The Sexist Legacy in Star Trek’s Progressive Universe

The Sexist Legacy in <i>Star Trek</i>’s Progressive Universe<em></em>
Illustration: Elena Scotti
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In the fourth episode of Star Trek: Picard, a familiar face storms onto the scene. With plenty of legacy characters, this might just be another day at the (space) office. But this is Seven of Nine, beloved, iconic, even more badass than she was during her time on Voyager—and she was always pretty badass. “You owe me a ship, Picard,” she quips, after saving the crew in a space battle, and the episode cuts to black.

Over 20 years after the USS Voyager returned to the Alpha Quadrant, in Picard Seven is now a hardened vigilante, chucking back whiskey and cursing under her breath. And she has an outfit to match, strutting around in the licensed-badass combination of combat boots, jeans, a loose shirt, and of course, a leather jacket. Gone, finally, is the skintight catsuit that Seven donned on Voyager, a clear invitation to see Seven as a person first, and a woman second — standing in stark contrast to that rib-crushing corset.

With Picard’s Seven of Nine upending her late ‘90s incarnation, we’re forced to confront the stumbles of Star Trek’s past. In 2020, what can we learn from looking back at Trek—and with all the strides it made for female representation, can we really call it sexist?

A new frontier for women

Women in Star Trek have always had a strong presence, have always been given complex characterizations, and have (ostensibly) been treated as equals by both their peers and the utopian society that surrounded them. Which makes sense, as equal representation was always a core tenet of this frontier-busting space opera. When the very first Star Trek launched onto the airwaves, Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision led him to position a woman on the bridge—and originally, this wasn’t Uhura.

Star Trek’s first pilot episode was produced in 1965, and it featured a woman as the first officer. Known only as Number One, Majel Barrett’s character was a commanding presence on the bridge… a little too commanding for test audiences and NBC. According to Roddenberry, it was the women in the test audience that really reacted badly to Number One, thinking her too assertive. When The Original Series was re-conceived with Kirk at the helm, Number One was gone. It would take Trek another two shows, and three decades, to finally cast a woman as first officer.

Without Number One, the women of the original Star Trek were very much of their time. Nurse Chapel (Barrett’s new role) was subservient to Doctor McCoy, and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), a pioneer of African American representation, nonetheless had far fewer lines than her male counterparts. Speaking to io9, The Next Generation’s Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) is frank in her assessment of Trek’s female representation. “The fact that she was on the bridge as a Black woman, was it. They had knocked down so many walls just to put Uhura on the bridge. She didn’t have much to do, but she was there.”

Of course, Star Trek wasn’t just trapped in the ‘60s. By 1986, new life was breathed into the franchise by The Next Generation, whose fresh-faced crew included not one, not two, but three women. These were the compassionate Counsellor Troi, the humanitarian Dr. Beverly Crusher, and the daring Lt. Tasha Yar, who, in particular, was of a new mold. Taking up the traditionally masculine role of security chief, Tasha was inspired by Aliens character Vasquez to emulate the modern woman.

“It was an interesting time, the ‘80s,” said Denise Crosby, who portrayed Yar, getting nostalgic as she describes what made her character a touchstone for the age. “Women were defining themselves not in terms of how they should be perceived, but how they wanted to be perceived.” Crosby identified with this movement, which Gene Roddenberry found refreshing. “Here I was, with this short boy’s haircut, which wasn’t really seen on TV, and he said, ‘I like this! This is a great look.’ So I was part of that wave of change. And I think it was impactful.”

It’s easy to spot echoes of Tasha Yar in other iconic women of sci-fi. From Stargate’s Sam Carter to Battlestar Galactica’s Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, shades of Yar rippled through sci-fi for years to come. Yet, there is an edge of poignancy to why Yar was so significant. Sure, she made waves as a straight-talking woman in a man’s role, but her character impact was both cemented, and cut short, by her untimely death—the circumstances of which we’ll get back to later.

With Yar gone, the women of The Next Generation fit more snugly into classic feminine molds, as Marina Sirtis reminisces. “They got it right, they cast a woman as the security chief. But Denise left, and the two remaining women were in caring professions. So it was ok to be on a spaceship as a woman, but you had to be a nurturer.” Speaking to io9, Gates McFadden (Crusher) is scathing about the few times the women would be thrown together, not to work together, but to gossip. “If the ladies did have a scene together we were dressed up in leotards talking about men. We weren’t sharing opinions on a medical issue!”

Over the ensuing years, Troi and Crusher would slowly get more screen time, as their characters became more nuanced, but they would rarely get the chance to break out of their nurturer molds. And with Crosby gone, security chief wasn’t the only position that needed filling. “I was never supposed to be the chick on the show, the va-va-voom. That was supposed to be Denise,” Sirtis told us. For as progressive as Star Trek tried to be with its women, every show has something in common: There has to be a hot chick.

The Star Trek “babe”

You wouldn’t expect it from a franchise renowned for its socially progressive attitude—and yet every series had its sex symbol. “It was an action-adventure show!” Sirtis remarks dryly. “There has to be a girl for the boys to look at when they’re not blowing up spaceships.”

So who is the Star Trek babe? She’s got to be young, thin, and pretty. Her outfit will be more form-fitting than the others’, making much of her curves. And of course, one babe trumps them all. This would be Seven of Nine, the ex-Borg who joined Voyager at the tail end of its third season. Elevated on four-inch heels, actor Jeri Ryan was sewn into her catsuit every day, which consisted of a boned corset topped with breast mounds. Truly a feat of engineering.

Even at the time, Seven’s outfit was the cause of much discussion—which is exactly what the network intended. “Seven of Nine is probably one of the sexiest characters I’ve ever seen on TV.” This was how Conan O’Brien introduced Ryan on his show in 1998, tapping into the precise reason she was added to Voyager. As the audience whooped, Conan asked why on Earth her character would wear such a thing. “It’s medicinal!” Ryan explained, tongue firmly in cheek. Conan quickly retorted, “It’s medicinal for me!”

Seven’s introduction to Voyager was calculated. In the shadow of the hugely influential The Next Generation, and competing with Deep Space Nine, the newest Trek spinoff wasn’t doing as well as the network had hoped. Premiering with over 13 million viewers, Voyager’s ratings average almost halved to 7 million in the first season, and continued to dwindle. By season three, the average was 4.6. This was a much sharper drop-off than Deep Space Nine, which averaged 8 million viewers across its first four seasons. CBS wanted more from Voyager, and with the inclusion of a new character they saw a chance not just to boost their ratings, but to break into the mainstream.

In the years since, Ryan has described the scores of publicity meetings that were held about Seven of Nine. She was interviewed dozens of times by the media, with her pin-up worthy promo pics splashed across magazines and newspaper supplements—including one particularly memorable crossover with fellow ‘90s genre babe, Xena’s Lucy Lawless. “It’s always a ratings thing,” Ryan told io9. “And the viewership increased a lot when they added Seven.”

While Seven’s costume continues to be the main talking point—Google her name today and you’ll find hundreds of articles discussing catsuit ethics—Ryan thinks there’s another reason why the character boosted Voyager’s ratings. “She’s brilliantly written. I think the quality of the show improved because she introduced rich storylines to explore with other characters. It revitalized the show.”

Seven of Nine is the perfect storm, a character that grabs attention with her appearance, then holds it with her story. And it worked. Even today, Seven-centric episodes pull in the most viewers: According to Netflix, the most rewatched Star Trek episodes featured Voyager more than any other show. Of these episodes, all but two highlight Seven’s journey—“Scorpion” is her introduction, “The Gift” features her clashing with Janeway, “Dark Frontier” is all about her connection to the Borg. Even “Endgame,” the show’s finale, features Seven in a pivotal role.

The Voyager crew.
The Voyager crew.
Photo: CBS

This was why Ryan didn’t mind the catsuit. “I didn’t have a problem with her overtly sexy appearance, many would say gratuitously so, because it was the complete antithesis of the character. She was oblivious to that.” Yet, there is something sinister in this divorcing of Seven from her sex appeal, as it robs her of any autonomy over the sexual attention her costume invites. What would have been different if she were a sexual being, donning the catsuit to be intentionally provocative? Would she still be as beloved?

In reality, Seven’s lack of concern for her appearance allows viewers to enjoy their voyeurship of Seven without feeling uncomfortable. Don’t worry, audiences, Seven only dresses that way because she has no idea what sex is. The catsuit’s medicinal, remember? Seven, an inactive and oblivious participant in her sexualization, tip-toes around the ship in a costume so tight that her actor had to lie down between takes just to get her breath back. And it was the men in her life, both in fiction and behind the scenes of Voyager, who made this decision for her.

The knock-on effects of sexism

All of this seems pretty paradoxical. After all, Star Trek’s writing of women steadily improved from The Next Generation onwards. Deep Space Nine’s women broke out of traditional female roles: Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) was given plenty of screen time as the show delved into her development arc, while Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) challenged social boundaries as, arguably, Trek’s first canonically queer character. But it was Voyager that took female representation one step further, finally featuring a female captain in the lead role. Why, then, did Voyager also feature a woman so objectified that we’re still talking about it decades later? Perhaps Voyager’s sexism isn’t in spite of its otherwise feminist approach, but because of it.

At the start, Voyager’s publicity focused on the novelty of a female captain, but as the ratings dwindled, the producers grew concerned that this wasn’t enough to hold viewers’ interest—and perhaps it was putting people off. Interviewed by The Television Academy in 2006, executive producer Rick Berman explained why Seven was added to the show. “We wanted Janeway to be a Starfleet captain, but we also wanted her to be feminine. And those two things don’t go hand-in-hand. If you look at female military officers who make it to the rank of admiral, they tend to not be babes. We cast a woman in her 40s… but we still wanted a feminine woman.”

The addition of a “babe” to offset the feminism of Voyager might have improved ratings, but it put a significant strain on the cast, creating a work environment filled with tensions. Up until Seven’s introduction, Janeway was the clear star of the show, with Kate Mulgrew giving dozens of interviews and appearing on the covers of magazines. Yet, with Ryan came a seismic shift. Now, it was all about this sexy young woman, who was spotlighted as though she were the show’s lead—after all, Lucy Lawless was the star of her own show, and yet that 1999 TV Guide feature presented Lawless and Ryan side-by-side, rather than Lawless and Mulgrew. This caused immense tensions between the two Trek actors.

“In the beginning, Kate’s anger was not directed toward Jeri Ryan, it was directed toward the character,” Garret Wang, who played Harry Kim, told Closer in 2018. “When the producers said no [about getting rid of Seven], Kate kept complaining. Finally her anger was turned toward the actress. That’s when it became horrible.” Mulgrew’s conduct was so stressful that Ryan told Closer she would “feel nauseous” before she arrived on set each day. “I completely understand why. I get it, believe me, but it was very difficult. Overall, this was not my favorite work experience for that reason.”

Even without Mulgrew’s actions, Ryan had enough to deal with just by wearing the catsuit. “If I had to go to the restroom,” Ryan told io9, “it was a 20-minute production break. Everyone had to know over the radio. Someone had to dress me and undress me.” This didn’t just affect Ryan, but everyone on set, as another Voyager castmate (who chose to remain anonymous) commented to Closer. “At one point, Kate pulled the line producer aside and said, ‘Jeri Ryan is not allowed to use the bathroom unless she uses it before work or after work, but not during work. It takes too much time to get her in and out of that suit’.” With work days that often exceeded 15 hours, this obviously wasn’t feasible.

Although costumes are often difficult to deal with, when clothing has been constructed to amplify sex appeal there’s an added strain to that actor’s professional life. No one knows that better than Marina Sirtis. A survivor of anorexia and other eating disorders, Sirtis was under a huge pressure to lose weight in order to maintain her position as The Next Generation’s babe. She told io9: “I used to get phone calls from the producers telling me I was fat. They’d say, ‘You look fat, and we pay you a lot of money to look good. Think about it.’ I was a stick insect from all the nagging.”

For some of the actors, this toxic environment began before they’d even started shooting, as was the case for Terry Farrell, who played Jadzia Dax in Deep Space Nine. Interviewed for the book The Fifty Year Mission, Farrell revealed that she found her costuming experience with Rick Berman to be very uncomfortable. “He’d comment on your bra size not being voluptuous. He would say, ‘Well, you’re just flat. Look at Christine over there. She has perfect breasts.’” With Berman dissatisfied with Farrell’s body, the costume department was called upon to fix the issue. “I had to have fittings for Dax to have larger breasts. And then I had to go into Berman’s office.”

If the experiences of Sirtis, Ryan, and Farrell teach us nothing else, it’s that the objectification of Star Trek’s female characters doesn’t just tarnish its ostensibly progressive reputation, it also created a difficult work environment. So in order to judge whether Star Trek is sexist we have to look behind the scenes—and discover what kind of culture leads to these decisions.

The boys’ club

If the entertainment industry is dominated by men now, this was even more the case decades ago. Star Trek has had a few female writers and producers over the years—DC Fontana wrote for The Original Series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine; Jeri Taylor got her start producing The Next Generation before co-creating Voyager, to name just two immensely influential staffers. But, as Sirtis points out, Star Trek was a franchise created by men: “Even though we were writing a show about the 24th century, apart from Jeri Taylor and Melinda Snodgrass [another writer], the writers and producers were all men. Twentieth-century men. So it’s not gonna be that far-reaching.”

We could argue, of course, that Star Trek was a product of its era, but the actors were aware, at the time, that the show could be better. This aggravated Gates McFadden, as early as season one of The Next Generation, as she revealed to io9. “I wondered, did the women exist for the men to react to? Even Wesley just reacted to his mother, not seeking out her counsel—for counsel he sought out the men on the ship.” Coming from academia, McFadden was used to a collaborative creative environment, but she didn’t encounter that behind the scenes of The Next Generation. “Jonathan Frakes could bound into the producer’s office and put his feet up, but I couldn’t. That wasn’t acceptable.”

McFadden’s opinions caused conflict with one producer in particular, especially when she pushed the point about Wesley (Wil Wheaton). “That’s when I’d piss the writers off. I’d say, ‘Look, he only goes to the men for advice and he never talks to her.’ I was passionate about it and I alienated that producer,” she said. Rick Berman later named Maurice Hurley as the producer in question—and the tension between Hurley and McFadden reached a boiling point toward the end of season one.

“What I heard is, he said, ‘Either she goes or I go.’” As she revealed to io9, McFadden wasn’t officially given the reason for her firing, but learned the truth later on. “So the choice was made and I went.” When asked about McFadden’s departure, Crosby gave io9 her thoughts on the matter. “Ultimately, it’s the frustration of not being seen and not being heard. No question it’s a gender dynamic, and it’s still happening.”

McFadden wasn’t the only one whose conflict with producers led to an early departure. Toward the end of Deep Space Nine season six, Terry Farrell’s contract was up. Wanting to pursue other projects, Farrell tried to open negotiations for a reduced role in the final season—similar to the contract Colm Meaney (Miles O’Brien) had for the duration of the show. But she clashed with Berman on this issue, as she commented for The Fifty Year Mission.

“He was trying to bully me into saying yes. He was convinced that my cards were going to fold and I was going to sign. He had another producer come up to me and say, ‘If you weren’t here, you know you’d be working at Kmart.’” Recounting the issue for the documentary What We Left Behind, Farrell tearfully protests her character’s exit. “I didn’t want to die! But there was a point where it was like don’t dismiss me! Talk to me.” Ultimately, Farrell was never given the option to renegotiate her contract, so she left the show—leaving Dax brutally murdered in DS9’s Bajoran shrine.

Of course, this wasn’t the only time that a woman’s request for contract renegotiations led to her character’s death. The same was true of Denise Crosby, who was frustrated with Tasha Yar’s lack of involvement in The Next Generation season one. “There were so many episodes where I was simply standing on my security position saying nothing. Not engaged with anything. And I thought, I’ll lose my mind doing this for another six years.” Crosby approached Gene Roddenberry, but, as she told io9, he was set against regular storylines that featured anyone other than the captain. “Gene didn’t want to change that, he wouldn’t budge.” Instead, Roddenberry released Crosby from her multi-season contract. “It was good of him. He said, ‘I was your age once, I was hungry and ambitious and I totally get it. You should go for it.’”

Letting an actor out of their contract is one thing. Killing their character so that they cannot return is another. That’s what happened to Yar—but it very nearly happened to a different character instead. “Gene thought we had one too many women on the show,” Sirtis revealed, telling io9 that she was convinced she was going to get fired in season one. As Troi was gradually written out of episodes, Sirtis recalls that producers started avoiding her. “My agent called Roddenberry and said, ‘What can we do.’ And he said, ‘Look, I have to do what’s best for the show.’”

Yet before the ax could fall on Troi, Crosby left the show. “Denise quitting is the reason we’re talking now,” says Sirtis. “She saved my job!” Had Crosby not left The Next Generation, the show would have been very different—and it’s possible that either Troi or Crusher wouldn’t have made it through season one alive. According to Crosby, Roddenberry was eager to kill Yar once he knew she was leaving. “He’d never done it before with one of his regular characters. It would be shocking because it was so unprovoked and so sudden.”

With Sirtis on the rocks before Crosby quit, was Roddenberry planning on killing Troi off instead? Or, would Crusher have been killed when Maurice Hurley gave Roddenberry his ultimatum about firing McFadden? We may never know, but there’s something very uncomfortable about all the tales Crosby, Sirtis, McFadden, and Farrell have to tell, in which a woman went up against the boys’ club... and her character was either killed or shoved out.

How things have changed

That was then. So what has changed in the last few decades? Well, for one thing, Seven of Nine isn’t in a catsuit any more—which Ryan is happy about. “I am delighted beyond words that there’s no catsuit involved [in Picard]! I think it’s much more appropriate, the way the character’s dressed now, and it’s perfect for what she’s been through.” A far cry from her impractical catsuit in Voyager, Picard’s iteration of Seven is comfortable and ready for action.

Ryan right at home in Picard.
Ryan right at home in Picard.
Photo: CBS

And just like when she was added to Voyager, Seven’s inclusion in Picard lead to a spike in interest and a shift in publicity. But there’s something very satisfying in the fact that she didn’t need to be dressed in a catsuit for this to happen. Much of this is due to the success of her character on Voyager, but this also proves how our attitude to female representation has changed. Now, producers can’t get away with the kind of costume that Seven was squeezed into on Voyager, or the pin-up publicity that invited talk show hosts to openly lust after Ryan to her face.

Of how things have changed Ryan said, “It was a different industry back then, and we’ve evolved. Thank God! Not enough, but we’re getting there.” And McFadden agrees. “When I think of Discovery and Picard, women have evolved so much.” Having fought for better representation when she was on The Next Generation, McFadden is delighted to discover how things have changed in Picard. “These women are characters before their gender. That’s wonderful progress.”

Sirtis, who joined the CBS All Access show for one episode, is likewise impressed. “With Picard we have equality. Old baldy, sorry, sir old baldy, he’s the first on the call sheet, but other than that we’re equal. There are men and women and there’s not a preponderance of one sex over the other.” Though it has a male lead, Picard is remarkably female-driven. In the main cast, Picard has four men and three women, but its recurring cast members feature prominently, and of these, four are women and only two are men. What’s more, there is complete parity of screen time—if anything, women get more screen time than the men.

Isa Briones—newcomer to the show, and television—told io9 she found this approach refreshing. Although initially, she was concerned that her character Soji would be born sexy yesterday. “We could have so easily fallen into that trope, making her this childlike girl who doesn’t know anything, who’s just following men,” she said. Arguably, Seven of Nine fulfills this trope in Voyager, as the childlike outsider who has to be taught how to be human. But Seven is far from this in Picard, as is Soji, the android girl who thinks herself human. Briones told us, “Soji’s going through her own journey to find out who she is on her terms. I think it’s beautiful that you can get characters like that now and you don’t have to put them in skimpy outfits and make them a sex object.”

It’s not just a shift in social perceptions that has led to this change in female representation, there are also better opportunities for women within the industry, as McFadden pointed out: “There are so many more mentors for young women nowadays. I wanted to direct, so badly, and I asked for it in my very first season. And I was not given it.” McFadden would eventually direct only one episode of The Next Generation, while her male peers directed multiple episodes. Frakes, in particular, used this experience to launch a prolific career as a director, proving how powerful these early opportunities can be.

Briones, however, has already found plenty of mentors on the set of Picard, in particular Sirtis, who took the younger actor under her wing. “I was just giving her tips,” Sirtis laughed, “little things that I had gone through that no one told me.” And that is very in keeping with Star Trek’s tradition of empowering female characters, which we can see even outside the Trek sets. McFadden told io9 how women will approach her with tales of how Beverly Crusher inspired them to achieve their goals, “I’ve spoken to so many female surgeons who tell me Beverly gave them the idea to pursue a career in medicine. Obviously their own perseverance made it happen, but seeing Beverly made a difference. It showed them it was possible.”

But it’s not just about entering the workplace, as Ryan pointed out. “I’ve heard from so many people, on the autism spectrum, in the LGBTQ community, and trauma survivors, who connected with Seven,” she said. “They so appreciated feeling like they saw themselves on screen because they’ve always felt like an outsider. I love that Seven has helped people feel like they’re not alone.” Before Voyager introduced Seven, Tasha Yar was a touchstone for queer people, as Crosby gleefully told us. “People would always ask me, y’know, ‘Was Tasha gay?’ And I think in that century is that really a question that we’re even gonna be talking about? So I always had a little twinkle in my eye about it, and I’d never answer straightforwardly. Straight, gay, bi… listen, she was with an android, what do you call that?”

Although Star Trek has a checkered history of LGBTQ representation, Seven of Nine was implied to be queer in the season one finale of Picard. Ryan is fully on board with this character choice, for much the same reasons Crosby would get that twinkle in her eye. “It always made perfect sense,” Ryan said of Seven’s sexuality. “Because coming from the Borg, that’s the perfect character to explore that with because she wouldn’t have grown up with any societal influences one way or the other. It is what it is, this is who you love, you’re attracted to who you’re attracted to, whatever.”

New to the franchise and excited for her character’s potential, Briones hopes that Soji will similarly be a touchstone for marginalized people. “I really identify with Soji because I’m mixed race. As a mixed kid, you’re often told, ‘You’re not this, you’re not that…’ Soji has felt human her whole life, so how can anyone tell her that she’s not?” Briones believes that it’s important for young people to see Soji going through what they’re going through “in the heightened environment of space!”

Of course, it’s not just Picard that’s fighting the good fight in terms of representation in Star Trek. Although it has a ways to go with its LGBTQ representation, Discovery has blazed another trail through the stars with Sonequa Martin-Green helming the show. Here, again, we find the tradition of Trek’s women inspiring women, as Crosby reflects on her recent reunion with Martin-Green. “Sonequa said to me, ‘Tasha was the window into the character I’m playing on Discovery. You really gave me an insight into how to play this character.’ And I was very deeply touched.” Considering Tasha’s untimely death, her legacy is poignant. “We’re not leaving it in the past,” she said. “we’re bringing it into the future, this through-line of women. It continues to grow.”

As we reflect on Star Trek’s history of female representation, we see both objectification and inspiring representation. And now, as more women are writing female characters, side-by-side with men, they’re just people writing people. It goes to show that the more inclusive we are as a society, the more we’ll be able to imagine and build a better future. And isn’t that what Star Trek was trying to tell us all along?

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