To Boldly Go: A Queer and Feminist Reading of Spock in “Star Trek”

One of the key ideas surrounding queer studies is the exploration of non-normative sexuality. That is, sexuality that falls outside of the cultural norm of heterosexuality and heterosexual behavior. Whether focusing specifically on homosexuality, or delving into the vastly complex realms of queerness, gender identity or gender fluidity, queer studies approaches human sexuality as a matchless spectrum of action, emotion, and desire. In a famously vulnerable episode of Star Trek, we’re treated to a rare look at the sexual identity of Spock, the chief science officer and second-in-command of the Federation Starship Enterprise.

In this episode, Spock is essentially in heat, desperate to return to his home planet to marry and consummate before his condition kills him. It is revealed to us that Spock is in the throes of pon farr, a natural process for Vulcan males, one that recurs every seven years and will in fact kill him if he is not able to mate. Spock is essentially going through an estrous cycle, albeit a particularly voracious one. This struck me as being open to queer interpretation. To humans, a man experiencing an estrous cycle is a foreign concept, as the estrous cycle is limited only to females of a given mammalian species. Queerness is all about non-normative sexuality, and Spock’s grappling with pon farr is as non-normative as it gets. Not only is he not dealing with typical male biology, he’s not even approaching this from the standpoint of a human.

By experiencing pon farr, Spock is deviating from the established gender models of human sexuality. Judith Butler proposes that humans “build models of gender through repetition” (191). In other words, experiencing a certain gender norm over and over again “produces a taken-for-granted idea that certain ways are natural and right” (191). By our default understanding of male and female sexuality, Spock’s mating ritual seems strange, foreign; indeed, it seems queer. The thought of a man’s body attacking him for seven days, forcing him to mate or die, is quite fantastic to anyone with a basic understanding of mammalian sexuality. Spock is breaking those “models of gender” by succumbing to a process which is natural to a Vulcan observer, but wholly unnatural to a human.

Spock’s situation also drops into the realm of feminist study, especially surrounding role reversal and “good” or “bad” feminist depictions. In this episode, Spock is essentially taking on the role of a woman (in human terms, at least). He’s in heat, in desperate need of a mate, and completely out of control when it comes to his needs and desires. The presence of these stereotypical traits of a human woman raises another question: is Spock a “bad” character, and Star Trek a “bad” TV program by portraying Spock, who is exhibiting the characteristics of a human woman, as weak and out of control? In his essay on feminism, Robert Dale Parker invokes the work of Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to illustrate sexism in literature. Parker’s protagonist in “A Telephone Call” is a meek, pathetic woman obsessing over a call from her lover. She is quite an empty character, and Parker reminds us that “the desperate narrator has made herself depend entirely on a man’s affection” (165). The same goes for Brett Ashley, the unwieldy femme fatale of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”. In the novel, Brett is nothing more than “a mere sex object” who “makes a mess of her life” (165).

At one point or another, Spock embodies every one of these negative female stereotypes. His role is to mate with a female Vulcan, he is entirely dependent on this occurrence to live, and he seems to have lost complete control of his emotions and, indeed, his life. By modern feminist standards, Spock miserably fails the test of a dynamic, independent character, reduced instead to fulfill the stereotypical gender role he has fallen into.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael K. Johnson

     /  March 16, 2017

    Yes, that makes a lot of sense. You might complicate your argument by also noting the way Spock’s gender shifts at times. He represents masculine reason in contrast to Kirk’s more feminine emphasis on emotion/passion. He suggests the gender is not a fixed category, but one that is not stable and is open to change and multiplicity.

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