James Kirk: Starship captain, breaker of rules, brilliant gambler (when he creates the game). Drinker of Romulan ale. Chaser of skirts.
Spock: First Vulcan in Starfleet, student of logic, player of the Vulcan harp. Purveyor of reason over emotionality. Respectful gentleman.
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:
Captain 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.
Kirk’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.
I 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.
“The 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.