Race and Masculinity in Star Trek Into Darkness

Race and Masculinity in Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek is a prime example of the arts acting as an agent for thinking differently.  A recurring theme in these films is friendship.  Additionally, because Spock’s Vulcan side lacks emotion, the issue of feelings and the difficulty expressing them is common.  Because most of the characters are men, we get to see the exploration of emotions by these men in the form of friendships that endure quite a bit of challenge.  This particular film focused pretty heavily on the friendship between Kirk and Spock.  They saved each other’s lives and there were some good buddy moments.  No surprise there.  However, when Spock is overcome with emotion at the prospect of losing Kirk, it was nothing short of powerful.  Roughly every 12 minutes in the Trek films, there is a reference to Spock’s emotions or lack thereof.  This is how writers set up the audience for Spock’s human moments.  It makes them powerful.  If your human half can’t cry at the loss of a dear friend who has not only saved your life (singularly), but now has exchanged his own life for the lives of his entire crew, at what can you cry?

Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian wrote an interesting article about men and tears in response to the film back in May of 2013 (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/16/spock-crying-star-trek-into-darkness).  He said “we are reaching a point where the currency of male tears is becoming valueless.”  He makes this comment after reminding his reader that Khan, the film’s singular super-villain, also sheds a tear.  But I only partially agree with his assessment of masculine tears:  that they should be rare and under extreme circumstances.  First I recognize that in our society, a man who cries too often appears…not so much weak, but rather lacking a degree of stability.  I get that, but how often is too often?  I have for many years been an advocate of authentic male tears.  “Grown men don’t cry” is a useless adage.  Because I am so passionate about the arts, spiritual authenticity, racial equality, and education (to name a few), I cry pretty easily when a film really removes the viewer’s blindfolds on one of these topics.

spock-cryingHowever, I recognize the need for restraint when putting male tears on screen and I believe that is exactly what director J.J. Abrams did.  A quick Google search tells me that Spock has been brought to tears before, but rarely.  The same search also tells me that many Trekkies were furious about him crying.  Again, it was done with taste and for me, put roots on these two durable characters that have inspired multiple generations.  Remember that the new films are exploring the origin of this leading friendship.  I do admit that Spock’s primal “Khaaannnn!” yell that followed the tears was a bit much.

Abrams examines male emotions even more deeply by addressing father issues.  Kirk never knew his dad other than by reputation according to the first film.  We saw in it that he has anger issues about his father’s absence.  However, Admiral Christopher Pike seems to fill some kind of an emotional hole for Kirk even in the first film.  But, wow, in the second Pike is clearly set up as a father figure.  That set up is handled beautifully (brutal scolding and loss of the Enterprise for lying on the captain’s log, followed by a redeeming behind-the-scenes vote of confidence) and then we see Kirk respond to losing him.  I think this is the first cry we see from Kirk…and what a cry it is.

When a grown man cries, it’s bad.  And why do you think that is?  Probably because men do hold it back so often, so when they lose it, they lose it.  And Kirk did lose it, right in front of Spock by the way.  No other science fiction franchise does character development as well as Star Trek.  These moments are how they do it.

Star Trek has lead the way on issues of race and diversity since the 1960s.  I do not claim to be a Trekkie, but I’ve seen most of the films, most episodes from the original series, and several episodes of the subsequent series.  I have often thought this was a strength of the series but in writing this post I found a blog post by a proud Trekkie that develops this idea much more clearly than I could.  The excerpt below can be found at http://sto.perfectworld.com/news/?p=923821:

 

From the very beginning, Star Trek has been about diversity and acceptance. It’s easy to miss the messages behind the storylines today, but in 1966, Star Trek was revolutionary for its depiction of racial and gender diversity.

Sulu2266George Takei as Hikaru Sulu also broke stereotypes. At the time, roles for Asians in American television and movies were few and far between. Most were depicted as “cruel Japanese soldiers” or “bumbling Chinese waiters.” Star Trek changed that. Instead, Sulu was part of the leadership team, spoke without an accent, and was the best pilot in Starfleet, to boot.

walter-koenigAt the time, America was still gripped in the height of the Cold War and feelings were tense toward Russians. Having Pavel Chekov, a Russian genius, work alongside Americans as part of the leadership team of the Enterprise was a huge leap forward. With his moptop hair, actor Walter Koenig was a heartthrob for many teens and his accent, which was inspired by his father’s, added a touch of comic relief to the show.

nichelle_nicholsNichelle Nichols played the role of Nyota Uhura, the African female Chief Communications Officer. After the first season, Nichelle was thinking of leaving the series to return to musical theater; however, a chance meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., changed her mind. With excitement, he confessed that Star Trek was the only show he allowed his children to watch. When Nichols revealed that she was thinking of leaving the show, King replied, “Don’t you understand? For the first time, we’re seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.” After that, Nichelle decided to stay.

Nichelle staying allowed for a big TV first to happen in Star Trek. In “Plato’s Stepchild,” Uhura and Kirk lock lips in the first scripted interracial kiss on television. As strange as it is to think now, there were some concerns as to how audiences would take the kiss. They even filmed several alternate takes which omitted the kiss, but during each Shatner crossed his eyes to ruin them. In the end, the TV execs decided to use the kiss and history was made.

 

 

Perhaps the bit about Dr. King is old news for you, but I had no idea.  Isn’t that fascinating?  The truth is that the sci-fi genre has for a while played a leading role with regard racial equality.  Again, like only the arts can do, these kinds of works take an audience outside of their own world, encourage them to think differently in a new context, then gently connect the new idea back to their own reality.

Hmmm, maybe I am a Trekkie.

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