There’s a girl sitting three quarters of the way back in the classroom who knows the answer. She feels the knowledge bubbling up to her lips, and wants to raise her voice. She feels the tingle of pleasure in knowing a thing, and the simple joy of understanding compels her to raise her hand to attract the teacher’s gaze.
The girl knows the answer, but she will not raise her voice to give it. She sits where she sits to avoid the teacher’s line of sight, to avoid being called on for the answer when no one else knows it. She would sit right at the back if she could, but that space is reserved for the ones who either don’t know or don’t care about the answer, the ones who will blow paper spitballs into her hair if she speaks up. Three quarters of the way back you can still learn if you care enough, but without being seen to care. The girl made that mistake early on – appearing to care about learning – and remnants of that reputation will cling to her for the rest of her school years. The most useful thing she has learned so far is how to hide her enthusiasm and interest.
The girl doesn’t fit. And she doesn’t feel like a girl. She’s too tall. She’s too fat. She grows too-big breasts that are a source of ridicule (from other girls) and unwanted attention (from the mean boys). She knows nothing about being a ‘girl’, and her changing body means she’s not allowed to be one of the boys.
The girl goes home. She switches on the television and she finds an entirely new universe. This universe does not seem to make distinctions between ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ in the same way as other fictional worlds she has encountered. In this universe, distinctions are made based on rank, and rank is achieved by demonstrating one’s worth, chiefly through the application of knowledge. In this universe, demonstration of one’s intelligence is not seen as threatening. In this universe the people are encouraged – expected, even – to raise their hands with the answers, and in so doing they can contribute their unique perspectives to something bigger than themselves.
There is a strong tradition in fiction, whatever the format, of focusing on ‘misfits’ and ‘outsiders.’ United mainly by their differences, these mavericks come together, break all the rules and triumph against all odds, somehow finding a way to overcome their personality clashes and subsequently the obstacles that bar their way.
I’m thinking here about Guardians of the Galaxy, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Doctor Who, all of which demonstrate examples of the ‘ragtag bunch of misfits’ trope. It’s an appealing narrative path, with equal scope for comedy and drama as the group forms, storms and ab-norms into its dysfunctional status quo.
The girl is a misfit. But she is not a rebel. She has no desire to break the rules. The rules make everything make sense; she quite likes the rules! What draws the girl to Star Trek (TNG in particular) is that it eschews the rebellion mode of demonstrating individualism and instead shows her a world where she can both fit in and be unique at the same time. It is a window into a universe where she wouldn’t be punished every day, either for knowing the right answer or for looking or behaving differently, and one in which she could demonstrate her worth based on merit, not based on wearing the right brand of trainers or having the right friends. Where she could be herself and fit in rather than making a painful and limiting choice between the two.
If a person cannot be themselves, in whatever sense, they cannot realise their full capability.
That girl was me. I didn’t fit, and I never would until I accepted who I was (and who I wasn’t), and found people who did the same.
I remember clearly seeing Tasha Yar – her short hair, her traditionally masculine role – and feeling that infinitesimal internal shift, an opening of possibilities. Dr. Crusher – joint second highest rank on Starfleet’s flagship vessel – with her knowledge, her uncompromising professionalism and her informal position as Picard’s trusted friend. Deanna Troi, although undoubtedly underused as a character, was front-and-almost-centre of the bridge.
Later there would be Ensign Ro. There would be Dax, and Kira. Later still there would be Janeway, Torres, and the initially genderless fish-out-of-water complexity of Seven of Nine. Each of these characters, these women, provided me with a different lens through which to view my own present, and my future. Each is unique; each with her own strengths, her own darkness. But each is valued for what she can bring to the table within the larger context of her role in the world.
Star Trek for me is the embodiment of the power of uniqueness within structured conformity. It demonstrates that infinite diversity in infinite combinations can be a source of power rather than division. In joining Starfleet, each woman has given herself over to something greater than the sum of her identity and her abilities, but in that surrender is an understanding that her worth within that larger entity is her uniqueness.