Gene Roddenberry regretted how women had been portrayed on The Original Series. He told Cinefantastique not long before his death that, during the first Star Trek,
I didn’t pay any attention to women. In the years I have grown into something of a strong feminist.
But his desire to portray a future of gender equality led to some absurd overcorrections in the beginning of The Next Generation. It wasn’t until the later seasons that the show became comfortable with femininity.
Whereas Kirk had ventured “where no man has gone before,” Picard’s Enterprise would explore the gender-neutral “where no one has gone before.” More women were involved in creating the show, on-screen and behind-the-scenes. Three of the ten main characters were female: Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) and Natasha Yar (Denise Crosby). Although two of the three were in traditionally feminine caregiving roles (doctor and therapist), all were included in decision-making aboard the Enterprise and they all had their own unique backgrounds, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. No longer were the women of Star Trek defined by men.
Nor were they the only objects of lust and desire. On The Next Generation, women initiated romantic and sexual relations as well. Yar seduces Data (Brent Spiner) in “The Naked Now”. Troi, not Riker (Jonathan Frakes), sets the boundaries in their relationship. Lwaxana Troi (Majel Barrett) flirted with every man in her sight.
But Roddenberry’s newfound feminism also had clumsy consequences, from the female-ruled planet of “Angel One” — which McFadden described as “one of the most sexist episodes we ever had” — to the “skant”, a unisex version of the old miniskirt.
Troi and Yar wore the skant only once, in “Encounter at Farpoint”. The latter would appear in jumpsuits for the rest of her tenure. Sirtis was given various dresses to wear over the course of the series until Captain Jellico (Ronny Cox) told her to put on a uniform in Season 6’s “Chain of Command”. Her Season 7 publicity photo is the only one in which Sirtis wears a uniform.
Sirtis was thrilled, telling the BBC:
First of all, it covered up my cleavage and, consequently, I got all my brains back, because when you have a cleavage you can’t have brains in Hollywood. So I got all my brains back and I was allowed to do things that I hadn’t been allowed to do for five or six years. I went on away teams, I was in charge of staff, I had my pips back, I had phasers, I had all the equipment again, and it was fabulous.
But neither she nor McFadden ever wore the same costume as the men.
When Robert Blackman redesigned William Ware Theiss’ spandex uniforms to give the actors more comfort in Season 2, he created a looser, two-piece outfit for the male actors and a tight jumpsuit for the women. Guest actresses, like Elizabeth Dennehy (Shelby) and Michelle Forbes (Ensign Ro), were shocked at how uncomfortable they were.
“They have stirrups on the feet and big shoulder pads, so it’s like you’re being compressed and pulled together by a rubber band,” Dennehy told Cinefantastique in 1992.
Forbes remembered she thought the costume would improve her posture, but, “About four hours later, I wanted to rip it off my body.”
Dennehy brought a female character to the show Star Trek hadn’t seen before: a woman who was unabashedly ambitious. Lynelle White, an Air Force pilot turned screenwriter, argues for the official Star Trek website that when the Season 3 finale, “The Best of Both Worlds”, aired in the summer of 1990, “Shelby was the ambitious female boss we desperately needed at the dawn of the new decade.”
Shelby is the embodiment of what a woman can be when not saddled with a pay gap. She’s not forced into the role of “the nice girl” who does all the hard work in the office, yet is repeatedly told to wait for her turn at career advancement. She doesn’t need to fear making her professional goals widely known, lest she be seen as “overly aggressively” by her male peers. She needn’t overthink the perfect moment to interject in a meeting without seeming bossy. Unburdened and unbothered by any of that, Shelby simply goes out and gets whatever the hell she wants.
The series’ female regulars, by contrast, served as nurturers for the crew’s bodies and minds.
Sirtis told Cinefantastique in 1991 that, since Crosby’s departure, the remaining women on the show were “very non-threatening.”
I don’t think it’s realistic. It’s not realistic for the twentieth century, so it’s definitively not realistic for the twenty-fourth century.
Shelby was not a caregiver, and, according to White, “it felt revelatory for a show like Star Trek to acknowledge two simple truths: Not all women have the nurturing gene and not all women want to hear your feelings.”
Some women are all-business, and that needs to be normalized the same way it is for male characters.
Jeri Taylor, who joined The Next Generation at the beginning of its fourth season, made an effort, lamenting to Cinefantastique in 1993 that Crusher and Troi had been “put in caretaker roles.” She promised there would be stories “that break them out of that mold.” In “Suspicions”, for example, Crusher goes against regulations to investigate the death of a Ferengi scientist.
In “Descent”, an episode Taylor pitched with Michael Piller and which was written by Ronald D. Moore, Crusher takes command of the Enterprise and defeats a Borg ship while the other officers are stranded on a planet.
“Face of the Enemy” places Troi as a spy aboard a Romulan warship. She attains full commander rank in “Thine Own Self”.
The only woman on the writing staff, Taylor also contributed several multidimensional female guest characters, notably Jean Simmons’ Admiral Satie in “The Drumhead”. Taylor also wrote “The Outcast”, which deals explicitly with gender and transgender issues.
But for every “The Outcast”, there was still a “Qpid”, where Crusher and Troi are reduced to throwing flowerpots at the villains while their male counterparts fight with swords.
Ending sexism in fiction is about more than putting female characters in traditionally male roles; it’s also about showing women who are confident in their femininity.
In “Skin of Evil”, Yar thanks Troi for showing her how she could be “feminine without losing anything.” Sara Century believes that Troi’s femininity was a key component of The Next Generation.
In a lot of fiction, women’s emotions devour and destroy them. Female empaths and telepaths in particular are frequently portrayed as unstable and prone to losing control. “That’s never the case with Troi.” (With the exception of “The Loss”, although Century argues that Troi losing her telepathic powers made the character more relatable.) She showed viewers that people who are guided by their hearts can have an edge in life.
We live in a society that views compassion as a weakness, particularly feminine compassion. The message that to care is to give up your strength is instilled through media, culture, even in the mechanics of our very language. Allowing yourself to feel the world with one or two degrees less of a protective layer around your heart takes courage, and courage takes power. Like many highly sensitive people, Deanna Troi is regularly underestimated and her importance reduced. Through her patience and understanding, Troi insists that forcing yourself to view the world with empathy makes you a stronger person, not a weaker one.
As The Next Generation drew to a close, Taylor told Cinefantastique in 1994 that its many “loyal female fans” deserved to “see something down their alley.” The final season included “Sub Rosa”, which was entirely about Crusher, and “Eye of the Beholder”, in which Troi investigates the apparent suicide of a crewman.
In the end, the final season scored second-best out of seven in the so-called Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel. In order for an episode or movie to pass:
- There must be at least two (named) women characters;
- Who talk to each other;
- About something other than a man.
Jarrah Hodge watched all episodes of the first five television series for The Mary Sue and found that whereas The Original Series had scored a dismal 7.5 percent, almost 45 percent of the episodes of The Next Generation passed the test. (Deep Space Nine and Voyager would do even better. Enterprise did worse.)
Sources for this story include: Mark Altman, “Fashion in the 24th Century,” Cinefantastique 23, #2/3 (October 1992) 75-76 and “Jeri Taylor, Script Supervisor,” Cinefantastique 24, #3/4 (October 1993) 36-37; Sara Century, “The Radical Empathy of Deanna Troi,” StarTrek.com, September 10, 2019; Thomas Doherty, “Star Trek: The 25th Anniversary,” Cinefantastique 22, #3 (December 1991); Brigit Grant, “The Space Girls,” The Daily Mirror, December 12, 1996; Hannah van Geffen, Gender and Racial Identity in Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Discovery (unpublished MA thesis), Leiden University, Netherlands, 6 July, 2018; Jarrah Hodge, “How Does Your Favorite Star Trek Series Fare on the Bechdel Test?” The Mary Sue, September 1, 2014, and “Star Trek’s Behind the Scenes Gender Gap,” Trekkie Feminist; Dale Kutzera, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Cinefantastique 25, #6/26, #1 (December 1994) 44-51; Lynelle White, “How Lieutenant Commander Shelby Raised the Bar for Equality,” StarTrek.com, May 14, 2019; “Marina Sirtis, Ship’s Counselor,” Cinefantastique 22, #2 (October 1991), 39; and “Interviews: Marina Sirtis,” BBC