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?
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.