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More Star Trek Sexism and Not so Much

The Enemy Within and Turnabout Intruder

photo by Andrew Lynch

In response to the Five Most Sexist moments in Star Trek, the absence of Turnabout Intruder has been a mystery among readers.  I think I left it off because the last episode of TOS is so blatantly obvious.  The article also would have been endless. In addition, The Enemy Within has also been mentioned.  So I took a look at both.  I would say sexism, and at the same time, not so much.

Turnabout Intruder

My initial impulse (without having seen the episode in a while) was to say that the sexism is overblown.  My reasoning was this.  Dr. Janice Lester is a psychopath who will do anything to captain a Starship and get revenge against her ex-lover, Captain James T. Kirk.  This includes murdering multiple people and hijacking Kirk's body.  So why can’t she be portrayed as an irrational, hysterical bitch, and yes, one that exhibits all the worst stereotypes that men hang on women.  Of course, there are too many characteristics to digress, and I see no reason to compile her resume.

Thankfully, this explanation quickly fell short.  I remembered that being a mass murdering lunatic doesn’t present storytellers from creating characters who we love to hate.  The first that came to mind was Darth Vader, and dialogue from Space Seed helps describe how we can have affection for both real and imagined characters. “Mister Spock, you misunderstand us. We can be against him and admire him all at the same time,” Kirk explains the attraction to Khan.

On a smaller scale, Hannibal Lecter suffices. The bad doctor's compelling qualities straddle the line between good and evil and can't help draw us in.  That is until they cross over, and even then, we are reluctant to completely pull away.   But Janice Lester gets no such consideration. So there's no excuse for creating such an abhorrent character, and Turnabout Intruder deserves its low standing.

I did find something redeeming, though.

JANICE LESTER: Your world of starship captains doesn't admit women. It isn't fair.

KIRK: No, it isn't. And you punished and tortured me because of it. 

Given that Majel Barrett played Number One in The Cage, the comment doesn’t quite fit into lore.  But this was long before anyone was whining about cannon.  So I think the Roddenberry took the latitude to provide some liberty.

In the 1960s, there were plenty of roles that men considered women unworthy of.  In agreeing with his old girlfriend, Kirk is acknowledging the retrograde notions of society and giving a nod to change. Unfortunately, Kirk remains powerless to change, and in at least standing up to be counted, he’s sending out the call.  It’s not much, but it’s a start.

The Enemy Within

I think the main objection here is the end scene with Spock

“The, er, impostor had some interesting qualities, wouldn't you say, Yeoman?”

So here we have the logical Spock joking about sexual assault with the victim.  Wow.

Of course, we get the sentiment that Spock is trying to make light of.  The day’s events have revealed that Captain Kirk has an animal attraction for his Yeomen.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but he’s still piggybacking the humor on the heels of a sexual assault.

So as not to judge yesterday values by today’s, I’m going to try to speculate how the massive oversight was made.

Is it possible that the average American male had a lot less knowledge as to what rape actually was and all horrific resulting fallout.  What we do know is that we are much more connected to victims today. 

Portrayed widely on film and through interviews of actual victims, our sensitivity to the subject has reached a more appropriate level.  At the same time, we are more tuned to how widely the crime pervades society. This may come up short but it's the best I can do.

However, the assault and its aftermath does have Star Trek thinking ahead of its time.  A workplace scene where a subordinate woman is at the mercy of her superior, I wonder if such a thing had ever been portrayed.

The subsequent scene is even more revealing.  "Then he kissed me, and he said that he was the Captain and he could order me.  I didn't know what to do,” Rand tentatively makes her case.

I assume that today victims don't have that kind of doubt.  But given the power imbalance, maybe Rand is properly expressing the uncertainty.   This especially when one's livelihood hangs in the balance.

Rand's next line further exemplifies the grey area that a subordinate can feel as sexual control is on the agenda.  "He is the captain, I couldn't just..."

On the other hand, her lament about not wanting to get him in trouble is a little tricky. Would a victim who's just been assaulted actually say that? 

Well, we do hear that the initial reaction can sometimes have women blaming themselves and full realization can take time. But I seriously doubt that Roddenberry—who created the episode—was going for that.

I think he's a male assuming a woman wouldn't want to ruin a man's life and career for one infraction.  Unfortunately, that's not all and it spills over into real life

Gene Roddenberry had affairs with both Majel Barrett and Nichelle Nichols.  Obviously, one of those worked out, so I guess no foul.

On the other hand, did the affairs prevent other actresses form getting a fair shake or did Roddenberry's position coax the women into relationships?

Of course, you can't leave out the possibility that Nichols and Barrett used his affection to further their careers.

I doubt we will ever know.  The point is that this type of workplace imbalance is probably more common.  Obviously it wouldn't really work for this episode, but the irony of the long standing problem may have been beyond Roddenberry's recognition.

All the women subjugated to the Mad Men of the day probably knew all to well, and would be horrified that we are only now addressing the power dynamics of sexual control.

Despite the deficiencies, Star Trek still get credit for being light years ahead again.

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