Star Trek’s Gender Problem

by Melissa Silverstein on May 12, 2009

in Movies

star-trek-uhura-posterI went to see Star Trek last night here in LA on a big screen in Culver City.  Personally, I prefer to see the big blockbusters during the week cause I hate the crowds. Everywhere I was yesterday in LA people were talking about the movie.  It really is a company town.

I was very excited to see the film because I was a trekkie growing up.  I think The Wrath of Khan is one of the scariest films ever and I pretty partial to Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home where Captain Kirk (William Shatner) falls in love with the whale researcher played by Catherine Hicks.

I was excited to see it because it was directed by JJ Abrams who did Alias which I still miss, and the film’s writers also are the guardians of Lost Fringe which I am addicted to.

JJ’s a good director.  The pace was fast, there were good effects but I found the story lacking.  How many times in one movie can we see Chris Pine as the young Kirk attempt to get strangled.  It looked like his eyes were going to pop out.

But I think the film missed a huge opportunity with its women.  Maybe I’m spoiled from Battlestar Galactica and I know TV is different from films, but I think they blew a big opportunity by stereotyping women’s roles.  What I loved about Battlestar Galactica was that gender didn’t matter and in this film it clearly did.  There were a lot of women in miniskirts just walking around.  Star Trek has much inter planetary diversity including Kirk’s relationship with an all green woman, yet still can’t get over the gender stereotypes.

The three female characters of significance were insignificant — one gave birth, one was a mother, and one was a girlfriend.

Jennifer Morrison – Cameron from House played Kirk’s mother and her part consisted of her giving birth to the future Captain Kirk.

Winona Ryder played young Spock’s mom (Zachary Quinto) and they had to give her a ton of wrinkles because in real life she is only 6 years old than him.  Winona has not even hit 40 and she is already playing a mom.  That’s Hollywood.

Zoe Saldana had the biggest female part playing the young Lt. Uhura a gifted linguistic specialist who discovers an important signal yet is relegated to window dressing.  Why couldn’t they give her something cool to do that showed off her skills?  The way they handled the Scotty character was great.  Why couldn’t they have handled Uhura better?

I thought it was interesting that they had her character in a relationship with Spock but at times that relationship seemed so out of place and it felt like it was just thrown in to placate women.

The film is a hit.  The reviews are stellar.  According to the statistics, women bought 40% of the tickets on opening weekend.  But, I’m disappointed with JJ and his crew.  They usually have so much more respect for women.

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle May 12, 2009 at 7:48 AM

Thanks Melissa. I’m waiting to rent it. For some reason, regardless of reviews, I’m expecting to be disappointed. Action does not replace story, no matter how hard people try to show otherwise.

cynematic May 12, 2009 at 8:07 AM

I agree with you that the female characters were thinly written. You’re the only other person I’m aware of who has noted with dismay that Winona Ryder is now playing “mom” parts to men who are in reality only a few years her junior! A little part of me sank when I saw Veronica from “Heathers” in that role.

It’ll be a long time before there’s a Star Trek feature film that revives the franchise using Captain Janeway as the heart of the movie.

That said, I do think if there’s something redeeming about this ST, it’s that Spock is really the star and not Kirk. If Kirk is a cocky Tom Cruise-like character out of Top Gun, he’s also sort of a laughable caricature because of how often he gets beat up. (In that respect, he reminded me of Po in Kung Fu Panda, whose main talent seemed to be that he could take a lot of punishment.) Spock is a more improved version of masculinity over Kirk: thoughtful, struggling to both appropriately contain and express his emotions…soulful, even. It’s his dilemma that drives the movie’s action. Kirk doesn’t have moral dilemmas–he just supplies the verve for the action set pieces.

So Star Trek is a bit of mixed bag for me. Not surprising, given the high profile of the movie. As an only meh Star Trek fan, I think the key to enjoying it was setting expectations really low!

Sarah TX May 12, 2009 at 8:09 AM

I liked the movie very much, and yet I agree that I was very disappointed in the treatment Uhura got. Saldana acted the hell out of the role she was given, but it didn’t make up for the fact that the character was utterly passive (save for one very short scene when she’s fighting to be placed on the Enterprise). Strong, independent Uhura was reduced to being an emotional foil for the male characters. Not cool.

Again, I really enjoyed the movie, and especially Abram’s conception of Spock as a perpetual outsider. But I never got the sense that women were equal to men the way they’re supposed to be in the federation.

Rachel Millward May 12, 2009 at 8:20 AM

I couldn’t agree more! I came out really fed up that such an opportunity had been missed. The future *clearly should have had some female leaders – good or bad! I had starship enterprise hanging from my ceiling as a kid… silly them for not making me feel more of a part of it.


Kai Jones May 12, 2009 at 9:01 AM

I keep fantasizing that the movie was *really* going to be the story of how all the big boys didn’t actually do anything, it was women on the ship who made all the decisions and took the risks and fixed the problems–the only reason it was portrayed that way in the 60s was because they couldn’t accept reality. Not even a women-behind-the-men story, but actually that the men were passive in truth and the series had rewritten the stories so that the men did what was actually performed by the women.

Now that would be a great Star Trek movie!

Cinda May 12, 2009 at 9:32 AM

This & the Cinematical blog really articulate what few complaints I have about the film. As much as my inner Trek fangirl enjoyed the film & Abram’s reboot of the franchise, I’m really tired of having to compartmentalize my love for the genre & how women are depicted within it. It was nice to have an acknowledgment of each supporting character’s background, but – despite how much I liked Zoe Saldana’s Uhura & what she did with so little – I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see that it’s still business as usual: great character potential dressed in the same old sterotypes.

lizriz May 12, 2009 at 12:32 PM

Hm… I come at it rather differently. Yes, I absolutely wish there were more female roles, but this was a reboot of the original series, and the roles weren’t there to be had except for Uhura. I am hoping that they now introduce new female characters they can do more with.

As for Uhura, she is portrayed as very talented, intelligent, ambitious, and strong. Very career driven in her determination to get onto the Enterprise, and there is that great moment where the guy on the bridge doing her job is kicked out because she knows three Romulian dialects. Her love for Spock simply makes her multifaceted in my book. Clearly all the other stuff with her came first, and it’s funny that she has no interest in Kirk at all.

As for Winona Ryder, I was thrilled to see her and I thought she looked great. For me, it wasn’t the same thing as when a woman is cast as the mother of some guy that she couldn’t possibly have given birth to so much as it’s geek stunt casting because Winona Ryder has the perfect look about her to play Spock’s mom, and it’s Winona Ryder! I geeked out; I love her.

It definitely would have been nice to see even more women in diverse roles in the background for sure. Like someone Starbuck-esque during the bar brawl would have rocked!

It is also something I’ve been thinking about that if we keep using old franchises, we are always going to have these problems unless we pull a Starbuck – something much easier to do with Battlestar than Star Trek, I’d argue. They maybe could have made Chekov or Sulu a woman, but it would have had to be someone born after the event that opens the film. Man, a femle Bones would have been brilliant, but he was already born, storywise.

But mostly, if we want more women in more diverse, realistic roles, we’re going to have to create new stories with new people. Of course, there’s always Wonder Woman…

grrljock May 12, 2009 at 1:05 PM

Lizriz has a point, in that the original cast of characters only have 1 female one – on the bridge, that is. Does this film version have a Nurse Chapel? I eased out of my Trekkie phase after realizing that Uhura (in the original series) was treated as more a glorified secretary than a full character.

Camicia May 12, 2009 at 2:22 PM

I think you are only looking at one particular film in an entire franchise of Sci-Fi historical relevance. In the original series, women were the traditional women of the late 50’s and early 60’s. Considering the movie is a prequel to that…I think the character ranges fit perfectly. If you follow along with the series, you realize there’s been quite a flood of feminism throughout the television shows as well as the movies.

The movie was phenomenal and based completely and amazingly on the original characters that were created 50 years ago. Had he re-written it to cater to the feminist revolutionaries that have come and gone since then. He would have ruined it.

Michelle May 12, 2009 at 2:55 PM

If they can reboot and retool how Spock and Kirk are written, viewed and played, then why not Uhura? Every review says these characters have been updated for our time and become more relatable, yet why not Uhura? I don’t think there’s really an excuse for cookie cutter female characters anymore. At least in the 60’s they had one, but not today.

lizriz May 12, 2009 at 3:39 PM

Michelle, Are you saying that they didn’t retool Uhura? Have you seen the film? She’s kick ass!

Kristen May 12, 2009 at 4:14 PM

I saw the trailers, of course, and found them bitterly disappointed. The only things women seemed to do in the reboot were get naked and kiss people.

When I actually saw the movie, it was vaguely under protest, but I was pleasantly surprised. Given what they had to work with–Uhura, space secretary–I thought they did a great job making her More than she ever had been before.

Until we have NEW stories, we’re stuck with echoes of the older, sexist past, and screenwriters will struggle to make them better and different.

Lis Riba May 12, 2009 at 5:07 PM

Haven’t seen the film yet, but if folks want to talk about “original” cast, the first pilot featured a female second officer (played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry).
Other regulars included Nurse Chapel and Janice Rand.

If JJA didn’t use these characters, that was his choice — not a flaw in the material.

d May 12, 2009 at 5:21 PM

I am really torn on this one. Excellent conversation! I almost want to agree with everyone. What complicates it even more are the comments I read after the cinematical article (thanks Cinda!), which were even more strident about how Uhura was treated more than fairly, and how people who thought she was a cipher are just being overly demanding and critical. While I never was a fan of the “just enjoy it and stop being pc or you’ll ruin things” argument, some of the examples they point to as being strong for the character seem valid. The only way I’m going to know for sure is when I see it this weekend.

I can so relate to what Cinda said about compartmentalizing. I have to do a good amount of verbal gymnastics, or else the only thing I would watch are tv police procedurals and Wachowski brother films. I’m not just looking for gender parity but ethnic parity as well. This is what makes me so torn about Uhura.

Quite often when an African American and a European American is paired, there is this strange bond of friendship that you see instead of a romance. Eraser is a good example of this. The female lead is not cringe-inducing (yay Vanessa!). She plays an average woman who has to suddenly become strong in a different way due to circumstance. But just platonic friendship there. This could be potentially liberating if it weren’t for the fact that they rarely do it with leads of the same ethnicity. So instead of being progressive, it feels safe, like they are skirting the color line (it’s even worse with guys, which is why you often see prominent African American men with latinas).

It’s funny we’re talking about Abrams now. One movie that I thought did a great job of bucking the above trend was MI:2. Woo was looking for someone like Grace Kelly (I think), and liked Thandie’s acting. And it was so jarring to go from Thandie and Tom’s great relationship in 2 to the very traditional one that was depicted in MI:3, that I haven’t really been too enthused about seeing it still. The whole premise just seemed so been there, done that.

So I am actually curious to see how the Uhura/Spock/Kirk triangle is treated. Zoe is beautiful, so why shouldn’t they vie for her attention? I do agree that the whole boss/sub thing could be a bit problematic. Is it addressed at all? Personally I think this is some, if not a lot of progress against the forced first time Kirk and Uhura kiss. If this really is a reboot, which is different from a prequel, then I would really enjoy seeing a truly fleshed out, detailed relationship between the two.

The skirts are unfortunate, but it is part of the Trek canon. I am actually a fan of maintaining some of those things. I actually thought Battlestar Galactica was unfortunate because they seemed to so thoroughly trash a cult show that a substantial minority of people enjoyed. I didn’t think it was cool to make Starbuck a female, and very different from the original character. And I REALLY didn’t think it was cool to make Boomer an Asian female, instead of the African American male he was. Would any of us like it if Wonder Woman became Wonder Man? Or Ripley became a guy in a reboot 10 years from now?

So that’s why I agree with so many here that have said what we need are new franchises, with new characters, that don’t have to content with canon, or people’s faves, or bygone times. That seems to be the easiest, cleanest way to make everyone happy…well, maybe at least us. :)

So I don’t know if you guys are asking for revisioned characters, or shoe-horned new ones, I know I wouldn’t. I happened to like the crew they had, and would have just welcomed a more ensemble-oriented show, instead of the Kirk show, guest starring Spock and a bunch of others. Did JJ manage to do that?

But it seems to me where they did fail, was filling out all the supporting characters and making it more inclusive. Is there any reason to start the film out with a heroic father and a woman whose role is only to give birth? Maybe they could have given Wynona more of an integral role on Vulcan, maybe show her stress in dealing with wholly logical beings. How about a romulan female baddie?

Seems like the storylines stick to tried and true plots we’ve seen for eons. I think the surrounding world would have been a great place for them to really experiment, introduce different characters, and break from the traditional action mold, without sacrificing either the action or the characters that so many have grown to love.

Thanks for the review Melissa; hope you’re enjoying (or you enjoyed) LA!

Allison May 12, 2009 at 7:40 PM

Yes, the film isn’t very good when it comes to its female characters. And of course we have to see Kirk’s green girlfriend and Uhara in their undies!! The summer explosion/FX extravaganzas are rarely good to women.

There’s another post on Huffington Post criticizing the film’s sexism:

lizriz May 13, 2009 at 12:28 AM

OK, I just got back from watching it for the second time. In terms of background characters, I think it represents a good mix of genders most of the time. The two times it fails most noticeably for me is in the lack of female muscle, as I mentioned previously, and also in the scene where Kirk and Spock debate the Kobayashi Maru – So far as I could see there’s only one woman on the dias, and she’s unfortunately not sitting next to Tyler Perry, so all the 3-shots are man, man, man in the power seats. And I had to look *really* close to spot the woman I spotted.

I will argue until the end of time that Uhura rocks in this film. She is all around awesome, right down to when she shoves Kirk across the barroom and then refuses to reengage with the bar fight nonsense.

Technically, I think the film may have actually passed the Bechdel test, too, because Uhura and Gaila are discussing Uhura’s work when Uhura realizes they aren’t alone. (Also loved Gaila, btw. She is wonderfully gleeful when she gets her ship assignment.)

As for suggestions of potential other female characters who could have been incorporated into this Star Trek, I will just say that there was A LOT to do with successfully reintroducing: Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, Chekov, and Uhura. They are the deck crew, and they are the heart. The film had to focus on them, and honestly I think Scotty gets the least amount of attention.

In the Q&A I was at tonight, which you can download from iTunes by searching on “Creative Screenwriting,” I asked the writers if they’d ever considered switching one of the characters genders like on Battlestar. You should listen to their exact answer, but basically they said what I was thinking: that would have been too jarring. The film kind of works by allowing us to slowly accept the alternate universe situation. Whereas if you get to the ship and Chekov’s a woman it’s like slammed in your face. Plus, so much press would have focused on that. They also said, basically, that hindsight’s 20 20. Now that the film is all well-received, it makes you wonder if they could have pushed it even further, but a few years ago in development of what is really a tricky project all around, that’s impossible to predict.

I will close by saying that I do think that the film presents a world where men and women work side by side in a variety of roles.

d May 13, 2009 at 3:52 AM

wow, Lizriz, you’ve been to one of those things? Very cool indeed! How was it? Have you been to them before?

I’m glad that this will not be as bad as I feared actually. The trailer looked pretty bad, but trailers can make terrible films look great and vice versa.

This conversation reminds me of one I had with a friend last week after Wolverine. He said that many of the guys looked good and thought it’d please women. I countered maybe – while I agree that they did look good, it did seem to cater more to a guy’s aesthetic. As opposed to, say, Australia, where Hugh is a little less beefy, but still looks very good and you can tell that they are using it for a predom female audience.

I bring that up to say I wonder if the problem isn’t in the roles perse, but the surrounding architecture of the story. I was watching a making of show last night, and when they showed the bar scene, I kept wondering why a bar? Was that the best way to introduce her (cause I’m assuming that’s the first time we see her, right)? Is it a nod to military culture?

Because to me when I was watching it, that seemed so Top Gun. Like I said before, I would never want them to do a Battlestar (I didn’t even want Battlestar to do a Battlestar), but I wonder if that kind of hesitancy informs the general plot, not just the alternate universality of it.

If we all agreed that Uhura was nothing more than a glorified secretary (which I don’t know if we would),as an African American woman in the thick of the civil rights fight, it’s still be pretty revolutionary. It would have to be if MLK encouraged Nichols to stay on the show when she wanted to leave. Having a nice Russian during the thick of the cold war is revolutionary. But having Uhura walk disgusted out of a bar fight is great, but is not something I couldn’t see happening even in, say, a Fast & Furious.

If I had to go by just what people have said here, and the other stuff I’ve read, I’d say it’s probably pretty ok in terms of gender. But that’s it. Star Trek, in part I think, was canceled because it was so ahead of it’s time. This, not so much…

Of course I could see the thing and have a totally different opinion. :) But that’s what I’m thinking now. Still though, I am glad that we are talking about it, and the subject is getting the attention.

Thanks for asking the gender switch question Lizriz.

lizriz May 13, 2009 at 9:43 AM

Hi D,

Yeah, awesome Q&As are one great benefit of L.A. life, that’s for sure. My favs are always with Charlie Kaufman; he’s so totally brilliant. Oh, and Catherine Hardwicke. Love to hear her speak. They are the two who I’ve seen all their movies (except Twilight, I still need to see that) and been to multiple Q&As.

As for the bar scene in Star Trek, it is very much played like the cadets all out at the bar drinking, blowing off steam before they ship out. I see why the concept of Uhura’s intro scene being looking hot in a bar would hit some people the way it has, but honestly, it’s a great scene. It’s a very natural concept; certainly I like to hang out and relax in bars with my friends. :) Plus, she’s totally not into Kirk (though amused by him), which is funny, she’s totally in control of herself, she’s totally both tough and sexy, and the scene works to both intro her to us and to further Kirk’s story. My only complaint is that it would have rocked if there was a Starbuck-type character in the tough peeps that come to rumble.

I suspect that for many Hollywood types in power, female characters with what they perceive to be “masculine” characteristics still feels like forced pandering. They literally don’t see those sorts of qualities as natural in some women. Probably, they need to go to more WNBA games. ;)

And you’re welcome! I get nervous asking questions in Q&A, but I was so curious as whether it had ever been considered that I just had to ask. I was *so* happy to be selected to ask it, and I thought their answer was very smart.

lizriz May 13, 2009 at 9:52 AM

Oh, and I should mention that this thread has inspired me to start developing a new modern female superhero. Conventional Hollywood wisdom teaches us that no one will pay to shoot a superhero movie that doesn’t have an existing fan base behind it, but on the other hand we have this problem where almost all existing franchises relegate the female characters to small, traditional, boring roles and don’t express the full range of personality and desire that your average human legitimately has.

I’ve always believed that if the screenplay is good enough, someone will make it, so long as you don’t accidentally allow someone’s hands on it who’s working to purposefully shelve it. As I said above, we’ve got to write new stories. That’s the only way.

I’m hoping to beat it out in July after I direct some spec webisodes in June.

Karen May 13, 2009 at 12:43 PM

I thought Zoe Saldana did a nice job with her role. She was the top linguistic, a hard worker and she didn’t go for the obvious “jock” type guy i.e. Captain Kirk, but instead she chose the more “nerdy” dude in Spock. There’s only so much Abrams could squeeze in for all the characters so I really hope they make a sequel that gives us more depth in Uhura and the rest of the crew.

Thomai in L.A May 13, 2009 at 7:06 PM

The trek franchise will not get my 12 bucks.

I was hoping to hear that they added well developed (not just physically) female characters to the story. That the franchise hasn’t figured out that they need to get away from the gender discrimination of the 70’s is sad – really sad

sad like the fact that women still aren’t making equal pay for equal work in 2009…

Regardless of the star trek writers small mindedness, I have hope that in the distant future women will more often be more than merely there to support the male (character).

The Trek franchise listens to it’s fans, perhaps some female fans could speak out?

Walter May 14, 2009 at 11:22 AM

It’s Science Fiction.
It’s for Fanboys.
Women are supposed to be hot window dressing, not the hero.

Lis Riba May 14, 2009 at 5:17 PM

Just saw the film 2 hours ago.
Whereas if you get to the ship and Chekov’s a woman it’s like slammed in your face.

Of course, I already felt “slammed in the face” by Chekov’s presence, since the character wasn’t introduced until the show’s second season.

To address that *and* the gender issues, I found myself wishing they’d either Starbuck’d Chekov or put an older sister on the bridge crew, which would still allow them to bring Pavel in some time later.

Chris May 14, 2009 at 7:00 PM

“It’s Science Fiction.
It’s for Fanboys.
Women are supposed to be hot window dressing, not the hero.”

I’m assuming you’ve never seen Aliens, or an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Thomai in L.A May 14, 2009 at 7:27 PM

“Walter”, Dude, you are so wrong.

Terminator I, II, III
and the
SARAH Connor Chronicles



whoever thinks only men go to science fiction flicks ought to research more.

Thomai in L.A May 14, 2009 at 7:28 PM

and being dismissive about dollars the franchise wont get because of it’s gender discrimination-

is bad business, dude.

Abigail Tarttelin, London May 15, 2009 at 6:05 PM

I just wrote about this on my blog before i found it. Thomai in LA – amen brother/sister/sibling.

I felt ‘slammed in the face’ just a little bit – in the middle of an otherwise awesome movie, I felt a little bit disgruntled, and I realized it’s because there is a lack of women in the control room, and it grates… it feels odd that there are so few women, and I’m not in agreement about the ‘in the original series there were so few’ statement. There were lots of women who passed in and out of the Star Trek world in the original series and some who disappeared without explanation (which also grated), but this is an alternate reality in which Starfleet has called ALL of its trainees to man the ships as the main fleet are away in another star system, so it would figure that, even if the original ship had fewer women, this USS Enterprise could ostensibly have 50/50 crew members.

I’m also in agreement with the fact that Battlestar Galactica was awesome, and a pioneer in equality, not only featuring a lot of women but disregarding the different sexes entirely, so that anyone could do any job, or play any role.

Nancy May 15, 2009 at 8:43 PM

“The three female characters of significance were insignificant — one gave birth, one was a mother, and one was a girlfriend.”

Come on. Hasn’t feminism moved beyond this dismissive nonsense yet?

When will we get the message that to be of value, we don’t have to be man-like? What, exactly, is insignificant about being a mother, about giving birth? When will we stop hating some of the very things that make being a woman magnificent and inimitable?

This is why my generation rejects the term “feminism”- its irony is palpable- it should be called pseudo-masculinism.

A woman can certainly be a very competent and interesting starship commander- a la Maggie Thatcher– or a very competent and interesting mother- a la ME.

d May 15, 2009 at 10:12 PM

Interesting comments!

I know it won’t look like that on the surface, but I see the comments by Walter and the comments by Nancy the same. Sure they are coming from opposite poles of the argument, sort of, but the conclusion is similar: you cannot have what you want, it violates something that others feel, so let it go.

I couldn’t tell Walter whether your comments were supposed to be incendiary or not, but I thought it was interesting that women have to be window dressing, and not the heroes. Why not both? Everyone looks good in hollywood. I can’t even think of an unattractive woman; why can’t she look good and save the day? I mean this is not an action piece centered around 1 character; Kirk in some ways shares his spotlight with the other guys. Why shouldn’t Uhura also share in this as well. Is a guy going to be so disgusted, that somehow he won’t want to see it? It’s interesting because I always thought a guy would – but I know women who will veto a film if there is just too much rampant sexism.

To Nancy, I’d love to answer your question, if it’s not rhetorical. I think we’ll move beyond this nonsense, when words like “nonsense” and “psuedo-masculinism” aren’t used. What exactly is man-like? Thinking that a female character could be more important to the plot than being the mate or mother of the male characters? Is it man like to actually be a character that is unattached or without a child? I can tell you that that is probably quite woman-like, considering that I have met so many guys who’ve virtually admitted to hating women, but still felt the need to pursue and be with them. I can name dozens and dozens and dozens of great and terrible films with women as mother characters. But not just mother characters. Only mother characters. There are plenty father characters in movies, but somehow, many of them seem to do more in the plot than only be a father. I would love to think that as great as any mother is, that there is more to them than being a mother (or a girlfriend). Why not see all shades of who she is, and not just the one? Why is that such a radical, controversial, upsetting thing for so many people? But how many movies can any of us name where there were great action females who did things.

I actually personally find it disturbing how in this day and age, that we are still narrowly defining what is intrinsic to a man and a woman. All that does is isolate the people who don’t fit that tidy mold.

And what I guess I have found interesting too, is that even if it is all wrong, even if somehow people want women to do something that completely violates what women are, so what!?! When the Da Vinci code came out, people complained bitterly about Hank’s hair; talk about a superficial critique. But now the sequel is out, and the hair is changed. Whatever happened to satisfying the demand of the people? Some men want movies where women are just there to look cute, and we have them. So if some women want a film where the hero saves the day, then why not just make them and satisfy the niche audience? I think Lizriz was onto something when she said producers et al may feel like it’s pandering. But so what? Many companies are successful specifically because they pander to their desired audience! But yet somehow this shouldn’t apply?

So go write your script lizriz! If it’s made, I’ll go see it! And I have proof: I’ve seen both Elektra and Catwoman in the movies. :)

Thomai in L.A May 16, 2009 at 10:31 PM

Hey Abigail, that’s sister. Yes, I’m female and the pic on my blog is a self portrait.
thanks you and back atcha

It is not dismissive to want more than the standard gendered roles in futuristic films – especially those that takeplace on a ship in deep space.
Lawd, people

I’m a mother, sister, auntie, I’ve been a girlfriend and a wife, etc.
I’m proud, valued -a single mother to boot- so I value myself, thank you very much.
and ya know what?
As awesome as all that is, I do a hell of a lot of other things too. I am a well developed character, aren’t you?

So goodness forbid some sexist film maker define me by only one of the roles I play in my life- one where I am supporting others. Were the male characters depicted as the father, boyfriend, or at a birth?
I bet their characters were well developed, their roles were action packed, they were the leaders and the heroes.
Unlike what I have experienced in real life- where women tend to step up to the plate and deal with *&it.
anyone else share this experience of women being the heroes in real life and wonder why we are not in film?

Thomai in L.A May 16, 2009 at 10:32 PM

that note was mostly

AJ May 18, 2009 at 9:57 AM

i think that those who are trumpeting how great saldana’s uhura was are grasping at straws.

as a character, there’s no *there* there. she’s a multilingual mannequin, and throughout the flick more is made of her physical appearance than her skills and competencies. and don’t get me started on the nonsense of the spock/uhura relationship – without a single shred of actual warmth or attraction between the two characters, one can only assume it was thrown in there solely to titillate a bunch of slash fic fanboys.

and spock? i, for one, wasn’t terribly impressed with the alternately smug and sulky attitude of the character. the one moment that rang true (for me, anyway) was when he expressed puzzlement at kirk’s defeat of the kobayashi maru scenario.

Nancy May 22, 2009 at 9:36 PM

Sigh. I guess what I was trying to say was that it is so tired to see being a mother as insignificant. And yes, the male characters were shown as fathers, husbands (especially in the opening scene where the husband and father hurls himself at the death machine to save his wife and child and 800 other people) and boyfriends; why is that not dismissed as insignificant by the author of this article?

I’m sure you’ll be shocked (mild irony) to know that I’m at home raising a bunch of beautiful children. I’m delightedly married and deeply fulfilled and happy. Go ahead and call the female characters thinly written and you may have a point; I can even see wanting to see more females at all in the movie; but I do take serious issue with the dismissal of the said roles as insignificant. No one’s saying women can’t be starship captains; but what I’m saying is, why is being a starship captain more significant than giving birth? Simple answer: it ain’t.

Refusal to understand this objection will hamstring feminism with young women like myself almost as much as the total denial of post-abortive women’s suffering has. I’ve got a bunch of friends who refuse to call themselves feminists because these truths have been rejected by the movement; it is only concerned with women so long as they fit neatly into feminist molds. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Anyway, thanks for reading what I have to say.

Melissa Silverstein May 23, 2009 at 6:07 AM


Great comment. I think that what I was trying to say and should have written better is not that being a mother is insignificant, I so don’t believe that being a mother is insignificant. What I would have liked to have seen from the mother character is more character and time spent on her than just the act of giving birth. She didn’t die like Kirk’s father. She raised him and even one scene with the two of them just to acknowledge her role in her life might have gone a long way for me.

Abigail Tarttelin, London May 23, 2009 at 11:25 AM

Hey Thomai – sorry I didn’t look at your profile before I wrote the comment! But thanks, and another amen – in life, so many strong women, constantly making things happen, picking up the pieces, going after what they want, and honestly it seems I know very few men in the same position. I think this is another little casualty of inequality in many ways. There is something within our society, like an undercurrent, that delivers men with a sense of entitlement. Where some of the women I know decide what they want and work for it, there are the men who expect it and sigh when it doesn’t land on their doorstep. Both sexes are let down by inequality. …but back to the point. Many female heroes in real life, no so many on film. But thats something that has changed in sci-fi in recent years – ripley/buffy/starbuck/Leia etc, so why star trek, WHY?

AJ: Agreed. Not to say that Saldana’s Uhura wouldn’t have been a great character, but she had so few lines I couldn’t decide what I thought aside from ‘good’, and I’ve seen it twice.

Nancy: I think the objection is not to the roles of mother/girlfriend/child-bearer but the representation of women in films as solely mother/girlfriend/child-bearer.

I understand what you were saying about celebrating women as women. It is unfortunate that women who get to the top in any business tend to demonstrate masculine qualities (eg aggression); even physically so, eg in the world of modeling there are few breasts/butts around. Where are the women who look like women? However I think at the moment and over the past century it’s been ‘get there any way you can’ because they were and are so few opportunities for women to do so.

I’m not saying that all women should be ‘feminine’, far from it, but I would like to see women on film depicting all the roles we play in society – that is to say, nearly everything that men do, we do, and should be seen doing on film. Yes, we should celebrate the fact that we bring life in to the world – its an amazing gift – but what about celebrating a female captain in a war, who dies for her country? How about the women who overcome their differences to fight a greater evil? What about the women who go to work every day to feed a growing family, or to fight for change, or to follow a dream?

Re: Melissa’s last comment. I definitely would have liked to see Kirk’s mother again, partly because it felt odd that we did not (he didn’t even say goodbye to her when he left with Starfleet!), partly because as depicted in Star Trek, she wasn’t even really a mother, she was basically a ‘woman who gave birth’; she was completely passive, ie, evolution gave her a womb, and, as all species on the planet, our instinct is to reproduce, hence: baby. If we had seen her bringing Kirk up, then she would have actually been a ‘mother’ – someone who worked hard, made sacrifices, made choices, lived a life.

In fact both Star Trek’s mothers were passive figures – the first watches while her husband makes the choices (I’m not blaming the character for not doing anything here, I’m blaming the writer for not making her possibly a little stronger); the second… spock’s mother… I was a little disappointed with Ryder’s portrayal of this women. She seemed so weak, she spoke thinly, there was nothing really there. I know she was a symbol of emotion and kindness for Spock, but emotion and kindness could have been shown through passion and pride – this women married someone form another species and moved to another planet because they loved each other – where was the fire in her belly? She watched as the world was punctured by a drill and then held still whilst the rock beneath her crumbled. If her character was so infused with love and life, surely she would have jumped or shouted out and tried to reach or call for her loved ones? I would have. I would have leapt for my son with every bit of energy I had in me. A mother is active because they love their child; these women were passive…

So I guess it’s not only the portrayal of women in film as solely mothers/girlfriends, but also the portrayal of mothers/girlfriends in film as passive characters that I object to.

Nancy May 24, 2009 at 12:08 PM

Melissa- many thanks for the clarification. Between your comments and Abigail’s I have a greater sense of connection to this discussion, which is a relief from the isolation I generally feel when involved with commentary about “women’s roles.” People have actually said things to me like, “Wow, you’re selling yourself short just staying home with the kids like that.” Grr! It only bothers me for a moment because I am happy and confident about my life, but still that feeling of separateness and dismissal isn’t a pleasant one.

I would have loved to see more of Kirk’s mom and I agree that Winona wussed out on the role of Spock’s mother- though maybe she got “vulcanized” over all those years on the planet of deeply repressed emotions…hmm… vulcanized… maybe she could have bounced? Just a thought…

d May 25, 2009 at 7:13 PM

One of my very best friends is a stay-at-home mom. She didn’t even go to college, she was so sure that her calling was to be a Sahmmy. She can receive quite a bit of ridicule depending on what circle she’s in. And my own mom, bless her, has been the one person I could rely on during this economic crisis.
And I use both those examples to say I can definitely relate to how wonderful motherhood is. But neither woman would ever say that the characters I wanted to see in films are “pseudo-masculine”. And while some of my general ideas on feminism are more radical than most, neither one would ever call my beliefs nonsense.

I really hope we don’t always have to preface things with “not to say that motherhood isn’t a great and noble thing…” or anything else like that.

Films in general need to externalize everything because it’s a visual medium – and action films especially! So what makes Kirk Sr. a great dad in an action flick wasn’t just that he was a dad – but it was the fact that he sacrificed himself to save those hundreds of people. Kirk & Spock’s moms were just mothers – not because mothers are inconsequential, but because they didn’t do anything else in the film except that. In fact, in the podcast lizriz referenced the writers seemed to say that Kirk’s mom was in Starfleet as well – not that you can tell that at all by the film.

In an Entertainment Weekly online article, they listed the top action films, and this is what the author(s) said about Ripley from Aliens: “Ripley isn’t a vixen like Lara Croft or Charlie’s Angels. Yet Weaver wasn’t forced to turn Ripley into a man, either. (Remember Linda Hamilton in T2?)” – their emphasis.

I wanted to refer to that comment because on the other end, this is what I feel like I am fighting all the time. When you look at Sarah Conner’s character, she did everything in line with what you would expect an obsessed, fierce, devoted person to do when dealing with the gravitas of the end of the world. Yet, because she doesn’t do the usual touchy-feely stuff that people expect of women, they considered her a man.

I like to say I don’t want to eat my own – but I had also hoped they wouldn’t eat me, or what I like, either.


Nancy May 26, 2009 at 4:24 AM

I was irked when I left my first comment and the tone was not what I would choose to use in a valuable discussion- but I must say the openness I’ve found here has not been the rule, sadly. I came in defensive and offensive… I do apologize.

That said, though, while I take back the “nonsense” comment, I stand by the pseudo-masculinism word– it so perfectly captures the trap I think women have walked into over the last several decades. I walked into it before I came to a realization that my feminism was a combination (not uncommon, I hope you’ll candidly admit) of the pursuit of traditionally male roles and characteristics PLUS a contempt for the traditionally feminine.

All around me I saw (and see) the female starship captains, including my beloved mother; literally nowhere in my experience did I see a woman committed to the happiness and security of her children as a primary goal.

Not THE primary goal, but up there on the list. Latchkey kid? How sad a term is that? I realize some people have no choice; I do not refer to them here.

I am sad about the price we all pay for rejecting the feminine; the kids suffer; I know I did. But I see women suffering all around me from this stifling of their desire to be with their children. No, no- says this masculininity-worshipping feminist culture- you will let down the team if you “just stay home.” No, no, says the selfish and materialist husband/boyfriend trained by decades of “equality education”- you get a job and contribute to this family or else.

This is what I meant. I never meant nor said that women cannot be starship captains; I mean that they should not be dismissed as insignificant for choosing not to be.

Abigail Tarttelin, London May 27, 2009 at 3:30 AM

D, re: I really hope we don’t always have to preface things with “not to say that motherhood isn’t a great and noble thing…” or anything else like that. ..I very much agree.

Nancy, re: penultimate paragraph – Why is being a good parent a feminine thing? I honestly think by referring to feminists as ‘masculinity-worshipping feminist culture’, it lets the side down. Yes there are feminists out there who go to extremes, who demand women work and man-bash, but the vast majority of us just want to see equality, and the people that do refer to us as such are giving us a bad name.

None of us would suggest staying at home itself is ‘letting the team down’. What feminists have been pushing for for the last century – make that last few millenia – is the choice to do either or both and be taken seriously. And as for the ‘selfish-materialist husband/boyfriend’ – doesn’t he have a right to ask that the workload is shared? Doesn’t he have a right to spend an equal amount of time with his children as their mother? Should he be expected to do a 9-5 everyday, pay for everything the family needs, and only see his kids in the evening and at weekends? We are supposed to be pushing for equality here! Taking away a father’s rights to satisfy a mother’s rights is another form of inequality.

And I understand that you have said you don’t refer to people who have no choice but ultimately thats most women – who doesn’t have to go to work? I know my mother went to work because she wanted us to be able to eat well, to have a comfortable home, to have the best education possible to us, and actually I look at her now as a huge role model, because she did the things she didn’t want to do for her family, because she is strong and intelligent and a fighter and because, although she loves my Dad, she doesn’t need anyone to take care of her. I don’t say this in a man-hating way, I mean she is self-sufficient and because of that, I’ve never had any excuses. And yes she feels she missed out, but unfortunately she was one of the people who didn’t have a choice. I think what I would like to say is that a mother is a mother; whether she stays at home or not, and staying at home may be great, and I wouldn’t dismiss a ‘stay at home’ mom at all, but it isn’t always doing what is best for your kids, or your partner, though it might be best for you.

(And if the father is the only one who works and cannot earn enough to support the family what then? Benefits? Because what ‘benefits’ means is that other women and men are going out to work, paying taxes and paying for some women to stay home with their kids. My mom did it all her life and always hated the people who stayed at home on benefits, because she missed out on time with us and was paying for these women to have time with their kids. Thats off on a tangent, because I don’t think we’re talking about people staying at home on benefits but its a huge issue in the UK, which is why I digress….)

To sum up, kids suffer whether you go out to work or not – you go, they miss you; you’re there all the time, they don’t know how to be without you, but parenting does not belong solely to our sex and to reject being a parent is not to reject the feminine. If you go to work it does not mean you are a bad parent and you are rejecting your kids, but it could well mean that you are trying to find a balance between time with your family, earning enough money to do what is best for them, and following your own goals – which again, I think is a good thing for a parent to do. You have a kid who can look up to someone who has achieved what they wanted to in life and I don’t think thats a small thing. Coming back to Star Trek, Kirk looks up to his father because he died saving people’s lives. Parents like this are a huge influence on a child, even if, as in Kirk’s case, they never meet them.

And my main beef with this issue is that I think it’s a little more selfish to stay at home with the kids expecting someone else to pick up the tab and spend less time being a father, than it is to expect your partner to go out to work and earn half the money needed to support a family while you reap the benefits. Can I ask what would be your response if your partner wanted to be a stay at home father?

(Just so we’re clear, I’m not angry if my phrasing indicates as such, I want to discuss!)

Nancy May 27, 2009 at 5:48 AM

“Doesn’t he have a right to demand that the workload be shared”.

And therein lies the heart of the problem. You feminists talk a good game about fighting to choose “either or both”- but it’s really a choice between both or work, isn’t it? As the above statement makes crystal clear, you and the materialist father share the view that if a woman stays home and “just” is a mother, the workload isn’t being shared adequately.

“I think it’s a little more selfish to stay at home with the kids expecting someone else to pick up the tab and spend less time being a father, than it is to expect your partner to go out to work and earn half the money needed to support a family while you reap the benefits.”

Talk about a complete dismissal of my contribution or “significance.” What about the benefits conferred on society as a whole by the fact of my happy, secure, people-loving children who understand the meaning of deep loving relationships?

I speak only from my own experience, but know this: the sad and lonely kids who hop off the bus and go home to an empty house often end up at mine- thank God. The other places they could end up don’t bear much thinking about. My husband’s office jut conducted a sting of internet sex predators and netted 35 men in a three day operation- all of whom were trolling for underage victims on an internet which opens the door to unprotected children. Elephants take better care of their young than most modern Americans.

Abigail- you wrote convincingly of the mother who would leap toward her son with all her strength. That’s me. I have chosen to leap toward my children with everything that is in me to help them navigate this artificial toxic self-serving culture of instant gratification and grow to be the decent and loving service-oriented people I am grateful to see them turning into already. Surely you can see that this, while not impossible with two “working” parents, is more possible with at least one (Mom or Dad, for the record) who is actually present for most of their waking lives? Any job is easier to do well if you have more time to devote to it, and parenting is the exemplar of that axiom.

I am not perfect- my kids see my flaws; but they love me anyway and they are left in no doubt of my love for them.

Similarly I dearly love my starship captain mother and I know she loves me now and when I was a girl. But you have to hear me when I say this because it’s a painful thing for me to say, but I did doubt her love as a child. My mother is one of the greatest people I know- but how is a kid to know that when mom is only home a day and a half a week and totally exhausted then? Evenings? My mom would come home so spent there was nothing left to give. I realize she was working for me- I even realized it then- but honestly, I would have traded the few luxuries we could afford and would have worn even less stylish clothes and lived in an even smaller place quite happily for some face time with her. The truth is that kids need time- lots of it- with their idols- Mom and Dad both.

My mom used to call me “Becky Home-Ecky” for staying home with the kids- but over the years there’s been a total shift in her attitude as she’s watched her grandchildren grow up this way marinated in time and attention. More than any pain I suffered from not being around her wonderful self all those years has been listening to her sadly say, “I would do it so differently if I could do it again.” Her pain is the pain that mostly concerns me here. Her pain and the pain of so many women who know what I know- that to choose to stay home with one’s children is to choose shabby carpet and old furniture; no fancy vacations or pricey duds; a smaller place to live and little “me” time- and it is to choose to face the pain of being cut off from today’s world of women who will assess your life as worth little to nothing- worse, you will be considered some form of parasite on the world of the “working”.

For me, I choose that. I will live with my formerly white carpet and my once-sharp figure; I choose to do laundry every day and lots of it; I choose to find time between mundane and servile chores to teach my 15 year old son trigonometry and read my 13 year old daughter’s 137 page Star Wars novel (in which interestingly, some alien creature has 83 children and is honored on her planet as a sage… I kid you not- she is however blue and has curving horns cascading down over her face). I choose not to have lunches out but to have them decidedly in- usually with stuff on the floor where my 18 month old has cheerfully deposited it for the dog to “help” him finish.

And I will live with the certainty that I am written off as insignificant by the majority of my peers for what I choose. And as happy as I am in my life, that does still carry a sting for me.

I was angry when I first read your post, Abigail- I tend to get angry when stung. But I’m not, now- I realize you really do wish to engage in a discussion about this and I appreciate your candor even when it feels like a broadside.

Many thanks.

d May 27, 2009 at 8:20 AM

Hi Nancy and Abigail,

I just wanted to say I loved your long, detailed responses; I learned a lot from both of them. :)

Hopefully these issues will come up in the future with films that may adress it a little more directly than Star Trek.

Thanks again! d

Mike April 14, 2011 at 5:53 PM

What about leaving out the role of Number One? She was second in command under Captain Pike? And what about leaving out the role of Nurse Chapel? Two strong women figures who were in Star Trek TOS? Is it odd that they were both played by the same strong woman who was married to Gene Roddenberry? I think the movie was very sexist and I thought they missed a great chance to correct the mistakes of TOS of featuring women in more powerful positions in the Fedration.

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