The Mary Sue recently put up an article chastising William Shatner for so-called un-Kirk-like views regarding the #MeToo movement. I’ve chided Shatner myself on the subject and have been banned from his Twitter feed for doing so. The part of The Mary Sue’s article that annoyed me, though, was the Kirk/Shatner comparison. Ever since Erin Horáková’s essay “Kirk Drift” there’s been a new movement to beatify James T. Kirk as some kind of über-woke bae who slaps down misogyny at every turn. But what kind of feminist was Kirk really?
Horáková’s main piece of evidence is the excellent job Kirk does mentoring young Charles Evans of the Original Series episode “Charlie X” on sexual consent. Written by Dorothy Fontana, it features Kirk telling the kid not to force his affection on women and never put his hands on them without permission. He is not owed their attention. Considering the “boys will be boys” attitude many still have today, the speech seems downright radical for the late 1960’s. But did Kirk practice what he preached?
The fact is Kirk was, in many cases, a pig. I’m not here to bash Kirk’s general libido. We at the comic approve of and encourage physical love often and in all combinations. And, as Horáková points out, Kirk’s serious exes are all brilliant, professional women who still respect him with only a few exceptions. But what we see in action is a different Kirk, one that crosses a lot of professional lines and has a general disdain for female opponents.
Let’s start with the work place stuff. The first glimpse we get of the Kirk/Rand relationship is in “Corbomite Maneuver” Kirk is extremely rude to Rand and complains to McCoy about having a “female yeoman” forced on him. The implication on the part of both men is that Kirk is not trustable alone with a woman, even a subordinate.
Not long after, in “Enemy Within” we get the ugly side of Kirk’s lust where we’re shown that at least part of him is, in fact, capable of assaulting his assistant. After Rand is attacked by Evil Kirk, Good Kirk confronts her directly in front of Spock and McCoy who all gaslight her into believing it didn’t happen at all. Only the corroboration of a male witness makes Spock and McCoy take the accusation seriously. And even then they come up with the flummoxing idea that it’s an intruder, an assumption not yet borne out by the evidence they have so far.
Topping off the Rand weirdness, Kirk actually pulls her into an embrace on the bridge during a tense moment in “Balance of Terror”. From an erotic/dramatic stand point this is pure red meat for the audience, but from a real world, professional one it’s pretty unacceptable. Oddly enough prospective script writers were told this exact behavior was a no-no in the 1968 book “The Making of Star Trek”.
Rand isn’t the only female crew member who is the object of Kirk’s misplaced horn-dogging and general disrespect. In “Who Mourns for Adonais” Kirk and McCoy ruminate about what a waste Lt. Palamas is because female officers are bound to leave the service to start a family. To this day that’s an argument used in offices and academia to enforce the glass ceiling. In both this episode and “The Lights of Zetar” Kirk allows Scotty to harass an underling even thought they’re clearly not interested. He seems to even find it cute. In “The Immunity Syndrome” Kirk talks about how great it will be to take shore leave “on some lovely planet” while leering at a female crew member with McCoy and Scotty. After dealing with the Mirror version of Marlena Moreau, Kirk implies to Spock that he’s going to hit on the one in our universe. He then walks over to her and possibly does just that as the credits roll. “Wolf in the Fold” starts with Kirk and his male senior staff at a belly dancing parlor and ends with him inviting them to go to a club “where the women are sooooo…!” This is after witnessing several women, including a member of his own crew, get brutally murdered.
It actually gets worse when Kirk leaves the ship. Sometimes he’s just plain inappropriate with the natives like when he falls in lust with the ward of the one guy who can save his crew from a virulent disease in “Requiem for Methuselah” or when he sleeps with a sex slave that’s offered to him in “Bread and Circuses”. Then there’s that time he says the Federation will just have to “find another woman somewhere” to replace Ambassador Nancy Hedford when they’re forced to leave her behind in “Metamorphosis”. More often than not the captain uses his sexuality as a weapon against female opponents. How about that time Kirk forces the robot Andrea to kiss him so hard he leaves marks on her arms in “What are Little Girls Made of”? Or when he tries to win the affections of Sylvia, Shahna, Kelinda, and Deela in order to defeat them? Kirk never tried to seduce Kor or Rojan or Anan 7, so he’s either too much of a homophobe to take that kind of one for the team or he simply thinks there’s something specifically naive about women that will make them give up everything for his D.
And then let’s never, ever forget the unforgivably grotesque time Kirk asked Dr. Miranda Jones, point-blank, what a pretty thing like her is doing spending her life with an uggo like Kollos in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”. It’s interesting yet unsurprising to note that this episode, with its deconstruction of Kirk as an insecure lothario and its example of murderous male entitlement as seen in Lawrence Marvick, was, in fact, written by a woman.
There’s no doubt that if Kirk was real he would be rightfully #MeTooed out of his command. But Kirk isn’t real. He’s a character. And we don’t have to approve of everything a character does to be entertained by them. We don’t have to be politically aligned with everything a TV show is putting across in order to watch it week after week. But we also can’t be blind to its faults and unsound messages. “Is There in Truth No Beauty” proves that even at the time Star Trek was airing women were seeing Kirk as problematic. He was a liberal guy who constantly strove for a better tomorrow, but when it came to women’s issues he fell way short. Trying to make him into a feminist icon is not helping anyone.