Star Trek may have been progressive for its time, but it was still a product of the 1960s. This was especially obvious in how it treated women, from Orion slave girls to tiny miniskirts to William Ware Theiss’ outfits, which left little to the imagination.

Uhura

Putting a woman of color on the command bridge of the Enterprise was a big deal in 1960s America, but Uhura often had little more to do than relay messages. In “The Man Trap”, she even complains to Spock that she is bored with her work and asks him, “Why don’t you tell me I’m an attractive young lady or ask me if I’ve ever been in love?”

Uhura was seldom involved in decision-making. She would stay behind whenever the other, male officers decanted to the briefing room to discuss the crisis of the week.

Nichelle Nichols felt her character was being underused, telling TV Guide in 1967, “My problem is being a black woman on top of being a woman.”

Even when Uhura played a bigger role in the story, she behaved differently from the men. When centuries of human history are wiped out in “The City on the Edge of Forever”, Uhura lets Kirk know she is “frightened”. Can you imagine Scotty or Sulu making a similar confession?

But, looking back, Nichols also insisted the part mattered. She told Starlog in 1992:

I rather resent it when people say Uhura didn’t do anything but say, “Hailing frequencies open.” That’s not true. It demeans my status. Uhura represented womanhood and the breakthrough of cross-racial representation. She represented dignity and intelligence, and no one can take that away from her, or me.

Her mere presence inspired Mae Jemison to become an astronaut and Whoopi Goldberg to become an actor.

Women Second

Uhura’s “frightened” moment in “The City on the Edge of Forever” was not the norm. Nichols was more often able to portray Uhura as a professional women. In “The Naked Time”, when an intoxicated Sulu declares to Uhura, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden,” she responds: “Sorry, neither.”

Others were not so lucky. Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand, had to fall in William Shatner’s arms whenever there was danger, notably in “Balance of Terror”. Emily Banks, playing Yeoman Barrows, dons a medieval dress in “Shore Leave” in an attempt to woo Dr McCoy and sobs uncontrollably when he apparently dies until the captain calls her to order. Madlyn Rhue, as Marla McGivers, only has to lay eyes on the superman Khan in “Space Seed” to betray her crew for him. The only thing saving the women of the Enterprise from emotional breakdown are the men, usually Kirk.

Exceptions include Lieutenant Palamas (Leslie Parrish), who manipulates Apollo’s affection for her in “Who Mourns for Adonias?”, and Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall), who doesn’t let her feelings for Kirk stand in the way of prosecuting him in “Court Martial”.

Although even she, like so many of the series’ female guest stars, was a love interest of Kirk’s.

In “Who Mourns for Adonias?”, Kirk and McCoy take it for granted that Palamas will “leave the service” as soon as she “find[s] the right man.” Janice Lester’s (Sandra Smith) lament in “Turnabout Intruder” — “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women” — was for a time interpreted by fans as meaning women couldn’t command starships. The more charitable interpretation is that a captain doesn’t have time for marriage. In either case, the interests and desires of women come second.

Including their sexual desires. After an evil Kirk attempts to rape Rand in “The Enemy Within”, Spock creepily remarks to her that the impostor “had some interesting qualities.” Apollo in “Who Mourns for Adonias?”, Charlie in “Charlie X”, Kryton in “Elaan of Troyius” and Salish in “The Paradise Syndrome” all attempt murder when the women they desire turn them down.

When a powerful woman does show up, such as Joanne Linville’s Romulan commander in “The Enterprise Incident”, she can be manipulated by a man.

By Men, For Men

Dorothy Fontana
Dorothy C. Fontana in the early 1970s

The above is far from an exhaustive list of examples, but they make the point: with few exceptions, the women of Star Trek were defined by their relations with men. In only 7.5 percent of episodes do two named female characters talk with each other about something other than men. (For comparison, The Next Generation would score 45 percent in this so-called Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel.)

One reason was that the show was made by men. Dorothy C. Fontana was the only woman script writer and story editor. (And she was credited as “D.C. Fontana” to hide her sex.) All the cinematographers, directors and producers were men.

Another reason, according to Producer Herb Solow, was Roddenberry himself. To the Star Trek creator, Solow writes in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996), “Women were, essentially, sex objects always ready for action.”

(Roddenberry would regret this, admitting in an interview with Cinefantastique not long before his death that, during The Original Series, “I didn’t pay any attention to women.”)

We see this in the way women were dressed, in the way they were photographed and even in the way they were filmed.

Miniskirts

The miniskirts may not have been intentionally sexist. Nichols writes in Beyond Uhura that no one saw them as demeaning at the time. “In fact, the miniskirt was a symbol of sexual liberation.”

But they were also, according to Hannah Givens, a way to reassure an anxious public “that femininity wouldn’t disappear in the Space Age.”

The first woman had already flown to space in 1963, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. Her “mannish” and militarized appearance seemed to indicate dangerously unstable gender roles. While Star Trek challenged those roles with its scripts — even challenging heteronormativity in important ways — miniskirts helped camouflage those statements and make them palatable for the audience.

Costume designer William Ware Theiss, a gay man, made sexy outfits for men as well. But it were his revealing dresses for women that inspired the “Theiss Titillation Theory”: the idea that sex appeal lies not in the amount of skin shown, but rather in the likelihood of a costume falling off.

Examples include Sherry Jackson’s android in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?”, whose top consists of two crossing straps of fabric connected in one piece to her trousers, and the dress Apollo fashions for Palamas in “Who Mourns for Adonias?”, the front of which is held up by the weight of the train falling over her shoulder.

Kirk’s Gaze

On closeup, women’s faces were shot in a soft focus and often paired with romantic, swooning music:

While the crew members were shot heroically in blazing light and sharp focus, love interests, on the other hand, looked more like watercolors. To achieve the effect, thin layers of plastic, or diffusion filters, were placed before the lens for those shots.

The technique came to be known as “The Gaussian Girl,” named for the Gaussian blur.

Regular actresses Majel Barrett, Nichelle Nichols and Grace Lee Whitney were usually exempt.

The technique was typically reserved as sort of “Kirk’s gaze” point-of-view perspective.

Sources for this story include: Thomas Doherty, “Star Trek: The 25th Anniversary,” Cinefantastique 22, #3 (December 1991); Hannah Givens, “Star Trek Miniskirts: Feminist or Nah?Comparative Geeks, May 7, 2016; 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; Inda Rae Hark, “Decaying Orbits: Men, Women and Fears of Extinction in Star Trek,” in Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures (2015) 87-98; 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; Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories (1994); Ian Spelling, “Nichelle Nichols, Uhura’s Mission”, Starlog 175 (February 1992) 36-39, 82; Herbert F. Solow and Robert H. Justman, Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (1996); “Let Me Off at the Next Planet,” TV Guide, July 15, 1967; and “Ever wonder why the women on ‘Star Trek’ appear out of focus?MeTV, June 15, 2017

First published October 26, 2019. Last updated October 30, 2019.

# #

Comments

Fantastic article! I wish I had this on EAS as well, because it further evidences some observations I made when watching TOS in more recent years, including “Gaussian girls”.

I think that as accurate as your piece is in calling out some of the sexist elements of TOS, it misses the mark in damning Trek as made by men for men. What about the way Kirk often managed to rip his shirt, exposing his chest? Or the way Spock was given more exposure when it became known that women were responding to him with desire? It’s enough to point out that TOS was a product of its time, but it is also true they were trying to make a successful television show and that, even today, means a little sexiness often needs to be part of the mix. If the way sex was added to the female characters is more obvious to contemporary eyes, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t added to the male characters as much, though perhaps in ways we overlook.

Ultimately I’m not sure what the purpose of these sorts of claims are. Is it to say that somehow the producers were morally wrong in what they put on the screen? Is it to say that Star Trek does not deserve the reputation it has for being progressive? Is it to warn contemporary fans not to model the behavior seen in the show?

I think the article doesn’t judge TOS by today’s standards, but just calls out what would be different today. There was nothing wrong with it in the 1960s, except perhaps that it was a missed chance to go even further that TOS did anyway.

“Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand, had to fall in William Shatner’s arms whenever there was danger, notably in “Balance of Terror””

It’s worth noting that this was later highlighted in the internal Star Trek writers’ guide as an example of what *not* to do, although those scenarios are criticized as being unrealistic rather than being sexist..

Transcript as taken from The Making of Star Trek pp. 324-326. I’ve significantly abridged it, but I’ve not changed any context. All emphasis from original, both CAPS and *italics*.

CAN YOU FIND THE MAJOR STAR TREK FORMAT ERROR IN THE FOLLOWING “TEASE” FROM A STORY OUTLINE?
The scene is the bridge of the U.S.S. (United States Spaceship) *Enterprise*. Captain Kirk is at his command position, his lovely but highly efficient female Yeoman at his side. Suddenly, and without provocation, our Starship is attacked by an alien space vessel. […] Kirk puts his arms about his lovely Yeoman, comforting and embracing her as they wait for what seems certain death. FADE OUT. (END TEASER)

PLEASE CHECK ONE
( ) *Inaccurate terminology.* The *Enterprise* is more correctly an international vessel, the United Spaceship *Enterprise*.
( ) *Scientifically incorrect.* […]
( ) *Unbelievable.* The Captain would not hug a pretty Yeoman on the bridge of his vessel.
( ) *Concept weak.* […]

NO, WE’RE NOT JOKING. THE PRECEDING PAGE WAS A VERY REAL AND IMPORTANT TEST OF YOUR APPROACH TO SCIENCE FICTION. HERE’S WHY.
( ) *Inaccurate terminology.* Wrong, if you checked this one. Sure, the term “United States Spaceship” was incorrect, but it could have been fixed with a pencil slash. […]
( ) *Scientifically incorrect.* Wrong again; beware if you checked this one. […]
( ) *Concept weak.* Wrong again. It is, in fact, much like the opening of one of our best episodes of last year. […]

UNDERSTANDING THE RIGHT ANSWER TO THIS IS BASIC TO UNDERSTANDING THE STAR TREK FORMAT. THIS WAS THE CORRECT ANSWER:
(x) Unbelievable. Why the correct answer? Simply because we’ve learned during a full season of making visual science fiction that believability of characters, their actions and reactions, is our greatest need and is the most important angle factor. Let’s explore that briefly:

NOW, TRY AGAIN. SAME BASIC STORY SITUATION, BUT AGAINST ANOTHER BACKGROUND.

The time is today. We’re in Vietnam waters aboard the navy cruiser U.S.S. Detroit. Suddenly an enemy gunboat heads for us, our guns unable to stop it, and we realize it’s a suicide attack with an atomic warhead. Would Captain E.. Henderson, presently commanding the U.S.S. *Defiant*, turn and hug a comely female WAVE who happened to be on his ship’s bridge?

As simple as that. This is our standard test that has led to Star Trek believability. (It also suggests much of what has been wrong in filmed sf of the past.) *No, Captain Henderson wouldn’t! Not if he’s the kind of captain we hope is commanding any naval vessel of ours!* Nor would our Captain Kirk hug a female crewman in a moment of danger, not if he’s to remain believable. (Some might *prefer* that Henderson were somewhere making love rather than shelling Asian ports, but that’s a whole different story for a whole different network. Probably BBC.)

“One reason was that the show was made by men. Dorothy C. Fontana was the only woman script writer and story editor.”

This quote seems off the mark for several reasons: how can you describe a show as being made “by men” – implying the complete absence of women – then actually list a woman who happened to not only write scripts, but was a story editor?

For another, it omits the contributions of several women writers like Margaret Armen (“The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “The Paradise Syndrome,” “The Cloud Minders”), Jean Lisette Aroeste (“Is There In Truth No Beauty?” “All Our Yesterdays”), Joyce Muskat (“The Empath”), Judy Burns (co-writer “The Tholian Web”), & Shari Lewis (co-writer “The Lights of Zetar”). Not only did women write for TOS, they authored some of the most insightful & emotional episodes of the entire franchise.

By all means, it’s important to acknowledge how far we’ve come since the 1960s, but I think it’s also important to remember the trailblazers who helped Trek transcend its time

Yes, Star Trek was trail-blazing and progressive in many respects, but in this respect — gender, gender roles, gender parity — it wasn’t.

In this respect, Star Trek was like most shows in the 1960s. It was hardly unique in its stereotypical, one-dimensional portrayal of women, but — as Bernd said — it was a missed opportunity.

Acknowledging that doesn’t diminish Star Trek‘s legacy or reputation. In fact, it was the recognition that the original Star Trek had done women a disservice that led to improvements (and some silly overreactions) in TNG and the later series.

I have another story, about sexism and gender roles in The Next Generation, coming out later this year that ties into this.

As for some of the specific criticisms:

  • There is a difference between sexy and sexism. Male characters, like Kirk and Spock, may have been sexy, but they were complex characters with their own internal motivations and emotions. Female characters seldom were. As I mention in the article, they were often defined by the actions of men. That’s sexism.
  • A few episodes were written by women, but they were few and with the exception of Fontana all the permanent staff were men. So I think it’s fair to say Star Trek was “made by men”. This matters, because if there are (almost) no women in the room when decisions are made about how to write or portray or a scene, or what costume to give an actress, then chances are you’ll end up with decisions that aren’t exactly gender-balanced. That’s still true today. It was certainly true in the 1960s.

The article omits an important fact which deserves mention. In the original
pilot which later became the episode The Cage, there was a female second in command played by Majel Barrett who later played nurse Chapel. NBC nixed that idea and forced them to change it

Leave a Reply