Where to begin? For quite some time, I have wanted to embark upon the tasking project of examining female characters across the science fiction and fantasy realms, to see what these genres have given us and how they have changed their portrayal of women over the years. But where on earth (or Middle-earth, or in the air, or the farthest reaches of space) was the right place to start? Suddenly, out of nowhere, a little voice sounded in my ear. I could distinctly hear the words—
“Hailing frequencies open, sir.”
How could I overlook something so obvious? There are not just one, but two distinct portrayals of Lieutenant Uhura to choose from, both of them a product of their respective times and the subject of a great deal of criticism. Clearly, she was the perfect place to begin.
In the interest of being perfectly frank—though perhaps a little harsh—Lieutenant Uhura of the original Star Trek series was a relatively disappointing female character in many aspects. She was subjected to an incredibly unrealistic and objectifying uniform (which included matching underwear that could be seen whenever she leaned over). She was anything but an action woman; the only time she was allowed to pull any fight choreography was against another lady and she held a phaser in her manicured hands maybe twice in the entire series.
Her job was not exactly riveting either. She was the communications officer, which can be counted as amusingly quaint in an incredibly sexist way—hey, look everyone! The woman is good at communicating! Because that’s what women like to do! Thank goodness we didn’t let her pilot, she might have stopped the ship to ask for directions! As highlighted in the above quoted line, her job on the ship mainly consisted of telling the captain that he was now able to talk to people on other ships.
Her frustrating lack of movement within the show was parodied brilliantly by the film Galaxy Quest. When Tony Shalhoub tries to recall what Sigourney Weaver’s character—a clear take-off on Uhura—did on the ship when they were filming the show, she snippily replies, “I repeated the computer, Fred.”
But once you step back and take in all the facts, it simply can’t be pared down that way. Those who know the history of Star Trek know that a strong female character just wasn’t in the cards. By certain accounts, the female first officer introduced in the original pilot “The Cage” was deemed a problem by studio executives because they decided no one would buy a woman in that position of power. When that tidbit is brought to light, one is simply grateful that a woman was placed on the Enterprise bridge at all. The female uniforms may seem sexist to a modern eye, but they were also a product of 1960s style. Nichelle Nichols, when interviewed, claimed that it never occurred to her to be upset about the uniform because she thought she looked so good in it, and because the fashion at the time dictated the miniskirt as an empowering piece of clothing.
Ultimately, Uhura cannot be cast aside as a loss for an even more important reason: she was, and has continued to be, an inspiration for African Americans and so many others for more than 40 years. Whoopi Goldberg credits her desire to become an actor with the appearance of Uhura. She has recalled on numerous occasions how she saw Nichols on the show and proceeded to tear through her house shouting, “I just saw a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” When Nichols thought of leaving the show, she was confronted by none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who informed her that she could not quit because of how important it was for everyone to see her. She instantly changed her mind and stayed on. Uhura’s continued presence through the rest of the show and six films is a legacy that has altered the perceptions of countless people across the world. She is, without a doubt, indispensable.
All the same, one would think that an update of the character would be welcome, and J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise promised just that. In 2009, Zoe Saldana offered up her own take on the communications officer. She was sassier, a bit demanding; also the difficulty of her position and the level of her expertise were finally brought to the forefront. The job of communications officer no longer seemed a throwaway title.
Then, for an extra surprise, we found out she was dating Spock.
The internet was instantly buzzing, and quite a few people were angry. It seemed that the decision to have Uhura relegated to the role of a “girlfriend” was bad form to many fans. The attempt to inject romance into a Star Trek plot was counted as clumsy and random, ultimately anti-feminist in the worst way.
Here is where I beg to differ. To begin with, the early stages of a relationship between the two characters can be seen clearly in the original series episode “Charlie X” when Uhura sings and Spock plays the Vulcan harp for her. They are making eyes and smiling coyly for several minutes straight, but it never moves beyond that episode. Why? Obviously every show evolves over time and not every character relationship ends the way it begins, but let’s not beat around the bush; in the 1960s, black women and white men definitely did not have relationships on television, regardless of whether or not the white man was in fact a green-blooded alien. With that in mind, the route of the new film seems to have an entirely different purpose: to show us the ways we have changed for the better as a society. Which is just the way creator Gene Roddenberry would have wanted it.
Lieutenant Uhura may not be a flawless example of liberated female characterization, but she has withstood decades of criticism and analysis and still come out as a key figure in the history of television and the science fiction genre. I am more than happy that she continues to endure, no matter whom she makes out with on screen. To be honest, I can’t help but cheer a little in her corner. You have to give props to a classy, intelligent lady like that—
After all, she is dating Spock.
This article originally appeared on Tor.com in December 2010.