Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stories Matter: On Star Trek, Part 1

So, I haven't been around much but I have been writing a lot.  So I'm going to share with you some of what I've been doing.  This is a selection from my second (but not yet completed) draft of chapter two of my thesis.  In all likelihood I will also post the final draft of this project in some form, so expect that in May!  In the meantime, the second half of this draft will pop up soon, as well.  File under: "Stuff whatsername Is Working on For School".

The first section of this chapter will discuss broad themes of the Star Trek universe spanning the original series and The Next Generation.  This survey is not meant to be an exhaustive one, that would be impossible for a project of this size, but I do want to touch on several themes and conventions I have noticed in my own watching and re-watching of the series’ in question.  The second section of the chapter is dedicated to a specific storyline that begins on The Next Generation and is developed more fully on Deep Space Nine.  Instead of overarching themes, I have chosen two specific episodes to examine closely: TNG’s “Ensign Ro” and DS9’s “Duet.”  It is my hope that this combination of the broad and the specific will give even the fan-scholar a unique perspective on the potential, and on the successes and failures, of the Star Trek universe as a social justice project.

I feel it is also important to outline here what I mean by “social justice.”  As I use it here, “social justice” means “a project in pursuit of positive social change.”  This is a very broad definition and includes within it work that I might not pursue myself, an observation particularly true of Star Trek which is at its heart an assimilationist and US-centric project.  To define Star Trek (and in the later chapter Doctor Who circa 2005) as a social justice project is to refer to the intent of the creator as well as the perceived possible outcomes of the work.  Social justice can be framed in a radical or liberal way, though it’s rootedness in change precludes it from being traditionally conservative.  This definition does not mean, however, that this franchise never reinforces what I view as harmful social structures in its pursuit of “change.”  They do.

I want to be very clear here.  I love Star Trek.  Next Generation, Voyager and more recently Deep Space Nine have been incredibly important shows to me on a personal, intellectual and political level.  But these shows are not perfect.  Even the elements I label as “positive” are often a mixture of elements I consider both “good” and “bad” in pursuit of the social change I would like to see.  There is no purity in this analysis.  That is because, as Avery Gordon reminds us: “life is complicated” (Gordon 3).  I take that axiom just as seriously as she; it is not just “a banal expression of the obvious, but…a profound theoretical statement” (3).  I refuse to shun complication in pursuit of a more “tidy” theory-making or the possibility of confusion.  Confusion and complication can be useful tools, they can frustrate, but they can also bring a deeper understanding once trudged through.  I also reject purposeful obfuscation, and do not aim to purposefully frustrate my readers; I ask only that you keep in mind that there are always multiple layers to the topics I discuss below.

Section One: Race Matters

In popular discourse, race is an issue that Star Trek “got right” from the outset of the original series (from here shortened to TOS).  Or, at the very least, the rhetoric most often used talks about TOS as "ground breaking."  People of various ethnicities (both white and of color) worked in the command center (called “the bridge”) of a starship (the USS Enterprise) hundreds of years in the future, with total equality.  That things like racism, sexism, and poverty had all been eliminated on Earth in this in-universe time period is explicitly expressed within the series’ themselves often.  The image is therefore one of the diverse bridge crew going about their work together on equal terms.  But the real world time was that of 1968, and so the image was more idyllic than the actual writing of the series, with the characters of color getting only bit parts.

Yet even this image, without any real character development for the marginalized crew members, was a powerful picture and concept in the collective social imagination.  It was powerful enough that when Nichelle Nichols (who played Lt. Uhura) had decided to quit the show in frustration over the very issue of lack of a substantial role, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her she needed to stay (Nichols interview).  Even if the part was hardly more than crumbs, seeing a Black woman on the bridge of the Starfleet flagship week after week was a testament to the survival of Africans and people of the African diaspora into the 23rd century.  But I want to pause here as a reminder: this is fiction we are talking about.  As I write this we are only in the 21st century, and the survival of any human beings to the 23rd is hardly guaranteed.  So why was this fictional representation so important?


Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the idea of "act as if."  In the independent film Boiler Room (written and directed by Ben Younger) Ben Affleck's character gives a speech to the new recruits of an investment firm wherein he attempts to create confidence in the group by telling them to "act as if."  In essence, to pretend they already are the "big swinging dicks" (aka: confident men) that they wish to be; that through pretending to be what they want to be, the pretense will eventually become reality.  Dorian Corey puts it another way in the iconic Paris is Burning: "in a ball room you can be anything you want. You're not really an executive, but you're looking like an executive. And therefore you are showing the straight world that 'I can be an executive. If I had the opportunity I could be one, because I can look like one.'"  In other words, "seeing is believing."  The representation of something brings the idea being represented into "the real" in the minds of those who see it.  That many millions of people have seen Nyota Uhura and Hikaru Sulu sitting on the bridge of the Enterprise plants and/or nurtures the idea in our minds that Black and Asian people are in fact equal to White people, and fully capable of serving alongside them in important capacities.  Such an idea undermines important structures of racism which rely on personal beliefs of Asian and Black people as Other and "less-than" White people.

In his writing and interviews, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was always explicit that civil rights of oppressed communities was part of his thinking in considering how to structure and develop the Star Trek universe, and in thinking about what stories he wanted to tell through that universe.  The straight forward identity politics of the original series makes sense not only as a rudimentary "first attempt" at "social justice television," but also in considering the time period in which Star Trek was launched.   The mid 1960s was a time when popular racial discourses were shifting along with the activism of the Black Civil Rights Movement and widespread conversations were being had about the Black-White racial binary that had been dominating racial thought in the United States for hundreds of years.  

Ideas about ethnic nationalism were also disseminating into the mainstream USian popular imagination: Malcolm X had only recently been killed (1965), the founding of the Black Panther Party occurred in the same year as Star Trek's debut (1966), and the formation of the Brown Berets (1967) and American Indian Movement (1968) was not far behind.  This was the perfect time to begin to imagine what a world post-racism might look like, what humanity might achieve if we set aside these structures of thought which have defined the circuits of power in the United States since the first colonists arrived in this part of “the New World” from England.  

"Hailing Frequencies Open, Sir"

Even as we think about Star Trek as the first imaginings of a post-racism future, those imagining this future still lived in the 1960’s, and it showed.  For example, traces of the impact of ethnic nationalistic and Marcus Garvey “back to Africa” ideology can be found in Uhura's characterization as an African woman.  Not African-American, but African.  Her indigenous language is Swahili and it is said her nation is that of "The United States of Africa." The creation of a "United States of Africa" in the Star Trek universe is a complicated move that at once flattens the ethnic and national diversity of Africa as well as constructs African people as equal and equivalent to (White) people of the United States of America. 
This concept flattens Africa in that it feeds into the (still) prevailing USian belief that Africa is a place of one people, that "Africans" are a coherent group, not a collection of diverse cultures, religious traditions and ethnic backgrounds linked together in some cases only by virtue of the landmass on which they make their homes.  Similarly, the rhetorical parallel of the "United States of Africa" to the "United States of America" is an assimilationist move that assumes the superiority of the United States government model and superimposes it on a future African continent.  Africans are shown to be equal to "us" by having become "like us."  Such an assimilationist model is evident throughout the Star Trek franchise, as we will return to again.

The way in which the character Uhura is written also demonstrates successes and failures in the treatment of women in the original Star Trek.  Her now iconic short skirt is a vivid reminder of sex and gender difference on the Enterprise bridge.  Such an outfit is significantly less utilitarian than the costumes sported by the men on the crew, and works to sexualize Uhura in a way not otherwise shared by her male counterparts.  When her character is introduced, lip service is given to her remarkable ability with languages, yet throughout the three season’s worth of episodes she largely acts only as a secretary or switchboard girl.  The real development of the Uhura (and Sulu) character was stymied over and over by editors and producers who whittled their roles down to almost nothing (Nichols).  

In essence, while the character was certainly ground-breaking, breaking the ground was all the producers of Star Trek allowed her and Gene Roddenberry to do.  Actually digging out a space for a complicated and powerful character never really materialized.  Still, the impact of even this tokenistic representation can probably not be overstated.  In the words of Whoopi Goldberg to her family: "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!" (Beck).  Indeed, Lt. Uhura is credited as the first Black actress whose character was not relegated to so-called menial labor (in other words a maid or mammy type role).

Aesthetics of Whiteness

It is also interesting to note that as a social justice project, the original Star Trek's visual aesthetic holds an interesting contradiction; that is, that a very purposeful and strategic positioning of various ethnicities compose the bridge crew...while the extras which compose the rest of this universe are almost uniformly White.  I capitalize "white" here to indicate not just that they're skin color and phenotype match what is considered in the United States to indicate a white racial grouping (for which I use the lower cased “white”), but also that they are an archetypal white, the whitest of the white, as in those who are not only white, but also empowered as the ideal under white supremacist thinking: as in Aryan.  My construction here is largely influenced by the work of Whiteness Studies scholars such as Noel Ignatiev, who have charted the way in which white supremacist culture demands assimilation to ideals of Whiteness from “Other” white ethnicities such as Italian and Irish people.  The background “extras” of the early Star Trek episodes demonstrate an overall aesthetic of tall, muscular, blond men populating the majority of a universe wherein (supposedly) racism has been erased.  Never mind that, if that were the case, white people would be severely outnumbered in general and that such paragons of Whiteness would be really quite rare.

This aesthetic corresponds with the choice of three white men as the leads of the show.  It must be noted that one of these men plays an alien (Lieutenant Commander Spock) but his “Otherness” (as alien) is not “Other” to what white supremacist USian culture values and demands.  Indeed, Vulcans base their lives and culture purely on “logic,” “rationality” and “reason”; traits that anthropologists of the 19th century ascribed solely to "the white race" and which Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke held up as virtues to be pursued.  Further, Vulcan life is structured this way because of their otherwise extremely volatile nature.  It is said at numerous times that without logic Vulcans were “savage,” again recalling the language of 19th century anthropology and pseudo-sciences alleged to analyze racial difference.  Thus Spock’s alien-Otherness is subdued through his race’s allegiance to concepts that are coded as White and therefore comforting and familiar to the sought-after “mainstream” audience.

Along similar lines, the human characters are both "from the Heartland," specifically, Iowa (Captain Kirk) and Mississippi (Doctor McCoy), and thus truly "All-American boys."  Given the time and place of Star Trek’s creation it is perhaps easy to take this assignment for granted.  Even today the White male is generally understood to be the "universal subject" and when criticized for a lack of diversity television producers enjoy reminding us that other casting is considered a gamble as to whether a "mainstream" (read: white) audience will “relate” to the series.  We can see this thinking in operation even in the casting of these white men: Nimoy’s designation as the always logical Vulcan and Shatner’s assignment as a red-blooded Iowan farmer’s son.  While both actors are Jewish, this was not a written into their characters.  Their “White-washed” casting demonstrates a compensation for their not-quite-acceptable-white-ethnic-Otherness of being Jewish.  Significantly, the slightly more “ethnic” looking Nimoy is assigned the role of alien, while the “passing” Shatner retains the role of Captain.  

The resulting look of common bridge shots in the original series are of very few people of color in a veritable sea of Whiteness (a couple screenshots might be good here).  In a way, this made those two people of color all the more noticeable, providing a rupture in the White monotony of so much of science fiction and USian television of the time. But as with all such tokenistic representations this provided only a surface-level rupture. Accordingly, when the franchise was re-envisioned for Star Trek: The Next Generation this aesthetic was adapted to the more "multicultural" progressivism of the time and the backdrop on which the main characters played became less starkly White.  What is particularly interesting about this changing aesthetic, however, is the way in which Whiteness continued to assert itself as a powerful force despite the changes.

The bridge crew of the Enterprise-D is even more White than that of the original Enterprise.  It is comprised of not only less people of color, but less white ethnicities as well.  This is contrasted with the fact that within the diegetic universe this crew is more diverse than the first, containing three alien species, an android and three humans.  However, this diegetic diversity allows for the non-diegetic non-diversity I began this paragraph with.  Similarly, while the character of Captain Jean Luc Picard is indeed (in theory) a shift from the "All American" Kirk, his diegetic French-ness is virtually erased by actor Patrick Stewart's obvious Englishness.  

In accent, personality traits and demeanor, Picard is the consummate stately Englishman. He adheres strictly to the rules of the Federation, displays rationality at all times, and shows a penchant for authoritative politeness.  Finally, one of the things Picard is well known for, his drink of choice, also betrays this English overlay: "Earl Grey, hot!"  Not cafĂ© au lait, and no wine with dinner, which would be signifiers of French-ness to a USian audience. The few times during the series when Picard's French-ness is required for the storyline it reads as an awkward and forced overlay.  This awkwardness is even written into the storyline, somewhat, with Picard having a contested relationship with his father and brother.  This storyline paints these French relatives as “stuck in the past” and “traditional,” increasing Picard’s aura of modernity and in some ways marking his Englishness as making even more sense.

Given that the United States is founded on a social order handed down from an English ruling class and English social and governmental structures, the role of Picard is certainly not much of a challenge to USian hegemony.  Instead, it is a reformist move: leave the main structures in place with modest changes to the ways in which people may appropriately behave within that structure.  In this way, the assimilationist tendencies of the original Star Trek are maintained in Next Generation, people are held up as "good" when they fit the model of hegemonic morality and behavior.  Indeed, even in a century when poverty and crime has allegedly been eliminated on Earth, Starfleet still follows a military code that requires subordinating oneself to the judgment of commanding officers, instead of, for instance, running the Enterprise-D by consensus or some other more democratic manner.

This shift in representation also mirrors the politics of the time.  Like the first TrekNext Generation was thus born into a time of significant change in the way society thought about core principles like race and economics.  Reaganomics was in full swing by then, the ideological right was reinvigorated and neoliberal thought was being popularized.  Rhetoric of "personal responsibility" was one of the catch phrases of this ideology, rhetoric which put the blame of poverty on the poor, and through the "war on drugs" and "welfare reform" criminalized the poor: shifting the eye of society from structures of inequality to individuals for both blame and uplift.  This is not to say that there had never before been a concept of individualism inherent to the Star Trek universe, only to suggest that the way in which people thought about and interpreted that individualism was undergoing a significant shift at the time of TNG’s creation.

Thus we find a largely White cast and a British archetype as the lead, but in a universe that is far more diverse than that imagined twenty years earlier.  This configuration sends the message that people of color do exist in this future, but they remain in the background, or quite literally, on the periphery.  For example, Geordi La Forge sits on the margins of the bridge at the beginning of the season, before being transferred out of sight to Engineering, and Worf stands at the back of it as Tasha Yar's backup.  Inasmuch as there seems to be more spots available for people of color on this Enterprise (in the sheer quantity of a diverse array of humanity seen working on the ship) it is disturbing that they still do not exist at the center of what is important to the story and instead remain little more than tokens, and worse, silent tokens: "extras."  Thus, the adjustment from a straight-forward "identity politics" to the more complex, neoliberal "multicultural" cast and crew remains both heartening in its potential and troubling in its execution.