J.J. Abrams And Star Trek’s Progressive Heritage

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, guest-poster Ryan B. thinks I’m being too hard on J.J. Abrams:

In defense of Abrams, he clearly wants to use Star Trek, a show that really is about what the future would be like if liberalism won and became the dominant ideology of humanity, to both portray the reality of same-sex love and advance the cause of gay relationships in a larger cultural sense. And he is struggling, in a way I think Rosenberg doesn’t give him credit for, to figure out how to make that work in a movie that has to be simultaneously a blockbuster, a work of art (for some definition of “art” – don’t interrogate this too much, please), and apparently now also a liberal clarion call. That’s hard!

The thing is, I don’t know that it is clear that Abrams is particularly engaged with Star Trek‘s progressive legacy on this or any other issue. Rather than being about exploration or governance, the plot of his 2009 movie is about security, and the security threat doesn’t actually say much about the nature of the universe. Nero isn’t the Borg, who want to impose a totalitarian vision of perfection on the universe: he’s just angry and destructive. Nero believes that the Romulans were sold out by the Federation, but Nero’s wrong — the destruction of his planet is an accident, rather than, as might have been more interesting, the result of Federation ineptness, callousness, or strategic coldness. I’m sort of entertained by the idea of Nero as an intergalactic Don Blankenship using the tools of mining for evil, but that’s a stretch beyond even the kind I’m comfortable with. The closest thing the movie has to politics is the idea that the Federation and the Academy are more welcoming of folks of mixed heritage than the Vulcan High Council is, but that’s pretty weak tea if we’re trying to imagine an awesome progressive society of the future.

And more to the point, as Zack pointed out in comments on my original post, you can include a gay character in a franchise without having the story be a story about that character’s gayness. If Abrams decided to give Sulu a sex life, he could do as little as include a funny throw-away reference to the boyfriend Sulu’s got back in port in the same vein as Sulu’s confession that by combat training he meant fencing lessons. It would shade in our vision of the future in a usefully progressive way. It wouldn’t actively disrupt continuity. And the inclusion of gay people in the background of a story who aren’t actively angsting over their sexuality isn’t tokenism. It is real, and it’s true, not just in the future, but today.