Star Trek Fail

Why This Geek Is Not Watching Star Trek

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Star Trek Fail
The latest Star Trek film failed the Bechdel Test, which sets a minimal bar for interaction between women in a film. Enough is enough.

My Geek generation was raised on Star Trek. Although I missed the actual airing of the show on NBC by a decade, I was around and paying attention for the action figures, cartoon series, reruns and movies. Along with Hawkeye Pierce, James T. Kirk became one of my TV dads, helping to shape my real-world views on life and friendships through his adventures with the crew of the Enterprise. If I had to choose a side in the battle of the Stars — Trek or Wars — I wouldn’t even have to raise the Red Alert.

This month, fans flocked to see the much-anticipated second installment of J.J. Abrams reboot of the franchise, Star Trek: Into Darkness. Although the $84 million first-weekend receipts underperformed expectations, the movie is on pace to break even on their $190 million production budget in the first two weeks of domestic gross. Through Memorial Day, ST:ID had brought in almost $260 million worldwide. Circumstances at home prevented me from contributing to ticket sales, and now further reflection may keep it from ever happening.

Why would a lifelong Trekkie choose not to see what is widely considered to be a good action film? It failed the Bechdel Test.

Hitting the Low Bar

In 1985, Allison Bechdel published “The Rule” as part of her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. In those panels, one character outlined three simple requirements for deciding whether to see a movie:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it.
  2. They have to talk to each other.
  3. They have to talk about something other than a man.

Now known best as the Bechdel Test, these requirements gained recent significance after being featured by Anita Sarkeesian on Feminist Frequency at the end of 2009. Over the years, some parties adjusted the core requirements; it is common to only consider named characters, for instance. In revisiting The Rule for a preview of the 2011 Oscars, Sarkeesian suggested a minimal duration of one minute for the required scene between women.

The Rule isn’t a measure of feminism in media, of course. Movies with a single strong woman will fail, and vapid, sexist narratives will meet the low bar. Its power is as a reflective tool for the industry, by raising awareness about the huge number of movies that can’t even satisfy a minimal female presence in the narrative. The Bechdel Test is a framework equally effective at shining the light on systemic problems with race, or critiquing the reporting on women scientists by journalists. In other words: If the presence of marginalized groups weren’t a systemic problem, the Bechdel Test would be moot.

Geeky movies seem particularly prone to failure. This isn’t surprising, since much of what we consider canon came prior to the publication of The Rule. However, things aren’t getting better.

Over the past few years, GeekDad‘s “Things Parents Should Know” series racked up at least seven dozen articles previewing films about which our readers would be interested. Only 36 of these movies pass muster with Bechdel, and barely. Despite focusing on male heroes and bad guys, Iron Man 3 managed to clear the bar with an exchange between Maya and Pepper. However, that scene was brief and lonely in the 130-minute action film. If we considered Sarkeesian’s minimum time addendum, many of the passing movies wouldn’t make the cut. The majority of our reviewed films are outright rejects.

While the 2009 reboot of the films does eke out a dubious pass of test, the new Star Trek movie apparently can’t even muster an interaction between the two named female characters, Uhura and Dr. Marcus. Worse, the focus on skin and underwear was so unnecessary to the narrative maybe Abrams’ Bechdel point should be penalized. Writer Damon Lindelof recently tweeted acknowledgment of the issue: “I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress.”

Narrative Empowerment Matters

For years, I have made the case in this kind of discussion that we can still relish the contribution of movies despite their warts. Birth of a Nation is a staple of most film history classes, despite the racist propaganda, because of the role it played in stimulating the movie industry. Sometimes, though, even classics become unwatchable as the context of their viewing changes. Song of the South and Holiday Inn, for example, went from annual family television staples to broadcast taboo when our society gained enough awareness to no longer tolerate its legacy symbolism.

Racial bias in media seems easy to notice as generations evolve. Gender bias, on the other hand, is more deeply entrenched and thus easier to let pass. As the Everyday Sexism project makes apparent with their tweets each day, our collective disempowerment of women is as invisible as it is pervasive.

At the end of last year, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released a research report on the status of how women are portrayed on television and in movies. The Davis Institute is a research-based organization working within the industry to strengthen the mechanisms for gender balance, particularly as presented to children. Among their findings:

  • Even among the top-grossing G-rated family films, girl characters are outnumbered by boys 3 to 1.
  • Female characters in family films hold just 20.3 percent of the total on screen occupations (despite women comprising 40 percent of the family breadwinners in real life).
  • Males are four times more likely than women to hold a STEM job in media portrayals.
  • Messages that devalue and diminish female characters are still rampant in family films.

According to the Institute, there has been little forward movement for girls in media in six decades. Male characters dominate with nearly three-quarters of speaking parts in children’s entertainment and 83 percent of narration. This owes in large part to the relatively minor foothold women have been able to gain with powerful industry jobs. Men outnumber women in key production roles by nearly 5 to 1 — only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers are female. If not widely noticed, this absence of women is impacting.

One ongoing domestic argument is about watching Wages of Fear, a 60-year-old French film recognized as an archetype for suspense. I saw it for the first time in a large, old Chicago theatre a couple decades ago, and then introduced it to my wife on DVD. Trapped in a chair by a sprained ankle, her most vivid memory is Yves Montand treating Véra Clouzot like dirt. Why, my wife inevitably asks, is Wages of Fear not considered as offensive as Song of the South?

“Context” has always be my go-to response. It is difficult to be too judging of a bygone era that cannot possibly change. Sixty-year-old films will always have been created in the soup that is the 1950s, long before the likes of Title IX or Gloria Steinem would have been able to have impact on our critiques of the world. Some forms of media, like music, can continue to evolve through subsequent reinterpretation. Film is a fixed point in time. It can only develop more flaws with distance from its debut.

Until it is remade.

This is why Abrams’ latest Star Trek offering is so disappointing. Yes, the Trek Universe has well-established characters and relationships. There are rules not to be broken and traditions to be upheld. For all of the original series’ groundbreaking casting and narrative — Gene Roddenberry’s creative soup was only one decade younger than that of Henri-Georges Clouzot — women crew members still wore skimpy outfits and performed subservient roles. Abrams doesn’t have the excuse of creating or setting his movies in a Mad Men era. In the 2009 reboot, Abrams showed his willingness to send the 21st century Trek crew on a different trajectory, through plot devices involving time travel and alternate universes. Why couldn’t women come along for that ride?

The Bechdel Offset

I don’t take my decision to skip ST:ID lightly. I’ve heard nothing but great things about Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn as a villain, and any movie with Peter Weller is one worth watching. In this case, however, the dismissal of women’s roles in a situation otherwise ideal for progressive advancement (i.e., egalitarian vision of the future, modern-day reboot, ample financial backing) was a final straw. Until we reach a state of media maturity where the Bechdel Test is rendered moot, this will now be the first question I ask before I invest any money in a braintrust of movie makers: Does this film satisfy The Rule?

One of my favorite lines from the Whedonverse comes from Angel. At one point mid-series, the lead hero dresses down his delinquent son with the most uplifting idea to come from television:

We live as if the world were as it should be, to show it what it can be.

I live in a country where 50.8 percent of our citizens are women. Yet it is an ambitious and ultimately unachievable goal to elect a Congress comprised of 20 percent women. Applying only the simplest criteria of The Rule, movies aren’t in as depressing a state as politics. Of the nearly 3,500 movies in the Bechdel Test database thus far, 53% satisfy the requirements. However, it cannot be understated how low that bar truly is.

While I’m bracing myself for a lot of movie-going disappointment in the near future, I am giving myself a way out. One way to account for the damage airline travel does to the environment is to purchase Carbon Offset credits. Money raised through guilt goes toward projects that actively combat the necessities to do further damage. Maybe the Bechdel Test needs a similar mechanism.

If the writers, directors and produces of the movies I want to see cannot come up with a creative way to ensure that women are minimally contributing to their narrative — by revealing the personal journeys of their female characters, exercising their strengths, and exhibiting growth through shared experiences — then I’ll have to find a Bechdel Offset to be able to overcome the sexism. For ST:ID, that means some movie moguls have to put a cadre of strong women in charge of spaceship to do battle with an equally strong villainess. Token male objectification is optional. Someone start a Kickstarter.

This is my new Prime Directive.

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25 thoughts on “Why This Geek Is Not Watching Star Trek

  1. With one modification, you’ve got every chick flick ever made:

    1. It has to have at least two women in it.
    2. They have to talk to each other.
    3. They MUST talk MOSTLY about a man.

    1. Even when the focus of a plot is about relationships, giving women an important role in shaping that narrative gives those characters opportunities to relate to the world instead of the man.

      The Rule isn’t an evaluation of quality, or feminist content. In an egalitarian society, movies that couldn’t meet the basic interaction requirements should be an exception (e.g., Twelve Angry Men), not the norm.

  2. So based on this, you would not go see The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings? Or what about Shawshank Redemption? Or are these movies exempt b/c they are based on books where there are no female roles?

    Judge the movie based on the movie – not b/c there is or is not men, women, minorities, LGBT, etc.

    1. This isn’t meant to be an excuse for seeing and enjoying the geeky movies I already have, nor is it a call that every movie has to abide by the same constraints. It is a recognition that our media portrayal of women is so far out of whack that it is far too easy to find movies that can’t even achieve the minimum.

      Film adaptations have a general constraint: They are bound by what the original author wrote. Since the act of adaptation is implicitly an act of re-interpretation, however, it is nearly impossible not to deviate from that original. All of our art, and by extension our society, is only improved if the instances that fail the Bechdel Test are both rare and intentional. The real problem is that it is too easy in our current culture to not even consider the ramifications of making female interaction go missing in our storytelling.

      Star Trek, specifically, pissed me off. This is a forward-looking canon that routinely does try to be intentional about pushing our thinking in progressive ways. For Abrams to feel empowered to give Spock a love interest out of the box in the reboot but not provide opportunities for new women characters to emerge in this alternative timeline is inexcusable, imo.

      Everyone choosing to see a movie these days does so based on a number of criteria. They like a particular actor or actress. They know the story already. The special effects look cool. Satisfying that criteria doesn’t make a movie good, by any means. I’m simply adding to that my own criteria for a basic presence of meaningful interaction between women.

  3. Thank you for this post! Seriously! When my brother in law saw the movie and told me about it all I could say was ‘really??’. He loved it and I was excited to see it but when Uhura’s big weakness is caring *eye roll* oh great so A star fleet officer who has an incredible mastery of languages but is a Woman so of course her job is to stand around looking helpless and caring too much. Isn’t caring Spock’s weakness? Idk I still want to see the movie but I won’t be seeing it in theatres. I’ll netflix it. My only child is a 15 month old girl and I have to repeatedly tell relatives to not buy her pink ridiculous frilly fruit/ other food covered clothing. And absolutely no barbies or Princess stuff! At this point I show her actually good role models like any Miyazaki character (which I will point out are mostly girls! and brave adventurous smart girls at that!). I don’t know in general I just want a world where I can show my daughter a disney movie and not have to explain that Peter Pan is a wrong and Wendy doesn’t have to be the little mother and Tiger Lilly probably can speak but they just don’t show it because the whole movie has wrong ideas about girls.
    This turned into a rant. Sorry 😛
    But again thanks for this post!

    1. Thanks for the support (and the engagement below, while I’ve been in biz meetings). Nothing like criticizing Star Trek on a geek blog to bring out the anxiety.

  4. This is the equivalent of refusing to look at paintings that do not have a fair share of pink in them. I have 3 daughters that I work toward empowering everyday, but nonsense like this is simply silly.

    1. Just the fact that you equate this with paintings having pink in them is telling.

    2. Maybe another way to look at my decision to include the Bechdel Test as part of my criteria for paying to see a movie would be an analogy to the salary mechanisms in the NBA.

      When as a whole, the league pays out salaries above a certain amount, a luxury tax kicks in as a mechanism to keep salaries manageable for small-market teams. If the salaries ever dropped too low, then the constraints would be removed until teams were paying players above a certain amount. Both markers are intended to keep the system healthy.

      I can’t tell whether you would agree that there is a systemic problem, or are just disputing the use of that Bechdel threshold. For me, though, Star Trek failing that simple test is a sign things are bad. I’m not in a position to make movies, so I’m reinforcing this feminist value in choosing what I consume.

      1. I agree. The reason I love Star Trek so much is the fact that it addresses moral issues and takes a hard look at them and I feel that all the descendants of the series should further advance that goal.

      2. Look, we all make choices on what we consume for various reasons. I respect that you are trying to take a stand for something. However, my point is that movies are a form of commercialize art. In particular, an art that was designed to sell to males ages 13-50. Most of whom have no desire to see an action movie with 2 women having a conversation about something. So is the studio whose job it is to make money supposed to intentionally make their product less appealing to their core demographic in order to further a societal goal of perfect equality? Not sure the shareholders would appreciate that.

        Should the admiral have been a woman and had an in-depth conversation with Uhura? Introduce brand new female leads in a story that already has a full cast?

        I think about classic movies that have absolutely no place to meet the rule and what it would be like to not have those movies in our culture.

        I also wonder if you follow this rule, why stop at 2 women? Why not 2 Asians? etc…

        And as for a systemic problem, I guess that would depend on what you are looking at as the problem. Equality for women? Sure, we still have work to do. Female roles in movies? I don’t really interpret this as a problem.

        1. This is a little dated (circa 2008), but Randall Munroe of xkcd did a little matrix of best picture nominations, examining the gender of the main leads:

          Roles for females in media are most certainly a problem, whether it is in providing opportunities to carry a film down to the smallest of interactions in the narrative. When the Bechdel test is applied to race, media gets even worse grades.

          I agree with your observations about the business side of things, up to the point of believing that because the formula has worked best catering to a particular demographic that demographic wouldn’t respond well to more egalitarian representations of women.

          My decision to go forward with my movie going by considering the Bechdel Test isn’t going to change that industry. It will change me and how I live in this world as I expect it should be.

        2. Also: The well-established trajectories of these familiar characters changed in the reboot. Would it be that crazy to imagine some restaffing of the crew with new characters?

          The Bechdel Test doesn’t ask for or require that degree of deviation. However, making those choices sure increases the chances of passing the test as a matter of storytelling.

  5. You obviously had a problem with some woman in your family being weak/abused growing up. This is the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever heard. You’re not going to see a movie because of the women not speaking to each other? How do you know this? You have someone else watch it for you? Or do you just frequent the crazy blogs? Where’s the logic? It’s a love story set in outer space… I’m not watching it because the lesbians aren’t speaking to each other about each other….

    With all the things wrong in the world you think this is the one to care about? Seriously guy? What about the veterans living on the streets? What about the Disney channel where all the women end up being slu*s and celebrity trash? Do you boycott Disney? Do you talk trash about them? … Man you have your priorities messed up. I like reading your blog but this just totally turns me off to it.

    FYI the movie was effing EPIC. Great graphics and a great story of how Spock and Aurora could care for one another as his father did with his Human mother. The story really sets the tone of perseverance for two different “cultures/races” trying to be with one another. I really thought they did a great job with how strong Aurora was as well. She was the leader in the relationship. I guess we don’t care about that though. She didn’t speak to another woman…. LOLLOLOL all the way to see part 3.

    P.S did you miss the Matrix trilogy as well? noob.

    1. Wow anamoly XB! way to be a complete jerk and miss the point. The point is that the Bechdel test is a very low standard for what roles women play in movies. If this were reversed and it were do two men talk to each other about something other than women… pretty much every great movie would pass (or any movie for that matter). The point is not to have women in movies talking to each other but to have women in movies where they play realistic roles and are not just sexy scenery who shop and talk about boys. In a futuristic Trek world where women are Star Fleet officers and scientists should surely meet this qualification… but it doesn’t and that is disappointing.
      And it’s Uhura. Noob.

  6. Sorry – if you are judging whether or not to see a movie based on a rule set forth in a comic strip from the 80’s you need better rules in your life. Also, If for some reason you’re allowing Ziggy, Cathy, or Family Circus to dictate your entertainment, you should at least give Star Trek the same slack you gave LOTR, it’s based on an existing cast of characters in a world that has to stay somewhat familiar to the fanbase. Star Trek as a franchise has done very well incorporating strong women into the fold over the years – but yes, there is one woman in the primary crew in this particular series.

    If you went and saw the movie and said “Gee, that’s sexist!” that would be one thing, but “I read on the internet that it fails the Marmaduke test” then the article is a bunch of 2nd hand knowledge.

    1. Notably the article wasn’t about how Star trek in general fails this test but how this particular movie does. Again that is why it is so disappointing… in an otherwise progressive show/movie series they fail to buck the trend of half-naked women to fill seats.
      I would like to point out that they cut the Benedict Cumberbatch shower scene… which when they left in the other makes it that much more of an injustice.

    2. Comics, as any good geek knows, are a great source of inspiration, since one of their primary charges is to reflect on the quirks of society. So your dismissal of the original source of this particular observation doesn’t hold much weight.

      The fact that after almost 3 full decades since publishing that insight movie making hasn’t changed with regard to gender balance is more evidence the system is broken.

  7. Good post. The issue I have with Sarkeesian’s suggestion to require a minute dialogue between two women is that I feel it shifts the goalposts needlessly.

    The beauty of Bechdel, i think, is through its simplicity. It is amazing how few movies fulfil Bechdel, even with its current, simple requirements, so adding more requirements would diminish the test’s efficacy of highlighting the role of female characters in media.

    Bechdel isn’t something writers need to fulfil in a minimum capacity and then get a pat on the back. It’s something to help write characters who have hopes and dreams independent of other characters.

    Writers shouldnt just crowbar a single conversation between two women just to get a “pass” because they fulfilled Bechdel. Writers should remember Bechdel and use it to help write rounded female characters

    That is not to say that women can never talk about men. Or that a male character can’t be desired by a female. Just that there’s more to them than that.

    Nb: this is my opinion only.

    1. That’s a great observation. When I started thinking about this, my intention was to refine the test. In the end, the only thing I might add is a requirement to reflect on the results of The Rule. At the end of the day, I just want people to write and edit without this blind spot.

  8. Geeks that find the Bechdel Test important might want to check out thinkContext. Its a browser extension which notifies you of movies pass the Bechdel Test when you encounter them on search engines or visit their IMDB page.

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