ljc (taraljc) wrote,

Uhura, McCoy, and Fannish Double Standards

File this under: "Why are we still having this discussion?" but I'm still seeing the same arguments going around Trek fandom two months later, and I've commented all over the place but never actually gathered my thoughts. So allow me to wring out my grey matter into a gloopy pile on a silver platter for you.

Fandom has one set of rules for male characters, and one set for female, and it's been really bothering me of late. But it's screamingly obvious when the complaints about Uhura in Star Trek are concerned. I've already gone over in depth why I am so zen about Uhura. But if we're going to do this again, I want to address specifically the parallels between Uhura and Spock, and McCoy and Kirk. Cos apparently, someone has to.

Right, so here is me picking apart the top three complaints that are used over and over again to damn Uhura, while McCoy is mercifully spared fandom's collective ire:

1. Both of them are introduced not via their jobs, but via their relationships to Kirk.

Jim meets and flirts with and fails to impress Uhura in the bar. McCoy meets Kirk on the shuttle at Riverside Shipyards. Both of these scenes are there to reveal facets of Kirk's personality, but also to further demonstrate the changes in the AOS universe from the Prime universe, introduce key facts about the two most important supporting characters (Uhura as a top-notch linguist who can hold her own against anything Kirk throws at her; McCoy as a bitter, drunken, divorced doctor with a pathological fear of space) as well as to poke meta-fun at the popular image of Jim Kirk as a ladies man no female can resist.

2. Neither of them are shown being awesome at their job, but we are simply told they are awesome at their jobs.

Bones and Uhura are both assigned to Enterprise--but in junior positions--due to their skills, and those assignments are earned. Both of them attain their senior staff positions due to a combination of circumstance and skills--Pike assigns Uhura to the bridge because she speaks 3 dialects of Romulan his senior comms officer doesn't. Bones is made Chief Medical officer by Spock after Puri's death because Bones is now the most senior doctor alive in Sickbay.

For for all the times I've seen fans upset that we never see Uhura be awesome at her job, no-one ever remarks on the fact that we never once are specifically shown Bones be awesome at his job. And any time he is shown practising medicine (other than as background in Spock's captain's log montage, post-destruction of Vulcan), it is for comic effect pulling double-duty as plot facilitator (injecting Kirk repeatedly only to have him have allergic reactions that require McCoy to follow Kirk to the bridge is a prime example.) Uhura is in fact the only character in the film who isn't shown having a moment of failure at her job, to off-set the moment of being awesome at her job. And yet she is the character I've seen taken to task most often, which to me is a blatant double-standard. And having one set of rules for the male characters, and a completely different (usually harsher) set of rules for the female characters bothers me. Particularly when we're looking at female fans tearing down the most visible female character in the film while giving the boys a free pass.

For the plot to move forward, Kirk has to overhear Uhura telling Gaila about discovering and translating the Klingon message in the long-range sensor lab. To not duplicate information, Uhura is not shown translating the message, only to repeat that same information to Gaila--it has to be delivered to Kirk and the audience at the same time, or else it affects the pacing. This is simply a fact of movie making: the story needs to move forward at all times, and anything that slows the momentum down (particularly in the first 40 minutes of the film) has to be streamlined, or else Enterprise doesn't engage the Narada above Vulcan until over an hour into the film. This is not a bug; it's a feature. It's simply the demands of this medium.

Unlike Chekov and Sulu, whose superior job skills are easily short-handed visually (Chekov doing maths on a white board or locking onto Kirk and Sulu with the transporter; Sulu piloting the ship through the debris field and behind the moon), both Uhura and McCoy's job skills are conveyed verbally through dialogue rather than visually because they cannot be easily short-handed visually. And manufacturing scenes solely to show them either decoding an impossible transmission or performing delicate surgery would feel contrived, or slow the momentum down. This film at two hours is as lean as it can possibly be. Particularly once you hit hour two, which is a race to the finish line after an hour of set-up of the universe, the characters, the characters differences from their prime counterparts, and the introduction of the central villain and conflicts of the movie between Spock Prime and Nero, and Kirk and Spock (and, technically, Spock and his Human and Vulcan heritages). Unless such scenes with Uhura and Bones could serve double duty and serve the plot as well as character, telling rather than showing is still the most effective option, when it comes to their jobs. But the movie isn't about how good they are at their jobs. Because really, it's about their relationships. So the relationships are what the film focusses on.

3. They are only in scenes which relate to their relationships with Kirk and Spock

First of all, I'm ignoring the fact that the group bridge scenes feature both McCoy and Uhura contributing to the discussions of the plot. Because clearly that's not what people are talking about. But let's take a look at the functions McCoy and Uhura both serve in their scenes with both Kirk and Spock. Go scene by scene, and look at the way the two characters are shown in parallel:
The Kobayashi Maru Simulation
McCoy is there to support Jim, even as he disagrees with Jim, because he is Jim's close friend and confidant and Jim wants him there. Likewise, Uhura is there specifically not to support Jim, as her lack of respect for Jim due to his actions and attitudes a) fulfil her role as a dramatic foil (she is the model Academy cadet Kirk is not) and b) because Kirk has to earn her respect over the course of the film by actually becoming a commanding officer worthy of her respect.

The Academic Hearing
Uhura is shown in this scene specifically supporting Spock (and at this point, the extent of their relationship has not yet been revealed to the audience) and to condemn Kirk. McCoy is there specifically to establish his and Kirk's antagonist relationship with Spock--though to be fair, when Spock tries to take Jim down a peg, McCoy's "I like him" is there for meta-LOLZ, due to what we the audience know about McCoy and Spock's relationship in the Prime Universe.

The Hangar Bay
These scenes are here specifically to highlight Spock and Uhura's relationship, and McCoy and Kirk's. Also, to impart the information to the audience that both McCoy and Uhura were stationed on Enterprise due to their specific skills. It's also the first time we find out there is any kind of connection between Spock and Uhura, as Spock admits Uhura would have been posted to Enterprise and not the Farragut, had he not been concerned the posting would be perceived as favouritism on his part. Also, it's important to note that (novelisation by Alan Dean Foster aside) at no point in this scene is there any indication that Spock and Uhura are anything more than friends. But in context that her relationship with Spock is as central and important to his life as McCoy's is to Kirk--they are presented fairly equal in importance to the audience in the text. McCoy's big character sequence is pretty much him sneaking Jim onto Enterprise because of their relationship. He puts his own career on the line for Jim, because of how important he knows it is to Kirk not to be left behind. It's played for laughs, but beneath the running gag of the hypo sprays and Jim's allergic reactions, it's about how close the two of them are, and to what lengths McCoy would go, for Kirk.

Pike's Bridge
Uhura and McCoy are both present for plot reasons--but also so that Uhura can be assigned to the bridge by Pike based on her superior skills, verified to by Spock. Also, McCoy is there to back Kirk up against Spock, and Uhura and Spock both come to grips with the fact that whatever their personal relationships with Kirk, his reasoning is sound and they but that ahead of what they feel about him. This is important, because it comes into play several more times in the film.

At Vulcan
Uhura follows Spock to the 'lift specifically so the audience can be informed a) that the two of them are close enough that she addresses him by his name and not his rank and b) that his parents are in the Katric Ark and he must go down to get them because the transporter cannot. This is called LAYING PIPE. This is information that cannot be delivered more effectively (literally easier to be told than to be shown), and so instead it is done in a way that furthers their characters and their relationship. All the way through the film, this same economy of storytelling is used. There is pretty much no scene in this film--no matter how funny or poignant or important to characterisation--that doesn't also move the plot along and impart information to the audience that the audience needs. Okay, except for the lobster monster chase on Hoth Delta Vega.

The Turbolift Scene
The audience has just seen Spock lose his mother and his homeworld. Uhura has just listened to him dictate a log entry where he just voiced the fact that he is now a member of an endangered species. She follows him into the 'lift because she cares about him. She kisses him to offer comfort, and it is the first time it's made explicitly clear in the text that there is more between them than friendship, the scene is not eroticised. Also, it is never said in the text that this isn't their first kiss. But whether their relationship up to this point was platonic or not, it does change how the audience views it from this point forward. But in context, Uhura is not asking Spock for something he cannot give. She is offering Spock something he needs which he accepts. That tells us a great deal about both their characters in about 4 lines of dialogue, plus two kisses--the second of which he reciprocates. But this scene is here also to mark Spock's emotional breakdown (And subtext-wise, I read "I need everyone to continue performing admirably" as code for "I need to keep my shit together so I don't fall apart completely cos I Am The Captain Now" not as "Lt Uhura, I find your girl cooties advances unexpected and unwelcome" mainly due to the KISSING HER BACK part), which continues in his scene with McCoy after stranding Kirk on Delta Vega, and culminates with him choking the shit out of Kirk. His walking out of the 'lift is also there to show the audience that he is alone. Even with his close relationship with Uhura, he considers himself alone.

Big Group Scene #1
Uhura's contribution to the scene is to support Spock's theory of parallel universe, and for McCoy to actually tell Jim to calm the down when he tries to shout Spock down. Which is why, when Security starts to escort Kirk out, they specifically cut to reaction shots of Uhura and McCoy. Which, by the way, establishes a pattern for the rest of the film.

Are you outta your Vulcan mind?
This is the first actual scene where Spock acknowledges McCoy's relationship with Kirk, and also pretty much establishes McCoy and Spock's relationship (both related to their relationships with Jim, but also outside of their relationships with Jim). This is pretty much the equivalent, in terms of importance for McCoy, as the scene with Uhura in the 'lift in terms of characterisation. Because it's the first time McCoy goes off on Spock, because Jim may have been outta line, but Spock needs Jim if they're gonna get through this. It echoes the McCoy and Spock relationship in the Prime Universe, but also clearly underlines the differences in the McCoy and Spock relationship in the new timeline, the same way the 'lift scene lets the audience know immediately that the changed circumstances also mean changed relationships to what we expect, based on the Prime Universe. There is no fondness beneath their antagonistic banter at this point--the potential for it exists the same way the potential for Kirk and Spock's friendship exists, but we are not there yet. They are both downright volatile with one another, due to heightened emotions. Showing the audience another step in Spock's slow-but-sure breakdown.

Emotionally Compromised
When Spock loses his shit, we know how shocking it is, behind Spock stand the two most important people in his life: Uhura and Sarek. Through the entire confrontation with Kirk, the two of them are literally framed between them. When Spock is choking Kirk, they cut to Uhura and then McCoy's reactions. When he leaves the bridge, this time she doesn't follow him out--equivalent of McCoy trying to stop Jim in the earlier scene. They're still both presented in the context of their relationships with Kirk and Spock, but no longer consistently supporting the one while condemning the other. Now they have each shown affinity for the "enemy" of their friend, to put it in black and white terms. McCoy's "Congratulations, Jim" is in much the same vein. Uhura's "I sure hope you know what you're doing, Captain" is both a callback to the Kobayashi Maru, and a challenge because instead of the cocky answer he gave in the simulation, we see his genuinely humble and sincere answer "So do I," which shows a major change in Kirk from the first half of the film. Before, the audience laughed with him. Now, the audience wants him to be worthy of her respect and our respect. (And it sets up their last "Captain" exchange i.e. the rule of three.)

Big Group Scene #2, and Transporter Room #1
Spock and Jim join forces. This is the point the movie's been building towards. Which is why it starts with McCoy and Kirk. McCoy is playing devil's advocate, re: Jim's plan, cos that's what McCoy needs to do at this point in the story. It also sets up the big moment where Spock--no longer emo--comes striding in. When Spock says Earth is the only home he has left, it's Uhura's eyes he meets there--his acknowledgement of his human half sets up the next scene, where he also moves their relationship forward in a way that reveals it to Kirk. It's an important scene because it's Spock making a conscious choice and acting on it, where his relationship with Uhura is concerned, and his embracing both sides of his heritage instead of solely his Vulcan heritage. But it is also Uhura demonstrating to Jim her choice. Which brings their interactions full circle--with the revelation of her name, and to whom she chose to give her name.

Transporter Room #2!
Okay, this scene is here for two reasons: 1) to show Scotty being awesome at his job (for the first time without Spock Prime handing him the equation). But more importantly 2) Bones' relief-filled "Jim!" is literally show at the same time that Spock runs over to Uhura to clasp her hands. Seriously. I'm not lying to you. EVERYBODY IS REUNITED YAY. And everybody's back to being awesome at their job: McCoy whisks Pike off to the Medbay, and Uhura goes straight to her station. As with Uhura translating the Klingon message in the beginning of the film, we don't actually see McCoy working on Pike because of pacing reasons. Simply having the medical staff there in the transporter room shorthands to the audience that McCoy will be awesome at his job, and Pike will survive. But long and the short of it: there is no reason to have this scene in the film except to show McCoy and Uhura reunited with Jim and Spock, to show the audience YAY EVERYONE IS REUNITED, and the Happy Ending Has Begun.

The Rule of Three
"Dock control reports ready, Captain," isn't just Uhura giving her status along with Sulu and Chekov: it's there because it's the first time she's addressed Kirk as "Captain" and meant it. It's the first time we see Kirk in a gold command tunic. It's the final sign that the journey he started at the beginning of the film is complete. It's his chair because he earned it. And we believe he can do this, because he has Spock as his First Officer, and together they can do anything. But Bones is also there to roll his eyes for the same reason that, when Spock catches her eye as he goes to his station, Uhura smiles. To the very last shot of the film, they continue to present McCoy and Uhura's relationships with Spock and Kirk in the same ways, giving them the same weight and importance to the story, and uses them to illustrate the same points about the two leads.
So here is my biggest beef with fandom right now: if the movie doesn't place a premium on platonic love over erotic love, and doesn't say that McCoy's relationship with Kirk reduces his importance as a character to nothing but an appendage, then why do parts of fandom embrace McCoy while heaping abuse on Uhura? Why does Uhura have to be held to a higher standard (and almost always only to be found wanting) solely because she's female? Why are the male characters allowed to be shown in relationships (whether they're romantic or platonic), but if a female character is, she's "nothing but the girlfriend"?
Tags: meta, star trek

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