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“Too Emotional”: “Interstellar”, “Star Trek: Discovery”, “Captain Marvel” and the Re-Gendering of Science-Fiction…

Women have very obviously had a huge impact on shaping and defining science-fiction as a genre.

Many of the key figures in the genre’s history have been female, across all forms of media. Ursula Le Guin is one of the defining science-fiction authors. The first showrunner of Doctor Who was a young woman by the name of Verity Lambert. Among many of the key figures overshadowed by Gene Roddenberry in developing Star Trek was Dorothy “D.C.” Fontana, who was responsible for defining and shaping a lot of what fans know about the iconic character of Spock and of Vulcan. Indeed, modern science-fiction fandom owes a lot to early female enthusiasts. Spockanalia was one of the earliest professional-quality fanzines, dedicated to the idea of Spock as a cultural icon and sex symbol. The “Save Star Trek” campaign was organised by Bjo Trimble.

However, this aspect of the genre’s history and development is largely ignored and overlooked. Modern science-fiction is largely defined as a masculine genre. MIT Technology Review’s Top Ten Hard Science Fiction Books of All Time includes one female author, while Forbidden Planet’s 50 Science Fiction Books You Must Read includes only three women. The recent forays of directors like Ava DuVernay, Patty Jenkins and Claire Denis into big-screen science-fiction only underscored the degree to which the genre has historically been dominated by male directors. Even the public perception of science-fiction fandom is gendered. Despite the formative role that women played in defining fandom, the stereotypical image of a fan is white, middle-class, male, heterosexual.

As with many issues in fandom, this has been pushed to the fore in recent years, a long-simmering culture war over ownership of these conceptual spaces has spilled over into the mainstream. Fandoms traditionally considered as white, heterosexual and masculine have begun lashing out at what they perceive to be invaders who do not conform to their expectations. These attacks are gendered. GamerGate was an organised attack on women within the gaming community, beginning with a smear campaign from a jilted boyfriend. In terms of science-fiction, the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies attempted to game the Hugo nominations to target women and minorities. This is to say nothing of organised vote-brigading of female- and minority-led films.

Against this context, one of the more interesting pushes in contemporary mainstream big-budget science-fiction is a firm attempt to recontextualise and re-gender science-fiction storytelling, to push the genre away from these more reactionary elements and these more conventional definitions of masculine interest. Some of these examples are generated no shortage of attention and blowback, most obviously through the casting of more diverse leads in projects like Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, which led to an online explosion of targeted misogyny and vitriol at the female actors involved.

However, some of this reinvention has been more subtle and nuanced, such as the conscious rejection of hard science-fiction in big-budget mass-audience science-fiction projects as high-profile and diverse as Interstellar, Star Trek: Discovery and Captain Marvel.

One of the more interesting ways in which science-fiction is gendered is through the emphasis on so-called “hard science-fiction.” The idea of “hard science-fiction” is that it is considered to be more “realistic” than “soft science-fiction.” It is science-fiction that is rooted in the rational, anchored in ideas that have some basis in modern science, even if those ideas are extrapolated and expanded. Hard science-fiction places a lot of emphasis on research and mechanics. It is very focused on precisely how the world in which the story works. It is less likely to feature (theoretically unlikely) technology like faster-than-light travel. It is perhaps no surprise that hard science-fiction publishing is seen as a “boy’s club.” (The Sad and Rabid Puppies were big proponents of “hard” science-fiction.)

Of course, it is foolish to generalise too broadly, but studies and surveys suggest that male and female fandoms are inherently different. Masculine fan spaces are traditionally much more interested in the concrete and the absolute; about cataloguing and charting, about continuity and canon. In contrast, female fan spaces have traditionally been more interested in the abstract and the creative; about fan fiction and character shipping. Indeed, it is perhaps revealing that there is often considerable tension within fandoms over these things. There is a palpable anxiety about “shipping” as a fan activity, and a tangible discomfort with “fan fiction.” It is no coincidence that these activities are more traditionally coded as feminine.

One of the most underdiscussed aspect of Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction epic Interstellar is the way in which it consciously interrogates a lot of these gendered tropes. There are a number of reasons why this aspect of the film has gone underdiscussed. Although Nolan has made conscious efforts to improve upon his characterisation of female characters following the deconstruction of his use of the “dead wife” trope in Inception, the writer and director has been (fairly) criticised for marginalising (and “fridging”) female characters in earlier films like The Prestige and The Dark Knight. As such, it seems unlikely that Nolan’s explorations of gender would come in for analysis. This is a shame; Inception is a fascinating excavation of a very toxic form of masculinity.

More than that, there is a sense that Interstellar arrived a little too early. As a science-fiction epic, it arrived in late 2014. This was only as GamerGate was entering the popular discourse. Although the Sad Puppies movement had launched in 2013, its efforts to game the Hugo nominations would only truly attract media attention two years later. All of which is to suggest that these conflicts had yet to spill out into the mainstream, and so it was less likely that a film like Interstellar would be evaluated in those terms. Then again, it should be noted that Nolan’s films tend to age well in these respects. The Dark Knight Rises is a movie that seems surprisingly prescient in hindsight, foreshadowing a turbulent end to the decade. Donald Trump would even quote from Bane.

Still, watched in hindsight, Interstellar is a fascinating study of gendered dynamics in science-fiction. Much has been made of the movie’s commitment to scientific accuracy in rendering its deep-space adventures. Famously, the computers used to render the black hole effects in the film were so powerful and so detailed that they were actually able to provide real-life physicists with new data and information about the phenomena. The film is driven by attention to real-world physics concepts, most notably issues of time dilation and relativity, demonstrating an attention to detail rare in a big budget science-fiction film. Even the worlds visited by the team in Interstellar are built on real scientific concepts, such as mountain-like waves. (Clouds made of ice are less feasible.)

On release, Interstellar was greeted as something of a triumph for hard science-fiction on the big screen, even allowing for elements like the black hole or the hyper-evolved humans that live inside it. It is revealing that the default point of comparison for the film was 2001: A Space Odyssey. As such, at least on paper, Interstellar seemed like another triumphant entry in the canon of traditional “hard” science-fiction, the genre that was traditionally coded as masculine and which played to the same sorts of impulses associated with that gendered subsection of the genre. Interstellar was positioned as science-fiction for fans who liked fact and figures, statistics and data.

However, something interesting is happening within the film itself. In particular, the film is much more concerned with abstract (and traditionally coded feminine) concepts like love than with more rational (and traditionally coded masculine) concepts like data. Interstellar demonstrates this idea repeatedly, but most obviously through its female characters and the male characters with whom they are contrasted. At one point, the crew find themselves forced to make a choice between two planets; the planet visited by Edmund and the planet visited by Mann. Edmund’s data was promising, but his transmissions have stopped. Mann’s data is more ambiguous, but it has been broadcasting consistently.

During a debate about which planet to pick, the two male astronauts decided to visit Mann’s planet. As Cooper explains, “Here he is. He’s on the ground, and he’s sending a very unambiguous message, telling us to come to his planet.” However, Amelie Brand objects. “Cooper, this is my field and I really believe Edmunds’ is the better prospect,” she argues. Despite the fact that Brand is the expert in the field, Cooper consciously undermines her to the deciding vote, Romilly. Cooper paints Brand as emotional and unreliable, an obviously gendered insult. Cooper’s argument is that Brand’s perspective is compromised by the fact that she has a long-standing emotional attachment to Wolf Edmund and that this renders her judgment compromised.

It is a gendered argument, buttressed by its own internal logic. The men of Interstellar frequently repress and conceal their emotions, like a lot of men in Nolan films. They tend to treat emotional responses as compromising and unreliable, and insist that it is possible to transcend such limitations. (So much of Inception is down to Cobb’s inability to acknowledge his own emotional trauma and to insist that he has it all “under control.”) Indeed, the astronauts that were sent ahead of the expedition in Interstellar were specifically chosen because they had no emotional attachments to Earth. The logic behind the choice makes sense in the world of hard science-fiction. “No attachments. My father insisted. They all knew the odds against ever seeing another human being again.”

The idea is that these exceptional people could be completely unbiased on their journey, that they could make tough choices without clouding their judgment with useless emotion. Indeed, Brand’s relationship with Edmunds is seen as a betrayal of this core idea. However, Interstellar makes a mockery of this rigid overly-rational approach through the introduction of Doctor Mann. His name is hardly subtle. Doctor Mann is described by Brand as “the best of us” and an exemplar of these ideals of rationality. “He inspired eleven people to follow him on the loneliest journey in human history.” Mann is a leader. He is an example the kind of hero who tends to exist at the centre of these stories; a bold adventurer with no emotional attachment and hunger for science.

However, when Cooper and Brand visit the so-called “Mann’s Planet”, they discover a world that Mann himself describes as is “cold” and “stark.” It is very much a reflection of the worldview that landed Mann on this planet in the first place, a planet of ice without any life upon it. Indeed, Cooper quickly discovers that all is not as it appears. Despite the fact that Mann’s data was good, and despite the fact that Mann was the perfect candidate for this mission, there is a fatal flaw in the system. Despite (or perhaps because of) his lack of attachment, Mann is just as flawed as any other human being. Emotional experience cannot be taken entirely out of the equation, and it is foolish to assume that it can.

“You know why we couldn’t just send machines on these missions, don’t you?” Mann asks Cooper. “A machine doesn’t improvise well because you can’t program a fear of death. Our survival instinct is our single greatest source of inspiration.” Remarking on his own lack of attachment to anybody on Earth, Mann explains, “But even without a family, l can promise you that that yearning to be with other people is powerful. That emotion is at the foundation of what makes us human. It’s not to be taken lightly.” It is revealed that Mann fabricated his data. Motivated by both his fear of death and his loneliness, he lured Brand and Cooper to his planet to save his life. “I resisted the temptation for years. But I knew that if I just pressed that button, somebody would come and save me.”

The implication is that there is no such thing as a completely impartial system, that it is never possible for a human being to be entirely rational. More than that, it is possible for an individual to disguise their emotional state using the language of rationality. Cooper and Romilly decide to visit Mann’s planet based on the cold hard data that is being transmitted, but it is subsequently revealed that Mann fabricated that data in order to lure the team to his planet. In doing so, he might have doomed the entire species. Even as Cooper suffocates after his helmet cracks, Mann still conceives of himself as the rugged hero. “The survival instinct. That’s what drove me. It’s what drives all of us. And it’s what’s gonna save us. Because I want to save all of us. For you, Cooper.”

Interstellar does not just argue that completely objectivity is impossible. It argues that emotional attachment is a good thing. Mann even articulates the idea as he watches Cooper suffocate. “What does research tell us is the last thing you’re going to see before you die?” he asks. “Your children. Their faces. At the moment of death, your mind’s gonna push a little bit harder to survive. For them.” The film implies that what led Mann to push the button was precisely the fact that he had no emotional attachments on Earth. Mann did not care about anybody he left behind, and so he did not care that his loneliness might doom the entire species. Mann was able to act so selfishly precisely because of his lack of attachments.

In contrast, Cooper and Brand’s emotional attachments are what guides them through Interstellar. Brand and Cooper persevere not because of objectivity or rationality, but because of their deep emotional attachment to other human beings. Brand is motivated by her love for Edmunds, and that turns out to (ultimately) be the correct call even if she is not reunited with him. Cooper is motivated by his love of Murph, and so takes massive risks in an effort to provide a future for her. Indeed, both Cooper and Brand are empowered by their preexisting emotional attachments, rather than weakened by them. In doing so, Interstellar seems to be firmly rejecting the idea that science-fiction as a genre has no place for emotion and that complete rationality is often an illusion.

This is important because of the strong connections that exist between the modern extreme right-wing movement known as the “alt-right” and traditional fandom groupings. These connections became clear during GamerGate, when the movement within fan cultures was championed (ironically) by figures like alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. It also developed during the fandom backlash to The Last Jedi, which became a cultural flashpoint. Indeed, studies found considerable correlations between those engaged in online flame wars over The Last Jedi and those active in the campaign to get Donald Trump elected President of the United States.

One of the defining attributes of the alt-right is how strongly the political movement is defined by its pursuit of rationality. Liz Ryerson argues that the movement can trace its roots back to technocratic hyper-rationalism. The alt-right enjoys strong connections to the skeptic community, rooted in the idea of rational skepticism. This is why one of the most important figures in the alt-right movement is Professor Jordan Peterson, who provides an academic veneer to the movement’s political ideology. This obsession with rationality and objectivity is reflected in a variety of way. It plays out in the movement’s fascination with aggregate review scores and “objective” reviews. It also filters through the manner in which nominally “scientific racism” crept back into the conversation.

At the heart of all of this is a very warped understanding of how concepts like debate work and how decisions should be made. The alt-right is convinced that it is rational and objective, and that its opponents are simply not reaching the correct decision. To a certain extent, this reflects the attitudes of traditional and conventionally masculine fandoms in how they approach art; a “curative” approach that is largely predicated on facts, figures and objectively verifiable information. This perhaps demonstrates why these sorts of political ideologies were able to put down such deep roots within these traditional fandom spaces. They reflect a set of values that are entrenched in stereotypically masculine approaches to things like science-fiction.

It should be noted that there is, baked into this, a gendered criticism of emotivity. It is known as “the thinking/feeling gender bias.” “Rationality” is frequently gendered as a masculine trait; this is part of why the gender dynamics on The X-Files were so interesting, with Scully cast as the rational one and Mulder playing the more irrational member of the duo. In contrast, women are frequently portrayed as being overly emotional, and this criticism is frequently used to undermine them. This plays out on any number of levels, but most noticeably at the level of national and international politics. Female politicians are much more likely to have their emotional states critiqued and deconstructed.

As with Interstellar, other recent high-profile science-fiction releases have consciously engaged with this battle between pseudo-rationality and emotionality within the genre. As with Interstellar, this feels like a consciously gendered decision. Indeed, given the surrounding context, it couldn’t be anything but a gendered decision. Star Trek: Discovery is an interesting example. It is the first Star Trek series to have a black female lead character, which (predictably) generated no shortage of online backdraft. (The franchise previously had a black lead and a female lead, but not a black female lead.) One of the more interesting aspects of Michael Burnham is how the character is defined as both human and alien; an orphan raised on Vulcan.

Vulcans are one of the most interesting races in the Star Trek canon, and for obvious reasons. Spock is one of the most iconic characters in American pop culture, and so his species will always be of interest. The Vulcans are a species that prioritise logic over emotion, suppressing their feelings in service of rationality. One of the most interesting recurring suggestions in the larger Star Trek canon is that this is not always a good idea. With the notable exception of Sarek, and notably only after his reintroduction in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, almost every pure-blooded Vulcan featured in the franchise has been a deeply troubled individual.

On the original Star Trek, the episode Amok Time had Spock’s betrothed manipulate her would-be husband into almost murdering his best friend; the regal T’Pau was content to let Kirk enter a life-and-death competition without bothering to inform him of the stakes beforehand. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Vulcan Valeris schemed to provoke a new war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was populated with Vulcan jerks, from the darts player in Shakaar to the bully in Take Me Out to the Holosuite, let alone the terrorist in The Maquis, Part I and The Maquis, Part II or the psychotic killer in Field of Fire.

Star Trek: Voyager did little to alleviate such anxieties. Tuvok was introduced as a Federation spy who betrayed Chakotay to the Federation, and the character was frequently on the edge of a nervous breakdown of some description or another; Meld, Riddles, Repression. Tuvok was consistently portrayed as rather stuck in his ways and oblivious to the emotional needs of others, with episodes like Gravity focusing on the hurt that his stoicism could cause to the people around him. Star Trek: Enterprise was controversial among fans for continuing to develop the Vulcans along these lines, portraying them as scheming and arrogant in stories like The Andorian Incident and Shadows of P’Jem.

(Interestingly, and demonstrating how fickle fandom’s memory of such things can be, the portrayal of the Vulcans on Enterprise outraged fans to such a degree that the production team made an effort to “fix” the aliens in the fourth season three-parter The Forge, Awakening and Kir’Shara. The episode is one of the best stories that Enterprise ever produced, and a highlight of the Star Trek universe, but there is no small irony in the fact that it actually “breaks” continuity with the larger Star Trek canon. Indeed, it feels like the “canon” is more closely related to fandom’s memory of a thing than to the objective reality of the thing itself.)

Within the Star Trek canon, Vulcans have consistently been portrayed as an alien species playing these two halves against one another. During the feature film franchise, Spock repeatedly had to come to terms with his human emotions rather than simply suppressing them; he abandons the purge of such emotions in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and his arc in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home culminates in his decision to tell his mother that he feels “fine.” This carries over to the reboots and to pure-blood Vulcans. In Star Trek, when Spock asks his father why he would marry a human, Sarek initially responds, “Marrying your mother was logical.” Only later does he concede, “You asked me once why I married your mother. I married her because I loved her.”

This tension simmers through Discovery and repeatedly comes to the fore. The series does not devote as much attention to Vulcan as Enterprise, but it repeatedly suggests that something is not healthy on the planet. In The Vulcan Hello, it is revealed that Michael was targeted by xenophobic “logic extremists” during her childhood on Vulcan, who “didn’t want humans in their culture.” (This parallels with the portrayal of the Klingons as another xenophobic and culturally anxious society.) In Lethe, one such “logic extremist” launches a suicide attack on Sarek’s shuttle vowing that his “sacrifice will be a rallying cry to those who value logic above all. Vulcans will soon recognize and withdraw from the failed experiment known as the Federation.”

The political parallels are surprisingly strong, even if these “logic extremists” are an underdeveloped aspect of Discovery. The idea of hyper-pseudo-rationalists who believe in cultural purity (and who are willing to use violence to those ends) obviously resonates in the era of a resurgent extreme right. While the discussion of secession from the Federation is arguably carried over from an aborted third season story for Deep Space Nine, it obviously resonates with right-wing campaigns against globalisation; the Trump administration’s campaign against international obligations, the referendum in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. However, even beyond the larger political implications, this tension between hard rationality and emotion plays through Discovery.

It is most obvious in the central narrative focusing on Michael Burnham. In The Vulcan Hello, the Federation makes contact with the Klingons for the first time in decades. Tensions run high. Burnham is obviously still processing the trauma of her parents’ death at the hands of the Klingons. However, Burnham repeatedly and aggressively asserts that she is entirely rational. She is processing the information objectively, and responding in a reasonable manner. She contacts her adoptive father on Vulcan, and asks how the Vulcans navigated their relationship with the Klingons. Sarek tells her; the Vulcans determined that the Klingons only responded to force, and so opened fire on every Klingon ship they encountered until the Klingons established diplomatic relations.

Of course, Burnham is in a different situation. “Be very careful that your assumptions are not being driven by your past,” Sarek warns. “That is a solution particular to us. One cannot assume it would work on a ship commanded by humans.” That would be the honest way of looking at the situation. Burnham’s judgment is being clouded by her emotions. How could it not be? Nevertheless, Burnham denies her heightened emotional state, still insisting that her behaviour is rational. She stages a mutiny, which embroils the Federation in a shooting war with the Klingon Empire. Matters get worse when Burnham beams over to the Klingon flagship to capture the leader of the Empire to force peace. When her captain is killed, Burnham lashes out and kills her target.

Burnham’s journey over the first season plays out in these terms, in learning to embrace her emotions. Although not explicitly coded in such terms, the journey does play with issues related to gender and race. It is notable that Burnham stops straightening her hair while in prison, wearing it free from Context is for Kings through the end of the season. The straightening of African American women’s hair is something loaded with symbolism and meaning, carrying a lot of weight. It represents on way in which African American women conform to the expectations and standards of a society shaped by white people. (Natural hair is “unprofessional.”) Many of these expectations force black women to repress and bury their emotions, for fear of being seen as too volatile or emotional.

Discovery is appreciably less interested in codifying the mechanics of the Star Trek universe in the trappings of hard science-fiction than earlier series. This is most obviously with the highly controversial “spore drive”, which is superficially no less ridiculous than magic blue crystals that allow a ship to travel faster than light, but which also works as a metaphor for the larger arcs of the series. If Discovery is about Burnham making some sort of inner journey, then it makes sense that the ship should be literally powered by magic mushrooms. Again, the logic of the “spore drive” is more abstract than literal; it serves as a gateway to other realms and worlds; a twisted mirror of the ship that Stamets navigates in Vaulting Ambition and the mirror universe in Despite Yourself.

The logic that guides the series is more abstract than literal. In Brother, the engineer Jet Reno manages to work as a pretty good trauma surgeon, explaining that the “body’s just a machine, and I read.” Similarly, the mycologist Stamets is able to assume the role of engineer and navigator on the ship by literally integrating himself with the ship’s systems. He is an integral and organic component of the “spore drive.” This is a consciously looser approach to science-fiction storytelling than any other Star Trek series, including the spirituality that defined a lot of Deep Space Nine. That is not to suggest that this is any more or any less ridiculous than stories like The Enemy Within or Faces, but it’s much less interested in disguising that ridiculousness in pseudo-science.

Burnham’s journey in the first season of Discovery is largely about coming to terms with herself, with making peace with herself and accepting that her emotional responses to situations are just as valid as the “logical” or “rational” response. In Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad, Burnham grapples with her feelings towards Ash Tyler. Ash Tyler himself is subsequently revealed to be on his own journey of self-discovery; he is really a Klingon sleeper agent who has become a human being. In Despite Yourself, Burnham grapples with the kind of compromises that a person has to make to live within a corrupt and decadent society.

Indeed, the climax of Burnham’s character arc actually arrives in the antepenultimate episode of the season, when she is confronted with the mirror universe doppelganger of the mentor that she failed to save. mirror!Georgiou is a monster. She is objectively not the same person who died at the start of the season. This is true in every rational and objective sense. However, Burnham understands that she needs emotional closure rather than rational closure. The trip to the mirror universe allows Burnham to save a version of the woman that she could not save before. It is catharsis for Burnham, and it allows Burnham to throw herself back into the Klingon War so that she might end it.

Of course, Discovery somewhat bungles this beat at the end of the first season and into the second season by turning mirror!Georgiou into a recurring character who feels like a retread of the Intendant from Deep Space Nine. Largely rooted in the appeal of Nana Visitor vamping it up, the Indendant was an unfortunate maelstrom of outdated clichés, a depraved nymphomaniac bisexual with an appetite for scenery and violence. It was an offensive character archetype in the nineties, and it was a shame to see Discovery develop mirror!Georgiou along those lines, one of a handful of critical missteps in an ambitious but flawed first season.

Nevertheless, it reflects the suggestion in Discovery that the emotional arc of the characters is more important than adhering to pseudo-rationalism. Indeed, the second season continues to develop along these lines. In Brother, Pike offers something of a mission statement for Discovery in conversation with Burnham. He warns the lieutenant that “logic [is] the beginning of the picture and not the end.” In short, rationality is a tool rather than a philosophy. It is not an end of itself, but something that can be employed in service of a greater purpose. That purpose has to be more meaningful or profound. For Burnham and many members of the Discovery cast, that meaning is firmly emotional in nature.

Indeed, there is a recurring suggestion that even true-blooded Vulcans cannot entire suppress their emotional responses to situations. In Battle at the Binary Stars, Sarek establishes a long-distance telepathic bond to Burnham, his adopted daughter. The projection takes quite a toll on the Vulcan, who assures Michael, “I did not come here to judge your actions. I came because I sensed your your despair.” However, even as Burnham seems to be facing certain death, Sarek cannot acknowledge that he reached out to her for emotional reasons. “Do you think I came here just to say farewell?” he asks. “I would not put my well-being at risk for such sentimentality.” However, it seems clear that he has, even if he would never admit it – even to himself.

This divide between rationalism and emotionalism carries over to Captain Marvel, where it is more explicitly gendered. Carol Danvers is repeatedly chided over the course of the film for being “too emotional.” Her Kree trainer, Yon-Rogg, urges her repeatedly to use her head and not her heart. He tells her that she can never triumph if she allows her emotions to get the better of her. Yon-Rogg is not the only character who treats Carol like this. Flashbacks to her basic training at the Air Force Academy include similar lines of dialogue. There is a sense in which Carol Danvers is expected to simply shut down her emotional responses to situations in order to conform to a rationalist world view.

Captain Marvel firmly rejects this philosophy. In fact, the film makes a conscious choice to tie Carol Danvers’ powers to her emotions. Her emotions are not a source of weakness, but of strength. Carol can only truly fly when she connects with her feelings rather than understanding things emotionally. At the climax of the film, realising that her power comes from the warmth of emotion rather than cold rationality, she remarks, “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back.” Indeed, Yon-Rogg spends the entire movie trying to get Carol to fight on terms that he sets, to face him on a battleground that he defines.

It is hardly subtle that, in doing so, Yon-Rogg also seeks to deny Carol control over her own bodily autonomy. Yon-Rogg and the Kree attempt to dictate how Carol uses her body. Again, this is a strongly gendered plot element. Men have long dictated what women can and cannot do with their bodies. The Trump Administration has launched a sustained campaign to restrict abortion rights, and to limit access to such services for women. It remains a hugely charged political issue. Only one year ago, Ireland voted by an overwhelming majority to legalise abortion. As such, it is very telling that the climax of Captain Marvel hinges on Carol finally getting to use her body in a manner that she sees fit without needing the approval or sanction of men like Yon-Rogg.

However, Yon-Rogg’s attempts to assert control over Carol extend beyond bodily autonomy. Yon-Rogg tries to set the terms of engagement with Carol, most notably at the climax of the film, when she has soundly defeated an enemy armada. “I am so proud of you,” Yon-Rogg boasts, as if she needs his validation or approval. He raises his fists as if to spar like they used to, when he would tell her to control her emotions. Despite the scale and spectacle of everything leading up to that one moment, perhaps the most triumphant moment of the film comes when Carol realises that she does not need to engage with Yon-Rogg using his rules of engagement. “I have nothing to prove to you,” she states, simply.

These examples all point to a broader trend in contemporary popular science-fiction, an attempt to find space in the genre for traditional gendered feminine attributes like emotion and feeling. Films like Interstellar and Captain Marvel, and shows like Discovery, reject the idea that traditionally gendered masculine attributes like rationality are the only traits that matter within these narrative frameworks. It is a reckoning that is long overdue, and it feels like the science-fiction genre might slowly be opening itself up to outside perspectives. Although science-fiction has a long and rich history of female influences and spaces, it has been gendered as conventionally masculine for far too long.

It is refreshing to see that changing, albeit slowly.

14 Responses

  1. If one side of today’s fan community is defined by a focus on continuity, “canon” and cataloging, and the other is defined by fan-fiction and fantasizing about rearranging characters into new romantic or sexual relationships, that goes a long way towards helping me understand why I feel like I’m on another wavelength entirely when I’m visiting anything that could be considered a “fan community”, even when I am a fan of something. Yet I know that’s not the case, that I’m not special, because it would make no sense for me to be: I have no privileged, secret knowledge, and I consume the same media as everyone else.

    I get that I like something, and these people like something, and then they start to talk about the topic we have in common, and they begin to talk about “canon” and the minutiae of the “shared universe”, or their fan fiction and who they like to imagine is going out with whom in another version of the show.

    And I understand that these things are important to them and important to fans in general, but I find these interests strange and insular and repetitive, and I’d rather discuss:

    * Tinseltown gossip about drama during the production, as lengthy as possible with as many contradictions between different people’s accounts as possible, including some obvious petty lies, or

    * a heartfelt personal story about how important a certain movie or episode was to one person at one point in time, maybe for entirely subjective reasons that the writer knows were peculiar to them at that moment in their lives, or

    * an artist’s description of some weird knick-knack from a board game or appliance that I’d never have guessed was used for this or that part of the kit-bashed miniatures, with some pictures showing me that the lower third of the S.S. Greeble was indeed a desk lamp’s light bulb socket ringed with re-purposed Monopoly top hat pieces, or

    * an argument for a scene’s significance, along the lines of some school or another of theory of film, that I agree with in whole or in part or disagree with entirely but that makes some solid points I’d have a hard time countering, or

    * some essay about color grading or blocking where I don’t know enough to judge whether it’s accurate or not, followed by a one-up-manship-fueled argument in replies or comments about whether the writer is a fraud, or

    * reviews from former professionals that explore the elements of a movie in some depth but also offer up a bunch of cheap, corny jokes that I will find funny only because the reviewer is charming, or

    * maybe most of all, an argument in favor of the value of some aspect of the topic I hate, or something that I’ve always considered a major flaw in something I otherwise like—an argument that probably doesn’t convince me to change my mulish mind entirely, but does force me to concede that some of the specific things I thought were bad aren’t really that bad, or that points out something I missed entirely that makes me feel that whatever I think is bad is probably fair-to-middling at worst, maybe even good.

    …and it’s not hard to find material on any and all of these things that could spark a discussion! The easiest way to find it is to go to any online “fan community”, where examples will appear as links someone has posted.

    Then: the comments below the links will demonstrate the interests of the fan community, as the community discussion will not be about the linked article’s topic at all, but about how a bit of technobabble mentioned by a character, spoken during an episode that was barely mentioned in the linked article, doesn’t fit with “canon”, and therefore the show is a deep betrayal of the fans’ values that was created by someone who worked their way up from a spec script writer to assistant show-runner because they personally hate the franchise and aim to kill it out of spite.

    Or: the thread kicks off with a comment about how a character not mentioned in the link should have been mentioned in the link, because the person making the comment believes they should be portrayed as having sex with another character, perhaps a sibling of theirs that they hugged once on the show, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me but it does to a lot of other people in the fan community, only those folks think it should be the other sibling, and an Internet fight breaks out over which one it should be, and soon people are calling each other out by their names on another Web site(?)…

    While I’m obviously poking some fun here at myself as well as others, I’m also saying: these perspectives clearly have a lot of power and provide today’s fan community with a feeling of togetherness or at least a mutual language they can speak, but… I just can’t feel at home there.

    And yet, I know I’m not picky or particular about what I enjoy reading and discussing on a pop-culture topic, and that there’s a wide variety of discussions I’ve enjoyed before, however rarely they appear. I know I don’t have delusions that I’m some sort of hyper-intellectual who could join a debate about whether the ’78 or ’79 line of models were used in a kit-bash or something, though I’d love to read through one and ask dumb intro-course-level questions to satisfy my idle curiosity (it seems about ten times more interesting to me than cataloging the number of unobtainium torpedoes on the fictional ship in different episodes). I know I don’t ask a lot from a fan community.

    It’s just that one or two perspectives dominate most of the discussion in the fan community, and they happen to be perspectives whose appeal is lost on me. It’s disappointing. But I suppose to everything there is a season, and if I wait long enough, the whole scene will shift again.

    • Ah yeah. I’m very much the “enjoy what you enjoy” school of criticism and fandom. I once wrote a 5,000 word essay on whether Wrath of the Titans was a metaphor for the shift from pantheons towards monotheism or whether the humans were the villains of Battleship. I know esoteric discussions. (And I know these things will appeal to me and me alone, which makes them so fun.)

      But I do find this shift interesting in the context of the modern culture wars, which seem to be burning hot and bright. And something that I hadn’t seen discussed much elsewhere, so I though was worth having a crack at, so to speak.

    • I think that this sort of superficial engagement with the material is quintessentially human: at our hearts, many of us want to recapture the feelings that we experienced in the art, and each of us have a different idea exactly “what” that quality is, and sometimes it’s the opposite of the conception that the creator (or current IP owner) has. Murasaki’s ‘Tale of Genji’ is 900 years old, but I think it’s one of the most evident examples of a shared fandom, with the author developing Genji’s many court romances and friendships based on her readers’ requests and inputs. The author’s pen name itself (Murasaki) is even taken from the most popular romantic interest in the stories, much like a modern fanfic writer might name herself after a self-insert character. Another old example might by Sherlock Holmes, where Arthur Conan Doyle found himself hating the character even as fan demand for more stories grew even stronger, leading to him killing off the character and later resurrecting him. You can even see proto-fanfiction from the time, such as French author Maurice Leblanc shamelessly stealing Sherlock Holmes as an antagonist in one of his own stories about gentleman-thief Arsene Lupin.

      I see fanfiction/fanart as inherently creative engagement with the source material, even if quite a lot of it is simply “pairing” different character romantically. I used to write fanfics about anime shows back in high school, and while I cringe to look at them now, they helped me to realize my desire to enter the field of writing, eventually leading me to journalism and from there to Asia Studies. They can lead to independent creative works in their own right as well: ’50 Shades of Gray’ began as a Twilight fanfic, if I recall, while many Renaissance artists used to sell their own versions of masters’ famous paintings as a way to pay homage, hone their craft, and mark their own progress or interpretations.

      In contrast, fan obsession with the “canon” is, I think, part of the desire to impose order/structure on chaos in a way that isn’t really possible in most of real life. I see fans that have memorized the Star Wars (or Harry Potter, or whatever) universe as similar to birders, or train enthusiasts: something in the underlying content creates a need to categorize and structure the details appropriately. No wonder many fans feel “betrayed” by new iterations of the art, since it’s incredibly difficult to build new stories while remaining “true” to the past, especially when new people are at the helm. I fall into this group of fandom quite often since I’m rather obsessive about trivia. For example, I can recall from the 1996 X-Men cartoon that Captain Marvel was once called Ms. Marvel, and her powers were stolen by Rogue and are the basis for Rogue’s super-strength and flight. This knowledge is sadly mostly useless, except in establishing a common language among other fans (aka ‘nerd cred’).

      Your description of many of your interests falls mainly into what I would think of as ‘creator’ fandom or ‘industry/professional gossip’: you like the sausage, and you want to know how it was “made,” much like a car enthusiast, a film buff, or a lot of beltway politics geeks. I don’t think that is especially rare, but I feel like you’re likely to only find that sort of discussion in very specific forums, because many fewer people are interested in the act of creation (or what led to it) compared with the outputs of the work. It’s also harder to debate, since it requires a lot more prior knowledge on a specialized industry/craft, compared with the above 2 examples.

      In-person meetings (like book clubs) might draw more of this type of fan. I think Darren’s reviews are often great from this perspective because they help to put shows into the context of the author, the creative environment, and the period of time that it was created. Thanks to his reviews, I’ve learned a lot about the creative minds behind some of my favorite settings like Star Trek, as well as the difficulties in translating a vision into a final product, which I think has helped me to better understand the creative processes behind film and TV as a whole.

      All this is really just to say that you’re not wrong to look for something different from fandom discussions (I often feel the same way), but you might have to look in unusual places to find the type and quality of dialogue that you’re looking for. But the great thing about the modern internet is that you can find a passionate group of fans for almost any topic of popular culture and any type of discussion.

  2. “which led to an online explosion of targeted misogyny and vitriol at the female actors involved.”

    I don’t believe Kelly Marie Tran ever said she left social media because of these trolls. Another huge problem are these click bait articles trying to push a narrative. The actor Ross Beadman whom was the little kid who said “Master Skywalker, there are too many of them! What are we going to do?” from Revenge of the Sith got bullied at school for his reading of that line. And then there’s Jake Lloyd who was severely bullied for his role in playing Anakin Skywalker and yet the media defending the Last Jedi isn’t rushing to their defense because their boys. Why is it misogyny when some Star Wars actors are targeted and not misogyny when other Star Wars actors are targeted? This double standard is pathetic. The more the agenda is made about gender, their stance against equality clear.

    This efforts to demonize the fans of Star Wars for not liking a Star Wars movie is really quite offensive. “Sexist” “Alt-Right” “Russian-Bot” I’ve heard it all and these are the Star Wars’ and by extension, Disney’s core customers. And they loath them apparently… The average Star Wars fan is aged 31 but I’m been told again and again “This is a movie about Space Wizards intended for children”. It’s as if Disney has taken the stance to dramatically reduce their profits by pushing away their core customers by being elusive instead of inclusive. Disney has come a long way from Walt Disney’s original goal of keeping his company and Disneyland clean. The Happiest Place on Earth was a place to get away from it all with a sanitized version of Americana. But now Disney is being far from sanitized.

    The Last Jedi was objectively badly written but Corporate Disney would never let anyone admit that, so they had to go political to defend it’s movie and it’s got ever so dirty doing so. Blame the fans has become to go to for corporations. Most attacks on the fans by corporations can be summed up as “Don’t ask questions just consume product and then get excited for next products”. By getting political they are trying a sleight of hand so it doesn’t seem that obvious but this is something Walt Disney would never have wanted. To dodge any criticism, they had to make the criticism illegitimate.

    • Just on your first assertion:

      Editors’ note: The actress deleted her Instagram posts this summer in response to online harassment. Here she speaks out for the first time.

      It wasn’t their words, it’s that I started to believe them.

      Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.

      Kelly Marie Tran, The New York Times

      • You’ve got me there on the first assertion.

      • Wait a second, Kelly Marie Tran doesn’t actually talk about online harassment in that article you posted. The article’s title is misleading.

      • The article’s headline is the point.

        It takes for granted the online harassment of Kelly Marie Tran, and uses it as a starting point. It would be absurd to suggest that given the title of the article the “they” that she talks about in the opening line, before contextualising that as a long history of racist hatred directed towards her are not the fans who harassed her online. Without the headline, it might be unclear who exactly Tran was talking about – although, being honest, given the timing and context of the article, it would still be pretty easy to deduce.

        An actor who quit social media after a largely racists backlash to her, talking about “their words” and the impact that “their words” had on her? Who then contextualises that in a long history of racist abuse she has received? What else could she be talking about?

        The editor’s note explicitly places those statements in context.

      • At the same time, Kelly Marie Tran has not spoken about online harassment and has not commented on why she left social media. It is dishonest to assume her motives. She had to perfect opportunity to explain what happened and she deliberately choose not to. Kelly instead chose to criticize Hollywood and the Media in that article. Why Kelly left social media is unknown, it could simply be the fact that the fame was too much for her, it she may well have been driven off by racists, there’s no facts to draw upon here.

      • If I discover that a person has left her house, and arrive to find a bunch of maniacs setting that house on fire, and that person talks about how “they” made her feel terrible, basic reasoning suggests that the person in question left the house because they didn’t like the fact a bunch of maniacs set it on fire and that the maniacs who set it on fire made her feel terrible.

        I mean, maybe not. You could always disprove that by demonstrating that something else is more likely to be the case. That’s how these things work. Whether Occam’s Razor, balance of probabilities or beyond a reasonable doubt. If you are aware of her saying anything that doesn’t support that interpretation, please point me to it.

        Personally, I would object to the assertion that one should assume that “the fame was too much for her”, as that comes – to me – perilously close to suggesting that it was her fault and that she should have had a thicker skin when it came to dealing with racists and harassment.

      • Personally I object to your assertion that Kelly was bullied off social media. There is no evidence that she has ever said so. You are asserting events based purely off speculation. The fame may well have been too much for her, it remains a possibility that cannot be discounted because there are no facts to draw on. Kelly’s house was not burned down so nothing is clear cut.

        In the media article you linked, she choose to criticize the media instead of criticizing twitter. You must be wary of assuming a reality that supports your point. You said “they” make her feel terrible, but she directly fingered Hollywood and the Media in her criticism, but for some reason you have choose to assume that means bullies on social media despite her never saying so. You should at the very least be wary of ignoring Kelly’s words when they prove inconvenient. Kelly’s words criticized the media and this media article is obviously going to have a incentive to spin the narrative.

      • I am trying to figure out how to word this in a way that won’t offend you, but here goes.

        It is strange to me how hard a time you seem to have admitting that a vocal section of The Last Jedi backlash was racist and sexist – in particular the section that set the narrative of that backlash. I have never said it all was. In fact, I’ve been quite critical of the movie myself. However, as somebody with eyes I can see a trend emerging with the “men only edits” and the harassment campaigns and the Wikipedia edits and the fact that characters like Rey, Rose and Holdo seem to be particular targets. I don’t think all people who hate The Last Jedi are racists or sexists, but I think that a lot of the conversation has been steered by racists and sexists and I think the failure of Star Wars fandom to: (a.) acknowledge that fact, and (b.) clean house is a major problem that should be dealt with before anything involving space wizards and light swords. Domhnall Gleeson was entirely correct; you can like the movie or dislike the movie, but what happened to Kelly Marie Tran was “bullsh!t”, and I cannot for the life of me see why that is so hard to acknowledge.

        I’ll freely admit that I’ve been in similar situations. I don’t like the Chibnall era of Doctor Who, fronted by Jodie Whittaker. I have articulated my criticisms of it clearly and articulately. However, I have also acknowledged that: (a.) I may not be in the majority in having this opinion and that this is grand; I am confident enough in my opinion that I don’t need to believe I’m at the vanguard of some imaginary army fighting a weird war for control of an entertainment franchise; and (b.) a lot (and I mean a looooot) of hatred of the era comes from a place of sexism about Whittaker and racism about the cast. I will freely admit that. I will call it out when I see it. I will work hard to distance myself from those people in my criticisms. And, if I didn’t, if I downplayed the extent to which those loud voices smothered the discourse I think people would be right to be extremely wary of me. It’s my job as somebody trying to mount a criticism of something like this to frame it in such a way that my arguments don’t get lumped in with the loud and angry idiots screaming about the fact that the character no longer has a penis.

        This is what confuses me about the people who don’t like The Last Jedi. You imagine that they’d all acknowledge that what happened to Kelly Marie Tran was monstrous, that the fans who made the “men only edit” don’t speak for them, and that the fans obsessed with Rey, Rose and Holdo are quite separate from the points they’re making. Instead, there’s a general vibe of “it’s no big deal!” or “it’s fine!” or “there most definitely are no problems with any of the fans on the side of this argument that harassed two women off social media, produced a ‘men only edit’, seem to pathologically hate only the prominent female characters!” All of which is… troubling to me. And, as we’ve discussed before, the fact that so much of fans complaining about The Last Jedi is downright conspiratorial in nature – “sure, it got rave reviews, was the biggest movie of its year, the biggest blu ray of the following year, and earned an A CinemaScore, but… eh… the toys didn’t sell! Never mind that toys aren’t selling in general, and that the largest toy stores in the country declared bankruptcy! There are no larger factors behind this one thing that we keep pointing to!”

        And it – quite rightly – makes most sane people extremely wary of engaging in debate on the topic.

      • Too often, those who love the The Last Jedi paint all those that don’t like The Last Jedi as those who hate women, who are racist and whom bully the actors. There will always be bullies on the internet, there will always be sexist and racists watching movies, this is nothing new. But to act as though The Last Jedi is a special case is disingenuous, especially when it’s meant to paint half the Star Wars fanbase.

        Your not necessarily doing that, but many of The Last Jedi apologists are doing that and they do so with misinformation. They say the fans bullies Kelly off of Social Media when that remains unconfirmed. They claim the fans nearly drove Ahmed Best, the actor for Jar Jar to near suicide, when in actuality Ahmed blamed the media for his treatment. They say the fans drove Jake Lloyd into schizophrenia, when Jake Lloyd on camera blamed the bullies in his High School.

        Constantly the actor’s words are being ignored because it doesn’t fit their narrative. That I find disrespectful, because they put words in the actors mouths to suit their own arguments. The media tried to spin Star Wars fans as sexists and racists to defend Disney and it has detached so many from reality. The media has tried to turn liking or disliking a movie into some kind moral crusade and in some part they succeeded.

  3. Funnily enough, in this article about the regendering of science fiction, it’s the part on vulcans that caught my eye. I remember reading your argument in your enterprise articles that portraying vulcans as, to put it coarsely, ‘dicks’, was not so different from portraying vulcans conventially and the idea of vulcans being friendly was a nostalgia trick fans played on themselves. Whereas they definitely opened my eyes to the reality that vulcans were not the ‘saints’ of star trek as I believed them to be, and there was certainly some retconning involved (e.g. that the syrannites, i.e. the ‘true vulcans’ were pacifists when that had already been an established part of the vulcans in the series (mind you, that was revealed to be somewhat of a farce)), there was always something off about the 22nd century vulcans (and I’m not talking about their dickish attitudes towards humans but even the remarks that one vulcan made seemed less based on logic and more on xenophobia). In fact, looking back it feels like the vulcans in enterprise were intentionally made to be antagonistic towards humans, or rather the main characters. To paraphrase another reviewer, they were being ‘pains in the ass for pains in the ass’ sake’. It was like they were doing everything they could to make conflict between vulcans and humans, whether it was inventing something new (i.e. the humans like exploring whereas the vulcans did not, and only made excusions for logical reasons,), resurrecting something not used in a while (e.g., confirming that vulcans do not drink just to show how better they are than humans etc even though vulcans had been established to drink previously), even things that contradicted what was established about vulcans before (i.e.lying no longer went against vulcan nature, or even being anti-mindmelding to the point they considered it unvulcan, which is like a version of klingons banning the use of batleths for being such an unklingon weapon).

    As for the portrayal of pureblooded vulcans in the franchise, you’ve forgotten about the one vulcan in star trek III and IV, and it feels like you’re emphasising on Tuvok’s flaws just to prove your statement about what such dicks pureblooded vulcans are. even in ds9 (which is worth remembering, as you’ve mentioned in previous articles was the redheaded stepchild that liked to challenge conventional star trek), there were only two real dicks (unless you argue that all maquis were dicks, and the murderer had been driven insane, and yes I know you mentioned in your article that vulcans have issues but I thought the point that episode was making was that a mental breakdown could even happen to a vulcan), one of whom it was noted acted unvulcan by gloating.

    But the reason that part caught my eye was because I had recently read your review on balance of terror, and I was surprised because it was the only review I’ve read so far in which you spoke positively about vulcans, so if vulcans were indeed originally at least meant to represent ‘the best of us’ then perhaps how the kishara trilogy left the vulcans isn’t as contradictory to canon as it seemed.

    (As opposed to the final arc of that series that seemed to suggest that humanity’s final trial was to overcome it’s xenophobia even though we’ve seen plenty of xenophobia from humans in the series from mccoy’s remarks about vulcans to o’brien referring to cardassians as cardies).

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