(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=12)
A Side Trek into the “real” Beam-me-up realm (gender roles redux)
(The hurried reader is at liberty to skip this section. Please rejoin us at Applied Theology II.)
Your host would like to plead personal idiosyncrasy to explore a side issue of the parallels between gender roles in the rapturist phenomenon Left Behind and gender roles in the cultural phenomenon Star Trek. (After all, the very phrase “Beam me up” derives from the Trekverse. In fact a character in Left Behind invoked Star Trek on page 25.) It happens that there are parallels between the ways that male writers write gender roles in Star Trek and the ways that male writers write gender roles in Left Behind. They are not casual comparisons such as, “Rayford has a temper like James T. Kirk” or “Hattie Durham, like Janice Rand, is fond of her promiscuous captain, and he certainly wants her, but he could not look her in the face tomorrow; if he could get what he wants then never see her again, he would do it” or “Verna is like Janice Lester; she couldn’t follow the rules either.”
(Granted, it is an odd coincidence that Gene Roddenberry, who co-created Trek with his ex-wife Eileen Roddenberry and Gene L. Coon, started out as yet another airline pilot. Left Behind is one of several works of rapturist fiction to begin the narrative inside an airplane. Frykholm [page 31] muses that there is just something special about the love between certain men and their flying machines, “an image not so subtly connected to both sexuality and worldly power.”)
Rather, there may be parallel themes in these disparate works of fiction, because there are parallel themes in the criticisms leveled against them. The Star Trek critic Tom Lalli echoed some of Frykholm’s concerns about the assigned roles of women:
While writing this article, I was reminded of those Catholics who are frustrated by the prohibition of women priests. The analogy is appropriate, as the similarities between Star Trek and religions become ever more apparent. (Star Trek, of course, has always discouraged the rigidity of dogma and scripture, and our Great Bird [Roddenberry] has certainly never claimed infallibility.) (page 67)
The Left Behind critic Amy Johnson Frykholm and the Trek critic Tom Lalli published their writings more than fourteen years apart; it is unlikely that they know each other. Frequently your host pondered whether the similarities were too off-topic to include or too coincidental to ignore. In the end the material is here; let the Gentle Browser judge.
Our Trek critic Tom Lalli is the author of “Same Sexism, Different Generation,” an essay on gender roles in the Star Trek universe between the years 1966-1990. Lalli’s essay appears in the bound volume Best of Trek #15 (pages 39-67; edited by Walter Irwin & G.B. Love, published by ROC Books, 1990).
Although Frykholm analyzes the work of two Premillennial Dispensationalists (which by definition is a pessimistic worldview) and Lalli analyzes the work of an optimistic atheist/humanist, the portrayals of women in these works of fiction have numerous points in common.
Item: In times of crisis women may occupy positions of leadership. Women should relinquish those positions when male candidates become available.
Lalli and Frykholm agree that women in fictional realms adapt to gender limitations more readily than do women in the real world. Both critics propose that female fictional characters adapt more readily because the characters are fictional. The real world accepted “Rosie the Riveter” only when the real world had no choice. In the 1940s American men went to war. American women built planes, tanks, weapons, and major-league sports teams. Behind this state-of-emergency equality lay an unspoken assumption that the “Rosie” of the 1940s could, would, and should transform into the “June Cleaver” woman of the 1950s—and that this transformation could, would, and should happen with no loss of sanity or self.
(Personal aside: The Roseanne episode “The Fifties Show” is closer to the truth. For a more thoughtful portrayal of the obstacles women faced in the 1950s, see also “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.”)
“Rosie the Riveter” had few role models to instruct her in the June Cleaver lifestyle or to make it appealing. The strong, hard women of World War II continued the strong, hard life of women in the Great Depression, who in turn were preceded by the suffragettes and independent flappers of the Roaring Twenties and then the strong, hard women of World War I. Overlapping these generations was the “Black Women’s Era” of the 1890s through the 1910s. In the 19th Century lived sweatshop girls and ex-slaves, sharecroppers and frontier wives.
The “middle class” was largely a product of the Industrial Revolution. It did not manifest itself immediately. It took decades, perhaps generations, before American culture could mass-produce the stay-at-home wife-and-mother whose income was not needed for survival. This wife could keep her hands clean and her soul pure by bringing up children and volunteering at church or charity. The women of the June Cleaver era were expected to re-enact a society that some of them had never seen, that had never existed in their lifetimes. In effect they were expected to “remember” the way things never were.
Since writers of fiction have control over their characters, they can insist that female characters incorporate, demonstrate, and advertise socially acceptable behaviors. Here are some of the techniques Lalli and Frykholm claim that the male writers in question have used to create the desired outcome.
Item: Male writers may create their fictional characters in such a way that those characters reflect the writers’ worldview, including the writers’ fears.
For much of his life, Gene Roddenberry wrote female characters as if the Women’s Movement had a sinister hidden agenda to bypass equality and just take over (page 50). Lalli’s examples are too numerous to explore in depth, but in the Trekverse the character Janice Lester is an especially egregious example (pages 51-52). In “Turnabout Intruder” a crazed woman becomes so enraged that only men can command starships that she impersonates her ex-boyfriend James T. Kirk and seizes his ship. The fact that she wants to command a ship is considered both proof of insanity and the reason for it (i.e. sane, reasonable women accept their lot in life). This is one of the few episodes in which the female character Uhura does not appear. Lalli argues that the whole point of this episode is to promote the sexist argument, “A feminist is just a woman who wants to be a man.” Uhura’s presence, Lalli believes, would prove the lie of that argument.
Lalli argues that mistrust is at the heart of the way most female characters are treated. Trek “justifies this mistrust by giving [almost all of the female characters] questionable motives” (page 48).
Left Behind introduces a female character who refuses to be submissive and is not allowed to be equal, so she tries to take over. Verna challenges Buck because she thinks she has a better idea. (She also thinks she is his supervisor, but no one else does.) In the sub-culture of Left Behind Verna is not merely challenging Buck to be a jerk but to undermine Buck’s authority in ways that promote a radical agenda. Whether Verna is a jerk who is right or a jerk who is wrong is irrelevant. Verna simply lives in a novel where women must not defy men. Therefore she is portrayed as being dangerous, distasteful, and embarrassing at the same time—someone at whom we are meant to laugh. Power also may be a consideration in Hattie’s behavior. She could have more power as Rayford’s temptress than as his wife; she could have more power among the enemy than she had among the heroes.
Item: Male writers tend to give their female characters one kind of family. In particular, mother-and-daughter relationships are almost always absent in fiction written by men. Most female characters lack a mother to “nurture or defend her right to live;” the female child has “no existence or identity apart from what the father has created.”
Lalli notes that the 1980s series characters of Deanna and Lwaxana Troi are the only mother-and-daughter team created in the first 20 years of the Trekverse (page 49).
(Personal aside: Lalli makes no mention of the fact that Roddenberry often created characters specifically to give his actress wife a job. Would Deanna Troi have been created a motherless character if Roddenberry had happened to be unattached?
Since Lalli wrote his article in 1989-1990, three more mother-and-daughter teams have been created in the Trekverse. Two of these relationships [Keiko and Molly O’Brien; Samantha and Naomi Wildman] feature a mother-to-infant balance of power. As a result we rarely see the characters interacting as people. The third relationship [Capt. Janeway and Seven-of-Nine] is not blood and is sometimes challenged by fans as a social-worker case study that was artificially compressed into a familial role. [Seven-of-Nine is damaged in ways that reflect only the most extreme of life situations.] Even a full fifteen years after Roddenberry’s passing, the Trekverse still struggles to create believable and healthy female familial relationships.)
As mentioned in the main text, Irene Steele (the missing mother of Left Behind) is one of many rapturist women who are “rewarded” for their faith by being “rescued” from neglectful, ungrateful and/or cruel families (examples: Lucinda Washington; Mrs. Barnes; Sharon Williams). Also as mentioned in the main text, Frykholm steps back from the opportunity to evaluate the (failed) relationship between Chloe Steele Williams and her mother Irene. Irene fails to convert either her husband or her daughter. Thus a lifetime of witness is essentially wasted on them. (Rayford thinks he converted because of Irene’s example, but he really only converted because of the Rapture.) Yet when Father and Husband ask Chloe to convert, she obeys them. This is in spite of the fact that the men (particularly Rayford) are relentless witnesses rather than good witnesses. Why is Chloe willing to obey and regard them after a lifetime of disobeying and disregarding Irene?
(Personal aside: Perhaps it is because Rayford tells us “Chloe had been Daddy’s girl from day one” [Volume 11, page 73]. This is all the more remarkable considering that Rayford admits [Volume 1, page 143] that he found young Chloe too “spirited” and “so he disengaged as much as possible” when she was a child—that is, he went out of his way to avoid her. It was not until she entered high school and came home drunk that he truly felt connected to her. Not that they bonded over their mutual love of drinking, mind … he just warmed up to her more after that. They became allies against grim, prim Mom.
This alignment continues even when the Mom in question is a different Mom. In Volume 2 Rayford spends more time coaxing his daughter to reveal personal details of her on-again, off-again relationship with Buck than Rayford spends building a relationship with his second wife Amanda. Rayford and Chloe even participate in a double wedding ceremony. It is Rayford’s idea that he and Amanda should marry in the ceremony that was originally intended for just Buck and Chloe. Both brides acquiesce to Rayford’s idea. Amanda promptly dies, leaving Rayford free to resume his somewhat intense identification with Buck and Chloe. When Chloe is captured, Rayford muses in Volume 11, page 211: “Rayford had only an inkling of what Buck must be going through. It had to be different for a husband than for a father. But he couldn’t put his finger on it.” This is a very interesting statement, coming from Rayford who lost two wives in two years.)
Not only does Irene fail to impart her values to Chloe, Irene is not even of any consequence as a grandparent. She will spend the entire 12-volume series as a warm fuzzy memory, when she does not serve as a pleading and guilty memory.
(Personal aside: The villains also appeal to this dynamic in their efforts to discredit Chloe. In Volume 11 Chloe’s captors accuse her of multiple crimes, but the gender-specific charges are those which permeate the novels themselves. When Chloe refuses to cooperate, her guards claim that she made sexual advances toward them [page 201]. They also claim she killed some of her children. “The Williamses … have one child remaining after Mrs. Williams apparently aborted two fetuses and an older daughter died under questionable circumstances” [page 112]. No female character can do these things and live. The villains exploit the novels’ own stereotypes by arguing that Chloe’s own [nonexistent] female child/children lacked a mother willing to “nurture or defend her right to live.” These false accusations rouse the indignation of the audience, but they also distract the reader by insisting that only the villains subject female characters to the Virgin/Mother/Harlot archetypes. In truth, since the role of “archetypal wife and mother” is so important in rapturism, the loss [or theft, really] of Chloe’s status signals to the audience that the authors have withdrawn their protection from her.)
Item: Women will go farther in the command structure if they have a man to vouch for them and to introduce them into the inner circle. At all times men reserve the right to remove their women from the inner circle.
In the Trekverse Nurse Chapel, Lieutenant Ilia, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, and possibly Security Chief Yar all join the Starfleet Academy and take jobs in space because that is where their husbands, boyfriends, or mentors went (page 53). Even Klingon women do this. Captain Kang takes his wife Mara to work; Valkryis spies on the Federation to advance the career of her beloved Kruge (page 56). (Kruge then kills her because she knows too much.) This reinterprets an original Trek premise that it was the female guest stars who had known one of the male officers. Either way, the men end up looking like gatekeepers (page 54).
Worse, by the end of ST:TNG’s first season (the year in which Lalli wrote his article), two of the three female characters had been killed off or written out of the series (pages 58-59). The one who was allowed to stay (the psychologist) struck Lalli as “submissive, even childish, and stereotypically at the mercy of the emotions of others.” Tasha Yar was killed for being “an unapologetically strong woman” who “lacked a crucial survival skill for women in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: the ability to fade into the background.” The third character, Ship’s Surgeon Beverly Crusher was dismissed so abruptly that neither the character nor the actress playing her even got a chance to say goodbye.
(Personal aside #1: The next actress playing the Ship’s Surgeon in season two was dismissed just as abruptly. This character proved so resistant to fading into the background that Trekkies call Season Two “The Kate Pulaski Show.” She was replaced with a subdued and chastened Crusher.)
(Personal aside #2: Lalli makes no mention of the way Picard treats Beverly Crusher in the 1980s series pilot. As backstory, Picard accidentally got her husband killed. Picard cannot cope with his feelings of guilt, so he tries to block her promotion. Beverly is outraged and humiliated. She believes that Picard has jeopardized her career to indulge his personal needs. Moreover, when Picard led the mission that led to her husband’s death, that deed was an accident. When Picard twice tries to remove Beverly from a prestigious job on his ship, those deeds are intentional. Speaking of intentional deeds, this is the scene that was cut to make room for the weekly recap. A crucial but disturbing glimpse into Picard’s mind is conveniently made to disappear.
Interestingly this scene was resurrected and developed as a season six episode called “Lessons.” Picard falls in love with scientist Nella Darrin. Darrin has a dangerous job, and Picard cannot handle it. He informs her that he will restrict her activities to “safe” assignments. This effectively would end Darrin’s career, so she must leave the ship to protect her own interests. In a sense she loses some control over her life whether she stays or goes. The postings on Picard’s flagship are the most prestigious in the Starfleet; it damages her career to “settle” for a job elsewhere. Our thanks go to Phil Farrand of The Nitpicker’s Guide for catching this one.)
In Left Behind Chloe Steele Williams joins the inner circle as Rayford’s daughter and Buck’s wife. The implication is that she would not have risen as high in rank had she never known them, had she joined the Tribulation Force as a single career woman. And Hattie Durham—femme fatale, dunce, and public menace—gets into the bunker because (little) Rayford wants her.
If introductions are hard, then exits are harder. The Trekverse captains Kirk, Kang and Kruge marry or wish to marry Edith Keeler, Mara and Valkryis, respectively. The Left Behind characters Rayford and Buck marry Amanda and Chloe, respectively. (Additionally, both Rayford and Buck had a chance to choose the needy Hattie instead.) To this list we may add Hattie’s successor Krystall. All seven women are left to die. Most do die, and all of those die alone. The men consistently choose the war effort over their women’s lives and rationalize their choice by arguing that the war effort is the greater good. (Personal aside: Kang tersely states, “She understands.”) As a rule, in the mind of the man it is the woman’s fate to die; it is her time. If it is not her fate, not her time, let her escape on her own or hope for a miracle. Also as a rule, the scripts imply that this is what women do in a crisis: they carelessly get captured or killed, leaving the men to shoulder ever-increasing burdens. This reinforces the fatalism in the men by suggesting that it is the man’s steely resolve to abandon the woman that keeps a man alive.
Although it is untrue to say that a woman’s death is a punishment visited upon her man, there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship. In every case some man trusted the woman with a taste of responsibility, which she misused. Clearly the woman would have remained alive if her man had simply made her stay home. Also, the woman tends to die in a way that brings other people down with her. The man can rectify his initial error by isolating the woman from the group. This he does swiftly and (usually) with no regrets.
Chloe and Hattie are introduced as women who lack the crucial survival skill of being able to fade into the background. Under protest, Chloe learns this skill and lives. Hattie never learns it. She is passed from one manipulative man to another, and another, until she perishes. Chloe eventually forgets how to fade into the background and runs into the arms of an enemy patrol instead of quietly staying indoors as per her husband’s instructions. She’s toast too.
Item: Strong women are bad. Strong women who are not yet bad may become bad in the future. Strong women get their strength from the same place as strong men i.e. by sublimating their sexuality into energy and aggression. Therefore a strong woman must be sexually deviant or sexually frustrated. Strong women can be redeemed by a return to domesticity.
The Trek character Commissioner Nancy Hedford is an aggressive career woman who resents being pulled off her job to undergo pointlessly heroic medical treatment. (She was en route to negotiate an end to a war. She is also dying.)
Her co-star in this episode (“Metamorphosis”) is a cloud creature nicknamed The Companion. The Companion is in love with a human man named Zefram Cochrane. Unfortunately The Companion is so lacking in physicality that she has no means to communicate to Cochrane that she is 1) female, and 2) in love with him. He thinks they are male buddies. He trusts his friend so completely that they like to rest together in telepathic communion. Unfortunately they have no common language, so that even when The Companion is roaming through his mind she is still unable to communicate to him that she is 1) female, and 2) in love with him. Cochrane’s visitors quickly enlighten him. His reaction is disgust. He cannot imagine himself ever being friends with a woman, and says so. At this point the other characters inform The Companion that they doubt she is truly capable of loving a human man because she is not human. The Companion is so taken aback at this rejection that she resolves to do what she must to make Zefram Cochrane welcome her again. Therefore The Companion possesses the body of the dying Nancy Hedford.
In theory this solves both women’s problems. Nancy Hedford is miraculously cured; moreover she has a man (page 43). (What is ending a war and saving countless lives compared to landing a man?) The Companion obtains language skills and a body, one admirably suited for copulation. (Zefram Cochrane is prompt to express his admiration.) Nevertheless this arrangement favors The Companion, the domestic-minded one. It strains realism to propose that if Nancy Hedford had a second lease on life, that she would choose to spend it stranded on a “desert island” mated to a rude little man she has never met. However in classic Trek there exists no man so small that he cannot find a mate, and no woman so great that she can afford to pass up a marriage proposal. (Actually, we have no proof Kirk married them. To this day, many Trekkies insist Nancy Hedford was murdered no matter what the script said.)
In Left Behind, Chloe, Hattie and Verna are all at their most powerful when they are unattached. Their singleness makes them self-reliant, or at least as self-reliant as they can be in a man’s world. Hattie and Verna are accused of flaunting their power, that is, their sexuality which is the source of their power. (In Left Behind the fact that a man wants a woman in a sexual way is considered proof that the woman is flaunting her sexuality.) Verna in particular is portrayed as lusting after power as an alternative to lusting after men. Left Behind insists that a straight woman would not want Buck’s job.
Chloe, who gives up her potential career-woman power to be a sexual creature in the socially-approved roles of wife and mother, can hold on to some (illicit? manly?) power based on her ability to influence Buck. Frykholm speaks of Chloe and her father Rayford as entering the same “cauldron of gender negotiation.” Rayford’s rough edges resist refinement, but Chloe changes dramatically. “Introduced to the reader as a skeptical, Stanford-educated young woman with a feisty personality, Chloe gradually softens into something that looks more like the domestic ideal of Christian motherhood” (page 32).” Between her husband and her father, Chloe is under constant pressure to “go along to get along”.
Yet for all their sexual expression and political maneuvering, none of these women truly can be said to be friends with their men. Some of them are friendly, but it is not the same as being friends. This point is hammered home whenever a woman does not obey. It is implied that the women in question are neither socially “redeemed” nor spiritually “saved.” In Left Behind the two terms/concepts (applied to women) are pretty much the same thing.
Chloe speaks with her strongest voice when she stands up to her father in Volume 1 or when she dares the villains to harm her in Volume 11. She also chafes for “action” in volume after volume; that is, she sounds stronger than she really is because she longs to do those things that she perceives “strong” (that is, male) characters to be doing. Although Chloe earns the most ink in crisis scenarios—including several woman-in-danger formulas—she is at her most useful as the stay-at-home businesswoman running the Co-op. This crucial role brings her family supplies, information, and food. It also keeps her far in the background. Only the villains will eagerly honor her desire to be in the center of the action, and that backfires.
(Personal aside: Specifically, they give her false credit for such “strong” activities as: 1. being expelled from Stanford after threatening to kill the faculty; 2. running a black market; 3. trading the life of a fellow black marketeer for her own life; 4. trading custody of her little son for her life; and 5. offering to trade “physical favors” for her life. In case there is any doubt, none of these allegations are true. In keeping with the roles and form of the novels, the villains accept her other “trades” but reject this last “trade” as too distasteful even for them. That is, it is one thing for the villains to call Chloe manipulative and violent, but sexual deviance is so reprehensible that even the servants of the Antichrist would not descend so low as to oblige. See vol. 11, pages 111-114 and 200-203. Also known on the Internet as the TV Trope “Even evil has standards”—Warning: time sink!)
Item: As a rule, the mental and moral strength of a woman varies in proportion to her attractiveness to the male leads.
One of the first things both genres tell us about a woman is her appearance and age, even before the audience learns her name. The result is that a woman tends to be evaluated according to how desirable and available she appears to be. (Then the story mentions her real name.)
Frequently the male lead is portrayed as having a magnetic personality, so much so that it would seem a woman would have to be blind to resist his charms. As it happens, two eligible women—Miranda Jones (Lalli, page 57) and Left Behind‘s Krystall (vol. 11, page 38)—who find James Kirk/Rayford Steele presumptuous, do turn out to be blind.
In the Trekverse Lalli observes,
James Kirk (in the series) finds it difficult to cope with a woman who is at once attractive, strong-willed, and professional. Thus many of the stronger female characters in Star Trek are women to whom Kirk would not be sexually attracted. Some are the wrong age (Miri, T’Pau, Amanda [Grayson-Sarek]), while others are the wrong race (Uhura, Lt. Charlene Masters, Yeoman Tamura). No matter what their personal convictions, 1960s television viewers would instinctively know that Kirk could only become involved with white women of a certain age. (page 45)
In Left Behind the strongest women (relatively speaking) are those female characters to whom Rayford (and occasionally Buck) would not normally be sexually attracted. Verna is the wrong orientation. Chloe, when it applies to Rayford, is the wrong relationship. Lucinda and Naomi are the wrong age. The raptured wife Irene is doubly unattractive in the unsaved Rayford’s eyes: she just turned forty (almost his age, by the way), and she makes him change churches against his wishes. As Irene’s church treats Rayford like a “project,” so also Irene begins to make the significant demands upon his attitude and behavior to which her rapturist beliefs claim she is entitled. Rayford’s response is to seek out other women who accept his attitude and behavior. When Irene in turn leaves him for another man i.e. Christ in heaven, Rayford remembers her as a good cook, the “tasteful” decorator, the submissive “archetypal wife and mother” rather than as the real woman who constantly argued with him (and who once broke up with him before they were married [Vol. 2 page 178]). Rayford’s second wife remembers Irene the same way. When Irene was alive Amanda nicknamed her “Iron Steele” (Amanda having had difficulty recalling her real name), but calls her “the sweetest little woman” now that Irene is gone. (See Volume 2, pages 408 and 312, 410.)
Chloe too is more appealing to Rayford (as a daughter) when she obeys him. When Chloe submits, her father rewards her by spending time with her. (In Volumes 1 and 2 he often follows her around.) But in Volume 11 when she does something willful and disobedient (by getting captured), he simply walks away.
Hattie begins the novels as an alleged siren out of proportion to her actions or even her appearance. (At 115 pounds Hattie may well weigh less than either of Rayford’s two children. See Volume 1, page 51.) Her wordless persistence in following Rayford around in Volume 1 is taken by some readers as seduction, by other readers as pathetic loneliness; but few readers take it as a sign of strength or self-control. Hattie becomes more hostile, more driven (and more involved in actions that advance the plot) when Rayford turns his attentions elsewhere.
Hattie cannot be both sexually attractive in Rayford’s eyes and also strong-willed. For a time she wants to be both; for a time, he wants her to be neither. As they dance around each other, they tend to bring out the worst in each other. He provokes her; she provokes him. Hattie and Rayford almost never find themselves on the same wavelength at the same time, with disastrous consequences for themselves and the innocents around them.
Item: Female characters are expected to remain within traditional gender roles, but within those gender limitations the writers may offer “positive, likeable characters”. This makes the audience feel compelled to defend them.
In the Trekverse the character Uhura is of artificially low rank and often invisible. (In ST:TAS “The Lorelei Signal” every man on the ship becomes incapacitated before Uhura can take command. Put it another way: the men comprise two-thirds of the crew. Lalli observes that “Uhura is never formally given command, nor is she seen in the captain’s chair” (page 46).
Uhura is the only female lead character in four or five Star Trek series to never date and/or be treated as Girlfriend/Wife Material. (The jury is still out on Hoshi Sato.) Uhura’s character was written in the 1960s, so “of course” she would be ignored as a potential girlfriend for Spock, even though she teases him and spends most of her free time with him. Additionally the 1960s audience would simply “know” that Uhura could never be a potential girlfriend for Captain Kirk. “Uhura is free to be more liberated than a white woman, since she cannot be a threat to Kirk’s dominating sexuality and ego” (page 45). On the other hand,
Even she cannot escape the sexism of her environment. Uhura’s [famous line] “Captain, I’m frightened” is probably the quintessential example of sexism in Star Trek. Uhura says this because, as the only woman present, she must express the fears of everyone, thus allowing the men to maintain a pretense of fearlessness (page 47).
For Gene Roddenberry a woman’s gender is almost always her definitive trait (though she may resist this). He often describes his female characters as “disturbingly” or “mysteriously” female; most of them have “very female bodies” (page 41).
The Star Trek Writer’s Guide (from 1967) describes Uhura as “a highly female female off duty.” The obvious implication is that though her career is “unfeminine,” Uhura is not the “walking freezer unit” you might expect her to be. A 1977 update of the Writer’s Guide includes this same description of Uhura (page 41).
Uhura was never given a first name or personal history, and her sexuality is rarely acknowledged. Roddenberry helped to create Uhura, but he could not imagine what would motivate such a woman; she is a career Starfleet officer, yet she is neither brittle nor frigid. Uhura is an anomaly in Star Trek’s world, and thus cannot be developed or explained. She is indeed a mysterious female (page 47).
Our love and respect for Uhura owe more to the dignity, charm and talent Nichelle Nichols brought to the role than to any dialogue or scene she was given (page 46).
The other women of classic Trek adhere more closely to traditional gender roles in that both women were especially created to pine for husbands. Lalli comments:
Much of the confusion surrounding Rand and Chapel stems from the fact that Star Trek is sexist without being misogynistic. Star Trek insists that most women remain in traditional roles, but within those limits it does provide positive, likeable characters. Because of this, and because Grace Lee Whitney and Majel Barrett make them appealing, we are compelled to defend these women. It’s true that Janice Rand and Christine Chapel are trivial characters, present mainly to serve their male superiors, and as potential love partners for Kirk and Spock. But they are not inherently offensive; such women could conceivably be found aboard the Enterprise. (pages 42-43)
(Personal aside: In Grace Lee Whitney’s The Longest Trek, the actress states she was told that Kirk would “seek out [Janice Rand’s] company, confess to her, draw strength and inspiration from her” and love her but never tell her. She was to love him the same way but would never tell him. This idea dates from a time before Kirk was free of her and he became a notorious womanizer. See The Longest Trek, page 74. Meanwhile, David Gerrold [author of The World of Star Trek] argues that the only way to illustrate what it means to Spock to be a good Vulcan is for a woman like Nurse Chapel to fall in love with Spock and to be repeatedly rejected. A side effect is that Christine Chapel appears isolated and melancholy in most of her scenes. The character is defined primarily by her troubled love life.)
Lalli is not unsympathetic to the fact that that the thinly written lines and scenes are largely counterbalanced by the efforts of the talented and charming actresses. This makes the characters hard to examine, let alone criticize where warranted. Indeed, Lalli notes that when fans become uncomfortable with the portrayal of the female characters, fans do not offer constructive criticism so much as either to stop watching at all, or to become revisionists (page 46). For example, fans frequently argue that Trek’s women are more powerful or important than they really are. Alternately, fans may acknowledge the powerlessness of Trek women while simultaneously arguing that Roddenberry could not have portrayed true equality on 1960s television even if he wanted to do it. Therefore, fans rationalize, Roddenberry “wanted” to do it but Network Interference prevented him (page 65). The problem is that Lalli observed the same flaws written into a syndicated (read: No Network Interference) series in the 1980s. Why did this bias survive unless someone put it there?
In Left Behind the character of Chloe likes her new life as convert, restored daughter, and obedient wife. Also, Chloe is popular with fans. Frykholm acknowledges this popularity and Chloe’s happiness but seems to be at a loss to explain them, since Chloe makes life choices that Frykholm finds unwise, at best.
(Personal aside: In all probability Chloe is popular because many women get “degreed up” then set aside their education to become stay-at-home wives and mothers. Chloe’s stepmother Amanda White Steele, a former executive, is perfectly content to make a similar decision. It is true that Amanda is a “filler” character, introduced primarily to marry Rayford [only 17 pages after they first met], and to serve as a foil for Hattie. But Amanda is not inherently offensive; such women could conceivably be found in the Steeles’ home town.
Very often feminists portray stay-at-home mothers as “damaged goods” or “collaborators.” Chloe offers an alternative to both the “feminist model” and the “egalitarian model” in which all persons work outside the home out of financial necessity or for self-actualization. Moreover, the converted Chloe is a Nice Girl—“never catty or a nag” as the novels phrase it. Many of Chloe’s fans are living Chloe’s life. Thus a criticism of Chloe may be received as a personal attack upon the readers. Critics in turn may receive the message that Chloe is off-limits as a topic of examination and discussion.)
Item: When the plot depends upon the conduct of a female character, the character may be written in a wildly inconsistent manner. This makes it harder for the audience to defend them.
In the Trekverse and in Left Behind, female characters appear to be too sheltered, too naive, too “lightweight” to survive in the manly world of the story, yet they gain entrance anyway. The Trek character Janice Rand originated (in verbal promises by Roddenberry to actress Whitney) as a “Miss Kitty” to Captain Kirk’s “Marshall Dillon”—an insightful artistic type who would alternate with Dr. McCoy as unofficial ship’s counselor. (Personal aside: See The Longest Trek, pages 74-75. Excluding the romantic elements, the proposed Rand would remind your host of a younger, more vivacious version of the 1980s Trek character “Guinan.”) Meanwhile the series bible—also largely written by Roddenberry—described Janice Rand as having the body, walk and possibly mindset of a “strip-tease queen” (Lalli, page 41). What actually appeared on film was “a space-age stewardess created by former airline pilot Roddenberry to wait on Captain Kirk” (page 42). Her multiple origin stories and stunted development typify the circular logic of Classic Trek. If Janice Rand appears in Kirk’s quasi-military environment, then Rand must have passed the proficiency exams necessary for her to join that manly world. “Thus Rand cannot be a featherbrain, no matter how many times we see her act like one” else she would not have graduated (page 42).
Next, a scientist named Carolyn Palomas is portrayed as “a breathy co-ed” who almost betrays her 435 crewmates for the attentions of the handsome Apollo (page 47; episode, “Who Mourns for Adonais”). “She is remarkable, however, in that the story requires her to pretend to be a feminist” to free her crewmates from their captor. Unfortunately she has no idea how a feminist would speak, think or behave. Kirk must coach her. In the process “Kirk is forced to admit female equality to save his ship.” (Quips Lalli, “It’s no wonder Kirk seems pained in this scene”.) Which version of Carolyn is true? Carolyn is a scientist. Carolyn lets Apollo dress her up like a lovely Greek goddess … a half-naked Greek goddess. Carolyn delivers an old-fashioned bra-burner’s “nutcracker” speech (she calls Apollo a “specimen” and claims she could no more love him than love “a new species of bacteria”). And Carolyn does it all while speaking in the same breathy, little-girl voice. Trek is full of mixed-messages characters like this.
(Personal aside: It would seem that Frykholm published her research before the Left Behind series was completed. Her perceptions of Chloe’s star turn would have been interesting. Rossing, who did finish Volume 11, discussed only the male characters though Chloe’s story spans 260 pages of that sequel. We will have to proceed without them.
In Armageddon, Chloe Steele Williams becomes the star of the story. However, Chloe draws this attention to herself by exhibiting poor personal judgment. [She admits as much on pages 43, 46, 51, and 153.] From the shelter of an underground bunker she observes an enemy patrol and decides to investigate the threat herself. She takes no walkie-talkie or reinforcements. She informs no one of the enemy’s presence, and leaves 200 sleeping fugitives defenseless.
Chloe is captured and taken to jail. There her captors intend to torture her to obtain information about her rebel friends. This “torture” consists of showing her a full breakfast from IHOP [or was it Bob Evans? actually it was from the mess hall], then refusing to give it to her. After half an hour of listening to her captors tease her about missing breakfast, Chloe stumbles, betraying a crucial detail about Kenny Bruce, her four-year-old son. They now know enough about him to use him as propaganda before they capture him. They also know where to begin searching for the bunker [page 128], which means that said 200 fugitives, including her child, must be evacuated. [She never does get the breakfast.]
At the same time, Chloe repeatedly tells the servants of the Antichrist that she will kill any torturer who enters her jail cell, or die trying. Never mind that in “ordinary times” an honest policeman could think up half a dozen ways to control and interrogate unruly prisoners without even violating their civil rights. In “ordinary times” there are worse things out there than good policemen, worse than corrupt policemen. [The creatures who ran the slave trade or the WWII death camps come to mind.] The novels tell us that these are not “ordinary times.” When Chloe threatens to kill her captors, they believe her. Despite their weapons, training and superior numbers they simply are unable to take control of the situation. This means that they cannot do anything to Chloe, except to return her verbal abuse, to leave her undisturbed in solitary, and to not feed her.
They decide to sedate her with a drugged chocolate milkshake so that they can move her to a more secure jail without anyone getting killed. Fortunately for the enemy, Chloe eagerly consumes the milkshake, what with being methodically starved and all. Actually, Chloe was merely hungry, not starving. Her captors previously fed her an energy bar out of fear that the prisoner would die before they could execute her only two days later. Never mind that in the real world hunger strikers have lived approximately 45 days, whereas Chloe ate supper at home less than 24 hours ago. Her captors will feed her yet one more time—the traditionally generous “last meal”—before she dies or escapes. [For the reader who has not finished volume 11, we won’t spoil the ending for you here. See the post titled “Volume 11 spoilers.”]
The result is that Chloe’s torturers conclude that they have failed to break her, in spite of the fact that they did not try very hard yet she began making mistakes within half an hour anyway. Chloe comes closer to dying of embarrassment than to dying of mistreatment. [When a reporter inquires if Chloe has been interrogated to the point that she “soiled herself,” Chloe is “mortified” (pages 200-202). She shrieks that she spilled her chocolate milkshake on herself. Her guards make all haste to silence her, because she is going to get them in a whole lot of trouble. They then retaliate by lying to the reporters that Chloe tried to trade sexual favors for leniency. It’s all very humiliating for our Nice Girl, who really is trying her best to be brave and good. The reader must understand that Chloe has little experience in being threatened or cussed out except by her own father. She simply may not know how to handle it.]
Chloe is mostly unharmed up to the end of her story: the truth serum doesn’t work [an invisible angel having performed a miracle for her benefit], and she sustains only a few minor bumps on the head [one of which she got by falling out of bed]. And Chloe is fed [chocolate!] twice a day yet calls it both starvation and torture. Um, no. What the novels’ Jewish prisoners have experienced is torture: real starvation, real beatings, real extermination camps, real executions performed real slow. [See pages 25, 243].
The result is that Chloe’s actions cannot be reconciled with Chloe’s “Terminatrix” posturing and speeches. It is as if Chloe makes her death threats in the voice of the “Terminator 2” character portrayed by actress Linda Hamilton … even as Chloe behaves like the ingenue characters typically portrayed by Disney actress Hillary Duff … and Miss Duff is staring down Colonel Klink and company from “Hogan’s Heroes”. Now until Chloe’s latest adventure, most of the Tribulation Force [TF] had used the “Hogan’s Heroes” tactic with great success. For example, Rayford, Buck, David Hassid, Mac McCullum, “Mr. Smith” [not his real name], Chang Wong, etc., spy on the Antichrist by taking jobs as members of his staff. The pilots becomes his personal pilot; the journalist becomes his mouthpiece; the techies become his techies.
Not only do the men find it easy to get the Antichrist to hire them, their women insist that the men seek and take such jobs. Hattie Durham personally recommends Rayford for the piloting job; without her help [and browbeating] he would not have gotten it. [See Volume 2, page 289.] Chloe also persuades her father and future husband to take spy jobs, after they said No to their pastor. [See Volume 2, pages 238-9.] Chang gains access to the villains’ television networks, to the point that he can override their broadcasts at will [Volume 11, page 275], and his girlfriend Naomi assists and approves. The Tribulation Force produces and airs a commercial starring rebel leader Tsion Ben Judah—a commercial that could be construed to sound as if the good guys are intentionally allowing the bad guys to continue their blasphemous broadcasts … which is, well, the truth [pages 286-7]. The TF plants spy equipment in the Antichrist’s headquarters by, again, walking in the front door and asking for a job [page 270]. They even get paid for it. In addition to earning money, the rebels have multiple ways to bypass the economy: they frank, they barter, and they miraculously find hoards of gold coins and treasure on a regular basis. [They also keep a list of black marketeers and goldbug merchants who greedily sell anything to anyone to get the gold.]
Repeatedly the TF declines to cripple the regime because they reason they are more valuable to the cause inside the enemy’s camp than out of it. Chloe may be the only American character for whom the “Hogan’s Heroes” approach backfires. [At this point your host expected Frykholm to propose “It’s a guy thing”. This may or may not be the answer, but none of the critics have offered a better one.]
Chloe’s captors fill her biography with falsehoods. They intend to smear her name and they are largely successful. But that should not have made a difference in Chloe herself. Chloe has been trained by George Sebastian in the use of weapons and [to the best of his ability] military discipline, giving her a superficial Terminatrix authenticity. However it would more authentic if Chloe was seen to use this training more intelligently. Moreover the Terminatrix never whined. Chloe complains so much more than do the dying Jewish prisoners who have so much more to complain about. Vacillating between the images of [on the one hand] a hardened survivalist like Sarah Connor and [on the other hand] a pacifist Christian martyr like Jesus and the early heroes of the Church, Chloe at times appears too petulant or frivolous to pass for either.
Which version of Chloe is true? The audience does not know. It is simply asked to believe that since Chloe-the-supporting-character was a Stanford gal [3.4 GPA], a businesswoman and a founding member of the Tribulation Force, then Chloe-the-star cannot be a featherbrain, no matter how many times we see her act like one. For that matter, her “torturers” cannot be featherbrains, no matter how many times we see them act like it.)
(To be continued)