"Damon Lindelof’s Blithe Treatment Of ‘Star Trek’ Sexism And Why Genre Fiction Gets No Respect"
I didn’t write about the dumbest, most sexist thing about Star Trek Into Darkness, because there were a lot of discussions of drones and extrajudicial killing to talk about, and because sometimes a lady gets exhausted of pointing out, yet again, that you know that thing you did you think is clever? Actually, it’s pervy. But Star Trek Into Darkness does indeed have one of those moments, when scientist Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), in the course of explaining her father’s secret photon torpedo program to Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), inexplicably starts changing into a jumpsuit she needs to wear down to a planetoid to open up one of said weapons. Why she needs to do this right now rather than in three minutes, when the U.S.S. Enterprise has apparently decided to hang around Klingon space for a while anyway, or why she needs to wear a special jumpsuit down to a planet where the air is apparently completely breathable, is unclear.
But what does happen is this: she tells Kirk to look away when she changes, and because he’s Jim Kirk, and apparently desperately needs to try to convince everyone that he’s heterosexual at every possible moment, he looks anyway. Instead of him getting slapped, the camera decides to collaborate in Kirk’s absolute need to see his colleague in her kit, and shoots her from an angle that suggests it’s hovering slightly below her genitals, giving the audience a nice long look at Marcus in her black silk underwear and nothing else, because while apparently we’ll leave poverty in the present, Victoria’s Secret is forever.
All of this is a long way of getting to what Star Trek Into Darkness writer Damon Lindelof told MTV reporter Josh Horowitz when the latter asked why Carol Marcus had to get undressed:
Why is Alice Eve in her underwear, gratuitously and unnecessarily, without any real effort made as to why in God’s name she would undress in that circumstance? Well there’s a very good answer for that. But I’m not telling you what it is. Because… uh… MYSTERY?
It’s this kind of thing that always makes me want to curl up under my desk with the dragon’s egg and Ron Swanson bobblehead on it and rock back and forth for a while.
Because if you’re one of the many wonderful people who consumes or works in genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, and wishes that those genres could escape their second-class status because of the work they do to explore big issues and to create great characters, Lindelof is not helping. First, he’s reaffirming every stereotype in the world about geeks who are more likely to see a grown woman get undressed on screen than in the flesh, and who get all cranky and entitled about their need to said fictional characters take off their clothes, story, character, agency, and reciprocity be hanged.
And in a way, I resent Lindelof’s “Because… uh… MYSTERY?” even more than his refusal to seriously engage the question of why he and his fellow writers made that choice, because it shows such a rank contempt for the very things that make science fiction and fantasy so powerful: the ability to build new worlds and new rules. Lindelof and Star Trek Into Darkness director J.J. Abrams have long been known as people who prioritize mystery and grandeur over coherent systems or rules of the universes in which they work, and it’s made them very, very successful. But it’s also what makes their ascension in genres where the rules of the universes in which stories operate are a lot of what make those universes interesting, and how characters navigate those restrictions a major engine of character development so irritating. I’m absolutely down for defending the first-class status of genre fiction that boldly goes where no or few stories have gone before. But if you think that working science fiction and fantasy relieves you of your obligations to coherent plotting and character behavior, or if it’s an engine to deliver free naked ladies, then you can stay in your mom’s basement, and off my bandwagon.
Lindelof has apologized, as is de riguer. But I’m actually more exhausted than heartened by the idea that “What I’m saying is I hear you, I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future.” Because for serious, Lindelof is a 40-year-old man working not just in an industry that has constant discussions of the way its creators and products handle gender, but in a set of genres where those discussions have been particularly sharp, and reached particularly high levels. If he hasn’t heard these conversations and absorbed these ideas before, then I’m curious what he was listening to instead. When respect for gender–and genre–start showing up more clearly in Lindelof’s work, and that of his collaborators, maybe I’ll feel a little less exhausted.