Voyager and the Patriarchy

I’ve been watching Star Trek Voyager on DVD recently, and after I’ve seen it all I’ll probably do a series of articles on several of the female characters. But for now, I want to comment on one thing that’s standing out for me:

Of all the cultures Voyager’s crew meets in the Delta Quadrant, not one of them has been a matriarchy.

Maybe the writers feel having a female Federation Captain just isn’t interesting unless her gender is perpetually at odds with the hierarchy systems of everyone she meets. I was personally hoping the show wouldn’t be about Janeway being a woman, but rather she’d just happen to be a woman and the story would be about her and her crew.

A lot of sci-fi fans wouldn’t be bothered by this, I admit; we’re so inured to seeing Yet Another Patriarchy on every planet we visit in any franchise of sci-fi/fantasy. But one of the best qualities of of the genre is its ability to show other norms than the ones continually shoved down our throats here on earth.

There was an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine that accomplished what I’m talking about. The station took in some refugees which were led by a woman. In this race, women ran the households and had multiple husbands. When Major Kira failed to hide her surprise at this, the woman demonstrated equal surprise at the idea of women having only one husband. That sort of presentation opens up a thought avenue.

It may not be the show’s intention, but presenting an entire galaxy full of patriarchies just like the ones here on earth reaffirms the erroneous assumption that patriarchy is a natural state, and not one requiring dozens of laws and tons of enforcement to “keep women in their place”.

Comments

  1. Maartje says

    To be honest I haven’t watched a Star Trek of any kind for a while (the only one on over here is Enterprise, talk about offensive to women…) but I seem to remember that the Betazed culture was matriarchal.
    I remember an episode of TNG where they visited a matriarchal culture where Riker was subjected to things like perfume, fashion and being objectified. I think there was a male uprising too and there was a genuine discussion going on on wether or not they were going to help them. No idea if they ended up helping.

    Anyway, the main enemy of Voyager was the borg who were led by a queen. Not a matriarchy I admit. I never liked the queen as an enemy because it had a sickly ‘evening the playing field’ kind of vibe, like if the borg were led by a king Janeway never would’ve gotten away with it. That could just be my imagination though.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    I haven’t seen the Borg eps of Voyager yet, but I’ll probably end up reviewing them once I get there. :)

  3. says

    The issue, it seems to me, is not just finding a culture that is a matriarchy, but finding a culture that is both a matriarchy and has strong male-female relathionships (not necessarily in the sense of two major characters who get romantically involved, but in the sense that marriage and family played a big role in the society.

    I believe that most of the actual matriarchies in the world exist in cultures where paternal investment in the children is low (not just in terms of time spent with the children, but in the sense of financially supporting them as well), and women do almost all of the productive work in the society, while the men spend most of their time at leisure.

    What would make the introduction of a matriarchal society really interesting, in my opinion, would be for the show to have a matriarchal culture with strong male-female relationships, and to make certain that the context of the culture made matriarchy make sense.

    One thing that needs to be remembered in analyzing pair-bonding practices in a culture (I am looking at polygamy here as being multiple pair-bonds rather than group marriage as such), is that the method of pair-bonding initially developed as a reproductive strategy. The reason why polygyny is more common than polyandry is that men have a higher reproductive capacity than women, and so hacing extra wives is more likely to increase the males’ chance of having more children (not that there are no benefits to a female’s reproductive success from having more partners, but those to the male are larger, and he has fewer risks from it [getting a female with less desirable qualities (i.e. to pass on to the kids] pregnant costs him very little if he doesn’t support the child, if the woman gets pregnant by the “wrong” male, that could be a nine-month commitment [yes, she could selectively abort children from the "less desirable" male, but only if she is able to determine that he is the father].

    There are, however, two conditions that would make polyandry a sensible reproductive strategy (and therefore something that is likely to crop up in a society):

    First, a lack of resources so that successfully maintaining a household required several adults; in a case like that, there would be several spinsters who could not find a mate and a few alpha females who had one or two children each by several husbands. In such a society, there would have to be strong means of establishing paternity (e.g. the woman would set aside a certain time, say a few months, to sleep only with one husband until she got pregnant by him), or a woman’s husbands would all need to be related to one another for a society such as this to work, as most men would not like to support other men’s children without having any of their own unless those men were close relatives.

    Second, a society in which the females’ sole contribution to child-rearing is gestation and birth (or a least where contribution after birth was minimal). Males would be expected not only to take care of the children directly, but also to support the children financially. If the male contribution toward child-rearing (by which I include financial contributions, i.e. going out and earning a living for the family) was much greater than the female contribution, it would make it harder for men to have lots of surviving children than for women to do so (if the man has to be the sole provider, then a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” man would not be very reproductively successful because no matter how many women he impregnates, all of his kids would starve to death).

    (You could also, I suppose, have the men be the ones to give birth, but at that point you really lose the distinction between male and female – in essence, you simply would have a society where the women are called “men” and presumably look like what we would think of as male and vice versa).

  4. Revena says

    I’m not sure that I agree with some of your assumptions here, Glaivester (for example, “most men would not like to support other men’s children without having any of their own unless those men were close relatives” strikes me as a suspect conclusion – women in some kinds of polygamous marriages support each other’s children a lot, and in other kinds not at all, and I could see men in some cultures adopting either model), but you do create an interesting theoretical culture. I agree with BetaCandy that it would be nice to see more variety in alien cultures on sci-fi shows, and a cultural model like the one you propose here would be a good step in that direction. I’d say that it’s hardly the only possible or logical step, though, which is part of what makes it so frustrating that no one writing for Star Trek or something like seems to have put much effort into thinking any non-patriarchal premises through. I’d be interested in watching sci-fi shows with any sort of matriarchal structure in them.

  5. Jennifer Kesler says

    Glaiv, remember… IT’S SCI-FI. These cultures our explorers meet are not human; they’re not from earth. They don’t even need to have two genders, as I’ve pointed out before: a single gender in which every being can act as the contributor (male) or the gestator (female) would be so alien – so truly sci-fi – that no earthbound theory need apply.

    and to make certain that the context of the culture made matriarchy make sense.

    But do you expect a patriarchy to make sense or be clearly rationalized do you? Or do you simply accept it as inherently sensible, because that’s what you’ve been told? I don’t, primarily because (as I said) if patriarchy were natural, we wouldn’t have needed to create elaborate laws and infrastructure forcing women to depend on men for the very existence in order to keep women “in their place”. A naturally submissive dog knows his place. Clearly, women are not naturally submissive.

    But while you and I can make legitimate arguments about all this until the cows come home, my main point is there is no reason for sci-fi/fantasy to limit itself to a repeat of human history. They could pattern societies off of animal societies, for example: our own planet is awash in fascinating pack structures and hierarchies in the animal kingdom, and even the disagreement among zoologists about just how a particular species’ culture functions provides lots of interesting ideas for a sci-fi writer.

  6. says

    women in some kinds of polygamous marriages support each other’s children a lot, and in other kinds not at all

    I didn’t say that the men wouldn’t support each other’s children, just that I doubt that they would do so without some assurance that at least one of the children would be theirs. Reciprocal help might very well occur.

    As I recall, in polygynous families somtimes there is a lot of competition between wives. I even recall reading somewhere that in some societies infanticide of other wive’s children was common. In any case, I would seriously doubt that there are many polygynous marriages where wives have little concern over the position of their children vs. other wive’s children.

    And there is, of course, another wrinkle to be added in a polyandrous marriage: until fairly recently, there was no test available to determine definitively the paternity of a child. So any society with a tradition of polyandrous marriage (at least one where the tradition strated before paternity testing) is likely to also include traditions that were used to ensure that each husband had at least one child (e.g. every time a new husband is added, the wife ensures she is not pregnant by menstruating, and then only sleeps with one husband until it can be determined that she is pregnant).

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    Again, you’re still firmly mired in Earth norms. It’s sci-fi. Feel free to imagine a whole big universe out there. ;)

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    And I didn’t mean to imply the “earth norms” you’re mired in reflect anything natural, nor that your interpretations of them are accurate. I agree with Revena that you’re making several textbook assumptions, and would point out that much depends on who’s writing the textbook. There ARE other interpretations of the data than the ones you state as fact.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    And I just re-read this comment and realized it may have sounded rather snotty. I didn’t mean it that way – I was thinking very matter-of-factly that yes, there’s interpretive evidence backing up your position, but (a) the rest of us are not bound to accept that evidence since it is, necessarily, interpretive (as is any thesis we suggest) and (b) that because it’s sci-fi, the whole issue of Earth cultural norms is even less relevant.

  10. says

    They don’t even need to have two genders, as I’ve pointed out before: a single gender in which every being can act as the contributor (male) or the gestator (female) would be so alien – so truly sci-fi – that no earthbound theory need apply.

    True. I was restricting myself to binary sexuality because I was specifically talking about a matriarchy, but there are definitely ideas that are outside the male/female paradigm.

    One possibility would of course be societies organized around one member who does all of the reproducing for the society (i.e. like a beehive).

    And of course, there could be societies who are organized in a way that has no parallel on Earth.

    However:

    Any societal arrangements would have to make biological sense. That is, whatever the prevailing social arrangements in society are would have to be consistent with the vast majority of people trying to reproduce their genes (either through reproducing themselves or through getting genetically similar people to reproduce). This is because no matter how alien a culture, the people who successfully get their genes reproduced are the ones who will be represented in the next generation.

    This doesn’t mean that the society has to make moral sense or even that the philosophy of the culture must be logically consistent. But a culture cannot over the long term be such that everyone willingly works against their biological interests, because people who do so generally get replaced by people who work toward their biological interests.

  11. says

    True, but there is one norm that would be universal, which would be that living organisms act in such a way as to maximize the representation of their genes in future generations. This would be universally true, because by definition organisms that do not do this die out and are replaced by ones that do.

    I guess the major point I was trying to make is that a well-developed alien culture in sicence fiction ought to have a background that explains why different aspects of a culture developed, how such a culture would actually be workable, and why it would be plausible for such a culture to exist, given the environment in which it developed and exists.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    I still consider your arguments about biological needs to be missing dozens of possibilities available in sci-fi, drawn from creatures other than human, and theoretical scientific advances. But I’ll set that aside for now for this:

    You still haven’t justified your original assertions, with which both Revena and I took issue. Why must a matriarchy involve strong male-female relationships? If you want a real parallel to our patriarchy, you need a society where men have been conditioned through abuse, lack of opportunity and lack of rights into thinking so little of themselves they allow themselves to be used as nothing more than sperm donors.

    But if you want a healthy matriarchy – in fascinating contrast to the patriarchies of Earth – you need only write a species which recognizes (like the one on DS9) that its males are not great thinkers. The females do the thinking and the males do what they’re told by the females. The males are happy because they have purpose, and the females are happy because they rule with empathy.

    It feels to me like you’ve got your mind so firmly made up about “matriarchy = low male parental responsibility” and “male parental responsibility = good society” that you can’t accept any arguments which don’t accept that premise. It must be uncomfortable for you to think of a fantasy world where men are viewed as little more than sperm donors, but suck it up: women have survived a real world where we’re thought of little more than incubators, sex machines and punching bags for centuries.

  13. Jennifer Kesler says

    I don’t accept that in sci-fi, reproduction needs to be the organizing purpose of a society, but that could be a three-page debate, and off-topic.

    But you are still demanding this highly suspicious matriarchy be explained to you while you’re not telling me why you think the patriarchy is natural! And I have given you an argument for why I don’t buy that it is natural.

    You’re just reasserting assertions without backing them up with logic. It makes a worthwhile debate impossible, I’m sorry to say.

  14. says

    I think my comments about strong male-female relationships were unclear. I was not saying that a matriarchy needed strong male-female relationships, but that strong male-female relationships (i.e. such that one partner could conceivably dominate the other) would make for a more interesting society.

    What I meant to say was that what would be really interesting, in my opinion, is a matriarchal society where the women dominated the men rather than one where the men were essentially irrelevant to the society, e.g. where they live like vagabonds, and do nothing but satisfy their bodily needs (e.g. eat and drink), impregnate women, and amuse themselves.

    If you want a real parallel to our patriarchy, you need a society where men have been conditioned through abuse, lack of opportunity and lack of rights into thinking so little of themselves they allow themselves to be used as nothing more than sperm donors.

    This isn’t a parallel. It requires too little of males compared to what a patriarchy requires of females; in this scenario, the males have no duties other than sex. Patriarchy requires a lot from females – they are looked at as sex objects, and also as incubators, maids, and childcare workers. In other words, the roles they are expected to play require a lot of their time. To actually make a parallel to our patriarchy, you would also need to have the women expect things from men that would take up a large portion of the men’s time (i.e. men are expected to take care of the children, or to do work around the house).

    What would be interesting to write about, or to read about or watch, in my opinion, would be a society where the females dominate most of the males’ lives, not one in which the males have no duties other than occasionally having sex.

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    You’re right; when you kept insisting that certain rules were absolute and no society which violated them would make sense, it was not clear that you were merely discussing your own opinions and preferences.

    You may have inadvertently suggested a reason why writers don’t bother creating matriarchies: perhaps you’re not the only viewer who accepts patriarchies unquestioningly but has a strong set of criteria into which matriarchies must fit in order to be believed.

  16. SunlessNick says

    The Queen was introduced in the First Contact film (with the Next Gen cast), where the writers used her to provide a specific face/voice for the Borg. They also had one of her big aspirations being “finding an equal” to make a de facto king. In First Contact, that’s Data, but the writers also decided that that’s what she wanted when the Borg assimilated Picard.

    Which strips some of the horror from what was done to Picard, but also means that even among the Borg, all the powerful woman wants is to find a man.

  17. Pat Mathews says

    Most polyandrous cultures on Earth practice fraternal polyandry: several brothers and one wife.

    A good many successful polygynous cultures have blood sisters as co-wives for a common pattern.

    And in most matrilineal cultures, the mother’s brother is a dominant male figure, rather than the father, though the father has a role to play; and in many polygynous cultures, the mother’s brother is the man the kids turn to as a counterweight to their father.

  18. Pat Mathews says

    “We are the Pride of Chanur, glossy of eye, fang, and fur…”

    Because that is the pattern of C.J. Cherryh’s leonine Hani. In fact, part of the Chanur books revolve around a budding mens’ right movement.

    What I detest is the “simple reversal” matriarchy, especially the sort (as in one episode of “Sliders”) where all it takes is for someone to start the ideas of men’s equality, and – presto chango – it’s accomplished. By a fat, bald, middle-ages, badly dressed male at that. In that culture? I don’t THINK so!

  19. says

    You’re right; when you kept insisting that certain rules were absolute and no society which violated them would make sense, it was not clear that you were merely discussing your own opinions and preferences.

    I still believe that certain rules are absolute; it’s just that particular issue (that there be strong male-female relationships) was not one of them.

  20. says

    But do you expect a patriarchy to make sense or be clearly rationalized do you? Or do you simply accept it as inherently sensible, because that’s what you’ve been told? I don’t, primarily because (as I said) if patriarchy were natural, we wouldn’t have needed to create elaborate laws and infrastructure forcing women to depend on men for the very existence in order to keep women “in their place”. A naturally submissive dog knows his place. Clearly, women are not naturally submissive.

    I’m sorry I took so long to address the issue of whether patriarchy “makes sense.” It’s just that the answer is rather complicated and I’ve had to think over how to address it.

    When I say that a culture has to “make sense,” I simply mean that it has to be plausible that a culture can propagate the behaviors that sustain it. This only applies, of course, to longstanding traditional cultures; a new culture can be any way its members want, but for a culture to be able to grow old, it has to be able to sustain itself.

    If you believe, as I do, that genes play a large role in behavior (that is, that there are factors that influence your behavior that are heritable and that you are born with), then for a sociey to survive it must encourage the people with traits the society needs to reproduce enough to maintain their numbers (e.g. it would not make sense, long term, for a society that requires large numbers of intelligent people to run it to sterilize the most intelligent 20% of its people, because it would slowly deplete the intelligence of the society).

    For a patriarchy to exist requires males with the will to dominate; in a patriarchy, males with the will to dominate are the most likely to have large families; likewise, submissive females are probably the most likely to have large families by dominant males; therefore, the males and females who are the most necessary to sustain the patriarchy are the ones who are the most reqarded by the patriarchy. So in this sense, a patriarchy “makes sense.” Moreover, the fact that a large number of societies have been patriarchal for centuries [and that so many patriarchal societies that do fall are replaced by other patriarchal societies] is de facto evidence that a patriarchy can sustain itself (which is what I meant by “make sense.”)

    In a society where monogamy was universal or almost universal, this arrangement could probably be reversed fairly perfectly, because both the male and the female have the same reproductive strategy – have a few kids and take care of them very well.

    In a polygamous society, though, you run into two major differences between men and women: (1) one man can father a lot more children than one women can give birth to, and (2) a woman can be sure of the maternity of her baby no matter how many other women the father has sex with, whereas until the advent of paternity testing the only assurance a male had was his assurance that the mother of his putative child had not had sex with any men other than him around the time of conception.

    There are two basic reproductive strategies: (I) have a lot of children and hope that some survive, or (II) have a few children and take great care to make certian that they make it to adulthood. Men and women can both pursue either strategy, but because a man can father many times the number of children that a woman can give birth to, and with so little effort (five minutes vs. nine months), he can pursue strategy I to a much greater extent than a woman can. Moreover, the uncertainty of paternity means that pursuing strategy II is more risky for a male than a female, because the fewer children he has, the more of a loss any “cuckoos” are.

    In a polyandrous society, a husband restricts his contribution to the next generation to a fraction of his wife’s reproductive potential. That is, if a woman has five husbands, she would have to have at least five kids in order for each husband to have one.

    Unless you believe that there is no genetic component to the desire to have biological children, (which essentially would mean that you are denying biology), the vast majority of men in a society are going to want to have kids, because the men who don’t tend to propagate their genes into the next generation. This means that for polyandry to work, each husband would need reasonable assurance that at least one of his wife’s children was his. The alternative, that men do not care whether or not any of the children are theirs, is no sustainable long-term, because the men who do care and who work to insure their representation in the next generation will slowly out-reproduce the ones who don’t.

  21. says

    In a nutshell, what I am trying to say is that if a society has dominant females and submissive males, you also have to have the society arranged so that dominant females have more children than submissive ones, and that submissive males have more children than dominant ones. Otherwise, you are swimming against the current of natural selection.

    I have a feeling that the major area of disagreement here between Betacandy and I may be on the issue of how much genes influence behavior; the larger the role they play, the more a person’s behavior will be affected by natural selection and the more important a role the biological imperative to reproduce will play. The less of a role they play, the more power society has to shape people.

    Based on comments on this post, I get the impression that Betacandy does not think that genes play as large role in shaping a person’s behavior and survival strategy as I do.

  22. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s absolutely correct. Biological determinism is a backward assumption: since we do not fully understand genes, we can only assume the behavior we’re seeing comes from them, and look for patterns in outwardly manifested traits to explain the behavior. Which leads to assumptions like those behind “The Bell Curve”: that African-American kids are just not as smart as white kids, so we shouldn’t frustrate them with encouragement.

    In other words, biological determinism simply takes the behavior in the world and rationalizes its existence. I prefer to look at what exists, consider what could exist, and build a bridge from here to there.

  23. Audra says

    Again I’m a Jenny-come-lately here, but this (the topic of the original article) is something I noticed watching Voyager, too. I don’t watch a lot of sci fi, but I’ve read and can imagine enough to know there are so many more possibilities. Why is (almost) every culture in the ST universe a patriarchy where the women do the cooking and the men do the fighting?! It’s so boring! It would have been kind of cool to see the crew of Voyager encounter a reverse sexist culture whose leaders would only speak to Janeway and B’elanna. Or as already suggested, a species with multiple genders, or no concept of gender at all ? How about an all-female species? Or all male for that matter? I guess since they never even had a gay character it’s a bit too much to ask for them to be imaginative and think outside the patriarchal, hetero-normative box, but it would have been nice.

    One thing that also strikes me as odd on Voyager is that the only two matriarchal societies the crew encountered were both based on insects/arthropods. There was the “black widow” species that lured unsuspecting males to their planet in order to use them for procreation and then kill them. (The men even looked like dessicated spider victims when they were done with them.) And then the Borg, based on a “hive mind” like an ant or bee colony. So the only matriarchal figures they could imagine were black widows and queen bees? How creative. And of course both female-dominated species are malevolent.

  24. says

    I’ve always found it strange why Voyager would never have come across a matriarchy that didn’t kill its males – it’s not that hard to come up with a social system that places females at the forefront yet expects males to pitch in to help out the community.

    The only thing that I can think of which would greatly differ a matriarchy from a patriarchy is that women would be the one calling the sexual shots – oh n0s! Can’t have that, can we? ‘Specially not on national TV!

    I liked how Janeway had her random boyfriends throughout the series, but this attitude never showed through in other alien species they met.

    And I disagree that “gene spreading” matters all that much to intelligent beings – in lions, maybe (the male lion kills any cub that isn’t his when he takes over a pride) but it’s a far stretch to attach such murderous and jealous instincts to fairly intelligent beings. Or if they wanted to, they *could* have portrayed one of the patriarchal cultures that way – they had that chance with the extremely violent Kazon (Seska and Chakotay’s baby and all that), but obviously, even the Kazon, so intent on asserting their superiority, didn’t care much about genes either.

    So. Yeah.

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