copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Star Trek’s allegorical monomyth

review by Elspeth kydd

David Greven Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek: Allegories of Desire in the Television Series and Films (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co., 2009).

Even from the start of Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Greven identifies the pitfalls of analyzing a monomyth of such scope and complexity as Star Trek: a text that is “maddeningly and exhilaratingly complex.” (2) And, indeed, the book struggles sometimes with the complexity of the text, its multiple and varied readings, and the extended time period in which it has been in production. Despite this, Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek still maintains a clear focus and presents an engaging argument, centered on an allegorical reading of gender, sexuality and race in the monomyth. In developing this, Greven analyzes how, while Star Trek does not directly represent gay or lesbian characters, queer desire can still be read allegorically and ironically by the significant gay fan base. 

In the first chapter, Greven refutes the common reading of Captain Kirk as the consummate heteronormative Lothario by examining in detail the nature of Kirk’s encounters with women in the original series of Star Trek:

“The encounter with the female guest star leaves the male . . . bewildered and often transformed by the experience; while efforts at dominance are made, the pervasive attitude on the part of the male in the encounter with woman is one of awed, disoriented submission.” (11) 

Thus Kirk, and to a lesser extent Spock and McCoy, become representatives of male heterosexual desire that is forever made strange, defamiliarized and “a perpetually reenacted, allegorical ritual of desire” (13, emphasis in the original). Despite this defamiliarization, the series still undeniably presents these guest women characters as idealized and in some ways alienated, often lacking full agency in the narrative. As a lifelong viewer of Star Trek, and a particular fan of the original series, I can readily recognize this description and identify with this perspective on Kirk and the “weirdness with which Trek depicts his desire.”(9)  This "weirdness" compliments the centrality of Kirk and Spock’s frequently celebrated homoerotic relationship. Greven continues the tradition of situating the original series of Star Trek as offering the pleasures of a resistive queer reading.

When reading Star Trek’s allegories of gender and sexuality, it is hard to separate out questions of race and racialized identity.  Race, gender and sexuality are inextricably linked in the Trek universe as it deploys the science fiction trope of disavowing difference and desire onto an alien Other, often conflating racial, gender and sexual difference.  Greven takes the right approach in interweaving these issues in his treatment of gender, sexuality and allegory.  He also asks the right question in exploring why “allegory works so well for same-sex desire but not at all well for race” (2).  In the Introduction there is an evocative analysis of the original series episode, “Let that be your last battlefield,” which suggests how an episode that is a direct allegory of racial struggle, made as an overt commentary on the Civil Rights struggle, fails to depict the complexity of race relations. Instead,

“by its end, the episode seems to have moved into a different kind of allegorical territory altogether, as horrified and fascinated by the queer energies of the warring men as it is in what they war over.” (4)

Interestingly, this scenario is reversed in the emblematic Star Trek: The Next Generation (hereafter TNG) episode “The Outcast,” which is a direct allegorical attempt to deal with sexuality and homophobia. As in “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield,” sexuality is disavowed onto an alien other, with a genderless alien species embodying intolerance around difference. This leads to a gendered confusion that ends ups leaving the main guest character making an impassioned plea for the right to express and explore heterosexual feelings, using the rhetoric of gay rights. Greven classifies this episode as a

“failure of a peculiar kind . . . so obviously straining towards redressing previous lapses in terms of gay characters yet remaining resolutely in an allegorical mode, the episode schizophrenically attempts to name and to unnamed, to speak the language of queer desire and  to keep this language stringently coded.” (42)

There is a reverse argument here, which could be made by reading the allegory racially, as Greven does with race and sexuality in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  In seeing the genderless species as raced opens up a different point of rather fruitful analysis. Thus, interestingly, what Greven has identified here is a form of “an allegorical crisis” (42). That is, Star Trek’s attempts at directly coding allegories of difference often exceed their own allegorical function but at the same time open up symptomatic readings of other subject positions to the viewer’s interpretation. Ultimately, it is the "indirectness of the allegory" (47) that makes it work. This is further evidenced in Greven's evocative analysis of the relationship between Captain Picard and his clone double, Shinzon, in the final next generation film Nemesis.

In chapters 3, 4 and 8 Greven develops the queer allegorical reading with analysis of the Star Trek: Voyager: a series in which “many of its characters can be read as queer.” (54) Chapters 3 and 4 single out thecharacters of the Doctor and Neelix as representative of this queer reading; they are characters who become metaphors “for a gay male identity without any explicit signification as such.” (63) Greven argues for the Doctor as a representation of the gay male artist. First, he charts the Doctor’s character development over the course of the series as an allegorical move from closeted gay man in the early seasons, to his coming out (when he gains the technology to move out of the sick bay to which he is initially confined), then through delayed adolescence, to the “growing politicization of his subaltern identity.” (58) In the final season the doctor becomes an author, writing (holo)fiction from his own perspective of life on Voyager:

“As the queer outsider, he is in a position to critique the conformist, implicitly heterosexualist conventions of Federation/Trekkian society, decisively assuming a non-conformist, nonassimilationist position in the face of their hegemonic power.” (60) 

Chapter 3 ends with a comparison between Voyager’s Doctor and Andrew, a similar queer storyteller character in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Unlike the Doctor, Andrew’s access to, and control of narrative is disallowed and subjected to the dominant and dominating forces supporting the heroine’s view of truth. 

The subsequent chapter presents the character of Neelix as the “male mother,” a problematic character, but one who "emphasizes kindness, compassion, tenderness and love." (96) Greven continues his analysis of Voyager in Chapter 8, explicating the relationship between Captain Janeway (Star Trek’s first female Captain) and Seven of Nine (a former Borg returning to life as human).  In this attention to the neglected series Voyager Greven counters the conventional dismissal of “its status as ‘bad television,’” (73) and he attributes a level of allegorical complexity into these queer resistive readings.

Greven does not offer an analysis of racial issues in the same depth as he treats questions of gender and sexuality, and therefore not as complex and detailed an exploration. Such examination of race occurs in other work on Star Trek. Greven’s most detailed analysis is in the fifth chapter which looks Trek’s treatment of black masculinity. Greven sees both black and white males as denatured, but from different positions of privilege.  Black men are Othered in a problematic way while white male denaturing foregrounds the construction of that power with which white masculinities are endowed:

"Trek's greatest contribution to an anti-racist project is its depiction of a denatured, decentered white masculinity." (117)

The real strength of Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek comes in the later chapters when Greven deals critically with the two most recent manifestations of the Star Trek universe: Enterprise and the 2009 J. J. Abrams reboot of the franchise.  He convincingly argues for a post-9/11 neo-conservative turn in the series Enterprise, from which he sees the decline in the fan base and the popularity of the franchise (a proverbial shark-jumping moment).  Enterprise reverses many of the gains of the original series in terms of its reversal of allegories of difference; it often punishes and recuperates the character of T'Pol (Enterprise's Other woman) and centralizes power in the figures of white/human masculinity.

"Enterprise was a neoconservative reimagining of Trek that not only 'corrected' the politically correct stances of the previous recent Trek shows but even retooled the concepts of Original Trek to refashion Trek in its entirety as a monolithically conservative vision, a fictive universe opposed to diversity and tolerance." (118)

In contrast to the failure of Enterprise, the 2009 reboot returns the Trek universe to popularity but at the cost of some of its radical, allegorical potential.  This reboot signals Star Trek’s incorporation into the conventions of contemporary action feature film, where there is little time in the pacing for the “weird” encounter of the Trek men with the idealized form of Woman.  Yet there are perhaps other ways in which questions of gender, sexuality and race are made strange, defamiliarized, deconstructed or even reconstructed. That becomes a matter for future research and analysis.  Ultimately, Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek gives an excellent basis for continued engagement with this “maddeningly and exhilaratingly complex” monomyth.

To topJC 53 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.