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.

Posted in Television | 28 Comments

Love in the Dark Ages

In a few days, it is my birthday (May 4, ooh la la), so I am thinking about numbers. And ages, and how they just keep increasing, and increasing and increasing! In romancelandia, there is a prescribed age for our protagonists. Heroes are somewhere between 28 and 40. Heroines are 20 to 28 (this can dip low for historicals or up high for contemporaries).

On the one hand, it makes sense, in that the hero can have attained some maturity and some wealth. He’s interested in settling down. The heroine has outgrown teenage fickleness but is still in the blush of youth. Her maternal click is tick-tick-ticking but not yet gonging her over the head.

But on the other hand, what a gip for everyone else! If you’ve passed the “prime” romance age, do you not also deserve love? If you find your love as a teenager, is it automatically invalidated? (Which would have been bad news indeed for my husband and myself, who started dating when I was 17)(My father gave us 6 months before we broke up. I delight every year in proving him more and more wrong. (But in a totally mature fashion, befitting my advancing age.)) Hmm.

So, in honor of my birthday, the number of which I will not share except to say that it is a) between 20 and 40 and b) flipping the right-most digit, so not something I need to have a crisis about, this year anyway, I am going to share some age-related wonkomances.

This post would be remiss without first mentioning Robin Schone. She writes erotic historicals that feature the 40-and-up set. And not the bottom half, all the books I’ve read from her contain heroes AND heroines in their upper forties, with their bodies realistically (and lovingly) described. My personal favorite of hers is Gabriel’s Woman, but Scandalous Lovers wins for it’s blunt examination of sexuality in the Victorian period. In that one, the heroine is a 49-year-old grandmother, who meets the hero when she attends a meeting of the “Men and Women Club”, a group of mostly unfulfilled people meet to discuss sex. Most of them have not orgasmed, at least during intercourse. Some are virgins. One has a premature ejaculation problem. And most notably, none of these people are gorgeous, perfect, amazing, just deliciously average.

That is the upper end. There are a few that play along. The heroine in Lisa Kleypas’ Suddenly You is 30. In fact, the book opens ON her thirtieth birthday, where she has hired someone to come and take care of her pesky lingering virginity. Thirty-somethings are more common in contemporaries (as they are in real life). Forty still appears to be a step too far, at least for heroines, although Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You has a woman turning just turning 40. I’ve heard of it happening (Suzanne Brockmann has one, I think?)

Now, the bottom range gets a bit tricker, because of YA. There are plenty of awesome YA romances, at high school and younger and younger. I got my start reading such YA romances as Madeleine L’engle A Ring Of Endless Light (A love triangle! A wealthy brooding (teenage) hero! Dolphins!), Ann Rinaldi’s Time Enough for Drums (Forbidden love! Spying! Mentor-student relationship – yum!) and Cynthia Voight’s On Fortune’s Wheel (Class differences! Slavery, which turned my crank even then, though I didn’t understand why!).

But, if we are talking about adult romances, particularly those with Naughty Parts, then what is the bottom? For heroes in an erotic romance, it’s most definitely 17-year-old Sean from Finding Home, who I’ve written about before. I recently loved, and I mean LOVED, Generational Sins by Samantha Blair. It’s romance and BDSM and action-drama-suspense-ohmygod. Basically, this is the book I always, always wanted and finally found for the ridiculously low price of $0.99.

The Sweet Gum Tree by Katherine Allred is an adult romance, though it’s sweet. Closed door sex and yet I still loved it, so that’s saying something. The hero and heroine meet as children, become friends, and the relationship matures into a romantic (and sexual) one just about as soon as both of them develop all the right parts for it. We do end up following them into their later years, but in neither of these books is the past shown as limited flashbacks, but instead have substantial romantic and character development at a young age.

And the last age twist of the day: cougars. I almost hesitated to include them since they are definitely becoming trendier, but I think they are still foreign to most romance readers. In Erin McCarthy’s Flat Out Sexy, the heroine is a 30-something working single-mom with 2 kids. The hero is a 20-something with a hot career as a race-car driver – what a match! There’s this one scene where the mom has been home all day with her kids, who have chicken pox, and she has to cancel her date with the hero. He, trying to be sweet, comes over with dinner. She opens the door, wearing jammies, her face a greasy mess – and I was cringing… Okay, what I’m trying to say is that I really liked this book. It’s everything I love about contemporaries.

Reckless in Moonlight by Cara Bristol and Game Plan by Karla Doyle both feature divorcees, looking for some hot smexing after unsatisfying marriages. I mean, who doesn’t like hot sex in their erotica, but the message is good too: sex does not end after marriage. Sex is not just for the young, or even better, 40 is still young!

There you have it, your tour through the Ages of Wonkomance.

So…. I am ready for my birthday spanking now! *turns over*

Posted in Talking Wonkomance | 1 Comment

Kimbra’s “Settle Down”

Part of what makes some romance heroes and heroines wonky is the way they treat their HEA (happily ever after). There can be a proposal, a marriage and 2.5 kids, a marriage and zero kids, a civil partnership, a we’ll-see-how-things-go. There can be an “I love you,” an “I adore you,” an “I have feelings for you,” an “I don’t ever want to be without you.” There needn’t be a picket fence involved when wonk’s the theme of the day, and I, as a reader, always find that refreshing…just so long as there is a happy ending of some sort.

One of my favorite songstresses today is the lesser-known Kimbra (who has recently achieved much fame for being featured in Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know”), and I really enjoy the subtext in her songs and accompanying videos—even the tunes seemingly about traditional HEAs. Her “Settle Down” is a prime example, and the visuals in this music vid are wonky, indeed.

Apologies for the short post, but I hope you enjoy Kimbra. [Her full-length debut album Vows drops on 22 May 2012.]

Posted in Music | Tagged , , | 4 Comments