Hearing Women of Color in Space
The pilot of Star Trek: Discovery begins with the not-quite-believable premise that Commander Michael Burnham would forget the Prime Directive and go around touching things in space without consideration for what they might be. In reality -- or even past Star Trek series’ -- she would be too smart for that. Then again, Star Trek seems to have a continuous problem giving the few regular women of color characters their full due, perhaps with the exception of B’Elanna Torres. In this context, it’s perhaps not surprising that Burnham, the first Black woman lead of a series, is often given underwhelming and underwritten lines. This continues a tradition of Star Trek falling short of truly sharing the voices of the women of color characters, a failing especially evident in The Original Series and Enterprise before it.
It is not a secret that Enterprise’s Hoshi--who, like many of the women characters on the show, seems more frequently and familiarly referred to by her first name rather than by her last--was horribly underutilized. She is the first person Captain Archer recruits to join the Enterprise, as he understands the importance of having an expert linguist and translator onboard a mission to explore new, unknown worlds. At this early stage in the show, it seemed that Hoshi would play a key role in fully developing the still-evolving universal translator (UT) technology that is so important in series set later in the Star Trek timeline. The “series bible,” which writers used for all scripts, described Hoshi as: “An expert in exo-linguistics, she learned to manipulate her vocal chords to emit a range of alien sounds no human has ever produced. Hoshi has a natural affinity for picking up languages. Give her ten minutes with a Klingon, and she'll be chatting about the weather on Kronos.” Yet outside of a couple of episodes, this early idea that Hoshi will be at the center of much of the action is quickly dropped as she becomes another peripheral character.
Hoshi’s most significant accomplishment in Enterprise is something that we know only from onscreen trivia. In the Mirror Universe episode “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II,” we learn that Hoshi eventually goes on in the Prime timeline to reach the rank of Lieutenant Commander and to develop the Linguacode Translation Matrix. Linguacode is essential to speeding up the ability of the UT to translate new, unknown languages, and thus making First Contact in other series appear seamless. Yet despite the show’s premise of demonstrating the difficulty with which the Federation was established and humankind learned to travel through the Alpha Quadrant, this seemingly fundamental technological achievement is given no actual screen time, and Hoshi’s achievement is never centered. There is literally more time spent on Trip and T’Pol covering each other in decontamination gel than there is on humans learning how to speak to other species. (Although, for the record, we love the Trip-T’Pol storyline and think the series finale is an abomination.)
Linda Park’s Hoshi Sato is not the first woman of color and communications offer to be shoved to the periphery of the series. Before her, Lieutenant Uhura, though barrier-breaking in 1960s American television, has relatively few lines compared to other characters on the show. There’s a certain irony here in a communications officer having the least to say in a show that is ostensibly about seeking out new species to communicate with. The marginalization of Uhura was so significant that Nichelle Nichols wanted to leave the show. We now know that she didn’t because Martin Luther King, Jr. told her that staying was a needed contribution to the Civil Rights Movement.
The way that Hoshi and Uhura are devalued in the franchise extend beyond their respective series. In post-TOS series, cameos by past cast, as well as in-story continuity references to earlier characters, were fan favorites that also demonstrated respect for the body of work of the earlier actors. It contributed to the sense that this was one continuous journey and one Starfleet family. Yet both Hoshi and Uhura have been actively slighted. The larger insult by far has been to Uhura, who was written into the Voyager episode “Flashback,” but was cut from the episode after Nichelle Nichols justifiably put her foot down and asked for more lines. More recently [very minor spoiler alert], the Discovery story arc involving the Mirror Universe missed an easy opportunity to pay homage to the fact that in the ENT Mirror Universe episodes, the Mirror Hoshi Sato manages to make herself the new ruler of the Terran Empire. (For anyone wondering, the fact that Michelle Yeoh is also of Asian heritage does not constitute a reference.)
The lack of a Mirror Hoshi cameo is just one of the missed opportunities that Discovery’s producers could have used to subvert the centering of the white, non-disabled cis man characters (and audience) in most episodes and major story arcs. Another such missed opportunity is how Discovery engages with the UT and alien languages. Traditionally, the UT makes it so that every listener regardless of species or native language can understand any speaker. The UT has also meant that a straight white cis man Starfleet officer, whether human or Vulcan, can comfortably assume that he will always be able to understand anything that anyone in the entire galaxy says. And if there’s something he missed, he can rely on his woman of color Communications Officer to translate the confusion for him, so that he can get back to the important work of saving the day.
Discovery attempts to upend this tradition by having whole chunks of the show occur in Klingon, with English subtitles. But, putting aside that friends who know Klingon tell us that the pronunciation was terrible, the execution of this gimmick imagines only an audience with no disabilities. People who require subtitles because they are deaf or hard of hearing tell us that the English subtitles and closed captioning clashed. And the type font designed for the Klingon captions is, in its aspiration for artistic flair, a sort of über-serif more difficult to follow for those with dyslexia or visual impairments.
Even worse, Discovery’s creators use the alien language primarily to emphasize the “otherness” of the Klingons. Ultimately, the portrayal of Klingons on Discovery seem like a pretty condescending and thinly disguised stand-in for “religious brown people struggling with modernity.” Aggressive development of storylines around the UT, including deeper explorations of its potential pitfalls, might have been better for all of us: human audience and small screen Klingons alike. Not to mention that diving into how the UT did or didn’t develop in the Mirror Universe would have been a perfect opening for the aforementioned missed opportunity for an Emperor Hoshi Sato reference or cameo.
It is notable that the names given to both the ENT and TOS Communications Officers have similar meanings, suggesting that even across four decades of production the role of women of color by producers of the shows stayed attached to certain patriarchal and racist conceptions of the “place” of a woman of color. “Nyota” means “star” in Swahili, and “Hoshi” means “star” in Japanese. “Uhura” was taken from “Uhuru,” which means “freedom” in Swahili, suggesting Nyota Uhura was “free among the stars.” “Sato” means “home/village” in Japanese, suggesting that Hoshi Sato was “at home in the stars.” One can guess that stereotypes may have informed the naming: African Americans are frequently reduced to their history of enslavement, and thus Uhura’s existence as one who found freedom in the spacefaring future is seen as progress. Sato’s name suggests a communal-focused nature which could also be informed by stereotypes about the filial and family-oriented nature of Asian Americans.
As we celebrate the completion of the first season of a Star Trek series with a Black woman lead, fans should consider how Discovery, like TOS and ENT before it, succeeds and fails in breaking away from racial stereotypes and tropes long attached to women of color characters. Let’s be vocal about demanding that future seasons of Discovery allow the voices of women of color -- in regular rather than recurring roles -- to be heard in authentic and meaningful ways.