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Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beyond Green-Skinned Space Babes, Part I: Gender among the Romulans and Cardassians

By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor


As I have mentioned on this blog, I have now twice run panels on feminist aspects of Star Trek, focusing specifically on the Klingon race. I chose Klingons because of their overt associations with masculinity, but also for several other reasons – they are perhaps the most iconic, and therefore accessible race, and also one of the ones we know the most about. They are represented by series regulars on three of the five franchise shows, and appear as the primary antagonists of the other two.

But at both panels, audience members expressed a desire to see the same kind of analysis applied to other iconic Star Trek races. Well, we here at The Analytical Couch Potato believe in giving the people what they want, so here are some observations to get the ball rolling. This week I look at the Romulans and the Cardassians, and next week I'll tackle the Ferengi.


Before I get into the specifics of the other major alien races, I’m going to take a wider view and ask a question we should consider for each of them: why? If humanity has gotten over its misogyny by the time it reached the stars, why has it been so hard for everyone else? What does it say that no inherently matriarchal societies have risen to prominence? In short, how is Star Trek’s world building shaped by the assumptions of the patriarchy?

The fact of the matter is, Star Trek is a product of 20th Century American culture, and 20th century American culture is, by and large, misogynistic. Uhura being an officer on the Enterprise bridge may have been revolutionary for its time, but she was still a glorified receptionist with little relevance to the plot. Later Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, despite being as capable and confident as their male counterparts, were routinely undervalued and given very little to do for much of their series. Voyager (the first Trek with a female executive producer) gave a nice amount of focus to its female leads, but also heavily sexualized Jeri Ryan’s body in increasingly unsubtle attempts to attract more viewers. Trek may have preached equality, but it was very much still a TV show primarily by and for a male-dominated world.

Because of this, we need to look at how various alien women are portrayed from a production standpoint, and how they do and do not correspond to the gendered expectations of our time. I’m going to start with a race that seems the most in defiance of these conventions – the Romulans.


The Romulans occupy an odd space in Star Trek lore. They’ve appeared on all five shows, but have never contributed a regular or even a particularly sympathetic recurring protagonist to any of them. As such, we don’t get as much of a glimpse into their culture as the other three races I’ll be discussing. What we do see suggests gender relations more in line with Starfleet than the Klingons. As mentioned previously, we see women commanding their ships (This in an era where even Starfleet ostensibly did not allow women to command Starships.). We also see both women and men among the Romulan senators, and there are mentions of an Empress (though the primary canon gives little hint as to the extent of her powers.)

Unfortunately, there’s not too much else to say about the internal Gender politics of the Romulans beyond that they appear to have the smallest gender bias of any Star Trek race. But in the contrast between TOS’s unnamed Romulan commander and her spiritual descendants on the later series does give some interesting insights. TOS’s Romulan Commander is an oddity, a woman in a position of power, but proves to have little in the way of agency. Like her Starfleet counterparts, she wears a mini-skirted version of the uniforms worn by her male compatriots, and wears impractically long hair and make-up. Despite her power over her male comrades, she is still primarily a love interest, albeit for Spock rather than Kirk, and her inability to resist him is ultimately her downfall.

Later Romulan women are impressively not sexualized, in a way which is anomalous in comparison with just about every other major race. They are tough and often ruthless, wearing short, masculine haircuts and dressed in identical uniforms to the men, complete with shoulder pads that mask their figures. Compare this to the Klingon women we see, who sport impractical boob windows and inexplicable armor skirts, or even Major Kira’s form-revealing military uniform. While the Klingon women possess an almost animalistic sexual aggression, Romulan women post-TOS show no romantic interest in anyone (though, it is worth noting, neither do the Romulan men.)

It is possible that this uniformity is in fact a political allegory – the Romulans have always carried a cold-war metaphor, and the lack of individualism fits in well with the Maoist reverence for the State which Romulan military characters seem to possess. In this way sexual equality is almost vilified – “look at this oppressive society, where the women have to dress like men.”

The Cardassians are much like the Romulans in many ways – both species are megalomaniacal, xenophobic, and somewhat totalitarian, relying on powerful intelligence agencies the Tal Shiar and the Obsidian Order. However, while the Romulans appear happy to ignore gender differences almost completely, the Cardassians still divide gender roles very strictly – albeit down a totally different line than humanity. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Destiny” it is revealed that Cardassians consider science and technological achievement to be “Women’s work” while men are far more prominent in the military. Within the civilian government and the Obsidian Order, both genders are seen to be equally represented.

Despite their cultural similarities to the Romulans, Cardassian women are not desexualized in the same way. The first Cardassian woman we see (as well as the only female military commander) is Gul Ocett in the TNG episode “The Chase.” Although Ocett wears armor similar to that of male Guls, she has long hair and wears make-up (and eye-shadow like coloration applied to the spoon-like indentation on her forehead.) From an in-universe perspective, it seems odd that long hair and make-up would be seen as universally female regardless of species, and that a strict military culture would allow such deviations in appearance.




From an out-of-universe perspective, it continues to reinforce the way in which gendered signifiers have become ingrained in our culture. Jewelry, make-up, and long hair have only symbolized femininity for an extremely narrow period in our history; it’s ludicrous to assume they would continue to in the 24th century, much less evolve independently that way on other worlds. But these visual cues inform the audience that they are looking at women, even when the individuals in question are grey-skinned lizard people.

In the second part of this article, I'll examine Star Trek's most misogynistic race, the Ferengi, and try and reconcile some of the more problematic aspects of their portrayal. In the meantime, I hope I've helped some of you look at the show in a new way.

Sound off: In the comments, let me know if there's another race you want to see discussed. Or give me your thoughts on Romulan women post TOS.

3 comments:

  1. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, you could make the case that women's adorning themselves with makeup is not an arbitrary social phenomenon. But it's also not entirely clear that blue spoons are makeup rather than a physiological feature of Cardassian women.

    Cardassians are supposed to be reptilian, so it's a relevant question why the women even have breasts. But I think that sort of gets at the limitations of this kind of speculation.

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  2. We see several Cardassian women without spoon paint (Ziyal, the little girl in "chain of Command", and Seska to name a few.) Of course it could be a racial thing, but I've always assumed it was like eye shadow. That could be my cultural bias, I suppose.

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  3. As a Star Trek fan and as a woman, I actually find it interesting and pretty cool that so many options of femininity are presented by one show. I understand the criticisms, definitely, but as a fairly "girly" girl, I always think it sucks when it's assumed that long hair and makeup make you somehow "less." I also find the raw sexuality of the Klingon women pretty cool, but I understand why some people might not. I've always felt that Star Trek sent me the idea that I can kick ass while being pretty and that it's okay to be sexual, kick-ass, and pretty all at the same time.

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