Sunday, September 16, 2007

Star Trek's Hetero Bias

Let's face it: the sci-fi show that many of us grew up loving, that showed a vision of the future that was hopeful and inclusive, is bigoted. Star Trek has a hetero bias. Moreover, because of the refusal to engage sexuality openly, especially in the most recent of films and series, Star Trek stopped talking about some of the most hot-button issues facing its audience today.

What I think it comes down to is that Star Trek's shepherds became so worried about ratings that they lost the very essence of what developed such a passionate following in the first place: the ability for Star Trek to challenge the received view of humanity with a vision of tolerance and hope. This meant tackling issues that weren't in vogue or were terribly controversial, ranging from women's rights to issues of race to the perils of authoritarian regimes and well-meaning secret organizations.

A perfect opportunity was lost in Sulu, given George Takei's open sexuality. Or, what about General Chang, a Shakespeare quoting Klingon with a taste for the finer things in life? Seven of Nine could have been a lesbian, or Harry Kim a gay man. Data, as a non-judgemental, non-emotional being could have had a gay fling during his interest in becoming more human, not just a tryst with uber-butchy Tasha Yar. Or even trysts between Kirk and Spock, as the spoofs I've commented about show.

Moreover, like much of the sci-fi world, homosexuality remains off-limits, despite calls by fans and actors for homosexual characters as integral parts of shows. Battlestar Galactica, which broke ground for it's gritty, engaging storytelling, also missed a golden opportunity.

I'm left to wonder if at the heart of this is a homophobia on the part of the writers, if sci-fi is dominated by a bunch of insecure, overly-pretentious heteros who just can't stomach writing about love between members of the same-sex. Maybe this is because they themselves aren't secure enough in their own sexuality, or maybe they're just wimps for refusing to boldly go where few have gone before and take on the culture wars in an era of neo-con anxiety and bigotry. This is sad because it has been sci-fi, and Star Trek in particular, that use to never shy away from taking on steamy issues. Who could forget the first on-screen interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura in a time of intense racial tensions in the US? Or, consider the way that DS9 dealt with terrorism by creating the secretive Section 31 in the Federation that was bent on committing mass genocide against the Federation's enemies? This of course happened at a time that the United States itself was facing increased world terrorism and it prefigured the questions we talk about now on how a democratic, free nation deals with threats from outside and those from within that want to circumscribe rights in the name of freedom? (There was an excellent 2 part DS9 episode for that too.)

Nevertheless, aside from dancing Orion slave girls and some period woman on woman loving--such as the kisses exchanged by former Trill hosts or the shenanigans going on in the alternate universe--Star Trek remains hetero-biased. Even these previous examples of woman-woman jiggyness can be read as nothing more than titillating events for heterosexual men. Star Trek missed a major chance to be relevant against versus the frankly more interesting visions of the future recently put out on other sci-fi programs; instead of feeling groundbreaking, gritty, or meaningful, it feels sterilized. And while Gene Roddenberry's dream of a utopian future on Earth is one we should strive for, we should be careful envisioning--as Star Trek does--this utopian future as one in which sexual diversity is replaced by universal heterosexuality


Narc said...

I'm not convinced that Star Trek was the groundbreaking show that you say it was. Yes, it did cover some big issues, but it seems they always managed to do it in a way that seemed
very oblique and heavy handed at the same time. "A thinly-veiled reference to an issue in today's culture will be the Message for today's episode, for example."

TNG did have some gay-adjacent storylines. There was the one about the race that reproduced asexually, and when one falls in love with Riker, it's taken off and "fixed." Crusher falls in love with an alien that changes sex. That storyline was conveniently wrapped up by the end of the episode.

But this isn't true of sci-fi in general. B5 had a lesbian relationship. It wasn't deeply explored, but I think that was partly due to contract problems with one of the actresses.

Then, of course, there's the new Doctor Who and Torchwood serieses. You've got Queer as Russell Davies creating and writing the series, the very out John Barrowman playing the very bi Captain Jack, and a decent amount of guy-on-guy snogging.

Ryan said...

Thanks for the comment.

What other show in the 1960s did what Star Trek did? While I take your points and agree somewhat, having gay adjacent story lines isn't the same thing as having out, male gay story lines. Babylon 5 is one of my favorites, but again, we're talking about a lesbian relationship and not a gay male one because gay relationships aren't stomached. I haven't seen Doctor Who in its new version or Torchwood, but I would disagree that there hasn't been a hetero bias in sci fi. Dune had 'gay' content, but it was painted negatively; Babylon 5 never dealt head on with homosexuality even though it was a good forum for trying; and if homosexuality is addressed, it is general a side story rather than integral, rather than considered a true issue of diversity.

Finally, Star Trek's reach has been larger than the other series you describe; it therefore should be better than it is.