Monday, January 28, 2013

Sexism in the Twenty-Fourth Century

Hopper and I are still working our way through Star Trek: The Next Generation and we're now on Season 4. I'm bothered by a pattern that may be emerging.

I realize that these episodes were written and filmed over 20 years ago, but there's a kind of sexism in them that makes me particularly uncomfortable in some of Commander Riker's story lines.

Riker is, of course, known as a bit of a man-about-galaxy, but in two season four episodes he is taken advantage of in disturbing ways. First, in "First Contact," he is taken prisoner on a planet that is just developing interstellar space capability. He needs to escape from the hospital where he is being held prisoner while he recovers from some injuries. A hospital employee (I can't remember her function, if it was explained on the show) played by Bebe Neuwirth says that she will help him escape, but only if he has sex with her, because she's always fantasized about making love with an alien. Riker demurs, makes excuses, and finally succumbs.

This is rape. If you're unsure of my assertion, imagine the scenario with the roles reversed: an attractive woman is held prisoner, and one of her captors offers to help her escape provided she has sex with him first. Riker was raped.

Later, in an episode called "The Host," Dr. Crusher falls in love with an ambassador who is traveling on the Enterprise. The ambassador is seriously wounded while attempting to settle a local dispute, and when Dr. Crusher tries to save him, he informs her that the body she is trying to heal is only his host. He is in fact a parasitic being that lives inside the hose. He instructs Dr. Crusher to save the parasite and request a new host from his planet. She does this, but the parasitic being cannot survive on its own long enough for the host to arrive, so Riker volunteers to be a temporary host.

Once the parasite is implanted, the ambassador appears to take complete control of Riker's body and mind. Dr. Crusher is understandably confused by all this, but eventually realizes that this is, in fact, the man she loves and she goes to see him and spends the night with him.

This is a teeny bit less clear from an ethical perspective, because it's unclear to what extent Riker is aware of what's going on while his body is occupied by another sentient being. What is clear, however, is that he did not consent to sex with Dr. Crusher.

Raped again? Well, he certainly was beyond consent when his mind was co-opted by another being, whether or not he remembers it. What's unclear to me is whether Beverly raped him or the ambassador did. Or maybe they both did.

Again, reverse the roles: imagine Beverly's mind is taken over by another being and that being uses her body, without her consent, to have sex with Riker.

Makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it?

I'm not sure these episodes could or would be made today, but why did we ever think this was okay to do to a man? Is it because it's Riker, and we know he's kind of a slut? I think it might be. It's a combination of the idea that men always want sex and the idea that a slut can't be raped. And these ideas are completely validated by the show--Riker shows no difficulty with either scenario (although it's unclear whether he's even aware of the second one.) Even I said to Hopper, when Riker volunteered to be the host to the ambassador, "Does this mean Riker gets to do it with Beverly?" And I'm sure that was the thought process of many.

After all, Riker does it with everyone.

I hope we've come beyond this as a society. I hope we understand now that no matter what someone's sex life is like, or what gender they are, a person shouldn't be forced into sex against his will. Ever.

I wonder how Jonathan Frakes feels about it.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't watched ST-NG since it first aired, but I do remember those 2 episodes. I love your thoughts on them. I always found that the show would take controversial ideas like this and use them. I always thought they did it to be thought provoking and to show that by spinning it slightly (a man being raped instead of a woman) that they were highlighting how wrong it still was. I wonder if that was their intent or if they simply did it for the sensationalism?