Mon
May 9 2011 5:03pm
Give Kirk A Break—Spock’s the One Putting Women Back in the Kitchen

Kirk and Yeoman RandJames Kirk: Starship captain, breaker of rules, brilliant gambler (when he creates the game). Drinker of Romulan ale. Chaser of skirts.

Feminist.

Spock: First Vulcan in Starfleet, student of logic, player of the Vulcan harp. Purveyor of reason over emotionality. Respectful gentleman.

Sexist.

Confused yet? Most people think I’m crazy when I bring this up—or at least tell me that I’ve been watching a different show. In the interest of making this perfectly clear, I am not talking about the meta context of Star Trek. The original series was created in the 1960s and sexism is obvious across the board: that the studio wouldn’t accept the female first officer from the original pilot, the mini-skirt uniforms, the fact that you can count on less than one hand the number of times a woman gets to fight, or the fact that most women on board the Enterprise are lower-ranking officers. That’s all without getting into how many alien chicks Captain Kirk has introduced to “the ways of Earth men.” So, yes, original Trek is sexist by virtue of its time.

But Captain Kirk is not.

How can I possibly defend a guy who, as I have already pointed out, sows wild oats on every planet where the Federation takes tea with no sign of stopping? Let’s take a look at the in-universe context:

Give Kirk A Break. Spocks the One Putting Women Back in the KitchenCaptain Kirk does seduce quite a few women throughout his career. More than quite a few. Yet I’m always surprised that few people seem to notice the rule of thumb in those situations; Kirk has never been seen seducing a woman who he has no reason to seduce. Specifically, he only gets cozy with ladies who are in some way responsible for the peril or imprisonment of himself, his crew and his ship. Two perfect examples of this are in “Catspaw” and “Wink of an Eye.” Both Sylvia and Deela threaten the Enterprise, and Kirk attempts (unsuccessfully for the first, and very successfully for the second) to win them over as a form of distraction while he wheedles information out of them.

This happens over and over again on the show. I suppose you could argue that Kirk could find a more creative means of intriguing women to get their guard down, but let’s be honest—it works for him. And he’s got no reason to change what works. It’s hard enough being a starship captain as it is.

While some people might interpret that as outright sexism, it is important to remember that Kirk is a 23rd century guy. He has 23rd century ideas, which—according to Gene Roddenberry—tout equality, tolerance and respect. If anything, it’s a level playing field: Kirk would likely expect a woman in his trapped position to do the same thing for her ship or crew, provided that she felt confident with it. (To that affect, they actually have Uhura do the same thing in Star Trek V as a way of distracting a group of men.) Assuming that Kirk thinks little of women, that he finds them gullible or weak for falling for his charm and big brown eyes is just that—an assumption.

Give Kirk A Break. Spocks the One Putting Women Back in the KitchenKirk’s attitude toward the women he falls in love with are an indication of the exact opposite, in fact. Throughout the series we watch Kirk fall in love with intelligent, strong-willed, unrelenting women. Edith Keeler orders him around her basement and he doesn’t blink an eye. Rayna is undoubtedly smarter than he is, yet Kirk is impressed, not threatened by her. In The Wrath of Khan, we find out about Carol Marcus, a brilliant scientist who is more than capable of going head to head with then-Admiral Kirk. She clearly broke his heart, but he gave her the space she demanded, even at the expense of a relationship with his own son. He still respects Carol Marcus and probably still loves her. That is simply not the attitude of a man who thinks that women are somehow limited or less powerful.

It’s true that because William Shatner has a specific sort of delivery that some people find off-putting, there will always be an insistence that Kirk is just out for another notch in his bedpost. But frankly, all the slow smiles and soft intonations are reserved for Spock and Dr. McCoy just as often as they’re used on the ladies. At that point I would start calling it a character trait rather than a specific predatory response to women.

Which brings me to the other side of this coin (or other half of the sandwich, whichever one makes you happier)—everyone’s favorite First Officer and darling of the Trek universe, Mr. Spock.

Give Kirk A Break. Spocks the One Putting Women Back in the KitchenI feel I should begin this next bit with a disclaimer: I adore Spock. He was arguably my first actual crush (that never really faded) as a kid and one of my favorite science fiction characters of all time, easily. That said, whenever he comes in contact with a person of the female persuasion, his recorded mantra should play thusly—Stop Being Such A Hysterical Woman.

It’s not his fault, really. Spock grew up on a planet where nearly everyone was devoid of emotion, the one exception being his human mother, Amanda Grayson. So picture this scenario: you live in a place where emotion is something to be ashamed of and oppressed, and the woman who is raising you is the most emotional, irrational person you have ever encountered. If you don’t think that’s going to color the way you view women in general… well, it is. There’s just no two ways about it. Spock may appreciate his mother, love her (despite the fact that it is an unacceptable human emotion), but he is miles away from comprehending her.

Give Kirk A Break. Spocks the One Putting Women Back in the KitchenThe Journey to Babel” illustrates this dynamic between Spock and Amanda exactingly. He spends most of the episode aggravated at his mother’s inability to be satisfied with her stoic husband and son, confused by her lack of understanding for the logical way of life that she had committed herself to a long time ago by marrying Sarek. When all has been resolved in the episode and Amanda is scolding her family for their stubbornness, we are treated to this quip between Spock and his father:

Spock: Emotional, isn’t she?
Sarek: She has always been that way.

That’s the way they handle someone overcoming her grief at fearing that she’d lose both her husband and her son? Nice, guys.

Then there’s “Wolf in the Fold,” a memorable story featuring an alien that turns out to be Jack the Ripper, and McCoy saving the day by essentially giving the whole crew laughing gas. (If you haven’t watched, please do. Oh, please do.) This is also the episode where Spock says, outright, that women are more prone to terror than men. That’s right, he actually makes the claim—the Chief Science Officer of the Enterprise, through his collective scientific knowledge and incredible brain computing capacity has determined that women feel fear more keenly than men do. This is his reasoning for why Jack-the-Ripper-the-Alien only murders women. Or, to use his words exactly: “And I suspect [the alien] prays on women because women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.”

To quote the ship’s computer…I have no words. Or at least, that is what the ship’s computer would have said if Spock had attempted to put that stunning hypothesis to its databanks.

But it gets better! In the episode “The Enemy Within” (the one famed for Shatner’s brilliant cry of “I AM CAPTAIN KIRK!”), Kirk is split in two: one side being the animalistic, violent half, the other being the civilized, compassionate half. It’s all very Jekyll and Hyde, and also includes the near-rape of Yeoman Janice Rand by Evil Kirk. At the end of the episode, Spock signs off on some PADD she brings him and offers this passing remark (it’s at 8:20):

Wait…did Spock just tease a woman who had almost been raped by her commanding officer? Did he just suggest with a wink and a nudge that she secretly liked the take-all caveman version of the captain? Am I missing something here?

While you can make any number of excuses for this scene—the show was gaining its footing in those early episodes and Spock’s character was still in development, those sorts of comments were not as inflammatory back then as they are today—within canon, Spock clearly has some issues. Much as I love him, his attitude toward women makes him out to be pretty unfair to them at least half of the time. Later on in life, Spock appears to achieve a level of balance that would prevent this sort of blatant sexism, but it’s clear that younger Spock had a little growing up to do.

This issue can be argued back and forth until the end of time, but I do hope it gives some people pause now. The next time someone rails on Kirk as a conqueror of women, I hope that someone defends him—Kirk’s a romantic in more ways than one and it’s about time he got a little credit for it.  Conversely, it might be time for everyone to tell Spock to keep his opinions on terror and evil captains to himself.


Emily Asher-Perrin would make Spock some plomeek soup to cheer him up...but he’d probably just throw the bowl at her. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

13 comments
rob mcCathy
1. roblewmac
after puberty I found it a little hard to blame Kirk for a little horniness. He's in DEEP space five years and as a decent guy he does'nt want to bed women under his command. he's LONELY for crying out loud.
Delos Rifenburgh
2. KaijuGamer
Also, it is worth noting that Kirk has never gone after any woman that hasn't wanted to be gone after. At least that is how my memory recalls it. Apologies if I misremember. Spock is also my favorite character, but Kirk is a very, very close second.
Noneo Yourbusiness
3. Longtimefan
Spock has only one fundimental problem, he was written by humans. :)

He is still my favorite character even when the writers seem to misunderstand what a logical reaction would be to a situation.
B T
4. amphibian
Some of my favorite Star Trek related things is seeing fans break down exactly how many women Kirk actually had intimacy with during the series and movie.

Essentially it's three or four on-screen during the television series, four or five old flames/women from previous romantic relationships who show up later and some "maybes". Not all that womanizing for a single, wealthy starship captain who travels a ton. I think you're right about Kirk being very respectful, as he's always been respectful of women's wishes - including leaving his own son behind at a space station to be raised by his ex who was boy's mother.

I think Picard has had a similar amount of romantic moments on TNG - although way less compelled kissing occurred.
Ashley McGee
5. AshleyMcGee
Being a child of the eighties, I did not get a chance to experience the original Star Trek in context. With that school of thought in mind, its very interesting to go back and deconstruct the gender roles in the original series. I knew about the non-female high ranking officers and the fact that Uhura was the only black character until Lavar Burton, but I had no idea Spock's early character was so blatantly cheavanistic. His background notwithstanding, one has to take into account the writing behind Spock's character. The character is set up for that attitude, though in regards to his changes later on, he certainly is the most dynamic character, able to rise above such a petty characterization. Where Jim Kirk is consistant throughout, Spock actually demonstrates a kind of evolution. I hope to explore this further as I get more familiar with the original series.
Pendard
6. Pendard
I can't believe you didn't mention Spock's attitude towards Nurse Chapel in "Amok Time." She tries to bring him some soup and he throws the bowl at her head and sends her running out of his quarters. Then when Kirk asks why he did it, he says it's undignified for a woman to serve a man who isn't hers. Basically, he just called her a slut for bringing him a bowl of soup!

What a douche! :-)
Pendard
7. Carapace
I got hooked on Trek in the 80s and 90s- bless syndication forever- and liked Kirk largely because he seemed so relaxed about women. He didn't treat them like they needed to be protected from ooh scary men and their sex drives, or somehow lost value if they had sex drives too. And he didn't get all sulky when he got shot down (as happens, not infrequently)- he'd just grin and get on with life. I still wish more people would be that melllow about the whole thing.

Kirk's behavior is pretty well only sexist if the sex is still seen as a demeaning dirty thing perpetrated by one person on another. If it's just something fun adults can do together, and that's certainly how he acts, then he's doing nothing more than inviting his favored playmates into the game.
j p
8. sps49
Hum.

I don't disagree with the points raised about then-fangirl's dream Spock.

The horndog reputation of Kirk you perpetuate is jut not founded onscreen. You even appear to partly realize this, but "common knowledge" gets in the way. And for amphibian @4- my count is 2 (Deela and Drusilla).

Miniskirts in the 60s are obvious sexism? Nichelle Nichols is on record (Shatner's Star Trek Memories, iirc) replying that the skorts were in fact empowering. I don't recall anyone saying that sexist pig males put all those First World ladies in those tiny skirts.

AshleyMcGee @5-

Uhura was the only black regular cast member, not the only black character. I do recall Doctor M'Benga, at least one admiral, and various one-shot crew members, extras, and a salt vampire impersonation. Picky, I know, but there you go.
Pendard
10. Jaws
This almost sounds like the debate over the proposed cover for Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove (from memory):
NIGEL: What's wrong with sexy?
DAVID: Sexist, not sexy. They said it's too sexist.

Because, after all, Kirk is not a 23d-century man; he's a relatively enlightened 1960s man in a 23d-century world (and reading the writer's guide, even for the first season of ST:TOS, makes that abundantly clear).
Pendard
11. Bill__
I don't blame the author for repeating the myth that the studio wouldn't accept a female XO of the Enterprise, but it has to be corrected. The studio and the network were perfectly fine with, even supportive of having a woman as second-in-command of the starship Enterprise. What they were opposed to was Gene Roddenberry casting his extra-marital girlfriend, herself not a well-known actress, in such a prominent role.

Gene Roddenberry was not afraid of lying to make himself look better; every fan of the first Star Trek series should read Inside Star Trek for an entertaining and insightful retrospective on the production of the show.

That said, I really liked this article; I hadn't considered Spock in this light before, and I appreciate every effort to knock down the refrain of "lol Kirk's just a big horndog, am i rite??" that is too common.
Pendard
12. K__R___I
I appreciate the article--I've tried to make this point as well. I also seem to remember Spock participating in a fight to the death for a woman he then rejects. He's a good illustration of "seemingly rational until . . . " in that lurking Western 50s male kind of way. And perhaps those conflicts were the point. (I agree with the commenter-- the writing for Spock has been frequently abysmal). As for growing, Kirk doesn't need to--he's balanced, in the groove, in a state of grace, which happens to make a sturdy leader if he has a foil. I'm pretty sure that was a point. Thanks again. And yeah, still adore Spock anyway.

P.S. On Miniskirts: A mini is empowering if you choose it. If not, and your male coworkers are wearing trousers, and trousers are more practical for work, and you're in a chilly starship, a miniskirt requirement serves one purpose: emphasize difference. You can go ahead and imagine the other purposes.
j p
13. sps49
K_R_I @12-

They were on a hot soundstage.

In the real life USN, skirts are a mandated part of certain uniforms for females but, with the plethora of open ladders ("stairs") aboard ship, they are not practical to work in. Shore duty, maybe, but if you never go to sea, you may as well join the Chair Force.

Minis were being chosen by a lot of people at the time.
Pendard
14. Gnome Chomsky
This article was - to borrow a phrase from Mr. Spock - fascinating. However by trying to frame it through the lens of feminism the argument itself became rather strained.

While I can go along with the author's relatively refreshing viewpoint of Captain Kirk, I disagree wholeheartedly with the argument of Spock as a sexist.

Case in point: your refer to Spock's exchange with Sarek regarding his mother. This is not sexist. It has nothing to do with her gender. It has everything to do with her being human and lacking Vulcan training in logic.

Simply put: even other Vulcan females would feel the same way about Spock's mother.

Indeed, if Spock was guilty of anything it is for holding his own mother up to the same standards that he would expect of anyone be they male or female - or - human or Vulcan. This is evidenced by the fact that Spock has made similarly dry quips about Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy.

So the question begs to be asked: why would you expect Spock to treat his mother differently? Because she's his mother? Because she's a woman?

If so, doesn't this sentiment betray one of the fundamental tenets of feminism?

One final point regarding Wolf in the Fold: While the crude dialogue does reflect the kind 60s values that you highlight earlier in the essay, it is not entirely off the mark either. Neurologically women are - indeed - wired differently than men, perhaps a consequence of evolution (along with environment). It's been known that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety disorders compared to men.

And while this doesn't speak to the exact intensity of the fear/anxiety that Spock refers to (perhaps he just misspoke or the writers dumbed it down) it doesn't mean it's based on sexist notions of female fragility but rather in scientific evidence.

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