Friday, June 08, 2012

Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV: From "Trek" to "Torchwood" (Part One: Introduction)

I've often shared the work I have been doing in the academy on this blog, and with my latest project I figured the tradition should continue, thus TJH's newest series is born: Imagining Social Justice Through Sci-Fi TV.  You've already seen pieces of this in rougher forms, but hopefully it will be more interesting when you see how they all came together.  And it must be said, this is still a work in progress, or at least, is part of a larger work in progress.  But that will probably become apparent as you proceed through it.  So without further ado...


"A dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars"
– Captain Kirk in "Whom Gods Destroy" (Erwin)

There are reasons both personal and political behind my choice to examine the worlds of Star Trek and Doctor Who.  At its heart, this project is an examination of myself.  It is also more than that, but whether it is apparent or not, what you have before you in the following pages is Me.  I’ve spent many years delving into and considering the ways of thinking I have taken on in childhood and young adulthood, those things that I believe and/or have “always” believed, about the world, about myself.  What I could not help noticing is how much popular culture influenced those beliefs and continues to be a central point of reference for my own imaginary and culture.  These stories, in all their complexity and nuance and beauty and fault, exist inside me, for better or for worse.  I am a geek.  More than that, I am a feminist geek.  And how feminism has worked its way into my geekdom is only now, years after it began, starting to become clear to me.  Because of all this, when conceptualizing a project I wanted to spend two years thinking about and researching and writing, there was no real choice in the matter: it had to be Star Trek: The Next Generation
Growing up watching TNG in my house was a family event.  My Mom didn't care for the show, but my Dad and I loved it, and we (and eventually my brother) sat down often over the seven seasons it aired to watch it together.  One vivid memory is of my little brother and I flinging ourselves to the sides of the television set as the Enterprise-D zoomed diagonally across the screen over and over during the now iconic opening credits (given my brother’s age, this was most likely after the show had gone to syndication).  I remember us laughing as we pretended the Enterprise might come out of the screen and run us over if we didn't get out of the way.  Looking back on it, this moment illustrates well just how real these characters and stories were to me, even as I knew they were fiction.  No wonder then, that on re-watching the series I would discover such moments as Captain Picard expressing a perspective on knowledge and education that I have long held as my own:
“Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship. It takes more. Opening your mind to the past…art, history, philosophy. All this may mean something” (McCullough)
What Picard is telling Wesley Crusher here is that often the things that are really “important” are not on the tests we are given, but require us to immerse ourselves in a wide range of thought, to wrestle with complicated ideas, ways of seeing, and an understanding of the legacy that produces you as an individual.  “All this may mean something” and only by exploring these spaces of differing knowledges can we find those that are meaningful to us and our lives.  It is this viewpoint that led me to the Humanities and the resulting educational journey that now culminates in this project.

My Story

“Complex personhood means that the stories people tell about themselves, about their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society’s problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward” (Gordon 4).

Because this is such an intimate and personal project I feel that some personal background is important for the reader to comprehend my stakes in this work.  I attempt to lay bare at least a portion of my own complex personhood both as context, and as case study in the power of stories.
The fact is that I was often not well-liked as a child.  I was a loudmouth.  I had an opinion on everything.  I was a know-it-all.  Not quite feminine enough to be a "real" girl and not butch enough to really be "one of the guys."  I saw other tomboys I knew assimilate into masculine culture through sports, but the truth is I'd rather go hiking or read a book than play football or basketball, so that was never a path that worked for me.  As a result I felt quite isolated for much of my childhood.  This was only compounded when I came to third grade and my new teacher recommended I be skipped to fourth.  While this was a great thing in some ways, socially it was a disaster.  The recess yard of my elementary school was divided, with fourth graders getting the "upper yard."  As a result I was separated from most of my friends.  At first we spent our free time at the border of the two yards chatting and talking, but from the start the administration encouraged us to go our separate ways and over time we reluctantly obeyed. 
Fortunately for me I had one very good friend who was older, and she made the experience manageable.  Unfortunately, there were also a number of bullies with an eye out for me in these upper grades.  I remember vividly being called "a slut" for the first time in the lunchroom.  Intellectually I didn’t know what this meant.  But viscerally, I knew that this word was tied inexorably into my girlhood and my sexuality, and that the people (primarily older boys) using it against me thought it both hilarious and terrible.  The truth is, I was not at all emotionally ready to defend myself against this sort of attack.  What made it worse is that the ringleaders of this group lived across the street from my own house.  Quite frankly, I am still dealing with the effects of the emotional abuse I experienced that year.
During this same time period, Star Trek: The Next Generation was on the air, and it was one of my, and some of my friends, favorite shows.  Facing this difficult situation of bullying, and my parents often fighting at home, stories became a refuge.  Whether it was books, movies or television, I saturated my world with stories to both cope with and try to understand my life and my identity.  I actively compared myself to and “tried on” the embodied femininity of the women in my stories in an attempt to discover whether I was “like them” or not, in other words, whether I could move through the world as I saw them do.  While I also went to a Presbyterian church every Sunday at that time, I never felt that the people there, or the Bible, gave me much to work with in this regard.  In fact, the messages around girl and womanhood that I got from church only magnified the feelings I had that day in the lunch room: there was something threatening and dangerous about my girl-ness, both generally, and specific to my particular embodiment.  But in the books I read and movies/TV I watched, girls and women had some sort of role to play, limited as they might have been.  It was something to work with, and work with it I did.

Modeling: Lessons Learned Watching TNG                                                                                              

“Entertaining, engaging stories become popular. They become narratives that shape our cultures…embedded in our daily existence…
they become our lived reality” (Wright 49).

One of the representational choices made by writers/directors/producers of The Next Generation was to shoot Marina Sirtis, who played Counselor Deanna Troi, in a way that constantly emphasized her beauty.  Looking at the series now with my more critical eyes their techniques are almost hokey, and clearly reminiscent of the stylistic conventions of classic Hollywood cinema and the original Star Trek.  But however hokey it is and was, I took an important lesson away from this presentation: it is very important for women to be beautiful at all times.  This perspective is hardly unique to the Star Trek universe, and the same message was surely gleaned from many sources over time.  Nonetheless I trace my conscious absorption of this idea to the representation of Deanna Troi, and similarly trace the beginning of my self-conscious attempts to embody a specific standard of physical beauty at all times to that representation.  It is to this moment that I also trace the origin of the psychic split wherein my consciousness is constantly fragmented into two: the person actually living her life and the person watching herself live her life (Berger 46).  This has long been something I semi-consciously do: the detached, watching self is constantly evaluating the physical beauty of my moving and active self.  For the longest time I thought this self-watching was just a narcissistic eccentricity of mine; imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a phenomenon already known to cultural studies scholars like John Berger!
In watching TNG I also learned that men are the real active subjects of stories (and thus, life) and that the professed equality of women in Earth society and the Federation at large still required that white, able-bodied heteronormative cis men save the day.  This was demonstrated time and again in the way Troi was incessantly the damsel in distress, Dr. Crusher persistently a nagging presence pushed to the margins and Tasha Yar thrown in the refrigerator[1] for the plot development of the main, male, characters at the end of season one.  Like so many women in refrigerators before her, Yar's demise reads as punishment for being tough and in a "man's job" (the Chief of Security).  Such were the best role models presented to me as those I could, as a self-identified girl assigned the sex female at birth, identify with. 
My response to these models of femininity was a jumble.  I loved and hated Troi, begrudgingly respected Crusher, hated Yar and, ultimately, looked up to Captain Picard as the hero of the show.  My greatest aspiration was to be his first officer.  This is a feeling I find resonates with the work of scholar Aída Hurtado, who in one particular essay explicates the way in which “white women’s relationship to white men…as daughters, wives, or sisters” allows us access to positions of power women of color are not “groomed” to enjoy (839). I believe it is from within this dynamic that I experienced Captain Picard as a representation of a man who I could at best hope to be the partner, “however unequal” (Hurtado 842) of but could never actually be.  As with so many of the memories I have recounted here this was a profound moment of my coming to understand “my place,” or at least, my so-called proper place, within kyriarchy.[2]
Knowing, however unconsciously, that this position of power (as the partner of normative white men) is the best that I could expect to be allowed to achieve (and failing to understand how such a position could be simultaneously privileged and oppressive, as Hurtado expertly accounts) I began to model myself after who I identified as the most sexually desirable of the three TNG women: predictably, Counselor Deanna Troi.  I learned to accentuate my breasts through my dress, to make up my eyes with smoky shadow and liner, to swing my strikingly similar hips seductively as I walked.  I even practiced my empathic skills, listening to what my emotions told me about people and situations, and learning to trust them, a skill I developed not just to attract men but to survive, a skill I recognize in what Gloría Anzaldúa has called “la facultad” (60 - 61).  Most of all, I dreamed of the man who would save me from my fucked up life, just in the nick of time, so we could go on to achieve great things together.
The pervasive power of social norms to influence what we think and feel cannot be ignored in my choice to identify with this character over the other choices presented to me.  Surely Chief of Security Tasha Yar was by the standards of 1980s radical feminism the ideal of who I should, as a little tomboy girl, be looking up to.  Yet I remember finding her ridiculous at the time.  Further, I remember this perspective being largely backed up by my friends who also watched the show.  There is a faint tickle at the back of my mind that perhaps my Dad defended Yar's character on occasion, but no firm memory of it.  Whatever the facts of this personal history are, from the very first episode it seemed to me that Lieutenant Worf, the tall, muscular, intimidating and gruff Klingon security officer, made a much more logical chief of security over this thin, blond woman.  I never really accepted her in the role and was happy when her character was killed at the end of the first season to be replaced by, who else? Lt. Worf. 
On re-watching the series, it was plain that the writing of TNG undermined Tasha Yar's character from the outset, even as they also put her in a position of authority.  Similarly, as much as the diegetic narrative was explicit in its assertion that "women can do anything men can do," this assertion was clearly a struggle for the writers and producers to put into practice on screen.  In trying to imagine a future where equality between men and women was the norm, the sexism of the current day was made plain, and just in case there was any doubt about the unsuitability of women for "men's work" (like security) Yar was "refrigeratored" by the end of the season, providing several main male characters with the emotional angst for numerous story lines over the years. 
In contrast, Deanna Troi's character went through several successful developments over those same seasons, ultimately becoming a bridge officer and attaining the rank of commander (one step below captain).  However, to come to this point, her character was submitted to numerous degrading storylines, including frequent and semi-gratuitous "mind invasion" (read: very thinly veiled euphemisms for rape) due to her empathic and semi-telepathic racial abilities.[3]  Her reward for fulfilling patriarchal norms was success within the kyriarchal hegemony played out on the series: elevation in rank and eventual marriage to long-time love interest Commander Will Riker.  Similarly, Doctor Beverly Crusher's more normative femininity was also rewarded with several promotions.  And Tasha Yar's queer[4] or butch femininity was punished with death.  No wonder, then, that I would latch onto Troi as my own model of femininity, and not (initially) ask why such suffering came along with taking on that embodiment.  
Over time, however, I began to realize how ill fit I was to fill Deanna Troi’s shoes and I inevitably came to a crisis with this identification and embodiment.  It was during this period that I began practicing something I recognize in the theorizing of bell hooks' "Oppositional Gaze."  A character that only appeared in a few episodes attracted my attention: Ensign Ro Laren.  It was through Ro and her conflicted relationship with those in power that I came to have my first counter-identifications with the main protagonists and themes of the series and by extension the power structures in the world around me.  Ro was the angry woman, brave and unapologetic.  She was what Gloría Anzaldúa would call “the rebellious daughter,” and her effect on me cannot be overstated.  In re-watching The Next Generation I was astonished to find that she only appeared eight times over the course of the last three seasons, as I remembered her being an important and integral character on the crew.  I suppose my remembering her this way is more an account of how important she was to me, instead.  Through Ro, I began to come to terms with my own oppositional relationship to kyriarchal power and began to reconcile with my own personal, not-terribly-normative, femininity.

The Importance of Stories

"I am a firm the link between that which we imagine, and that which we create. In fact, I put it to you, that the stories that we tell each other and have told each other throughout the history of the development of civilization are...inextricably linked to how we continue to invent the world in which we live" - LeVar Burton,
Keynote at Tools of Change for Publishing Conference, 2012

The point of delving into my history this way is to demonstrate, in part, how and why the stories and fictional characters I watched became so real to me.  Through them I developed an elaborate fantasy life where I was confident and competent, where I could temporarily believe myself capable of joining Starfleet, of traveling the universe and saving the day; and this helped me to cope with the bullying I experienced and build my self-confidence.  While I have come to recognize some of the ways directors/producers manipulate their stories and characters, and their visual representations of both, my “relationship” to characters that speak to me is still my foundation for understanding the stories told through them and is partially responsible for my own investment in specific stories.  In expressing the impact of these stories on my identity formation, it is my hope that I present a sort-of case study into the way stories can help people negotiate their identities and world, and give my reader a better understanding of my background and stakes in this project.
All that said, this project goes beyond my own childhood and identity formation.  When I began watching the original Star Trek two and a half years ago, the construction of its universe and the way this construction differed from that of Next Generation fascinated me.  I always knew that Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock were the stars of the show, but just how tokenistic Sulu and Uhura’s roles were slapped me in the face.  As I continued watching, I observed the way in which this universe, so heralded for its progressivism in racial and gender representation, was so utterly centered on White, straight, cisgender, USian[5] men and their understanding of the world.  It was within that moment that the first question of this project formed: just what are the political messages of these stories?  The seeds of what would become chapter two’s “Race Matters” were planted here.  As I spent time re-watching childhood favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation I realized that I might not ever have ended up so invested in social justice and the Humanities without that early absorption of some of the political messages of TNG. This train of thought eventually led me to the other central questions of this project: what do the imaginaries of these shows offer to those who watch them?  And how might we use these stories in our lives and in our work and our struggle for justice?  In pursuit of answering these questions I have turned to my own lived experience invested in such stories and my own analysis of these programs, as well as the work of scholars on representation and science fiction and to organic intellectuals in the fan community. 
In further refining what I wanted to achieve in this work the project became not just about The Next Generation and the original Star Trek, but about Star Trek: Deep Space NineDoctor Who (circa 2005) and Torchwood.  The summer of 2009 had been spent watching the latter two shows and I was intrigued by what they did differently from the Star Trek universe series.  I wondered where popular science fiction television was going in this new century, and what studying these series might tell me about new strategies of representation and social justice on TV.  So it was that the thesis you have before you came to be.  A document looking at the past as well as toward the future.  A project that is about what I have learned from these shows and what I believe they have to offer to other feminist geek activist scholars, whether through teaching episodes in our classrooms (as Robin Wright has done), or engaging in conversation with other geeks and complicating normative discussions within that culture (as on the Geek Feminism blog), or using them as a jumping off point in our own imaginings of what a better world can look like (as I have done all my life). 
In part, these shows are the ones I chose because they are shows that have been incredibly important to me over the years: Next Generation and Doctor Who in particular.  These are shows that, for the most part, I have watched more than once in their entirety and know well.  In addition, these two franchises are both primarily shaped by the thinking of a single individual.  While both also employ teams of writers and producers, in the end the final word on the construction and maintenance of each universe went to one person: Gene Roddenberry, in the case of Star Trek(s) and Russell T. Davies in the case of Doctor Who/Torchwood.  Even after Gene Roddenberry’s death[6] one can see his particular framework of “social justice television” on the episodes produced.  This is not as true for Doctor Who after Davies’ departure, which is why I am limiting my examination of that show to the years when he was the showrunner.[7] 
Further, these series are immensely popular and have large, active, and international fan bases (Chapman 2006), showing that they have struck a deep chord in people beyond myself and beyond their originating culture or nation-state.  This widespread fandom in particular indicates to me that these stories matter, that their messages resonate on a wide scale.  As Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters begins with the observance that “life is complicated” can be seen as a profound theoretical statement (one that I take firmly to heart in my own work), perhaps this project would similarly point to that presumably simple statement: “stories matter.”  After all, stories are how we make sense of the world, and how the world makes sense of us.  Stories are where we imagine, where we form our worldview.  And so, when our stories continually marginalize indigenous peoples, it matters.  When our stories continually center Whiteness and white people, it matters.  When our stories require a foundation of patriarchy to tell women's stories, it matters. 
If this is what we imagine the future will look like, then we will be working towards a world that realizes that imagining.  Maybe this assertion is not novel.  USian children have generally grown up with fairy tales: basic stories told to children to teach them how to behave in the world.  Sometimes the stories contradicted each other, but we absorbed those contradictions and made sense of the information in our own ways.  Sometimes those stories have remained unchanged for centuries.  The Brother's Grimm continues to be a fixture on the bookshelves of children.  But some stories have changed over time.  The universes created have been able to absorb the ideas and needs and desires and politics of a time and stretch and warp and contort around them to produce new stories grounded in the old.  The Star Trek and Doctor Who universes are good examples of this.  Both started in the mid-1960s with clunky sets and sometimes cheap special effects, centered on cisgender, straight, white men traveling the galaxy and having adventures, and both have changed over time to produce new politics through their narratives, and both have produced off-shoots that took on a life of their own.  Perhaps most importantly, both of these universes produced stories that are still loved and interacted with today.
Finally, in acknowledgment of my own placement as researcher and audience of these texts I am situating this examination as coming from within the United States.  It must be acknowledged that, due to the transnational movement of texts via television and the internet, both franchises have been distributed widely from their points of origin.  It would behoove those who build on this work to consider the locatedness of these series and how their location has influenced their production.  The incorporation of reception studies would be an incredibly interesting and worthwhile pursuit, as well.  However, I am examining the discourses produced by these television shows, and I am best equipped to assess these discourses as they relate to cultural understandings and tensions within the United States (my point of origin).  Such are the arbitrary boundaries of my work in this instance, constrained as they are by space, time and personal ability.  Yet within these boundaries I am hoping to stake out new territory for those of us who imagine utopia, even as we might never reach it.  We work towards it anyway, in the hope that we make our communities better in the process.

[1] This is a trope that was named by Gail Simone in “honor” of a particularly gruesome example of its enactment from the comic book The Green Lantern in which the hero’s girlfriend was dismembered and stuffed into a refrigerator.  More generally the trope refers to the way in which woman characters in comic books are raped/tortured and/or killed as a punishment for filling roles they “just aren’t cut out for” (a thinly veiled euphemism for “jobs that men are supposed to do”), and/or to serve as an impetus for the character growth of the main male characters, who often use their emotional angst about the event to avenge the woman character and thus defeat the villain.  An additional interesting discussion of this trope can be found at The Adventures of Comic Book Girl (nevermore999).  A queer reading of this trope in the death of Ianto Jones in Torchwood: Children of Earth will be deployed in Chapter Three.
[2] “Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting and multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression” (Fiorenza), in other words:  "a system of 'ruling and oppression' in which many people may interact and act as oppressor or oppressed" (Wiktionary).  This word points to a more complicated system of power than that of "patriarchy."  It is similar to bell hooks' "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy," but also includes more than the three axis of privilege/oppression of white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy, which is why I prefer it.
[3] Deanna Troi is one of several kinds of “hybrid” individuals on Next Generation, her mother is Betazoid, a telepathic race of humanoids, and her father is Human.
[4] “Queer” being both a politicized term referring to non-normative sexual identity and a theoretical term used by queer theorists to designate that which “is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” (Halperin 62).
[5] I use this word instead of “American” because the United States is not the only nation-state to exist on the continent known as “America” and I object to the way “American” as synonymous with “the United States” centralizes and elevates the U.S. above the other nations and nation-states of “America.”
[6] October 24, 1991
[7] To clarify: “showrunner” is a term often used to denote the person who is ultimately in charge of a television show.  In this case, the person who gets final say in storyline and casting decisions, etc.  It is their vision that ultimately crafts and refines the stories presented.