Starlog 10: Adventures and Star Trek: Television and Identity Politics

Professor: Adventures

Professor on Earth

Unlike a certain doctor I know, I quite like sex and don’t need to sustain sexual tension.  Of course, it’s quite fun at first–all that delicious drama, but then it’s nice just to get down to it.   On Earth, I take an image and many people are thrown off center.  They approach me in ways that I am not and then seem thrown when they understand that I am not.   I drive a car and listen to the same song over and over again.  The music is exquisite.  It goes right into me.  It charges me and makes me more of who I am.  How can anyone listen to music and live? 

Star Trek: Television and Identity Politics

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s “The Significance of the ‘The Doll Test’” shares the following: “In the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark designed and conducted a series of experiments known colloquially as ‘the doll tests’ to study the psychological effects of segregation on African-American children.  Drs. Clark used four dolls, identical except for color, to test children’s racial perceptions. Their subjects, children between the ages of three to seven, were asked to identify both the race of the dolls and which color doll they prefer. A majority of the children preferred the white doll and assigned positive characteristics to it. The Clarks concluded that ‘prejudice, discrimination, and segregation’ created a feeling of inferiority among African-American children and damaged their self-esteem”.

If homogenous whiteness has been associated with “positive” values and ideas that include beauty, full citizenship and all the rights thereof, a high socio-economic level, and privilege and if blackness has been associated with “negative” values that include ugliness, violation of the rights of citizenship, a low socio-economic level, and a lack of privilege, then it is no wonder that children learn to weight whiteness and blackness differently.  

These sets of values have been perpetuated in society and by the media—including television.  Digital Spy contributors report: “There has always been a notion that anything black or dark is terrible . . . while things which are white or light tend to be pure and good. Phrases and stock characters representing this stereotype predate visual media, but their effects are still with us. Black or mixed-race actresses who bag lead roles tend to have lighter skin tones. Think Halle Berry, Zoe Kravitz, Laura Harrier, Zendaya, Thandie Newton, Tessa Thompson, Paula Patton, Amandla Stenberg and Zoe Saldana. It seems these women get to lead while darker women have to follow. Being lighter-skinned is seen as more ‘palatable’, ‘universal’, and as Zendaya has said herself, ‘acceptable’ in Hollywood. Meanwhile, darker black actresses are often cast as a combination of the following – living in poverty, hypersexualised or villainous. Think Mo’Nique, Gaboury Sidibe, Grace Jones, Viola Davis and Deborah Ayorinde.”

Television impacts society at almost all levels and partially for that reason has been a subject in fields of study like sociology and cultural studies.  Television reifies and reinforces stereotypes that impact how people see one another and themselves.  Television also is a way for people to experience diversity as Dr. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar at University of Southern California, reports in the “Star Trek: Inspiring Culture and Technology” course video titled “Exploring a More Diverse Crew”. Dr. Jenkins explained that “[t]he utopian ideas of Star Trek are embodied by the Enterprise crew. And the Enterprise crew represents a microcosm of the planet Earth and beyond. That’s really powerful. I was coming of age in Atlanta during the Civil Rights era. I lived in a segregated community, went to segregated schools, attended a segregated church. Diversity entered my life for the first time through Star Trek. So seeing a crew that had a Japanese-American crew member like Sulu, who had Uhura on such an active and present role on the bridge, who brought on an alien like Spock, who had a Russian character in the midst of the Cold War, that opened up for me what I call the civic imagination”. Television, then, can subvert troublesome ideologies of identity in a move toward a state of identity defined by inclusivity even as the self-esteem of the heterogeneous Other is bolstered by the presence of characters who portray Otherness.  To see a woman such as Uhura in a position of power communicates that black females—as well as females and people of color in general—can differently experience troubled identity politics by going boldly where no one has gone before.

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