Star Trek: Voyager is my favorite Star Trek series. Prompted in part by my own recent rewatch of the series and in part by this great piece on Princess Leia, I’d like to take a moment to talk about Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Janeway is my favorite Star Trek captain. And while I would typically content myself with liking what I like quietly and leaving each to their own, in this particular case I feel the opinion needs defending. I think fandom should give Janeway a break.
Criticism of Voyager and of Janeway herself ranges from Tor.com staff writer Ryan Britt’s relatively mild declaration that it is “the SECOND most hated Star Trek show of them all” to claims that Janeway “destroyed Star Trek.” On fan sites, Janeway consistently tops polls of the worst Star Trek captain (here are some quick examples, with plenty of criticism as you scroll on down). Even Google’s caught on: one of the related searches for “worst star trek captain” is “captain janeway worst.” Thankfully the news isn’t all bad, though ocasionally things written in defense of Janeway use her as more of a joke than a leader.
On the whole, reactions to Janeway tend to be skeptical and dismissive, with much of the criticism headed into territory that is vitriolic or downright sexist.
Perhaps my “favorite” (snark quotes) piece of criticism of her, at the moment:
“What they needed was a take charge, dynamic female Captain, what they gave us was a moralizing, overly-liberal pushover all too willing to throw her crew’s life away for no reason at all if it made her seem superior and at least as interested in prancing around in frilly dresses on the holodeck as she is in leading her crew.” (source)
Wait, Janeway wears frilly dresses? Wait, you mean Janeway was a girl under that uniform? Well hold the presses, folks, we didn’t realize that there was a danger of a vagina-afflicted person being in charge around here.
This level of negativity in criticism makes me wonder if we even watched the same show. I saw a complicated, capable, gutsy leader who made hard decisions for seven seasons. What did you see?
Voyager originally aired when I was 12 and ran through the year I graduated from high school. Which means, in essence, that I grew up watching it. More than any other regularly scheduled media, Voyager defined what I loved and knew in television as a young adult.
Over and over again in my recent rewatch, I stopped to admire Janeway. I find myself deeply grateful that I grew up with her character in my life, and somewhat surprised that I had forgotten how fantastic she is.
Janeway is a strong female character to rock all strong female characters: A leader who is female-gendered, in touch with her sense of gender, and yet invested with a non-gendered position of highest responsibility which she executes with capability and compassion.
And in the entire series of Voyager, her ability to lead because she is female is literally questioned twice. Once by Q, whom we expect to be a gigantic space-jerk as a matter of course, and again by the Kazon, an alien species painted for the most part as unadvanced and savage. Her gender is never an issue with her crew, and is basically ignored by the show as completely irrelevant in regards to her capability as a leader.
This is why I think Voyager is fantastic, and why I think Janeway is an amazing character; because the show chooses to deal with the question of a female captain by not making it a question.
That is radical. Radical, and rare. Can anyone name another show with a female lead who is first in command, extremely capable, not defined by her gender, and does not need to defend her abilities or prove herself because she happens to be a woman?
I cannot think of another female character in sc-fi/fantasy television who accomplishes this. Can you? This is a serious question; I haven’t seen everything there is to see, and I’d love it if I could put another unquestioned, badass female (or a gender other than male) leader on my list. Zoe Washburne, Buffy Summer,s and Laura Roslin, sadly, do not make this cut; Zoe is second-in-command, Buffy and Laura both deal with gendered criticism constantly. (By the way, for a fantastic analysis of these characters, Janeway’s gender and the ways in which Janeway is unique as a female leader, I highly recommend you read Anita Sarkesian’s thesis.) As per the Princess Leia link above, delving into movies and other media makes this a slightly easier question...but only slightly.
So why doesn’t Janeway get a place on every top 10 list for great female characters? Is it because she’s a Star Trek captain? Because she’s weighed down as a character by flaws in the show itself?
My experience within Star Trek fandom is that we have a tendency to consider each series primarily through the character of its captain, rendering the remaining characters, the plot and the premise secondary to the personality in the big chair. Voyager as a show undeniably has issues: its premise confines it to repetition, it often covers ground that was touched upon in TNG rather than breaking into new territory, and it has its fair share of episodes that are spectacularly bad. But it would be difficult to argue that TOS and TNG were not also repetitive and occasionally terrible, and while Voyager does rely heavily upon the shows that came before it, it also breaks ground into new ideas. More critically, it doesn’t make much sense to hang the burdens of occasionally poor show writing on Janeway’s shoulders.
As I said, Janeway is rare. Perhaps one of a kind. Her uniqueness as a representation of leadership is more important to me than the nuances of comparing her actions meticulously, episode by episode, to the men who have held similar roles. I struggle to come up with another fictional female character in my life who is so precisely what I would want to be, the type of character I’m glad my parents showed me, and the type of character I would encourage my hypothetical daughter to love.
Here’s what I’m saying. It’s not that I think you should necessarily agree with me that Janeway is the best Star Trek captain. I am not interested in convincing others to fall in line with my particular form of nerd evangelism. I know Picard is a badass and that in a blow-by-blow analysis of their leadership abilities we’d probably all talk ourselves hoarse, or maybe overload from rampant fandom particles.
It is also not that I think the character of Janeway is above criticism. No character is above criticism. Janeway has her share of ridiculous moments, short-sighted decision making, and poor choices in leadership, just as Kirk, for example, has his share of ridiculous moments, short-sighted decision making, and poor choices in leadership.
It is that to break down, dismiss or belittle the character of Janeway is not simply to break down a character. It is to break down, dismiss or belittle a woman in a radical leadership role. And maybe, just maybe, it is more important to support strong female characters than it is to rank Star Trek captains.
It is that to say Voyager is the second worst Star Trek series is to ignore that, from a feminist perspective, Voyager is by far the best Star Trek series.
It seems that many of my communities are paying particular attention to gender right now, and the ways in which women are treated badly as a matter of course. So perhaps this is a good time to think about fictional worlds that don’t have sexism baked in. Perhaps it is also a good time to point out that casual criticisms of female characters, especially criticisms concerning emotions, decision-making, leadership ability, and work/life balance (ugh) always come with the hint of “because she’s a woman” tacked on the end. But if that tone is making you feel a little sick and tired, hey, you could always watch some Voyager.
Personally, I don’t particularly want Amazonian warriors or supermodels with gadgets and leather catsuits as role models for women and girls like myself in sci-fi media. I want women, who just happen to be women, who do the exact same job a man would do in their place, and who don’t have to constantly defend their choices or techniques because of their gender—because nobody in their world gives a damn about their gender.