Captain Kirk is not Zapp Brannigan!

In an awesome, long, and rather intense essay, Erin Horáková deconstructs Star Trek to expose Kirk Drift, a phenomenon in which the character in the original stories is shifted in our memory and perception towards a more stereotyped masculinity — and the change says some things about cultural biases. There’s a cartoon version of Kirk (which was also exaggerated in the movies) that was a womanizing, blustering, macho glory-hound which is easy to caricature, but isn’t supported by a close examination of the series. Zapp Brannigan is a version concocted in our imagination.

I found this interpretation illuminating.

I’m also trying to illustrate how different interpretations are held to very different standards of proof. Constructing an elaborate chauvinist narrative is normal and invisible as work, while other interpretive perspectives must, under ridicule, press against this “received truth.” Again and again we see female-dominated media fandoms’ interpretations dismissed as emotional and ideologically motivated. But what is all this vast effort to butch up Kirk but clear evidence of at least equally goal and emotion-driven work on the part of male-dominated sectors of fandom and popular reception? The amount of labour you have to put in to get from “Catspaw” to ‘Kirk scored!’, and from Kirk the character to Kirk the womaniser is considerable. What drives this casual or fannishly dedicated unseeing but male emotional need [7] to attack vulnerability, to uplift and venerate dominating strength, and to project their desires onto texts and from there, life? Male emotion is here, as in most spheres, parsed as neutral, rational, and just: “obvious.” Its emotional content ceases to visibly exist, because male desires are so naturalised as to seem the state of the world.

The heterosexism goggles, which derange content via chauvinist interpretive paradigms, become not just inaccurate but horrifying when we look at episodes like “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” How would you read the scene in “Gamesters” where Kirk, terrified (with some reason) Uhura will be sexually assaulted and that he’ll be able to do nothing to help her, seduces his own captor in an effort to protect Uhura and get his people out of this situation if Kirk were a woman? What about the surveillance, fear of death and fear of getting an enslaved person punished due to his non-compliance in “Bread and Circuses”? Why are we cheerleading a vision of masculinity that cannot even acknowledge vulnerability and trauma in these cases, when if this were a woman we’d see these situations as coercive and violating?

I can’t judge the details well myself — I was an obsessive fan of the show while it was on the air, which rather dates me, and when I could see them in re-runs I was a more casual viewer, and I probably haven’t seen an episode in 20 years, making me a Star Trek heathen, I guess. But what rang true was a different model for Kirk in the essay: he was patterned after Horatio Hornblower. Recalling the stories in that context puts them in a whole new light. What I know of Roddenberry also fits — he wouldn’t make an arrogant sexist the hero of his story.

Despite being an obsessive essay on a fictional character, it’s appropriately grounded.

My point here is not to argue for perfection. I certainly do not claim that Kirk and ST:TOS were flawless harbingers of third wave intersectional thinking, always and forever on point, amen (though I will stand by an argument that they do a lot of good work I’d like to see more of today, both in their context and considered in comparison to contemporary texts). There is no way for anything to be always ahead of the currents of radical thought, nor is perfection even necessarily a state of affairs to be yearned for. Social justice is in some senses a technology that must be discursively developed before it can be accessed. It is also not manifest in some immaculate person or product without sin, or in some final position where we get everything right and it stays that way, forever: it is always an evolving understanding. It is of necessity polyvocal and complicated, personal and political.

Yet there is a colossal insipidity in both patronising “this art product was good for its time” arguments and in Columbus-discovering sexism (or other forms of injustice) in the cultural materials of the past (gosh, what a find). Both can be somewhat valid positions to take, but they are often the lazy products of a false consciousness of our own differently-coded era as universally better, and of history as neatly and linearly progressive. Think not of “the arc of history,” that long single line that, god willing, bends towards justice. The position of a thing like “gender relations in 2017” is nothing like so easily determined: it is comprised of a thousand strings, some of them inching forward, some of them being looped and snarled and even pulled back, and some of them being twisted in unforeseen directions. Only in centuries will we be able to make out, or perhaps to tell ourselves that we see, that “arc.”

Those are good points to keep in mind any time you’re discussing these complicated social interactions.

Anyway, it’s really long and thorough, so set aside a little time to read it. It’s informative, though, and not just about an old TV show, but about contemporary sociocultural analysis.


  1. dhabecker says

    Wow! That was painful and not illuminating.
    So,- life is complicated and when I’m two or three hundred years old, I can look back and see where we might be swinging toward a more just world in keeping with the lessons learned from Star Trek.

  2. cartomancer says

    I am reminded, to some extent, of the ways in which the character of Alexander the Great has been reimagined, reinterpreted and recast over the millennia. His model of masculine behaviour and military greatness is frequently twisted into something very different from the actual historical Alexander – although in Alexander’s case there is the added problem of our most reliable sources being very late, very literary, and larded through with their own cultural reimaginings. The vehemence with which Plutarch, for instance, tries to distance Alexander from his same-sex sexual relations to make him more palatable as a hero to a Roman audience stands out. The Alexander we know is a very Romanised figure (even “The Great” is a Latin title he was never afforded in Greek), and the same sorts of interpretations of him tended to abound in Roman histories – some, like Arrian, wanted to claim him as an idealised masculine hero figure to admire, others, like Curtius, wanted him to epitomise Greek perfidy and immorality, or fit the mould of the Sophoclean tragic hero as Plutarch’s version does.

  3. cartomancer says

    Perhaps of even greater relevance is the way the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ plays tended to see them as demeaning of women. A whole comic farce of Aristophanes is premised on the notion that Athenian women hate Euripides because of how he portrays them – as lascivious harlots like Phaedra, or immoral monsters like Medea. But if you look at the actual plays of Euripides that survive then the portrayal of women and women’s issues is much more nuanced and complicated. Euripides’ Medea, for instance, is a troubled and wronged character who struggles with an unfaithful husband, being a despised immigrant in a strange land and being feared for her cleverness and magical arts. Yes, she does eventually kill the ruler of Corinth, his daughter and her own children to punish Jason for abandoning her, but she is not a two-dimensional cartoon villain. His Phaedra, meanwhile, is a plaything of cruel gods and hapless accomplices, with a highly developed moral sense, who does everything she can to avoid committing the crimes she is traditionally known for (falesly accusing her stepson of raping her in a suicide note after she failed to seduce him). And yet, it seems that a lot of Athenian critics ignored the complexities to view his tragic female characters as monsters, in the usual vein of their misogynistic culture (even though the dichotomy of hero/female aide and hero/monster is explciitly juxtaposed and blurred in Medea).

  4. weylguy says

    During high school I had a night job that prevented me from watching Star Trek on Friday evenings. Ditto all through college, and by the time I graduated the show was in reruns. I remember later watching Turn About Intruder, along with some nonsensical episodes featuring Wyatt Earp, Abraham Lincoln and the god Apollo, and I never really got into the show. The recent Westworld series, on the other hand, is definitely my kind of science fiction. And it may soon not even be fiction.

  5. handsomemrtoad says

    PZ, I love you dearly, but Captain Kirk was most definitely NOT patterned after Horatio Hornblower!!! When Gene Roddenberry said that he was, he only meant that Kirk was a captain of a ship far from home, depending on his vessel, a loyal crew, and his own considerable wits to resolve military and diplomatic crises threatening his country’s interests. The STORY was based on Hornblower, but the CHARACTER certainly was not.

    Hornblower was irritable (often swore at members of his crew, or had to restrain himself from doing so), terse, gruff, gangly, socially awkward (until the later books in the series, when he learned, by long, hard work, to make himself presentable in society, not from preference, but because it was a career necessity), especially uncomfortable in the presence of women, completely without any sense of humor, and, above all, INSECURE, always terrified that he would fail in his duty, either by failing to win the day, or by failing to use his authority in a just, responsible way. He had NONE of Kirk’s self-confidence or twinkle-eyed geniality. Also, unlike Kirk, Hornblower was always respectful of authority, just because it was authority. Hornblower would never, for instance, have treated an appointed official the way Kirk treated the Undersecretary of Agriculture in “The Trouble with Tribbles”.

    In fact it is difficult to think of anyone LESS like Kirk than Hornblower was. The only things they had in common were willingness to take risks (and even there, Hornblower was much more circumspect, usually only willing to take risks when there was no alternative), ingenuity, self-reliance, and incredibly good luck.

  6. unclefrogy says

    I was exposed to Star Trek first in re-runs I watched as I was making and eating my dinner.
    I never understood the idea that it was about Kirk doing this or that. It always struck me as being about the Federation and its values and sensibilities as carried out by clever, honest and all to fallible people (not just humans) who tried to do their duty with honor and courage while being true to the principles of the Federation. Kind of a “Navy Log” or “West Point story” of the future in space.
    It seems to me that the criticism gets all mixed up with Shatner the person and his other parts (Denny), his “reputation” along with the cultural baggage of the times it was made.

    uncle frogy

  7. unclefrogy says

    I will go out on a limb and say that it was in part the secular egalitarian none materialistic aspects of the principles of the Federation as depicted were the reasons it was canceled and also why it was so popular with the fans. I did not do the a bang-up job of selling products as they network execs. wanted. One of the fun parts was watching them defeat some “god” with reason and not just brute force though they did have that.
    everything Zapp was not.
    uncle frogy

  8. Knabb says

    I’m not convinced. For one thing, a major part of the thesis is that the reading of Kirk-as-womanizer comes from seeing that as a positive trait. The reading is frequently interpreted as “cheerleading a vision of masculinity”, and while it’s possible that there’s a generational shift in play I’ve always seen the Kirk-as-womanizer presented as criticism. It’s one of the reasons Picard and Sisko are looked on more fondly, it’s part of standard criticisms that Star Trek: TOS was only good for its time, it’s part of what makes the Zapp Brannigan character work (and he’s not presented as a sympathetic character in any way).

  9. zibble says

    I’m glad Abrams’ horrible movies were brought up, because, lord almighty, I’ve never seen a more superficial and flagrantly wrong interpretation of Kirk as a reckless, entitled, chauvinistic, asshole frat boy.

    Although, in a way, I find it less offensive than what they did with Spock. Consider Spock in The Naked Time, when he’s drunkenly admitting to Kirk how vulnerable and ashamed he feels that someone might know he cares for his best friend. Now try to remember a single scene in NuTrek where Spock shows any emotion besides violent rage or heterosexual lust. Even when his only friend dies in front of him, Spock doesn’t show any sadness, he immediately transitions to psychotic rage directed at someone who isn’t really even *that* responsible.

  10. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    didn’t read the whole thing yet, so I’ll comment anyways.
    Zap was an obvious Parody of Kirk. So everything people noticed about Kirk was amplified (to 11) in Zap for emphasis.
    Kirk, in my view, was not an “active” womanizer; more “receptive” to female advances locking onto his stature as The Captain of The Starship. He did exhibit lots of arrogance and ego, the womanizing was more in the form of ‘receptive’ rather than ‘aggressive’ womanizing. Still, a distinction without significant difference. *shrug*
    [heading back to the linked article …]

  11. drken says

    @slithey #13

    I’m with @drascus #1. Zapp is obviously a parody of William Shatner, not James T. Kirk. This should have been obvious when we saw him doing Karaoke at Palm D’Orbit during Kiff and Amy’s first date (yes, I know far too much about Futurama).

  12. monad says

    @1 drascus:

    Zapp is actually supposed to be /Shatner/ as a space captain, IIRC.

    “Half Captain Kirk, half actual William Shatner” according to David X. Cohen.

  13. freemage says

    “Social justice as technology” is one of those concepts that’s going to stick with me. In particular, it’s useful if you also remember that technological development is full of false starts and promising avenues that suddenly become dead-ends, superseded and obsolete often before they can even become fully integrated in the first place.

  14. says

    I’m torn. As a currently disaffected fan, should I comment now when it will be early in the thread? Or after I’ve read the long article, by which time the thread will be abandoned?

    Oh what the heck, I’ll comment now. Kirk in the original series was fully qualified to be captain, and obsessed with ethics, as should be anyone in charge of such a ship. But he often screwed up, and his crewmates had to straighten him out. And on occasion he had to straighten THEM out. And the whole show reflected the strictures of network executives of the time. For instance, Roddenberry had to resort to creative bookkeeping to keep Nichols on the bridge.

    Kirk in the current movies truly is an arrogant, unqualified jerk.

    Now to fit that article into the next couple days of reading.

  15. kaleberg says

    I remember the original series and Roddenberry’s ‘Making Of’ book. He did borrow some of Hornblower to create Kirk, particularly Kirk’s competence as a captain. I actually read one of the Hornblower books after that and was horribly disappointed. He wasn’t at all like Kirk. I recently re-watched the original series. Kirk came off surprisingly well. In general, he tried to do the right thing. He took care of his crew, did his job, and dealt with all sorts of aliens, lunatics and so on, while respecting the ethics and morals of the Federation which were generally admirable.

    Sure, Kirk had a lot of women in his past, but no nasty suicides or angry stalkers. The show used the handsome guy seduces space princess technique to get out of trouble a bit often, but even Spock got to seduce a space princess in one episode. On the other hand, I’ve seen and read enough stories where the sexes are reversed.

    Star Trek was definitely a product of its time.

  16. Matt Cramp says

    “The reading is frequently interpreted as “cheerleading a vision of masculinity”, and while it’s possible that there’s a generational shift in play I’ve always seen the Kirk-as-womanizer presented as criticism.”

    The article opens with examining this attitude as anecdote, and deconstructs it later: when what you’re criticising doesn’t actually exist in the text, where is it coming from? If the only thing you find interesting about Kirk is that he’s a womaniser, what does that say about your own priorities if you’re taking the flickers of that in the series and crowding out what kind of character Kirk actually is?

    I mean, sure, you might be criticising those people who preferred to imagine Kirk going around banging hot alien women, but it’s damned curious that in doing so you’re elevating their slash fantasies to being part of the text.

  17. snuffcurry says

    I mean, sure, you might be criticising those people who preferred to imagine Kirk going around banging hot alien women, but it’s damned curious that in doing so you’re elevating their slash fantasies to being part of the text.
    [emphasis my own]

    That’s not what Star Trek slash does. But you are reinforcing the phenomenon Horáková mentions, blaming slash for an entirely different community’s sins and preoccupations. (And heaven strike down she who dares to elevate a female genre of literature! After all, there’s more serious stuff to be written, Flashman pastiche and Nice Guy Noir and so forth.)

  18. opposablethumbs says

    @Matt, are you maybe unaware of what “slash” refers to in the context of fanfic? (as the term is used, and has been for quite a few years now. I’m not sure how long, but I would guestimate 15 years at least). It would exclude the phenomenon you describe, by definition.

    Apart from that, I agree with you.

    If the only thing you find interesting about Kirk is that he’s a womaniser, what does that say about your own priorities

    – yes indeed!

  19. handsomemrtoad says

    TO: 18. kaleberg:

    RE: “Sure, Kirk had a lot of women in his past, but no nasty suicides or angry stalkers.”

    Wrong. JANICE LESTER. (Episode: “Turnabout Intruder”.)

  20. says

    Indeed: Janice Lester was really dangerous. I imagine old Kirk as being a lot more careful and respectful in the romance department.

    It always threw me though, that (Kirk? Roddenberry? Network executives? The ’60’s?) couldn’t imagine a woman star ship captain. It’s the 23d goddamn century already. A brief meeting with Janeway would set them straight, but she won’t be along for quite a while.

  21. says

    Yeah.. Zapp was.. a massive exaggeration, to the point of being the “everyman” of the worst traits you could have in a captain. Had he run into the real Kirk some place, the latter would have probably shot the jerk, repeatedly. Seems though, if we want to talk about Kirk like characters.. the captain of the Intrepid from Space Quest… His cast hated him (like Shatner), he actually yelled at fans (Shatner being really good at being really bad to fans, from what I understand), and when he landed on a real ship, he was an arrogant ass, instead of what, presumably, was a competent captain on the actual show. Kirk would have hated the guy, but Shatner.. was him, from what I understand. lol

    But, no.. Kirk’s relationship with women was.. probably influenced by the attitudes of the time – i.e., “If offered, and you like the person, why not.” Its a far cry from Zapp’s, “Heh baby, are you ready for me yet?” The former was pure 60s, the latter, is the worst scum from every decade, or an “pickup artist” convention.

  22. Pierce R. Butler says

    … we see female-dominated media fandoms’ interpretations dismissed as emotional and ideologically motivated. But what is all this vast effort to butch up Kirk but clear evidence of at least equally goal and emotion-driven work on the part of male-dominated sectors of fandom …

    Waitaminnit! Way back in the ’70s, I read an ST novel (whose title/plot I can’t remember) by Diane Duane, in which she repeatedly described JT Kirk as an “alpha male”.

    I’d only seen the term applied to wolves before then, but reading it in connection with nice-guy Kirk as played by pretty-boy Shatner just confused me, and set me to pondering all the things I didn’t (and still don’t) understand about the Female Gaze (possibly, to be sure, filtered by male editors).

  23. Matt Cramp says

    “@Matt, are you maybe unaware of what “slash” refers to in the context of fanfic?”

    I was trying to draw a parallel between your classic Kirk/Spock slash fiction and the ‘Kirk bones any female that moves’ assumption. Both can draw on elements within the show, neither is canonical, and yet one gets treated as being a reasonable extension of the show-as-written and one is treated as fans being weird.

    Even if one is mostly complaining about the attitudes other people have, the angle the criticism takes says a lot about oneself; it’s usually treated as these skeevy fans being accurate about the show and not these skeevy fans projecting something onto the show that’s not really there.