Outskirts online journal

Gwen Kelly and Edwina Kelly

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Volume 1, May 1996

Refusing the Ruby Slippers: Women in Star Trek's Fictive Space

When we first saw the call for papers put out by Outskirts feminisms along the edge, we began to think about the myriad of edges women travel along. Of the many images that drifted through our minds, the one that lingered was that of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). Captain Janeway will be known to those familiar with the television series, Star Trek: Voyager, which first screened in Perth on 16 April, 1996. Our attention was captured by this science fiction character for two reasons; here was a woman, at the helm of her own ship, on the edge of space, in the centre of popular culture. Equally interesting, is the trajectory plotted by Janeway and her crew. Unlike the starship Enterprise (including those depicted in the original series and The Next Generation) which journeys outwards from the centre of the known universe, the Voyager is travelling in from the edge. Its destination: home.

In order to facilitate a fluid discussion, we have divided our analysis into two sections. The first entitled 'Women in the Trek through Popular Culture', looks at the changing roles assigned to women in this popular series which has screened for over thirty years. In the second section, we wish to consider the ways in which both geographical and narrative space have been engendered and how women might be expected to navigate this space. Specifically, in relation to the first episode of the Star Trek: Voyager series, we wish to interrogate how the infinity of geographical space, as proposed by some theorists, might be mapped into thirty years of narrative space.

Women in the Trek through Popular Culture

Star Trek: Voyager, now in its second year of production, has a substantial audience which benefits from the enormous popularity established and maintained by the preceding series.1 Voyager is the most recent instalment in the series originally created by Gene Roddenberry. Over these years the trek has been incarnated in paperback, animation, feature film and television series. The television series of Star Trek has been produced in several interconnecting series: Star Trek (1966-69); Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994); Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1992--); and, since 1995, Star Trek: Voyager.

Over the years the Star Trek production team has included many women. They have filled roles ranging from actors to directors, producers and technicians. Women writers such as Dorothy C Fontana (aka Michael J Gingham), Hannah Louise Shearer, Melinda Snodgrass and Sara Chamo, to name a few, have played a significant role in shaping Star Trek's exploration and representation of gender issues. Much has been made of the pioneering role taken by Star Trek's producers in their casting of women. Considering television's early commercial constraint, and the attitudes prevalent in America during the mid 1960s, the original series certainly made some breakthroughs in the representation of women in popular culture. Foremost in the types of characterisation which broke from the ranks of I Love Lucy, was the creation of the character Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). The casting of Uhura was considered a significant breakthrough not only for women in American popular culture; for African-American women it marked a small victory in a narrative world which cast them almost solely as servants to white women. Along with Uhura as the Enterprise's communications officer, there were also a large number of professional women depicted in this early series including geologists, psychologists, biologists and even the occasional guest commander. However, along side these empowered characters flowed a constant stream of beautiful female yeoman, nurses, damsels in distress and alien sirens. Irrespective of their status, all females appearing on the original Trek through the stars, did so dressed in short, tight-fitting and, often, translucent costumes. And in these outfits, many of them provided a romantic interest for the protagonists, Captain James T Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy). The contradictions in status, dress and sexual desire are indicative of the general ambivalence towards women in the first series. In short, the women depicted aboard the first Enterprise are talented, professional, competent, at times powerful (when they come from other galaxies) and often murderous. To borrow the words of Berger, "you can never be sure if they will thrill you, kill you or both."2

Star Trek: The Next Generation, produced almost twenty years later, saw not only a change in the gender specificity of the opening monologue. The monologue or mission statement was revised from "to boldly go where no man has gone before" to "where no one has gone before." This series also saw the inclusion of women characters who had more varied and powerful positions than the men; this time without the scanty costumes. The regular crew now included Dr Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden) as chief medical officer, Counsellor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) as ship's psychological counsellor and Empath. The first episodes of The Next Generation included also the complex character, Lieutenant Tasha Yar. While the responsibilities of Dr Crusher and Cllr Troi were restricted to caring roles, Lieutenant Yar's role as chief security officer was more difficult to place in Star Trek's patriarchal schema. Indeed, her unconventional role is highlighted and commented on often in complex metanarratives contained within many episodes. We are told that Tasha Yar's brilliant skill in self-defence is partly due to her training at the Star Fleet Academy but this skill is explained also by conversational flashbacks to her childhood experiences as an orphan exposed to the constant threat of gang rape on her home planet. Perhaps the inability to adequately explain Tasha Yar's unconventional skill points to her replacement at the end the first series by a male Klingon character, Lt. Worf. Whereas Tasha Yar's extraordinary security officer skills could not be explained easily, the consistent portrayal of the Klingons as a patriarchal, warlike society in the first series of Star Trek made the introduction of the aggressive and almost instinctually self-defensive character, Worf unproblematic.

The third television series based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was put to air at the same time as The Next Generation. Importantly, both are set in the twenty-fourth century; within narrative space both vessels inhabit the same space and time and where characters from each of the series overlap and intermingle. In this third series women have progressed along the chain of command. The second in command of the space station is a Major Nerys Kira (Nana Visitor). While this character represents the first central command role assigned to a woman within the Star Trek series, her status is due largely to her appointment as the Bajoran attache to the United Federation of Planets. In short, a woman is second in command not because Star Fleet's ranks have opened to women but in order to accommodate an alien culture.

Perhaps one of the most curious characters in Deep Space Nine is the joined species, Lieutenant Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell). Played by a woman, this character is a combination of a host white-female-humanoid body and an implanted Trill entity. In essence, the character has the body of a twenty-eight year old female and the combined-mind of a three hundred year old male. In this character, the male/female, mind/body and interspecies dichotomies are played out.

Captain Kathryn Janeway's character differs from the women portrayed in earlier series. In the fourth series, Star Trek: Voyager, the feminine/masculine dichotomy is ruptured. The central character Captain Janeway is not constrained by stereotypical femininity. While her sensitive and nurturing qualities are evidenced in the close relations she has with her husband, pet dog and puppies, this aspect of her portrayal is balanced by her admirable ability to stare down an opponent at battle command, backing it up with force if necessary. Janeway has broad ranging talents. Her technical expertise is put to the test in every series; she contends with management problems, tactical and survival challenges, and complex interracial and on board political problems. Janeway proves a dynamic character. Aside from personal and professional responsibilities, Janeway is given witty dialogue and even her on-board recreational activities mark her strong individuality. On the holodeck, where previous Star Trek female characters simulated beech scenes and romantic holidays, Janeway casts herself as an eighteenth century American frontiers woman - itself, a potent cultural statement. Perhaps the greatest responsibility accorded Janeway, in terms of the wider Star Trek series, is being the first woman to contribute to the Captain's log with which each episode concludes. Janeway governs the reportage of every aspect of the Voyager and its crew's trek. Seemingly, she controls narrative space.

The Trek through Space

If the new Star Trek: Voyager character of Janeway represents a movement in popular culture away from simple masculine/ feminine dichotomies, where women either "thrill you or kill you or both," the representation of space in this series signifies a second shift. At work in Star Trek: Voyager are two concepts of space: narrative space and geographical space. To deal with the latter first, traditional western geographers believe that space can always be known and mapped; space is understood as absolutely knowable. Gillian Rose, a feminist geographer, criticises patriarchal western geography in which there are no hidden corners into which geography cannot penetrate.3 She argues that human agency and the space through which it moves in time-geography are masculine; they are constructed in the image of the master subject. Time-geography assumes unproblematised, but in fact highly specific theorisations of society and space, and of the bodies which constitute human agency, and this specificity excludes other socialities, spaces and bodies from knowledge.

Geographical concepts of space have important consequences with regard to representation; for example, in the western patriarchal schema where space is constructed as wholly visible, it follows that space must then be understood as wholly representable. Where the feminist geographer, Gillian Rose, rejects the notion of the infinitude of geographical space and argues instead that space reflects social organisation, feminist literary critics have called into question the absolute representability of space. Joanna Russ, a science fiction novelist and feminist, begins this critique by testing the limits of narrative space. She dispels the earlier theories of science fiction which supposed that the genre afforded a narrative space with infinite possibility. Drawing on Samuel Delaney's definition of science fiction, Russ proposes that this genre avoids offending what is known to be known; its concern is neither the impossible nor the possible, but rather that which has not yet happened.4 The new series of Star Trek cannot however avoid of lending the known. For, while the Voyager is unbounded in terms of what can happen on its voyage and Captain Janeway can disrupt gender roles within the confines of her ship, there are histories and narrative conventions constructed in earlier series which together serve to circumscribe both the narrative possibilities and the fictional geographical space it constructs.

Although Captain Janeway can disrupt gender restrictions aboard the Voyager she, like all Star Fleet Federation officers, is bound by the narrative conventions of the 'prime directive'. Issued by the United Federation of Planets, the prime directive is a bipartite code which on one hand, governs movements through geographic and narrative space with a fundamental premise that no Star Fleet officer can interfere or intervene in alien societies; that is, those planets who are not signatories to the United Federation of Planets. In short, the first part of the prime directive demands that Star Fleet officers must only venture into non-Federation space as observers. The second part of the directive states that they can only use violence in self defence.

Voyager's First Episode: "The Caretaker"

The foundations for the Voyager series are laid in the first episode. In this episode, Kathryn Janeway is assigned her first mission as Captain and is given the difficult task of navigating a course through the uncharted Badlands along the Federation boundary, where she and her crew are to bring into custody a rebel Marqui ship. While undertaking this task, the Voyager encounters a displacement wave which pulls them to the 'array'. This array casts them 70 000 light years off course to the edge of the universe. This displacement does not however, prevent Janeway from successfully completing her mission to capture the rebel Marqui ship as it is discovered close to the array and is quickly brought under her skilful command.

Once the mission is complete, Janeway is confronted with the problem of having to find a way of returning home to Federation space. She discovers that the displacement array is not a natural space phenomenon but is in tact a space station controlled by a single, aged and dying patriarch. He is the episode's eponymous Caretaker and from this array he governs a small planet and its people, the Ocampa. Janeway subsequently learns that this entity has used his installation to bringing the Voyager and other vessels to his array because he is seeking a compatible mate with which to reproduce before his imminent death.

At first Janeway is hostile to the Caretaker's agenda. She becomes however more sympathetic when she learns that the Caretaker is not motivated by sexual desire; rather he is looking for a new caretaker to continue his parental duty to a relatively unsophisticated people. Only in hindsight, as he draws to the close of his life, does he regret not having encouraged the Ocampa's scientific advancement to the point where they could achieve and maintain self-reliance and self-determination. Before this dilemma is resolved the Caretaker dies, leaving Janeway with the responsibility of determining the fate of the Ocampa who are now vulnerable to invasion by Kezon, a people from a nearby planet. The key to completing her mission and meeting the responsibility she feels to the Ocampa rests in the array.

Janeway is laced with the following dilemma; if she chooses to complete her mission and return safely home, she must escape through the array. However, if she makes this choice it will effectively seal the fate of the Ocampa, as once she departs the array will almost certainly be captured and controlled by the Kezon.

In her first mission as Captain, Janeway finds herself displaced to the edge of the universe. She is unable to call the Federation for support and heavily outnumbered by the Kezon. Generically, Janeway as a Star Fleet officer, should rely on the code of conduct provided by the prime directive. This would limit her responsibility in completing her mission and ensuring her crew's safe passage home. However, the desertion of the Ocampa would be incongruous with the earlier depictions of the character as having achieved a balance between her personal, nurturing relations and her professional role. Here, Star Trek's extension of narrative space to include a character which disrupts the masculine/feminine polarity, results in a recontestation of the narrative boundaries mapped in preceding Star Trek series. She cannot proceed in character without disobeying the prime directive.

The intertextual parallels between Star Trek: Voyager's first episode, "The Caretaker", and another icon of American popular culture, The Wizard of Oz (Judy Garland) are strong. The curious holographs of a farm picnic, set in the Kansas of the 1930s, encountered by Janeway on the array acts as a fulcrum between these two texts. Other commonalities echoed include Dorothy's and Captain Janeway's shared displacement from their known realities. Moreover, both characters think initially that their route home relies upon an omnipotent patriarch and a predetermined path - the yellow brick road and the prime directive. Both, however, are disappointed by the actual powers of their wizards. There are significant disparities. Unlike the limitless and fantastic narrative space in which Dorothy functions, where problems may be resolved with the aid of good fairies and acts of violence, the world in which Janeway operates is far more circumscribed. Thirty years of Star Trek narrative tradition and convention determine what course Janeway's character can take. Disallowed the benefit of a good fairy by the generic conventions of Star Trek, Janeway must rely on her own, less fantastic resources. The final decision Janeway takes is to refuse the ruby slippers. To reconcile all her responsibilities she decides to destroy the array and find her own way home.

In this evocative episode, the foundations for future Treks on the starship Voyager are determined. Unlike the previous Treks, where their serial predecessors "boldly went where no man" and later, where "no-one had gone before", the Voyager's crew is left with a more modestly defined goal: to find their way home from the edge of the universe. Perhaps the most subversive aspect of this Trek is that the character, Janeway, is not intimidated by her place on the edge.


1. Figures show that Star Trek has a faithful following across the country. In Australia, Star Trek: The Original, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine attract an average of 2-3% of the total viewing population which translates to between 30-40,000 people per episode. Star Trek: Voyager's premier episode, "The Caretaker," debuted in Australia with a 12 pt share of the market. In Perth the viewer total was 170,000 (John Growno, AC Nielson). In the U.S.A Voyager debuted with a 20% share of the prime-time Monday 8:00pm market in Star Trek: The official fan club of Australia, ed. George Papdeas (Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1995), p.2.

2. Arthur Asa Berger, "A Personal Response to Whetmore's, 'A Female Captain's Enterprise" in Future Females A Critical Anthology, ed. Marlene S. Barr (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1981), pp. 162-3.

3. Gillian Rose. "Women in Everyday Spaces." in Feminism and Geography p.39.

4. Joanna Russ, To write like a woman: Essays in feminism and science fiction (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1995), p.l6.

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