My Adventures in Star Trek Comment Culture

Janeway Facepalm

A funny thing happened when I started writing about women in Star Trek.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t so funny. I had to laugh to keep from banging my head against the wall—a strategy I’ve adopted in Trump’s America to avoid going mad—but my amusement was weighed down by dismay: for a show that championed diversity and equality, Star Trek attracts a lot of fans who just don’t get it. It was my experience writing Trek-related lists for Screen Rant that revealed fandom’s nasty underbelly, as well as my own naiveté.

Screen Rant has an undeserved reputation for clickbait. Yes, their titles are often intentionally provocative, but trust me: all the writers there are huge fans of everything we cover. I was thrilled to get paid to write about the show and had a huge well of topics to tap into that came from my own head, not from some urge to write a snappy headline.

One of my first pieces was called “15 Really Terrible Moments for Women in Star Trek.” I wrote as someone who loves the franchise, has a special place in her heart for the original series, and sees the mishandling of female characters as simultaneously embarrassing and laughable, and frequently a reflection of its time. It was better on TNG, corrected on Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and then woefully resurrected on Enterprise, which feels strikingly like Voyager backlash when I watch it now. I threw some humor into my intro to set the tone, the article was published, I celebrated, and then made my mistake. I read the comments section.

“Kinda making mountain out of a molehill, aren’t we?” was the first one I saw. J’accuse! is what I heard. I had made no mountain, but it was hardly a molehill.

“I am embarrassed for Screen Rant, looking for things to devise a controversy from for the sake of causing comment arguments and feeding page hits.” Not only was this dismissive of a worthy topic, it was dismissive of me, who had pitched the story and written it from the heart.

This was my favorite, although it was eventually taken down:

“I really wish the Femi-Nazis would cut the crap already! You won OK! You now have more rights in society than men! You got the jobs you want! Men are now playing Mr. Mom thanks to the ongoing Recession (and YES, it’s still ongoing, regardless of what the Gov’t says).”

Wow, such good news: we won! Uncork the champagne!

The Facebook comments were much harsher. I got the message: fanboys don’t like when you point out sexism, so they call you names. Lesson one, learned.

Fired up after the Women’s March, I started a new article: “18 Awesome Women in Star Trek.” I had my favorites, but still went to my good friend Google to see who might pop up on a “toughest women of Star Trek” search. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a Starfleet historian) to guess what I found: sexy women of Star Trek, hot women of Star Trek … list after list of “babes” and “hotties.”

Yeoman Leslie Thompson

Yeoman Leslie Thompson

Among the exceptions was an article about the strong supporting women of Star Trek, by a well-known writer I’d interviewed once for TrekMovie and liked very much. On his list was Yeoman Leslie Thompson from “By Any Other Name,” there because she was a female redshirt, albeit one who got turned into a dodecahedron and crushed to death by Rojan. So what did she do to get on the list? She showed up for work … and died.

This attitude, it turned out, was not unusual. I asked my Trek-loving Facebook friends to name some heroic women of the franchise. The women suggested TNG’s Captain Rachel Garrett, Salia (the Dauphin), and Amanda Rogers. We all, male and female, debated the merits of Vash and Lwaxana. But then I saw the subtlety of sexism, as my male friends, my dear male friends who are not sexists or chauvinists, offered up suggestions, along with some specious reasoning:

  • Helen Noel, whose psychological expertise went out the window when she planted personal, sexy suggestions in Kirk’s vulnerable mind. No reason given, just “Helen Noel!”
  • Leah Brahms, because she got mad at Geordi for creating a holodeck version of her.
  • Tora Ziyal, because she “didn’t hide” from her “terrible life.”
  • Samantha Wildman, because she was good at her job.

The bar was set so low for heroics that I finally asked one of them directly: What makes a female Star Trek character extraordinary to you? “She’s competent,” he answered, “and has confidence in herself.”

Competent? Can you imagine if that was how we defined the male fictional heroes of our time? Competent?

Tristan Adams and Helen Noel

Tristan Adams and Helen Noel

For the record, some of them came around. I talked one into understanding the glories of high priestess Natira and the harmless unremarkability of Samantha Wildman. But I’ll never talk my Helen Noel-smitten friend into understanding that Helen was a smack in the face of gender equality. His crush on her runs deep and he, enlightened and lovely as he is, will never be able to see the rest of the forest for her very sexy tree.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek and believed that it painted a believable picture of humanity’s future, a place where equality was real and human beings believed in it. But in my journey of writing about it, I learned that that sexism still runs rampant through its fan base, where hostility towards women is to be expected, and that even the best men can have serious difficulty seeing beyond their biases. This is still fandom, in 2017, but like any true Star Trek fan, I have hope for the future. Bring on Sonequa Martin-Green! Looks like we need her.

  7 comments for “My Adventures in Star Trek Comment Culture

  1. Thank you for writing the article! Being a female writer in the sci-fi world is definitely a treacherous thing. Same with gaming.

    Too many men think equality is about laws and since most have changed we have ‘won’. The reality is equality is about attitude and belief, and laws do not influence an attitude or opinion (how many people think marijuana should be legal – and have started to successfully make it legal?). Attitude is not influenced by law but does the influencing and if attitudes towards women do not change then the current laws are not safe. Just look at Trump’s America … so many equality laws are now in danger because of a public change of attitude of the influential and dangerously narrrow-minded.

    It’ll take a generation or two at least before women’s rights can even be thought of as ‘safe’ and that’s assuming education on the matter continues and is not stamped into the ground by those like Trump.

    • Such a good point. It’s not about laws. The laws are the starting point…and they’re all being attacked now anyway. That’s why this piece was so cathartic to write, I think.

  2. This is far too true. All of it. THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS. The more we speak it aloud, the more holes we can punch in the sheen of sexism denial. Perhaps one day, even obliterate it completely. One thing’s for certain: we’re not yet in the 24th century utopia of equality. And we’ll only inch closer with our solidarity in continuing to raise our voices and, so importantly, echo and support each other!

    Ah yes, the rare “competent women” of Trek. Being temporarily granted the glorious male privilege of simply DOING THEIR JOBS. Perhaps the women of Discovery will from time to time be granted this high male honor.

    I’ve still never watched Enterprise but have been preparing to finally give it a try and hopefully really like it! A “Voyager backlash” you say? Damn. That wouldn’t surprise me at all, sadly. I remember the progressive 90s and the increasingly stronger women on TV, in (mostly indie) films, even/especially the hipster feminists on the once-cool MTV…. and then the entire decade of the 2000s were like a backlash to that, quickly sweeping it all away. Landing like an anvil on progressive 90s feminism was The Man Show, after which all other media instantly followed suit. It was over. They had won, and we were swept back under the shag carpet.

    • I do think there are some good episodes of Enterprise, and Trip is a really fun character, but it felt very much like men (mostly white men) were back in charge, and the women were the outsiders. T’Pol ran around in a catsuit and was pouty and moody, and Hoshi Sato was usually off on the sidelines. Looks like Discovery will have us back in Voyager mode, with women as brave leaders, and men who are past bro culture and are just people. Fingers crossed!

      • I’m late to the party but T’Pol was supposed to start out as unlikable but ended up having a similar character arc to Hermione. I can’t imagine her having any real friends before she came to Enterprise. Have you read Bryana’s article, which so eloquently explains how brave she is? I do agree with you on Hoshi though. Some people found her whiny and uninteresting. She got to command the ship in the end but it was too late at that point to change a lot of people’s minds.

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