In 1966, NBC ordered a pilot for a show called Star Trek. It performed badly with Los Angeles test audiences, and creator Gene Roddenberry specifically recalls women disliking how it portrayed women. But NBC felt it had some sort of potential, so they ordered a second pilot. Let’s examine the changes that made Star Trek more palatable to test audiences.
And while we do it, let’s remember that I’m not alone in the opinion that test audiences, like taste tests, can give extremely misleading feedback. Malcolm Gladwell talks in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking about how you get very different results from a cola sip test in a grocery store than you get when you send people home with a carton of your cola and let them drink it when and where they ordinarily drink it – and in whole servings. Confronted with something that flouts all norms, people are often times very uncomfortable – at first. But some of the best products in history get rejected the first time they’re offered. I don’t consider a test audience’s response the final word on whether something like the original version of Star Trek could have survived. But TV does, and this sort of event is exactly why they industry believes it’s the audience forcing their choice to serve up bigoted material.
Changes from pilot to pilot
In the original Star Trek pilot – “The Cage” – we have a woman (Majel Barrett, yay!) as second in command of the Enterprise. She and all the other women wear pants just like the men wear when they’re on duty. She’s professional, focused and feels double-slighted when Captain Pike says he can’t get used to having women on the bridge, then hastens to add that she’s an exception. Her name is simply Number One. Overall, she’s rather like Spock became – we don’t see any emotions from her. Oh, and both she and the female yeoman have to be attracted to Pike because, I dunno, men have such pitiful egos and they were the only ones making TV this side of the Atlantic back then? Whatever.
In the second pilot and the series that came after, the only woman on the bridge is Uhura, who’s very professional and all that, but her job as communications officer – an important position in reality – is reminiscent of a receptionist’s duties. She answers and places calls, basically. She’s not in line to take over if Kirk’s incapacitated. She and the other women wear remarkably impractical micro-minis that often flash their little shorts underneath. None of the women are like Number One – they’re all more emotional, and therefore more the traditional female stereotype. And for a while, it seems every female historian/archeologist/academic falls in love with the bad guy of the week because bad guys are so attractive to women, I guess. (To be fair, the relationship between Khan and his future wife is strongly coded as abusive, though only to reveal his badness.)
Softening the women
The comparison interests me because Roddenberry talked on DVD extras about his expectation that women would be grateful to see women represented as competent and in charge (Number One takes over when the captain is captured), but their response was more “Who does she think she is?” His response, once NBC gave him a second chance, was to make the show’s women more stereotypically feminine. But he also presented NBC with a BLACK AFRICAN WOMAN ON THE BRIDGE, OH MY LORD and, according to Nichelle Nichols, when they told him to get rid of her, he said if she went, so would he. Hey, if you’ve got to compromise, that’s the way to do it.
Looking back, Star Trek doesn’t seem very progressive in terms of how it represents women. The show’s creative team overestimated where the space program would be in thirty years while underestimating what a walking Title IX violation Kirk would seem by that time. It’s exciting to note that the newer ST shows and movies had to play catch-up, because in reality, “men’s” professions were already becoming more open to women. Pike’s bemusement at “women on the bridge” and Kirk’s ogling of female yeomen are jarring events to watch because the attitudes they represent are already largely considered inappropriate in our society, and it’s hard to imagine there being any remnant of them by the twenty-third century.
Women in Starfleet
It’s telling that the series, which they knew in advance was being canceled, ends with an episode about one of Kirk’s old lovers using alien technology to switch bodies with him. Why? Because women can’t be captains in Starfleet at this time, and she wants to be one. It turns out she’s deranged, and she talks a lot about how much she hates being a woman. This episode bugged me because it offered her derangement as the real reason she couldn’t be a captain, and yet no explanation for her mental state other than “gender keeping her from doing what she loves and worked hard for” is offered. It ends on her having a breakdown while Kirk says none of this needed to happen, “if only…” If only what? If only she’d learned to knit and love it? Or if only Starfleet didn’t illogically assume command abilities traveled exclusively on the Y-chromosome? Given Roddenberry’s reaction to the test audience’s reaction to Number One, this episode may have been intended to chastise that audience for denying women should be in command, but it’s certainly left so it can be interpreted the other way, too.
In a supreme bit of irony, the first female (and black!) Starfleet captain we ever see appears in the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, but somehow she isn’t credited. She has lines. Two members of her crew, who each have fewer lines, are named and credited. Majel Barrett, Grace Lee Whitney and Jane Wiedlin all have only unintelligible lines as they make cameos during chaotic moments, and they get credit. But not Madge Sinclair, who appeared in the original series just like Barrett and Whitney. I suppose it’s some sort of technical oversight, but quite a facepalm.
The cultural impact
It’s hard for me to say just how revolutionary the female roles on the original Star Trek may have seemed at the time, since I wasn’t born yet and don’t know the nuances first-hand. Here’s my speculation, but I’d love to hear from people who were actually around in the 60s.
- Uhura’s job may have comfortably resembled the only role 1960s women were welcome to in offices, but the vast majority of black TV characters (of both genders) at the time were servants, even if they were lead characters. (Even Julia started two years after Star Trek). Uhura’s position never resembled servitude. She took orders just like everyone else, and felt entitled to respectfully inform her superiors when they were asking the impossible.
- Yeoman Rand may only have been a yeoman (until the feature films), but she was an attractive white woman working alongside men, and she took her duties more seriously than her social life.
- That the ship’s historian/archeologist/whatever academic of the week could just casually happen to be a woman without all sorts of explanation would still have seemed startling to me in the 80s.