Ah, Star Trek, a TV show that gives us a glimpse of a utopian future where everyone in the Federation is equal and the government secretly looks the other way and even condones sex trafficking. Wait—what was that second part? Oh, nothing much. Just the conveniently overlooked fact that in order to keep at least somewhat peaceful relations with the Orion Syndicate, the Federation sometimes ignores and even sometimes seems to condone sex trafficking. But hey, it’s okay, right? Because the Orion women like being taken advantage of and sold as slaves…
Yep, one of my least favorite things about the Star Trek universe will forever and always be the Orion slave girls.
Trigger warning for rape, rape culture, rape apologism, sexism, racism, abuse, sex trafficking, and slavery after the jump.
We first learn about the Orion slave women in the 1966-69 original Star Trek series (TOS), in an episode called “The Menagerie”. The episode shows us scenes from the life of Captain Pike, the prior captain of the Enterprise. Pike is kidnapped by a telepathic alien race called the Talosians, who want Pike to mate with a human woman named Vina. To make Vina attractive to him, they have her appear in various forms before him. Vina realizes that Pike’s strongest dreams are about what he can’t do. The Talosians, hearing this, create an illusion where Pike is in fact a slave trader for the Orion Syndicate and Vina appears as one of the slave women. It is here that we get the first mention the Orion women are actually slaves. Kirk and the others are watching Pike’s past experience on a screen. Kirk specifically asks if it’s Vina who is actually appearing as “the Orion slave girl”. Later the admiral with Kirk comments that the Orion women are “like animals”. He describes them as vicious and seductive, and says that “they claim no man can resist them”. The comment is even made that the Orion women “like” being taken advantage of, and throughout the fantasy Pike seems sorely tempted by the idea of sleeping with an enslaved green-skinned woman.
This is later expanded in the show Enterprise, which, though it aired in 2001, is meant to be a prequel to TOS. It’s also known as the Star Trek show you probably haven’t heard of, because it was terrible. In Enterprise, the Orion women appear again in the episode “Bound”, when Captain Archer goes to meet with an Orion, Captain Harrad-Sar, and he gives him three slave women as a gift. Captain Archer takes these women back to the ship where T’Pol, the Vulcan commander and only sensible person on the ship, reminds the Captain that the Federation is against slavery. She also reports numerous disruptions among the crew that have started since the Orion women appeared on board the ship.
So Captain Archer later tells one of the slave women that she is not a slave but a guest. And okay, I’ll bite, maybe that makes sense. I could see myself “accepting” a slave as a gift because I wanted to actually get them out of that situation and free them. I am willing to believe that Archer actually did want to save them, considering how the Orions hated him for freeing slaves in a previous episode. However, the whole “you’re a guest” thing comes off as really weak when compared to how much the story objectifies these women and shows them using their “feminine wiles” to seduce people. Navaar, one of the Orion slave women, even tells the captain that she can’t imagine another life and proceeds to explain that even if he doesn’t want to own her, she still wants to please him. But it’s okay, guys, because this whole situation is actually the Orion slave women’s fault. That’s right. Enterprise expands on what TOS started by claiming that the reason men can’t resist the Orion women is because they have pheromones that control men, and the real kicker is when Harrad-Sar reveals that shockingly, the Orion men are actually the slaves of the women, and the men only sell them into slavery at the women’s behest! What a twist!
There is so much wrong with this. Let me count the ways. First, Star Trek has always been a show that addressed real social issues and made intelligent commentary on the current injustices in our society. That is one of the things that made Star Trek awesome. This is not good social commentary. Maybe the writers of TOS and Enterprise forgot that we are a society that still has slaves. Sex trafficking is still a huge issue pretty much everywhere. Though the specific term “sex trafficking” wasn’t coined until after the 1960s, the second wave of the women’s movement in the U.S. combated how women in particular were being trafficked as sex slaves. Enterprise, as a more modern show, especially has no excuse since the term “sex trafficking” has been a big deal since the 1980s and the trafficking is still a significant problem. The fact that the Orion women have been painted as women who want to be sold as sex slaves, even to the point where the male slave traders are shown as guiltless because the women make them sell them into slavery, is absolutely disgusting and unconscionable. This is the worst sort of rape culture bullshit; it creates a world where women are enslaved but it’s okay because they “like it”. Remember, Orion slave women and Orion culture do not exist in a vacuum. This was written by real people living in the real world. Writing storylines like this is decidedly harmful and ignorant of the realities of both rape culture and victims of sex trafficking.
Secondly, writers also seem decidedly ignorant about history. How it’s justified that the Orion women are slaves because of their vicious sexual appetites is basically exactly how it was justified that Black women should be kept as sexual slaves to white men. One article from Ferris State University describes how the “Jezebel” stereotype was used to justify the enslavement and rape of Black women:
The English colonists accepted the Elizabethan image of “the lusty Moor,” and used this and similar stereotypes to justify enslaving blacks. In part, this was accomplished by arguing that blacks were subhumans: intellectually inferior, culturally stunted, morally underdeveloped, and animal-like sexually. Whites used racist and sexist ideologies to argue that they alone were civilized and rational, whereas blacks, and other people of color, were barbaric and deserved to be subjugated.
The Jezebel stereotype was used during slavery as a rationalization for sexual relations between white men and black women, especially sexual unions involving slavers and slaves. The Jezebel was depicted as a black woman with an insatiable appetite for sex. She was not satisfied with black men. The slavery-era Jezebel, it was claimed, desired sexual relations with white men; therefore, white men did not have to rape black women.
Terms like “animal-like sexuality” and “insatiable appetite for sex” were all used to justify treating Black women as subhuman sexual animals who “liked” being raped by white men. It is utterly disgusting to hear this same language repeated in Star Trek in any capacity. If the show had come down hard on slavery and sex trafficking, that would have been great. But instead, especially after Enterprise, these same harmful beliefs were used to justify why the Orion women were enslaved in an attempt to make it seem okay. Add to this the Federation almost supporting Orion slave trade and there is a major issue. Pike dreams of working as a slave trader for “green animal women”. The admiral with Kirk describes the Orion women in the same racist and sexist terms that Black women have been described with in the past, seemingly to justify Pike’s creepy fantasies. Captain Archer goes to make a deal with a Orion captain and accepts three slave women as gifts, despite the fact that in a previous episode, nine of his crew were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Heck, even in shows like Deep Space Nine, we are told that Orion slave women are popular figures to be enjoyed on the space station’s holodeck. The Federation doesn’t seem to stop the slave trade, both because they fear making enemies of the Orions and because at least in some way, they support what they are doing.
Another issue is, of course, how the Enterprise TV show added to the mythology by claiming that the Orion women have pheromones that control men, and it’s actually men in the Orion Syndicate who are slaves. Despite the fact that Enterprise is supposed to take place before TOS, it is still the newest Star Trek TV show. Before, there was no mention of Orion women using pheromones to control people, and most, if not all, of the leaders of the Orion Syndicate that we meet are men. And even if the women are really the ones pulling the strings, we never actually see it until the one episode of Enterprise. Even in the previous episode where the members of the crew are sold as slaves, all the slave traders are men. We never see women even secretly pulling the strings. It also seems ludicrous to argue the women are not really slaves, but that the men are, when non-Orions are being sold and kidnapped against their will. The Orions clearly don’t care if anyone is “consenting” to being sold into slavery, since they are literally kidnapping and forcing people into slavery here.
It honestly feels like someone looked back at old Star Trek episodes and realized the comments made about the Orion slave girls at least suggested that the Federation didn’t care about slavery and so attempted to fix it by basically turning the women into siren archetypes who are actually the ones in control. If so, it’s an attempt that falls completely flat and just makes the sexist and racist themes worse by perpetuating rape culture and adding heteronormativity into the mix. Like most siren archetypes, the Orion women also reinforce heteronormativity; this could be a whole other post, and fortunately, we already wrote a post about the siren archetype and how awful it is.
But there is some hope that this incredibly racist, sexist, and homophobic plot point can be fixed. Maybe not in the old timeline, but certainly in the new one. When Roberto Orci, one of the script writers for the Star Trek 2009 reboot, was asked about Gaila’s presence in the movies (since as an Orion it made little sense that she would be there), Orci suggested that:
[An] underground railroad and some of the [Orion slave girls] got out and they were sold to freedom…
Now I’m sure, based on other interviews I have read and how the new movies are playing out in general, that Orci was just covering his ass in front of scarily knowledgeable Star Trek fans. It seems pretty clear that the writers just wanted Kirk to have sex with a green girl, so Gaila was thrown in and then implied to be dead after the Narada‘s attack against Vulcan. But this provides the writers of the new movies some opportunities to fix this egregious storyline. Again, Star Trek has always been a show that addressed modern day issues. We could have a movie where Kirk and the gang team up with this underground railroad and help Orion slaves escape sex trafficking. It would be great character development for Uhura, who was close friends with a freed Orion woman, as well as Kirk, who dated Gaila and should feel strongly about the issue. Even Spock could easily be connected to these events, since in Enterprise T’Pol was told she’d fetch a high price as a slave because she is Vulcan. It would only make sense that in a universe where Vulcans are rare, someone like Spock would be more sought after. Maybe Orion slavers are even hunting Vulcans down to sell them.
Even if the writers wanted to keep the magic pheromones that the Orion women have, it could easily be rewritten so that the women just have stronger pheromones and also have no control over them. They don’t try to draw people to them; they just do. It could even be explained that simple medication could allow the women to control this, but the Orion men ban their women from using such medication because then they would fetch less of a price on the slave market, which would connect the story to the issues surrounding the control and abuse of women’s bodies happening today. The writers could even have Uhura challenge the racist language used against the Orion women and point out that the same language was used to justify enslaving her own people centuries ago. If the writers would remember that Star Trek is a franchise which has always been used to discuss real world issues, then this previously extremely problematic part of the mythology could become one of the best things that ever happened to the Star Trek mythos. But the writers have to take that chance.