I’m on something of a Trek kick right now, and I have a lot of feelings about Vulcans. While in the Star Trek universe Earth is supposed to be a utopia where everyone is equal, other species in the Federation are extremely far from a utopia. Though Vulcans are humanity’s biggest allies in the Federation and profess a philosophy of stoicism and logic, I have found them a bit illogical. Mostly because I don’t think a society with such extreme prejudices is logical.
So let’s talk about everything that is wrong with Vulcan society, and thus everything that is wrong with our own.
First, let’s talk about sexism in Vulcan society. You’re probably wondering, what sexism? After all, characters like T’Pol and T’Pau seem to have positions of power in Vulcan society. And we have seen many Vulcan women in Starfleet, so what’s the deal? Well, probably my biggest issue is how Vulcans arrange marriages. Despite the fact that not every Vulcan we meet has an arranged marriage, it still seems pretty common; in fact, it is almost necessary. Every seven years of their adult life Vulcans go through pon farr, which basically just means that they have to have sex or die. Since every Vulcan goes through pon farr sometime after puberty, it does seem to make sense that they have someone to mate with. However, when Vulcan parents choose a mate for their kids, they usually bind them together telepathically at the age of seven. That seems a little young to be promising that kids will have sex later or even just get married. I can see why Vulcans would do it, but it just seems odd. However, choosing a mate for a kid does seem to make some sense if you don’t believe in love.
In the Star Trek original (TOS) series, when Spock’s mom Amanda tells Spock’s dad Sarek that she loves him, he sighs because his wife is not being logical. Spock more than once tells women who pursue him that he is literally incapable of loving them (even though it’s obvious that isn’t true). So Vulcans assume an arranged marriage isn’t a big deal, because love is not an issue, so it shouldn’t matter who you are married to (it still should, but I’ll get to that in a bit). And why do they have to promise to marry? Can’t they just have sex to deal with pon farr until they find someone they actually want to be with? Apparently this is at least in part in the name of logic.
However, it is very clear that Vulcans can prefer one mate to the other even if it’s not necessarily due to love. In “Amok Time”, when Spock goes through pon farr, his mate T’Pring invokes her right to challenge his claim on her. Here is the kicker: she can choose a champion to fight for her, but at the end of the day she has to be prepared to marry whoever wins. What the hell? On top of this, after Spock wins the fight, he asks T’Pring to explain why she challenged him. Well, she wants to be with another Vulcan, and she further explains that Spock could win the fight and could refuse to be with her. So basically the female Vulcan can challenge her intended’s claim, but at the end of the day she really has very little say in who she marries, whereas the male Vulcan seems to have a lot more flexibility. I also wondered if the female Vulcan could choose herself as her own champion so that she wouldn’t have to marry anyone. But alas, we never see anything like that.
We also have characters like Spock acting particularly sexist. He seems to think women are more emotional, confusing, and fragile than men. Emily Asher-Perrin, a writer for Tor.com, once wrote an excellent article about how Kirk is actually the feminist (it’s true, he totally is) and Spock is the sexist. She writes:
I feel I should begin this next bit with a disclaimer: I adore Spock. He was arguably my first actual crush (that never really faded) as a kid and one of my favorite science fiction characters of all time, easily. That said, whenever he comes in contact with a person of the female persuasion, his recorded mantra should play thusly—Stop Being Such A Hysterical Woman.
Though I wonder if this is more just a Spock issue than an actual Vulcan one. Spock deals with a lot of issues in trying to accept his human side, which he of course connects to his human mother. Asher-Perrin explains:
It’s not his fault, really. Spock grew up on a planet where nearly everyone was devoid of emotion, the one exception being his human mother, Amanda Grayson. So picture this scenario: you live in a place where emotion is something to be ashamed of and oppressed, and the woman who is raising you is the most emotional, irrational person you have ever encountered. If you don’t think that’s going to color the way you view women in general… well, it is.
He may love her but he does seem to resent her humanity, which I think he then takes out on women. So he treats every woman he comes across as this emotional ticking time bomb. I fine this especially annoying because of who Spock’s two closest companions are: Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy. Spock seems to be annoyed a lot by McCoy, whom he insults by calling him a sensualist, and even Captain Kirk’s constant outbursts of emotion and his propensity to fall in love with someone every other day seems to bug Spock. However, he never looks at these two very emotional men and assumes all men are like this, but he does act that way toward women. Spock seems to grow out of these issues as he comes to accept his human half, so again, this might be more of a Spock issue and less of a Vulcan one. But taking all that into account, Spock grew up around one woman whom he thought was illogical and generalized that to mean all women are illogical, but he hangs out with two men he sees as illogical on a regular basis, yet doesn’t generalize that to all men. That’s pretty screwed up.
Next we have the issue of Vulcan society and racism. I don’t mean racism how we think of it. Tuvok, one of the only Black Vulcans we ever get to see, doesn’t seem to be discriminated against due to his skin color at all. So when I say racism in Vulcan society, I mean Vulcans’ attitude toward other non-Vulcan species. I chose to call this racism instead of xenophobia, because the various different aliens are clearly used by the writers to address issues of racism in our own society. Vulcan is a very closed off and private society and this extends to people who are different. We see this largely with Spock who is constantly subjected to racist attacks.
While it is more implied in the TV show, we do see some racism creep up. Spock gets particularly enraged when someone uses the term “half-breed” around him and it’s implied to be a slur’s he heard much of his life. Again in “Amok Time”, when T’Pring explains why she doesn’t want Spock, she heavily implies that his being half-human was one of the reasons she didn’t want to marry him. In the first of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movies, we actively see child Spock being bullied by other Vulcan children. They throw insults at him about looking too human or being emotional, and even go further by insulting his family, calling his mom a “whore” and his father a “traitor” for marrying a human. Even in this brief exchange the implications are clear: Amanda as a human must have married Sarek just because she is a lustful emotional human, and Sarek betrayed his race by marrying a human and contaminating the Vulcan race.
And finally we have homophobia in Vulcan society. Even though Star Trek doesn’t have queer characters, we can still see it engaging in heteronormativity through the ways the show treats gender roles and relationships. The other prejudices in Vulcan society, specifically when it comes to their mating rituals, obsession with logic, and denial of love, together leads to a society that is probably homophobic. Despite the fact that Vulcans have emotions (in fact they claim to feel more deeply than humans), they blame their violent past behaviors on out of control emotions, and so they basically repress everything. So even though Vulcans may feel lust, joy, and even love, they repress it all to the point where, as we see in the show, they even claim they no longer feel these emotions. Because of this, when it comes to sex and relationships, no emotional or even sexual compatibility is taken into consideration.
Again, even Spock’s father, who chose his wife, denies any feelings for her and consistently claims that his marrying a human woman was only logical since he’s the Ambassador to Earth. That was obviously not the whole truth, as the Sarek of both the original and alternate universe eventually confesses how much he loves his wife. But the fact remains that Vulcans at least attempt to deny emotional and sexual compatibility, and even feel ashamed if they have these types of feelings. Spock, while under the influence of a drug, admits that he feels ashamed for thinking of Kirk as a friend. If Spock feels this ashamed about having friends, imagine how ashamed he would feel if he was actually sexually attracted to Kirk! (Okay, enough imagining, get your minds out of the gutter!)
Think about how many Vulcan children have their mates chosen for them at age seven. I certainly wasn’t aware of who I was attracted to at age seven and we have never seen nor heard of parents bonding two Vulcans of the same sex together. I have my suspicions as to why. If Vulcans think love or other emotions are illogical and therefore repress that emotion, then it could be argued that they think the only good part of marriage is the creation and raising of children. Certainly a gay couple could adopt, so maybe Vulcan society wouldn’t be homophobic, but because we only see male/female pairs bound by their parents, it certainly would seem Vulcan society is at least heteronormative, which leads me to my next point.
I mentioned earlier in this post that Vulcans don’t think it’s a big deal who you marry because love is not an issue. This shows up in “Amok Time” when Spock tells T’Pring he doesn’t see the logic in preferring another Vulcan named Stonn over him. What if T’Pring was a lesbian, bonded to Spock in error because her parents assumed she was straight? Would she logically have a reason to get out of her arranged marriage, or would she be told it is illogical for her to have sex with someone of the same sex, since it would not result in children? Pon farr tends to make Vulcans less logical, but all the rules around it seem to be in place to keep things as “logical” as they possibly can be. However, the only point of marriage can’t be just having and raising children. Though Vulcans deny their emotions, a marriage where either partner doesn’t get along with the other would result in a difficult life in which neither would really flourish. Certainly, whether you love the person or not, sexual and/or romantic attraction should still factor into whether or not a marriage will be successful. And furthermore, if the spouses do not work well together, then any raising of children will undoubtedly suffer, so denying homosexual relationships seems illogical in any case. Sadly based on what we known it seems at least probable that they do deny these relationships.
On top of all this if Vulcans really are only using marriage and sex for creating children, this isn’t necessarily the only logical way that they could go about it. Different species operate on different systems in order to survive. Everything is about survival and having the most viable offspring. There are benefits and disadvantages to both from monogamous sexual relationships and open sexual relationships. For an intelligent species, the idea that only one system should be relied on over the other is faulty. The fact that the Vulcans were written as having these social constructs is only going to be seen as “logical” from a society that is already heterosexist and gender-role oriented, like ours.
Now I can already feel everyone getting ready to type things like, “Well, maybe in Vulcan society there is…” and then give some explanation to justify one of the problems I listed above in this post. But remember, Vulcans and everything else in Star Trek don’t exist in a vacuum. What really bothers me is when sexist, racist, and at the very least heteronormative (if not homophobic) things are shown in Vulcan society, it is either explained to the viewers by one of the characters how logical it is, or since they are Vulcan, viewers just assume what they are doing is logical. And of course I take issue with the idea that prejudice is ever logical. Some issues are critiqued in the show—the racism in Vulcan society, for example, is always shown in a negative light in both the show and in the movies. But other issues, such as the sexism and potential homophobia in Vulcan society, are never addressed and so are passed off as “logical”, and therefore okay. And that’s just unacceptable.