Since one of the themes of this blog lately has inadvertently become “Well back in my day all we had was Willow and Tara and all that ‘magic is an allegory for orgasm’ nonsense,” I feel compelled to mention that I’ve somehow stumbled on to a marathon of Star Trek: The Next Generation (inexplicably on BBC America) and am currently watching “The Outcast.”
For anyone who may not remember this episode or never watched the show: The Enterprise encounters a species without gender; Kirk stand-in Commander Riker works closely with one of these individuals, who then reveals that she considers herself female and has to keep this a secret on her world lest she be subjected to ridicule, violence and reparative therapy. Riker and this person hook up, and then get busted. Sure enough, she’s subjected to said reparative therapy (which on her awful world actually works), but not before a few impassioned speeches that will sound almost too familiar to any queer person out there.
This episode is central in an annoyance that many people feel about Star Trek. The original series was so cutting edge regarding race, and yet the newer series (TNG, DS:9, Voyayer, and Enterprise) have never exactly included a gay character (despite one or two similarly murky moments as “The Outcast” and quotes from more than one actor on the shows regarding their own interpretations of characters they played to include queerness).
“The Outcast” was their attempt to address LGBT issues in a way that was arguably comfortable to mainstream audiences: It’s upside-down world, no actual gay people here! You can have compassion without being squicked!
I’ve often ridiculed the episode myself. As a gay person, it is annoying in that instead of representing gay people, it is an “issue moment” that made it all about straight people; after all, the structure of the episode allowed the people our society would view as queer to remain the bad guys. Really, in its own way, it’s clever, if a little nauseating.
But watching it tonight for the first time in years, I find myself struck by it as genderqueer person. From that standpoint, it feels far less like a sloppy (and cowardly and annoying) attempt to tell a gay story without a gay character and more like an almost deft look at the reality of those of us who experience gender as non-binary and/or divorced on some level from traditional external perceptions of our physical form.
Emphasis on almost, since I don’t actually remember feeling this way about the episode at the time, and I was definitely identifying as gender-variant by the time this aired.
Most amusing (to me anyway, long story, don’t ask), perhaps, in the end, is that Jonathan Frakes, the actor who plays Riker, apparently has been quoted as saying that the female character in the gender-neutral species should have seemed more male in order to make the message clearer. On one hand, I’m impressed, on the other, that sentiment just seems to muddy already murky waters further.
Then again, I’m the girl who often dresses/feels/identifies as a boy and who gets told that people don’t question my maleness, just my masculinity; since I tend to shop for dresses with masculine avatars in mind and go for pure camp in my feminine selections, I suppose this actually makes sense. Anyway, as such, I may be the worst person to evaluate this hot mess of an ancient Star Trek episode ever.
But if you haven’t seen it, and you’re interested in queerness on TV, this thing is almost required viewing.