When I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation as a kid, I was struck by how strongly I connected to the characters. For many of us, I think, it was one of the first shows to really inspire. Not only as a bold continuation of Roddenberry’s vision for the future, but as role models for how to live our lives. Picard, Data, Dr. Crusher, even Wesley all served as early examples of what we aspire to be and how to start living up to that aspiration. But as I grew older, I realized that one character in particular was causing me to think about gender roles and romance in ways I wouldn’t fully understand for years: Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge.
In rewatching those episodes, I have come to understand the character of Geordi LaForge as, among other things, a parable about how easy it is to fall prey to toxic masculinity and how genuine confidence and respect rather than bravado and entitlement are the keys to avoiding it. This was something that takes years for many people to understand, and fortunately, we have years worth of TNG to see Geordi’s masculinity evolve as he begins to understand these things as well.
First, it’s important to note something about Geordi that made him particularly impactful: Geordi LaForge is played by LeVar Burton. For many, Reading Rainbow was a pivotal show in our early development. We associated LeVar with the critical thinking and comforting fun of getting lost in a good book. Many of us also remember him from his incredibly powerful performance as Kunta Kinte in Roots and the paradigm-shifting impact that miniseries had. Essentially, even before ever seeing an episode of TNG, we already liked Geordi and felt like we could trust him. As the writing evolved and the character became something of an occasional stand-in for shy nerds, perhaps the first depiction of that identity I recall that didn’t belittle it, that connection only deepened.
While masculinity and its connection with romance are often explored in connection to William Riker, or occasionally Picard, the Geordi episodes initially seemed to center around the “nice guy” trope. One episode in particular, “Booby Trap”, begins with a scene featuring Geordi and Christy Henshaw (a coworker of unknown rank) on a beach. They are on a stereotypical “perfectly romantic date” with a full moon, coconut beverages, a warm breeze and even a cheesy violinist (who clearly plays to the stereotypical “wandering gypsy” portrayal of the Roma community). This ends with Henshaw telling Geordi she doesn’t feel “that way” about him and him dejectedly leaving the Holodeck. It is presented as essentially a textbook case of “friendzone thinking”. But before we look at how they moved beyond that toxic trope, let’s pause a moment and look at the situation. Geordi has convinced a work friend to go out with him. For this first date, clearly fraught with awkwardness potential on many levels, Geordi takes her to a moonlit beach on the holodeck as a part of a “perfect program” that he has spent months making. It comes off as creepy and entitled to the point of essentially becoming a parody of horrible first dates. I mean… it really seems like Geordi was just trying to get laid. Yes, he’s presented as a good guy who genuinely likes and respects the specific person he’s with and wouldn’t push anything… but it’s a secluded beach on the holodeck; what exactly was he expecting to happen?
After this romantic mishap, LaForge goes to Ten Forward and commiserates with Guinan. As is nearly always the case, our favorite temporally complex bartender has sagelike advice. She lets Geordi know two things that he desperately needs to hear. First, that there are things beyond one’s control that determine if someone is attracted to you. She mentions liking bald men and makes it clear that she knows that a man with hair may be a good match but that they are arbitrarily disadvantaged in her view and that’s just how life works. Second, she lets him know that by being honest and direct, he is “doing pretty well” talking to her and that if he wants someone to like him, he just needs to be himself and stop trying so hard. She basically tells Geordi that he can’t control if a specific person likes him, but by being confident, honest, and straightforward he will almost certainly end up finding someone who does. That is an incredibly important message. A lot of toxic thinking comes from conflating a lack of reciprocal attraction from particular people with a total lack of romantic interest from everyone.
While the long-term impact of that lesson on LaForge is worth further examination, the rest of the episode is also crucial in any look at his development. Because he does meet someone. Kinda.
Geordi ends up creating a replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise design models and has the computer create a simulation of the project’s lead designer, Dr. Leah Brahms. He even has the computer synthesize a recreation of her personality based on public records after being denied access to her personal logs (remarking, “great, another woman who won’t get personal with me on the holodeck.”) This recreation has a margin of error that is filled in by the computer, presumably drawing on the Lt. Commander’s existing holodeck profile and its knowledge of LaForge. Over the course of the episode, the two develop a romantic connection, eventually even sharing a kiss before the program ends. While Geordi assumes he has figured out how to romance Brahms, the episode seems to imply that he’s actually falling for the Enterprise’s computer playing to his desires.
When Geordi does eventually meet the real Leah Brahms in “Galaxy’s Child”, this is seemingly confirmed. He assumes that since things went so well with his holodeck version, the actual Dr. Brahms would instantly melt to his charms. When she arrives, though, the two are immediately at odds. The professional differences between a starship designer and an engineer who has modified those designs countless times are front and center in their interactions. These scenes again invoke the nice guy trope while throwing in professional conflict with the nice guy’s object of desire. Early in the episode Guinan again advises Geordi, this time saying, “everyone falls in love with a fantasy sometimes.” While Geordi dismisses this by saying that he isn’t expecting anything and that he knows it was just a fantasy before, this is quickly exposed as self-delusion. Furthermore, Dr. Brahms almost immediately figures out that LaForge knows a lot of personal things about her, and while he is cagey in explaining, she eventually discovers his holodeck program. Her exact reaction is “I am outraged by this,” as one would rightly expect. Geordi explains that the program didn’t go beyond what she saw (failing to mention the kiss, however), and he then proceeds to get mad at her for refusing to accept his overtures at friendship, even going so far as to physically obstruct her from leaving the holodeck at one point while basically saying she needs to loosen up.
In focusing on his borderline creepy fantasy, Geordi not only ignored the real Dr. Brahms’s agency, but also the manipulative nature of his own behavior. He had become so caught up in the version of Leah in his head that he not only expected her to instantly reciprocate his feelings but failed to note that she was already happily married. While the two do eventually form a genuine friendship and he apologizes for not telling her about the holodeck program immediately, the episode still shows Geordi gravitating towards the darker side of the nice guy trope. His intent was to form a real connection based on mutual respect, yes, but he still essentially cyberstalked a woman he was crushing on. There is a good dose of toxicity left in his masculinity at this point, but we see that he is at least actively trying to avoid it now, albeit with minimal success. He still sees romance as an engineering problem to solve, not realizing that “social engineering” is in fact just manipulation.
In a later episode, “Aquiel”, Geordi is again in the position of reading about a mystery woman’s personal life as he begins to fall for her sight unseen. Lt. Aquiel Uhnari is presumed dead, likely murdered along with her colleagues, under mysterious circumstances, and the Enterprise is sent to investigate. In order to figure out possible motives, Geordi must review the correspondence of Lt. Uhnari. As a result he learns the same kind of intimate details about her that he previously learned about Dr. Brahms and then some. He knows what kind of juice she likes, how she talks to her dog, and even that she had an abusive father. Now, granted, he thinks she is dead and this is part of a criminal investigation, but again, Geordi begins to fantasize about an idealized version of a real person based on information from her files. Aquiel is eventually found alive; she is apprehended in Klingon space flying a stolen shuttlecraft and carrying what may be the murder weapon. After the shock and joy at finding her alive subsides, he almost immediately tells her about having read her letters and promises nobody else will ever learn anything he read. In this, he has gained some enlightenment. Realizing he has unwittingly invaded the privacy of a now flesh-and-blood person, he is instantly apologetic and seeks to reassure her that her boundaries still exist. In this case, the two do end up forming a romantic relationship. So by being honest and recognizing the reality of the person in front of him, Geordi has some success. But given that Aquiel’s safe return makes her the prime suspect in Geordi’s investigation, that success would seem to be a case of moving from toxic entitlement to a toxic relationship.
As the investigation proceeds, she increasingly acts like a guilty person, tampering with evidence and withholding crucial information. While LaForge never actually compromises the investigation by covering for her, he is placed in a very difficult position. Commander Riker even directly tells him, “as a friend”, that he has an irresolvable conflict of interest. He is convinced of the innocence of someone he’s falling for and simultaneously investigating her for murder and desertion of duty; to say that this is not an ideal relationship is a massive understatement.
Aquiel is eventually accused of being a shapeshifting alien that has killed numerous people and is apprehended at phaser point as she was seemingly about to kill Geordi as well… and he stands by her. While she is eventually proven innocent and Geordi finds out the truth (spoiler: I’ll never look at sheepdogs the same way) he was willing to compromise his integrity to defend the person he’s in a relationship with. Given that this relationship is portrayed as a case of him potentially being manipulated, the level of trust is both admirable and simultaneously a bit desperate. The episode ends with Geordi offering to pull strings to have Lt. Uhnari transferred to the Enterprise, which she declines, preferring to “get there on [her] own merits”, which he accepts with a smile. While Geordi still clearly has a way to go, he has at least made some progress and has come to understand that respecting boundaries and trying not to idealize people is key to a healthy romantic life. He is actively trying not to be entitled and to avoid previous mistakes.
In a later episode, “Phantasms”, we see Geordi experiencing a familiar problem from the other side. A junior Lt. has a serious crush on him and it’s becoming awkward. This woman is smart, attractive, personable, and very much interested in a relationship… but Geordi’s just not into it. Knowing how painful it can be to hear that, he has avoided confronting her. Geordi is placed in a similar situation as Christy was a few years back, and he has clearly been shaped by it. While he continues to have issues with his romantic life, we can see by this point that LaForge has begun to veer away from toxicity and has figured out what a healthy romantic life looks like. At the very least, he is no longer in danger of becoming a damaging trope.
So where does that leave us? I would argue that we are left with a roadmap to avoiding some of the more insidious traps of toxic masculinity. I have previously said that Lt. Commander LaForge was a stand-in for shy nerds, and this is one of the reasons he was so invaluable in that role. Many young men of the geek/nerd persuasion genuinely don’t see the toxicity and entitlement in their feelings; they honestly don’t understand that being a good guy who respects women doesn’t entitle you to a romantic relationship with any specific woman. We see in Geordi that advice like “be yourself” and “stop trying so hard” are more than cliches when you really take them to heart, that there’s a difference between trying to find someone who likes you and trying to make a specific person like you, a line between learning more about someone you like and cyberstalking them, and that platonic relationships are just as important as romantic ones.
Geordi LaForge is shown to have very healthy relationships with women in his life. His mother and one of his best friends were both strong influences on him, and intellectually he embraced what we in the 21st century would call a feminist viewpoint. That someone like Geordi can fall prey to toxic thinking and find the wisdom to begin to overcome it is perhaps a subtler point of the Enterprise D crew’s stories, but it’s a crucial one, and one that I hope continues to inspire future generations of fellow trekkers and trekkies.
Live Long and Prosper.