The Underdetermined Death of Uhura
I was more or less flippant in saying that Kirk and Spock in the Star Trek movie are Bush and Obama. It was true, I thought, but probably only in a kind of collective unconscious way, an expression of a particular way our society mediates some of the contradictory ideas it manages to hold in its pretty little head — in this case, a simultaneous investment in multiculturalism and in majority culture (white) supremacy — that takes on different forms in different contexts: the movie on the one hand and, on the other, the political fact that Obama’s “multicultural perspective” has to be reconciled with the political reality of a nation quite comfortable with lawless lynching of people unblessed with the markers of majority.
But, now, having imbibed much more commentary on the film (Abigail’s is a good overview, and Adam and Millicent are the more specific provocations for this pose), I want to up the ante on the vitriol. This movie is genuinely odious.
For a start, while the commonplace that women exist in cinema to serve as growth charts for the male leads is commonly true, there’s something particularly attenuated about this phenomenon in this particular Star Trek. As has been pointed out elsewhere, women are important primarily as absences, even — to put it more strongly — legible only as traumatic representations of absence. While Spock and Nero, for example, have highly developed narratives which spool out their characters by reference to their loss of mother and wife, post-infant Kirk has no apparent mother at all, an absence from the narrative necessitated by her actual presence in his life. In this movie, only dead women are real and reality is a function of dead women.*
This is, I think, much more insidious than the movie’s more obvious — because thoughtless — expressions of its own white masculine ego ideal, things like the mini-skirts and Iowa Elks club feel of the federation as a whole. Uhura’s presence in the plot is stupid, too, but like the mini-skirts, there isn’t much more to say than to observe that what was at least a well-intentioned gesture towards gender and racial equity in the sixties (a black female bridge officer, albeit without pants) has become, precisely by its faithfully replication, a step backward; in a franchise which has already seem both a black captain and a female captain, Uhuru’s presence in the narrative (as the only non-white male character of any importance at all) just illustrates how unconcerned the creators of the movie are with the forward progress narrative of liberalism.
Need they be? Myself, I’m pretty down on the entire progressivist narrative as a framework for understanding the universe, but I think this would be how you would mount a defense of Star Trek as a franchise if you wanted to: it does believe that humanity is gradually becoming more humane, and every stage of the show’s development attempted to measure this progress by reference to greater and greater inclusion. The original series might have been content with having some helpful women and ethnics around, for example, but the Next Generation had the idea of incorporating non-white males in less subservient capacities (a female Chief Medical Officer, a Klingon Security Officer) as well as making the captain bald, old, and British to make him as specifically not the White Male ego-ideal represented by Kirk. You still had Riker to displace that Kirk figure onto, of course, and the important non-white-males were still somewhat circumscribed by their ethnic or gendered specialty: the Klingon (as scary black guy) can only be in charge of violence while the important women characters are limited to the nurturing roles of psychiatrist, doctor, and mother (and lets not forget Whoopi Goldberg to provide super duper magic). I’m not sure what to make of the fact that Tasha Yar, the original security officer, was female, though her swift elimination from the cast (like that of the original female Number One from the original series’ pilot) would seem to indicate less comfort with the idea than the daring move of putting her there in the first place would suggest.
In any case, while one can quibble with how well it was done, the fact that the franchise’s continuity was a grand narrative of steadily increasing progress-through-diversity has to be acknowledged, and while I never watched Deep Space Nine or Voyager, they did add to the larger narrative of the franchise a sense that even in Star Trek’s particular version of the future perfect, perfection was seen as continuing to be redefined in practice. So, points for that; if the idea of progress is a fiction, as I think it is, it is at least a fiction whose political power is, most of the time, a force for better than worse. If the current incarnation had chosen to take up this legacy, it could, for example, have created a homosexual character, and that would have been, if not all that daring, still completely in the spirit of Roddenberry’s articulation of the show’s ethos (as Adam puts it).
Which is why I want to flag this movie’s crimes not as the kind of thoughtless racism or sexism that the previous incarnations were often guilty of, but as a more active and reactionary intervention. While the old versions of the franchise could be blind to the beams in their eyes because they were so focused on their neighbor’s motes (or just self-satisfied), the new movie strikes me not only as harboring a basic nostalgia for the sins of the first series (which the later incarnations had “corrected”) but also as rewriting the narrative of the franchise as a conservative project of maintaining those characteristics by undoing their corrections.
After all, as much as I admire the cleverness of the time-travel plot — since it does allow a much more satisfying “reboot” of the series than any other return-to-origins narrative would — there’s something about it that’s a little too close to being the 1984 fantasy of going back in history and retelling the history of the present as it should have been written. As in totalitarian “official” narratives, the basic story doesn’t really change since the present is always whatever it is (rewriting history doesn’t actually change the present, so all the characters have to end up where they’re supposed to be) but creating a different back story for that present is not totally unlike the desire to write a new history of the Soviet Union with Trotsky airbrushed out, or whatever. In this sense, we have the past we want: Captain Pike makes it from the pilot — even given a central role to play — but his Number One is completely absent (with Majel Barrett herself only being represented by an offhand reference to Nurse Chapel). And most damningly, while Uhura occasionally aspired to being more than a token in the old series, she isn’t even that here, as being a “token” would imply a desire for increasing diversity that it strikingly absent from the movie (I would even suggest that her “green” roommate is a way of making her fail to signify as black in anything but the most empirical sense). And there aren’t even any other tokens.
In this sense, I have two slightly different j’accuse’s. The first is simply a kind of lazy bad faith we are all pretty familiar with, the kind of desire that a show like Mad Men seems to represent: reveling in nostalgia for the sins of the past because we desire them but cannot openly admit it. Yet this, too, can simply be a product of self-satisfaction, the way the sense that we are now post-racial can be a fiction enabling a kind of complacent embrace of our worst angels. My second thesis nailed on Abrams’ church door, however, is deeper: rather than simply being the conservative tendency to imagine that racism or sexism just isn’t that big a deal (but at least admitting that it was or would be a bad thing), this is a movie which is actively hostile to everything the old franchise attempted to stand for, and which actively sets out to erase it, the way there really is a substantial wing of the conservative movement that stands, openly, for white supremacy. This is an important distinction, I think, because while the original Star Trek at least thought it had solved inequality — with a well meaning naivete that makes me want to pat it on its head and send it on its way — this movie is actively hostile to the very idea of multiculturalism, the existence of women, and the narrative of progressive inclusion which the franchise has, up until now, articulated.
Not all prequels have to be retrogressive exercises in nostalgia, of course; in fact, I maintain that the James Bond reboot, which I posted about here, is a impressively thoughtful effort to grapple with the series’ entrenched misogyny. The reason the old Terminator movies were so much more interesting than Terminator Salvation, too, is that they functionally were prequels, starting from an already told future and then using the prequel form to un-think (or at least inadvertently trouble) conservative givens about how gender and reproduction work. In the new Star Trek, on the other hand, it is the very specific way the movie intervenes into that continuity, as a prequel, that makes it such a conservative film.
For example, not only does the plot begin and end with a giant Vagina Dentata time-warp — though it does do that — it also completely fails to exist as a movie without it. If we want to get all Lacanian, in other words, we could note that the specter of a carnivorous maternal phallus isn’t just the defining feature of the plot, it’s also the condition for the movie’s own existence: the narrative conceit that allows it to be a prequel is 100% a function of a visual metaphor for misogynistic fear of women. And not only visually: the alternate time narrative that gives the movie an identity, after all, begins with Nero’s loss of his wife, an event produced by Spock’s use of the red matter, which he got (presumably) from Old Spock in the past after it had been used to destroy his mother. This movie is a pearl whose irritant is fear of the vulnerability that women represent to it.
Now, you can easily quibble with my recreation of these chains of causation — I see you coming a mile away, Seafan — but you shouldn’t: they don’t make sense and that’s the point. Rationality is the enemy! While many time travel narratives (like Back to the Future, for example) often pretend that everything adds up and makes sense (Fritz Leiber delightfully parodied this tendency in “Try To Change the Past,” for example), it is exactly because it’s not one of those movies that makes it so reactionary, in every sense. As in the first two Terminator movies — where John Connor gets born only because the Terminator tried to prevent him from being born — teasing out chains of determination only illustrates their fundamentally underdetermined nature. But while the Terminator franchise did this as a way of calling into question everything you might think you know about what is natural, the recursions of this movie have become an anti-rational object of desire in its own right, a spectacular fear of women which produces the spectacle of women as fear which produces spectacular fear of women, etc. And as a Pavlovian pleasure-through-stimulation device, it teaches us to take pleasure in the manner in which it signifies; after all, if our enjoyment is a function of seeing action, isn’t it significant that all action is reducible to either causing or being caused by the death of women?**
* Anyone want to take bets on whether Uhura survives the next Star Trek movie?
** Seriously, any takers on whether they kill off Uhura in the sequel? Anyone? If it’s by the same writers, I’ll give you odds.