Science Fiction Studies

#72 = Volume 24, Part 2 = July 1997

Lee E. Heller

The Persistence of Difference: Postfeminism, Popular Discourse, and Heterosexuality in Star Trek: The Next Generation

In her introduction to Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction, Constance Penley observes that "science fiction film as a now more hyperbolically concerned than ever with the question of difference, typically posed as that of the difference between human and nonhuman..." (vii). As Penley notes elsewhere, although traditional accounts of science fiction describe it as uninterested in human sexuality—perhaps because of its assumed audience of preadolescent boys—the genre often addresses questions of sexual difference and sexual relations alongside other differences such as human/alien and organism/machine ("Brownian Motion" 138).1 This engagement with differences in gender identity and sexual desire is nowhere more evident than in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In this essay, I want to explore the heterosexual paradigm imagined by TNG and its participation in a larger cultural discourse about gender roles, romantic relationships, and the role of difference in the fulfillment of desire. In several episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation we see explorations of two related categories of sociosexual experience: the possibility on the one hand of a romantic relationship with an other whose gender/sexual identity is not defined in terms of heterosexual oppositions; and the imagination on the other of a beloved whose desirability is based on an ideal of heterosexual difference. In particular, I will focus on the utopian impulse at work in much of Star Trek, and especially in several TNG episodes, and its disruption as Star Trek's liberal-reformist elements encounter the conservative—even reactionary —gender ideologies at work in contemporary popular culture discourse. TNG tries to imagine utopian romantic configurations and ideal sexual others, only to tell us, first, that such relationships are necessarily heterosexual, and second, that heterosexuality is inherently unable to fulfill the desire it is supposed to serve.

This breakdown of possible solutions to difference is part of the larger contestation over gender difference which has been taking place in the cultural discourse of the US during the last two decades. This essay focuses specifically on popular media articulations of the postfeminist and New Traditionalist segments of that discourse, whose primary project is to reaffirm patriarchal heterosexuality and the gender roles associated therewith against the combined threats—as the discourse constructs it—of feminism and non-heterosexual sexuality.2 But along the way, these pop-culture articulations of postfeminism and New Traditionalism reveal their versions of desire to be riddled with disruptions and dislocations, picturing men and women as unable to reconcile the demands of their two allied, but not identical, ideological positions. TNG's own dystopian narratives reflect its participation in this discourse, as its reformist impulses are coopted by its imbrication in a reactionary ideological formation whose core tensions it simultaneously exposes.

1. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. Popular discourse about gender in the mid-1980s and early 1990s has insisted on describing heterosexual relationships in terms of insurmountable conflicts and irreconcilable differences. From Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, which claims to address "the confusion that is already widespread in this era of shifting and reforming relationships between women and men" (16) to a 1991 year-end Newsweek spread called "Gender Gap" featuring a variety of "rancorous battles between the sexes" (30 Dec 1991: 46-48, 46), the recurrent message has been that men and women are completely unlike, and that this difference makes for inevitable conflict. Self-help books such as Tannen's, and John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, sell briskly—as of this writing Tannen's book has over 1,000,000 copies in print, according to its jacket blurb, while Gray's is still on the New York Times bestseller list two and a half years after its publication. Equivalent locations in television and the periodical press—daytime talk shows, fashion and self-care magazines—return again and again to the subject of relationship problems, and in particular to heterosexual dysfunctions. A People Weekly piece on the "Top Ten Oprahs" for 1988 lists titles such as "Men Who Can't Be Intimate," "Man-Stealing Relatives," "Polygamy," "Unforgivable Acts Between Couples," and "Women Who Are Allergic to Their Husbands" (15). A recent Oprah challenger, Ricki Lake, has built her show around what Time magazine describes as "painful relationship problems, the kind everyone can relate to: guys who won't commit, women whose boyfriends cheat, couples who argue over in-laws..." (Zoglin 77).

If the recurrent theme of these representations is difference and conflict, it is first important to note that all this talk (as it were) about heterosexuality works to instate it as the central location of meaning for men and women. The occasional talk show segment or magazine article focusing on transgender, bisexuality, or other varieties of "nontraditional" sexual orientation is meant to serve as a reminder that these positions are themselves dysfunctional, deviations from a heterosexual norm. That is, according to these popular media, heterosexuality has dysfunctions, but homosexuality, to take one example, is dysfunctional.3 The cumulative effect is to affirm heterosexuality by reminding us that, even though it is in danger from "deviant" sexual identities, it is still the essential point of meaning as a biosocial norm.

Yet for all this insistence on the essentiality of heterosexuality, we are again and again presented with a paradigm of frustrated heterosexual desire. In popular media accounts of heterosexual gender trouble, the key term is not just difference, but difference that divides. Tannen's study of the way that men and women communicate leads her to conclude that "[i]t was as if their life-blood ran in different directions" (26). Elayne Rapping, in her analysis of men's and women's popular magazines and their divergent concerns, calls their discourse "[a] tale of two worlds, two imaginative universes, two realms of experience of desire and fulfillment as different from each other emotionally and morally as imaginable" (42). The metaphor of physical and spatial distance as trope for difference, along with the punning suggestion inherent in alien/alienation, is clearest in John Gray's extremely successful relationship manual, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. In Gray's formulation, to understand the differences between men and women is to enter the realm of science fiction. Thus Gray tells us, "Not only do men and women communicate differently but they think, feel, perceive, react, respond, love, need, and appreciate differently. They almost seem to be from different planets, speaking different languages and needing different nourishment" (5). Gray, Tannen, and Rapping all offer sociocultural rather than sociobiological critiques—Tannen titles one section of her book "Male-Female Conversation is Cross-Cultural Communication"—but their sense of the extremity of the difference between women and men requires a physical analogy evoking biological, even astronomical, metaphors of alienness.

Popular periodical press complaints sound a similar note, but with key differences in the articulations aimed at men and women regarding the cause, and the solution, of the problem. Women's magazines—along with self-help books and daytime television—have traditionally allocated a substantial amount of space to advising women in the management of gender difference. Such representations participate in the preservation of difference by feeding women a steady diet of information about the necessity of managing it, and how to do so. In the process they enforce a version of difference in which women are to blame for imposing their desires inappropriately on men; thus a recent Mademoiselle article lists the six things women tend to do that drive their men away, and promises to "spell out for you" how to avoid such pitfalls (Ellner 179). Another advice column notes men's chronic inability to give women their full attention, and the very common rage this provokes. "Stop chasing, start changing," the writer suggests, confirming both the inevitable failure of men to meet women's needs, and the obligation of women to accept and even bear responsibility for their unfulfillment (74).

These accounts convey a double message. On the one hand, they affirm women's experience of difference, and to the extent that this difference is essentialized, relieve women of blame for its existence (although not of responsibility for minimizing the damage it can inflict). On the other hand, their essentializing instructs women to tolerate, rather than challenge, difference as an essential component of heterosexual relationships. "First You Have the Love Highs, Then You Have Those Low-down Blues: How To Coax Him Back Into Blissful Togetherness When He Tunes Out" (Cosmopolitan May 1994: 88-92) advises women to manage difference by a reinterpretation which makes it merely superficial. "Sometimes what looks and feels like rejection is simply a difference in style" seems intended to offer comfort, but in fact trivializes women's experience of dissatisfaction with men (92.) The feminist discourse that identifies and valorizes women's sense of alienation from men is counterbalanced by an ideological construction intended to persuade women to preserve difference as an expression of male desire. This is hardly surprising, given the investment of a fundamentally heterosexist culture industry in the very popular culture forms —gender-specific periodicals, daytime TV, self-help books—to which women are encouraged to turn for instruction in the handling of difference.

Where the popular press legitimates women's dissatisfaction only to advise that they grin and bear it, representations aimed at men take a much more supportive tone towards their experience of difference. Indeed, the chief evidence of difference that Elayne Rapping cites in her study of men's and women's magazines is the lack of interest, in the former, in the relationship issues that dominate the latter (42). If the paucity of men's interest in the subject of relationships is itself evidence of the profound difference between men and women, so is the tone of those accounts of difference that do appear in men's magazines. Articles by and for men also express frustration with heterosexual gender roles and relations—not with their lack of progress towards a feminist model of equality, but (in language evocative of New Traditionalism's call for a return to traditional gender roles and family structures) with the threat that progress poses to male identity and desire.

Two recent popular press articles by men articulate men's sense of endangerment from the forces of feminist-inspired change, along with a nostalgic fantasy of returning to traditional roles and relations. Raphael Benjamin, writing about "Why Being a Man is Harder Than Ever" to Cosmo's female audience, warns that men feel overwhelmed by the changing expectations that feminism has imposed on them:

Some members of my gender have reacted to the invasion of the strong woman by falling apart; more of us are in therapy today than twenty-five years ago, when feminism first gave women permission to be tough. Others have joined the "men's movement" backlash.... Finally, there are those who embrace feminism— outwardly. They really resent having to do housework, deal with women as colleagues or superiors, worry about politically correct forms of etiquette on a date. (56)

The not-too-subtle message is that feminism, when it doesn't make men liars, destroys their sanity by denying them the difference-based gender roles on which their identity is based. This sense of lost identity and unfathomable desire assumes an elegiac tone in Lynn Darling's Esquire essay, "Single White Male, Seeks Clue," which despite its seemingly ironic title, begins, "It is the evening of the American male in fin-de-siècle America..." (97). Darling's SWM, Talbot, lacks both the satisfying role his father occupied and an acceptable model of male identity to replace it: "He is too young to be the old traditional male, confident, cosmopolitan, able to wield a martini glass and a fly-casting rod with equal precision. And he's seen what has happened to the New Male, sensitive, caring, and so tedious that women turn from him like revolted gourmets from a tofuburger" (Darling 97). Feminism—the unnamed villain of the piece—denies Talbot the identity he would like, while experience indicates that becoming what women claim to want does not in fact please them, and in fact makes vegetarian mincemeat of him.

Both Benjamin and Darling close with nostalgic evocations of lost traditions of gender difference and satisfied desire. Benjamin offers a brief story about a woman who gratefully accepts traditional male gestures of consideration such as holding open doors; Darling ends with Talbot's discovery of a "traditionally feminine" woman who can make him happy: "She has no large ambitions. She loves her job writing the cover copy for romance novels; they were trashy and fun, and she could easily avoid taking it too seriously. She takes pleasure in the quiet order of a domestic life. She likes to sew" (104). Both essays use the words "acceptance" and "understanding" of these men's desires as code terms for a return to female subordination to and support of traditional male identity. The terms are meant to be comforting and familiar, and to teach women this lesson: to accept difference as patriarchy describes it, and to accommodate it accordingly.

2. To Boldly Go...But Only Briefly. Like these popular press accounts of heterosexual crisis, Star Trek: The Next Generation repeatedly asserts the inability of men and women to find in each other the satisfaction of their needs and desires. This is hardly surprising, since the series also is a product of and participant in the culture industry which manufactures weekly magazines, daytime talk shows, and television dramas. And yet one expects—at least at first— greater difference; if TNG is a popular media form, it is fictional and narrative rather than part of the self-help instruction genre, and it is not aimed at the same audiences. Furthermore, as an avatar of Star Trek, its participation in traditionalist and reactionary discourses seems to contradict its apparent optimism about social reform. The operative term here is "seems," of course; Star Trek has a long history of reaffirming traditional ideologies of race, gender, class, nationalism, capitalism—the list goes on. Nor should TNG's dystopian account of heterosexual gender relations seem at odds with its status as narrative fiction. Fiction as a genre is not necessarily freer from the ideological imperatives of the culture it describes than more explicitly didactic textual forms—and popular narrative, especially as packaged in a culture-industrial technology like television, is potentially as didactic a structure as any conduct book or advice column.4

Several episodes of the series represent a problematic human/alien pairing, in which the biological difference of the other—like John Gray's men from Mars and women from Venus—encodes sexual and/or gender difference. In these episodes we see two related but distinct moves: first, an exploration of, and then retreat from, alternatives to heterosexual constructions of identity and desire; and second, an effort at imagining utopian heterosexual relationships within the terms of postfeminist discourse, followed by a dystopian confirmation that the conflicts within that discourse make the fulfillment of heterosexual desire impossible. Although the primary focus of this essay is on the latter move, I would like to address the former briefly in order to understand how its reinscription of heterosexuality sets up the terms of the latter's confrontation with heterosexual dysfunctions.

Questions of homoerotic desire appear at a number of places in the series; I am interested in two episodes in which the question of homosexual desire is made explicit. In "The Host," Dr Beverly Crusher is in love with Odan—a corporate entity composed of a humanoid host and a symbiant—but is unaware that its identity is distinct from its (male) humanoid body until the original host is killed and the symbiant must be transferred to another host. Beverly is able to make the leap from one body to another as long as it is male and her desire can remain suitably heterosexual; but when the transfer violates the boundaries of heterosexuality, and Odan is placed in a female host, the doctor retreats into the sexlessness of her professional persona, unable to accommodate the unfixedness of gender identification and sexual desire that this demands. She tells Odan—who continues to desire her regardless of the gender of its host—"I can't keep up." What she does not say, but makes clear from her reaction to the arrival of the female host, is that humans' essential heterosexuality, or their homophobia, limits the mobility of their desire. Whether it is the former, or the latter, is left much less clear. Although her language seems to imply the latter—she describes humans as "not yet" able to love without reference to a stable location for identity, suggesting that the failing is hers—this explanation is also a lie; Beverly made the adjustment to Odan's prior move (although with some difficulty) and seems ready and willing to follow it to another body, as long as that body is male. She reacts to Odan's female host with coolness and discomfort, and although she seems moved by the persistence of Odan's attachment to her, I for one do not see desire in Beverly's response, only surprise and a kind of detached regret. "The Host" offers lip service to the notion that there should be alternatives to heterosexual desire—but ends up reinscribing that desire by confirming that, for humans at least, the alternative is not available.

If "The Host" explores a model of fluid identity and desire only to opt for the stability of heterosexuality, "The Outcast" tries to insist on the appropriateness of nonheterosexual identity but winds up, ironically, reaffirming the essentiality of heterosexuality—and in astonishingly homophobic terms. In this episode, the Enterprise crew encounter the J'naii, a species whose members claim to have only one gender. Soren, the J'naii character who provides the story's focus, becomes attracted to Commander Riker, the most notoriously (hetero)sexual male character on the series. Soren has discovered herself to be inherently female, and therefore—in the story's logic—necessarily drawn to males. Eventually she is caught, and in a culture which persecutes deviations from the enforced norm of sexual orientation, "tectonically" cleansed of her misplaced desire, despite Riker's efforts to save her.

The key point here is that Soren's innate heterosexuality is not deviant, although the episode tries to use the J'naii's persecution of its heterosexual population as a metaphor for intolerance of sexual difference. But the metaphor does not work because what the J'naii have come to call deviance is for them—and in the Trek universe, for us—a biological norm; Soren's heterosexuality is the manifestation of the J'naii's original sexuality, from which they have deviated. The narrative then works by assuming at the level of convention what the story announces within the plot, that a gendered identity by nature desires its sexual opposite; it instructs us to sympathize with Soren and Riker in their efforts to connect with each other on heterosexual terms, in opposition to the J'naii's unnaturalness. While the rest of the J'naii come off as travesties of popular culture images of dykes, Soren appears more feminine than the other members of her species—with their short hair, bland unmade-up faces, and flat-chested bodies—and is redeemed from their "failed" femininity. Likewise, Riker's heroic effort to rescue Soren, along with Soren's impassioned speech in defense of the naturalness of her desire, enlists the audience as supporters of their quite appropriate heterosexual passion against the sinister assault of a society whose monosexuality encodes (a deviant) homosexuality.

The homophobia at work in this episode is breathtaking precisely because it arrives on the coattails of a liberal-reformist intention to affirm difference. In Soren's "outing" as a heterosexual in a monosexual culture, the apparent harmony of a world of sexual likeness appears as a repressive artifice overlaid on a genuine and original state of being. Indeed, I would argue that, despite their apparent effort at tolerance for sexual difference, what "The Host" and "The Outcast" have in common is not an exploration of the possibilities for homoerotic fulfillments of desire. Rather, the two contribute to the larger discourse of endangered heterosexuality, in which a variety of forces are imagined as disrupting the natural work of heterosexual desire by confusing the terms of difference essential to that desire.

The most important work that these two episodes perform, for the purposes of this discussion, is the reinstatement of heterosexuality as the necessary locus of desire. But their affirmation of difference is not borne out by the outcome of either of these two narratives, or of the series' engagement with issues of gender difference in other episodes. As with the popular media representations discussed earlier, in which postfeminist discourse reveals the limits and contradictions within the difference it celebrates, so TNG's affirmations of heterosexual desire encounter the inevitable disappointment of that desire precisely by difference. If difference is essential to desire in "The Outcast" and "The Host," it is unbridgeable in "The Dauphin," where Wesley Crusher falls for a girl who turns out to be a monstrous shapeshifter; in "The Emissary" and "Reunion," where Worf's half-Klingon love-interest K'Ehleyr—who ought to share his perspective as someone living in two cultures—disagrees, often violently, with just about everything he says and believes; and in "Booby Trap" and "The Offspring," where Geordi's ideal woman is unavailable, first because she exists only as a fantasy on the holodeck, and then, when she shows up in the flesh, because she is the opposite of that fantasy, a stereotype of the cold-hearted professional bitch.5 Again and again, the story of a supposed ideal of heterosexual desire takes a dystopic turn, as the ideal is revealed to be, at worst, monstrous, and at best, unattainable.

Although the monstrosity of the sexual other is a tried-and-true theme in Star Trek, from Leonard McCoy's salt-eating-mankilling-ex-girlfriend in the original series episode (appropriately entitled "The Man Trap") to Beverly Crusher's slug-hiding-inside-a-man's belly in "The Host," this frustration, even despair, over the possibilities of negotiating gender difference is made most explicit in two episodes of TNG. "The Perfect Mate" and "In Theory" both begin with utopian conceptions of the ideal heterosexual other, foreground their characters' attempts to negotiate romantic relationships, and conclude by confirming the impossibility of fulfilling heterosexual desire. In their exploration of the male ideal of the perfectly selfless woman, and of women's desire for an emotionally available man, the two episodes enact the tensions within postfeminism and New Traditionalism regarding women's and men's desires for changes in heterosexual gender roles, with the result that heterosexuality appears no longer workable.

3. "The Perfect Mate" and her Feminine Mystique. The New Traditionalist backlash against the idea of female autonomy reveals the persistence of an ideal that even postfeminism ostensibly considers to be forbidden—the selfless woman whose purpose is to erase her own subjectivity, submerging herself in her male love object. In "The Perfect Mate" we see the tension between postfeminist and New Traditionalist articulations of appropriate male desire, as men supposedly supportive of feminist ideology expose their continued attachment to a model of female identity embedded in traditional patriarchalism. The text punishes that desire by denying it fulfillment, and along with it the possibility of satisfying male desire; nonetheless, both the desire and its ideal are affirmed rather than successfully called into question.

The episode's title refers to a Kriosian female named Kamala, who is to be given as a gift to Alric, the ruler of Valt, a neighboring planet long at war with Krios. Kamala identifies herself as an "empathic metamorph," a genetic rarity able to sense men's emotional needs and to fulfill them by becoming whatever the man she is with wants her to be. Her role is to bond to Alric in order to bring the two warring cultures to peace; she insists on her voluntary participation in the transaction and thus, though she is an object of exchange against whose abuse the Enterprise men offer heroically to resist, she is quite clearly set up as a willing participant in subordinating herself to male desire— including, finally, theirs, as she pursues Picard and he ultimately succumbs to his desire for her. Her decision to marry Alric in spite of her bonding to Picard only enforces the episode's insistence on the impossibility of fulfilling this forbidden male desire.

Although the episode makes an effort to problematize her status as an object of exchange and even of male desire, Kamala quite clearly appears as the male ideal of female subordination through self-transformation. As Kamala herself describes it, an empathic metamorph has "the ability to sense what a potential mate wants, what he needs, what gives him the most pleasure, and to become that for serve as his perfect partner in life."6 The precision of her self-construction for the desiring man is repeatedly emphasized in her encounters with Picard; when he tells her he has come to learn about her, she replies, "But you know me better than you realize. I am independent, forceful, brilliant, and adventurous—exactly as you would have me be, Captain." Her metamorphosis is the result of a deliberate, albeit biologically driven, effort to know her man fully; she knows him in order to mirror back to him the image of himself, to become not just what he likes, but like him. In her pursuit of Picard, she quotes his favorite author, Shakespeare, and discourses knowledgeably about his hobby, archaeology; when she is with the oversexed Riker, she titillates him by her sexual aggressiveness, promising, "We learn so quickly what stimulates a man—and the second time's even better than the first." Ironically, her capacity for likeness is the difference that makes her desirable—women are/should be able to be what men want them to be (including being like their men), whereas the men in this episode, like those described in the popular periodicals discussed earlier, don't ever imagine themselves making these kinds of adaptations to their partners' desires.7

With this male ideal of a perfectly desirable woman at its center, "The Perfect Mate" develops around a core ambivalence that itself embodies the central tension within postfeminism: between the repeated insistence—in terms reminiscent of the New Traditionalism—on Kamala's desirability and willing participation in her role, and a politically sensitive, feminist-informed concern about her status as a being with full autonomy and selfhood. Picard—acting at the behest of Beverly Crusher, who warns that Kamala is being "sold into a life of virtual prostitution"—continually insists on the necessity that Kamala have an autonomous subjectivity, but nevertheless falls in love with her precisely insofar as she does not. It is this tension, between men's effort to support an ideologically correct demand for female selfhood and their irrepressible desire for a perfectly selfless woman, that the episode invokes but fails to resolve.

Picard, that most upright representative of democratic values, is clearly appalled by Kamala's insistence that she is happy to comply with the role assigned her, and makes a concerted effort to discover some core self in her separate from the desires of others. Picard tells her that he finds it "difficult to imagine that a sentient being can live to be only what someone else wants them to be." He pushes to discover her autonomous self:

Picard: But what about your wishes, your needs?

Kamala: They are fulfilled by what I give to others.

Picard: But what about when there are no others, when you are alone?

Kamala: I am incomplete. What curious questions, Captain.

Curious questions, indeed, as Picard exemplifies that rarest of beings in the episode's economy—a man who does not automatically submit to and enjoy Kamala's subservience, but actively seeks in her a fully realized independent identity. When he tells Kamala, the night before her marriage to Alric, "I don't want to use you as other men do," she insists in reply, "But you're not other men. You could never use me. That's the very reason I'm with you tonight."

The narrative structure of the episode does not bear out this claim. According to Kamala, and to the episode's positioning of Picard, Kamala's aggressive pursuit of the Captain is his reward for resisting traditional patriarchal appropriations of women. But for all of Picard's rhetoric about respecting Kamala's autonomy, he is drawn to her for the very same reasons that other men are, and falls in love with her precisely because of the way that she embodies and fulfills his narcissistic desire. When Picard first enters her quarters, we see him framed in the doorway, and next to him a mirror in which Kamala appears; it is her reflected image that addresses him for the first several lines of dialogue. The blocking of the scene acts as a visual metaphor for the function that Kamala performs for Picard over the course of the episode: although he tries to go to Kamala's "rescue," as she puts it, he is attracted to what she supplies—a looking-glass in which he can admire himself. For all of his protestations, Picard ultimately falls in love with Kamala for the self into which she metamorphoses as a result of being with him. As he tells Beverly, "I barely know who she is, and who she is changes the moment the next man comes into the room. And I find myself hoping that the next man won't come in."

If Picard at first resists her attempt to please him, Kamala's response seems to give him permission to enjoy and desire her by making her subservience to men innate, and therefore gratifying for her as the fulfillment of her biological destiny: "[T]his is who I am, Captain," she assures him. "You might as well ask a Vulcan to forego logic, or a Klingon to be nonviolent. I cannot change, and I don't want to, until the time comes when I must bond with my permanent mate." Of course, Vulcans and Klingons are repeatedly asked to forego essential traits in Star Trek; but when the traits in question belong to a woman, and are so appealing to the men whom they serve, suddenly they are biological rather than cultural—unlike Vulcan logic, for example —and hence impervious to change. Further, Kamala's active pursuit of Picard implies that it is his desirability in particular that is compelling to her; she tells him, "My empathic powers can only sense a man of deep passion and conviction, so controlled, so disciplined. I'm simply curious to know what lies beneath." In scene after scene she asks him to stay with her, and he demurely refuses; thus the narrative seems to free him from responsibility for Kamala's desire to be with him, by making him the irresistible object of her (biologically motivated) sexual aggression.

Although the narrative uses such moves to legitimate the appeal of Kamala's selfless mirroring of (narcissistic) male desire, it also acknowledges the problematic and contradictory nature of that desire. If Kamala's pursuit of Picard seems to be a reflection of his superiority to other men, Kamala also describes her interest in him as a response to his wish to be pursued—reducing her yet again to the selfless servant of male desire, while acknowledging Picard's complicity in her subordination. When Picard asks her why she is so relentless in her pursuit of him, she tellingly responds, "There can be only one answer—because some part of you wants me to." This ironic element also colors the story's account of how Kamala develops towards autonomy, by making it clear that the self she discovers is a response to Picard's need; it is not that she is being liberated from her metamorphic servitude, but that she invents an autonomous identity in order to fulfill Picard's need for her to have one. Although at first she denies having a self separate from male desire, later she indicates that she is developing an autonomous self of the kind he so highly values:

You once asked me what I'm like when I'm alone. I've never been. But I've been alone on this journey. And I've found myself thinking about all the curious questions you asked. You wanted to know who I am. And as I continue to ask myself, the only answer that comes to me is, "I am for you, Alric of Valt." Because that's the truth.... In a day I will bond with a man I have never met, and I will turn myself into what he wants me to be for the rest of my life.... But I find it ironic that on the eve of this ceremony, which I have spent my whole life preparing for, that I should meet a man like you.

The episode ends at a point of tension. On the one hand it seems to confirm that Picard is most worthy of Kamala by having her complete the finisraal —her sexual maturation process, which involves bonding permanently to her mate—early, bonding permanently to him and acquiring the noble characteristics that are the earmarks of the superiority for which she is the supposed reward. On the other, the narrative seems to acknowledge and at some level reject the narcissism and bad faith of male desire, in which he who is the most ideologically upright gets his subservient girl. Now that she is like Picard, Kamala's sense of duty compels her to leave him and to go ahead with the marriage to Alric: "Having bonded with you, I've learned the meaning of duty," she tells Picard on the morning of the ceremony. "He'll never know. I'm still empathic, I'll be able to please him." To be like Picard and the kind of woman that Picard would love (the same thing), Kamala must choose duty over desire, which means that Picard cannot have her precisely because she is someone he can love—someone like him, who would make the noble choice. Thus Picard is punished for his narcissistic desire, even as the moral decency which allowed that desire to flourish is affirmed.

Like the male protagonist in the Cosmo article, "Single White Male, Seeks Clue," "The Perfect Mate" seems to want to have it both ways: to sound off in politically correct, feminist-inflected language about the erasure of female subjectivity by patriarchy, while yet affirming the very ideal of selfless female subordination to male desire against which feminism continues to struggle. The episode tries to tell us that women ought to be more than mirrors of and for men, but winds up saying that the male ideal of a woman is a perfect mirror, existing only to serve. Whether or not the persistent traditionalism of this account of female identity and male desire is consciously critical is unclear, but the episode seems to operate at two levels. We cannot help but read a critical tone into the very deliberate framing of Kamala within a mirror, and into the dramatic irony that turns the tables, as Picard loses her precisely because he uses her as others do. But his wistfulness at the end, and his noble silence when Briam asks how he has managed to resist Kamala, also reposition him as the sympathetic emotional and moral center of the story. This ambivalence itself mirrors the tension within the postfeminist fantasy of ideal female identity, in which the atavistic male desire for a perfectly selfless female Other meets male guilt over the inappropriateness of this desire in the feminist landscape; in the confrontation, both sides come up losers.

4. "In Theory"—or, Real Men Don't Do Housework. In an early scene of the episode "In Theory," two couples are gathered around a table in Ten-Forward, the ship's bar: Miles O'Brien, the transporter chief, and his wife Keiko, ship's biologist; and Data and his soon-to-be girlfriend, Jenna D'Sora. The former pair are amusing the latter by telling the tale of Miles' failure to observe Keiko's rules of domestic order. With affectionate disgust, Keiko describes the pile of dirty socks that accumulated when she left them for Miles to pick up, and her eventual surrender to the inevitable necessity of doing his laundry for him. The message of the story, as husband and wife sit with arms entwined, is that theirs is a successful relationship because the gender roles are clear, and clearly traditional: she is the homemaker and caretaker—despite her professional position aboard the Enterprise—he the breadwinner entitled to receive her care. It is not, however, a perfect relationship. In the loving violence between them—Miles is smug in victory, while Keiko swats at him for gloating—we see affirmed the comfortableness of traditional gender roles and expectations and the simultaneous inherence in them of conflict.

The stresses and disagreements glossed over by this cute interplay will play out with greater vigor between the other pair at the table, Data and Jenna. By contrast to Keiko, who figures in both TNG and Deep Space Nine as a wife and mother first,8 Jenna is a '90's type with a career and no interest in domesticity. In Jenna's version of the battle of the sexes, it is she who is the domestic failure and Data who takes care of her. The puzzlement on Data's face when the other's laugh at Jenna's story evokes the central issue of the episode, as Data struggles unsuccessfuly to make sense of this shift in expectations about the appropriate male identity in relation to female desire.

Where "The Perfect Mate" explores a retrograde male ideal of femininity in the figure of the impressionable Kamala, whose identity is always composed only of the role she is playing, "In Theory" uses Data—that most malleable of (male) characters because he supposedly has no inherent human character and can therefore make himself up—to play with an imagined feminist-informed female ideal of male identity. Men, according to this episode, are irredeemably unable (or unwilling) to conform to the new expectations imposed on them by women. Instead, they cling to patriarchal conceptions of gender roles and relations, continuing to dream of a world in which work and domesticity are distinct, and the sexes keep to their separate spheres. (I will return to this point below.) But where "The Perfect Mate" is an elegy for a lost ideal of male desire, legitimating what it mourns, "In Theory" is a burlesque which ridicules women's desires for men who are emotionally available and attuned to women's needs. Data tries on the role of the sensitive new age guy (Darling's tofuburger), and demonstrates that it is a role, an identity men try to possess but end up only performing—and badly, at that.

"In Theory" has two concurrent and intersecting plot lines. The minor plot involves inexplicable events aboard the ship—objects falling, chairs clustered on top of a table—and the eventual discovery that the Enterprise is travelling through a dangerously unstable area of space. The primary plot focuses on Data's relationship with Jenna D'Sora, an engineer and friend of Data's who is recovering from a failed relationship. After Jenna kisses Data, he goes in search of advice about whether he should pursue a relationship with her, and how to do so; he then begins to enact the part, as he calls it, of "solicitous mate." However, it becomes increasingly clear that he is only performing a role, and not very well, either; once Jenna realizes this, she ends their relationship, prompting Data to "delete the appropriate program."

This episode plays out classic female complaints about men's emotional unavailability and insensitivity to women's needs. In Data's catalogue of Jenna's reasons for breaking up with her previous boyfriend—"he seemed unwilling to set aside sufficient time for you. You said he was unresponsive, that he never did the little things"—we hear the same rhetoric that permeates popular media accounts of women's dissatisfaction with men. They don't talk; they distrust emotional intimacy; they compartmentalize their public and private lives, leaving their women partners feeling marginalized. Thus, when Data tells Jenna that he has written a subprogram for relationships, she feels insignificant, and says sadly, "So I'm just a small variable in one of your computational environments." Data's reply seems to offer the much-desired commitment of mental time and energy: "You are much more than that, Jenna. I have written a subroutine specifically for you, a program within the program. I have devoted a considerable share of my internal resources to its development." Although Jenna's response is intended to be comic—"Data, that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me"—it is also a pathetic reminder of how little women are said to feel they get from men, and how much of the mechanical they have grown to tolerate, from men who are just "going through the motions."

And that is just what Data the mechanical man is doing. As Jenna discovers, his seeming sensitivity to her emotional needs is not, finally, real. We are warned throughout the episode about Data's inability to feel; Data tells Troi that he fears his programming "might be inadequate to the task" of a romantic relationship, and reminds Guinan, "I am not capable of love." Indeed, this emotional incapacity is emphasized to excess, given his clear capacity in other episodes to attach himself to people and to interact successfully with them. But Jenna, mistaking good manners for emotional engagement, conflates exterior action with interior experience and thinks Data is perfect because of his attentiveness to her. "That is not true. I have no human feelings," he explains, to which she replies, "But you give me so much. You spend time with me when I'm lonely, you encourage me when I'm down. No man has ever been kinder to me. Those are the things that matter."

That these are only "things" to Data, and not emotionally resonant acts, becomes clear to Jenna as she realizes that, although he has set aside a "considerable share" of his neural net for their relationship, that share carries no special emotional charge for him. When, after Data has kissed her, Jenna asks what he is thinking, he replies not with a romantic affirmation of his focus on her, but with a random catalogue: "At that particular moment, I was reconfiguring the warp field parameters, analyzing the collected works of Charles Dickens, calculating the maximum pressure I could safely apply to your lips, considering a new food supplement for Spot—" No more meaningful to him than cat food, Jenna has to recognize that all of Data's acts of consideration do not signify the emotional commitment that she desires. If they signify anything at all, it is their own artificiality as performed constructs, programs being run by a machine to test a theory, rather than the genuinely experienced feelings of an authentic self.

The primary feature of Data's involvement with Jenna is his performance of the part of sensitive man and "solicitous mate." Throughout most of the series—and with rare exceptions, such as his inability to use contractions in speech—Data moves and speaks like a human rather than a mechanical object. But in this episode Data's artificiality is exaggerated: when he sits on Jenna's couch, it is with a series of rigid, deliberate motions not unlike Disney's animatronic robots, while his kiss is planted in an awkward, absolutely passionless fashion—although we know from "The Naked Now" that Data is "fully functional" and programmed for a variety of lovemaking techniques. Even his speech becomes mannered and performed; when he asks Jenna, "Did I do something wrong—dear?" the term of affection is delayed and emphasized to make it sound unnaturally stilted. One might say that Brent Spiner, the actor who plays Data, and Data the character, are both performing a pun in their conflation of Data-as-machine with Data's-emotional-availability-as-mechanical. Data's mechanical nature receives additional emphasis when he frames romantic conduct in the discourse of science, as when he describes his relationship with Jenna as an "experiment" or a "program." It soon becomes clear that the scholarly and empirical "research" he does as part of his experiment are a function of his essential emptiness, as Data must look anywhere other than within his (emotionally nonexistent) self for information about heterosexual desire.

Raphael Benjamin's Cosmo article asks, "But how do we know what a woman wants, anyway?"—affirming the impossibility of knowing and therefore fulfilling female desire (58); Data goes in search of advice about how to pursue Jenna, and in the plethora of different responses he receives, gets a similar lesson. In a series of comic encounters, Data interviews members of the crew to get pointers about how to please a woman. The contents of those suggestions—from Worf's patriarchally protective warning not to hurt Jenna, to Riker's lascivious encomiums on the pleasures of love—are less significant than the fact of their necessity; Data has neither experience nor theoretical knowledge, nor can he integrate the two into a meaningful application. This becomes most apparent in the penultimate encounter between Jenna and Data, performed in a scene that parodies both traditional heterosexual domesticity (vide Miles and Keiko) and the role reversals supposedly demanded by feminism in particular. "Honey, I'm home," Data calls out as he enters Jenna's quarters, briefcase in hand. They ask each other about the day at work, then Data—reversing traditional gender roles—enacts the part of the ideally attentive sensitive new age mate: telling her to relax while he takes care of "everything"; bringing her a drink and offering to make dinner (from a replicator, of course); putting up her feet for her, showering her with compliments, then starting to do the housework. The performed nature of this role is constantly foregrounded, first in Data's exaggerated romantic swagger, then in his awkward, stagey endearments—"Darling, you remain as aesthetically pleasing as the first day we met. I believe I am the most fortunate sentient in this sector of the galaxy"—and finally when he suddenly shifts back into his (natural) android mode to announce, "I could organize your closets for you. I have found that, by grouping apparel first by function, then by color, from light to dark, one can more easily find one's desired choice."

In the collapse of Data's performed part, and the resurgence of his logically-minded android self, we see the thinness of his assumed identity as perfect mate for a '90s woman. Jenna herself observes the artificiality of his performance:

Jenna: There's just something strange about the way you're acting.

Data: Am I not behaving as a solicitous mate?

Jenna: Yes, but—

Data: Tending to your every need?

Jenna: What's wrong with you tonight?

Data stages a "lover's quarrel," explaining that his research shows that the reconciliation that follows romantic conflict increases intimacy:

Jenna: But there's something so forced and artificial about the way you're doing it, Data. It's just not the real you.

Data: With regard to romantic relationships, there is no "real" me.

And that is precisely the point. There can be no authentic male self of the kind that women want, only men acting a part for which they have no genuine feeling. Insofar as Data stands in for the emotionlessness of men, the message is clear: A feeling man is a simulacrum, never the real thing.9

What is more, the narrative to some extent endorses Data's failure by painting the sensitive, supportive man as the emasculated victim of women's whimsy. Being a "solicitous mate" on Jenna's terms means not only picking up laundry and making dinner, but acting as emotional support for her neediness and neurosis—reassuring her about her performance during a concert, helping her to resist the urge to get back together with an old boyfriend. It means that Data must submit to capricious and arbitrary rules: when Jenna visits him in his quarters to give him a present, she clearly expects him to give up what he is doing and admire her gift in just the right way, but instead she tells him to go on with his painting, and then, when he does so, objects, explaining, "The Book of Love, chapter four, paragraph seventeen: when your girlfriend arrives with a gift, stop whatever it is that you're doing and give her your undivided attention." Jenna's expectation is not unreasonable, but her failure to give Data clear signals makes it seem so.

Indeed, the narrative repeatedly undermines the legitimacy of Jenna's desires. In the initial list of complaints about Jenna's ex-boyfriend, Data includes the item, "you disliked the sound he made when he ate his soup...." The effect of this is to trivialize her complaints, making her unreasonable and irrational in her demands on men. The episode not only delegitimizes the female position in romantic relationships in this manner; it also takes a swipe at women's capacity to contribute to the sphere in which men supposedly excel —work. If in personal relationships Jenna is unreasonable, and in domestic life she is a failure because she is a professional woman—she works all day and as a consequence her quarters are a mess—in the world of work which provides the frame for their relationship, she is barely competent. In both scenes where she and Data work together in engineering, she is distracted by her personal concerns, worrying about her ex-boyfriend and reminiscing about childhood picnics while Data programs photon torpedoes. She is not, even according to Data, very good at her job; he tells Guinan that she is "a competent officer, highly motivated, though somewhat lacking in her understanding of the theory underlying the dilithium matrix application." Along with Kamala, Jenna is disturbingly reminiscent of the women characters in the original ST series of the 1960s, where "[w]omen are stereotypically being less competent and trustworthy than men; more sentimental, fearful, and gullible; and more often moved by their feelings and petty personal desires" (Lamb & Veith, 240.)

In the symbolic economy of the episode, Jenna is more than just a type of the emotional female unfit for the work world of men; she is associated with the danger which threatens the ship in the subplot, a danger which is figured as feminine. The Enterprise, sent to study a nebula in which there is a lot of mysterious "dark matter," suffers a series of unaccountable malfunctions and disruptions until Picard, finding all the chairs piled on the table—in a Jenna-like example of domestic disorder—speculates that they have a poltergeist aboard. (It is worth remembering that poltergeists are often associated with highly emotional adolescent girls and their disorderly desires.) The connection between this danger and Jenna becomes explicit as she leaves Data's quarters after behaving whimsically about the gift and then instructing him in how to treat a girlfriend properly; as she walks down the corridor, the wall behind her momentarily dissolves.

By contrast, Data is at his best in the world of work—a world that functions most smoothly when free of the distractions of women. Although he and Jenna are ostensibly studying the nebula together, Data maps it, figures out the source of the disruptions, and proposes the solution. Except for those two scenes, in which Jenna talks about personal matters while Data completes their tasks, this world is empty of women. (The world of relationships is not, however; in that world, where women have knowledge, Data consults Guinan and Deanna—but nevertheless takes Riker's advice.) As a result, it functions seamlessly, as problems are identified, researched, and resolved without interior doubt or interpersonal conflict. The contrast between this harmonious efficiency and Data's strained efforts in his relationship with Jenna enforces our sense that men are only at ease and fully real in their work lives. The male world of work appears as a blessed alternative to the confusion and disorder which women's expectations inflict on men.

"In Theory" concludes by both affirming and legitimating men's insufficiency to meet women's needs. After Jenna has discovered that there is no "real" Data, she breaks off their relationship, confirming her experience of men's emotional unavailability and women's inevitable disappointment:

Jenna: Data, sometimes people blindly make the same mistake again and again.

Data: Are you currently experiencing this phenomenon?

Jenna: I got out of a relationship with an unemotional man, and I got right back into another one, with a man who is absolutely incapable of emotion.

Data: There does appear to be a recurring motif.

Jenna: You were so kind and attentive. I thought that would be enough.

Data: Is it not?

Jenna: No, it's not. Because, as close as we are, I don't really matter to you, not really. Nothing I can say or do will ever make you happy, or sad, or touch you in any way.

Data: That is a valid projection. It is apparent that my reach has exceeded my grasp in this particular area.

Both Jenna and Data each realize the latter's inability to fulfill women's most basic desire—to matter, to be loved. We get the feeling, as Jenna leaves and Spot jumps up into Data's lap, that he is relieved to be delivered from an expectation he has repeatedly said he could not meet.

The overall effect of "The Perfect Mate" and "The Host," despite their initially utopian formulations, is to reassert traditional truths about heterosexual relationships: men want (but won't get) women who live only for them; women want (and damned well won't get) sensitive men who can actually give them what they need. The ideological position behind such messages is not simply reactionary antifeminism, I think; or rather, I would say that the postfeminism evidenced in these narratives is complex in its oppositionality. The locus for these representations is, after all, Star Trek, a metanarrative with a long history of liberal reformist impulses. But just as the original series tended to reassert colonialist and capitalist hegemonies even while trying to call them into question, so for Star Trek: The Next Generation the sincere acknowledgement of gender equality is riddled with conservative contradictions. In "The Host" and "The Outcast," TNG tries to explore alternatives to heterosexuality, only to reinscribe the necessity of difference; in "The Perfect Mate" and "In Theory," it foregrounds feminist-inflected demands for the erasure of inequitable differences, only to reaffirm the essentiality of those differences to a postfeminist model of male desire. But that reaffirmation is equally dystopic in nature, as the persistence of feminist ideologies ensures that men get no more satisfaction than women from their desires. In the failure to fulfill that desire, the ideology which articulates it reveals its inner contradictions.


1. It is very much interested in racial difference, as well. Thus Richard Yarborough has argued, in "Race—The Final Frontier: The Depiction of Blackness in Contemporary Science Fiction Film and Television," a paper delivered at the American Studies Association Conference in 1992, that science fiction in 1980s film and television takes on questions of racial difference by rearticulating the nature of that difference as that between human and alien; that is, race becomes species, Blacks become Klingons—and Black actors are cast as aliens—and thus the historicity of racial difference is conveniently elided. I am very much indebted to Professor Yarborough's paper for many of the ideas in the essay that follows.

2. I use the terms "postfeminism" and "New Traditionalism" as they are currently used in feminist discourse to signify the conservative counterreaction—what Susan Faludi, in Backlash (1991), calls a "backlash"—against 1) the changing landscape of gender relationships as women have claimed more political, economic, and social equality in the wake of the Women's Movement; and 2) the disruption of traditional gender roles and identities entailed by those changes. The implication of such terms is that "postfeminism" does not just come after feminism—as if the feminist project were ended—but is an attempt to undermine and erase it; and that the New Traditionalism's evocation of such things as "family values" is in fact a more insidious effort to return to a lost patriarchal past.

3. My thanks to Taylor Harrison for providing this succinct articulation of the distinction.

4. I do not mean to imply by this that popular narrative is necessarily a didactic enforcement of hegemonic ideologies. Indeed, I would take issue most strenuously with the Frankfurt School precisely for its assumption that mass culture in general and fictional narratives in particular are sucker punches for an easily deluded proletariat. On the other hand, the texts I am discussing here are products of the dominant culture's entertainment industry, and although they may be appropriated and poached and otherwise made to mean differently (to borrow terms from Fiske, de Certeau, and others), they at least begin from a position of entanglement in the dominant discourse.

5. And married, to boot. Richard Yarborough makes a persuasive argument about the impact of Geordi's Blackness on his sexuality; the series represents him as a sexual incompetent, and this, combined with the fact of his blindness, defuses and evades the threat normally embedded in representations of Black men as sexual predators in US popular culture (see Note 1).

6. It is always "him." The episode is notable for the absence of encounters between Kamala and any of the women characters on the ship; Beverly speaks out against Kamala's victimization, acting as Picard's feminist conscience, but never sees her, much less reacts to her overwhelming sexual appeal. Indeed, Kamala's self-description always incorporates her sexual other as male; it is "him" she exists to know and please. The episode simply cannot imagine desire organized around any terms other than the heterosexual, in which men desire and women accommodate them.

7. Briam does remark, when Kamala first appears, that male metamorphs are common on Krios, while females are extremely rare; but the narrative logic of this episode, and the cultural work it performs on behalf of New Traditionalist antifeminism, leads me to treat this as meaningful only insofar as it increases Kamala's desirability by making her one of a vanishing breed.

8. It is to the credit of Deep Space Nine that it has begun to address this representation—not yet by spotlighting Keiko in her professional capacity, but by offering episodes in which Miles and Keiko struggle with the competing demands of their professional and marital lives. As of this writing, Keiko's professional life appears to be in the ascendant.

9. As Rhonda Wilcox notes, "While Data protests that he has no `human' emotions ...the effect of the episode is to make him seem more human even in his failure to relate..." ("Dating Data: Miscegenation in Star Trek: The Next Generation," Extrapolation 34:265-277, Fall 1993, 274).


Benjamin, Raphael. "Why Being a Man is Harder Than Ever." Cosmopolitan July 1993: 56-62.

Darling, Lynn. "Single White Male, Seeks Clue." Esquire June 1993: 97-104.

Ellner, Eddie. "Six Things Men Hate." Mademoiselle March 1995: 178-81.

Gray, John. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Lamb, Patricia Frazer, & Diana L. Veith. "Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines." Erotic Universe. Ed. Donald Palumbo. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986. 235-255.

Penley, Constance. "Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology." Technoculture. Ed. Penley & Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 135-162.

———. "Introduction." Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Ed. Constance Penley et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. vii-xi.

Rapping, Elayne. "Women are from Venus, Men are From Mars." The Progressive 58:40-43, May 1994.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. NY: Ballantine, 1990.

"Top Ten Oprahs." People Weekly 5 Sept. 1988: 15.

Zoglin, Richard. "Talking Trash." Time 30 Jan. 1995: 77.

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