Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Janeway Has A Posse

Since we got together some four years ago now, Mr. Reluctant Femme and I have been working on converting each other to all the pop culture that the other previously didn’t like. He turned me around almost completely on Batman, taking me from a point of view where I thought the whole thing was quite ridiculous to a place where I not only know there was more than one Batgirl but I also have a favourite. I, in my turn, have turned him on to the awesomeness of (parts of) the X-Men comics through my unwavering and perhaps irrational loyalty to them through good and dreadful writers.

Art by Eddy-Swan on DeviantArt
Yes, I like Wolverine. No, I don't care what you think about that.

There are still a few sticking points – we probably won’t ever agree on Tarantino as a director. He thinks he’s amazing, I think he’s an overrated hack. But hey, we’ve stopped screaming at each other at bus stops over it, so that’s progress. There is one bit of pop culture though that I think I’ve actually started loving MORE through sharing it with him – Star Trek.

I’ve always been quite the Trekkie – I’m too young for the Original Series to be anything more than an antiquated oddity, but Next Generation was my jam growing up. Once I got a little older and could source shows that weren’t currently showing on free to air, I devoured DS9 and Voyager voraciously; I did jump off the Trek train at Enterprise though. Happily, I’ve never been one of those die-hard, deadly serious Trekkies who insist there is NOTHING wrong with ANY episode of Trek ever, and that if you don’t like it you just don’t UNDERSTAND – I know perfectly well that large chunks of it is absolute dross. The morality is laughably black and white, the plots often ludicrously filled with holes, and the effects (particularly in Next Generation) are often inadvertently hilarious. But I love it anyway, for all it’s flaws. I think the way the writers use the out-there setting and plots to do interesting and challenging things is a great continuation of the subversive tradition of directors like Ed Wood and Jacques Tourneur. I find the way episodes often wrap up with a happy sigh of “everything is alright now” comforting, for the same reasons that I enjoy Disney movies. Sometimes it’s nice to believe, if only for a moment and only half-heartedly, that maybe everything WILL be alright. But I’ve realised now, after rewatching an enormous hunk of Next Generation, the entirety of DS9, and the first two seasons of Voyager with Mr. Reluctant Femme, what I love the most about Star Trek is Captain Kathryn Janeway.

Janeway, and Voyager in general is much maligned in Star Trek fandom, and it bugs the shit out of me, because there is just so much to love about her – particularly as a female commander of an entire starship, with a starring role in the show. A woman who is absolutely in charge, who is also the centre of the story, was virtually unheard of in the world of visual media like film, TV, and games at the time Voyager launched. In recent times there have been possible candidates like Turanga Leela of Futurama, or Commander Shepherd of Mass Effect (depending on how you play it), but in 1995 when Voyager debuted, a female starship captain on screen was a HUGE change. In the world of sci-fi literature, there has been a few female characters around with a similar command position – Honor Harrington and Kylara Vatta had been hooning around the pages of sci-fi for a while before Janeway came along, and before them Anne McCaffrey had been putting female leaders in her books since the late sixties. But unfortunately the trend never seemed to carry over to film or TV.

McCaffrey has been quoted as saying, “I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens" when asked why she wrote so many strong, aggressive female characters. This is exactly the feeling I had when I first saw Voyager. I loved Babylon Five, I loved Next Generation, but I was so tired of the weak, helpless female characters like Counsellor Troi in the early seasons of Next Generation, who can’t seem to go more than two episodes without getting brainwashed AGAIN or psychically impregnated. And that's before we even go near the issue of her "uniform" - the actress who played her hated it so much she's been quoted as saying she was "absolutely thrilled" when the character was finally given a regulation uniform that didn't involve cleavage or cameltoe.

You'd be making this face too if you had people looking down your top all day.
Not all women of sci fi film and TV at the time were like this, of course. Commander Ivanova of Babylon Five, and Zoe of Firefly to name just two are both kick ass, strong, independent, capable women – but neither got to be Captain during their show’s run. As capable and intelligent as they both were, their characters were still relegated to the second rung of power. Ripley blew Aliens out airlocks left right and centre, but she still had to play doubted Cassandra to the corporation’s white collared men. This is not to say these characters aren’t awesome in their own way – they absolutely are, and I admire them greatly. But there was a part of me that always wondered why they weren’t allowed to be the boss, no matter how awesome they were. Janeway, on the other hand? The buck stops with her, in the most absolute and final way possible.

Not only is Kathryn Janeway the captain, but she’s Captain of a ship a LOOOOONG way from home. She has no backup to speak of – no Federation to call on, no Admirals to consult, not even a penal colony she can send people to. Her resources are limited, and so are her choices – but she never shies away from the hard decisions. When a crew member has to be executed in order to bring back two other crew members, she'll make the choice and push the button herself. When they come across a group of strangers trapped in virtual reality by a broken AI that demands she replace it's current hostages, she hops into the system and puts herself on the line. One of my Twitter friends compared her to Judge Dredd, in that she IS The Law, and this clip from the very end of this episode where the AI is defeated illustrates her chillingly hard ass side beautifully.

However, Janeway manages to also be as compassionate as possible when placed in such a heavy situation. Being a woman who doesn't have or want children, I really like that Janeway is a character without children who is still written to be compassionate, warm, and maternal in her own way. When one of the crew discovers she is pregnant, she goes to Janeway for advice, and when the baby is eventually born Janeway makes a baby blanket for it. Kes goes to her for advice on love and motherhood more than once, and Janeway listens with understanding and warmth. Later in the series Seven of Nine starts clashing with Janeway about her attempts to mould her into the person that Janeway thinks she should be, and if that's not a metaphor for motherhood, I don't know what is. Even without literal children, Janeway feels to me like the quintessential single mother. She has to keep her space family together, safe, and on their way home with sheer force of will alone a lot of the time, and I find that incredible to watch. It reminds me of the way the single mothers I've known have to be both good cop and bad cop to their children - because there is no other parent to take the opposite role, they have to alternate between the two, which I've always thought is an incredible achievement.

As a dyed in the wool nerd, I also appreciate that Janeway is SUCH a science nerd. While Picard tends to look at things through a lens of philosophy and sociology, Janeway always seems happiest tinkering with something physical. If the warp drive blows, she's more than capable of getting right in there and lending a hand. When she gets stranded on a planet with an incurable infection, the excitement of being able to research a cure all day every day almost seems to outweigh her sadness at being left behind. No one ever questions Janeway's science credentials because she's a woman - Tuvok even calls her a "very capable scientist", which is high praise from a Vulcan. Her example creates an environment on the ship where it's totally okay to be a girl geek - Voyager has (as far as I know) the only female Head of Engineering in Starfleet, and while there were questions as to whether B'Elanna was the best person for the job when she started, this was because she was incapable of disagreeing with her coworkers without punching them in the face, rather than her status as female.

And finally, I also love Capt. Kathryn Janeway because she's a strong, sometimes stone-cold leader who is also written to be femme and feminine without resorting to skin tight jumpsuits. Her visual appearance is a great example of the phrase "Femme is not fragile". She keeps her impractically long hair for a great deal of  the show, and while people make snide remarks about her "deflector bun" it's actually usually in a relatively feminine rolled updo.

When she's in civvies, she almost always defaults to a dress, and sleeps in a slinky satin nightie despite sleeping alone. A PINK satin nightie even, with her hair flowing over her shoulders. It's pretty damn femme.

In her downtime (when she can be convinced to take any) she likes to play trashy romance holo novels in the vein of Wuthering Heights, and while this has been pointed out as undermining the strength of her character, I don't agree with this at all. I know plenty of intelligent, capable and independent women who like burying their brains in reality TV or trashy magazines once in a while, so this actually feels quite realistic to me. She is shown as sexually desirable at several points in the show (most notably when Q attempts to convince her to mate with him), is never shown in a sexually exploitative way like Seven of Nine.

Having said all of this, I do feel the need to add that Voyager has some massive problems. A lot of them are simply Trek World Problems - the writing is inconsistent, as if the writers never really knew where they wanted to go with everything, because they often didn't. The budget, or rather lack thereof, puts some serious dents in what they were and weren't capable of portraying, and a ridiculous amount of important stuff happens offscreen because of that. Chakotay and Seven of Nine are both embarrassingly awful characters, and Neelix is possible the most annoying cheerful sidekick in the entire sci fi universe apart from Jar Jar Binks. But without captain Kathryn Janeway, we would be seeing a LOT less interesting women in sci fi television now. She was truly the first of her kind on prime time television, and while the show on the whole probably won't be remembered with a great deal of fondness, I think Captaim Janeway deserves to be pulled from the wreckage and held up as the shining example of femme, nerdy, strong woman that she is.

Janeway has A Posse


  1. I too loved Janeway's hair early on. I just finished watching all of Voyager for the first time this May.
    I actually really like Seven of Nine. Again probably mostly because of the french twist hairdo
    And I liked Chakotay. I know I'm pretty much alone on the latter. Notable exception was when he goes on any kind of fucking spiritual journey.
    I wanted to like B'Elanna, but never liked Paris, so he usually ruined it for me.
    And the doctor is awesome.

    1. Actually, someone was defending Chakotay to me earlier. I do think he's an interesting example of a butch male submissive (Resolutions made his submissive status pretty much canon), and the actor has a lovely voice - but every time they try to portray his culture makes me wince. It's great that they had a POC lead character, but does it still count as a positive when everything about his culture is done so badly?

    2. Considering I thought his cultural journeys was incredibly trite. It probably doesn't help with the portrayal of his people. However, this is definitely not my area of expertise, so maybe I'm just a horrible person who hates culture...

    3. I agree with you about Chakotay. He's just so generic, and completely defined by his race. i don't think that any particular Chakotay episode is problematic in of itself, it's just that they're all the same. Spirit quest, traditions of my people, rinse and repeat. It's like if there was a white person who brought up Jesus in every conversation.

    4. I thought Chakotay was an interesting character....but his chemistry with Janeway (especially the first few seasons) was smoking hot! He should have ended up with her (not 7of 9) at the end of the show. And Janeway NEVER should have cut her hair. The contrast of tough and feminine was perfect :)

  2. Janeway is my absolute favourite. Yes, the writing's crap a lot of the time and the plot's full of holes but is that what we watch it for, really? It's good entertainment, and as you say, with an excellent female lead who is shown as capable, smart, caring, ruthless when lives depend on it and feminine and geeky.

    Also with you on the Next Generation. That and Voyager were what I watched growing up too, and when I was doing undergrad Voyager was often on TV during the day. Being vastly preferable to the property and antiques shows that are the mainstay of British day time TV, I watched a lot of the episodes I missed as a kid. Winner. :)

  3. You absolutely articulated a lot of the reasons why Voyager is my favourite Trek series. Well, that and all of the awesome one-liners from the Doc ;)

  4. Of all the series that came after the The Original Series, Voyager is the one I like the most and Janeway is my favorite captain. I love it when she is a bitch (LOL).

    Still it is interesting to see what the dynamics of the crew would've been because if she were a man, as I think of all the captains, she got the most back talk (especially from Seven of Nine) from her crew.

  5. Love what you say about Janeway here. And I really like that she is shown as quite feminine when not in her role as captain, like in her sleepwear or in her holonovels. Feminine does not equal weak, and that's brilliant! No matter what situation though - commanding from the bridge, or surprised by a comlink in her quarters, dignity and composure always. She is excellent.

    1. I would totally play romance holonovels if I had the option - I'm too big a fan of the Bronte sisters not to :D


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