Earth Date: 14th May, 2019
Goodbye, Junior Lieutenant, hello, Lieutenant Commander! I’ve earned my place! Do you like my new pips?
Now, you better strap in, because this next topic is a specialty of mine…
Representation in media can be supremely important to those viewers who are being represented, but also to those being exposed to diversity in media. If certain groups are only being represented in one way, for example, it can persuade people that that is the only way such a group can be. Whether fictional or not, people tend to believe what they most often see or hear, and media is a big part of that.
If the majority of stories I see reflect one reality, I will begin to think that this is the reality most people are living. If I see a version of myself on screen where people like me are always the villain, I start to think I’m bad, or else everyone else thinks I am. If I see a version of myself on screen that is always good, I’ll start to think I’m good no matter what I do.
So what am I, and am I reflected in Star Trek? Well, I’m a woman: women have been featured in Star Trek since TOS, but the roles and significance of women have steadily increased in value since then. I’m a queer woman: there have been queer characters and relationships, both implicit and most recently explicit, since the beginning, too. I’m an autistic queer woman: there are relatively few autistics in Star Trek, although one or two characters might be considered neurodivergent either implicitly or explicitly in canon.
Let’s look first at women in Star Trek. Only one member of the bridge crew in the original series was a woman, and that was Uhura. There were a couple of other recurring crew members that were women: Christine Chapel, Janice Rand. And, of course, a host of one-off women characters, a good number of which were dedicated to their jobs and didn’t fall into the ‘love interest’ trap that was the role of most female characters of the day. They had power, and intelligence. They had respect.
Women’s presence increased from TNG onwards. You had Tasha Yar, Deanna Troi, Beverly Crusher, Guinan, all of whom were quite distinct from each other. The series also allowed women more modesty; they no longer had to wear such short dresses. This diversity of women in all forms were welcome in the Federation.
This was continued later with Jadzia Dax, Kira Nerys, Captain Janeway, B’lanna Torres, Seven of Nine. Women comprised the crew in Star Trek: Enterprise, too, in important positions. T’Pol had a command role, and Hoshi Sato was a linguist who was strong enough to overcome her fears aboard the starship. By the time you get to Discovery, women fill many positions, especially on the bridge, and are as diverse as ever.
But a few women were also sexualised by the series. Troi had her low-cut tops, Seven of Nine had her catsuit, even Kira Nerys had a form fitting uniform. Yet other female characters were sometimes treated by other characters as objects or prizes. Ezri Dax comes to mind, and her relationship with Bashir; he could never win over Jadzia, so the series gave him Ezri as a consolation prize.
Another thing about women in Star Trek before Discovery, in my opinion, is that the most interesting characters seemed to go to men. These characters include Barclay, Data, Garak, Bashir, and Spock. However, in Discovery, it seems the most interesting characters are women. In my opinion, Tilly, Burnham, and Georgiou. This shift may be due to the fact that womens role in our society has advanced since the time of previous Star Treks, and this is finally being represented on screen.
Queer representation is not as clear-cut. For the majority of Star Trek, it could only be hinted at, and never made explicit. Speculation existed in fandom since TOS, but it could never be made into canon. One of Star Trek’s most famous queer couples was what is now known as “Spirk,” and what was initially referred to as The Premise. This was the romantic/sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock. In early fandom, fanworks of this couple were circulated secretly at conventions, or in closed groups. This is due to the fact that during Star Trek’s original run, such materials were illegal, and one on occasion, a mother could no longer see her kids for possessing it.
There are other series of Star Trek that include queer characters. TNG now has “DaForge” or Data/La Forge, and Voyager has a few characters that could be interpreted as queer, such as Harry Kim. However, I know a bit more about queer DS9 fandom. “Garashir” or Garak/Bashir is a quite popular slash ship, as is Jadzia/Kira. I know fanart of Garak and Bashir depicted as being intimate with each other was circulated since the series originally went to air.
Garashir fanart, circa 1990s. source: tumblr
modern Garashir fanart. source: tumblr
This ship was very much implicit, and the two characters never got together in canon, since Rick Berman was too busy blocking anything queer from the show. But from the start, the actors fought against his homophobia, and were able to code their characters as queer despite Berman. Andrew Robinson, the actor who played Garak, has said as much.
“Why not go for it?” asks Robinson, regarding his character’s initial contact with Dr. Bashir. Meaning: why not play his character in a way that he could imply his character was flirting with Bashir?
And what allowed queer viewers of these most obvious implicit queer relationships to do was look at these characters and see themselves, and then look at the actors and see them confirming it. This sent the message, at least, that someone cared about showing them onscreen.
But the problem with remaining implicit, is that queer viewers don’t get to have positive representation, and so don’t get to see the majority of other people accepting them, or even seeing them at all. The only place in DS9 we do see explicitly queer characters is in the mirror universe, where it’s depicted as villainous.
The prime universe does include some hints that certain characters aren’t straight, however. Bashir, although he most often is seen pursuing women in the life of the series, is also seen to have a queer relationship with Garak, can be seen by some viewers as having a queer interest in Garak, carrying an implication of attraction to multiple genders; Jadzia is similarly shown as multisexual, chasing mostly men but making the occasional exception, such as her relationship with Lenara Khan, who she kisses on screen in a storyline that reflects the homophobia of the period it was broadcast; in the first half of the series, too, Odo was depicted as having no interest in romantic or sexual couplings, making him appear to be asexual/aromantic. In the case of all three of these characters, by the second half of the series, they were forced into straight couplings: Julian/Ezri, Jadzia/Worf, and Odo/Kira respectively. This shuts down the queer-friendly atmosphere of the show, and in turn, makes queer viewers to feel less welcome in the futuristic setting created by Star Trek.
That is, until Discovery, and “Culmets”, or Stamets/Culber. This is the first explicitly gay ship, but it stands on the shoulders of previous ships.
a piece of fanart which demonstrates the influence Garashir had on Culmets. source: bahoreal.tumblr.com
Discovery is a series of Star Trek which seems to reflect what Roddenberry wanted from the start: a diverse crew, women in high positions, a canon gay relationship. It even has shown characters with physical disabilities, in Airiam and Detmer. Season two even introduced a learning disability in Spock: dyslexia. That is significant; one of Star Trek’s most iconic characters doesn’t have autism, but he still has a learning disability. How does that manifest? Well, he at least has the support of his mother, though not his Vulcan society. Who else is there left to include?
What about autism? Nowhere in Trek does there appear to be even implicit representatives of this. However, there are certain characters that viewers with the condition might interpret as sharing the condition.
Julian Bashir, for example. Before his father had him genetically altered, he had a learning disability. Bashir tells us himself, “In the first grade, while the other children were learning to read and write and use the computer, I was still trying to tell a dog from a cat, a tree from a house.” This could be a problem with recognition, or it could be a problem with language. If it’s the latter, that has been known to happen with autistics. As for the genetic manipulation itself, he tells us that his “IQ jumped five points a day for over two weeks. Followed by improvements in my hand-eye coordination, stamina, vision, reflexes, weight, height.” This doesn’t necessarily account for all autistic symptoms, but it does account for a few. As for the rest of us, O’Brien tells Bashir that, “Genetic recoding can’t give you ambition, or a personality, or compassion or any of the things that make a person truly human.” Those aspects of his autism, such as hyperfixation on special interests, or his social awkwardness seem to have been left alone.
So if Bashir was autistic, what kind of representation does that give us? Well, certainly, he stands for the grievances of ableism, for those of us who’ve experienced it. He is an inspiration, of a sort, for those of us who are willing to overlook his genetic enhancements to the man he still is, who fits in, who has confidence, who’s achieved his ambitions. On the other hand, what his father did to him tells us, if not what we are isn’t enough, then at least it isn’t for many people. After all, “there’s no stigma against success.”
So what does all this mean for viewers in the real world? And what impact does TV have, anyway. Well, media affects the way we see the world. It opens us up to new ideas, and allows us to see ourselves and others in new ways. Television is one of the most popular mediums for receiving this information, as it’s the easiest way for viewers to receive this information, so it’s interesting to study it and the effects it has on the viewers who watch it.
Note: turns out there’s more autistic characters in Star Trek than I realised. And many are personal favourites of mine.