Gender vortex

Critics of 1950s scifi thought it was sexist. But the new _Star Trek_ movie shows they ain't seen nothing yet.

by Peter T. Chattaway
The Ubyssey, January 7, 1997

In one early scene in Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), who has travelled back in time to stop the Borg from conquering the Earth in the 21st century, strokes a nuclear missile from his planet's past. Data (Brent Spiner), the android, follows suit but says he cannot feel anything, so he tries again. Then Counselor Troi (Deanna Sirtis) walks in, sees them fondle the tall, hard, erect explosive device, and asks, "Would you three like to be left alone?"

A male authority figure, a childlike and seemingly male android, and a giant phallic symbol -- I'm no Freudian, but I can't help wondering what Sigmund would have made of this scene. This sequence is typical of First Contact, which is replete with masculine imagery and tends to downplay its feminine elements, with one noteworthy -- and threatening -- exception. In its treatment of gender and sex roles, the film is arguably more sexist than the science fiction and horror films of the 1950s, which it consciously evokes; First Contact takes the Enterprise crew back in time in more ways than one.

For decades, scholars and academics have argued over the role which sexuality has played in classic science-fiction and horror films. Some have argued that the giant queen ant in Them! (1954) and the womb-like alien pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) were subliminal symbols of female sexuality, and that the fear they inspired in the audience was evidence of a latent misogyny.

But others, such as Mark Jancovich, author of Rational Fears: American horror in the 1950s, have argued that these alien lifeforms were not feared for their femininity but, rather, for their apparent asexuality. In the conformist culture of the 1950s -- a period marked by political McCarthyism, the uniformity of modernist architecture and the rise of national TV networks with their reliance on mass-market advertising -- science fiction became obsessed with the growing sameness of everyday life and the loss of individual personality.

This aspect of the genre is spoofed quite nicely in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks!, in which the highly-advanced, genderless Martians don their uniforms in a hydraulic press on an assembly line. And Jancovich's argument is a persuasive one, once you look at the films of the '50s themselves. The body-snatching pods attack male and female alike, leaving one victim to laud the superior virtues of a cold, emotionless society. The queen ant in Them! is feared not for its gender but for its apparent ability to breed on its own: while humans come together as individuals to procreate, the ant duplicates itself without the relationship essential to human reproduction. And the male heroes in these films, rather than belittle femininity, frequently gain the upper hand only after they heed the suggestions of their female colleagues.

Yet still the debate continues: were the aliens feared for their supposedly female qualities, or as symbols of mass conformity?

When Star Trek: The Next Generation first introduced the villainous Borg, it would seem that they fell neatly onto one side of this debate. They represented conformity -- or, if you will, assimilation -- at its most extreme, and there was nothing feminine about them. Moreover, there was no hierarchy within the Borg. In the old Star Trek, Kirk could always find a central computer or an android called Norman ("normal"?) to knock out and save the day. But in the more sophisticated 1990s, the Borg represented a more pervasive threat.

That all changed with Star Trek: First Contact, and it's fascinating to see just how big a leap backwards this film has made. The Borg collective, now called a "hive", is led by a highly eroticized Queen (Alice Krige) who flaunts her sexuality and, in a curious subplot, spends most of her time trying to seduce the android Data. Her body, a purely mechanical device created separately from her partly organic head, becomes an object and a tool with which to entrap him.

Meanwhile, the Borg assimilates a good chunk of the Enterprise crew, and it's interesting to note that the first two victims are a man, whose demise is apparently silent, and a woman, who screams loudly into the camera. Despite her capture, and that of a few other women onscreen, not one of the Borg drones we see later on appears to be female. The Borg Queen, unlike the queen ant in Them!, is not a symbol of impersonal self-replication, because she uses her personality -- note how she turns Data's emotion chip on -- to exert control over (male) beings who already exist. In this film, it is impossible to separate the threat of female sexuality from the loss of male identity.

This is a surprising development for a supposedly progressive series like Star Trek. Picard, who used to "boldly go where no one has gone before," now tells Worf (Michael Dorn), "Tell your men to stand their ground," as though there were no women defending the ship. The regular female characters -- already typecast in nurturing roles -- are kept to the sidelines or reduced to comic relief; Troi even gets drunk. Their stereotypical passivity is relieved somewhat by Lily (Alfre Woodard), a guest character who has some strong scenes with Picard, but she too does not figure prominently in the story -- in fact, when she first meets the Enterprise crew, she faints.

Ironically, Star Trek was once valued for its subversive critiques of modern society, just as some value the films that came before it. But Star Trek has been playing it safe for years now, and the success of a film as uncritically mainstream as First Contact suggests that Star Trek has, in its own way, already been assimilated.

© 1996-2001 Peter T. Chattaway
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