When I saw Tasha Yar for the first time, I was four years old, sitting on the couch with my parents, watching re-runs of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Aggressive, authoritative, trusted and respected—not to mention the fact that she rocked that floppy blonde crew cut—Tasha had an effect on me that I could not have understood at the time of our first meeting. I enjoyed Star Trek as a child because it was adventurous; its depictions of space travel filled me with awe. But even then it was teaching me the power of womanhood.
The depictions of women on The Next Generation are problematic in some ways, of course. After Tasha’s death, the two lead females, Doctor Crusher and Counselor Troi, occupy strictly nurturing roles. Still, Crusher is a scientist at heart, a field that even now women have difficulty breaking into. In the season six episode “Suspicions,” Crusher exudes confidence, staking her career on the strength of her convictions. It is not only her dedication to science that motivates her to keep investigating the suspicious death of a visiting scientist but her dedication to the truth—she has nothing to prove but the facts. And by the time the episode ends and she’s squaring off with the scheming villain in a shuttlecraft, you find yourself wondering how she managed to do it all: solve a murder, reveal a new invention, and engage in intense hand to hand combat.
As for Deanna Troi, her obnoxiously stereotypical chocolate addiction aside, her role on the ship is much more than a cushy job as the onboard babe. Troi teaches the importance of expressing and embracing emotions. No displays of masculine bravado could outweigh Troi’s emphasis on listening to emotions in a contentious situation. She taught the people around her—not just the men— that our emotional lives are worth nurturing, that those aspects of our personalities aren’t just “feminine,” but human.
Subversive women are the norm in the universe of TNG. Take Lursa and B’ehtor, the sisters who try to take over the Klingon High Council after the death of their brother Duras at the hands of Worf. The pair manipulate their misogynist system of government to maintain their family legacy. They thrive despite living in a culture that oppresses women, and even though they use their wits to achieve immoral ends, Lursa and B’ehtor have agency over their fates. Plus, the fact they tried to seduce both Captain Picard and Worf takes some guts.
The women of TNG are survivors. They endure. Even in memory, Tasha still exists on the bridge of the ship. Picard and Riker stand front and center, always in the spotlight, but the women of the Enterprise know that power doesn’t always mean who’s got the biggest chair in the room. More importantly than that, they know that power is just a word. What really matters are actions. I can’t help but think of the scene at the end of the season five episode “Violations” when an alien telepath attempts to rape Counselor Troi. After expertly repelling his attack with a series of kicks to the groin she grabs her computer from her desk and bashes him in the side of the head with the device. Without advocating for violence (we already have Worf to do that) the scene makes me want to stand up in my chair and give Troi a round of applause. We already know that she’s in touch with her emotions, but in a moment such as that one, she is given dimension, another side to a character that could have been a flat and empty caricature of a woman.
That the women of Star Trek could take care of themselves emotionally and physically without a man swooping in for the big rescue seemed like a revelation then and it still does now. Katherine Pulaski, the Chief Medical Officer who replaces Doctor Crusher for season two embodied the strength of character inherent to the female protagonists on TNG. The stubborn, difficult to work with, even unlikeable, Dr. Pulaski was also a courageous example of female power in a male dominated field. She often challenged Captain Picard, voiced her opinion openly, and wasn’t afraid to take risks even when they put her life in jeopardy. It was her boldness that always astounded me. Pulaski knew herself and wasn’t willing to compromise that for any person, no matter the number of insignias on his uniform or the title of his office. The lesson is an important one: that fear of offending someone who holds power shouldn’t stop a woman from employing her right to freedom of expression, to follow the path she cut out for herself.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s leading ladies didn’t want to be part of some boy’s club, where men take command and make the rules. Instead of yearning for acceptance, they wanted to kick down the doors of the clubhouse and start their own crew. Watching them as a little girl showed me the power of that statement as I grew into an adult: What matters as a women isn’t that men approve of your intentions, it’s that you have the courage to uphold your beliefs even if they don’t.