Is Star Trek good for girls?

    star-trek_original_series_cast

    At some point, about a year ago, Clementine and I got out of the habit of reading together every night. It might have had something to do with the fact that Arlo had come along, and was demanding more of my time, but I suspect she’d also gotten to an age where our interests were diverging, and she no longer wanted to drift off to sleep hearing me read from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Not yet ready to accept the fact that she was growing up and developing interests of her own, though, I began a desperate search for something that we could share together in the absence of books. And what I came up with was the original Star Trek, which I thought might help instill an appreciation, if not a love, for science. (As I’ve mentioned before, I’d like for her to go into the space program and get off this damn planet of ours.) So, for the past year or so, we’ve been slowly making our way though the three seasons of the series, watching about an episode a week.

    250px-Nichelle_Nichols,_NASA_Recruiter_-_GPN-2004-00017I’d known, going into it, that it would be complicated. Any time you introduce a nearly 50 year old cultural artifact to a kid, there are going to be issues. But I found Start Trek to be especially difficult as the father of a young daughter. The blatant sexism of the series, which I was oblivious to as a kid, when I first watched the series, really came into sharp focus as I sat there with Clementine, trying, to the best of my ability, to provide context… trying to explain to her that, at the time, Start Trek was actually at the forefront of breaking down barriers, especially for women of color.

    The show, we’re told, was one of Martin Luther King’s favorites. In fact, according to Nichelle Nichols, the African American actress who portrayed communications officer Lieutenant Uhura aboard the USS Enterprise, it was King who asked her not to leave the show after its first season. According to Nichols, he said that she “could not give up.” For the first time in American popular culture, young black children, especially girls, had someone to identify with that wasn’t a household servant, and that, in the eyes of King, was vitally important. “Once that door is opened by someone,” he apparently told her, “no one else can close it again.”

    In spite of the way women are often portrayed on the show, I think that Star Trek has been good for us. It’s given us an opportunity to have conversations that we might not otherwise have been able to have concerning the ever-expanding role that women play in society, and how, thanks to the struggles of millions of women before her, she doesn’t have to be a stay-at-home mom, a secretary, or even a short skirt-wearing communications officer, if she doesn’t want to be. If she wants to work hard enough, I tell her, she can be anything that she wants to be, in spite of the competing cultural influences which might tell her that, despite everything else, women are still valued primarily for their attractiveness to men.

    For us, I think that Star Trek was the right choice. We were able to navigate it in such a way, I think, that the good outweighed the bad. I’m curious, however, what others think… In the love of science and exploration that Star Trek might instill offset by the often offensive treatment of women? It the fact that it was progressive for the time matter at all, now that nearly 50 years have passed? Does the fact that there was a black, female officer on the bridge make up for the fact that Captain Kirk bedded scantily clad female lifeforms across the universe?

    captain-kirk-women

    [note: I've just discovered that Nichols was involved in an extramarital affair with Start Trek producer Gene Roddenberry which began prior to the 1966 launch of the show. He was also, apparently, having an affair with Majel Barrett, who played Nurse Chapel on the show, at the same time. (He would go on to marry Barrett after leaving his wife.) So it apparently wasn't just Kirk who was chasing women across the universe.]

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      10 Comments

      1. Jcp2
        Posted June 28, 2014 at 9:18 am | Permalink

        Having a boy, I was able to share common interests in books and movies because I was a geeky boy. Then, having a girl, I became more aware of the limited roles women and girls had in my media world. Older stuff just didn’t cut it for me or her, and despite my reservations, I’m watching stuff that she likes. Now that they are both older, they have their own tastes, and I’m just along for the ride.

      2. anonymous
        Posted June 28, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        It’s widely know that GR cast Nichols because they were having an affair prior to the start of the show in ’66. This isn’t to say that she wasn’t a good actress who could have gotten the job on her own merites, it’s just hard for me to hold her up as a symbol of female empowerment when I know that about her.

      3. Posted June 28, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

        Interesting.

      4. 734
        Posted June 28, 2014 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

        It would be fun to flip all the roles and reshoot an entire episode with women in the men’s roles and men in the women’s roles.

      5. Mark Lee
        Posted June 28, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Try the new Dr.Who.

      6. trekkie snc 73
        Posted June 28, 2014 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

        I started watching ST (mostly TOS) w my then 13 yr old daughter in 2009. Yes, it is good to have a Trekkie daughter in spite of the sexism in all of the iterations – including the last two films.

        734, check out the 2 part Star Trek Ongoing comic, Parallel Lives. All of the characters are gender switched.

      7. Peter Larson
        Posted June 29, 2014 at 7:43 am | Permalink

        I think that there are far worse things for girls. The Old Testament comes to mind.

      8. dirtgrain
        Posted June 29, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

        Mix in some episodes of Star Trek: Voyager, to show a powerful female character.

      9. 734
        Posted June 29, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        But Mark hates Kate Mulgrew.

        http://markmaynard.com/2014/04/geocentrism-anti-semitism-the-work-of-robert-sungenis-and-the-role-of-kate-mulgrew/

      10. Dirtgrain
        Posted June 30, 2014 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

        Oh yeah, I had forgotten about her selling out–and then backtracking. Well, there is a good lesson in that, too.

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