Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Star Trek: The Motion Picture and sexism

by Rob - May 28th, 2015.
Filed under: Star Trek.

On Facebook, someone asked why there don’t seem to be as many female fans of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as there are male ones. My response:

Well, think about it. In ST:TMP, the female lead is, quite literally, an object: a replicant probe wearing high heels and an ultra-mini to show off her legs (and, in the scenes prior to that, still a completely sexualized male-fantasy figure who has taken an oath of celibacy). Uhura, Chapel, and Rand have very small parts in TMP.

Now, think about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: the female leads (plural) are the incredibly competent and nuanced Dr. Carol Marcus, played with great range by Bibi Besch, and Saavik, wonderfully portrayed by Kirstie Alley: a female Vulcan (or Vulcan-Romulan hybrid), who is complex and intriguing.

TMP had many strengths, and I prefer it to TWOK, but its portrayal of women was not one of them: all the engineers we linger on are male, except Rand in the transporter room, and she presides over the death of two characters; Commander Branch is, of course, a man, and his subordinate is a woman; and instead of celebrating that Chapel is now an M.D., McCoy decries it, saying that he’s going to need a nurse instead of someone who’ll “argue every little diagnosis with me.”

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2 Responses to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and sexism

  1. It’s not that McCoy objects to having other doctors around. He shows nothing but respect toward Dr. M’Benga (his colleague in sickbay during the series). Commendably, M’Benga was an African — a powerful statement in 1968 (the character first appeared two months before the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.), but he was also male. But a female doctor? She’ll “argue every little diagnosis with me.” Ugh.

  2. Interestingly, I’ve recently gotten a copy of Harold Livingston’s first draft (October 20, 1977) of the screenplay for In Thy Image, which eventually was retitled Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In it, Commander Branch is female. Livingston describes her as “young, very attractive female LT. CMDR. BRANCH” (emphasis in original). Yes, it’s gratuitous that she’s “very attractive,” but at least she was a female in charge; the assistant is identified in the script as male (although he’s only heard over an intercom, not seen), and the action is pretty much as in the final film.

    This version had Xon, the Vulcan character to be played by David Gautreaux; that character was eventually eliminated, and Gautreaux was given the part of Branch, but that doesn’t excuse the sexism in the change: Branch and his unnamed female lieutenant in the final version have equal screen time and she actually has more words of dialog, and gets the one cool line, “Sir, it’s on a precise heading for Earth.” So, as a consolation prize, David Gautreaux could have played the assistant but somebody wanted a man in charge.

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