For a long time, I thought Star Trek: The Next Generation was the end-all and be-all of all Star Trek reboots. Sure, it’s a bit campy at times, but who doesn’t love Captain Jean-Luc Picard saving the day with his wits and idealism? I grew up watching the show. But now that I’m older and marginally wiser, I see re-runs of TNG and I cringe a bit. Sure, Picard is as intrepid as ever, but many of the primary female characters are shoehorned into tired stereotypes. The moment you start googling TNG, you open a Pandora’s Box of sexism from the whole production crew. It seems like despite whatever other role they play, women in Star Trek are first and foremost sex objects. This even bleeds into today’s film reboot of Enterprise, where a sexy female co-star strips down to her sexy underwear in both of the movies. For a show about a wagon train to the stars, set in an idealistic post-scarcity future that was revolutionary in so many other ways, it’s deeply disappointing. And then I started watching Deep Space Nine, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that DS9 does a much better job with its female characters.
Spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine after the jump.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a lot different from its companions in the Star Trek universe. This story begins with a tenuous peace recently negotiated between the Bajoran provisional government and their brutal former occupiers, the Cardassians. Federation Commander Benjamin Sisko begrudgingly accepts a position helping the Bajorans administer the station Deep Space Nine, a Bajoran station at the mouth of a wormhole to the newly-discovered Gamma Quadrant. The show is generally a lot darker than its counterparts—many of the characters are dealing with the fallout from war and struggling to build a new life for themselves.
One of the first things I’ve noticed that makes this Star Trek different from the others is that it has an awesome female friendship front and center. Kira Nerys begins the series as the station’s first officer. She’s a former member of the Bajoran guerrilla resistance movement and has passionate opinions about the future of her planet. Jadzia-Dax, chief science officer, is a Trill with a symbiont named Dax. While Jadzia is 28, Dax is over 300 years old. Jadzia has her own personality and memories, but also remembers everything Dax experienced. Because Dax’s last host was a rather cantankerous man named Curzon, the show plays with people reacting to finding their old friend quite literally “reincarnated” as a beautiful young woman. Both characters give us opportunities to explore the way women are treated in the Star Trek universe.
Kira could be swapped out for a character who is any gender, and most of her character would remain pretty much the same. She has a romantic relationship with a man on Bajor, but for the most part, her character is so much more than her gender and sexuality. But this doesn’t mean that her gender plays no role whatsoever. She rebuffs others’ attempts to flirt with her to get what they want, but she’s able to bond with a visitor to the station over some stereotypically feminine interests (fashion). Her passionate outbursts to Sisko and others are never written off as some kind of female emotional instability, but are understood to come from her previous role as a patriotic rebel. Kira is a good example of a female character who doesn’t need to totally “act like a man” to be accepted and valued by her peers, and she also isn’t stereotypically female—she embraces some parts of her femininity, which makes her seem like a rather well-rounded character.
Jadzia, on the other hand, gives us a different look at the way gender works in the DS9 universe. While symbionts don’t have gender, their Trill hosts certainly do, and it seems that Dax has only had male hosts before Jadzia. In effect, Jadzia-Dax is a being with several lifetimes of male memories in a woman’s body. This plays out differently depending on who interacts with Jadzia-Dax. Sisko remembers his old friend Curzon-Dax, and treats Jadzia-Dax no differently. He knows that Jadzia has a different personality, but his old friend is still Dax, who remains alive in her. Conversely, when Jadzia decides to honor a blood oath made by Curzon to some Klingons, the Klingons take much longer to see Jadzia-Dax as their old friend, because she’s a woman. Jadzia has to prove to them that she’s still just as much the warrior Curzon was. Furthermore, Jadzia-Dax enjoys gambling with her extremely misogynistic Ferengi friends, and admits that she enjoys the attention of Dr. Julian Bershir’s crush on her. On one hand, her toleration of misogyny and reaction to the doctor’s attraction to her rings a bit false. I get the impression that she doesn’t mind leading on the doctor, which plays into the hurtful stereotype that women like to “lead men on” and equivocate about their feelings because they like the attention (when in reality many don’t feel like they’re able to say no outright). Juxtapose this with the way she brushes off Ferengi misogyny, and it gives the audience the impression that women’s experiences of misogyny don’t really matter, whether they be outright (Ferengi) or subtle (fear of what would happen if they say no to a man’s proposition). It’s hard for me to believe that someone who always identified as female, like Kira, would have the same reaction. It seems more like someone who’s never experienced what it’s like to be a woman, or maybe a man imagining what it’s like to be a woman.
On the other hand, Jadzia-Dax may not truly identify as entirely male or female, and her 300 years of memories give her some distance from these new feminine experiences. Maybe Jadzia-Dax reacts the way she does because she experiences gender differently from those who identify as exclusively male or female. Jadzia certainly identifies as female, but Dax doesn’t seem to have a gender. In a way, Dax allows Jadzia to transcend the experiences of someone living within the gender binary. Could we say that Jadzia-Dax is a transgender character? Possibly, but probably not. Because she doesn’t openly identify as transgender, we can’t honestly count her among those characters that are truly representative. However, her complicated experience of gender could give the audience a way to begin a conversation about characters who don’t fit the stereotypical gender binary. Jadzia-Dax isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.
Both Jadzia-Dax and Kira Nerys are complex, complete female (or female-presenting) characters. Their friendship passes the Bechdel test in almost every episode that they appear together. They’re supportive of one another in a way that proclaims “we are fellow humanoids who care deeply about one another”, instead of devolving into petty squabbles over men or overt “we are women in a man’s world and have to stick together” themes. It’s refreshing and surprising, given this is a show from the late 1990s. When I first saw them interacting, I had to wonder if they were being set up for a romantic relationship, because their relationship seemed so strong and real. I’m sure the fanfic is out there. Regardless, I’m impressed with the way Star Trek: Deep Space Nine treats its female leads, and the way it gives them a dynamic friendship. I only wish that the new film series reboot of the Star Trek universe could be so progressive as this ’90s television show. Star Trek has a long history of being progressive (albeit imperfectly) when it comes to including diverse characters, especially when it comes to women and people of color. It shouldn’t be that hard for a major sci-fi film franchise to pull away from tired tropes and push the boundaries to where no one has gone before.