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.
I’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?
[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.]