Hello again! M., your incredibly remiss guest-poster here again with a foray into the cold of space during this sultry last week of August.
Recently, I had the pleasure of a visit from Lovely Lola, which was outstanding fun. Unfortunately, I also had an unpleasant run-in with the couch of doom, which has left my back in such a state that I cannot stand for more than an hour without wanting to scream. What’s a nerd to do when faced with lots of uninterrupted hours of immobility in bed? Watch Star Trek!
This past July, Netflix sealed a deal with CBS allowing for the availability of every Star Trek series – except The Animated Series and, oddly, Deep Space Nine – on instant viewing. In the last two months, I’ve been making my way through some themed playlists as an approach to the 700+ episodes on hand: time-travel, alternate universes, heavy-handed moralism, etc. So, about 30 minutes into cataloguing the imperfections of my ceiling, I queued up one of my favorite Next Generation episodes from my childhood, “The Outcast.” Not a good idea! It is really too true what they say about not stepping into the same river twice. After a once-through of “The Outcast,” I wanted to go back and raise an incredulous eyebrow at my ten-year-old self. Really? This is your favorite?
A quick synopsis of the episode goes something like this: The Enterprise is out in space doing what is normally does (charting star-clusters and such) when it gets a request to aid the J’naii, an agender race, in locating and rescuing a lost survey ship. Cut to Soren, a J’naii scientist assigned to the rescue mission, and Riker, acting as Enterprise commander of the mission, and sparks fly. Soren is romantically (maybe sexually?) interested in Riker, and he is very interested both romantically and sexually in Soren. The problem? The J’naii believe they have evolved past biological sex and gender and police the expression of/desire for either with sanitizing force. Soren reveals to Riker that she secretly identifies as female and seeks out relationships with male-identified J’naii, or in Riker’s case, male-identified humans.
Soren’s superiors soon catch on to the “oddness” of Soren’s behavior towards Riker and step in to “rehabilitate” her. Riker has fallen pretty hard by this point and stages an unofficial rescue of Soren so that she may seek asylum aboard the Enterprise. Unfortunately, he is too late, as the J’naii authorities have moved up the timing of Soren’s “treatment” and a heartbreaking scene of “but I’m not sick anymore” ensues. Soren is left behind, and Riker sails off depressingly into the vastness of space eventually to marry Counselor Troi in the 10th movie.
I had such a negative reaction to the episode that I wound up watching it several times to suss out what was bothering me so much. There were the obvious problems that grated on my nerves – Picard’s equating agender to androgyny*, the heteronormativity in writing Soren’s character as female-identified given her romantic feelings for Riker, the problematic monologue on stereotypical gender roles Riker gives when asked what makes human men different from human women, the exclusive casting of female-identified actors to play the J’naii**, and the conflation of agender with asexual, among others. There was a lot to shake a critical stick at in this.
Nevertheless, it was ultimately the tacit reinforcement of the gender binary that stuck most unmovingly in my throat. I know the writers of TNG undoubtedly thought they were writing a typical Trek treatment of gender issues, i.e. a thinly-veiled comment on current human cultural dilemmas via the exploration of an alien culture. As a dramatized thought experiment, I probably wouldn’t have had such an issue with the episode if the concept of an agender society weren’t met with ridicule and suspicion every time someone from the Enterprise (read “the good guys”) opened their mouth. Almost all Soren’s questions regarding human culture are responded to with some form of “we are better because we have two genders.” This gets rephrased as the equally gemmy insistence that J’naii culture must be boring because it doesn’t have a binary gender system. Oh, and my absolute favorite, that the “struggle” between men and women is the positive creative force behind human intellectual and technological progress. They really should have just wrote, “Y’all suck because you don’t have our super-rad gender binary.” In the end I’d argue that in the process of trying to make an episodic commentary on trans* issues, the Star Trek writers wound up holding up a gender binary as the most “natural” state of “human” affairs, as if to say that in the future gender identity is a personal matter, but one that has only two options.
Now I know that all creations (artistic or otherwise) exist in a cultural and temporal context which is very evident in the case of this early 90s episode, but I can’t help but feel slightly cheated by the lack of imagination in “The Outcast.” Put another way, futuristic science fiction has an unspoken mission to imagine and bring to life futures that its purveyors can barely dream of at present. Thus, when it fails to ask whether something taken for granted now might be different at some future point, it is disturbingly disappointing. Dissapointing, because I, and many others, have been led to expect more (“Where No One Has Gone Before!”), and disturbing, because it often highlights in haunting detail the facets of current culture which are perceived to be innate and immutable. In the Star Trek: TNG universe, where classism, racism, able-ism, age-ism, and traditional sexism seem to have been eradicated along with currency and most disease, oppositional sexism is out in full force. Hell, the Star Trek future is a socialist future, so they’ve even let go of capitalism! And yet, out of the myriad races met in the Trek series, only this one is agender and is dealt with negatively for it.
But why, someone may ask, does this even matter to you? It’s only a fictional future? Well, here’s the thing. I was raised on Star Trek, and as such it’s formulation of the future informed what I thought would be possible for my own life. Honestly, I tuned in every night to see people who looked like me (assigned female at birth) being doctors (Crusher), Engineers (B’Elanna), Linguists (Uhura), Astrophysicists (Dax), and Captains (Janeway). When I couldn’t take another person asking me why I spent so much time in the library when I should be doing things that would actually benefit my future, like learning childcare and housecleaning (I am not joking), I pulled up to this wondrous future with popcorn in one hand and an organic chemistry textbook (for commercial breaks) in the other. And I’m not the only one who was inspired by Star Trek in this way. Just check out Mae Jemison or Candy Torres, some of the first women of color to work for NASA, and their recollections of how Star Trek changed their notions of the possible. Hence, when I view any episode of Trek, I’m coming at it from a place of deep investment.
I remember loving “The Outcast” as a child, because it had this amazing agender society I would have traded places with Soren any day to be a part of had I been on the Enterprise. I completely missed (as children often do) the oppressive overtones, both the obvious version of the J’naii and the less obvious from the Enterprise crew. I remember lying awake after watching it, overcome with an inexpressible sadness that the fictional future could not be present reality. And yet, I clung to the notion that Star Trek so frequently presaged advances (often through direct inspiration) – i.e. cell phones, laptops, iPads. Maybe if I waited long enough. It is inevitably difficult to return to this series with the complicating benefit of lived experience and education and realize that actually no one writing for the show thought there would be a space for you in the future. I’m not alone in this, as Trek also seems to have an aversion to writing an openly LGBT character. Perhaps I should have let my skewed childhood recollection of the episode stand without a rewatch. Even if I missed a whole chunk of the plot, it made me happier then than it does now. Oh, well, at least Left Hand of Darkness holds up to an adult eye.
My rant is complete and now I shall return you to your regularly scheduled programming and myself to a horizontal position.
*I see these identities as discrete, but others may see them as synonymous or significantly overlapping. To each their own.
**Most science fiction shows tend to do this. Apparently, in scifi agender (or androgynous) means a person assigned female at birth with short hair, bound breasts, and baggy clothing.