The Sexual-Romantic Politics of Star Trek

I am a big fan of Star Trek. Not the original series — I have to admit, I’ve never watched the original series on purpose, though I suspect I soaked up a lot of it accidentally as a kid, since one of my brothers went through a phase of heavy infatuation with the reruns. But I am a big fan of The Next Generation, which I’ve been watching lately, and I’ll also tip my hand and admit that I’ve watched the full run of Deep Space Nine and Voyager.

So I have seen me some Star Trek, and I love it. But I dislike Star Trek romance, and I hate Star Trek sex.

Let's be honest: this is why I watch TNG.

Now, the sexual politics of Star Trek are widely acknowledged to suck. Just Google the phrase “sexual politics of Star Trek,” and you’ll soon find this, from Mikki Halpin and Victoria Mott’s “Girl’s Guide to Geeky Guys“:

The sexual politics of Star Trek are pretty blunt: the men run the technology and the ship, and the women are caretakers (a doctor and a counselor). Note the sexual tensions on the bridge of the Enterprise: the women, in skin tight uniforms, and with luxuriant, flowing hair. The men, often balding, and sporting some sort of permanently attached computer auxiliary. This world metaphorizes the fantasies of the geek dude, who sees himself in the geeky-but-heroic male officers and who secretly desires a sexy, smart, Deanna or Bev to come along and deferentially accept him for who he is.

True, that — though the picture is improved somewhat by Voyager, which has the rather awesome Captain Janeway, as well as by Deep Space Nine, which featured two empowered female officers on the bridge crew.

But that’s not even what interests me. What interests me is the way Star Trek depicts romantic relationships, both among crew members and between crew members and the people they meet when they’re out exploring the wild depths of space.

And by “interests me,” I mean “repels me.” Because, by and large, the way Star Trek depicts romantic relationships just suuuuuucks.

Now, there are three kinds of Star Trek relationships: the pleasure planet sexfest, the one-episode relationship, and the multi-episode romantic arc. Let’s call these “the squicky,” “the quickie,” and “the sickie,” shall we?

“The squicky” is what Star Trek characters do when they have a little time off: they visit “pleasure planets,” like the famous Risa, and while it’s usually not made explicit, the general idea is they have a lot of sex with pleasure-planet denizens who like sex and belong to sensual cultures, which makes it not at all like soldiers visiting whores in port cities. Not at all.

Pleasure planet shenanigans. Dude, is that Ann Margaret?

When there are no handy pleasure planets in sight, there’s always the Holodeck, where crew members can create programs that allow them to have anonymous hook-ups with make-believe people. While I applaud such creative uses of the Holodeck, I feel obliged to note that most of the time, “relaxation” in the Holodeck seems to be equated with “Caribbean-type beach settings and bimbos wearing bikinis under see-through vinyl raincoats who serve me drinks.” So that’s nice.

But okay. These aren’t romantic relationships, they’re squickies, and I’m going to pass right over them, because even though they make my skin crawl, who am I to judge the fantasies of my favorite Trek characters? And anyway, this is a romance blog, and I want to talk about Trek romance.

The vast majority of Star Trek relationships are quickies, and as best I can tell, these episodes are all written by aliens. Or possibly fifteen-year-old boys. Here are the things that quickie relationships on Star Trek are not, ever: (1) genuinely romantic, (2) genuinely sexy, (3) genuine.

What quickie relationships are is doomed. Dooooomed. Also, (most of the time) sexist and insulting and uncomfortable to watch.

Seriously, Star Trek? SERIOUSLY?

Usually, quickie-relationship episodes are a vehicle to confirm the prowess and general awesomeness of the series’ Designated Lothario Character (DLC for short), who gets at least one — sometimes two — sex-related episodes per season. On The Next Generation, the DLC is Riker. (shudders) On Voyager, it is Tom, at least until he gets involved with B’Elanna (double shudder). On Deep Space Nine, it’s Dr. Bashir.

All of these men are awful.

The thing is, the DLC does not have to be attractive or to possess sexual charisma. He is the Designated Lothario Character because the series creators say so. Swoon, women! Swoon! We command you to swoon!

Okay, sorry. Getting carried away. So the DLC gets involved with some hot alien woman, feeds her a few distractingly cheesy pick-up lines, has soft-focus sex with her, and then… <dun dun DUN> the choose-your-own tragedy occurs. She will (a) die, (b) betray the DLC, or (c) sacrifice herself for the DLC / her people / her difficult-to-sympathize-with yet necessary-to-respect religious beliefs. Then she disappears from the universe of Star Trek, never to be heard from again.

Bye now!

I just liked this picture.

I understand that forty minutes is not a large canvas on which to explore short-term romantic relationships, especially given that these episodes have to have a non-romantic plotline, as well. But nonetheless, it seems to me that the Star Trek writers were never willing to do anything interesting with quickies. They didn’t develop character, explore issues, or raise questions. Quickies were the weakest of all episodes, often eye-rollingly silly, and I can’t help but think this is because the writers of Star Trek were somehow incapable of taking sex — and romance — seriously as subjects worthy of their attention. It’s like they were perfectly willing to explore all kinds of issues of interest against the backdrop of space-as-frontier — power, responsibility, war crimes, race, religious difference, empire, ambition, cultural difference, self-control, identity formation, the meaning of “life,” the value of life, and so on — but when it came to love, they defaulted to a formula that had all the sexual-romantic sophistication of Magnum P.I. or Three’s Company.

WTF, Star Trek?

And I think this is even more obvious in the ways that Star Trek series, on the whole, failed to develop either interesting and believable romances or long-term, committed relationships among crew members — a failure that seems all the more disappointing in the context of how remarkable the series were at developing other kinds of long-term character-development arcs.

Take The Next Generation. We get two sets of men and women on the Enterprise who have a romantic past: Jean-Luc Picard and Beverly Crusher, and William Riker and Deanna Troi. Every now and then, these relationships get flung into an episode as Drama Fodder, but for the most part they go nowhere. They remain bits of uninteresting backstory, to be manipulated at will for the purposes of plot, but never to get resolved or developed in any substantial way. We get Geordi, who’s apparently no good with women and is therefore not allowed to have them. We get Riker bedding anything with two legs and a rack. Miles and Keiko are married, and their marriage consists mainly of whiny arguments over unpleasant-looking replicator dinners. And…that’s all.

Because nothing says "sexy" like matching outfits

That’s all?! A thousand people lived on that ship, and none of them ever fell in love in an interesting way? None of them had marriages worth a multi-episode character arc? COME ON.

The message we get on The Next Generation, again and again, is that love is too complicated for the busy, important people of the Enterprise. Will gave Deanna up years ago because he needed to pursue his ambition. He is too busy and important for love. Captain Picard falls in love with a lieutenant stellar scientist on one episode, sends her on an away mission in which she nearly gets killed, and then dumps her because he can’t deal with how overwhelming it would be to continue loving her and risking her life as captain of her ship. His love is neither liberating nor transformative; it’s a burden he can’t afford. Never mind that he loves his friends on the crew and risks their lives all the time. That’s different, because he’s not boning them. Only love is too complicated to risk in the world of Star Trek.

When we do see characters fall in love on Star Trek, the show’s creators often give them a single conflict and then bludgeon us over the head with it for numerous seasons. In Voyager, Captain Janeway and her first officer, Chakotay, fall for each other gradually, but their love is Forbidden because she’s the captain and he’s an officer (and also he’s a rebel and she’s Federation, but that’s a moot point since they’re in the Gamma Quadrant), and their love remains tediously forbidden for season after season. Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres love each other, but they fight all the time because Tom is a breezy Designated Lothario, and B’Elanna is a half-Klingon moody bitch.

I can't love you until your hair is smaller.

What horks me off about this is that Star Trek had so much potential to be wonkomantically wonderful. It’s set in space. People are trapped together on vessels for long periods of time, working under stress in confined quarters. There are lots of interesting alien races cohabiting. There are significant cultural, economic, political, and ethical differences to cope with. There are androids, for fuck’s sake. Can you imagine a setting more ripe for wonkomance? Star Trek could’ve used sexual and romantic plotlines to mess with its characters’ heads, much as Battlestar Galactica did, but instead it mostly recycled old, stale heterosexual chestnuts and expected us to eat them.

When I watch The Next Generation – a show that began airing 25 years ago — there’s so much that still feels fresh, so much that is gripping despite the passage of time. But the sexual-romantic politics of the show were old-fashioned before it even hit the airwaves, and these days they’re downright embarrassing.

They don’t age well, those chestnuts.

About Ruthie Knox

Ruthie Knox writes witty, sexy romance novels for grownups. Read more >
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28 Responses to The Sexual-Romantic Politics of Star Trek

  1. Serena Bell says:

    GREAT post. Haven’t watched in a long time, but will definitely have a more critical eye toward the whole romance thing when I resume, probably with a several-day-straight TNG marathon …

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Good way to relax — and there are some brilliant episodes in there! Mostly I just admire Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner’s awesome acting.

  2. Penelope says:

    1. Will you please marry me? (You can be my sister-wife or something). This is the best blog post ever.

    2. “Horks me off” is a new one.

    3. What about the relationship between Spock and Uhura in the latest Star Trek movie? I am loving that whole thing! Did you see it? It has LOTS of potential.

    4. Also, don’t forget about the alternate future thing w/ Worf and Deanna. I liked her better w/ him than w/ Riker.

    5. Brilliant!

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      LOL, thanks! I doubt Mr. Knox will accept the sister-wife idea, but I can check.

      As for (3) and (4) — I did see the movie, but I already don’t remember it. Sorry! And I don’t think I’ve seen the alternate Worf-Deanna future yet, but I’m up for any future in which Deanna doesn’t end up with Riker. Because Riker makes my skin itch. In the bad way.

      • Penelope says:

        Riker is a slimy player. Which is funny because I’m not getting the hot and sexy vibe with him. At all.

        Jean Luc, on the other hand……

        • Ruthie Knox says:

          See, that’s the thing — I’ve never once, for even three seconds, found any of the Designated Lothario Characters hot. And yet their insane sexual charisma is constantly being emphasized by the scripts. What is that all about?

  3. Penelope says:

    Also….remember the excellent episode where Beverly Crusher falls in love w/ that alien who has different host bodies. First he is a “HE” and then that body dies and he goes into a woman’s body. Which brings up a very interesting conflict–do we fall in love with someone’s “soul” or “physical being”…of course, Beverly can’t deal with the fact that her dude is now a dudette, and she bags his sorry ass. ST brought up a cool conflict about love/romance, but didn’t go anywhere with it. Too bad.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      I don’t think we’ve gotten to this one yet! But it reminds me that I *do* love the Worf/Jadzia Dax romance (and also the Cisco/Dax friendship) in DS9, in part for just this reason — Dax is a Trill, which is a parasitic species, and she shares the body of a human woman but is not only this woman. Raises similar questions of who/how/why we love.

  4. Rose Lerner says:

    It’s interesting, because I’m mostly a TOS fan, and I think a big part of the reason is because I tried to watch TNG and the sexual politics put me off. Which is ridiculous considering how there are NOT EVEN ANY REALLY MAJOR FEMALE CHARACTERS on TOS. But for example, there’s that episode where there’s the trial on whether Data is alive, and Picard’s ex-girlfriend is the judge? There was a TOS episode with almost exactly the same plot, where Kirk is being tried in a court-martial and his ex is the prosecutor, and she was a great character who did a tough job and everyone treated her with respect! Whereas the way Picard talked to his ex, and the way the episode treated her, made me really really uncomfortable.

    The weird thing is that I often find the romantic/sexual stuff in shows made in the 90s more upsetting than romantic/sexual stuff in shows made in the 60s and early 70s. And I DON’T think that it’s because sexism got worse! I wonder if it’s because the sexism in 60s shows is so different from what I deal with personally (and read about in Cosmo) that it doesn’t viscerally upset me. Or is it because women and sex and relationships get more screentime instead of following a Bond girl format, so the sexism gets more developed and apparent? (The sex/romance stuff in TOS that bothers me the most is the stuff between Kirk and Yeoman Rand at the start of the series, who were getting the multi-episode UST treatment, so maybe it’s that one…)

    Patrick Stewart IS super sexy though! Mmm, his voice.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Super-interesting comment. And you may be right — it may be simply a matter of the sexual politics being more noticeably on display in TNG. But I think also for me, it’s that I was alive when TNG was on the air, and grew up in a household and among people who *didn’t* have these ridiculous attitudes toward sex — which makes me irritated that TNG didn’t do better. Because whether our culture generally is steeped in the attitudes or not, the show’s writers didn’t have to replicate them.

      And yes, I don’t really like the way the judge is depicted in that episode about whether Data is alive. I did like the Data part of the episode, though. I like all the Data parts of every episode, ever.

  5. Eleri Stone says:

    Love this post! There was def a lot of missed opportunity on the romance front. I think some of that might have been the way Star Trek liked to wrap everything up in one episode while leaving the characters pretty stable from show to show. You know, they show up on a planet, stuff happens and is resolved and then they leave pretty much in the same condition they warped in.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Yeah, the episodic format is definitely a constraint. But even so, they did so well with multi-episode arcs on other fronts. Seven of Nine’s humanity, for example, or the hologram doctor’s development into personhood. (Actually, come to think of it, the hologram doctor’s love for Seven of Nine is pretty interesting. But they could’ve pushed it a lot further.)

  6. My baseline take on TNG is, of course +eleventy gazillion anything Patrick Stewart. I mean the whole series could consist of forty-minute segments of the man ordering tea and I would watch every episode of that multiple times, happily. So I’m biased, is what I’m saying. Also I adore Wil Wheaton and even though he was the Gary Stu of the STNG ‘verse, he was on the show and already awesome despite his youth and terrible scripts, and so on. Furthermore, I have no right to judge the show for featuring Marina Sirtis in a skin-tight outfit whenever possible, because I would have made exactly the same directorial/creative choice there. The woman is a freakin’ chocolate sundae on legs, she’s just delicious and what was I talking about again?

    Oh yes, the sexual politics. Everything you said, plus I always found it fascinating that when they DID take a more nuanced approach to metacognition about sexuality (metasexuality?), it was usually through the lens of Data’s self-discovery. As if the only way they could figure to discuss those issues was in the context of somebody who knew nothing and had no natural instincts about sex to go on…and somebody for whom any emotional component to the equation was also entirely an abstraction. Which figures, I guess, since I suspect a lot of the writers I guess identified heavily with Data, and if any character was ever metasexual it’d be him. Or maybe 7 of 9…also understandably featured in skin-tight outfits all the time because Geri Ryan, OMFG.

    Thank you for the picture of Tom Selleck topless. And Patrick Stewart, even though he wasn’t topless (it’s all about the eyes, with him, anyway).

    This whole post distracted me. It’s entirely possible I’m too…metasexual.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Interesting point about Data. You’re right, the episodes that deal with his sexuality are really interesting and not offensive — both his affair with Lt. Yar and another one where he’s on this planet for, like, one day and a spunky tech nerd falls in love with him, and he’s all, “Sorry, you do understand that I’m not capable of feeling emotion,” and she’s all, “Yeah *dreamy sigh.*”

      Building on your imagined idea about how the show’s creators feel about sex/romance vis-a-vis Data, I wonder if the reason the Designated Lothario Characters don’t remotely work in any of the series is that the writers don’t believe in them either. They’re an element the writers have been told they’re supposed to have, but they’re not invested with any real-world experience.

  7. Found this thru Penny. How amazing. Not sure I agree entirely. I always wondered who did clean up on the sexy holodeck Even though you could touch things they weren’t real and I want to know who slept on the wet spot.

    I never got Riker’s appeal.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Thanks for stopping in! Agreement not required. :)

      And I’m convinced that the secret no one wants to speak is that Riker had no appeal.

  8. Thank you for this post. What happy reading at 2 am! I’m a big fan of TOS and TNG, but never ever for the romance. This is why God created romance novels. I loved how the Star Trek reboot movie made specific reference to the dysfunctional Kirk + Green Girl romance. So no matter how much I’m for Deanna and Worf, I know that Roddenberry’s true visions wasn’t about gender relationships, but idiosyncrasies of society (Remember that weird episode TOS where the people were half white face and half black? What about that weird pizza monster?)

    Really the more important romance was with me as a viewer. TOS: I always loved Spock, and was creeped out by Kirk. Come on. The concept of Pon Farr is uber sexy. TNG: Team Worf all the way. I guess sometimes I need logic, and sometimes I need Klingon rage and passion. I’m okay with that.

    As for that picture of Picard. He is perfect. Period. I don’t even care that he is supposed to be French and rocking a British accent. His doomed bonding with his accidental perfect mate is one of my favorite episodes. The rest of my favorite episodes have more to do with interesting friendships and societies that mock our own.

    But you don’t have to take my word for it (Thank you, Levar Burton, in my fanfic Geordi would have an awesome girlfriend!), I am a self-professed fan who owns an Uhura costume. Uhura/Spock in Star Trek reboot was nicely done (but then Romulan subplot made no sense).

    Ruthie Knox, you have made my stardate! Thank you, thank you.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      “The more important romance was with me as a viewer” — what an awesome point. I hadn’t thought of that, but I wonder if it’s a deliberate choice on the part of the writers (and on television writers generally). It would explain why so many of the romantic arcs stretched out, unresolved — because viewers wanted to keep the characters available for themselves.

      As for the Pon Farr — unh.

      I did like the accidental perfect mate episode, I just found the ending unsatisfying. My favorite part, though, was that Picard kept smiling really goofy, so you could see the gap between his front teeth. He hardly ever smiles, so it was special, and it did a marvelous job of conveying how hopelessly head over heels he was.

  9. Bravo!

    I’ve thought all of these things at one time or another, and now I wish I’d been organized enough to write them down. >..>)

    • It still likely wouldn’t have come out as organized or effective as it did in this blog post, so thank you.

      I’m a sci-fi fan in general, and spent my elementary-school years plunking down every night for dinner and star trek: TNG. The show had a huge effect on my development with all of it’s ethical conundrums, and I even credit it with giving me different (if not odd) ways of looking at the faith I eventually cultivated. But one thing I can’t say it had any impact on was my sense of romance. No, I can safely say that a solid episode of the cartoon ‘Transformers’ left me with a better impression of what love is and should be.

      I blame the utopian ideal of it all. The romantic subplots were all very much like the federation ships: Immaculate to the point of sterility. (Not an episode went by that I didn’t think that surgery could safely be performed anywhere on the ship at any time.) Lets face it–interesting romantic relationships aren’t tidy. And Star Trek always seemed to lack the kind of grit that lends itself to authenticity.

      Fortunately, for my teen years I had Babylon 5 and Farscape to keep me going. (pffffft…nobody NEEDS to date in high school.)

      • Ruthie Knox says:

        Your Transformers comment cracked my shit UP.

        You might be right about the utopianism of it. Unmessy love is not interesting love — and unmessy sex? No thank you.

  10. Nina says:

    Star Trek does many things very well. Romance isn’t one of them. If you would like to see a spaceship show that does romance better, I highly recommend watching Babylon 5. The romance takes a while to build up, but it has a very satisfying payoff by the end of the series. The women of B5 are strong, well-rounded characters who are not confined to caretaker/helpmate roles. The show was designed to be a 5-year long novel for television, telling one epic story. This can make it a little more difficult to follow than Trek, but it’s worth the effort.

  11. The long-enduring debate of which Enterprise Captain would win in every fan’s epic showdown has spilled over with guts and gore. See the battle of the Zombie Captains as Kirk and Picard go head to head on the Zombie Walk of Fame at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2012/04/star-trek-zombies-from-zombie-walk-of.html

  12. Thiago Leite says:

    I’m a big fan of Star Trek and its futuristic, utopian and sometimes subversive approach. But when it comes to the matters of love and romance, you’re right. There are a few exceptions (very few), and I think TOS have done better at that than the other series, considering its limitations.

    The relationships are indeed treated childishly, like those in fairy-tales, and often serve only to help the plot develop.

    I’ve been planning to write an article about each Star Trek’s captain romantic life, and I’ll have your text as a reference.

    Also, I would like to translate your text to Portuguese and publish on my blog. Is that ok?

    Thanks.

    • Ruthie Knox says:

      Ooh, tell us when you finish the article! I’d love to read it. Meanwhile, yes, do feel free to translate and republish the post in Portuguese. It will be our first foreign-language translation here at Wonkomance — a milestone, indeed. Just give us a link back. Cheers!