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  • Space and the Single GirlStar Trek, Aesthetics, and 1960s Femininity
  • Patricia Vettel-Becker (bio)

“Oh girls in space, be wary, be wary, be wary!”

—as sung by Lieutenant Uhura in “Charlie X”

To dismiss the original Star Trek television series, 1966 to 1969, as hopelessly sexist is commonplace, particularly in the many scholarly books and articles devoted to it. Gender is often the primary focus of this scholarship, or it comes into play within a discussion of other themes, most common among them Star Trek’s alignment with the ideals of liberal humanism, its underlying ethical or metaphysical system, its relationship to Shakespeare and other literary traditions, and its conveyance of archetypal motifs and mythological themes.1 Much of this research has been conducted by practitioners in literary fields, philosophy, and the social sciences. Historians have also analyzed Star Trek, most frequently within the context of the Vietnam War and American imperialism, but historians of art and visual culture have never addressed it, which may explain why scholarly attention has centered on episodic storylines and overall narrative structure rather than visual aesthetics.2 I would contend, however, that the visual plays as fundamental a role as the literary in creating meaning in Star Trek, especially considering that although different writers were employed to pen the scripts, the visual creators remained consistent throughout the three-year run: William Ware Theiss, costume designer; Fred Phillips, makeup artist; Walter Matthew Jefferies, production designer and art director; and Wah Chang, artist and model maker. Also overlooked in scholarship is analysis of Star Trek’s female characters within the specific context of American women in the 1960s.3 It is not my intention to dispute previous scholarship that has characterized Star Trek as sexist, for when looking back from the perspective of “second wave” feminism it certainly was.4 Instead I would like to suggest some alternative readings, hopefully providing [End Page 143] insight into how the series may have resonated with female viewers at the time who were renegotiating their own feminine positions within a rapidly changing social and technological landscape, as well as into how Star Trek’s visual aesthetic, one predicated on female beauty, may have functioned to relieve cultural anxiety over women, indeed over all of humanity, setting out to explore the vast reaches of outer space.

Like many academics who write about Star Trek, I feel compelled to reveal that I am also a fan. Too young to remember the original airings, I was introduced to the series during its syndication run in the 1970s, just as I was leaving childhood and entering adolescence. Every weekday after school, my mother and I would sit in front of the television screen and watch Captain Kirk and crew take on another challenge somewhere in the universe on behalf of Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets. The show prompted some of the most meaningful discussions we ever shared about life, love, and what it means to be a woman. Like other girls my age I was becoming aware of my sexuality through a series of celebrity crushes, and I remember going through Captain Kirk, Mister Spock, Ensign Checkov, Doctor McCoy, and Chief Engineer Scott (Scotty) phases. I never shared these feelings with my friends, who were more into pop music stars, but I could with my mother, for she loved Star Trek as much as I did, not only the dashing and sensitive male characters but the female ones as well—Lieutenant Uhura, Yeoman Janice Rand, Nurse Christine Chapel, and the many other crewwomen who made episodic appearances. We found them elegant and beautiful, and we envied them their positions on the starship Enterprise, for they were explorers and adventurers and appeared freed from the mundane and monotonous tasks of womanhood that my housewife mother faced each day and that I feared I may soon face as well. As Jon Wagner and Jan Lundeen have argued, “the hypothetical future is our sacred time, the realm where our deepest fears and longings are assayed.”5 Similarly, Fredric Jameson has argued that science fiction functions not only to imagine our future but to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.”6...