Why This Geek Is Not Watching Star Trek

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.

Kevin is finishing up a Ph.D. at the Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing while working on @SociaLens, a Midwest startup. His new book is Digital Fluency: Building Success in the Digital Age. He's a secret identity waiting for a superhero.