The Star Trek franchise has a history of breaking boundaries through representation. That was never more clear than in a recent Star Trek: Discovery episode, The Sanctuary, Adira Tal (Blu Del Barrio) comes out to Lieutenant Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) as non-binary. “I’ve never felt like a ‘she’ or–or a ‘her,’ so… I would prefer ‘they’ or ‘them’,” Adira told Stamets. “Okay,” he responded. Adira’s actor is also non-binary and Rapp himself is gay and plays a gay character on the show, which is a trend throughout the series.
Across the spectrum of identities that exist on Discovery, the actors who play those characters all reflect those identities. That kind of representation is scarce in Hollywood, and scenes like the one Del Barrio and Rapp acted in are rarer. In the past, they were impossible to imagine. The series broke ground with that scene, exposing trekkies all over the world to something they do not experience often. However, Star Trek is the perfect platform to portray these important, groundbreaking scenes. Star Trek has a history of doing such things and implementing them naturally in a utopian world devoid of stereotyping and discrimination.
Not everyone can be male, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, and white. In fact, fewer people fit into that rigid “norm” than those who exist outside of it. No one would know that if their reference was Hollywood. Star Trek, since the original series aired in 1966, sought to expand the portrayals in their cast in any manner they could. The original series featured the first-ever interracial kiss on television. Now, Star Trek: Discovery continues that legacy and critics hail it as an excellent example of diversity on screen.
History of Star Trek’s Inclusion
“‘Star Trek has always been pictorial of diversity and inclusion and universality,” star Sonequa Martin-Green, who plays Michael Burnham, the show’s main character, said during Star Trek: Discovery’s San Diego Comic Con panel in 2017. “It’s one of the main reasons it’s so important to so many people to this day . . . It’s such a privilege to be a part of a story that I truly believe is going to bring people together . . . We don’t have to let go of who we are to learn who you are. It’s touched on here in such a unique way that honors the legacy and carries it to a next level. We do it so boldly, but it’s also so seamless which makes it organic . . . I encourage you to join with us, come on the journey with us. Learn about the people around you.”
It is easy for Star Trek to do that in a world where forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, colorism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, etc. do not exist. In the future, society is beyond all of that, even if the original Star Trek series did not always live up to those ideals. When they included female characters and characters of color, who were often male, creators limited their story arcs or made them non-existent outside of serving the main white male characters. Still, Star Trek was always a utopia, following the stories on the starships which serve Starfleet, an organization dedicated to ideals of inclusion and acceptance.
What Diversity Means Today
The initial directive on the starship Enterprise was, “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.” The opposite of Christopher Columbus’ first voyages and the later colonization of the Americas. “Starfleet’s mandate is to explore and observe not to interfere”, Christopher Pike played by Bruce Greenwood tells Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk, in Star Trek: Into Darkness. That trilogy of movies was faulted for its lack of representation and diversity. In Star Trek: Into Darkness, Benedict Cumberbatch plays a character named Khan Noonien Singh. The original T.V. creators imagined that character and adapted him in a flawed way. Instead of improving on the character’s original variation, Cumberbatch’s casting whitewashed the role.
There are many flaws in representation throughout the Star Trek universe. Still, they tried harder than most television series in their respective eras, outside of the more recent movie adaptations. Star Trek: Discovery, however, takes that representation one step further, they achieved genuine diversity.Akiva Goldsman, an executive producer on the show, said on the SDC panel, “diversity has become too easy a word. We’re committed to complexity, the differences in cultures and differences in biology and preference and inclusion — these are the principles upon which ‘Star Trek’ was founded upon. So we chase those, we chase the idea that our arms are as wide as arms can be. This show’s mission is to be inclusive, so we’re very very purposeful about that and you’ll see as we move forward that that’s no means an accident.”
Star Trek: Discovery, an Example of What Diversity Looks Like
Amid rumors of a toxic writers room, proving that even the best of efforts can still cause harm, the show introduced the first canonically gay couple (Anthony Rapp as Paul Stamets and Wilson Cruz as Hugh Culber), lesbian (Tigg Notaro as Jett Reno), transgender (Ian Alexander as Gray Tal), and nonbinary (Blu Del Barrio as Adira Tal) characters and actors into the Star Trek universe.
There are also more women (Mary Wiseman as Sylvia Tilly, Mary Chieffo as L’Rell, Jayne Brook as Admiral Cornwall, Hannah Cheeseman as Airiam, Emily Coutts as Kayla Detmer, etc.) particularly women of color (Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham, Arista Arhin as young Michael Burnham, Michelle Yeoh as Philippa Georgiou, Oyin Oladejo as Joann Owosekun, Rachael Ancheril as Commander Nhan etc.), in leadership positions on the starship Discovery than on any previous imagined starship.
The limits of representation lie in how writers write a character in a story. The simple act of writing a character who is not a white able-bodied cis-gender heterosexual male does not make a show diverse. That is the difference between representation and diversity. Diversity achieves equality, freedom, respect, kindness, inclusion, representation, etc. for the characters, their actors, and their respective story arcs. Representation simply puts faces that do not resemble the majority in pop culture on a screen and pretends at diversity despite the true impact. Pushing past representation and heading towards diversity takes another leap that an industry dominated by the majority can hardly imagine, yet they have in Star Trek: Discovery.
Working Through The Backlash
Somehow, Star Trek: Discovery achieved diversity despite major backlash from a white male audience who do not see themselves represented on screen. In response, the cast and creators had much to say at San Diego’s Comic Con in 2017, after the show’s premier.
“It was confusing to me, the amount of backlash we got, because if you love science fiction, you love the idea of imagining yourself as other, ‘Star Trek’ is about empathy — its primary ground is that we are the same and we accept each others’ differences and find common ground. It spoke culturally more to what’s happening online these days than what’s happening with ‘Star Trek,’” said Akiva Goldsman in response during the panel.
Alex Kurtzman, a longtime showrunner and executive producer involved in many Star Trek projects past and present, said on the panel, “Roddenberry’s [one of the original series creators] greatest contribution to race relations is that he never addressed it . . . And that’s exactly what we’re planning on doing.”
Those words may cause backlash. However, the lack of acknowledgment of those issues seeks to lift characters on the show instead of placing a burden on those characters and their actors. Shows often put the burden of addressing painful stereotypes and various forms of discrimination on people and characters affected those biases in various ways. However, Star Trek’s avoidance, in a futuristic utopia, of the questions around discrimination present altogether helps the characters and actors on the show. They can exist outside the burdens that come when dealing with the world as it is.
“Normalcy becomes a form of activism, just by being and not being afraid of it,” Martin-Green commented further at the panel.
A Better Star Trek Universe
Hollywood and pop culture are not safe spaces for individuals outside of the majority. Creating these spaces for diversification and inclusion is difficult. The moments Discovery creates, that break ground, people will embrace those scenes as they deserve. One day society will remove these forms of discrimination. Star Trek will closely resemble the reality of everyday life instead of a utopia. Until then, Star Trek can lead the way with diverse representations: female characters in leadership, female characters of color with authority, LGBTQ2+ relationships and characters, and transgender and nonbinary characters.
Its diversity does not detract from the plot. It makes the show more viewable to a wider audience and becomes a platform where anyone can see themselves on screen. Through the natural diversity that exists, Star Trek: Discovery continues the tradition of going places where no one has gone before.