- Introduction: What a lousy party!
- “You're a womanizer, baby”
- “But the James Bond '60s were the most sexist time of alll!!!”
- Beyond the Broads: James “Totally Reckless” Kirk and the Very Exciting Prairie Lights Poetry Readings He Still Attends When He Goes Back to Riverside, Iowa to Visit His Mom
- The Unicorn-Dog and the WASP.: The Uneasy Place of Jewish Masculinity in Popular Memory
- The Reboot of the Remake of the Sequel
- Conclusion: Memory Sanctions
Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.
We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!
“You’re thinking of Pike,” I say. “The captain in the unaired pilot. Some of that footage got reused for a later story, which made Pike into a previous captain of the Enterprise. And it never actually happened—it was a hallucination sequence designed by aliens who didn’t know what they were doing in order to tempt Pike. He rejected it.”
Bah Hamburg makes some attempt to hedge, but when I stick to the story and won’t give him a right-anyway ribbon he gets annoyed. He goes for a predictable, mocking “gosh I see you really know a lot about this,” as if he hadn’t been the one Holding Forth a moment ago.
It would be embarrassing for anyone, I suppose, to possess specific information about a throwaway piece of cheap television. Not to talk about this subject (after all, he felt very comfortable bringing it up himself) but to know what you’re talking about: to hold to facts. One may condescend to be amused by such things in an ironic way, and to declaim authoritatively on them, but not to actually pay attention to them. I ought to have agreed, and let him be right. There is an argument to be made that that’s just how conversations go. (How often, though, is such harmony established by the concessions of women, and should conversations held on those terms “go” at all?)
The thing is, he isn’t right. I do care about the subject, actually, and the strain in his girlfriend’s expression (coupled with the complete lack of tension in his own) suggests he’s been indulged thus more than is good for him, or for the rest of us.
His was a common enough error, and he can claim neither the credit nor the blame for the invention. The pop culture idea of Kirk, Captain of the Enterprise for the first Star Trek series (ST:TOS) and the original run of films, has become almost synonymous with Zapp Brannigan from Futurama. To quote Wikipedia,
[t]hough famed for his bravery and strategic genius, it soon becomes very apparent that [Brannigan] is sexist, vain, and often very cowardly and inept. […] Brannigan is also completely indifferent to military casualties. […] He is arrogant, completely incompetent, chauvinistic, and stupid.
Brannigan is supposed to be part comic exaggeration of the “real” Kirk, part reflective take-down of the source character  . Per wiki, in some ways the ultimate aggregator of the vox populi, “Kirk has been noted for ‘his sexual exploits with gorgeous females of every size, shape and type’ ; he has been called ‘promiscuous’  and labeled a ‘womanizer’  .” (Note all those still-working footnotes for fan-publications and major papers and entertainment news sites.) The article “Captain Kirk’s 8 Most Impressive Love Conquests” gives us such bon mots as these:
For three glorious seasons, Star Trek‘s Captain James T. Kirk boldly seduced and explored women no Earth-man had been with before. Well, okay, some of them were from Earth, but Starfleet’s greatest discovery was that no women anywhere in the cosmos could resist the intense gaze and oft-exposed, tanned pecs of the Enterprise’s head honcho. Who can blame them, really? Of the many, many seduction [sic] committed by James T. Kirk, here are the 8 most impressive (not most exotic, which would totally include the green Orion Slave Girl, but this doesn’t, because Kirk had no problems getting under her Orion’s belt), which deserve to be recorded in the Captain’s Log for all eternity.
The extent to which even critical people believe that Kirk proper was at least brash is evident in Strange Horizons’s own “Nimoy and Spock: Reflections and Farewells.” I cite this example not to drag anyone, but rather to point out the pervasiveness of this conception among people whose critical faculties and interest in the text I take more seriously than I do those of Thewurstboyfriend.
Serious, logical, balanced—[Spock] was the perfect counterpoint to the rash, bold Captain Kirk.
Whatever gave you the idea that Kirk was rash?
There is no other way to put this: essentially everything about Popular Consciousness Kirk is bullshit. Kirk, as received through mass culture memory and reflected in its productive imaginary (and subsequent franchise output, including the reboot movies), has little or no basis in Shatner’s performance and the television show as aired. Macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination.
I’m going to walk through this because it’s important for ST:TOS’s reception, but more importantly because I believe people often rewatch the text or even watch it afresh and cannot see what they are watching through the haze of bullshit that is the received idea of what they’re seeing. You “know” Star Trek before you ever see Star Trek: a ‘naive’ encounter with such a culturally cathected text is almost impossible, and even if you manage it you probably also have strong ideas about that period of history, era of SF, style of television, etc to contend with. The text is always already interpolated by forces which would derange a genuine reading, dragging such an effort into an ideological cul de sac which neither the text itself nor the viewer necessarily have any vested interest in. These forces work on the memory, extracting unpaid labour without consent. They interpose themselves between the viewer and the material, and they hardly stop at Star Trek.
I’m not talking basic Marxist conceptions of ideology here. By that I mean the contention that texts have subtextual, unquestioned allegiances to various forms of establishment power, and that by what they choose to focus on and what they choose to ignore (and what they thus render neutral and normal), texts convey propaganda for these hierarchical power structures to their audiences. I’m thinking instead of a related or subsidiary but distinct vast, collective, motivated process of misremembering, which I’m going to refer to as “Kirk Drift” in honor of this signal victim.
2. “You're a womanizer, baby” [contents]
Let’s start, as people so often do, with those infamous Green Women.
Yes: one existed in ST:TOS. Sort of. It was a vision. On a planet Kirk wasn’t even on. A captain was there: it wasn’t Kirk. Captain Pike and this green, Orion woman  could literally never have done the deed .
(ADDENDUM: I should also mention here the first and only actual Orion woman we see in TOS, Marta: an inmate of an asylum who attempts to seduce a suspicious, wounded Kirk, who is himself interested in escaping dangerous captivity. She then immediately tries to murder him. Ah, l'amour.)
Over the course of three seasons and six films (though I hesitate to mention the films in the same breath as the series, because even the initial run of films represents a significant, reflexive re-working of the original material), we do meet some women Kirk has had romantic relations with. These previous relationships mostly seem of a type.
- Ruth (“Shore Leave”) was a college girlfriend of Kirk’s while he was at Starfleet Academy. The script implies she was also in Starfleet. We see only a facsimile of her.
- Dr. Janet Wallace (“The Deadly Years”) was a biologist, and she and Kirk broke up in favour of their respective careers.
- Janice Lester (“Turnabout Intruder”) was a Starfleet-trained scientist. Their relationship lasted at least a year, and was strained and broken by Janice’s violent resentment of Kirk’s ability to benefit from institutional sexism (check the tapes, I’m not exaggerating, that’s what she says).
- Areel Shaw (“Court Martial”) was a dedicated JAG attorney.
- Carol Marcus (The Wrath of Khan), retconned into the history of Kirk’s life by the films, was a brilliant, ground-breaking scientist. In one draft of the script, this character literally was the aforementioned Janet Wallace 
At some point during his time at the Academy, Kirk “almost married” a blonde lab technician (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”). It seems probable that she was one of the aforementioned women (all of whom but Lester were blonde, though dye exists, and all of whom but Shaw were scientists, though majors can change—I know an attorney with a biology degree myself).
With the exception of Lester, all Kirk’s relationships that we’re aware of seem to have ended amicably. He and the women involved have often kept up communication to some extent, despite the impediments caused by interstellar travel (Wallace, Marcus). The relationships all seem to have been of some duration, and characterised by fairly serious involvement on both parts. They were distinctly emotional affairs, and no one accuses Kirk of having “womanised” during them. They all involved competent people drawn to demanding, intellectually stimulating fields—usually science—and the service of something greater than themselves—almost universally Starfleet.
Kirk’s storied history of womanising seemingly consists of his having seriously dated a fairly small number of clever women in Uni. We’re even told Kirk had to be manipulated into paying attention to matters of the heart and/or loins during that period (and that Kirk’s into “longhair stuff” like 17th-century philosophy):
MITCHELL: Well, I'm getting a chance to read some of that longhair stuff you like. Hey man, I remember you back at the academy. A stack of books with legs. The first thing I ever heard from upperclassmen was “watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.”
KIRK: I wasn't that bad, was I?
MITCHELL: If I hadn't aimed that little blonde lab technician at you—
KIRK: You what? You planned that?
MITCHELL: Well, you wanted me to think, didn't you? I outlined her whole campaign for her.
KIRK: I almost married her!
MITCHELL: You better be good to me. I'm getting even better ideas here. [indicates book]
KIRK: You? Spinoza?
Obviously Kirk’s clear serial monogamy habit doesn’t preclude his indulging in wild shagfests (with a side of chauvinism—because that is what we mean when we characterise neutral promiscuity as “womanising,” is it not?). But neither does his relationship history readily suggest that Kirk’s “a womaniser.” In fact, I’d argue it would be less of a stretch to suggest that Kirk also had some boyfriends that fit this relationship description than it would be to suggest that he altered the whole well-established pattern of how he dated to moonlight as a Lothario (which, despite the fact that ST:TOS chooses to show no strongly convincing evidence of such behaviour, we should somehow believe happened? … because ??).
Perhaps that strikes you as an uncomfortable or under-substantiated jump. Real talk: the many and varied ways a heterosexist impulse separate from the show dominates its reception is frigging weird if you think about it. Popular journalism and various fanmade resources that would scoff heartily at the Kirk/Spock crowd are absolutely frothing to infer heterosexual relations and Don Juan characterisations based on evidence that is dubious at best. Sexual exploits! No woman can resist! Explored ‘em all! Jesus, smell the gagsome Flashman colonialism coming off that one. Minging.
Perhaps the most major difference between these interpretive camps is that the perpetrators of Womaniser Kirk see their (self-insertion fantasy?) activity as absolutely neutral and unembarrassing, and their interpretation as the indisputable and monolithic truth of the text, whereas slashers are made to feel their chagrin for the most hesitant claims of queer possibility (they don’t even go full Eve Sedgwick on this shit, when they obviously could). No matter how textually supported an extra-hetero interpretation is, it’s illegitimate and “crazy” (feel the gendered force of that hysteria accusation). Meanwhile, these male and female characters had eye contact so they’ve for sure fucked. I mean, he was a boy, she was a girl, could I make it aaaany more ooooobvious??
One perspective is thus rendered a claim, an argument, while the other, which makes ST:TOS into Don Giovanni and borders on a gleeful diagnosis of sex addiction, is just true. Culture conditions the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a given reading in ways that have a lot to do with the needs and prejudices of the moment, and only a limited amount to do with either the actual work done by the text or with its conditions of production. Look, for example, at the points made by “Shakespeare in the Bush,” or Nina Auerbach’s work on figurations of the vampire.
Even so, man-whore-Kirk is such a meme. Surely there must be more evidence than eye contact and serial monogamy!
As it turns out, it depends what you consider “evidence.” I draw from a chart: “Q: How many total females did Kirk have sex with?”
(I suspect this document may be of Ferengi provenance: feeemalesssss!!)
Of TV show ones, 2 to 4 out of 4 confirmed ones were alien:
- Drusilla [“Bread and Circuses”]
- Deela [“Wink of an Eye”]
- Elaan [“Elaan of Troyius”]—MAYBE—not 100% confirmed as sexual partner but very likely.
- Miramanee [“The Paradise Syndrome”]—MAYBE—Strictly speaking, Miramanee is not an alien—she was an Amerind, who were a human off-shoot living on an alien planet.
(Links mine, though Memory Alpha is also a fan-made interpretive document that “naturalises” its interpretive conclusions in a way I’d at times dispute with.)
Given its insistence on evaluating the actual material of the show and its efforts to distinguish between people Kirk possibly slept with and people he probably did, compared to many popular receptions this chart represents a restrained and bearish perspective. Nevertheless, I find even this comparatively decent write-up disturbing. Its hesitance to differentiate between “confirmed” and “implied” is disquieting from an analytic perspective, but what’s truly odd is how little attention it pays to consent.
In “Bread and Circuses” Kirk was a captive (and the sex is implied, not confirmed). This sex, if any, is also disconcerting and situational: I can’t easily call it a cheerful example of Kirk Getting Some. Kirk thinks he's being watched. There's the suggestion the slave girl Drusilla might be punished for not “satisfying” him (“I was concerned [you might not like the food]—I am ordered to please you.” / “By the way, one of the communicators we took from you is missing. Was it my pretty Drusilla by any chance? See if he has it. Not that I would have punished her. I would have blamed you.”), and that Kirk might have been trying to distract Drusilla to steal the communicator he needed to escape and save the ship and crew (too late: another character beat him to it).
It’s quick and deeply weird, and to be honest, this episode mostly sucks. There’s even a big after school special Christian message at the end:
UHURA: I'm afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I've been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves. The empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion, but he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky, it's the Son of God.
KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now.
MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.
I can’t take anything that happens in “Bread and Circuses” terribly seriously. Some “Patterns of Force” level stupid up in here.
In “Wink of an Eye” Kirk is again a captive attempting to manipulate his way out of a dire situation. In “Elaan of Troyius” I really don’t know that any sex occurred at all, and further Kirk was drugged? That is the whole plot? Of the episode? He was not only not actively pursuing a partner, he was also not in control of his faculties. Only extreme self-control and his sense of duty eventually enable Kirk to overcome biochemical influence.
In "The Paradise Syndrome" Kirk has lost all memory of who he is and has taken up a new life as a villager, marrying according to their social customs. Again, this is not Kirk consciously making a choice and “getting some play.” It’s a more coercive situation even than The Next Generation's (ST:TNG) “The Inner Light,” wherein Picard lives a whole life in a lost civilisation in a moment due to the influence of an alien artifact. At least Picard still knew who he was in that instance. 
A tumblr fan essay  puts it well:
Nearly every instance of Captain James T. Kirk seducing an alien woman was not because he’s some randy alien shagger extraordinaire, but because he needed to distract the enemy of the given episode in order to save the Enterprise. In the same way we wouldn’t say a woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon (flirting with the villains to distract them and ultimately defeat them) is just some intergalactic bed hopper, neither is Kirk.
What unnerves me is how effortlessly “Kirk and the green women” conflates “trying to get out of a situation” with “making a conquest!!” If your vision of masculinity cannot distinguish between choosing to have sex and situations of dubious consent incurred in the line of duty, it is deeply toxic. You are insisting that men are hypersexual, unemotional, and can never be taken advantage of (lest they cease to be strong, compelling men due to their ever having displayed vulnerability). You could say it’s potentially a bit dodgy that Kirk uses his sexuality in this way, but that’s the kind of “dodgy” we’re looking at, and the distinction matters. I’ve seen bloody “Catspaw” discussed as an episode where Kirk “puts the moves on a lady and gets lucky.” Here is some literal dialogue from “Catspaw”, spoken just after Kirk tries to seduce a woman to get his crew out of danger:
SYLVIA: You are using me! You hold me in your arms and there is no fire in your mind! You're trying to deceive me! It's here like words on a page! You are using me!
KIRK: And why not? You've been using me and my crew!
Kirk does have an occasional one-episode romance arc with a woman (Edith Keeler is the most notable entry in this category). There are a handful of such moments across three American-length seasons, which actually adds up to significantly less romancing than most contemporary television characters on equivalent programs are expected to get up to. J. D. from Scrubs has more flings. This list doesn’t even count the textual crushes (I hate this show; my girlfriend doesn’t). Seriously, board games I’m selling because I don’t like them enough see more play than Kirk. He’s just too into his work.
MCCOY: Spock, I've isolated the biochemical substance of the Elasian tears. It's a kind of an infection, and I think I've found an antidote.
SPOCK: You are too late, Doctor. The Captain has found his own antidote.
MCCOY: Are you out of your Vulcan mind? Do you know how long I've worked on—
SPOCK: The antidote to a woman of Elas, Doctor, is a starship. The Enterprise infected the Captain long before the Dohlman did.
KIRK: Mister Sulu, prepare to take us out of orbit.
MCCOY: Well, I doubt seriously if there's any kind of an antidote for the Enterprise.
SPOCK: In this particular instance, Doctor, I agree with you.
["Elaan of Troyius"]
I am far, far from the only person to note that the actual Kirk falls short of our hot-to-trot image of him. Here is an excellent list breaking down “womanising behaviour” by episode and deconstructing that myth: if anything, I think it’s too generous to the “skirt-chaser” perspective. Here’s a more narrative episode-by-episode discussion.
Why am I bothering to make this argument again, if Womanising Kirk has already been exposed as some nonsense? Because the facts have not yet displaced patently incorrect common knowledge, and because I think there are reasons why they haven’t. These misreadings are supported by a subterranean network of ideas about masculinity, pop culture, and the past that consistently reinforce them, hitting refresh on these dank memes. I don’t think all the connections have been made here, and all the implications unfolded.
I’m also trying to illustrate how different interpretations are held to very different standards of proof. Constructing an elaborate chauvinist narrative is normal and invisible as work, while other interpretive perspectives must, under ridicule, press against this “received truth.” Again and again we see female-dominated media fandoms’ interpretations dismissed as emotional and ideologically motivated. But what is all this vast effort to butch up Kirk but clear evidence of at least equally goal and emotion-driven work on the part of male-dominated sectors of fandom and popular reception? The amount of labour you have to put in to get from “Catspaw” to ‘Kirk scored!’, and from Kirk the character to Kirk the womaniser is considerable. What drives this casual or fannishly dedicated unseeing but male emotional need  to attack vulnerability, to uplift and venerate dominating strength, and to project their desires onto texts and from there, life? Male emotion is here, as in most spheres, parsed as neutral, rational, and just: “obvious.” Its emotional content ceases to visibly exist, because male desires are so naturalised as to seem the state of the world.
The heterosexism goggles, which derange content via chauvinist interpretive paradigms, become not just inaccurate but horrifying when we look at episodes like “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” How would you read the scene in “Gamesters” where Kirk, terrified (with some reason) Uhura will be sexually assaulted and that he’ll be able to do nothing to help her, seduces his own captor in an effort to protect Uhura and get his people out of this situation if Kirk were a woman? What about the surveillance, fear of death and fear of getting an enslaved person punished due to his non-compliance in “Bread and Circuses”? Why are we cheerleading a vision of masculinity that cannot even acknowledge vulnerability and trauma in these cases, when if this were a woman we’d see these situations as coercive and violating?
In “The Conscience of the King”, we learn that Kirk is a survivor of a colony-world genocide that occurred during his childhood. As an adult, Kirk attempts to determine whether an old man, now an actor, is actually Kodos, the mass murderer who perpetrated this genocide. “Conscience” is a complex, shifting episode made in the wake of the arrest of aged Nazis in South America by Mossad agents (again, it’s subtextually important to this episode that Kirk is played by a Jewish actor). Kirk uses the actor’s daughter, pulling her closer to him in the hopes of getting the information he needs, weighing his desire for revenge against the responsibilities of his position and the imperatives of mercy. In turn the young actress Lenore, obsessed with her father, uses Kirk to get close to and try to kill remaining survivors, Kirk included. She aims to eliminate any witnesses who might place her father at the scene of the crime.
At the end of the episode, McCoy suggests a romantic reading of the situation: “You really cared for her, didn't you?” Kirk smiles ruefully.
Direction, acting, and writing all contribute to the polyvocality of the televised text, which may represent many competing dramatic imperatives and have many valid interpretations. That said, McCoy’s imputations seem to me patently ridiculous here, and this comment in keeping with other times McCoy has misread situations. The context in which Kirk “cares for” Lenore is as a reflection of himself. She’s lost to a destructive vengeance that also tempted him in another (more just) form, mired in the events of her personal past and their shared trauma. They are both survivors, and yet they are also the tyrant’s most afflicted victims. They live on with the pain, conflict and self-recrimination. Lenore has tried too hard to sublimate these emotions, and the impossible burden of doing so has broken her. She didn’t witness the genocide, but in some ways she’s inherited complicity and guilt. She and Kirk are both struggling to put the past to bed and to respond to it.
Lenore, like her poetic namesake, is essentially dead. She has been since long before Kirk met her. There is nothing to love in her because she is only (through choices her father made after the massacre, and possibly by his design) a living monument to her father’s mistakes, consumed by madness and using people to fulfil a monomaniacal quest. Kirk isn’t real to her: her vision of the world cannot possibly admit his humanity, or that of her father’s other victims and would-be victims. Kirk perhaps at times fears this is true of him as well: that his self-abnegating, self-destructive desire to devote his life to service is born of the antithesis of her motives, and that he too survives as Kodos’s monument.
So, did Kirk “care for” Lenore, as McCoy suggested? He brutally exploited her weaknesses and used her (an appealing, charming older man pulling information out of a somewhat isolated, unstable young woman with profound daddy issues), even as she attempted to use and destroy him. She’s now being “cared for” in a mental institution she’ll never be released from. Sometimes the tale-end sting of acts of injustice is that their aftermath involves their victims in complicity with evil, any which way they turn. Abigail Nussbaum has written about the trap genre fiction sets for survivors here, for the impure and unhealed who have any reason to be angry. In his attempt to put things right, avenge the dead, and protect himself and his subordinate and fellow-survivor Lt. Riley, Kirk has destroyed both an old man and Lenore’s fragile sanity and precarious life. He knows this. He’s never been comfortable with either the ethical implications of what he’s doing here, or with those of inaction. McCoy’s attempt to offer understanding and consolation must rub salt in the wound his keener self knowledge has cut in him. The would-be flattering explanation puts pressure on Kirk’s actual ugly, complicated, ambivalent feelings and actions.
This is a pretty up-front, surface-level reading of the text that has the generosity to allow an obvious fucking Holocaust metaphor to not be about dicking—that doesn’t do the equivalent of assuming the Nazi officer/Jewish servant girl “love story” in Schindler’s List is authentically romantic and should be celebrated as such. Yet popular reception consistently makes McCoy’s mistake, collapsing plots and emotional drives down into a pablum. But that’s okay and normal because it’s straight pablum. Do you see the incredible violence this way of thinking about sexuality does to relationships, and to stories that include them? The sheer stupidity of it?
This conception of sexuality does incredible violence to heterosexual romance, compressing its rich and varied possibilities and significations down to “the many, many seduction [sic] committed by James T. Kirk.” “Why has Alfred ceased to sing / Why has Christina ceased to respond”? “Shall we lay the blame on the war?” Heterosexuality has been through the fucking ringer in cultural productions in the last decades due to backlashes against feminism and queer visibility that have transformed portrayals and interpretations alike into dumbshows—crude pantomimes, as before the play. These frantic defenses have done more to render the proposition of men and women loving one another a piece of one-note unsustainable ridiculousness than women’s lib and LGBTQ rights ever could.
3. “But the James Bond ‘60s were the most sexist time of alll!!” [contents]
It’s not just Kirk that’s better about women in his personal relationships than we give him credit for. He’s better about women as a person, as a professional than we give him credit for. The whole show is. Take the startling, before-its-time condemnation of Nice Guy bullshit in “Charlie X”:
CHARLIE: What if you care for someone? What do you do?
KIRK: You go slow. You be gentle. I mean, it's not a one-way street. You know, “how you feel” and that's all. It's how the girl feels, too. Don't press, Charlie. If the girl feels anything for you at all, you'll know it. Do you understand?
CHARLIE: You don't think Janice … You … She could love me!
KIRK: She's not the girl, Charlie. The years are wrong, for one thing, and there are other things.
CHARLIE: She can.
KIRK: No, Charlie.
CHARLIE: She is.
CHARLIE: But if I did what you said! If I was gentle!
KIRK: Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can't have. It's no fun facing that, but that's the way things are.
CHARLIE: Then what am I going to do?
KIRK: Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.
CHARLIE: You don't.
KIRK: Everybody, Charlie. Me, too.
Abigail Nussbaum recently remarked on Twitter that she “saw a tumblr post yesterday about how Luke Skywalker defies so many toxic masculinity tropes common to male heroes.” She “[w]anted to reply saying ‘yes, that's because he was written in the 70s, when most of that was pretty unexceptional.’”
Masculinity is not a fixed construction: it evolves over time. When we view Kirk as Zapp Brannigan, actually we’re retconning a more current understanding of the male action hero and superimposing it over an era where it doesn’t have all that much business being.
Again, I refer you to this tumblr essay :
The womanizing myth of James T. Kirk is circulated primarily because we as a media consuming society love to look back on the older versions of Star Trek and suggest that the characters had all of the values and beliefs of the time period in which the show was produced. So, we think back on 1966 (the first year the original series aired) and we think suave womanizers, casual workplace sexism, disappointingly vacant rights for women and minorities, and we choose brief scenes and images from the original series that will affirm our limited perception. (Despite the fact that 1966 is the year the National Organization for Women was founded and the US Supreme court solidifies Miranda rights into national legal code. Martin Luther King Jr. stages civil rights marches, and Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and Russia engage in numerous peace negotiations following years of war and unrest.)
The unfaltering truth of the matter is that Kirk gets dumped by beautiful, intelligent, independent women that he cared for on an emotional level more than he gets laid by random hot alien babes. And this is the TV show that we created in the 60’s, a futuristic fiction trying to uphold utopian ideals—while today we’re producing shows like Mad Men, an anachronistic retelling of the past with enduring focus on alpha male stereotypes featuring an alcoholic chainsmoking corporate asshole with a history of infidelity and emotional abuse.
But if you have an extreme desire to have sexual relations with someone blue from an exotic planet, go watch James Cameron’s Avatar.
And here, in another tumblr essay :
There are very clear and striking differences between Kirk and Riker’s characters, and the fact that gatekeeping white male assholes try to make Kirk out to be everything Riker really is (as a way to justify their own blatant misogyny) is nothing short of absolutely disgusting and everything that Star Trek is against.
My learned colleague does not go far enough. Play it again, Sam.
I’m not saying there wasn’t anything dubious about gender relations in the 1960s in America. I am saying that we have, in some ways, become more wedded to forms of masculinity in entertainment that are violent, in opposition to cooperation and professionalism, and sexist. This is in part a way of enforcing a masculinity currently perceived as imperiled due to unstable and disempowering relations of capital, and as a backlash against the increasing visibility of women and queer people (and people of colour, especially black people: this is not a “colourless” masculinity, though a good deal of its toxicity also adheres in different forms to men of colour).
And as I said in my review of Steven Universe:
There was something like a systemic advent of The Not Gays in media circa, oh, let's semi-arbitrarily say 1985, when the possibility of actual gays became Too Real and things like male friendship had to be radically disavowed on screen. […] This does violence not just to the texts in question and the possibility of queer readings […] but also to male subjectivity: no one is allowed to have an actual complicated feeling or a friend, male or female, under the reign of the Not Gays. Rarely has so much been signed away for such a sad, retrograde, feeble point.
My point here is not to argue for perfection. I certainly do not claim that Kirk and ST:TOS were flawless harbingers of third wave intersectional thinking, always and forever on point, amen (though I will stand by an argument that they do a lot of good work I’d like to see more of today, both in their context and considered in comparison to contemporary texts). There is no way for anything to be always ahead of the currents of radical thought, nor is perfection even necessarily a state of affairs to be yearned for. Social justice is in some senses a technology that must be discursively developed before it can be accessed. It is also not manifest in some immaculate person or product without sin, or in some final position where we get everything right and it stays that way, forever: it is always an evolving understanding. It is of necessity polyvocal and complicated, personal and political.
Yet there is a colossal insipidity in both patronising “this art product was good for its time” arguments and in Columbus-discovering sexism (or other forms of injustice) in the cultural materials of the past (gosh, what a find). Both can be somewhat valid positions to take, but they are often the lazy products of a false consciousness of our own differently-coded era as universally better, and of history as neatly and linearly progressive. Think not of “the arc of history,” that long single line that, god willing, bends towards justice. The position of a thing like “gender relations in 2017” is nothing like so easily determined: it is comprised of a thousand strings, some of them inching forward, some of them being looped and snarled and even pulled back, and some of them being twisted in unforeseen directions. Only in centuries will we be able to make out, or perhaps to tell ourselves that we see, that “arc.”
So domestic washing machines in the home eased the massive labour of laundry for women. This meant machines moved into the home, unseating the once common middle-class Western practice of sending out laundry. Many housewives actually ended up doing more laundry-centred work due to the washing machine, and laundresses lost their jobs. Since the 60s there’ve been great advances in workplace equality: now middle class women are largely in work, and also undertake a “second shift” of substantial domestic duties. Such progress. Much liberation. Wow.
It’s always thus: we did away with rookeries in London and established council housing. We then sold off the council housing and brought back rookeries. And each individual thing is small potatoes, except it isn’t, because everything’s small potatoes. We have not cleanly “bettered” the position of women since the 60s in entertainment any more than we have absolutely done so via the introduction of domestic laundry machines. I’m not denying advances born of the hard work of the women’s movement, simply stating that “everything is getting inexorably better!” is in some ways the modern equivalent of “don’t mind being a peasant under feudalism or rebel against the lord of the manner, because heaven will sort it out in the end.”
“Pop culture’s progressed so much since ST:TOS!” Well, let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour, because yes!! and no, and yes, and no, and … yes? There were not more women on the bridge in Voyager than there were in TOS or TNG (we can argue about Kel/Seven and B'Elanna, but then we can argue about Rand, Chappel, and Number One). Besides, pure actorly representation, the number of marginalised bodies on screen, is not actually as important as what people are doing in stories in which they appear and who is able to create these stories in the first place. ST:TOS had significant female writers and producers, whereas J. J. Abrams is now handed every nerd property in the world despite showing little special fitness for the task (unless Joss Whedon is free). The problem is hardly confined to Star Trek. Since 2008 only two women have written (single) episodes of Doctor Who, and their inclusion occurred after significant criticism. The directing numbers aren’t that much better. This is actually a huge drop-off from the number of marginalised creators involved in making classic Who.
I don’t think Star Trek should be held above criticism: that would be neither healthy nor helpful. But then this chagrined, repetitive “well it’s sexist but” is not healthy or helpful either. Yes, Star Trek is sexist. We all live within a matrix of interests governed by a sexist, racist imperial mechanism of capital. To be sure, there is no ethical production under capitalism and no expression of gender under kyriarchy is pure and uninfluenced by patriarchy. Given this reality, in what ways is ST:TOS sexist? How do we understand its sexism differently than that of our own moment? How does its sexism illuminate that of current productions? What is better now, and what is worse? For it is certainly not all better now, either in the sense of being entirely mended or even of being somewhat improved in every capacity.
How does a remark that ST:TOS was sexist because, for example, miniskirts were on screen add to this conversation? In such comments miniskirts are but rarely contextualised as a decidedly gendered but omnipresent component of the quotidian wardrobe of the decade. Miniskirts show up in ST:TOS largely because they were everywhere in the 60s. The rhetoric of the day understood them as as a daring “choice feminism” statement, and one assumes that in ST:TOS they signaled ambivalently in that contemporary capacity rather than exclusively serving as “eye-candy.” That element is of course present in reception, but perhaps moreso now than at the time.
Given how thoroughly most of the aforementioned remarks on ST:TOS elide such context, how do stale observations about the miniskirts help me or anyone embark on feminist critique, or any other part of the great, shared work of the world? Oh it was easy, was it? The mini-skirts were low-hanging fruit. Girl-power, or something. Well fuck your “easy.” The wrong, careless call-out does not generally add to the sum of aggregate rightness in the world just because it’s well-intentioned and fuzzily left-identified. It largely just wastes time and muddies the water.
4. Beyond the Broads: James “Totally Reckless” Kirk and the Very Exciting Prairie Lights Poetry Readings He Still Attends When He Goes Back to Riverside, Iowa to Visit His Mom [contents]
As a result of this toxic-masculinity-driven revisionism, popular reception is as wrong about Kirk’s general character as it is about his supposed hypersexuality. As Stefan Rabitsch has extensively documented in his essay “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower,” which deals with both production documents and readings of the text , Kirk, like Picard, is based extensively on C. S. Forester’s British Age of Sail naval officer protagonist.
The resemblance is not situational or superficial, but foundational and carried through the series. Kirk, who is like Hornblower an educated, intelligent man capable of great sympathy, also shares Hornblower’s self-discipline, his commitment to his ship, his self-containment and his analytical decision-making process. This is interesting because nobody would call Hornblower a ladykiller , though actually he does have a few romantic liaisons (and memorably brings Bush a pineapple) . Nobody would call Hornblower rash. He is thoughtful, awkward, competent, etc. This is the man Kirk is based on. Ha-h'm.
As with Blakes 7 (in many ways a critical British answer to ST:TOS that phrases its response in the grammar of the original in order to better speak back to it—but mostly to sell itself, let’s be real), the “right-hand man” has in some ways stolen the protagonist’s thunder. The narrative structure of protagonism enables both Spock and Kerr Avon to do this, but it also doesn't hurt that both characters explicitly tell us they're clever, with a special number. Spock has an A7 computer classification; Avon is the number two man with computers anywhere in the galaxy (says Vila). The existence of Spock, with his easily classifiable intelligence and over-egged rationality, blinds people to Kirk’s persistent, demonstrated, textually-flagged extreme professionalism and competence:
PORTMASTER STONE: Now, look, Jim. Not one man in a million could do what you and I have done: command a starship. A hundred decisions a day, hundreds of lives staked on you making every one of them right.
Stone is not simply discussing nerve (though Kirk has, via training and self-control, developed an extraordinary capacity for operating under pressure). He’s referring also to the vast array of knowledge at Kirk’s fingertips, to his ability to evaluate specialist counsel and make good decisions quickly in a crisis, and to his dedication to and concern for his ship and its people. Kirk is the only one, even over Spock, capable of resisting the influence of a deranging virus in order to protect the ship in “The Naked Time.”
Rash? Kirk is obsessively protective, hesitant to destroy the Enterprise and its crew even when it would be safer for the galaxy for him to do so (“By Any Other Name”). This is in fact about the only time he’s “rash”. He makes an objectively bad decision in order to protect the ship. It’s not a lapse he often repeats, and he almost didn’t allow sentiment to cloud his judgment on this occasion either.
It works out in the end due to Kirk’s cunning, not Spock’s genius. As clever as Spock is, he’s not the superior multi-tasking problem solver. That’s the whole point of Kirk, and Spock respects him and his work. In “The Ultimate Computer,” when technological innovation threatens to replace living captains (Kirk included), Spock is immensely supportive of Kirk. He highlights Kirk’s leadership, suggesting that he, Spock-the-computer-expert, trusts Kirk’s personal judgment more than that of even the most advanced machines:
KIRK: Machine over man, Spock? It was impressive. It might even be practical.
SPOCK: Practical, Captain? Perhaps. But not desirable. Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him.
If Kirk takes a “leap of faith” in situations, it’s because the other choice is to sit still and die. In fact you could argue that it’s Spock who sometimes behaves irrationally in TOS, prioritising Kirk over the safety of the Enterprise in "The Tholian Web," questing endlessly to find him in “The Paradise Syndrome,” and making a desperate last-ditch effort to signal the Enterprise with limited resources (rather than preserving these in order to marginally extend the lives of everyone on board a failing shuttle craft) in “The Galileo Seven” (an episode I hate so much we’d need another damn essay).
Kirk’s decisions are often made under pressure, but they are also almost universally sound. Kirk is absolutely not a “maverick.” As a member of Starfleet he obeys orders he thinks are deeply unreasonable and personally repellant, as in “The Galileo Seven.” He kicks back only within the structure of Starfleet’s normal push-and-pull regarding the implementation of orders. People who accuse Kirk of being unusually loose with the prime directive forget that the narrative suggests that the Federation is still working out a common-law understanding of a concept that will solidify and become more important by the era of TNG. That’s the Watsonian explanation. The pleasingly co-creative Doylist one is that the production’s series bible was still working its way into being, and that the memory of “the prime directive” would enter the popular consciousness via TOS and feed back into a firm, fixed concept in TNG.
While I could give you endless examples of Kirk’s restraint, his comments in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, when a god-like entity charms one of Kirk’s female junior officers and threatens to keep the crew as captive worshipers, rather epitomize the sheer distance between the reality of Kirk and the idea of the danger-loving space sexist:
KIRK: Lieutenant, all our lives, here and on the ship, depend on you.
PALAMAS: No, not on me.
KIRK: On you, Lieutenant! Reject him and we have a chance to save ourselves. Accept him, and you condemn all of us to slavery, nothing less than slavery. We might never get help this far out. Or perhaps the thought of spending an eternity bending knee and tending sheep appeals to you?
PALAMAS: Oh, but you don't understand. He's kind, and he wants the best for us. And he's so lonely. What you ask would break his heart. How can I?
KIRK: Give me your hand. Your hand. Now feel that. Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference. We're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are. A bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. The only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?
PALMAS: Yes. Yes, I understand. He's calling me.
KIRK: Lieutenant, you have your orders and your duty.
PALAMAS: Yes, sir. My orders and my duty.
Kirk doesn’t have much patience for neglecting responsibility in favour of romance, either in himself or others.
Face it: Kirk is a big nerd who punches people sometimes, but also memorises poetry and has nice chats with Spock’s mom and loves the ship intensely. He’s less tasked with enacting toxic masculinity in all its forms than many a contemporary male lead. He’s a great protagonist: simply enjoyable to watch, effective and interesting in his setting, and more complex and lovely than he’s given credit for. Kirk’s as good a character as Spock: that’s how their dynamic and show work. I would swap any one of thirty contemporary white-dude-show-leads for Kirk in a damn heartbeat.
5. The Unicorn-Dog and the WASP: The Uneasy Place of Jewish Masculinity in Popular Memory [contents]
According to the visual conventions of television, James T. Kirk looks like an All-American hero . As a consequence, more people remember Nimoy was a second-generation, Yiddish-speaking immigrant than remember Shatner was raised in a very similar (if Canadian) environment. Thus re-writing Kirk as the Zapp Brannigan popular idea of Kirk doesn’t just do harm to the character and introduce a new “Kirk” defined by chauvinistic violence: there’s also an element of goy-washing. Shatner’s Jewish body is over-written by this Lord Flashheart Wagnerian colossus. The voice actor Billy West’s other character Dr Zoidberg may be Jewish-coded, but Brannigan certainly isn’t: that’s left to Zoidberg, and to Kif Kroker, Brannigan’s Spock figure. Kif’s voice is inspired by that of Jewish comedian Jon Lovitz, but it almost doesn’t need to be: you get all those Ashkenazic associations out of nerdy, alien-Othered, decent but nebbish Kif already.
Futurama is fine-ish for its genre, and it isn’t quite responsible for the message it spreads. It's the translations of popular memory, which can be potent and insidious, at work. The program just picked up on and recapitulated what everyone else was thinking. It’s the translations of popular memory, which can be potent and insidious, at work. It’s not so much these parodic characters (Brannigan and Kif, and Zoidberg) that accomplish the assignment of destructive heroic masculinity to someone coded goy, and of intelligent sniveling weakness (well-intentioned or no) to someone coded Jewish.
Do you see what popular culture has to think about Jews and masculinity for Nimoy’s Jewishness to make it through in this altered form? Do you see why Shatner’s is invisible and obliterated in this way ? With violent anti-semitism once more on the rise in America and Europe, I’m not particularly inclined to see such figurations as neutral, free of context and of consequence. My patience for things that are “just jokes” is now reserved for shit that’s, I don’t know, funny.
6. The Reboot of the Remake of the Sequel [contents]
In “The problem with false feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold)” Dani Colman wrote extensively about bad call-outs: botched repairs of the wrong problems. She argues, fairly convincingly, that Disney’s Frozen is not actually more feminist than other Disney films. What it is more feminist than is the pop culture idea of the Disney film. Disney therefore collects accolades for progressiveness for doing almost nothing different or better than it had done, and the bar isn’t raised accordingly. Static complacency reigns, and is praised as active work for good.
In some senses, it’s the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself that matters. The animated series, the initial motion pictures, TNG (and its films) and subsequent series, and now the new reboots have all reworked ST:TOS. To varying extents what they’ve been reworking is not the text, but the reception thereof. Even the animated series has a lot of fan-service call-backs: Mudd and tribbles and Spock’s sad childhood on Vulcan. The original run of Star Trek films’ most dramatic moments (Kirk screaming at the death of his friend, Kirk disobeying orders to save him, etc.), which only have meaning because they’re great upheavals in Kirk’s life, have since come to define that character. (This mechanism is also at work on other characters in Star Trek films and reboots.) Misreading Kirk as generally brash makes these departures from his normal behaviour less important, and thus bleeds the drama clean out of Kirk’s reactions in, for example, The Wrath of Khan. Because Kirk was insubordinate at one of the most extreme points in his life and/or under the narrative constraints of the films (which are entirely different from those of TOS), he’s become a character who is read as insubordinate. When Hornblower gets upset over Bush’s death and fucks off to France for a bit, this does not erase his entire personality and life history. Why the hell has “Kirk mad with grief, pushed past his limits” erased the very idea of his limits? A character arc is neither terribly complicated nor a rare component of narrative. Why we refuse to play along with the device in this instance befuddles me.
Picard is yet another transplantation of Hornblower into space: it’s more pointed this time, so you can’t possibly miss it (like you apparently did the first time). Playground/messageboard “Kirk or Picard?” debates attempt to establish a dichotomy here where there is none: these men are not actually terribly different. They’re distinct characters, but their approaches and personalities are fairly similar. The key divergence, perhaps, is that Kirk, like Hornblower, is a Slytherin for Good, while Picard is probably a Ravenclaw. I know, I know, Trump and Brexit have killed the Hogwarts metaphor forever, but that’s an easy way of drawing the distinction. That and perhaps the fact that Kirk, fuelled by the sick tunes of Alexander Courage, is a bit more ready to rumble.
Riker, meanwhile, invokes the old “womaniser Kirk” chestnut. He’s even initially styled a little like Kirk. He calms down substantially after he grows a beard and stops looking like Kirk. This change presumably marks the point at which the production team realised they didn’t need a “Kirk as people have come to expect him to be” figure to hold audiences’ interest and the show together (after all, they didn’t the first time …).
The 2009-present Reboot Star Trek films, however, are remarkably interested in remaking not Star Trek but the idea of Star Trek. All reboots do this , but this is an egregious example of the tendency. Red Letter Media, often so boringly sexist and everything-ist , were dead on with their review of (what their Plinkett character calls) “Star Trek the Star Trek.”
As I’ve suggested, to an extent this has always been true of Star Trek films. The TOS films were made significantly after the show finished airing, and represent a distillation of pop cultural opinion on the original series. They “reset” Spock’s half-human angst, while the TNG films reset Picard’s Borg trauma, regressing both men’s character arcs on these points. They do so not just to create drama, but also to give the audience access to a “quintessential” idea of the characters that they recognise, even (especially) if they hadn’t been paying much attention before.
Bullshit easter eggs aside , the new Star Trek films are not for people who like Star Trek. They are spectacularly bad at delivering the essence of Star Trek: that universe, those characters. They are aimed at people who recognise the line “beam me up, Scotty” and sweet Fanny Adams else. Even the TOS films cater to people’s sense of recognition, and making them “feel like fans” without much of the playbour of having to become familiar with the canon. These pre-packaged elements also give casual viewers the satisfying sense of a bona-fide Star Trek Experience: if McCoy hasn’t told you he’s a doctor, Jim, not a wand'ring minstrel, have you truly seen a Star Trek film at all? Time and distance from the source material have only exacerbated these effects.
You see the reception idea of TOS everywhere in those first six films, but what the new films do with masculinity deserves special mention for being really, exceptionally pathetic.
The 2009 film literalises the green women myth because of course it does . And of course Kirk is panting after everything that moves but nothing gayyyyy (historically, the idea that someone living a few centuries from now under a different material/cultural regime will have a sexuality that conforms comfortably to a recognizable modern standard is fucking laughable, but). In this regard the 2009 film did a tight but successful limbo ‘neath the low, low bar of my expectations.
HOWEVER: in the stupidly-named Star Trek Into Darkness we learned that Kirk (Kirk!), TOS’s god-king of professionalism, who canonically abhors the idea of:
- hookups that interfere with duty;
- sexualised mistreatment of female officers under his command; and
- anything harming his crew generally
apparently sexually harassed nurse Christine Chapel clean off the ship.
CAROL MARCUS: You're much cleverer than your reputation suggests, Captain Kirk.
KIRK: I have a reputation?
CAROL MARCUS: Yes, you do. I'm a friend of Christine Chapel's.
KIRK: Christine, yes. How is she?
CAROL MARCUS: She transferred to the outer frontier to be a nurse. She's much happier now.
KIRK: That's good.
CAROL MARCUS: You have no idea who I'm talking about, do you?
Possibly Chapel wasn’t under Kirk’s command at the time and in this universe. (Though McCoy speaks to her on-board in the 2009 film, so signs point to yes.) I hope not. But even if she wasn’t, it’s still awful. Rather than breaking up fairly decently in Kirk tradition, Nu!Kirk apparently made such an ass of himself that Christine Chapel took a seemingly bad career decision  and moved to the (canonically more dangerous ) Outer Frontier to get the hell away from him. “She’s much happier now,” i.e. he made her miserable. He’s got no idea what happened to her; he doesn’t even remember her name. That is the grossest shite, and if she was even remotely directly subordinate to him when this pubescent junior-high bullshit went down his ass should be fired. Into the sun.
This is the quintessence of the process of character assassination we’ve been tracking, and the fact that it’s dropped casually and lazily, as a throwaway gag, only underscores the totality of this project to unmake the text. This isn’t even an argument Nu!Trek is making, it’s just background dialogue while Marcus is spilling exposition and Kirk is checking out her tits (and to his fucking credit Chris Pine’s delivery manages to soften what is clearly a “hurr hurr boobies” moment in the script: from TOS’s sweet, silly little Shakespeare-quoting tick to this). Somewhere a woman is happier, now, far away from the grotesque woman-consuming zombie we’ve made out of our hero James T. Kirk. This is a joke. Ha.
On Twitter, Abigail Nussbaum additionally drew attention to the Doylist side of the problem, namely “the whole Chris Pratt [who plays Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy] phenomenon, where becoming a major star [for men right now] means transitioning from sweetheart roles to asshole roles.”
The stories we tell are afflicted with a desire to overwrite a less chauvinist past, associating dickishness with importance and modernity like this is 90s comics: from the disenchantment of the world to the grimdarkening of it. The meta-level industrial discourse around these stories, for example the ‘narrative’ of a male star’s career, reinforces these drives. Depictions of on-screen masculinity contaminate off-screen masculinity, in Hollywood and beyond.
7. Conclusion: Memory Sanctions [contents]
In his memoir Moab is my Washpot, Stephen Fry has a few words for us on the amusements of common people:
I remember an episode of Star Trek that ends with Jim turning to McCoy and saying, “Out there, Bones, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in the galaxy.” I fully expected the nauseous obviousness of “I love you.” But Kirk turned to the screen, gazed at the stars and whispered:
“Please, help me.”
Strange, the potency of cheap television. (p. 387)
Stranger still, surely, that this never happened. It’s a conflation of a slightly structurally similar exchange between Kirk and McCoy and of a line from Harlan Ellison’s famous episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” In “City,” Edith, the commanding and idealistic social worker Kirk is falling in love with while trapped back in time, attempts to figure out Kirk’s mysterious backstory.
EDITH: And you don't want to talk about it? Why? Did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something? Whatever it is, let me help.
KIRK: Let me help. A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over I love you.
The difference between “please, help me” and “let me help” is fairly dramatic. In Fry’s mismemory, Kirk seems almost to ghoulishly relish this cry for salvation, this opportunity to exercise his own benevolent power over someone in peril. In the actual quote, Kirk cites a novel we’ve not yet read, and the phrase itself is not a ventriloquised cry of need but a personal offer to serve.
That “let” always strikes me. “Please allow me to do this for you: grant me permission, allow me to see your vulnerability and to aid you.” It’s an acknowledgement of the agency and dignity of the person who might need assistance, a plea for closeness and disclosure. The assistance becomes mutually elevating: the largess of allowing, the privilege of assisting. Not the dreaded declaration of love, but a demonstration of it: a love that has the potential to be more wide-reaching and yet more intricately fine than the collapsed mess of compulsory hyper-heterosexuality.
These “three words” do very different things, and create very different Kirks. For all Fry’s horror of those cheap and trite words that never arrive, not even in his false memory, it’s a cheap and trite “City on the Edge of Forever” his mismemory creates, impoverishing Kirk’s dialogue and giving this quiet, personal exchange between Kirk and a woman he feels for to a male friend (a more acceptable vehicle for such confessions, if Kirk is a “womaniser”). No wonder Fry’s brain tidied his memory up, automatically re-writing the scene, pro bono, for popular consciousness Kirk, who could not have had such a conversation. The Kirk who exists in such memories as Fry’s cannot possibly have a moment like this with a serious love interest like Edith. Popular Consciousness Kirk imposes his heroic aid rather than offering support .
Besides, it’s not just Fry. If he’s patient zero, then his influence is wide-reaching indeed. A Dreamwidth post by Belmanoir tracks the fascinating collective mismemory, the mass hallucination of this dialogue exchange that never was. Look at all these people, publishing in reputable venues that ought to have bloody fact-checked, who “remember” a scene of Star Trek that never happened! I bet the bulk of them absolutely believe it, too, and think this bit of nonexistent television was important to them in exactly the ways they describe.
While we were going over this piece, my editor flagged up the paragraphs on “The Conscience of the King,” saying essentially that Kirk’s having survived a genocide didn’t fit with his idea of Kirk at all. Would I edit the section to clarify whether this happened in a dream sequence/delusion, a la “The Inner Light”? But the events of “Conscience” are not arguable: they are not my theory, and they are not even potentially “unreal” for the characters. Perhaps I was a bit unclear, but I think it’s important and startling to consider that exchange in the context of this argument—indeed, of it happening even in the space of the argument that popular memory deranges our readings and overrides information.
Why can’t we see what’s in front of us? Why can’t we read? Why do we remember green women, molested, when there weren’t any, and the wrong “three little words”? Why has Kirk Drift occurred, affecting this character and this text? I contend this is not just random mismemory, but a sort of motivated, non-accidental, culture-wide process of forgetting. It’s the result of a kyriarchal tendency in reception and in memory that affects not only the reboots, but even our ability to see what happens in a text. Even when it’s right before our eyes, we can’t see Star Trek for our idea of it.
I’ve seen Kirk’s actual lack of womanising discussed before, and a few previous pieces (among them my own  and Rabitsch's ) have sought to correct reception histories that obscure the relationship between Hornblower and Kirk. But I wanted to write this piece because I’d never seen anyone try to synthesise these phenomena and talk about them in connection with one another: to look at how and why these things happened. Because it’s no small thing: you have to unsee so much, to undo and unmake so much to get to the popular reception of Star Trek. It’s a vast deal of work. These receptive drives extract and appropriate labour from you without your consent and against your interest.
This may seem like a phatic Frankfurt school mash-up of Freudian ideas about motivated forgetting and Marxist notions of ideology, yet the implications of this intersection are somewhat complex, and merit exploration. I’m suggesting this receptive drag is always between you and the text, always interpolating, perhaps working especially hard, as though it had a will to do it, when there is a fissure it has to cover up: that is to say, when there is a text that offers any real moment or window of alternative possibility.
All texts run the danger, even if they’ve worked hard to be progressive, or if they yield easily to positive interpretations, of being “rewritten” in the world and even in our minds. In relation to her own work, novelist Dr. Nnedi Okorafor says that “what I really want to discuss is the whitewashing battle in many readers' minds. The one that turns characters white upon reading them so the reader is more comfortable.” Her work, like all work that comes from a place of or offers any potential for alterity, is at risk of being “colonised” by conservative narrative reclamations operating via the mechanism of mismemory. It is not enough for a text to be progressive; its memory must also be defended against this decay.
This talk of parasitism may sound either hard Leninist or fundamentalist Christian (the devil’s a-workin’ inside you!). I would take your point if you said so, or if you were turned off by the rhetorical move of ascribing agency to effects. (I don’t actually understand these processes as self-willed, merely as precipitates of situations that themselves cause consequences. Consider their agency shorthand for the workings of capital, which is itself shorthand for the interlaced functions of kyriarchy.) But an opposition between
- hardline, Calvinist-deterministic conceptions of ideological influence, and
- a stubborn belief that such influences don’t exist at all, and that we’re all making absolutely free choices Because America or whatever
is a real relic of a post-war anti-communist climate of Western thought, as well as being difficult to productively work with. The West’s suspicion of structural underpinnings bolsters the status quo in favour of dominating hegemonies, preventing such hegemonies and their products from ever being questioned or deconstructed systemically. Such an approach limits artistic and political resistance to surface-level, tokenistic show. It’s “lean in” as fuck.
We must think with the particular in order to access the structural. Kirk Drift doesn’t just affect Kirk. His fate and that of ST:TOS is also that of other franchises, other reboots. It is not just given texts that must be defended against Kirk Drift, though in my opinion Star Trek deserves defense. To go back to other potent cheap serial fiction, let me quickly point out that we remember Dickens as a novelist, but not as a lifelong radical who fronted a journalists’ strike at 20, made his name initially as a parliamentary reporter as much as anything, ran a major women’s shelter for years, directed a vast array of others’ charitable projects, visited every new form of prison to open in his country and wherever he traveled to as part of his effort to stay an informed advocate for carceral justice, edited liberal periodicals for decades and promoted many female authors therein. Etc., etc.
There is a massive project, in all the nation-building, heritage-canonising costume drama adaptations, which tend to minimise class in their every visual and story-telling choice, to erase “Dickens as activist.” The one (one!) Dickens biopic (Dickens of London) attempts to render his activism entirely personal—muted, projected self-interest (when it really, really wasn’t)—and thus acceptable to the audience. If you’re familiar with his biography and/or certain areas of English Victorian history, you’ll know what a massive project this is: we are building an oubliette as deep as the Mariana Trench. This is psychic work on par with Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to levitate the Pentagon with the power of his fucking mind.
We remember Helen Keller overcame disability, but not that she overcame it to be a socialist activist and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). We remember Norman Rockwell as an illustrator of Americana, but not as a firm liberal integrationist. No one needs to command that every image of the Pharaoh Hatchepsut be erased from history: we do it ourselves, gratis. Kirk Drift is strongly at work in our popular histories as well as our texts. We are always being robbed of our radical inheritance: of black stories, of queer stories, of rupture.
I can think of some instances where texts have benefited from such vast, after-the-fact memory revisions. Robinson Crusoe is a dull, badly-written, racist pile of shit (and it’s “the first novel” like I’m Romy and it’s my high school reunion and I invented the post-it note), but the Robinsonade genre and Victorian pantomime Robinson Crusoes do have something to offer . Popular consciousness’s reworking of texts is not necessarily negative, and it might be elitist of me to suggest that interpretation of the true gospel of texts is better left to some form of experts. I do think, however, that we ought to be aware of the deforming processes of popular memory, and that this reception arc has a reactionary tendency that can at times wield startling force.
Four years ago, after I first told Niall Harrison about the baby-idea of this article, I saw a relevant article I’ve been haunted by ever since. It detailed how an American National Security Agency (NSA) director modeled his headquarters, his “Information Dominance Center” (which …), after a very familiar place:
It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a 'whoosh' sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather 'captain's chair' in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.
'Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,' says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.
The photos make me a little sick. Looking at them feels like identifying the body of a loved one after it’s been mutilated.
To quote the article:
Other photographs of Gen. Alexander's personal Star Trek Captain fantasy come-to-life (courtesy of public funds) are [here] [link dead]. Any casual review of human history proves how deeply irrational it is to believe that powerful factions can be trusted to exercise vast surveillance power with little accountability or transparency. But the more they proudly flaunt their warped imperial hubris, the more irrational it becomes.
How badly did you have to miss the fucking point of Star Trek to think the imperial surveillance state synonymous with the programme’s ethos?  “Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard.” No. No, excuse you. Picard would never. I wish I could give these men a Clockwork Orange aversion to the show, because no one has ever understood its best aspirations or deserved them less than this merry troupe of drone-strike endorsing assclowns. Get Picard’s name right out of your trash mouth.
The “Zapp Brannigan says Trump quotes” meme is not in and of itself anything like so directly, screamingly incorrect. It is, however, exemplary of the drift to toxic masculinity that made these ridiculous figures possible. If Brannigan is a parody of heroism, he must necessarily also represent an actual idea of it, and what art reflects it also helps create. The fail condition of subversion/parody is reification . We have laughed Zapp Brannigan right into the White House. It has gotten people killed. It will get yet more people killed. The only question now is how many, and what, if anything, we can do to stop it.
There is an argument to be made here about whether Star Trek deserves space in popular memory: whether it “ought” to be attended to, or whether my insistence on giving it detailed attention is just a manifestation of my personal preference for a collection of stories with, even I must admit, some undeniable American-imperial undertones. Where do I come off asking everyone to remember this flawed artifact right?
In In Praise of Forgetting, David Rieff contends that
collective remembrances are self-serving, often fraudulent and frequently dangerous. […] Rieff recoils at the conceit that memorialization is a moral and political duty, as well as a personal one in “our therapeutic age.” To the contrary, he says, remembering is ultimately futile, since all societies will—like the mortal individuals who make them up—eventually crumble to dust. To those who hope that remembering the Holocaust might help avert future genocides, he retorts that this is “magical thinking,” pointing to subsequent extermination campaigns in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Rwanda.
This is a somewhat compelling argument. Besides, some collapsing is a necessary part of learning and retention. We cannot all engage with the nuances of everything.
Ultimately, however, I do not think this argument answers the needs of people living in mass culture. As the aforementioned review of Rieff’s work points out,
in a book packed with pugnacious argument, he only implicitly offers rules for when to remember and when to forget. It’s a delicate matter asking victimized peoples to turn their backs on their grievances; Japanese rightists only further offend Koreans by proclaiming that they need to get over their wartime suffering.
If history is written by the winners, then people with power will always be the ones who control what is remembered, and marginal people’s truths and histories will be what is occluded. It is thus now. We cannot live without memory (and to do so would be to live without meaning). Given this, it becomes a question of what survives. If we do not strive for a strong and diverse collective memory, the collective memory that inexorably remains will be that of kyriarchy. Memory and accuracy also enable us to track and to contest changing definitions of masculinity. “Nostalgia can serve as a vital tool in the emotional reconstitution and preservation of suppressed histories, rather than sentimentally privileging the past at the expense of present concerns and limiting a culture's progressive potential” .
Besides, if Star Trek is going to be part of the conversation whether or not the Left wants to claim it (and look at how SFnal texts are being deployed in the discourse for conversation surrounding the Reprise of Fascism—look at how authoritarian forces are deploying the grammar of Star Trek, and at Nu!Trek’s imperial subtexts), then our memory of the text should not actively derange said text to suit political projects we do not necessarily consent to participate in. For these projects live in us and through us, like parasites that make us their unwitting and unwilling hosts. Like dybbuks that possess and consume us, taking our thoughts, our very eyes, and making them their own.
Thus it becomes a matter of reclaiming texts via attentive reading. In the post-truth world, attention is a skill. Reading is a skill. We must vigilantly listen to the hum of the currents of power running through texts and their interpretations, to actions and their spin. We must insist upon reality in order to meaningfully and morally do the work of relativistic interpretation: there are four lights, for fuck’s sake. We do have to have stories, and so we need to be able to see them. It’s important both to add marginal voices to canons and conversations and to protect the marginal elements already there from conservative erosion, for the sake of accuracy, artistic quality, and politics. We need to have access to their resources and to be able to use our own, not to host within ourselves an enemy that occludes all we see, that drains the progressive potential of everything we have access to. What good things we have done ought to be preserved. There are histories of resistance, large and small, that we ought not to lose; that we cannot afford to lose.
It is a difficult process. I have spent four years turning this concept over in my mind, not yet ready to write this essay. I do not feel I have escaped these effects due to cultivating an awareness of them. Even now I feel I have not described this appropriately, and have not given myself or you what you need to do this work. The language is wrong, and inelegant, and the thinking imperfect. But perhaps it will never be perfect, or perhaps it needs other thoughts on it, other hands. Popular reception has its strengths, in comment and in building and in contradictory complication.
All I can suggest is that when it comes to texts we believe we know well, know too easily, that we question and re-start. Bring the SFnal work of cognitive estrangement to the level of reception, rather than insisting the text do all the work (and being inattentive to the work it does). Assume you don’t know, and always watch for this trick of reception, for the automatic, received interpretation. Is it accurate? What is it propping up? Beware the tendency of memory to fill in the blanks with answers you don’t believe in: to decay in specific ways, along tired lines. Watch for the picture to warp. Suddenly you’re watching the seduction of a green lady, who is miserably saying “please, help me,” and you mistake what you are seeing for power, or worse, for love.
Aishwarya Subramanian helped me think through the argument about non-engagement as a post-knowledge position. Maureen Kincaid Speller fact-checked me on the cultural positioning of the mini-skirt. I did a lot of brainstorming with Robin Harding, and Molly Katz looked at sections. My partner Katy Armstrong re-watched with me, put up with a lot of kvetching and edited the first draft. Niall Harrison edited the resultant product, and waited like Penelope for this four-years-wandering train of thought to come home.
- Wikipedia again: “The character is based on the Star Trek captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. The show's executive producer David X. Cohen has described Brannigan as 'half Captain Kirk, half actual William Shatner.'” [return]
- Whose actress had a very interesting career, by the by. [return]
- In the rewritten pilot-cum-two-episode-story, the actual severely disabled human woman the aliens were projecting this Orion image onto and a now-paraplegic Pike choose to live together in the altered reality of the alien projections. This enables them both to survive and to exercise increased agency, enjoying a better quality of life. You could thus say that in a way Pike was “with” this woman, though when they do choose to be together they present as more mobile versions of themselves. Thus Pike is never with a “green woman.” Obviously this episode also cries out for a multi-faceted disability-studies reading. [return]
- Memory Alpha admits they want to cite this better. [return]
- A lot of people justifiably dislike “The Paradise Syndrome,” but I don't know that we could have had the far more popular “The Inner Light” without it. Sometimes it can be a bit misleading to think of given stories in isolation. [return]
- Essay at: soycrates.tumblr.com/post/107354427153/hey-dont-tell-me-what-to-do-the-great-shatner (accessed March 2017). [return]
- This would originate outside men, in larger social processes, and take varied forms within them, but then so do most if not all such drives. [return]
- Essay at: soycrates.tumblr.com/post/107354427153/hey-dont-tell-me-what-to-do-the-great-shatner (accessed March 2017). return]
- Essay at: rikerhateclub.tumblr.com/post/144986769898/i-know-that-a-lot-of-people-believe-that-kirk-was (accessed March 2017). [return]
- Rabitsch, Stefan. “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower”, Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3 (2016), 439–72 ISSN 1754-3770 (print) 1754-3789 (online). Liverpool University Press doi:10.3828/sfftv.2016.9.14 [return]
- I’m sure there are some leering sexist Age of Fail fans who would, somewhere, but praise Jesus I’ve yet to meet them. [return]
- Go away Hornblower/Kennedy Cumpeteers, you’re not book canon. Bush-Barbara or gtfo. [return]
- Here’s an article on this visual coding process: Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch, “Seinfeld’s Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 28.3 (Fall 2000): 116. Good work’s been done here in terms of Buffy, as well. [return]
- For further discussion, see my chapter “From ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to ‘Live Long and Prosper’: Engaging with Post-War American Jewish Identity via Star Trek: The Original Series” in the upcoming Springer volume Set Phasers to Teach. [return]
- My aforementioned Steven Universe piece suggests that reboots tend to a kind of homogeneity as well, collapsing their source-texts into a modern action film template that has only a limited relationship to the source material. [return]
- Seriously, they’re smarter and funnier than this. They can do better. They sometimes still do! Ironically, though, in their lazy racism (et al.) they are performing the very white fanboy catering mediocrity they slate in re: bad Star Trek films. Have fun becoming what you hate while retaining a dim and torturing awareness of what you let happen to you, I guess. That doesn’t sound like hell. Or anything. [return]
- I want to throttle whoever’s dumbass idea it was to gamify continuity, trading the sense of a stable world necessary for the development of emotional and thematic through-lines for a facile “spot the reference” game intended to glut media consumers with smug, masturbatory self-satisfaction because they can recognise tribbles or whatever. [return]
- I get that the altered timeline has produced a different Kirk. What I’m interested in is the ways he’s different and what projects these changes serve. [return]
- Canon (even nu!canon) leads us to believe that serving on a starship like Enterprise (even before it’s officially a flagship) is no small coup. How much work did it take Chapel to get here? How much did she give up in pursuing a different path? [return]
- Take a moment to remember Kirk’s brother and sister-in-law Aurelan’s sad, awful deaths. Judging by the events of Star Trek: Beyond, Nu!Trek’s universe seems about as bad in this regard. [return]
- Incidentally, of course “cheap television” is potent. That’s its business. Harlan Ellison knows his business: competent scripted television was not invented sometime after 2000, no matter what the thinkpiece industrial complex might imply. Besides, Dickens and Shakespeare were popular trash. In fact almost everything I really care about was at least initially considered that. Sometimes official validation has come to it and sometimes it hasn’t. The point is that it is just as likely that cheap television will be with us and venerated in a hundred years, divorced from its contexts and elevated as art, as it is that we’ll still collectively remember who David Foster Wallace is. This is one of the reasons this argument as to what Star Trek does and how we see it matters, I think. [return]
- Horáková, Erin. &lquo;Britpicking as Cultural Policing in Fanfiction.” In Play, Performance and Identity: How Institutions Structure Ludic Spaces, ed. Matt Omasta and Drew Chappell, 128-41. New York: Routledge, 2015. [return]
- Rabitsch, Stefan. “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower”, Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3 (2016), 439–72 ISSN 1754-3770 (print) 1754-3789 (online). Liverpool University Press doi:10.3828/sfftv.2016.9.14. [return]
- Briefly imagine Aishwarya Subramanian saying something clever here about how even these comparatively benign and certainly more interesting adventure fictions relied on and promoted dubious colonial narratives. [return]
You’re gonna think you’re deep with an “actually the Federation is bad/paternalistic and inflected by American imperialism” hot-take here, and that’s fine and has some validity, but DS9 did it better, and you know that’s not the point I’m making. Sorry, that sounds dismissive—my point is more that you don’t “break” a text by discovering imperial content, any more than you do by discovering sexist content, because every text written under capitalism to some extent exists within that field of signification. While you can do a valid analysis and dismissal of the whole project of Star Trek on these grounds, I personally find it more useful and accurate to look at Star Trek as in some measure a resistance to hegemonic forces that is also written under them. We can unpick the paternalistic superstructure while allowing ourselves access to and serious thought about the charm of Star Trek. In fact I don’t think we can optimally critically assess that superstructure or the programme without inhabiting the show’s affect, its promise, and its artistic successes. I feel the best and truest criticism opens itself to the text, enabling multi-faceted conclusions, meeting its seductions and persuasions, understanding it or subverting it from a place of knowledge. This only works if the text is giving you enough to engage in such a reading: you can’t get blood from a stone, or enjoyment from The Fountainhead.
Engagement is itself a matter of trust: I respect the harm-mitigating politics of no-platforming and non-engagement, which accomplish different goals on a quite distinct front. There’s a false equivalence in comparing politicised withdrawal with bad criticism. The whole point of harm-mitigating non-engagement is that people choosing to withdraw have already done the (extensive, arduous) work of engaging with these ideas, finding them lacking and dismissing them. It’s not this given text and utterance, it’s their place in larger structures of publication and speech. What right-wing activists call “debate” or the “introduction of different ideas” is an excuse to recapitulate content that has already been completely worked-over and deconstructed, that sits within larger patterns of speech and production and acquires significant altered signification from this positioning, and that does not address itself to the intellect (as its advocates would pretend) but rather to an audience’s insecurities and prejudices. We have all been exposed to such thought. To live now is to be inundated with the messages of capital, and with the entwined messages of fascism, in many forms. It is inescapable: it is what consumes moments of radical possibility in texts, that which will suffer no good thing to live. [return]
- Kip Manley elucidates the whole chain of argument leading to this formulation here. [return]
- Glazer, Peter. Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America. University of Rochester Press, 2005. [return]