What I’m watching: Star Trek The Next Generation – Season 5
There is one episode in this TNG season that really stands out for me. Episode 17, The Outcast. This episode of TNG focuses on a race of people called the J’naii. The J’naii are an alien race that does not have gender in their culture. Instead everyone is androgynous, shunning of gender as a primitive ideology. The character, Soren, speaks of how on her planet, the feelings of being more male or more female (that’s sex, by the way, not gender) are considered abnormal. People with these feelings, if discovered, are subject to the equivalent of conversion therapy. I both love and hate this episode. It opens important conversations to the general public, but does not go far enough in relating this alien culture to our own. The Enterprise personnel, when asked about living with gender, spout traditional stereotypes but suggest that the idea that women are inferior is an outmoded idea.
My main issue with this episode is that it does not portray a genderless society as something that is attainable. It suggests that gender is a natural way of being and conflates the ideas of sex and gender without giving an explanation of either. It sets up a genderless society as more (or equally repressive) as that of a society with gender. Rather than taking the opportunity to show a culture where gender is appreciated in all its forms, the writers of TNG choose to show an oppressive regime. They do allude to homophobia and the violence and scorn many have experienced at the hands of a heterosexist society. But they miss the mark when they do not take the opportunity to explode gender, as Sandra Bem might suggest, and show a society without any gender norms – allowing their people to express their genders and sexualities freely.
This episode is a good example of the traditional and somewhat essentialist views TNG typically portrays. Often relationships are posed as heterosexual and most species are depicted as having men and women. The women in many species are shown as culturally inferior, suggesting that women as the subjugated sex is a universal trait throughout the universe – an absurd notion. It is especially disappointing as I love this series overall, but they tend to fumble on gender and sexuality issues.
What I’m reading: Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human – Jesse Bering