A portrait of the future:
Women in Star Trek: The Next Generation

A Study by Jessica R. Levine

Department of Sociology
Brandeis University

HTML version by Luca Sambucci

This paper is copyright 1994 by Jessica R. Levine. Duplication and distribution are allowed strictly by express permission of the author.


Abstract

Women in Star Trek: The Next Generation have many advantages over twentieth-century women. They can be professionals, mothers, and sexual beings without having one take away from another. Most importantly, women can maintain credibility as professionals even if they are attractive, or if they are mothers. This seems to be a long way from where women are today. Many women feel, accurately so, that they must hide their femininity, or pay less attention to their children, in the workplace in order to be accepted. This situation seems to have been amended in the twenty-fourth century, as it is portrayed in TNG. Through an examination of the many roles of two of the characters on the show, Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi, we can see what has been accomplished and what place women have in relationships, in the workplace, and in families.


Acknowledgments

I owe my unwavering gratitude to several people who helped me bring this project to life:

To my friend Josh Breindel, who sat with me for two hours, until I finally found my focus, and to my friend Erica Schultz, who helped me develop my focus into a paper.

To my friend Spock (not to be confused with Mr. Spock) who "tutored me" and helped turn a mere Star Trek fan into a true Trekkie.

To Jason, Steve and Kira, who helped me with the technical aspects of this project.

To all my suitemates, who put up with my wavering states of mind throughout this semester.

To my friend Erika Karnell, who understands what all of this really means to me.

And finally, to Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis, who haven given me, as characters and as actors, something to look up to, and much to look forward to.


Introduction

Star Trek: The Next Generation is praised not only as a work of science fiction, but as an entity that has ingrained itself into the fabric of American (and global) popular culture. Fans of the show cite many aspects that attract them: the futuristic scenarios of space travel, and the legions of alien life forms that appear in each episode, to name but a few. The aspect of the show that is most appealing, however, is its portrayal of humankind in the future. Over the course of the past semester, I have become a Trekkie -- a term associated with people who are fanatical watchers of the Star Trek series. I started watching the show last year, but it wasn't until I moved in to a suite with six other Trek fans that I began to get involved in the lifestyle of a true Trekkie: constantly discussing minute points about each episode, role-playing, memorizing Stardates, etc.. Aside from watching TNG, I had a growing desire to learn everything there was to know about the series: the significance of the show's "technobabble", character backgrounds, trivia about the actors, and more. With the help of a few TNG devotees, I learned fast, and before I knew it, I was teaching others how to decode Stardates!
As I connected with the show, I began to pay more attention to character interaction, and to how people reacted to and dealt with one another in different situations. Having been interested in sociology for some time, and after a few weeks in "Women and Intellectual Work", it seemed natural that I would pay close attention to how women were portrayed on TNG. As I started to focus more closely, I began to see that the two prominent female characters on the show were in many ways quite different from the women of this century, and I felt that the subject was worth closer examination. Star Trek has often been considered a nearly ideal portrayal of the future, and the treatment of the women in the Star Trek universe contributes a great amount to that ideal.
Instead of the degenerate, warring races that many predict will exist, Star Trek has maintained a virtually unwavering optimism about the future of humanity. Gene Roddenberry, the show's creator, had a vision; says Rick Berman, the executive producer of TNG:

Gene saw humanity as an evolving species that was going to keep getting better and better. He believed that the future was something to look forward to....His vision of tolerance and cooperation among all beings gave a sense of hope to a lot of people.

An essential part of this optimistic future was the portrayal of women. Two of the seven main characters on TNG were women, and they personified precisely what women in the twentieth century strive for: equality and respect among men in a work-related atmosphere.
Through the close scrutiny of some of the episodes that I feel are pertinent to this issue, in addition to the opinions of the actors themselves (via several interviews), I believe we can extract an answer to the question of how much, and in what ways, according to TNG's interpretation of the future, the position of women in society and in the workplace has changed by the twenty-fourth century.


Roles and Identities


Women as Professionals
TNG takes place in the twenty-fourth century, aboard the starship Enterprise, which is the flagship of the United Federation of Planets, an organization of hundreds of planets in cooperation with one another. The two main female characters on TNG are Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi. Beverly serves as Chief Medical Officer on the Enterprise, and Deanna is the Ship's Counselor. Both are senior officers, and both possess the rank of Commander. The way in which different roles and identities are defined for these two women in particular on TNG provides for much discussion. The roles break down into three major categories: professional, sexual, and maternal.
Looking at how Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi are portrayed as professionals provides much insight into the position of women in the TNG universe. The most prominent difference between today's professional woman and those on TNG is that, in the vast majority of cases, women are seen as professionals first, and women second. In the twentieth century, prominent professional women are heralded for succeeding in "a man's world"; that is not a factor in the success of women in TNG. The fact that they are women does not diminish their professional identity, and, more importantly, it does not diminish their ability to be credible or respected in their fields. Women on TNG do not need to prove themselves as capable, unlike so many women who feel that that is necessary today. It must be mentioned that, as a doctor and a counselor, respectively, Beverly and Deanna serve in primarily healing positions -- traditionally occupied by women -- but, unlike today, women in TNG have virtually every possible opportunity among which they can choose from, so it is not the case that the two women chose these professions in the absence of other choices.
Another aspect of the professional existence aboard a starship is command structure. As we have seen through TNG's seven seasons, women have held command positions on every level, including Captain and Admiral, and no particular attention is paid to the fact that they are women. That is a distinct advance over this century, where the achievements of women always seem to include the fact that they are women, implying that they overcame this burden placed upon them to achieve despite their gender. Additionally, women do not need to betray themselves, or to play down their femininity, in order to be accepted as professionals. This last concept was tested, however, in the first season, through the character of Tasha Yar.
Denise Crosby, a striking woman with close-cropped blond hair, was chosen to portray Tasha Yar, the Chief of Security aboard the Enterprise. When casting calls went out for the TNG roles, Yar's character was described as

having a new quality of conditioned-body beauty, a fire in her eyes and muscularly well developed and very female body, but keeping in mind that much of her strength comes from attitude.
(Nemecek p. 13)

As Security Chief, Yar was the only female character to serve in what would be considered in the twentieth century a "man's job". Appropriate to this, she was portrayed as tough, constantly suggesting force and almost obsessively protecting her superior officers. Throughout the season, we saw very little of Tasha outside of her command position -- she did not seem to acknowledge her femininity in the same way that Deanna and Beverly did. We rarely see Tasha in a sexual context; could it be that she, as a character, felt she had to tone down her sexuality in order to succeed in a role traditionally held by men? Perhaps.
Shortly before the close of the first season of TNG, Denise Crosby "asked to bow out [of the series] on friendly terms" (Nemecek p. 54), citing dissatisfaction with the way in which her character was developing as the explanation for wanting to leave. Although it was never directly stated, one could infer that the reason the character of Tasha did not develop well was that the creative team was simply trying too hard to refute the feminine stereotype, as it could have been seen in the other female characters, who occupied more "traditional" roles. Comments Marina Sirtis on this issue:

the...writers have been handicapped by the fact that both of our women...are in caretaking professions. That's why I was sad when Denise Crosby left the show. As security chief, she was doing a man's job -- if you want to put it in sexist terms -- and when we lost her, we lost a lot.
(TV Guide p. 20)

Gates McFadden, as Dr. Crusher, also ran into problems with her character's development early in the series. She was replaced for the second season by Diana Muldaur, who was "created somewhat In the image of [the original Star Trek's Chief Medical Officer] McCoy, as crusty and transporter-wary..." (Nemecek p. 64). Dr. Pulaski, like Tasha Yar, seemed not to embrace much of her feminine side, instead she was a rather straight-laced, unsympathetic character. Muldaur's Dr. Pulaski was a virtual polar opposite of Beverly Crusher, and fans of the show were not pleased with the change. The cast replacement launched a massive letter-writing campaign to bring McFadden back, and when she was asked to return to the series, she did so without question. McFadden was "very surprised" (Gutman p. 43) by the decision to let her go, and was "surprised and delighted" (Gutman p. 43) when she was asked to return for the third season. By the time the series ended, Beverly Crusher was a strong-willed, independent woman, unafraid to assert her authority, or even to risk it when she deemed necessary.
As if it were an epidemic among the women characters of TNG, Marina Sirtis also came very close to being written out of the series. The writers of the show claimed that the character of Counselor Deanna Troi was the hardest to write for, and it seemed to take several seasons before she was lifted from delivering "emotional soliloquies even the actress cringed over" (Nemecek p. 27), to truly emerging as a well-rounded, believable member of the Enterprise crew. Deanna is a member of an empathic species of humanoids, meaning that she is capable of sensing peoples' emotional states. While this proved to be a credit to her character, it took the writers quite some time before they wrote that Deanna would contribute comments other than "I sense [insert blindingly obvious emotion]", and this delayed her credibility as a character on the show. Once the writers got away from their earlier habits, Deanna became a true asset to the crew, and an integral part of the overall quality of the show.
Through all of the metamorphoses the women of TNG underwent over the show's seven years, Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi seem to have emerged as well-developed as ever. The actors must be credited for that. Said McFadden:

Over the years I was always making phone calls to say 'Gee, couldn't we make Crusher a little stronger on page 23?' or 'All the men get to say things in the last scene -- what happened to the women?'
(TV Guide p. 18)

The fact that the actors were so vehement about the portrayal of their characters no doubt had an effect on the writers, assuring that they adhered to the idealistic views of the show's philosophy. The fact that so many women, myself included, look up to Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher as professionals, is a testament to the entire creative process that has existed behind TNG.


Women as Mothers
Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi have both gone through the experience of being mothers on the Enterprise. The experiences, however, were quite different from each other. Beverly came aboard the Enterprise with her then fifteen year-old son, Wesley, a brilliant adolescent going through many of the typical pubescent physical and emotional changes. The mother-son relationship was dealt with sporadically through the first four seasons of TNG, during which Wesley, played by Wil Wheaton, was a regular character.
Adapting to life on a starship took much effort on the part of both mother and son, who had developed a very close relationship beforehand. Wesley's father died when Wesley was five, leaving Beverly a widow at the age of thirty. The lack of an adult male role model was something that Wesley and Beverly both sought to amend on the Enterprise, as Wesley looked to the ship's Captain and First Officer for guidance.
According to Gates McFadden, the mother-son relationship was not always realistically portrayed:

We always seem so understanding with each other. I think a little conflict would be good. The more human we show them, the better. You can't have everybody on the ship being wise all the time.
(Madsen p. 4)

The reality aspect of this relationship also suffered from a lack of development, for the TNG writers would often have Wesley go to one of the male crew members for advice, which, although necessary at times, took away from the growth of his connection with his mother. When Gates McFadden returned to TNG for season three, she stated that she "felt that the relationship had been given very short shrift" (TV Guide p. 19). Then, when Wil Wheaton left the series at the end of the fourth season, her status as a mother took a back burner to other things.
It was almost always obvious that Beverly cherished the fact that she was a mother. When her character was written out for season two, to take another posting, Wesley considered joining her, but, after careful thought, decided that he would rather remain on the Enterprise. Upon Beverly's return, she was very concerned about what her absence had meant to Wesley. In the third season opener, "Evolution", Beverly grilled Captain Picard, a close friend of hers, about how Wes had been doing while she was away.
Of particular relevance to the subject of motherhood is the sequence of events in the third-season episode "The High Ground", in which Beverly is kidnapped and used by a terrorist for her medical expertise. She refused to speak for hours after her capture, and when she did finally break her silence, she said "I have a son". Throughout the episode, she reminds her captor of this, and it was a major contributing factor of her safe return to the Enterprise.
Wil Wheaton returned in the seventh season, for his final appearance on TNG. In this episode, entitled "Journey's End", Wesley realizes his true destiny -- he leaves the Academy, where he was a fourth year cadet, to join the Traveler, a being capable of crossing the boundaries of universes, in his pursuit of knowledge, and, in the process, violates several Federation laws. Beverly first tries to persuade him not to abandon his career, but ultimately stands by his decision when no one else does. This shows that although she is a committed Starfleet officer, and thus obligated to support certain policies, she acknowledges that Wesley is capable of making his own decisions, and stands by him as such.
Deanna Troi, on the other hand, was a mother for just over two days. Her "son" was an alien entity that took human form in order to learn about humanity, in an episode called "The Child" from the second season of TNG. She was impregnated by the entity, and within thirty-six hours, gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Within two days, the child grew to the intellectual and physical equivalent of a sentient eight year-old.
It is important to note Deanna's actions throughout this episode. Once she learns she is pregnant, the other members of the senior staff, gauging the potential dangers of the pregnancy, try to influence her, suggesting at first that she abort the fetus. This is a very powerful scene, culminating when Deanna states firmly: "Do whatever is necessary to protect the ship, but know this: I'm going to have this baby."
Once the baby is born, Deanna assumes a maternal role that surprises everyone -- she seems to know exactly what to do, and does not appear at all surprised at the child's astonishing rate of growth. When the child announces that it must die, Deanna reacts as if she has truly known the child for its eight years worth of development, and is stricken as such by his death.
Both Deanna's and Beverly's maternal instincts are constantly apparent as they perform their duties. Watching Deanna counseling a patient, or Beverly mending a wound, we can see that their compassion as mother figures is a help to them at work. Motherhood, and all of the personal qualities it involves, are clearly and often visible in these two characters.

Women as Sexual Beings
It would seem that, by the twenty-fourth century, women have achieved a level of equality in most societies (some have even achieved levels beyond equality, as will be discussed later). By examining the ways in which Beverly Crusher and Deanna Troi handled romantic/sexual situations on TNG, we can come to some conclusions about how much women have changed in four hundred years.
In the series, sexual situations are often laced with humorous overtones. It would seem that the humor, as perceived by twentieth-century viewers, stems from the fact that, in many instances, the reigns of control in sexual situations have shifted. The best example of this is with a species called the Klingons, a warrior race. Aboard the Enterprise, a Klingon, named Worf, serves as Chief of Security. In season two, in an episode called "The Dauphin", Wesley seeks out several of the male crew members in search of advice about love. He approaches Worf first, and Worf tells the unexpecting Wes about what is known as the Klingon Mating Ritual, in which the women roar, and hurl heavy objects at the men. The men, while this is happening, read love poetry -- and "they duck a lot." Imagining this scenario brings much laughter to fans, for it is difficult to imagine the proverbial tables being turned in such a manner.
In more conventional, humanoid romantic relationships, the women of TNG seem to assert much more control over sexual situations than women do today. One of the best examples of this shift in power appears in a third-season episode called "The Price". Deanna has met a humanoid man, and when he leans over to kiss her, she pulls away. He says "Am I moving too fast for you?", to which Deanna replies "No, I'm moving too fast for me." I believe this shows that women are not afraid to assert themselves with men, and they can do so without much negative response from them.
Unfortunately, the fact remains that this twenty-fourth century scenario was written in the twentieth century, so the sexism that is still existent now often shone through on the series, especially in the earlier seasons. As the only unranked crew member among the main characters on TNG, Deanna did not wear the regulation uniform until the sixth season of the show. Instead, she wore skin-tight, cleavage-revealing bodysuits, which many believe damaged her credibility. After all, who could imagine sitting in a counseling session with the counselor dressed like that? It was not until the sixth season, in the episode called "Chain of Command", that this was dealt with on the show. In this episode, a new captain assumes command of the Enterprise, and he calls Deanna into his office to speak with her. In the spirit of "formality on the bridge", he requests that she wear a standard duty uniform. This can be taken in several ways, depending how we interpret the necessity of uniforms. Do they serve to create unity among the crew? Yes, that is one aspect. But by "unifying" the crew, do they also serve to mute one's gender? Is that what this new captain was implying? Perhaps. After Captain Picard resumed command of the ship, we see Deanna shuffling between the duty uniform and the bodysuits until the seventh season, when she becomes a full commander, and wears the standard duty uniform for the remainder of the season.
It would seem that men have attained a new level of awareness by the twenty-fourth century, as is apparent in several instances. On several occasions, we see Beverly and Deanna together, discussing their latest romantic dealings with one another. In one episode from the seventh season, "Sub Rosa", Beverly is taken with a ghost that has enchanted the women in her family for several generations. Describing one encounter with the ghost, she tells Deanna "He knew exactly how I liked to be touched...." We can extract from this situation. as well as from several others, that many of the men on the series seem to have a heightened awareness of what women want, and what they like. Combined with the fact that women seem to have more control over sexual situations, it would seem that we have made a lot of progress in four hundred years.
This heightened awareness is a hopeful observation as seen from the present day, where many men don't seem to know what women want, and with the lack of communication between men and women today, we don't seem to be making much progress. Although the position of women in TNG as sexual beings is not yet ideal, it seems to be a lot closer to that ideal than where we stand today.



Conclusion

From a twentieth-century vantage point, it would seem that, for the most part, women have come a long way by the twenty-fourth century. They serve in a wide variety of professions, competently so, without question of credibility or respectability on account of their gender. Women are mothers and sexual beings as well as professionals, and one facet does not need to be sacrificed for another.
Women who watched Star Trek: The Next Generation viewed, through the characters of Dr. Beverly Crusher and Counselor Deanna Troi, that the "superwoman" ideal that has dominated the 1980's and 1990's is no longer necessary -- women who are all these things need not be seen as specially capable, for everyone is equally capable of success in a variety of areas. It gives me hope that, once certain barriers have been completely dropped, we will all be faced with these opportunities. One can only hope that this task will take far less than four hundred years to accomplish!

1 Star Trek: The Next Generation will be further denoted as TNG2 Berman, Rick. "Roddenberry's Vision." TV Guide:Farewell to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Toronto, Canada: Telemedia Communications, Inc., 1994)

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