Equality and respect… The final frontier.
It’s no secret that J.J. Abrams’s reboot of the Star Trek series has caught some flak for its representation of women. Not only did many viewers and critics believe the importance of the reboot’s female characters was downplayed—their roles reduced to simply supporting the white, male leads—but Star Trek: Into Darkness also featured a scene in which actress Alice Eve stripped down to her underwear because… um, space science. Needless to say, shots from that scene were used in just about every trailer, commercial, and advertising campaign run for the movie, prompting many to lament that the film (based on a TV show praised for its progressive portrayal of gender roles) would so shamelessly objectify women.
Star Trek: The Original Series was praised not only for its innovative and intelligent storytelling but also as a daring vehicle for social change. The crew on the bridge of the starship Enterprise included a Russian man (during the height of the real-world Cold War between the U.S and the Soviet Union), an African-American woman (right on the heels of the civil rights movement) and an Asian man (in the middle of the Vietnam War). The show even featured the first interracial kiss on television, and some stations in the American south refused to air it.
Unfortunately, if you watch a little of the original 1966 television series, you might be surprised by how shockingly sexist James T. Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise could be. More shocking still, since the show was, in its time, praised for being forward-thinking and progressive.
If you ask me, given our more enlightened worldview today, it’s worth taking a look at the sexism in Star Trek: The Original Series, if only as a reminder of how far we’ve come. These are not instances of subtle misogyny; these scenes are full-on demeaning and sometimes downright difficult to watch.
And so, let’s boldly go where (unfortunately) many men have gone before. Here are the top ten most uncomfortable moments of sexist comments and chauvinistic behavior in Star Trek: The Original Series.
Disclaimer: Most of the moments I’m about to outline were clearly intended to be amusing and not deliberately degrading, but to watch them nowadays, they come off as insensitive at best and harassment at worst.
Sexist Moment #10: The Old One-Liner
“Mr. Spock, the women on your planet are logical. That’s the only planet in the galaxy that can make that claim.”
—Captain James Tiberius Kirk
Good one, Jim. Buckle up, folks. This is going to be a bumpy ride.
Sexist Moment #9: Season 3, Episode 1: “Spock’s Brain”
“Spock’s Brain.” Where to begin?
In this cringeworthy episode, Mr. Spock’s brain is mysteriously stolen. (?) It leaves him a mindless husk with the rest of the crew speculating on his fate. The big reveal? His intellect and leadership abilities have been hijacked and used to help govern an otherwise mindless and leaderless society… that just happens to be entirely female.
This one’s so rough that Leonard Nimoy even commented on it publicly. “Frankly,” he said, “during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed—a feeling that overcame me many times during the final season of Star Trek.”
The premise behind the episode is bad enough, but throw in some scantily-clad ladies who can only speak in broken, caveman-like English, and it comes off as just sad. As you might expect, this gem has some incredibly campy and melodramatic dialogue, but the best line is below:
Kirk: “What have you done with his brain?”
Mind-stealing woman: “Brain and brain! What is BRAIN?”
I’m beginning to wonder, myself.
Sexist Moment #8: How To Kiss A Woman
Sexist Moment #7: Season 1, Episode 6: “Mudd’s Women”
One of the earliest episodes of Star Trek deals with a beyond-creepy, ear-ringed, mustached slave-trader named Mudd, who basically makes a living in the sale of mail-order brides across the final frontier.
Kirk: “Is this your crew, Captain?”
Mudd: “Well, no, Captain. This is me cargo… I recruit wives for settlers. A difficult but satisfying task.”
Now, a lot of sexism manifests in various forms of objectification. It would be easy to just accuse this episode of objectifying women—I mean, the women become a commodity up for bid, here—but the plot also revolves around an unexpected twist. The “beauty” of these enslaved women is actually an illusion generated by a “Venus drug” given to them by their slave-trader master. You know. To increase their… value. Yikes.
So how does the story play out? Do these women refuse to keep taking the drug? Do they triumphantly escape captivity? Do the enslaved sex objects fight back against their master?
Well, one of them seems to become dissatisfied with the idea of forced marriage to a miner she’s never met before—for a couple of minutes. But, in the end, the women are used as bargaining chips for some lithium crystals or something that Kirk needed, like, really, really badly, and the ladies marry the miners as planned. A real fairytale ending!
Sexist Moment #6: Rampant Lust
This one’s not a moment, per se. It’s a series of moments ranging from the Enterprise’s crew to alien settlements and even Earth’s distant past.
There seems to be a general trend throughout space and time of women being unable to restrain themselves. No matter how courageous and intelligent they may be, a single look from James T. Kirk can apparently turn every woman, human or otherwise, in this galaxy or any other, into a bleary-eyed, lusty freak.
Time after time, Kirk finds the pretense to kiss, caress, or eye-grope just about every female the Enterprise ever encounters. Objectifying women? Bad. But constructing a fantasy where every woman is a slave to her impulses, abandoning inhibition at the drop of a hat or the removal of a shirt: real bad.
Sexist Moment #5: A Warning…
Here, we get a glimpse of Kirk’s methods for calmly reasoning with the opposite sex during a mild disagreement. He and Elaan, an alien princess, are in an argument over her arranged marriage. When she disagrees with Kirk’s position, he offers a rebuttal.
He slaps her.
She responds as follows:
Princess Elaan: “You are warned, Captain, never to touch me again!”
Captain Kirk: “If I touch you again, Your Glory, it’ll be to administer an ancient Earth custom called a spanking.”
Sexist Moment #4: …Warning Revoked
A couple of minutes after the argument between Princess Elaan and Captain Kirk, they kiss. Because, well, because he’s Kirk. Then this sparkling dialogue ensues:
Elaan: “Captain, that ancient Earth custom called spanking. What is it?”
Kirk: “We’ll… talk about it later.”
Sexist Moment #3: Season 1, Episode 7: “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”
In this regrettable adventure, Kirk is sent to rescue a stranded scientist named Dr. Korby, only to discover that he’s gone off the deep end. (That happens sometimes, in space.)
Korby is in the middle of some nefarious scheme or another, I can’t remember what, and he’s constructed a couple of human replica androids to assist him in his work, one of whom is named Andrea.
Not to worry. It’s nothing that Captain Kirk’s worlds-spanning charm can’t handle. After one kiss from Kirk, the android—and, let’s not forget, this is a freaking robot—turns into an improbably lusty freak all the same.
Andrea [after a passionate kiss from Kirk]: “No… No… Not programmed for you…!”
Never mind that a little logic should tell you that a gender-neutral shell of wires and circuitry should be about as capable of human emotion as a toaster. It seems as long as it looks like a woman and talks like a woman, Kirk can turn it into putty in his hands. Indeed, without Kirk’s science-defying magnetism to short-circuit this sex machine, he might never have escaped that perv’s lair.
Sexist Moment #2: Another One-Liner
“If only she could have accepted her limitations as a woman.”
—Captain James Tiberius Kirk
Ooh boy… I didn’t even say it out loud. That one’s hard just to write.
Sexist Moment #1: Season 2, Episode 3: “The Changeling”
All right. We’ve saved the best for last. Hold on to your space-hats, because as we are about to discover that in the Star Trek universe, even robot satellites are sexist.
When the human-eradicating space probe called NOMAD is brought onboard the Enterprise, it is discovered to be fiendishly intelligent, and it soon starts erasing and absorbing the minds of the crew members. When it absorbs the mind of Lt. Uhura, portrayed by Nichelle Nichols, it receives an unexpected surprise.
Kirk: “What’d you do to her?”
NOMAD: “That unit is defective. Its thinking is chaotic. Absorbing it unsettled me.”
Spock: “That ‘unit’ is a woman.”
NOMAD: “A mass of conflicting impulses.”
Kirk and Spock then exchange a look with one another as if to say, “No arguments, there, bro.”
I hope you won’t judge The Original Series too harshly for its sexist moments. It was the 60s, after all. And while Spock and Kirk can both come off as good-old-boys at times, Star Trek presented the vision of a future where humans of any gender, nationality, or color could work together peacefully to explore strange, new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly go where no man (or woman) has gone before.
Read long and prosper!