This weekend, John and I had date night, which means we ordered pizza and watched Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes until we passed out, like you do when you're broke nerds. It's been a really long time since I saw TNG, and I've never watched it all the way through with the eyes of an adult before. Which is probably why one of the episodes, "Angel One", has activated all my ponderment sensors.
The Scarlet Pimpernel - Lullabye
For those who haven't seen the episode, the basic premise is that the characters visit a world called Angel One, where the women are the more physically powerful and dominant sex and the men are considered weaker, more feeble-minded and less fit for important responsibilities. They must then deal with the problems of not being taken seriously by a government that doesn't respect their male commanding officers, and of helping an underground male resistance group that's attempting to fight against the status quo.
The tall, physically imposing women of Angel One with a short, carefully-groomed manservant
Like most Star Trek plots, it's an obvious ploy to discuss a social issue - in this case, sexism - by putting the characters in a parallel situation but using the trappings of space aliens and science fiction to avoid shoving it too strongly in the viewer's face. It's still completely obvious (this is still the first season of TNG, after all, before the writing team managed to get things under control), but it allows the show to talk about the issue without sermonizing directly to the audience or forcing them to feel uncomfortable about it. If the audience recognizes what's going on, great! Maybe they'll see the point of the episode and think about it! If they don't - or don't want to - then they can still enjoy it as escapist fantasy. Everybody wins, and this kind of plot is a longstanding tradition of Star Trek in all its incarnations.
The problem with "Angel One" is not that it doesn't mean well, because it does. It's not even that it's overly obvious, although it is. It's that, watching it as a woman, I could not help but spend the entire episode strongly aware that it had been written by a man and was intended for male consumption, and that it did not actually address sexism from a female perspective at all. I didn't even have to look the writer up to know that he was male (Patrick Barry, for the interested); the episode's inability to actually touch on the core problems of sexism made it blindingly clear that it wasn't being written by someone who was subject to those problems.
The issues are myriad and fundamental. Not a single one of these supposedly powerful, traditionally in-control women ever displays even a hint of powerful body language. They stand with their arms crossed defensively in front of them; they refuse to make eye contact when someone is telling them something they don't like; the directing even places them below the men whenever possible, so that even though they're towering a head above their male counterparts when standing, they still have to look coquettishely up from their seats to talk to the Enterprise crew. The episode explains to us that because the female of the species evolved as physically larger, stronger and more capable than the male, their society has naturally evolved with the females in charge of and providing for the males, but that supposed physical power is never present. When these women get angry, they speak sharply, but they never yell. When they physically confront men who they are angry with - furious, in fact - they never close the personal space gap, never attempt to physically intimidate them, and never use their height to their advantage. The episode tells us that they are used to being the physical powerhouses of their planet, but their actions consistently say otherwise.
This is what it looks like when the queen of the planet is mad at a dude. She's on the other side of the room, in a defensive posture, not even looking at him head-on.
And as a woman watching that, how can I describe my frustration? As a physically small, less-than-strong person who has spent my whole life knowing that men could throw me over their shoulders and there wouldn't be much I could do about it, who lives with the chilling knowledge that my comparative physical weakness means that I could be assaulted, battered, hurt at any time thanks to my place on the physical power scale, how can I describe how disheartening it was to watch women who were supposedly above and outside that fear behave exactly the way I do? They have no fear of being assaulted in their everyday lives; they know they're the pinnacle of physical power, that they can take care of themselves, that they're strong. Why are they averting their eyes, backing off from physical confrontations, curling up on themselves in unconscious fear when voices start to raise? Why are they exactly like me, when they have a physical freedom I can only imagine?
Star Trek isn't trying to say that women always act that way because that's just how women are. It's just not thinking about it.
Then there's the society of Angel One, which the writers take care to present as in every way parallel to our own problems with sexism (other than the weird clothes and transporter rooms, of course). Women wear clothing that covers most of their bodies and is sharply angled, suggesting power; men, who are considered delicate and are sexually objectified, wear sparkly colors and open-waisted shirts to show some skin. Look, say the writers - look at how the men are being treated like sexual objects, and the women are obviously in power! We understand your plight, modern women, and we are showing it to the world by turning it on its head!
But they aren't, not really. The episode's shorthand for the weaker, fairer sex is universally "feminine"; they demonstrate that the men of Angel One are the gentler and oppressed sex because they're beautiful and have elfin features, because they take careful care of their appearance for the pleasure of their women, because they spritz perfume on themselves from crystal atomizers and carefully shave their skin smooth. But there's no corresponding "masculinity" from the women of Angel One - they're also uniformly beautiful and desirable, with carefully teased hair, perfectly manicured nails, appreciatively spoken about by the male Enterprise crew from day one. If you're going to claim that they have no need to objectify themselves for the male eye because they've always been the dominant gender, why don't they have more utilitarian haircuts, different standards of attractiveness, more variation in body type than "Amazonian supermodel"? Why aren't they free to be whatever weight and shape they want, if they're really from a culture that hasn't brought them up to be obsessed with being attractive to a male? Why do they get up and spend half an hour on their hair every morning? If this episode is so set on showing that men are being forced to be sexualized and beautiful in this society, why are the women still also being held to that standard, despite their supposed role as the powerful and dominant sex that doesn't have to kowtow to such concerns?
Star Trek isn't trying to say that women are always valuable for their appearance, no matter where they come from, or that femininity is inherently weak while masculinity is inherently strong. It's just not thinking about it.
But beyond all that, the most frustrating aspect of the episode is the treatment of William Riker, Commander of the Enterprise and point guy for the encounter. As a man visiting this culture in which his sex is objectified, he is forced to adopt its visual customs, obey its powerful female rulers and suffer the same discrimination faced by the locals. The episode makes this clearest by forcing him to dress up like a local male, much to the amusement of his female crewmembers.
Riker, looking fabulous in sparkly pirate shirt and elaborate ear jewelry.
Riker is our representative for the suffering of those targeted by sexism - he is the everyman who has been dropped into a culture that doesn't respect or treat him fairly due to simple and barbaric sexism, and through him the audience is meant to see that such treatment is unfair and unwarranted. You can't treat Riker that way, the writers are telling us - so how can you justify treating women that way?
But the problem is that nobody treats Riker that way. Not really.
When the queen sends over his sparkly slave-boy outfit, he wears it cheerfully - not because he has to, of course, but because he wants to play nice with the natives. It's something he's done on a hundred different planets - and in fact he makes a point of telling us that, narrating times he's worn fur or feathers to appease other planetary leaders - and he's not in the slightest worried about it. It carries no symbolic value for him; it doesn't oppress him, doesn't force him to be part of the culture's sexist rhetoric against his gender, doesn't put him into a place where he sees himself being objectified and demeaned through no fault of his own. It's just a voluntary action he takes to be nice to everyone, and clearly not a requirement (especially since Data, the other male on the mission, doesn't bother doing the same and nobody says boo about it). Riker's not actually from Angel One, so putting on the genie outfit is just part of the job, a little costumed fun before he heads back home. It can't touch him.
Similarly, Riker consistently does basically everything wrong in this society, a fact that is occasionally highlighted by other native males being shocked by his behavior but that he is never called on, punished for, or even made aware of. He doesn't mimic the submissive behavior of the other males around the important female leaders of Angel One; he doesn't pay attention to restrictions on where he's allowed to be or how much he's allowed to say in official political discussions; he doesn't shave his chest, which as you can see above is of ape-like hairiness. These are all privileges, we are given to understand, that are denied (or at least socially unacceptable) for the native males, but because Riker isn't from Angel One, nobody tries to stop him, or even tell him he's being inappropriate, not even so much as to give him the stinkeye. He's playing the game of being one of the men of Angel One, but he isn't one. It can't touch him.
And the most disturbing part of Riker's use as a representative here comes when Beata, the queen of the planet, decides to basically call him up and demand he come over for sex. It's a good moment in some ways; as a dominant female who wields all the power and influence of her world, Beata is behaving just like a powerful male government figure or businessman on our world might, issuing orders disguised as invitations, having no concern or even consideration that her attentions might be unwanted. She "invites him over" to her room for "drinks and talking", and once he's there puts the moves on him in no uncertain terms, secure in her own power and attractiveness and aware, at least on some level, that he's not really diplomatically or socially free to say no to her without serious repercussions. It's a situation that has uncomfortably real parallels to the way women are often treated in the real world, where male power, prestige and money are often considered sufficient to buy sexual affection, and where the leverage of such social influence all too often happens in a very calculated manner. Beata's misbehavior is spot on for the kind of illumination that this episode is aiming for.
But the problem is once again Riker - because, as usual, nothing touches him. Riker isn't from Angel One; he happens to think Beata is hot, has been wanting to bang her basically since he got here anyway, and makes it clear through rakish smiles, rogueish eyebrow-cocking and innuendo to his crew that he may be "obligated" to go "entertain" Beata, but that just sounds like a good old date to him. All the implied power imbalance and loss of control of the situation is rendered pointless and powerless, because it has no effect on Riker, who wanted to go do that anyway. He isn't a man being forced into an uncomfortable sexual situation thanks to his lack of social power; he's a man who is just as powerful and in control of himself and his situation as ever, and who is perfectly happy to go have some nice consensual sex as part of the evening's recreation. He even brings Beata a present for the festivities, because why not make sure we keep that age-old shorthand of thanking a woman for her sexual favors with gifts?
Riker's not from Angel One. He's just a visitor. Their sexism is an annoyance that doesn't bother him, can't oppress him and has no control over his life. He can get occasionally irritated about it when he feels like they're oppressing their people too much, but that oppression can never reach him. He's just a visitor here, and tomorrow he'll be back where none of this silliness has any kind of effect on anyone.
But I'm not a visitor in my world. I, and every other woman, have to live here every day. We have to live with the knowledge that speaking up in socially unacceptable situations will result in backlash and censure, that dressing up to look nice for men isn't just optional but a fact of life that we have to either conform to or suffer the immediate rake of scorn and disapproval, that complaining about the system's unfairness will result in verbal or even physical attacks against us, and that sexual attention can and will be pointed in our direction when we don't want it and used as a weapon against us. If, like Riker, I decided not to shave, my husband would immediately treat me as less attractive and my society at large would decide that I was lazy, disgusting, or just doing it for attention. If, like Riker, I was called upon with obvious sexual intent by a powerful man in my life, I would be called a whore.
I don't get to go home to the sexism-free United Federation of Planets tomorrow. I'm not a visitor. I live on Angel One, and I can never leave. Riker can't represent me or anyone like me.
And Star Trek isn't trying to say that womens' lot isn't that bad, that they probably actually enjoy it or that it's something they have no need to complain about and that isn't really a problem at its root level. It's just not thinking about it.
I don't really expect a lot more out of TNG, so don't mistake me for complaining about the episode's failures. It was made in 1987, nearly two and a half decades ago (hello everyone on my friends list did I just make you feel super old?), and we've come some way since then. The episode truly has noble intentions, no matter what its accidental subtext: its message is that sexism is wrong, and further that marginalization of any class of people is wrong, no matter why you're doing it or what evolutionary imperative you think is behind it, and that eventually a mature society evolves out of it. The writer is doing the best he can with the tools he has to try to get that message across.
The frustration, depression, and failures of the episode are not because of the writer, nor the fault of the actors or crew. They are all adults who were born in the fifties and sixties, who have grown up in a culture of sexism that is as inescapably ingrained in them as their own identities. The actresses who play the women of Angel One are not bad actresses who don't know how to portray powerful women, and they're not subversive anti-feminists who are trying to make the characters look bad; they're just using the natural body language and social conventions of the time in which they live, which is all anyone could expect from them. The writer who has failed so miserably to put Riker into the role of a woman is not intentionally trying to make light of the struggles of women in a sexist society, nor is he a bad writer who doesn't understand how to make a valid point; but he, too, has grown up in a society that does not give him a clear window into what life is like for women, even the women he is closest to, and as a result his attempts to portray it are inherently and inescapably flawed. Angel One is a very damaged portrait of the dangers, struggles and pains of a sexist society, but it is that precisely because it was created by such a society. The failures of the episode illustrate its point more clearly than its plot and platitudes ever could.
And that's why I love Star Trek, really, in all of its incarnations, from sixties special effects to the recent time-universe-bending feature film shenanigans: it always tries. Sometimes it fails to say something interesting, sometimes it accidentally contradicts itself, sometimes it hits the message too hard and just ends up irritating its audience, but it always tries. It always wants to say something to its viewers; it uses the wide, wild vista of science fiction to show all the foibles and idiosyncracies of mankind on a stage where their parts are played by aliens in rubber masks and bodysuits, and in doing so tells people about themselves in no uncertain terms. Its core premise - that of a future civilization of humanity in which everyone is equal, law and order keep lives happy and sane, and no one wants for basic needs or is left unhelped by their fellow man - is the kind of science fiction utopia that everyone can dream about, no matter what their religious, political or social beliefs. It's a show that constantly says, see: racism, sexism, religious discrimination, fascism, violence, these things are wrong. When we hurt one another, we are as ugly as the alien monsters on your screen. Someday, maybe we can stop hurting each other.
So I'm not angry about "Angel One", which tried so desperately to rise above sexism and instead found itself too hopelessly mired in its muck to escape. I love it, for existing, for saying something, for trying. I love that the Star Trek franchise still continues on, and still tries to make these kinds of statements, to hold up its futuristic mirror for viewers to show us the flaws in ourselves. I love that every successive version of it, even if it leaves behind my most beloved characters, even if it is written by less talented writers or helmed by a different vision, shows the signs of progress and change. Star Trek has existed for almost half a century, and its change over time parallels our change as a society. The growth and evolution of human society is the franchise's most core theme, and it embodies it even as it talks about it.
I live on Angel One. I can never leave. It's hard to explain Angel One to anyone who doesn't live here. But the existence of attempts like this to look through a window and see what it's like, to hold it up for the examination of people who may never have seen it before, to say, "This is not all right, and we should all know that," always reminds me that there's hope for residents of the place after all. Every time we try, we succeed a little more. Every time we talk about it, we understand one another a little more.
Someday, we'll build a spaceship and leave Angel One.