Sexualized Saturdays: The Sexist & Racist Themes Portrayed Through the Orion Slave Girls

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.

Orion_slave_girlsSo 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.

Orion_slave_girl_for_saleAnother 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. 

The-Big-Show-Paul-Wight-Orion-Slaver-Enterprise-BorderlandIt 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.

trekxihd0910Even 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.

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13 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: The Sexist & Racist Themes Portrayed Through the Orion Slave Girls

  1. I must admit, I never watched “Enterprise”, but I did watch TOS when I was a kid – and completely missed the Orion-episode. Luckily. Later on, I always preferred TNG.
    Anyways! Your idea for turning this thing into something which focuses on real world issues is really great and I hope that the new writers have the courage to rewrite this part of the storyline. Well, maybe you should just send them a script. 😉

    • You “missed it” because it’s the unsold pilot. It has very little to do with what the series became. TOS pioneered women’s rights in many ways. It’s OK to prefer both it and TNG.

      • “The Cage” was the unsold pilot and yes, it can barely be considered canon. “The Menagerie” was a two part episode that recycled scenes from “The Cage.” According to legend, NBC considered “The Cage” to be too cerebral for their audience. That and it had a woman as the first officer or “Number One” (played by Majel Barrett.)

  2. It struck me when you pointed out that the phrase “sex trafficking” didn’t exist in the 1960s. The practice existed, of course, but it was called the “white slave trade,” even to the point where the federal law prohibiting it was called “the White-slave Traffic Act.” Like, officially, it was in the law that they passed.

    Which, of course, says so much about what the priorities were, and which women and girls were deserving of protection. In the minds of 20th century America, it wasn’t clear that human trafficking was a crime that could be committed against non-white people.

    And why the writers were so willing to have green-skinned women enslaved.

  3. The twist Enterprise tried to do would have worked at least a little better if they’d simply revealed that the Orion homeworld was a totally Matriarchal Society in every aspect, and the “Slave Girls” were really spies. Bringing the whole Pheromones lameness into it was just lame.

  4. I just came across this journal (and specifically this entry) a couple of days ago, and wanted to make sure the reply was as well-crafted as the article deserves.

    I certainly wish I had had this analysis in front of me when I composed my own attempt at putting the fragmentary bits of canon into a coherent picture for the print magazine “BCSFAzine”. (Bats read it, the occasional dog barked). I myself happen to like the Orions (full disclosure: I am a married straight male fan from Canada, and there were two Orions at my bachelor party), but as much as it might have broken the Great Bird’s heart if anyone had used words like “racist” or “sexist” to describe his work, there are some unspoken and problematic assumptions in his initial sketch of one of the two First-Seen Recurring Non-Earth Peoples of the Trek saga. No idea if Edward Said ever used “The Cage” when talking about “Orientalism”, but it would not have been out of place to do so.

    The “Blinding with Science!” pheremone whammy from Enterprise I found potentially interesting, emphasis on the “potential”. I have a few friends in the BDSM subculture around here, so I know there was some hope to talk about indenture contracts, “topping from the bottom”, consent versus exploitation, and other issues that Fifty Shades of You’re Doing It Wrong are likely to at best gloss over. Sadly, I fear that we’ll see lazy writers simply call up Central Stereotype Casting and order some “Big Sides of Green Beef” and string-pulling sexpots. And straight male Trekker or no, I want to see cultures and individuals, not the same trope or hat dragged out over and over again (like the Klingon extras who only seem able to say “Honour! Honour! Blood of Kahless! Qapla’!”).

    I was greatly disappointed that Rachel Nichols’ character had oodles of written backstory that was not actually used in her only screen appearance. (Hell, they didn’t even have her, Uhura and Kirk converse in the Orion language, like Alan Dean Foster’s novelization said they did.) I was *insulted* at the Dorling Kindersley Star Trek Visual Dictionary entry on Orions — a page with a big blowup of Navaar and her sisters and a summary along the lines of “Beware the Smexy Baebes!” Is this how a species whose fictional debut predates the Borg, predates the Tzenkethi (whom novel writers can’t seem to get enough of lately), predates even the aforementioned Klingons gets treated?

    *ahem* As you can see I like the Orions, but from 1964 on the general impression I get is of untapped storytelling potential and Unfortunate Cultural Assumptions. Like many a fan, I have my own ideas of what’s Really Going On…. but that’s another story or three.

    Anyway. Here’s what I came up with for analysis, a few years prior, at the very end of the issue: Feedback greatly appreciated!

  5. The Cage had a lot of elements that had nothing to do with what the series became. Star Trek has been pioneering women’s rights for 50 years. To tarnish its reputation based on the unsold pilot from 1964 is really non sequitur at this point.

  6. You’re right in that “The Cage” is a rather rough outline of what TOS would inevitably become — however, as large chunks of it were used in “The Menagerie” (a canonical TOS episode), and it got the remastering treatment along with the 79 originally-aired episodes of TOS, we have to consider it to be at least part of the Trek Deuterocanon, and the attitudes about Orions (as no actual Orion characters appear to present a point of view) expressed in universe are presumably part of the cultural background in the main series.

    Now, whether Capt. Pike can or should be blamed for the content of a fantasy sequence created by illusion-casting aliens who were rifling through his memories to try and create something that would get him to bound with another random human female captive — well, that’s probably a few discussion topics there. At the very least, it isn’t clear to me whether Vina is basing her imitation of an Orion dancer on Pike’s experiences, or on her own assumptions of their culture and behaviour.

    • From its inception (both in- and out-of-universe), the Prime Directive has been the source of innumerable ethical quandaries. Sure, not engaging in colonizing already-inhabited worlds, or “empire-building” through culture, shows that Earth and Vulcan have learned from the mistakes of their past — but can the UFP truly tolerate pre-warp civilizations that practise, say, “ethnic cleansing”? Or slavery, which is the apparent issue at hand here?

      That being said, though, the Orions are not a pre-warp culture in the 22nd century, so the Federation is doing less of a “Prime Directive” thing, and more of a “Respecting the Sovereignty of Other Stellar Nations, and Letting Them Run Their Internal Affairs as They See Fit” thing. As a post-TNG example of the latter, the 2380s Khitomer Accords Alliance includes the UFP and the Cardassian Union (which elect their leaders by popular vote), the Ferengi Alliance (which appear to also have elections, but more corporate-oligarchical) and the Klingon Empire (where a new Chancellor is usually decided in trial by combat, and the position is held for life). And officially, at least, most UFP pundits and policy-wonks are okay with this.

      Of course, it still raises the question of why there weren’t sanctions against Orion space. I can think of three possible answers:
      1). The “lost in translation” answer: What has been described as “slavery” is closer to an indenture contract (where one does not buy a person outright, but purchases the exclusive rights to their labour). As Enterprise would strongly suggest that one could not buy an Orion woman who does not wish to be sold, and the presumed purchaser is legally obligated by contract law to provide certain standards of care, the UFP government sees no reason to intervene (but there are some NGOs that do, as per Gaila’s backstory).
      2). The “realpolitik” answer: Orion space serving as a neutral buffer between the UFP and Klingon space, the UFP may have (in the TOS Cold War days) decided not to antagonize whoever ran the government in exchange for being able to keep their fleet assets along the Archanis front rather than inspecting every Orion-registered freighter.
      3). The “Who got served?” answer: It isn’t clear, from the fragmentary bits of canon, just who represents the Orion people. Fans and licensees have suggested everything from the Potentate mentioned in the script and novelization of “The Cage” to a fractious congress of colony-world representatives to the Orion Syndicate to another species entirely (such as the Jelna Rigellians from Enterprise). The UFP may simply not have anyone to prosecute for the acts of piracy that occur in the region.

      And of course, some combination may be true, or something I haven’t thought of. (Can you tell I’ve put a lot of thought into this?)

  7. From watching early episodes of TNG it became apparent that the Federation was a liberal socialist ‘utopia’ with every need and want supplied from replicators.
    Some of the ‘adults’ or near adults needed to have the concept of money explained to them.

    Such a culture would be highly opposed to war.

    It would take a war of conquest and a very long term occupation to end the Orion cultural reliance on slavery.
    It would be a long and costly war followed by an occupation that would need to be longer and probably harsher than the post Civil War Reconstruction in the southern USA.
    A very hard thing to ‘sell’ to the general public of the Federation.

    The Federation is by no means a perfect society.

    There are signs in later episodes of TNG that the Federation is decadent, dying of boredom, and rotting at the core.
    People join Starfleet not out of patriotism or any sense of duty, but because even running the risk of being shot by Klingons or assimilated by the Borg is better than another day-week-month-year sitting on the couch.

    • Behold! Jeff did write:

      “There are signs in later episodes of TNG that the Federation is decadent, dying of boredom, and rotting at the core.
      People join Starfleet not out of patriotism or any sense of duty, but because even running the risk of being shot by Klingons or assimilated by the Borg is better than another day-week-month-year sitting on the couch.”

      This was, in-universe, the point put forward by the New Essentialists for a New Federation, who argued that just such cultural decadence led to the severe pasting the UFP suffered in the early phase of the Dominion War, and (presumably) a general lack of preparedness in the wake of the formation of the Typhon Pact (an alliance and economic union amongst the Romulans, Tholians, Breen, Gorn and Tzenkethi). Unfortunately, the New Essentialists were willing to demolish Risa’s climate just to prove a point that it was a silly place, so they don’t tend to draw the support they might.
      Getting it back to the topic, what the New Essentialists think of Federation-Orion relations is unknown, but given the medical issues surrounding Orions living on Federation worlds I can imagine they are probably not supporters of immigration, even of the emancipatory/”underground railroad” kind.

  8. “it could easily be rewritten so that the women just have stronger pheromones and also have no control over them.”

    I’m sorry HOW is that feminist?

    “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,”

    That doesn’t sound very empowering! What’s wrong with a sexual dominant woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants? As long as she’s the one calling the shots, what’s wrong with that?

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