Commander Uhura is a feminist icon. Her role on the bridge of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) marked a turning point: Uhura illustrated that women could go into space. Uhura was not there as a princess to be rescued, not someone’s wife or girlfriend, not there as eye candy or to pick up after the boys, she wasn’t their emotional support and she didn’t fill a mom role. Uhura was not talked down to or treated differently from the rest of the crew.
Uhura showed me that it was normal for women to achieve great things, that we could be taken seriously in male-dominated environments, and that our sexuality was our own. She was never expected to conform to masculine norms but instead offered a normative femininity, quietly challenging the idea of masculinity as the default rather than merely one option. She was there to explore space and talk to aliens, just like the rest of the crew. And just like Spock, Sulu, Chekov, or Scotty, Uhura was a serious character.
Like many fans of the Star Trek, I have had my reservations about rebooting the series. On the one hand, I am cynical about the reasons behind the reboot, which I will sum up thusly: $$$. On the other, I love Star Trek and I want to see the canon continue to grow.
But, not like this. While we all love Zoe Saldana, the actress stepping into the shoes of the legendary Nichelle Nichols in the reboot, this new portrayal of Uhura is a step backwards, undermining the status of the original character and reducing her from an equal role to a woman’s role.
Our reintroduction to Uhura does not have a promising start: Kirk is hitting on Uhura in a bar.
It is basically an on-screen portrayal of why women feel the need to invent boyfriends to deflect unwanted attention. Later, when Kirk is about to be caught making out with Uhura’s roommate, Gaila, he hides under the bed and then watches the exchange between Gaila and Uhura (while she changes her clothes) before he is inevitably discovered and thrown out of the room
Uhura is alone in the way she is treated here: while we do see Kirk in his underwear in the same scene, he’s shown to be happy and in control of the situation while Uhura is depicted as unsafe in her own room. None of the men are shown in a similarly nonconsenting way, nor hit on by someone they’d like to leave them alone, nor groped – accidentally or not – as part of a bar fight. Uhura is sexualized because she is a woman.
After Uhura kicks Kirk out of her room, we get the second surprise: she is in a relationship with Spock. I understand what a reboot is and that it’s an opportunity to take the original premise and boldly go where the original story did not, but that is not the same as just randomly pairing people off. Had Abrams developed the relationship perhaps this could have been an interesting storyline, but as it is, it’s unclear how or why the pair are involved. Nor does it develop the characters in an interesting way.
More problematically, it puts Uhura in a position where she has to establish her qualifications for her position on the bridge – something she never had to do in the original series. Surely it would have made more sense for Spock to assign her to the Enterprise based on her merits. But instead, because she is a woman her relationship status must always be foremost and must always conflict with her career. Seventeen-year-old Chekov’s competence is not called into question in the same way, nor is Sulu’s – even after he starts the movie by forgetting the parking brake.
Notably, the relationship carries no negative consequences for Spock.
Uhura is also shown doing the typically-female emotional work in the relationship – expressing care and concern for Spock when he is under stress, despite the fact that he is unable to reciprocate that work because of his background. Holy crap, we just found a parallel between 50 Shades of Grey and the Star Trek reboot. My heart hurts.
And it doesn’t stop there. Into Darkness is perhaps worse. Let us set the stage: here we have Sulu in temporary command, Scotty resigning for ethical reasons, Chekov trying to run engineering in Scotty’s absence, and Uhura having relationship issues with Spock. It’s like she’s turned into Deanna Troi and her role is to draw people out and to illustrate their emotions where they can’t.
This isn’t a Next Generation reboot, and if it were I’d expect Troi to act more professionally than that while out on a mission.
It’s unfortunate that the reboot has lost so much of Gene Roddenberry’s original message. The investment in Kirk’s romantic involvements with aliens was about showing that love is not about appearance – in keeping with many other egalitarian and specifically anti-racist themes in the show.1
In the reboot Uhura is made to do more than double duty: to be an officer and a woman means to endure groping and voyeurism, to do the emotional work of a relationship that doesn’t even make sense, and to prove her qualifications because of her personal life. None of this happened to her in Star Trek: TOS, and none of it happens to any of the men in the reboot.
I loved Uhura in Star Trek: TOS because in her I saw a whole future open up for women. A future where we could be ourselves and achieve in a world that welcomed us, but in JJ Abrams’ reboot I see the same old tropes. That no matter what women are capable of we will always be constrained by men’s insecurities, always expected to be emotional caretakers, always vulnerable to the demands placed on our bodies and sexualities. And that a strong character who happens to be female must always be rewritten into an explicitly feminine role. I have heard many criticisms of the reboot ranging from poor plotting to the near-constant use of lens flare, but ultimately what kills it for me is the way Uhura’s autonomy is undermined.
This is explicitly stated in Plato’s Stepchildren, 1968. ↩