This may be an odd admission, coming from a woman who writes for a blog about the portrayal of women in the media, but I don’t actually have access to current television programming. For a variety of reasons (mostly to do with how much money one doesn’t make as a student), I went several years without a TV at all, and now I’m a little horrified at the idiot box’s power over me. I can’t ignore it! I have to watch! If I wander past a television set that’s turned on, I get totally sucked in, and will sit down and watch commercials.
And then I get angry. I mean, have you seen television advertising lately?
Well! Anger is not a thing I look for from my leisure activities. So, while I do have a television in my home at present, it doesn’t get reception – and I’ve done nothing to change that. Instead, I spend a lot of time watching DVDs that I rent via Netflix.
And in so doing, I’ve discovered something. A lot of the TV shows that I loved as a kid, and as an adolescent, and as a young adult (before the Programming Gap that started when I was 18) – are awful. Like, really, really bad. Bad acting, bad scripts, terrible plots, you name it.
So I’m always delighted when I stumble upon a show that I can get on DVD that actually is as engaging as I remember it being. And I’m especially delighted when that show has some fantastic female characters, and a relative paucity of gendered screen stupidity.
One such show is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
I’ve been a fan of the Star Trek franchise since the day I developed an embarrassing adolescent crush on Lieutenant Commander Data (Not Brent Spiner, I hasten to clarify. I respect the man’s skills as an actor, but it was the android that I loved). But while The Next Generation will always hold a special place in my heart, I think Deep Space Nine is a deeper, more interesting show. And one of the things that makes it particularly interesting to me is the variety of regular female characters. For my next several posts, I’m going to talk about what I love (and, occasionally, what I hate) about these women, choosing one episode of particular interest through which to explore the characterization of each one.
We begin with Jadzia Dax. Because she’s awesome, and I like her, and I have an action figure of her on my desk, which means that she’s the first character I thought of (shhh! That’s a perfectly good rationale!).
There’s a lot to love about Jadzia Dax (played by Terry Farrell), especially if you’re interested (as I am) in characters in mainstream media that participate in genderbending or gender transgressive behavior. The Dax part of Jadzia is, as viewers of the show will know, a symbiont – a life form that has lived within a variety of Trill, and imparts memories of former lives to each new host. Because of this, Jadzia Dax is not only the young woman, Jadzia, she is also a series of other women – and men.
On top of her recollection of having once been male, Jadzia frequently engages in behavior which her 20th century Western audience would likely view as stereotypically masculine (though it’s important to note that her fictional contemporaries don’t seem to see her as particularly mannish – Benjamin Sisko calls her “old man,” but it’s clear from context that the nickname isn’t drawn from a belief that she is a man, or anything like that). She is physically aggressive (she works out with Klingons!). She can also be assertive outside of battle – she makes many of the first moves in her romance with Worf.
But Jadzia has her girly aspects, too. She favors a feminine hairstyle, and takes evident pleasure in wearing feminine clothing (observe her reaction to the minidress uniform she wears in “Trials and Tribble-ations” in the fifth season). She is often shown gossiping with Kira Nerys about Nerys’s relationships – behavior typically marked as feminine. In the sixth season, she longs to experience motherhood.
In short, the character of Jadzia embodies a blend of behaviors and traits that could be labeled feminine or masculine. There is never any question that she is biologically female, but her gender can be fairly said to be extremely fluid, even liminal.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the fourth season episode “Rejoined.”
Those of you who have seen this episode will no doubt remember it. For the rest of you, what happens, in brief, is that Jadzia encounters another Trill, Lenara, who is carrying the Kahn symbiont. Some years before, the hosts of the Dax and Kahn symbionts had been married, and Jadzia and Lenara feel the strong love that their symbionts’ previous hosts had for one another.
They are tempted to resume their old relationship, but Trill society holds “reassociation” – joined Trill becoming involved in romantic relationships with their symbionts’ old partners – as a serious taboo.
What’s interesting about this episode is what is not considered taboo by the characters. The current hosts of the Dax and Kahn symbionts are both female – and nobody has the slightest problem with that aspect of their relationship. And while this is intriguing enough when read as an indication that the characters in the universe of Star Trek have no prejudice against homosexual relationships, I believe an interpretation that is more interesting yet is possible.
What the episode “Rejoined” says to me about the fictional society of the Trill is that heterosexuality and homosexuality become non-issues in a society where people aren’t tied to fixed, binary gender roles. I don’t read Jadzia and Lenara’s famous kiss as a lesbian kiss – I read it as a kiss between two characters for whom gender plays no significant role in a romantic relationship.
For me, then, “Rejoined” is one of the most daring thought-experiment episodes in Star Trek history. It shows a romantic relationship that is gender-neutral, that is about the personalities of the people involved, and not the roles they play.
The writers were doing a lot of bold things in “Rejoined” – compare it to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Host”, where Dr. Beverly Crusher starts a romance with a male Trill. In that episode, the Trill is injured, and the symbiont is implanted into a new host – a female body. Dr. Crusher, though conflicted, cannot bring herself to consider a romance with another woman (in Dr. Crusher’s defense, the symbiont thing is pretty creepy in that episode. It’d be hard to love anyone after you’ve seen the worm that lives in his or her abdomen).
Not only does “Rejoined” transcend the gendered boundaries that were such an inhibiting factor for The Next Generation’s Dr. Crusher, it also features an onscreen kiss between two female characters: a passionate, romantic kiss, that is played as an important moment in the relationship between Jadzia and Lenara – not as titillation for the viewer.
At the end of the episode, Lenara decides that she is unwilling, after all, to go against the societal conventions of her culture. She is in love with Jadzia, but she will leave her, because of the taboo of reassociation.
It’s a shame that this fascinating, genderbending relationship lasted only one episode. Fortunately, Jadzia Dax – an intriguing, appealing character with a liminal gender – was more enduring. Terry Farrell played Jadzia for six of the seven seasons of Deep Space Nine, and the character was very much a member of the core cast, and was the main focus of several episodes. Well done, Star Trek.