the Final Frontier’s not looking super Feminist… Sexual Dominance as Leadership in Star Trek

A few nights ago (over the summer gahhh sorry. better late than never, right?), I headed to the theater to see Star Trek: Into Darkness, and as usual, I went into the film a bit wary of how women would be portrayed, but mostly just excited to see a good action flick with space ships and explosions. I was not at all disappointed about the space ships and explosions part, this film is really action packed and overall a fun watch… but there were a few moments that really threw me off, and made the film less enjoyable.

First of all, why did they have to show Captain Kirk having a threesome?

I don’t want to seem like I’m sex-negative or anything, but this bothered me because of what it implies about Captain Kirk’s character. He enjoys casual sex? Fine. But what becomes clear later (when Carol brings up a friend of hers who slept with Kirk… who he doesn’t even remember, for example), it becomes clear that he’s doing it in a way that’s not so respectful… The directors made a very deliberate choice by including this scene, and are sending a very particular message with it. This reinforces the idea of sexual conquest as an indicator of masculinity, dominance, and “good leadership”.


But what really bothered me was Kirk’s interactions with Carol Marcus, the physicist and weapons specialist that forges her way onto the Enterprise (pretty badass if you ask me. That’d take some serious brains and hacking skills). When he first meets her, he’s obviously looking her up and down, evaluating her looks, and his comments and tone of voice make clear that he thinks she’s hot (as if that somehow matters more than her credentials).

Most importantly though, is the completely inexplicable, ridiculous, nonsensical scene where the two of them are having a conversation, and she just starts undressing! Why on earth would anyone in their right mind decide to change clothes in the middle of a conversation, in front of their boss?? This makes no sense at all, and was obviously only thrown in there so that the audience could get a full body shot of her in her underwear. Here she is used not as a full character with something useful to contribute to the plot, but just as eye-candy for a presumably male, heterosexual audience.

What’s worse about this scene is that while she asks Kirk not to look at her, he does anyway, and once he sees her, he refuses to turn back around despite her asking him quite clearly to turn away.

This is problematic because of what it implies about consent. Obviously, Carol is not consenting to be ogled by Kirk, as she says so explicitly, multiple times. However, she does put herself in a situation where she would be exposed near a man. One might claim “she was asking for it” perhaps? Or that she didn’t really mean what she said, and the way she was dressed is more important than her words?

This scene sends the message that men don’t have to listen to women’s demands about their own bodies. It sends the message that Kirk should be able to look at Carol almost naked, regardless of what she says. It implies male access to women’s bodies, and the idea that “no” means “yes”.

This scene is also particularly unfortunate because of its timing. Just a week ago, it came to light that women cadets in the army were filmed by a Sergeant without their knowledge or consent, sometimes while they were undressed. And the sexual abuse of women doesn’t stop there. There is a rape epidemic within our military.

The sexual harassment and assault of women demonstrates that this voyeurism, this sense of male entitlement to women’s bodies, this notion of consent as completely insignificant is not just fictional (though fictional representations that reproduce it do help perpetuate it). This is rape culture. Rape culture is a reality in our media, in society at large, and even in our own military, which is supposedly the epitome of discipline and leadership in the United States.

It’s important to ask not only what this film says about women, but what it says about men and masculinity.

As the main protagonist of the film, we (even the women in the audience) are supposed to identify with the young aspiring Captain. He is also the future of Starfleet’s leadership, the best and the brightest that Earth has to offer in one of the most prestigious, important institutions. The film’s treatment of women is unfortunate, but the fact that it is Captain Kirk himself who demonstrates this disrespectful behavior makes it even worse, and the parallels to military leadership are undeniable (particularly due to the statement at the end of the film that this movie is dedicated to the troops).

Captain Kirk undeniably demonstrates that he is a fantastic leader. He cares deeply about his crew, he’s incredibly smart, he’s a risk taker… but he still embodies chauvinistic attitudes towards women. And in this film, that’s portrayed as part of his positive characteristics. This film reinforces our society’s idea that chauvinism is inherently part masculinity (which is in turn synonymous with leadership, power…).

I don’t want to be entirely negative though. Everything is a mixed bag, with good and bad elements. One moment that I really appreciated in this film (as well as the 2009 Star Trek movie) was their choice to use the phrase:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

In the original Star Trek series, this statement was phrased “where no man has gone before.”  While it was changed to the gender- (and species-) neutral “no one” by Star Trek: Next Generation, this change is technically anachronistic in the cannon, and I’m very pleased the they decided to change it.

Hollywood’s got a long way to go, and I’d like to hope for the best. But beyond that, it’s important to remember that consumers can have power in the entertainment industry. Vote with your dollar!

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One thought on “the Final Frontier’s not looking super Feminist… Sexual Dominance as Leadership in Star Trek

  1. lizt84 says:

    Star Trek into darkness isn’t a very good film, the plot has huge holes and the main attraction is spotting the bits you recognise from old star trek. The way it portrays women is particularly disappointing considering that Start Trek as a TV series has some fantastic female characters with real depth to their personalities; The Next Generation has Troi and Crusher and obviously Voyager has Janeway; a female captain. The original Star Trek series wasn’t quite as good in this respect but it is a product of the time it was made. Kirk was always a fan of the ladies but I think Shatner’s Kirk was less dismissive and disrespectful.

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