Everyone in our society is familiar in some way with Star Trek, a franchise that has become a staple in popular culture and that has “warped” its way into the hearts and minds of fans everywhere. Watching Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock take on the evil warlord Khan, or the brave crew of the USS Enterprise boldly engaging the terrifying Borg, is satisfying and exciting and has kept the so called “Trekkies” on the edge of their seats. Star Trek is not only famous for being among one of the longest running sci fi series in America, but it is also famous for its racially diverse casts and occasional controversial storylines involving the fight for human (and sometimes alien) rights. Star Trek has been a monumental force for good in pop culture and in the ongoing fight for racial and gender equality, because through its diverse casts and storylines, it has broken racial and gender barriers
The original Star Trek series, simply entitled Star Trek, premiered on NBC on September 8, 1966, and ran until June 3, 1969. The show immediately gained attention for its unusually diverse cast from different cultural backgrounds. One of the stand out characters was Lieutenant Uhura (whose name in Swahili means “freedom”). Uhura was not only a woman, but she was also the first non white female to hold a command position on American television, and was the first black female character who wasn’t a maid and who wasn’t part of the supporting cast. Whoopi Goldberg, a famous actress who would later go on to play Guinan, a recurring character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, described Uhura as a role model for her, and recalls saying to her family “I just saw a black woman on television, and she ain’t no maid!” Uhura served as chief communications officer on board the Enterprise, and was shown to be a capable bridge officer, manning the comm system, science bays, and helm whenever a situation arose. Another character who is known to have broken racial barriers was Hikaru Sulu, who served as a senior helmsman throughout the series until eventually being promoted to captain in later incarnations. The actor who portrayed Sulu, George Takei, was known for playing villains in various television series and movies, and his portrayal of Sulu was considered the first time an Asian character had been cast in a positive and serious light.
Star Trek would continue to break ground regarding diversity as the series and its incarnations went on. The Next Generation offered numerous female characters in command positions, and even had scenes of women engaging in combat against male adversaries, which had been considered a taboo subject for many years. As the franchise grew, viewers and fans were introduced to androids who regularly explored the meaning of humanity, African and Native American commanders who demonstrated that they weren’t just dumb and brutish sidekicks, aliens born from interracial marriages, and women who were no longer content to remain at home while the men had all the fun.
Meanwhile, male characters were now taking part in what had previously been seen as feminine activities: Captain Jean Luc Picard enjoyed painting and theater, Commander Data played musical instruments, and Garak a former spy and character from Deep Space Nine worked as a tailor on the space station. Star Trek offered us a new look a society, where everyone could be equal and take part in various activities, no matter the color of their skin, their social standing, or gender. In his essay, “Gender Role Behaviors and Attitudes” author Aaron Devor writes about how popular conceptions of femininity and masculinity revolve around appraisals of the natural roles of males and females (Devor, 673). There are certain activities that are associated with certain genders. Men do hard work, women cook and clean. Men play sports, while meanwhile women paint, sing, and act. Devor states “[People] who perform the activities considered appropriate for another gender will be expected to perform them poorly; if they succeed adequately, or even well, at their endeavors, they may be rewarded with ridicule or scorn for blurring the gender dividing line” (673). In the earlier ages of television and movies, any deviation from an activity that was associated with a certain gender was frowned upon.
Up until that point, television and film seemed confined by the rules of what women and minorities were supposed to act like and think. Women were typically shown to be housewives or damsels in distress, constantly relying on their male counterparts to come to their rescue. Even in the extremely popular 1950’s sitcom, I love Lucy, major character Lucy Ricardo was a housewife, and her occasional attempts to land herself a decent career were met with with scoffs, frowns, and jokes about how women belonged in the kitchen and men belonged at work.
Old Westerns were notorious for their treatments of Native Americans as brutal, savage, and stupid animals who communicated with each other through grunts and moans. The Lone Ranger may have been comrades with Tonto, but it was understood by all that Tonto was inferior to the Lone Ranger; he was his servant and sidekick, nothing more. Meanwhile African American characters were unintelligent, comical or violent, fried-chicken-eating insubordinates who often remained in the background of a show or movie, and were rarely depicted as being alone with or being sexual with a white character. In his essay, “In Living Color: Race and American Culture” author Michael Omi writes about how Hollywood avoided portraying “black men as assertive or sexually aggressive in order to minimize controversy”, and that blacks were presented as sexual threats to “white womanhood” (Omi, 632). Blacks were dangerous and cruel, and the were often viewed as attempting to take control or manipulate white characters. Omi also mentions that the portrayal of black women was unfair, that they were seen as “dowdy, frumpy, dumpy, overweight mammy figures” (632). That is why Uhura was seen as a such breakout and a different type of character. She was attractive, but she was also smart and capable, and sometimes issued orders to male members of the crew. In the 1968 episode, “Plato’s Stepchildren”, Uhura and Captain Kirk kiss, leading the episode to be cited as the first moment a scripted interracial kiss occurred on American television. Star Trek would continue to break the boundaries of television as the franchise went on. Star Trek Voyager was notable for consisting of a large female cast, and was the first time the franchise featured a woman captain as a major character.
For all of its progress, Star Trek has not been without its fair share of controversies depicting race and sexual orientation. Fans and critics alike have attacked the series for never featuring a prominent storyline about gay characters. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry stated that he had always intended to feature a gay character in The Next Generation, however, he died before a storyline could be completed. In an interview he gave before his death, Roddenberry discussed how he overcame his own homophobia:
“My attitude toward homosexuality has changed. I came to the conclusion that I was wrong. I was never someone who hunted down ‘fags’ as we used to call them on the street. I would, sometimes, say something anti-homosexual off the top of my head because it was thought, in those days, to be funny. I never really deeply believed those comments, but I gave the impression of being thoughtless in these areas. I have, over many years, changed my attitude about gay men and women.”
The idea has always been in Star Trek to address social issues and equality for all, However, it wasn’t until Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that a storyline depicted LGBT characters. In the episode, a female member of the crew encounters an former male lover who was reincarnated as a woman. The episode follows the crewmember as she deals with her own prejudices and her eventually coming to terms with her romantic feelings for this woman. It was the first episode of Star Trek to feature an on screen kiss between two female characters, however, it has been the only episode in the franchise that has really touched on gay or bisexual characters. As the franchise continues, more is being done to address characters’ sexuality. One book in the series features a gay captain having a relationship with his second officer, while another features a man coming to terms with his sexuality and feelings for a another male member of the crew. Star Trek is a series about action and adventure as much as it is about characters, their relationships, and their families, and as the series continues, more and more social norms will be broken and the more ideas raised about human rights.
Star Trek remains monumental in popular culture for the barriers in television and in movies it has broken, by featuring largely diverse casts and controversial storylines that make viewers question how society treats one another. We don’t know what the future of Star Trek holds, but we can hope that it continues to address social ideas and rights for all, and that the franchise will continue to boldly go where no one has gone before.