Tuesday, May 26, 2015

“Men Who Hate Women”: In Theory

Oh no, not again.

I have to filet another Star Trek: The Next Generation sacred cow tonight. I hate doing this. But this one's time is long, long overdue, 'cause “In Theory” is bad. Really bad. How bad? Well, in terms of gender, this is right down there in the same league as “Reunion”.

I'll let writer Ronald D. Moore explain himself in his own words.
“I loved the notion of Data involved with a woman who fell in love with him because it was sort of a callback to when The Original Series was on. There were so many women who were in love with Spock. So much of Leonard Nimoy's fan mail was from women, women who were falling in love with this remote, inaccessible character with the idea that 'I could touch his heart-I could get to Spock like no one else.' I was fascinated by that aspect of fandom. So I thought, well, what if we did that with Data and there was a woman who fell in love with a man who literally doesn't have a heart, who could not give her something emotional. I wanted to see that relationship crash on the rocks. I wanted to see the moment when she realizes that he really can't give back to her what she wants.”
The mean-spirited cynicism is self-evident. It always is with Moore. Like his compatriot Ira Steven Behr, that's a signature of his. But the sheer, stupefying extent to which Moore is off the mark here is so galling I don't even have the words to properly convey it, and what it reveals about how much Star Trek creators truly understand their fanbase and the history of their own damn show is absolutely frightening. Moore has essentially penned a 45-minute up-yours to the heart and soul of Star Trek and science fiction fandom and delivered one of the most inexcusably and hurtfully misogynistic sentiments this side of his precious Original Series. Jenna D'Sora is every single bro-ish stereotype of “clingy bitches” rolled into one: She's vapid, shallow, air-headed and programatically dedicated to a man who doesn't care about her in the face of all sense and reason. She's even “on the rebound”. And she, and by extension this entire fucking episode, exists for no other reason than to bully and ostracize Star Trek's original and most loyal fans.

That Moore's conception of Star Trek fandom (I refuse to use the phrase “female fandom” because in the 1960s and 1970s women were the only fans of any consequence Star Trek fucking had) is blindingly ahistorical goes without saying. Those women who Moore would be so quick to belittle and infantilize were the young people of the 1960s that Star Trek inspired and who worked hard to make sure it had enough episodes to become syndicated, thus guaranteeing it a legacy and a life beyond its pathetic initial network run on NBC. And, once it did become syndicated, these were the people who continued to watch it in reruns and kept a fandom community alive a decade after Star Trek was canceled. These were the people who welcomed in a new generation of fans (who were also women) who got their first taste of the world of the starship Enterprise in syndication. It was Paula Smith, not Gene Roddenberry, who ran Star Trek in the 1970s. Yes, there probably were female fans who sent love letters to Leonard Nimoy, but to imply that the only reason these people watched and wrote about Star Trek was because they were flighty teenage girls who all had unrealistic crushes on Spock is so beyond insulting I'm not even going to dignify that assertion with a real response.

What Moore has done here is play right into a sentiment that, while nascent in 1991, will soon begin to linger and fester until it grows into one of the most dangerous reactionary movements of today. This is the exact line of thinking that paves the way for the male supremacist and patriarchal fundamentalist Nerd Culture, which would in turn give way to things like the Men's Rights movement, the Sad Puppies and GamerGate: Affluent, privileged, upper middle-class straight cisgender white men who feel persecuted and oppressed because they like electronics and science fiction and don't know how to behave in public properly. That's not to say Moore himself is like this, but he does unfortunately write from a perspective that's easy to be appropriated by this rhetoric: Moore's biggest credentials, and this is something he himself would validate, were of being a big Original Star Trek nerd. His biggest writing credits on the show are on episodes that explicitly deal with the Original Series, or that contribute to world-building involving concepts inherited from them. And I'm sorry, there's a culture of privilege, insularity and entitlement that kind of obsessively fannish dedication encourages and is connected to.

And it's not just Jenna D'Sora and the female fans she was created to caricature: “In Theory” smears all women. We're right back into the territory of “The Dauphin” and “Elaan of Troyius”, with various characters bemoaning how confusing, erratic and illogical women are. We've got Geordi hemming and hawing about whether or not D'Sora really is on the rebound, and Captain Picard happily telling Data he'll “pass along any advice” on women to him “as soon as [he has] any”. And then Worf telling Data that Klingons “conquer what they desire”, but warning Data that, as her superior, he doesn't want Jenna “mistreated”, as if Worf were Jenna's daddy and she was his baby girl. The whole production has a sickeningly warped, stereotypical and tropish conception of femininity and gender roles-Even down to the whole idea that Jenna uniquely “needs” “something emotional”. Devastatingly, this is the precise sort of thing we would expect someone influenced by a proto-Nerd Culture to write.

But what might even be the most insulting thing of all about “In Theory” is that it's hailed as a classic. And it's not even because of the misogyny, which would be sad, if predictable. The thing is this isn't even a story about Jenna D'Sora, not even in a kind of reactionary, anti-Mary Sue sense. This is read as a Data story, and hailed as a beloved classic because of how it supposedly furthers his exploration of humanity. Even Patrick Stewart, who makes his directorial debut here and is someone who should really, really know better, reads it this way. That in itself is pretty awful as it renders Jenna's pain subservient to Data's Epic Journey, just like the show did before with Tasha Yar: The show itself hides its blatantly ugly misogyny under the guise of a comparatively more tame variation of sexist narrative structure.

But even if you do read “In Theory” as a Data episode, it can only be seen as a terrible, terrible Data episode! Here, Data is depicted as being cartoonishly inept and self-centred when it comes to understanding women and romance: Indeed, the whole point of “In Theory” is to portray him as literally heartless. But that's not at all the kind of person Data is-In “Data's Day”, he was very serious about the idea of potentially pursuing not just any romantic relationship, but a committed, monogamous one. And the very first thing he said was that he believed he had a lot to offer his prospective partner: He was thinking of other people first and foremost, not himself. What's happened here is that Data is being written as the kind of innocent, hapless man strung along by the whims of fickle womanhood Nerd Culture people like to paint themselves as. And that's not who Data is. If you're not swayed that “In Theory” is a wretched episode on the virtue of its blatant misogyny, at least grant it's bad because it assassinates Data's character.

“In Theory” is very possibly the most archetypically Nerd Culture episode in all of Star Trek. Not just because the story itself is openly misogynistic, but because everything about it is built around pushing women aside. Ignoring and dismissing their perspectives and their positionalities. It's a production so insular, selfish, thoughtless and uncaring that it thinks it has the right to take a young woman's story about her painful feelings and make it all about a man. Data takes Jenna's story away from her just like Ron Moore wants to take Star Trek fandom away from the women who built and nurtured it. Because this is what Nerds do. This is what men do. Take things away from women and try to pretend that the women never had them to begin with and that they're inherently undeserving of them anyway. This is what truly defines Nerd Culture, not fanwank. This isn't just what patriarchy looks like, this is what male fundamentalism looks like. And it's productions like these and attitudes like the ones articulated by people like those in Ron Moore's place that has allowed this all to happen.

Can we please now finally stop catering to it?


  1. I'm glad you took this episode to task. No classic, this. Bravo for an excellent essay.

  2. I didn't expect, and approve highly, of the nerd culture vivisections. Plenty more on that later.

    I think even viewing this episode as Data's story misses the mark, but I also feel like Data's story wasn't doing Data's story justice. There's probably plenty of real-world interest in exploring what happens when an emotionless (paradoxical, but we'll use it for short-hand) person decides to attempt a relationship anyway as an experiment. I've had to end most of my relationships because I realized that beyond some cultural stigma of dating as "something people do", passive curiosity and objective case study I had no emotive connection with a person.

    There's a distance there that's something of a safety net, it's terribly inhuman, it's exactly what Data ends up doing with none of the self-awareness, and if we're to believe Picard's testimony in Measure of a Man that one of Data's claims to sentience is self-awareness (to say nothing of 'other-awareness'), I just can't see how he wouldn't have learned any of this from 30+ years of interaction with other humans, reading of human literature, ad infinitum, at least enough to realize it after he'd already made the mistake (like most of us do.) Most relationships are somewhat one-sided, and you'd hope the parlance of TNG would be that utopian problem solving can be applied to binary romantic pairs as well, because couples who work through the issues, or start out with, well, utopian problem solving skills, seem like they could have a leg up.

    But it all comes back to that question of human experiences and the culture behind them. Haven't any of the people who contrived this bad 90s Sit-Com scenario ever been in a relationship with a non-receptive partner? Or any of them ever been the closed book in a relationship themselves? Don't they know that you can tune tropes and play them like an instrument so instead of grating stereotypes, they're deceptive and astute humanity vignettes? You can trot out all the old sit-com cliches and man vs. woman false dichotomies so long as you're aware they're you know ... "false" dichotomies and play to that text by way of misunderstanding, comedy-of-errors, the sky's the damned limit.

    And that rant without ever getting into 1.) Blond-haired 2.) doe-eyed 3.) heart-sick 4.) naive 5.) Jenna's character.

    I'm convinced all the chuckles at the one-two beats (they do elicit chuckles) in this episode stem almost purely from Stewart's comedic timing while directing ... and Spiner's funny faces.

  3. Nope, don't remember this one at all, though I can picture how it goes from your description and quotes (and similar travesties I do remember). Sounds terrible.

    I'm glad I have no real connection with Trek fandom, if they consider such a thing a classic. The website where I got my ratings has it as fairly middling - the 84th best episode overall, so not terrible but far off classic status (there are 16 episodes ahead of it in this season alone, including Half a Life). So it seems like it provides a somewhat more balanced viewpoint - although it does still consider Reunion a classic, I'm afraid, in there at #23.

  4. A comment that will disappear into the silent past of the old post. But I know you read these things, so I want to say them anyway.

    I find it so difficult to believe that this 45-minute-long cringe of embarrassment is written by the same person who developed the concept for The Bonding. Someone who could be so sensitive to the potential of Star Trek to heal also produced this ridiculous train wreck.

    Yet I see how they came from a similar impulse: using the setting of TNG to critique an element of TOS that was never really thought about at the time. The Bonding, as you pointed out in that post, was about the consequences of those redshirt deaths. It took a casual element of TOS – the deaths of extras to demonstrate that a situation is dangerous – and made it the centre of a plot. But that story soared because it was about an important ethical point: there is meaning to every life in itself, and every death is a tragedy that leaves scars and requires attentive healing.

    In Theory comes from probing another unspoken paradox within TOS. But this paradox isn't about a genuinely important ethical shortcoming of TOS itself, as The Bonding was. It's an inherently problematic presumption that the sexual charisma of Spock is a self-defeating contradiction: that the character conventionally referred to as "emotionless" is genuinely so, and so incapable of deep connections with another character. Those who would treat Spock or Data as sex symbols or objects of romantic fantasy and imagination are, in the course of this critique mocked. You're right that it's a much more hateful kind of critique, and it's a critique that also fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the "emotionless" characters.

    It's not that they're incapable of emotions – emotional connection is a difficult task, one filled with obstacles and problems, but still possible. And when it happens, it happens in a way that's peculiar to such characters. They're not unemotional; they're differently emotional, inherently alien.

    I think that's another dimension of Ron Moore's mistake when it comes to these characters of Spock and Data. He can't help but see them as incomplete humans, when really they're different kinds of life altogether.

    Of course, imagining an entirely different kind of life is much more difficult than simply imagining a human with one or a few of our ordinary abilities taken away. But that's why it's so much more satisfying, inventive, and innovative to push your creativity to make something utterly other than your own existence.

  5. "This is the exact line of thinking that paves the way for the male supremacist and patriarchal fundamentalist Nerd Culture, which would in turn give way to things like the Men's Rights movement, the Sad Puppies and GamerGate"

    Bang on the nail.

    I am so glad I have never been a part of Trek fandom as I had not idea that this was ever a classic - what a laugh!

    And terrible that it gets lauded for being part of Data's developmental arc, shoving the woman to the sidelines when the idea that this even contributes anything to his growth is ridiculous. data so often shows that he is changed and touched by experiences and in no way do I see that happening here.

  6. Fantastic post. I'll join the party and say I had no idea it was considered a classic by anyone.

    I've spoken to female fans, and I have to say nothing could be so far from the truth; Spock appealed because he was emotional and tried to hide it, just like some nerdy girls tried to hide their feelings and tried to be nothing but logical all the time. If you were a geek girl who got nicknamed 'Spock' in school, naturally the character would earn your sympathy. Data appealed because, despite the best efforts of the writers, he clearly did have wants and wishes - which is to say, emotions, just not what we usually think of as emotions.

    1. I do find the almost 1:1 comparisons that occur between Data and Spock flagrantly idiotic. Yeah, sure, the writers sometimes jump through hoops trying to hammer home the one or two similarities. Bones's cameo in Episode 1, and Spock's eventual appearance, and so forth. But they could not be more different, nor represent more completely wildly diversely different things. (Troi has way, way more in common with Spock, minus the open emotions vs. closed emotions angles.)

      Which reminds me; the Betazoids really should've been this show's "Great Alien Race/Contribution" to the mythos.