Let’s face it: Captain James Tiberius Kirk has a reputation as a guy who will sleep with anything female—making him, in the pantheon of Star Trek, one of the least likable characters. In one of the trailers for Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk confusedly says, “I have a reputation?” Yes you do, Kirk. And it isn’t a good one! And whether he’s in his Shatner or Pine guises, he is a difficult character to nail down in terms of cultural appeal. Does his “sluttiness” make him a creep? Do we even like this guy? And if we don’t, how do our brains find ways of continuing to root for him?
Growing up, my mom never liked Captain Kirk, dismissing his relevance on Star Trek as being “jerky.” Like me, her favorite character on the old show was Spock, while my father contended Kirk was “the best.” This is because, to me, James T. Kirk comes off a lot like someone’s awkward-joke-making dad. My dad was the sort of person who subscribed to Playboy and urged me to watch Barbarella at a young age. He wasn’t creepy per se, but he did identify with the skirt-chasing aspect of old-school Captain Kirk.
Now, putting overcompensating-for-his-attraction-to-Spock theories aside for a second, let’s think about what makes Kirk a difficult scoundrel as opposed to say, an acceptable, sexy scoundrel like Han Solo. Sure, both Han and Kirk are masters at “negging” women to get what they want, but if we think about which guy seems more romantic, it’s Han Solo every time. The easy explanation for this is: Kirk is a total jerk. But what do we mean by “jerk?”
A lot of folks complained that in 2009, Chris Pine played Captain Kirk like “a frat boy,” which although a little harsh, is probably accurate. What this criticism misses is how Pine’s fratty portrayal of Kirk is fairly accurate to what the character is all about. While a stereotypical frat boy draws a sense of entitlement from a club he’s part of, James Kirk draws a sense of entitlement for seemingly no reason. This is why he comes across as a jerk. No one understands why this guy is talking and/or getting laid.
Taking the near-universal approval of Han Solo as a rubric a little further, another reason Kirk’s character isn’t as immediately charming as Han’s is because he’s a player. Han Solo, as far was we know, is a one-woman man. He’s in love with Princess Leia, so any of his borderline-sexist flirting gets a little bit of a pass. We say he’s more charming but that’s mostly because we don’t see Han being openly sleazy to get what he wants.
In the original series, Kirk frequently uses sex to ensure a more favorable outcome for him and/or his crew. This isn’t to say he doesn’t enjoy it, it’s simply that it’s depicted more often. In order to get information or get out of a bad situation, Captain Kirk seduces women in “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “A Wink of an Eye,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “By Any Other Name,” and on and on. In a deleted scene from Star Trek 2009, it was to be revealed that the green Orion lady Kirk was sleeping with helped him reprogram the Kobayashi Maru simulator. Does this mean that in regards to Kirk we should adopt a “don’t hate the playa’, hate the game,” attitude?
Well, that’s probably one way we figure out how to root for Captain Kirk. In The Undiscovered Country, an exasperated Bones asks “What is it with you?” after Iman’s female shapeshifter character latches onto Kirk. It’s not that Kirk ASKS to be in these situations, it’s just that once he is, he’ll respond with the skill set he has...which is often using his sexuality to get what he wants.
This is where the paradox of Kirk’s likability is most evident. In a supposedly evolved future, where poverty is gone, class warfare doesn’t exist, and people aren’t racist and sexist anymore, Kirk still gets what he wants by being really, really pushy. He’s not a great manager of people. From Picard to Sisko to Janeway to Archer, all the Trek captains are nicer to their staff. Kirk is more of a tyrant. Kirk isn’t just a jerk because we’re slut-shaming him, but also because that sort of attitude comes across in his managerial style. There’s little nuance for Kirk. He’s getting what he wants as quickly and as dirty as possible.
The classic Star Trek films were aware of this, because as Kirk gets older he’s confronted with the knowledge that this sort of behavior isn’t “cute” anymore. One of the reasons we all love The Wrath of Khan so much is because it’s truly the first time James Kirk admits what an asshole he’s been his whole life. All of his arrogant mistakes come to bite him in the ass in this story; culminating in a scene in which Kirk sits around having a drink with his estranged son, lamenting how screwed up his life is. Wrath also finds Kirk saying “I did nothing!” in response to Sulu’s praise of everyone narrowly avoiding death. Here, we realize Kirk has adopted a fake-it-until-you-make-it philosophy his entire life, and once he is no longer a young man, this freaks him out big time.
And it’s here where the bizarre key to understanding how to root for Captain Kirk really emerges. If we like Kirk, it’s because Kirk fights the system over and over and over again, and he usually wins. He cheats the rules of society, the military, governments, and randomly tells entire cultures that their whole way of life is screwed up. Kirk wants everyone to be just as screwed up and internally confused as he is, and as a result is a very realistic person. Everyone projects their own worldview onto everyone else to an extent, and Kirk is no different. In “A Taste of Armageddon,” Kirk defines enlightenment as simply saying “I won’t kill…today!” He flippantly boils down civilization and peace to weird utilitarian choice. Kirk doesn’t have time for too much anthropological meditation on where we’ve come from and where we’re going. He wants solutions and he wants them now.
In Star Trek 2009, Kirk gets into an awesome screaming match with Spock which leads Spock to eject him from the ship. In a conservative move, Spock wants to the Enterprise to high-tail it away from Nero and rendezvous with the rest of the fleet, while Kirk objects to this “confab,” and freaks the fuck out on Spock. And here is why we can figure out how to root for Kirk: he’s brave enough to be an asshole when he thinks he’s right. And, because of a weird intuition that Kirk possesses, he frequently is right and is the only person willing to say it.
Being right and being pushy about it is often not a popular position for anyone. But James Tiberius Kirk doesn’t care about being popular. He’s not political, he has very little restraint, and he’s willing to piss people off to get his point across. He’s a humanist barbarian, but despite what we might think about him, he generally does it because he cares. The passion of James Kirk is how we sift through his troublesome personality and find a thing to root for. And when that passion expresses itself sexually, we might percieve Kirk as a little slutty, but it doesn’t mean he can’t be a hero.
Kirk’s jerkiness and promiscuity might not make him the most likeable character in Star Trek, but they do make him fairly realistic. Ego-driven people who essentially mean well actually exist in real life. In a universe full of warp drives, pointy ears, and endless gizmos, it’s important to have something real. And it doesn’t get more real than Kirk.
Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and doesn’t believe in the no-win scenario.