the ground and yells at the sky in triumph for making it safely to the future

Let’s consider a parallel issue. Like many Black and Non-Black and Indigenous women of color (NBIWOC), Michael has had to distinguish herself from her peers by being exemplary in every way. As a human with a Vulcan education, Michael suppressed her emotions to exceed in academia at the Vulcan Science Academy and in Starfleet. The fallible nature of her humanity became readily apparent, and instead of allowing herself the grace to fail and recover, Michael repeatedly tortured herself by taking on responsibilities that no one person should face alone.

Burnham in "There is a Tide"

Many marginalized women can relate to this aspect of Michael’s burden. They have had to be smarter, faster, and/or stronger than their male peers in order to climb their professional ladders. Most do so despite extreme economic and socio-political disadvantages, relying upon their own ingenuity to break through barriers that exist only within their respective intersections. Only recently have Black and NBIWOC gained public recognition for their resilience and the power of their influence both in and outside of their communities.

While there has been a surge of something that’s assuredly intended to be support, there is an underlying danger that most well-meaning folks are unaware of. This danger exists nefariously in the most benevolent of circumstances. It’s easy to misconstrue as support, but the distinction must be made.

There is a stark difference between supporting an outstanding member of a marginalized community and deifying their achievements. Deifying, or assigning superhuman expectations to marginalized women, in all actuality creates space for additional levels of pressure that male-dominated spaces don’t have. Because so many women from marginalized communities consistently display exceptionalism in their work, that high level of performance is becoming normalized and removes all accountability from the systems that perpetuate such unrealistic standards.

This is dangerous, as a woman’s failure to perform at these levels can mean the end of their career, or worse. Because so many marginalized women cannot afford the luxury of failing, they can also be ill-equipped to process that failure in a healthy way. This adds mental and social health concerns to the burden that many women in Burnham’s position must carry. And like Burnham, they often carry them alone.

Ultimately, praise without support does nothing unless the existing adversities are dismantled. Praise without support leaves marginalized women to once again fend for themselves once the trendiness of their visibility has passed. Most marginalized women don’t want or need praise: we need space to be our fully-realized, complex selves without fear of each stumble resulting in loss of credibility. We need to be trusted when we call out inequities in corrupt systems, or if our actions are contrary to ineffective ideologies. Regardless of their ability to overcome obstacles, our society must be mindful not to assign unrealistic expectations on Black and NBIWOC until efforts are made to deconstruct the obstacles in their paths.

Michael in the forest on Book's planet with her hands up

In a patriarchal society, most systems were never intended to benefit Black and NBIWOC in the first place. If we’re breaking these rules, more often than naught, it’s because they were not designed to accommodate our experiences, or in Burnham’s case, expertise.

Each of her infractions have occurred within unprecedented situations. For example, her decision to utilize “The Vulcan Hello” was technically the most logical way to greet the Klingons. It was the lack of protocol within Starfleet operations that left the USS Shenzhou and the rest of the fleet vulnerable to attack, not Burnham’s poor judgement.

More recently, disobeying orders and setting off on an unsanctioned mission to save Book resulted in the acquisition of the third black box, ultimately enabling her and her crew to determine the source of the Burn. Of course, at that point Admiral Vance didn’t personally know Burnham well enough to be certain she could handle the situation, but he read those logs. He could have trusted her and the crew of Discovery to get the job done. Imagine the turmoil Burnham could have avoided had her intuition and experience been truly supported…

Burnham in her Discovery uniform with her season 3 braided hairstyle

When all things were said and done, Vance not only realized a short-coming of his own, but he had the grace to admit that failure to Burnham. He recognized that the metrics he had been given to gauge her efficiency as a Starfleet officer were not built to include the tenacity of her resourcefulness. He finally trusted her devotion to her crew, Starfleet, and the Federation. He not only praised her unique capabilities, but he also supported her by giving her the space and opportunity to utilize them to the best of her ability.

Captain Burnham sits in the Captain's chair on Discovery

If Jim Kirk can cheat on the Kobayashi Maru exam and still go on to captain the Enterprise, it stands to reason that adherence to rules does not always guarantee a successful command. If we are indeed to be judged by the size of our burdens and the strength required to carry them, Michael Burnham absolutely deserves that fourth pip.

  11 comments for “Michael’s Burden

  1. During this season, when Burham went off on unsanctioned missions I said to myself “Oops. Michael’s in Cowboy mode again. Might as well roll with it.”

    I really enjoy that Adm Vance recognized “Sometimes Cowboy mode is valuable and needed.”

    After all if it works for Kirk, its valid for Burham.

    I also really enjoyed the concept of “Responsibility hording.”

  2. In both DS9 and STD, it took years of apologetics and proof for the lead characters to “earn” captain rank. It’s worth some introspection on why Sisko and Burnham have to reprise the roles of “the hardest working man in show business” when Archer, Kirk, Janeway, Picard start there as headliners. We would benefit from a critique of this ‘a priori’.

  3. Being a 52 year old black man who’s been watching Star Trek since I was about 6 years old. This is the reception Michael Burnham received from a Star Trek group I used to be in. One guy said “the moment I saw that the lead character was going to be a black woman I didn’t even bother” or forced diversity which never makes any sense so if the whole show was white people it wouldn’t be forced diversity it would just be standard. Sometimes people don’t listen to themselves. Michael Burnham reminds me a lot of time Paris Tom now he wasn’t the lead character on the show but he too lied what’s court-martialed and sent to prison and most fans were just willing to overlooking. I have had issues with the writers sometimes seeming like they write Michael into situations when it’s like they don’t want the fans to root for her. I’m sure that’s not their intent but that’s how it comes across sometimes. many times people would go out of their way to praise any other character like Tilly Saru or Captain Pike but oh no not Michael. It gets so ridiculous I even heard a person criticize the show why can’t she have a normal hairstyle instead of an African hairstyle for the record they change Janeway’s hairstyle almost every season on Voyager. One writer said if you took Sonequa Martin-Green out of that role and put someone like Chris Pine in that role 90% of the problems people have with Michael Burnham would go away. Is that true I don’t know it depends on your perception. Everything gets Amplified with social media and of course the most negative things stick out more than the positive.

  4. I am not a fan of S M-G as an actress and I love the idea that the main lead is not the Captain. It’s fresh and takes in to new territory. My main problem with S M -G is the intimate twosome relationships do not work. She comes across to earnest lots of acting but lacks real chemistry. This season with Doug and David she was much better. Discovery is an odd one I think the scripts and the ideas are fresh and draw you in and have re established the idea of the stories being mysteries very well but the crew just does not work or lets put the other way round they do not add anything.

    Stamet’s and Culber played nicely this season a real sense of character and nice measured performances but the bridge crew just do not cut it and whenever Tilly is involved I just go out of the show. I could see she was trying to ‘grow’ this season but from such a low point. She like Michael suffers from the fast talking techno babble you should never stop communicating so that people can understand.

    As regards S M-G earning the Captains chair well thats down to the script and in that sense why not but I though Saru was a really interesting performance full of authority and measured responses a bit like Kirk in the movies.

    The first three seasons enabled us to do Lorca, Pike and Saru which showed mixing up the formula worked well each with their own take whilst Michael had her arc. Season 4 will be interesting.

    I am glad they went straight to the future the prequel thing is always a hold on what you can achieve.

  5. Thank you, THANK YOU for this insightful piece. You have summed up what I have wanted to say for a very long time. As a woman of color, I immediately “got” where Burnham was coming from. I don’t know if it was the intention of the original showrunners to allegorical comment on the struggles of WOC via the challenges posed to Burnham, but they definitely did.
    I think many people in the Fandom who have such a problem with Burnham and none with any of the male leads in Trek, are not aware of their own biases.
    Whenever I posted my own concerns about the way Burnham was regarded in the fandom, I mostly made it about her being a mutineer. People tend to become defensive if it is even suggested that they might have unspoken biases and expectations for certain ethnic groups. Privately, however, I have made the comparison between Mariner from “Lower Decks” and Burnham. Mariner is a stereotype- the loud, Black girl who says and does whatever the heck she wants. Whereas Burnham makes some fans uncomfortable because she is brilliant and competent and beautiful and does not fit into any box. I thought the writers of Discovery had fully made the case for her becoming captain and I couldn’t be happier.

    • I was prompted to read this article by another YouTube commentator that was discussing the rise of Burnham to captain and a lot of the hate that she has received. I think that her character development gives us a lot of insight into the nature and development of a Starfleet captain especially in the Kirk (prime universe) era. To me, except for the mutiny part which is easily explained by Burnham’s Vulcanized personality traits, Burnham is the quintessential calculated risk taking maverick that makes a great Starfleet Captain. I think that there a persons who don’t like Burnham just because there are things about her character that just rubs them the wrong way. That is understandable. Her being a different take on a Starfleet Captain is not everyone’s cup of tea. But make no mistake from the YouTube channels that exist solely to denigrate Burnham and STD. Not to be overly political, but the hard truth is just like we see in in our own time and reality there are those (reference the Capital insurrection of 1/6/2021) who hate no matter what, unfortunately they tend to be the loudest and most disruptive. Ultimately that is what I love about Star Trek and Burnham (and all featured Star Trek captains) that even at the worse of times that strength of character, integrity and trueness of purpose in spite of our flaws as people and a society can make us the best possible versions of ourselves

  6. I love this show and the cast are amazing. Michael deserves to be captain and she has certainly earned her rank. A worthy chapter in the Star Trek world.

  7. Thanks for this read, Kennedy. This article really helped me sort through a lot of my issues with Burnham.

    It always irritated me that Burnham cried regularly (like a lot) throughout the show’s three seasons, but reading this made me go back and ask myself why that is.

    I realized my own perceptions, shaped by society and Star Trek presentation of “strong women” over the years meant that they weren’t supposed to cry or show emotions (How often do we see Janeway or Maj. Kira cry?) and I was UNCOMFORTABLE with that presentation.

    Yet, here’s Burnham letting every emotion flow through her in spite of or perhaps despite her Vulcan upbringing.

    I might not of liked that fact that Burnham cried as often as she did. Personally, I’m not a crier, but I’ve OFTEN said to others that women don’t have the luxury of showing emotion for fear of being labeled too emotional, irrational, etc. in real life and I’ve experienced it myself as a woman in a leadership position.

    In one of my favorite films, Elizabeth, the famed queen asks her advisor, “must I be made of stone?” It’s such a heartbreaking moment to hear what women have to give up in order to lead.

    So why on Earth would I be bothered by a SCI-FI character doing so? It was, an illogical expectation to place on her and any woman, truly.

    Luckily, Burnham challenges that – as does the writing in DISCO, which allows for such characters to exist in the future and propels the idea of women written as fully fledged people in real life.

    That’s all a long winded way of saying thanks for helping me sort through all with your examination of Burnham and the double standards placed on her. – Cassie

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