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.

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