This is damn interesting and worth a read

>> Thursday, July 30, 2009

I've done a couple of entries on race this week, so it seems pretty damn fitting to link to a really provocative LiveJournal post that Dr. Phil brought to my attention (thanks, Dr. Phil!). Rawles writes about J.J. Abrams Star Trek and the significance of the new movie's Uhura-Spock relationship. (I realize that a lot of the regulars 'round here will have already seen Dr. Phil's post; this is for the benefit of the ones who haven't.)

Rawles has several good points, one of which is that the background of the viewer is going to affect how one sees the relationship in the movie. I have to admit I tended to see it as something that was a "contemporary" touch--"sexing things up," sort of--that wasn't inconsistent with minor hints dropped in the original canon but wasn't necessary, either. What hadn't occurred to me, and I think Rawles is dead-on with this, is that the original series' Uhura's interaction wasn't "professional" so much as it was conspicuously neutered. After all, the original Star Trek certainly had the white women--specifically and recurringly Yeoman Rand and Nurse Chapel, aside from various one-shot women-of-the-week in assorted episodes--inappropriately engaged with male crewmembers. If Nurse Chapel can throw herself at Spock, or if Yeoman Rand can flirt with Kirk, it does seem a bit odd that Lt. Uhura is always at her station, a perpetual bridesmaid-of-sorts.

That said, there's also an irony there: I think Rawles is right that there's a conspicuously racist subtext in Uhura's neutrality, but in terms of gender-roles (as opposed to race relations) it's Nichelle Nichols who's really the pro on the Enterprise. Her isolation may have been the result of '60s (and perhaps contemporary) racial attitudes, but she's also the female crewmember who isn't going to have to sue Kirk for sexual harassment (or, possibly, paternity). Is "invisibility" the fair asking price for gender equality, one has to wonder? It's not fair for the beautiful Nichelle Nichols to be ignored as a woman because she's an African-American woman, but, by the same token, it's not exactly fair that Grace Lee Whitney is evidently fair game for every walking gonad on the Enterprise (or a lady-in-peril, i.e. rapebait, in more than one episode of the original series where she beams down to a planet or some hostile masculine force like Charlie X comes aboard).

On the balance, I'm going to say Rawles has opened my eyes and I agree with her, but I'm going to admit that there are reservations. I suppose that what Rawles may prove is that gender and race in America are a completely fucked scene. Regardless, if you didn't see the link at Dr. Phil's, go read it now, okay?

7 comments:

Dr. Phil (Physics) Friday, July 31, 2009 at 12:53:00 AM EDT  

You're quite welcome, good sir.

Likewise there's been years of discussion about "the kiss" in OST. Sure, it's the first biracial kiss on television, but it was forced by the bastards with superpowers -- and Kirk glares his disdain right in the middle. I never thought of it as a "kiss", because neither Uhuru nor Kirk were active participants.

I remember in college being pissed off at a guy who said that Kirk should've just "enjoyed it". You know, the late 70s were not the high point of actual political correct behavior.

Dr. Phil

ntsc Friday, July 31, 2009 at 7:30:00 AM EDT  

In fall of 66 that Roddenberry was able to have a female, much less black female, in a semi-major role was ground breaking enough.

Also sex did not exist, there was no such thing, full stop. If the kiss mentioned above, I didn't see much of the original because my college had no real TV reception, had not been forced the episode would not have been broadcast in easily half the US.

SCOTUS may or may not have ruled on misegenation laws, but in Dixie it could get you hung. While black female/white male was a lot safer it still was not acceptable in society as a whole. Especially if the female showed any reciprocity. Raping her was socially acceptable, making love to her was not.

My first wife's mother had 'passed' and while this was something my wife would discuss with friends, it was not something in general knowledge. And I went to one of the most liberal schools in the country. Three years running on the John Birch Societies 'most subversive' list.

Eric Friday, July 31, 2009 at 9:26:00 AM EDT  

If I'm not mistaken, NTSC, the kiss didn't air in half the U.S.--a number of local affiliates, mostly in the Deep South, refused to air the episode.

But you raise a fair point insofar as Trek was groundbreaking for the time. The frustrating problem is that it was simultaneously retrogressive, though that wasn't necessarily Gene Roddenberry's fault (e.g. the original pre-Kirk pilot episode has all the female crewmembers in the same unisex pantsuits the men wear--the miniskirts were the result of a "suggestion" from the powers-that-be). You have women serving as officers and minorities in command positions--and then the women are frequently treated as so much pliable meat and ethnicities are reduced to broad stereotypes (Asians know martial arts! Russians are ethnocentric! Scots are alcoholics!). Trek managed to be cutting-edge and primitive at the same time, part of the reason we nerds spend so much time gnashing our teeth over it, I suppose.

I think it's very possible for Uhura to represent several things at once: to be invisible as Rawles says, while being brilliantly visible as per Whoopi Goldberg's famous story about excitedly running to tell her mother that there was a black lady on TV and she wasn't a nurse or cleaning lady. Rawles alludes to that by referencing the other famous story, the one about Nichelle Nichols being on the verge of quitting (because her character was invisible, a token) only to be talked out of it by no less a person than Dr. King (because she nonetheless represented, and was a step forward). I think Rawles reminds us, though, that the prism we see the character through isn't just the '60s lens we're used to.

MWT Friday, July 31, 2009 at 4:59:00 PM EDT  

Huh.

I always saw Uhura as the epitomy of professionalism, deserving of huge respect for her leet skillz. This was emphasized even moreso in the novels - in those, she was a supergenius with communications technology and could speak lots of languages, and was working on an advanced degree in linguistics. Which seems to me that it puts a black woman in a very stereotype-breaking light, yes? Not just a 'ho!

I also read somewhere (can't remember where anymore) that the actresses liked the miniskirts and would try to sneak up the hemlines as high as possible to show off their legs.

And maybe this is another one of those invisible white culture things I tried to describe before - but see, blondes are not the most attractive out of everyone, to everyone. Rand and Chapel didn't make it much onto my radar as anything other than background crew - a step up from redshirts but not by much, and certainly not part of the "important" cast like Uhura was.

Also: fencing is a martial art? I didn't know that...

Eric Friday, July 31, 2009 at 8:50:00 PM EDT  

MWT, not all whites prefer blondes. Whatever culture-at-large leanings there are in that direction aren't a "white culture" thing at all. Indeed, I suspect the percentages of white and non-whites who don't think blondes are All That (and are annoyed at any American fixation on blondes) probably line up pretty well.

(Personally, I've always had a thing for dark-haired vampire girls. But I think I've mentioned that before....)

Jim Wright Monday, August 3, 2009 at 9:30:00 PM EDT  

MWT, there are a number of martial arts that are orientated around fencing, Kendo comes to mind immediately (it's also one of the reasons my knuckles are developing arthritis, get whacked repeatedly across the knuckles with a kendo stick and see how you do)

But I agree with your assessment of Uhuru, she was the most professional one on the bridge - and the closest to the professional officers I know, both male and female.

Jim Wright Monday, August 3, 2009 at 9:31:00 PM EDT  

Also, I don't like blonds. I prefer brunettes with red highlights, like my wife. ;)

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