Monday, April 18, 2005

Not for Boys Only

by William S. Kowinski

Apart from raw numbers, one of the reasons given for why UPN cancelled Star Trek: Enterprise was the network's desire to attract female viewers, while the audience for Enterprise was chiefly male. (This of course is after near-nudity and a new T'pol catsuit were added to attract young male viewers.) That Star Trek is a boy fan (or fanboy) thing seems to be the conventional wisdom. It's clearly the assumption made by the former Nashville Network reborn with Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns as TNN, but morphed into Spike TV, with a lineup heavy on wrestling and wrecking. Recently TNG episodes (as well as DS9) have been sliced and diced with commercials for shows featuring mayhem to satisfy the supposed need of young males for mindless violence. "We destroy, you enjoy," being the tagline. This is the latest agenda of TV: now that dumbing down everybody in general has been accomplished, the idea is to further dumb down specific demographics, until they're putty in the hands of advertisers.

Like many marketing conceits, this male-oriented Trek image is more copycat cant than science. The demographic breakdown for Enterprise was close to 60-40 male to female. Even if these numbers are vaguely accurate, that's a difference of about 10% short of equality. It hardly qualifies as a male- only dominion. Moreover the idea of a boys-only or male dominant fan base runs counter to the overall Star Trek viewership, and worst of all, it obscures how revolutionary Star Trek has been for nearly 40 years in attracting women.

The gender difference for the various Star Trek series at various times very probably amount to a wash: about as many females as males watched Star Trek. In many ways it was women fans and the original show's female audience that saved Star Trek in the first place. Star Trek was the first science fiction that attracted a sizeable female audience, and maintained it through TNG, DS9 and of course, Voyager, with Captain Kathryn Janeway.

In the beginning...

There's a great little book that's been published under several titles, one of which was "Star Trek Lives!," the "personal notes and anecdotes" of Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston. These three female authors never really make a point of women viewers or fans, which makes their reporting all that more convincing, for it's clear how involved women were in early Trek fandom.

It was three women (Joan Winston, Devra Langsam and Elyse Pines) who organized the first major Star Trek convention in New York City. They did it, Winston wrote, because they felt Star Trek fans were only tolerated at science fiction conventions, and if they met separately they would be no one else around to "sneer." What she doesn't say, but which is likely, is that part of the sneering might well have been because science fiction was at that point largely a male domain. Star Trek might have seemed silly to hardcore hard sci-fi fans partly because of the show, but partly because it seemed to attract girls.

But for years after those first conventions in the early 70s, Star Trek gatherings attracted more attendees than science fiction conventions. At least until Star Wars took off, Star Trek had more fans that all other science fiction combined.

Women were attracted to Star Trek, right from the start. Women may be interested in Star Trek for any or all of the same reasons that men are, and a science fiction drama series appearing on primetime TV every week made it that much more accessible. That it had continuing characters made other attractions possible, such as the sex appeal of its stars.

That this was science fiction on television with the same characters every week placed it in a more familiar TV mode than the sci-fi world. William Shatner was a classic Hollywood heartthrob, and he had his legions of female fans. But the apparent anomaly that said more about how Star Trek was different, was Spock. Women were enormously attracted to Spock. To Leonard Nimoy certainly, as he embodied Spock, but also to the character of Mr. Spock. The alien quality, the innocence of logic, the strength of principle and character, the redefinition of the classic gentleman that Nimoy consciously made essential to Spock, all redefined the masculine model, for males to emulate, and females to desire. (And vice versa, as the case may be.)

It was Star Trek's female fans that created the first fanzines and largely began the still thriving tradition of fan fiction, including homoerotic fantasies of Kirk and Spock. But sex appeal was only part of the attraction. Something else that's striking about the "Star Trek Lives!" book is how many of the most articulate fans it quotes were adult women in their 20s and 30s, educated, some in professional positions (and there weren't as many women in positions like that as there are now. For example, there were very few women television news reporters anywhere until the mid 70s.) Their interests were related to what they found attractive in Star Trek's male characters, but it went beyond that, to the essence of Star Trek's stories and universe.

The stories dealt with human emotions and behavior beyond the usual space opera or tech-heavy science fiction, while challenging conventional ideas and stimulating imagination. Star Trek portrayed a future made hopeful not only by new technologies but by new attitudes and commitments: the commitment to reason and communication, to equal opportunities, to empathetic understanding of even the weirdest-looking alien, and courage when it counted, but not reflexively expressed by violence. The presence of women on the 23rd century Enterprise bridge also provided some entry into this universe of stories that (quoting the book) "give us the experience of what it would be like to live in a world as it should and could be, among human beings as they should and could be."

These elements were even stronger in Star Trek: The Next Generation. "The continuing mission of the starship Enterprise has been to take us out of the smog of fear and hate into an open space where difference is opportunity, and justice matters, and you can still see the stars," wrote Ursula LeGuin. "Violence on the Next Generation is shown as a problem, or the failure to solve a problem, never as the true solution."

There was an even stronger female presence in the cast, reflecting in the portrayed future some changes made here since the 60s. It was with TNG that Star Trek really began establishing female role models for girls. Uhura inspired girls, especially African-American and minority girls, but it was the TNG first season presence of Denise Crosby as the security chief Tasha Yar, and especially the long-term presence of Gates McFadden as Dr. Beverly Crusher and Marina Sirtis as Counselor Deanna Troi that were so widely influential. Gates McFadden testifies to the enormous response she got from girls who wanted to be doctors and yet still be mothers, as well as women struggling with being single mothers.

DS9 provided two strong women characters with executive and otherwise equal responsibilities, and Voyager several more, including the first female engineer and female captain in the lead of a Star Trek series. TNG was criticized for its two main women characters both being in the "helping" or presumably female professions, but Marina Sirtis said something particularly interesting and apropos about that on the 7th TNG seventh season DVD. Girls get a lot of role models who are strong and aggressive, she said (and by now that's certainly true.) With Troi, she wanted to model a woman who is "strong and not aggressive," a kind of female Picard, who uses "diplomacy and tact." This is important not only for girls to see, but for boys. It was unfortunate that while women got more traditionally male roles on subsequent series, there was no male counselor on DS9 or Voyager. Psychology as an aid to self-awareness is more crucial to the Star Trek future than photon torpedoes.

Though Star Trek was largely produced, written and directed by men, several women, from Dorothy Fontana through Jeri Taylor, played key roles in each of those areas, and others. Many past and present Trek novelists are women; the novelizations of all the Trek films have been written by Vondra McIntyre and J. M. Dillard. Today two of the longest-running and best-known writers on the subject of Star Trek are Michelle Erica Green and Julia Houston. There have been and still are arguments about sexism and so on (which certain episodes, like the most recent Enterprise "Bound" especially invite) but in Trekdom there are arguments about everything. It's certainly hypocritical of UPN etc. to heavily promote Enterprise as male-oriented and even demand that the program do certain things to appeal to males, and then cancel the series because it succeeded. But what's worse about this reputation, this new conventional wisdom, and particularly the way that TNG is being positioned and promoted, is that it tends to make female viewers feel unwelcome. It distorts the nature of the saga, and devalues those qualities within all of us that are associated with the female archetype. When that happens, Star Trek loses part of its soul.


Anonymous said...

The rest of the article notwithstanding, the quote "It was three women (Joan Winston, Devra Langsam and Elyse Pines) who organized the first major Star Trek convention in New York City" leaves one with the impression that there was no significant male participation in the organization of the original Star Trek conventions.


The first major Star Trek Convention held in New York City in January, 1972, was organized by a group of about 12 science fiction and Star Trek fans, both female and male (myself included). There was never any consideration of gender in our participation or our roles and responsibilities; we each had our specific expertise, and jobs were distributed accordingly. I'm not sure what point the author is trying to make by noting the gender of just three members of a cohesive group, but it leaves one with the distinct impression that the interest and talent behind the conventions was somehow skewed along gender lines. This could not be further from the truth.

The real force behind a fandom like Star Trek is a collective feeling of alienation in whatever form it takes, and the epiphany one has upon discovering fandon that, "Hey! I'm not alone!" This cuts across every strata of society; gender, race, religion, sexual preference... The only prerequisite is a feeling of somehow "not belonging", and then discovering a place where one fits right in.

I hope readers can look at a phenomenon like Star Trek and the conventions in a broader light than just gender, and realize it's simply human nature maintaining an equilibrium.

Captain Future said...

I appreciate the information concerning the first New York Star Trek convention, expanding on that in the book I cited, but it was clearly not the intention of that book's authors, nor my intention, to say that Star Trek fans or leaders in fandom are of one gender or another.

In fact the whole point of this post was to point out that, contrary to marketing dogma, Star Trek isn't the exclusive domain of one gender (in the marketing scheme, male).

So if anyone else read this as saying there was no significant male participation in organizing that convention, I apologize. I didn't intend to say that. Nor was I implying that there was gender stereotyping among fans---just in the conventional "wisdom" of marketing.