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.
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.