“Fury”: Kes & Misogyny in Star Trek Voyager

I enjoy watching all the Star Trek series and spin offs, but a condition of my enjoying them is my having to accept that they were written and produced by people who, in imaginative terms, appear to have been utterly unable to move beyond the historical context of their own adolescence, hence, I have to accept that Star Trek is basically a fantasy about 1950s North Americans set in space.

This means that although it’s set in the 23rd century, the characters’ interests and hobbies look uncannily like what you would except of geeky, middle-class, white male adolescents in the 1950s/60s, e.g. Raymond Chandler novels, Sherlock Holmes, amateur dramatics, chamber music, or jazz if you’re going really wild. Black characters like Commander Sisko might be allowed to enjoy Baseball and cooking.  Of course there are no self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender queer people (except sometimes in evil mirror universes), and gender norms and sexual arrangements seem archaic, even for the 1980s when Star Trek:TNG premiered.  Married monogamy is still the ideal, even though the economic basis that requires married monogamy has long since disappeared.  Although one character is usually allowed to be a bit of a lothario, until he inevitably settles down into married monogamy, almost everyone else is profoundly sexually repressed.  Most of the time I just find all this amusing or irritating, but occasionally the Star Trek writers come up with something so creepy, and yet so culturally revealing, that you just can’t quite believe what you’re seeing.

I was reminded of just such an instance the other day when chatting to Amanda (AJ) Fitzwater of Pickled Think on twitter (follow her @BiscuitCIB), about the creepy, misogynist representational car crash that is the relationship between Kes and Neelix in the second spin off series, Star Trek: Voyager.  I’ve written a bit before about gender and power in science fiction and this seemed a good opportunity to return to the subject.

I should say from the start that I can’t stand the character of Neelix.  He’s a spiteful, self-centred, passive-aggressive bully from the start, and his persistent racist harassment of the Vulcan character, Tuvok, is quite enough to make him loathsome before we even get to misogyny.   Neelix harasses Tuvok for no other reason than that Tuvok is a Vulcan and there are things about Vulcan identity and culture that Neelix personally disapproves of.  So he pesters him relentlessly with disrespectful comments about his culture and beliefs, and passive aggressive jibes when Tuvok doesn’t respond positively to this harassment.  Neelix is, as Amanda pointed out on twitter, positioned as the “white” person who demands to be educated by the person of colour, a power dynamic that is made more visible by the casting of a black actor in the role of Tuvok.  But apparently they have no racial harassment workplace policies in Starfleet, which I guess is just one more downside of creating a world based on 1950s North America, and Tuvok is simply expected to put up with it.  In fact, Janeway in one of her many strange decisions as a silly lady-captain, makes the most unpleasant member of her crew into the morale officer.  Anyway the racism in Star Trek deserves a post of its own and what I actually want to get into here is gender and misogyny.

At the beginning of the first season of Voyager, we are introduced to Neelix who is a Talaxian and his girlfriend, Kes. She comes from a species called the Ocampa who have a lifespan of only 9 years.  It is presented as a romantic relationship between a much older male and a very young female who is grateful to him for rescuing her from some remarkably boring baddies called the Kazon.  OK, you say, that’s bad, but surely they represented this relationship as a bit problematic didn’t they?   No, not at all, the writers are fine with it and represent it as an endearing relationship.  Well, there’s worse to come, for as we later discover in Season 2, Kes hasn’t even achieved sexual maturity for her species.  That’s bad enough, but then it also turns out that, not only is Neelix in a romantic relationship with someone who is basically a child, he is possessive, jealous and controlling of Kes.  He can’t stand her speaking to other men, constantly nags her about it and demands that she reassure him on this point.  OK, you might say, surely at this point the writers start to represent the relationship as unhealthy.  No, not a bit of it, apparently Neelix’s jealous temper tantrums and creepy controlling behaviours are absolutely FINE, they are ROMANTIC and prove how much he LOVES Kes.

In fact, his relationship with Kes is not much more than an excuse for Neelix to express his epic man-pain and there is even one episode in which he and the main object of his jealousy (ship’s lothario Tom Paris) go on an away mission, fight about Kes and then bond over her.  How sweet.   In the twitter discussion, people observed that when Kes does finally hit puberty in Season 2 and is faced with the decision about whether or not to take her one chance to have a baby, because her species only gets one chance, we might reasonably expect this episode to be about her journey into adulthood and the hard choices that come with that?  NO, it’s mainly about Neelix’s man-pain as he struggles (i.e. runs away and hides) with the question of whether or not to become a father.  We are all relieved when Kes decides against pregnancy in the end.  Kes and Neelix do eventually break up, mainly I think because the actress wanted to leave (and who can blame her since, aside from a couple of interesting episodes, her role in the show mainly involves stroking the egos of male characters), and it makes me sad that they don’t show us that conversation, because I would have loved to watch Kes break up with Neelix. I hope it was brutal, although I suppose if they had shown it, they just would have made it all about his pain again.

Kes leaves Voyager when she comes into her full telekinetic powers and it becomes dangerous for her to remain on the ship any longer.  Although there’s a bit of the old ‘powerful woman=dangerous’ trope going on here, it isn’t too bad because at least we see Kes finally accepting her power, evolving as a person, moving forward in her life, and leaving behind a world in which she has been infantilised and limited.  We wish her well on her journey and make the mistake of falling into the false sense of the security that, now she’s gone, the Star Trek writers can’t do anything worse to her character. In this we are mistaken because they save the final kick in the guts for Season 6 when Kes returns for one of the most misogynist episodes in Voyager, a show  in which the high levels of misogynistic storytelling seem to have some connection with the higher proportion of major female characters in leadership roles than in the other shows.

Kes, it seems, could not be allowed to remain a powerful space entity and she returns to Voyager in an episode which is subtly titled ‘Fury’.   Get this, Kes has totally failed at being powerful and has (surprise!) been horribly punished for accepting her power.  She hated having power, she felt lost, confused and alone in her power … blah blah blah.  Not only that, but as happens quite often in Star Trek,  the possession of power has completely exploded her poor little lady-brain and she is now  “insane”, not to mention selfishly willing to murder her former crewmates to achieve her aim of returning home to her people where she won’t have to worry about being powerful.   She comes aboard the ship, fucks a bunch of shit up, and tries to manipulate time so that her younger self is sent back to Ocampa before any of this happened.  She accuses her crewmates of abandoning her, which it crap because it was her decision to leave the ship.  At the end of the episode, Kes has sense talked into her by her “good” (read non-powerful) younger self and is persuaded to return home to Ocampa to die, so at least we don’t have to worry about her being powerful anymore. Ding dong the witch is dead.

Jennifer Lien as Kes in the episode 'Fury'

Kes making a mess everywhere because she is mad and evil

I never really warmed to Kes because her character is pretty insipid and passive, when she isn’t threatening to destroy Voyager, but this episode is a horrible, deeply misogynist betrayal of everything that her character had become.  It is yet another representation that reifies the misogynist cultural trope that says “women cannot handle power”, especially the kind of power that is usually reserved for men.  When women get power they are representationally punished for it, usually through a combination of at least two of the following options which are, in no particular order: 1. going “mad”, 2. becoming “evil”, 3. getting raped, 4. becoming lesbian/bisexual, 5. being killed.  The fate of Kes is no anomaly in Star Trek or popular culture in general and although the storyline is infuriating, it also points to how shows like Star Trek can reveal a lot about these deeply embedded cultural tropes.

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5 thoughts on ““Fury”: Kes & Misogyny in Star Trek Voyager

  1. oh god, Neelix is THE DEVIL. He’s so clearly the character the writers identify with, which is what makes him extra-creepy; it’s like he’s some kind of wish-fulfillment or role-play for them.

    Which is kind of why dissecting Star Trek is so endlessly fascinating, because the writers/producers/showrunners are so unconscious about what they end up really saying (kinda like Victorian novelists, in a way). Like, they basically make Neelix a pedo AND THEY’RE OKAY WITH THAT!

    And of course, while more interesting characters are dropped or diminished, Neelix stays for every single damn season. ARGH.

    • Do you remember that episode when they think Naomi’s Mum is dead? That also ends up being all about Neelix’s pain. Oh right, so Ensign Wildman is probably DEAD and Naomi is going to be ORPHANED, but what really matters is that the situation is upsetting Neelix and reminding him of sad things in his own life, so let’s focus on that part of the story.

  2. Thanks for the Link Love!

    It’s also incredibly frustrating because one of the major writers of Voyager was a woman (Jeri Ryan). I’d love for someone sometime to interview in a feminist geek sphere find out just how much she was involved in writing these horrible characters and stories. So many people have said to me “But Voyager can’t be sexist because it had a female writer/female captain!”. Well, she’s one of three writers, and trying to explain the “you’re soaking in it” misogyny of geek fandom is tough.

    I’d also note that once Gene Roddenberry died, the sexism of the shows got worse, like without his constraint it was open slather to almost write it as fanfiction. I mean, TOS and TNG weren’t fantastic in their representation of women (the “Troi mind rape” ep of TNG I think is the worst ever) but there was hope things would get better as the decades, and feminist representation, improved. Nup. Instead we end up with the double down of Kes, 7 and her body suit, and B’Ellana’s transformation into a mother (passifying the “angry, powerful” woman).

    • I didn’t pay attention to who the writers of Voyager were and didn’t realise that Jeri Ryan was so involved. That is really interesting, considering how misogynistic some of the story lines are. The episode I absolutely cannot watch is the one with Seven that’s a metaphor for false rape allegations – Seven has a “false” memory of an assault and a man’s life is destroyed as a result! Thanks for that Voyager. Like B’Ellana, Seven’s journey is all about being tamed and pacified as well. It’s like they created this show with all these potentially amazing female characters and then spent the next seven years freaking out about it and trying to undermine them in as many ways as possible.

      Interesting point about Roddenberry’s death too. Look at DS9. It starts out with female characters who seem to represent progress on TNG and by the end of the show, Major Kira has been pacified and diminished into Odo’s girlfriend, while Jadzia has been killed off and the Dax character has returned as the utterly pathetic Ezri Dax. Don’t even get me started on the representation of Kai Win!

      What breaks my heart about Kes’s story is being informed that this character, instead of reaching her potential, had a horrible, miserable life just because she tried to reach her potential and is now being sent home as a failure to die. The message of Kes’s story is ultimately “don’t go on adventures, don’t try and explore your talents because it’ll only lead to unhappiness, so you’d be better off just staying at home in a limited, childlike role”. It’s incredibly reactionary and nasty.

      • In my brain, the Pah-Wraith were the true gods of Bajor — since the wormhole aliens don’t exist in linear time, by destroying the Prophets and the Celestial Temple the wormhole would have been retroactively erased from the past, present, and future along with the Prophets (and, since they were once Prophets, the pah-wraiths). Bajor would never have been dominated by the d’jarra system, and the entire Dominion War would never have happened. Unfortunately, the decieved Bajoran people and the selfish Prophets who place their own existance above the safety of the Bajorans who worship them, and their Emissary, won and Kai Winn only died because she jumped ship at the end and the pah-wraiths had to make do with a mentally unstable Cardassian… which. Didn’t work.

        Not what the writers were trying to convey, but prove me wrong using canon. ~.^

        Either way, Kai Winn was badass.

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