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Harassment Surrounds Star Trek Viewing

Column by Katie Joynt

Guest Columnist

Before I came to MIT, I had never seen an episode of Star Trek. I didn't know there was a difference between "old" and "new," and I certainly didn't have a preference. So I was genuinely amazed at the cult-like following the program has at MIT. I mean, I thought that Trekkie-nerd image was just a stereotype. But the truth is that this Trekkie following is not only large in number, but creates an environment hostile to anyone who does not agree with the controlling crowd, and particularly hostile to women.

I didn't know this when at first I abstained from joining the hoard of my peers in front of the TV, which I did out of snobbish and ignorant disdain. "This California girl," I thought, "does NOT watch Star Trek."

But as MITisms started creeping into my daily life, I began to find myself drawn to the screen filled with my now familiar Next Generation friends. As a newcomer to the show, I had a hard time following it, and my mind filled with inane questions like "What"s a Klingon?" and "How come Whoopi Goldberg is wearing such a funny hat?" So it was only after a few episodes, when I had answers to these naive questions, that I began to really notice the structure of the program.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is set in the 24th century, and by that time, producer Gene Roddenberry tells us, most of our social dilemmas on Earth will be solved. For instance, humans will no longer have to kill animals for food, but will be able to get the taste of meat from high-tech replicators. Nonetheless, each episode seems to have a strong moral message, analogous to a real situation on Earth in the past or present. For instance, in "Measure of a Man," a scientific team wants to take apart the android Data to study him. The ensuing controversy over his rights as a sentient being, though he is a machine and presumably the "property" of the Federation, clearly parallels the human institution of slavery.

More recently, in "The Outcast," First Officer Will Riker falls in love with a person from a genderless planet, who is persecuted because of his decision to love. Often, in cases like these, Captain Picard or another member of the crew will make a stern or heartfelt speech, which speaks the Godlike Star Trek opinion on the issue.

It is encouraging to see a program with such a broad audience addressing important issues. However, Star Trek is limited to certain realities of American television. It is important, in this country, that TV heroes are primarily white men, since that is what the public wants to see. So Star Trek, with its good intentions, has to maintain a delicate balance of Utopian vision and contemporary conservatism. Its portrayals of women fall into two groups: sweet, nurturing women, who may be competent but are not overly assertive, and manipulative power-hungry bitches. The first group is spearheaded by the sensitive Deanna Troy, but includes the other "leading lady," Doctor Beverly Crusher. Dr. Crusher is strong, determined, and intelligent, but her motherly care for her patients and for her son sometimes gets a little sappy. Another major female role, the mysterious and wise Guinan, counsels but never pushes.

The other group of women are often guests on the show, women who start out intelligent and helpful but turn out to be deceptive alien beings. Ensign Ro definitely started out in this category, though she has been graciously given some redeeming qualities. Security Chief Tasha Yar, a true female role model, was killed several seasons ago. The actress was recast as an evil two-faced Romulan.

But these images of women on Star Trek: The Next Generation are not what really bothers me. They are so much stronger than the short-skirted women in the original Star Trek, who wore fake eyelashes and didn't say much, that I will accept the stereotypes, which may have some basis. No, it's not anything on the TV screen that upsets me about Star Trek, though it's not perfect. What upsets me is what happens outside the TV screen, in that group of MIT students glued to their seats.

I don't know if the environment that prevails during the viewing of Star Trek: The Next Generation comes from the show or if it is just a self-perpetuating habit. But dormitory lounges, it seems, become a haven for sexist comments utterly out of keeping with the spirit of the program. Is it because people are afraid of progressive propaganda? Do they feel pressure to be politically correct and need to lash back? Is it the idea of women in control that scares men into assaulting their characters?

I have twice experienced this atmosphere directed at me in the 15 times I have watched Star Trek: The Next Generation in a public space. The first was during the episode "Justice," when the Star Trek crew beamed to a planet where the inhabitants believed in love, exercise, and good play. I assumed that these tan blond humanoids were (men and women alike) scantily clad because the planet was hot. It was then that a male member of the hall exclaimed, "Geez, where do they get all these bimbos?" I thought the planet was about happy, satisfied, affectionate people, free of Earth's bitterness and hostility, but maybe our way is better after all.

The next personal example was in "Code of Honor," on a planet where Tasha was required by the local law to fight another woman to the death. In an effort to save both women's lives, the Enterprise planned for Tasha to fall upon the enemy woman, when both would be beamed to safety. In one sweep the episode managed to convey both disapproval at solving problems by fighting, and the fact that Tasha and the other woman could and would fight to the death for what they believed in. The challenging woman was fighting for the man she loved; Tasha was fighting because she respected the planet's customs and didn't want to put the Enterprise's mission at stake. But at the fatal moment, the words of commentary I heard about these strong determined women were "necrophiliac lesies!" How could he so miss the point?

The effect of these attitudes is to force women like myself to stop watching Star Trek, or never start. I know many women who don't watch the show, despite the fact that many of their hallmates do. They see the Star Trek following and avoid it -- women constitute only 10 percent of viewers in a typical Star Trek lounge. Why? Because they believe it is a place in which they are not welcome and would not feel comfortable. This feeling is not exclusive to women, either. The fact is that the things that are said are all the things that feel like harassment and sound like free speech. When men get all huffy puffy about the harassment policy, it is about these liminal issues. The right to call women "bimbos" is absolutely protected by the First Amendment. It is not something that falls under the category of harassment, as far as official definitions are concerned. It is not a right that women want to take away from any person.

However, this exercise of free speech, free speech that changes nothing, that serves only to remind someone in a disadvantaged group of that disadvantage, is what I consider harassment. It is the insidious knocking of any group by people that can knock them. And the group of people who surround an episode of Star Trek is a powerful group in that way. We know that every week the same people will be in the lounge, in force, like a sit-in for nerds. Not everyone who watches Star Trek that contributes to this feeling, and the behavior may vary from dorm to dorm. But the people who find it necessary to make comments like "necrophiliac lesies" must get silent approval from the others who sit with them, week after week, and don't give up on the show like I did.

There is a phrase in the harassment policy which concerns the ability of a person to work effectively at MIT. It is vague and hard to address. But the fact is that a person who feels harassed may well shut down as an effective force, because he or she feels violated and invalidated. Star Trek is an escapist show. It is a good way for MIT students, who are overworked and stressed out, to float away at warp speed. The hostile environment that drives some people to not watch Star Trek denies them this much-needed stress valve.

I am not trying to put blame on people who watch and enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation. I am not asserting that people's attitudes and speech while watching the show should be monitored or checked. But I would like people to at least notice the atmosphere that is created and perpetuated around it, and to think about it.