Not Very Logical: Vulcan Society is Sexist, Racist, & Probably Homophobic Too

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.

spock

pic via driverlayer

So let’s talk about everything that is wrong with Vulcan society, and thus everything that is wrong with our own.

T'Pau will cut you!

T’Pau will cut you!

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. 

T'Pring asserting one of her few rights.

T’Pring asserting one of her few rights.

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.

Spock Mudd's WomenWe 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.

When your friends won't stop arguing.

When your friends won’t stop arguing.

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.

spock-young-star-trek-2009While 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.

They are so in love it's ridiculous!

They are so in love it’s ridiculous! gif via dpstream

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.

Kirk meets his future in-laws

Kirk meets his future in-laws

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.


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11 thoughts on “Not Very Logical: Vulcan Society is Sexist, Racist, & Probably Homophobic Too

  1. On Voyager we a woman fighting as her own champion when it addressed Pon Farr. But the woman in question wasn’t a Vulcan.

    I feel arranged marriages are bad for a modern society, but they aren’t inherently sexist. They are certainly practiced in a Sexist way when one has more freedom to opt out then the other. But I”m convinced even a society that never favored one gender over the other wold probably have had arranged marriages as the norm while in a primitive state. It has to do with ensuring the family lines continue, and can often reflect elitism. And they tend to be arranged at such young ages cause back when people didn’t expect to love as long they didn’t pt off making sure the family line continued.

    The thing about SciFil cultures like Vulcan is their cultures didn’t change with Technology the way they did her eon Earth, that’s the most flawed thing about how SciFi writers write them. Thing is no matter how tolerant a society might be of Homosexuality even from early on, cultural traditions are still gonna have a seemingly Hetronormative form because that’s how reproduction works. Unless your dealing with a species for which Reproduction works differently, which some SciFi has.

    In fact it is my observation as a student of History that ti’s opposition to Homosexuality that is purely modern, not acceptance of it. Such relationships were thought of as different, and so the word “Marriage” was not likely to be used. But in some cases male-male relationships were idealized over Heterosexual ones in ancient Greece and Rome.

  2. This touches on one of the most interesting things about Vulcan society – they’re constantly lying. Like you say, it is clear at this point that Vulcans haven’t removed their emotions at all; they just rigorously suppress emotional displays via social pressure (or more particularly, certain kinds of emotional display. Spock’s bullies were clearly acting emotionally).

    So what you get instead of an advanced society is an alien version of 1984. But one that does a remarkably good job showing the outside world a utopia.

  3. It could have been grounds for some empowering stories about how every society has something to learn. But as is so often the case with Star Trek, the many hands involved couldn’t often get the story straight (if you’ll pardon the phrasing) and they kept getting tripped up in their progressive agenda by how old-school sexist Gene and his successors seemed to be…

  4. I think at the time, these assumptions went unexamined. I can deal with that; Star Trek was progressive for its time. What upsets me as that these assumptions continue to be made, Star Trek has continued to be produced, but has not remained at that level of progressiveness.

    • This was what I was about to point out. The majority of the sexism, racism and heteronormative of TOS can be explained when put into historical context. And Star Trek was very forward for its time. Sadly, the JJ Abrams movies aren’t progressive and they have turned out to be more sexist, racist and heteronormative than the original series.
      I think that when analysing Star Trek each thing must be put into context and what today is seen as extremely sexist at the time it was not. (As I’m pretty sure that if we took one of today’s most progressive shows and took it 50 years into the future a lot of issues would rise that we just don’t notice today that they’re there.)

  5. I want to point out, and perhaps this has already been mentioned, but not only is Tuvok the first Black Vulcan we’ve ever seen, but he’s married to the SECOND Black Vulcan any of us have ever seen. I suppose that, on Vulcan, there are some strict 20th century-style anti-miscegenation codes in effect.

  6. Indeed, Voyager does explore your idea of a woman choosing herself as the challenger to the marriage and Tuvok backs her up.

    There are statements and writings that conclude that homosexuality is accepted on Vulcan. I can’t hold my hand on the writings of Surak and promise they are strictly canon but I can do some digging to see if Gene or someone backed them up. It was stated that arranged marriages can be dissolved upon maturity when things like preference for the same sex is realized. They only dismiss preference when it is illogical i.e. population crisis. Just as food preference is not considered illogical unless it is given first consideration over what is available to eat, what is nutritious, etc.

    I, too, was fascinated by the Vulcan bullies calling Spock’s mother a whore. I have sought to disseminate the reasons why. I conclude, like you, that Vulcans have a clear aversion to promiscuity but both in both men and women. They are quite Victorian about sex and while they CAN have sex outside of pon farr, most would not know how to begin to, nor want to. Why seek to feel lust and arousal outside of biological necessity? Lust is a base and dangerous primal emotion. Their sexuality is very tightly wound with pon farr. In fact, it is supposed that pon farr developed as a biological emergency to reproduce when the majority of the population began to reject sex during the reformation. It is complex. In short, I think Vulcan attitudes to anyone they deem “promiscuous” are disapproving. During Amok Time Spock was disgusted with Christine Chapel for bringing him soup in sick bay because “a woman serving a man who is not hers is undignified”. They definitely have some primordial attitudes about relationships and sex that start to creep out during their “time”. For such a supposedly enlightened and logical race to practice ancient rituals of iron clad monogamy it would dictate that they treat the madness and danger of pon farr very delicately and try not to deconstruct their primal needs of monogamy/possession too much. Whether Vulcans use the word “whore” as a dual gender label is unknown. And whether they were speaking standard English or whether they were speaking Vulcan that was being depicted in English is unknown. They could have been using language that was less meaningful as a sexist slur but what they thought was provocative to a human.

    My little theory is that by calling Spock’s mother a “whore” they were indeed expressing disapproval for anyone who doesn’t fit their code of conduct on sexual morals and were presuming Amanda did NOT prescribe to them, regardless of her being a married woman, because of her humanity. I believe Vulcans see all humans as sexually “loose”. Part of my understanding is that their marital bonds become very strong, especially since it involves telepathic links. Just as Tuvok stated that his relationship with his children supposedly did not include “love” but a sense of them being a part of his katra and being incomplete without them, I believe they view marital bonds much the same way. For this reason they guard those structures very staunchly. Divorce would be wrenching to their psyche after building telepathic familial bonds with each other.

    I really like your theory about Spock’s perception of human women coming from his mother and his issues there. I agree strongly. It could smack of sexism in comparison to his relationships with human men but I am curious as to why you see Spock as being more disdainful towards human female emotionality than the men. I have never really seen him show a tolerance for one over the other but rather across the board disdain.

    I DO think his preference for male friendships (even human) over female have to do with his presumed heterosexuality. How many cultures but up barriers between close friendships between men and women when they are afraid of “fraternization”? I think Spock is wary of being too close to many women because in his experience (i.e. Leila Kalomi) they become romantically attached and he wants to avoid this. Every time we turn around we have women throwing themselves at him. He even got hot under the collar in The Man Trap when he perceived Uhura as flirting with him. It was almost like seeing “Red Alert! Red Alert! Female intruder!” flash in his brain. For that reason he has allowed himself to be more comfortable around men and thus, did not notice when his feelings for those men slipped through the cracks. Very indicative of the Greek idealization of male relationships and “platonic love”. That is a dissertation, though. And THAT, ladies and gentlemen, is my theory about Spock’s preference for men’s company. Whether you take that to mean homoromantic, homosexual, or platonic love is up to you.

  7. Yes, for a supposedly logical race, they are illogical. Certainly taunting a mixed race child would not uphold the tenets of IDIC.

    • Of course it doesn’t. IDIC, like Surakian logic itself, is an ideal. Vulcans are not robots, they are extremely intelligent but they are not mechanical beings free of emotion and baser instincts like they pretend to be. By contrast, they are as stated MORE primal and emotional at their core than humans and they consider this highly dangerous. They embraced Surak’s philosophy of logic and stoicism as the alternative to an extinction level of civil strife. In this, they’re like recovering addicts –there’s no such thing as emotion in moderation, there is only abstinence punctuated by lapses and occasional backsliding. Any form of emotional reaction is seen as “falling off the wagon” and a step onto a dangerously slippery slope. The highest form of Vulcan discipline is a state where emotions and instinctual urges are short-circuited so efficiently that they are never consciously perceived, repressed so thoroughly they never rise to the level of conscious thought. They’re still there in the subconscious though, a Vulcan like an addict is never considered to be cured. It’s a life long struggle.

      Children are of course undisciplined by nature, they have to learn the rules of the culture and civilized behavior and gain control of their impulses in order to conform to what is considered acceptable conduct. Those kids who bullied Spock are acting like kids because they haven’t fully learned to act like followers of Surak yet. If they were to be caught they would be punished, not because they’d be judged wrong for looking down on Spock’s half-human nature (which would be considered as dangerous as a drunken bartender at an AA meeting) but for acting out in a way that is undignified and lacking in restraint. They’d consider it an error of over-enthusiasm, because they’d certainly agree with the goal of “disciplining” Spock for being what they’d consider deviant by nature.

      Of course, what’s ironic is that if Vulcans are more emotional that humans than Spock would be genetically speaking LESS inherently emotional than a pure bred Vulcan. What they fear is not his biological nature, but the influence of human culture and its permissive attitude about emotionality. To them, humans are like the casual drinker who doesn’t believe in the all or nothing approach and believes drinking is fine in moderation. And maybe they can handle it, though AA types tend to believe there’s no such thing as healthy moderation only denial of harm, but the addict sure as hell cannot. And the idea that moderation might be a goal to pursue is dangerous not only to the addict but to the philosophy of total abstinence itself. They don’t want the “bad examples” weakening the resolve of those on the wagon nor do they want them advocating that another way is possible. They fear the consequences far too much.

      They fear this on more than one level, as well. For one, the Priests of Surak don’t want to lose their power or influence nor do they want their philosophy undermined for reasons both selfish and altruistic. There’s also the real threat that a collapse of the Surak way could lead to the jade-soaked sands of the past coming again. Right or wrong, they don’t want to risk it. Any breach of discipline could be the one to start a chain reaction and there is too much on the line to chance it. They know their solution might not be ideal, but they’re willing to bear the burden of its flaws because they’re too frightened that tinkering with it might make the whole thing fall apart.

  8. I’m not really a fan of the Vulcans. They are portrayed as highly evolved beings and yet double standard exists in their society. They can’t even think logically when they have sexual urges.

  9. Okay, so a few things to get the ball rolling. First from the description of the situation with Spock’s wife, it does seem that Vulcan society (at that point) was sexist. In a logical society it makes sense for divorce to be easy considering not all couples are compatible as partners. With regards to spock being sexist however, you stated no examples whatsoever of Spock considering women to be more hysterical than men, I haven’t seen much of TOS so if you could actually provide something that would help your case. From what I’ve seen his criticisms are largely about humans in general. One thing to consider is that Vulcan society (like human society) changes over time, and frankly taking the civilisation in Kirk’s time as the same as how it could be in the DS9 era is naive considering a century or two has passed. Bear in mind TOS was filmed in the 60s and it’s values as such would reflect that time period (even though it was revolutionary for its time it was still behind contemporary norms). With regards to racism, yeah okay the Vulcans are xenophobic, but this attitude is largely a two way street. Remember that the galaxy is full of largely emotional beings, all of which seem to resent the logical approach of Vulcans. Perhaps their racism is a reaction to the racism of other species in the galaxy and their often aggressive insults against vulcan culture (something often witnessed, but rarely acknowledged, in Star Trek shows). Lastly your accusations of homophobia, the problem is that most of this is extrapolated from what you’ve witnessed of hetrosexual relationships, since to date there hasn’t been a single homosexual vulcan on screen (so far as we know) which makes pretty much all your theorising redundant. So far as we know homosexuality is not a species trait of vulcans. Given how many species across the galaxy have an extremely varied approach to romance and procreation there’s absolutely no reason to judge them through a human-centric lense (which is something you’ve done through your whole argument)

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