A History Of Star Trek’s Portrayal Of Women

by Lauren Saccone


When I was a kid, you were either a Star Wars fan or a Star Trek fan. For some reason, there was no overlap; the idea of liking both was inconceivable. Doctor Who hadn’t yet launched its overseas takeover, so young sci-fi fans were left with one of two options. You chose a phaser or a light saber, and you hung onto it for dear life.



I was decidedly in the Trekkie camp. My father had every single episode of The Original Series, and we would bond over the adventures of Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. Even from a young age, fandom hit me hard. I obsessively recorded data about the actors and characters. I was a Vulcan for Halloween (in a stylish-yet-functional Science Officer’s uniform, naturally). I even tried—albeit unsuccessfully—to learn Klingon.

But most of all, I was taken with the sheer variety of women that appeared regularly on the show. There was Lieutenant Uhura of course, but also the quietly competent (and secret romantic) Nurse Chapel, the outspoken Yeoman Rand, and the tough-as-nails lawyer Areel Shaw, not to mention the host of aliens and non-Starfleet visitors the Enterprise encountered. True, some were merely romantic foils for the male leads of the show, but these made up a smaller number than you would imagine. Aside from a handful of moments, Uhura seemed to have no interest in (and often no patience for) her male colleagues. Romance and dating, while a significant part of the show, never felt like the primary focus. After all, there was space to explore.

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For me, this parade of female characters was something of a revelation. This wasn’t a case where there was one woman character, but multiple — and they were all different. I might know in my heart that I could never be as cool and collected as Uhura, but I could learn to be assertive like Yoeman Rand (although I wouldn’t dream of trying to take on her hairstyle), or hard-working like Nurse Chapel. There was no right way to be in the Star Trek universe, and that’s why I loved it so much.

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So it’s not an understatement to say that J.J. Abrams’ reboot of my beloved series filled me with equal amounts of excitement and fangirl panic. The first movie was overall a success: I was delighted by the cast and thrilled to see the Enterprise in all her glory onscreen. And I will freely admit to tearing up when Leonard Nimoy appeared onscreen as Spock Prime. The movie came across like a love letter to the original series, forging new territory without forgetting its roots. True, Uhura and Gaila were pretty much the only female characters with dialogue, but it was the first of the series; I was excited to see where it was going.

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Then came Star Trek: Into Darkness. Besides coming across as strangely slapdash (despite the best efforts of a supremely talented cast), this movie didn’t feel like Star Trek. It felt like a science fiction action movie. And that’s all well and good, as sci-fi action movies are fantastic and fun and we need more of them. Into Darkness has all the pieces needed for a solid sci-fi film, and a lot of people genuinely enjoyed it. But this was supposed to be a Star Trek movie, and in that respect the film fell short for me.

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Creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was (and remains) remarkably forward-thinking. All genders, races, and species working together toward common goals was the ideal. So the lack of women in Star Trek: Into Darkness comes across as downright jarring. We still have Uhura of course, only this time she’s been reduced to a romantic foil for Spock. Her contributions are significantly fewer, and her presence is sorely missed.

Uhura and Chapel on Platonius

What other women make lasting appearances during the events of Into Darkness? Dr. Carol Marcus—who plays such a vital part in the original television series and subsequent films—doesn’t garner enough screen time to really come across as a complete or complex character. Nurse Chapel is nothing more than a throwaway line (and another in Kirk’s long line of conquests). And as for Gaila, the green-skinned fun-loving Orion from the first film, her whereabouts remain unknown. She may have been killed off in the first film, or simply serving Starfleet on another vessel.


I wanted to love Into Darkness as much as I loved the first film; really I did. But it was disheartening on so many levels to see characters I had grown up admiring tossed aside in favor of more explosions and dramatic chase scenes (although to be fair quite a few other characters suffer from a distinct lack of screen time: Is it just me, or does the crew seem curiously absent from its own film?). Just having a few of these characters among the cast would have meant so much to fans who were inspired by the original series.


Considering my disappoint with Into Darkness, I’m still determinedly optimistic about Star Trek Beyond. Not only is it directed by Justin Lin (of the wonderfully fun and visually stunning Fast and Furious franchise), it’s being written by Scotty himself. Simon Pegg made a name for himself with the hysterical and surprisingly touching Cornetto Trilogy, which includes the now-classic zombie film Shaun of the Dead. But before that he co-wrote and starred in Spaced, an irreverent and subversive comedy that featured a host of well-written characters regardless of gender. Pegg has publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the second film and vowed to make the third installment more inclusive.


The movie studio has been fairly tight-lipped about what we can expect from Star Trek Beyond, even hesitating to provide character names or biographies. So far we know that besides the return of the crew we can enjoy appearances by Algerian performer Sofia Boutella, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Deep Roy, and the incomparable Idris Elba. The diversity of the cast (not to mention the serious acting chops) indicates a return to form that would make Roddenberry proud.

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Regardless of what the critics end up saying, I’ll be making that journey to the Enterprise come July 22. I’ll buy my ticket, wait in line, and offer up a prayer to the sci-fi gods that this film delivers more than impressive set pieces.

Because at its heart, Star Trek is about more than spaceships and teleporters and aliens. The special effects in the original series were weak at best, and regularly so bad that you almost felt the crew was laughing alongside you. But none of that mattered. Star Trek wasn’t about big-budget production values; it was about a world where people of all genders, races, and species could explore this vast and complex universe together (and sometimes fight hostile aliens).

So no, the new film will not make an impact on my title of ‘Trekkie,’ no matter what transpires. But I hope Star Trek Beyond delivers on the promise Gene Roddenberry made all those years ago. I hope for a cast and storyline that’s inclusive. I hope for a film that loves these characters as much as its legions of fans do. I hope to look up on the big screen and see a universe that’s complicated, diverse, exciting, and dangerous. I hope to see the Uhura, Chapel, and Rand of my childhood, all set to inspire a new generation of would-be Starfleet officers. And despite the problems with the reboot series, I’m excited to see what comes next. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future remains one I wish to live in—even if we never do manage to work out teleporters. 


Lauren Saccone is a freelance writer, social media consultant, archery coach, and pop culture junkie. Her work has appeared on HelloGiggles, BUST, Parade, EnStars, and various other sites. You can find her on Tumbler here and on Twitter at @ElleSacc.

This post was published on July 18, 2016 

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