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The Federation Doesn’t Take Sexual Assault Very Seriously…

Posted in Editorials on September 30th, 2013

Adam and I have been re-watching “Star Trek:The Next Generation” and we’re in the middle of Season 4 right now. When I was a teenager, I would have told you that this was the best show on television ever. Watching it again at age 30, I am still enjoying it very much, but for the first time I can see what people don’t like about Star Trek – that it can be painfully earnest, that it’s a bit silly, that sometimes the science doesn’t make any sense. And now that I can analyze it with a feminist lens, there’s a lot to talk about.

Generally, I think they show is very good – especially for it’s time – in terms of gender roles. I know the common criticism that Troi and Beverly Crusher are the main women characters and they are also the “caretakers” but that they are people with strengths, weaknesses and personalities of their own is always clear. What does become annoying is that Troi rarely has an episode that isn’t directly related to her sexuality in some way. Dr. Crusher, on the other hand is the virginal Madonna. At this point in the series, all the other characters have gotten laid (except possibly Wesley, but he’s very young we’ve seen him dating at least three different women) but Beverly Crusher is someone’s mother, so no sex for her! I do recall a later episode where she gets lucky, but it takes quite a while to happen, something I find unrealistic for someone as smart and beautiful – and as we see from several of her “will-they-or-won’t-they” moments with Picard very interested in sex.

William Riker, I think is a very interesting character. He is extremely masculine, but he is a feminist, or at the least staunchly egalitarian. He’s big on consent, as we see in “The Vengance Factor.” Sex is not a conquest for him but an experience he shares with others. When Yuta seems unsure what she wants, he stops things right away. He’s not possessive or jealous which seems to clash with what our current idea of masculinity is right now. Riker’s relationship with Troi could be considered open or poly. They love each other but they often say they reject the idea that they “own” each other.

The one bump in this very progressive road, is the way the show handles sexual assault, or at least the threat, accusation or attempts of sexual assault which come up quite often for a show Netflix says is good for kids ages 8 and up.

Tasha Yar – The Enterprise-D’s short lived first chief of security was brash, strong and loyal. She also referred to the fact that she escaped a planet where “rape gangs” were common. Nothing is said about the fact that this is common for women in war torn places, this is pretty much “rape as character development.”

“Code of Honor” – This episode is extremely racist. But there is an additional squick factor. Tasha Yar is about to be “forced to marry” Lutan and Troi asks her about the fact that when they first met, she was attracted to him. What kind of question is that? Hey I know this guy kidnapped you and you have to fight his girlfriend to the death lest you are “forced to marry him” but you thought he was cute before this all went down, so it’s kind of your fault, right? The whole context given her past as an assault survivor makes this even worse.

“The Child” – This episode is clearly about Troi being violated by an alien force. This actually happens to her quite often, sadly, but in this case, it’s explicitly sexual, as she is impregnated without her consent. No one asks her how she feels about that, even during a senior staff meeting where people openly debate whether or not she should have an abortion – without asking for her input and talking as if she wasn’t in the room. For the record, Worf wanted to force her to abort, Data wanted to force her to give birth. Picard at least said that she had the final say in what happened, but again, no concern for the fact that she was violated.

A Matter of Perspective” – In this episode we see a series of events from three perspectives, Rikers, Manua’s – a woman who accuses him of trying to rape her and of killing her husband, and Dr. Nel Apgar, the man Riker is accused of killing. Riker claims that Manua came on to him and he rejected her. Apgar told his research assistant that Riker and Manua were both kissing enthusiastically when he walked in on them. After Riker is found innocent of murder, the fact that he was also accused of attempted rape is entirely forgotten and never mentioned again. As much as I dislike the “women lie about being raped” trope, and as infuriating as it is that the title implies that rape is just “a matter of perspective” I think it’s inconsistent with Riker’s character and with the series that he would do such a thing. Starfleet officers make mistakes, but do not commit vicious assaults. As a viewer, I am satisfied that he is innocent. However, within the universe of the show, I am uncomfortable with how easily this accusation is dismissed, especially because the Manua never recants.

Ménage à Troi” – aka Lwaxana Troi is a Big, Damn Hero. In this episode, Riker, Troi and Lwaxana are kidnapped by Ferengi, one of whom – Daimon Tog, has expressed romantic interest in Lwxanna. There’s an extremely creepy scene where Daimon Tog summons the women to his quarters naked, via transporters. Ferengi women do not wear clothing. It’s also established that Betazed culture is very body positive and rituals like marriage are frequently performed naked. Yet, Troi and Lwaxanna are acting anxious, and it’s not because they are insecure about their bodies, it’s clear they are afraid they are about to be raped. Lwaxanna offers to go willingly if Troi and Riker are set free. And then Daimon Tog attempts to “seduce” her. We see Troi grimace as she emphatically feels her mother’s disgust. But Lwaxanna manages to talk her way out of it before the assault is completed. At the end of the show, once all three captives have been rescued, The Enterprise flies off into the sunset. Apparently it’s no big deal that the Ferengi just kidnapped two Federation officers and the Ambassador from Betazed to the Federation, and that Daimon Tog assaulted and attempted to rape a Federation ambassador. Just another crazy day on the Enterprise! Especially because the show ended on a humorous note with Picard’s convincing Daimon Tog that he was Lwaxanna’s true love and would stop at nothing to get her back. Who cares that a Ferengi was about to rape her? It’s played for the lulz. Also, I totes see what you did there Star Trek! Ménage à Troi! GET IT?!

“Devil’s Due” – Nine years before Bedazzled, and twelve years before “Shortcut to Happiness” there was another knock off of “The Devil and Daniel Webster” where the Devil is actually a hot chick. Sort of. In “Devil’s Due,” a woman, Ardra appears to a planet the Enterprise is visiting and claims to be a god that the people there pledged to be slaves to upon her return 1,000 years ago. Picard is really insistent that she’s not who she says she is. It’s a crappy version of “Who Watches The Watchers.” Picard winds up having to prove his case before a court where Data is the sole judge. If he loses, he will belong to Ardra “mind, body, and soul” forever. As Ardra previously tried to seduce Picard and was rejected, we know she’s extremely keen on the body part. No one cares, at all, that someone is trying to kidnap a the Federation flagship’s Captain and make him a sex slave for life. It’s played alternately as comedy and for titillation.

“First Contact” [fourth season episode, not the movie] – Riker is injured while surveying a civilization about to test their warp drive capabilities for the first time. He is recovering in a hospital where the doctors have him quarantined and under security as they correctly suspect he is an alien. When he realizes they know he isn’t one of them, he tries to escape. A creepy chick sneaks into his hospital room and says she will help him flee in exchange for sex, and that she’s always wanted to do it with an alien. He says no repeatedly. She insists, and whines. In the next scene, Riker has escaped. This is never mentioned or addressed in any way. Like in “Devil’s Due” it’s supposed to be kind of funny and we are meant to boggle at why Riker wouldn’t want to get down with the cute geek girl, I mean, he is a ladies’ man, right? What’s the problem?

Roddenberry’s vision was that in the future, that everyone is equal regardless of gender or ethnicity would be taken for granted as a matter of fact. And the show reflects that, for the most part. But I hope even the best shows can withstand some feminist media criticism, no matter how faithful the fandom.

6 Responses to “The Federation Doesn’t Take Sexual Assault Very Seriously…”

  1. Alexandria Web Says:

    It’s a long, long time since I watched The Next Gen (I was in primary school when it aired), I feel like it’s about time I gave them all a re-watch but I do remember First Contact and that it bothered me for some reason I wasn’t really sure about at the time.

  2. jason Says:

    Must suck to go through life filled with as much doubt and general distrust of the general public as you do. I do not envy your life of hatred.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    I don’t hate anyone, but thanks for playing. Maybe next time you could offer something in a way of a substantive argument.

  4. Sonya Says:

    Thank you very much for this validating critique of the show! I am re-watching Star Trek TNG, was troubled by the “he said / she said” unresolved storyline of “A Matter of Perspective,” and googled “star trek a matter of perspective he said she said sexual assault” in the hope that someone else felt the same way. There *was* an opening to address this issue when Troi stated that Riker and Manua both perceived their (incompatible) recollections to be accurate. Of note, each character talked about it “being late” in their recollection rather than explicitly stating that they were flattered by the other person’s attention, but had no desire to become sexual due to their position, etc. A Star Trek TNG lesson could have been that the potential for sexual miscommunication and assault is reduced when one directly communicates instead of using euphemisms. This might have yielded more enlightenment on the part of the viewer than having Manua recant, which would have supported the idea that someone is always the perpetrator and someone is always the victim – (and therefore we as a society do not have to teach young people how to directly communicate about sexual desires). To avoid giving the wrong impression, I want to make clear that sexual assault is a real occurrence that deserves serious treatment. In this particular episode, I think there was an opportunity to demonstrate that in some situations, there might truly be miscommunication / poor perception / poor memory – especially in cases where substance use is involved. Having the underdeveloped he said / she said narrative was a letdown, so thank you for providing a forum to process the show.

  5. Lindsey Says:

    Don’t forget Season 4, Episode 16 – “Galaxy’s Child” where Leah Brahms visits the Enterprise and is immediately treated like Geordi’s little sex kitten. After he subjects her to countless instances of sexual harassment, she finally discovers his gross fantasy holodeck programs where she’s reduced from a brilliant engine designer to a demure automaton ready to hop on that dick. THEN, the episode ends with her apologizing for being so cold to Geordi?!?! Are you serious?

  6. Alex Says:

    As a straight White man who tries his best to be an ally in social justice issues, I greatly appreciate the insight of your arguments. I was a kid when Voyager was playing on television and as an adult I’ve been re-watching the series and appreciate how TNG, DS9, and Voyager were all ahead of their time in so many ways (though as you’ve laid out, it downplayed the effects or justice in cases of sexual harassment).

    It is disappointing how TNG portrays sexual assault and how they gloss over a lot of realistic experiences of trauma, or have any substantial sort of vindication for the characters who experience it in the series. I’m curious if this might be a socio-cultural drawback for television and films in the 80s in the U.S. of underplaying how harassment impacts people and the lack of accountability for perpetrators, as we see this still being a problem in modern America.

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