OUT OF THE CLOSET
by Michelle Erica Green
The following article is about sexuality and sexual preferences. Since I know these topics upset some people, be forewarned. I want to thank Kathleen Dailey and L.N. Cisneros for discussions about Janeway which informed much of this essay.
During the last month of the existence of the Kate Mulgrew Appreciation Society, while I was editing Now Voyager, I got e-mail that bothered me. It was anonymous, as most such letters are -- signed only by the screen name of the writer -- though clearly she thought she knew all about me, based on a handful of columns I'd written for Now Voyager and for Mania. At least, she knew I was married, had children, and had been a member of JetC. The part which bugged me was this:
"You criticize the show so much for your feminist values, but you don't even recognize how you are a homophobe. You print articles rationalizing how Janeway and Chakotay should be together, but you won't even look at a relationship between two women [i.e. Janeway and Seven of Nine]. I think you are threatened by how much intimacy these characters have developed. Maybe you should think about why."
I have been thinking about why. I'm not going to lose any sleep worrying that I'm a closet homophobe -- to most of the world I may be a closet bisexual, but I'm not defensive enough about it to resist same-sex pairings on TV. If Janeway had a woman on her crew who was her friend, her companion, something akin to her equal, I'd have no objection to her pursuing a romance. It's true that I find Janeway/Chakotay to be the most appealing pairing of Voyager characters, but that has to do with temperament, status, position, politics, and chemistry, not the belief that Janeway should be with a man. I'd rather see her with Seven of Nine than a male hologram.
I'm genuinely happy if Janeway and Seven serve as lesbian role models, even if I think any woman would be silly to admire them over Xena and Gabrielle, Susan Ivanova, Dax or Kira. Deep Space Nine always struck me as more progressive about sexuality than any other Trek show; it featured a woman who had lived several lifetimes as a man, and another who fell in love with a changeling - a radical challenge to conventional binary sexuality, even though Odo was superficially "male." Still, it's great if some lesbians have discovered Star Trek because of Janeway. If she and Seven represent a shared pleasure for women, if the characters are the reason women congregate online and at conventions, I can only smile at the irony that UPN inadvertently created a rare instance of female bonding in the midst of their young-male-demographic obsession.
But that doesn't make the characters any less problematic. The bottom line is that I don't like Seven of Nine, and I don't like seeing her paired with Janeway even when they're just discussing science, since inevitably Janeway ends up being wrong and Seven being right. It's been suggested that Seven-haters must be jealous of her brilliant mind and "great body," which I won't bother to debate because a woman can't win when she criticizes the beauty myth unless she is herself youthful and stunning according to conventional standards. I'm going to stick to the singular fact that I don't like what has happened to the rest of the characters since Seven came onto Voyager -- particularly what has happened to Janeway. In fairness, some of the changes began before Seven's arrival and might have developed without her. Still, I know I'm not alone in my aversion to the character, and I don't think homophobia is the cause of most women's negative reactions to the relationship between Janeway and Seven on the series.
I have argued repeatedly against the blind adherence to protocol Janeway has displayed in the past several seasons -- nonsense like the Doctor's line in "Fair Haven" about how she can't possibly date a crewmember because they're all her subordinates. The rigidity only seems to operate in her personal life -- it didn't stop her vendetta against Ransom, nor has it stopped her from using some highly unorthodox "Maquis" tactics. At any rate, similar beliefs about protocol didn't stop Kirk, Picard, or Sisko from having private lives, and unlike Janeway, they all had other available options than crewmembers. (In my opinion, holograms are not an option except for women who genuinely prefer vibrators to relationships.)
While I am sympathetic to arguments about inappropriateness of dating subordinates, they get more ridiculous the longer Voyager's mission continues. Would the crew prefer for her to keep bringing her lovers aboard as she tried to do with Kashyk, or to disregard her crew's needs to protect her holographic sex toy? She nearly did the latter in risking officers' lives to save Fair Haven. It was repugnant.
If the issue were Janeway having an affair with Chakotay or Tuvok (I know he's married -- this is theoretical), I'd say there was no question of either man's ability to become a real partner, to balance the official hierarchy with a private bond. It would be more complicated with Paris, Kim, or Torres since Janeway keeps treating them like undisciplined children, and occasionally they act as such. But again, at this point, if Janeway and one of the junior crew formed an intimate connection, I don't think it would cause a rift in protocol that would disrupt the chain of command.
Seven of Nine is a different story. She's an adolescent, or at least a male fantasy of one -- a virgin with the body of a sex goddess, and no memories of any intimate life before Voyager. If Janeway became involved with her, even if Seven initiated the contact, there would be real harrassment issues. Not only is Janeway the highest authority in Seven's world, and the person upon whom Seven is most dependent, but the young woman has no experience in dealing with sexual matters, and emotionally she's barely above the age of consent. She identifies more with Naomi Wildman than any of the adults on the crew.
Janeway would be in a Pygmalion role with an innocent whom she's already tried to shape into the person Janeway thinks she should become. Moreover, Seven already enjoys privileges given to no other crewmember, not even non-Federation citizen Neelix. Janeway has to be twice as "Starfleet" towards the ex-Borg if she wants Seven to be accepted and treated as a crewmember, and if she wants Seven to understand how the protocols governing humanoid behavior work in this sort of environment.
Kate Mulgrew has said Janeway's feelings for Seven are maternal rather than sexual. Yet a parental role doesn't always exclude erotic feelings, particularly since Janeway didn't meet the girl until the girl was a well-developed, alluring adult in appearance if not maturity. For a time, Janeway seemed to admire the Borg's spirit. I could believe there was an attraction there, especially since Kathryn Janeway is a woman of the 24th century when hopefully people will be more open to the idea that they could love people of a wide variety of species, anatomies, and genders.
There's nothing problematic or even surprising about the notion that Seven might desire Janeway, either. That kind of crush would make a lot of sense, since there are few people Seven trusts with her emotions and fewer people to whom she feels comfortable expressing her needs. Janeway has taught Seven most of what she knows of physical pleasure -- sharing food, playing Velocity, using touch as a means of self-expression. But that's a big reason why it would be dangerous for Janeway to reciprocate any feelings Seven might express. The captain has served as Seven's therapist, her teacher, her mentor, her adoptive mother, all of which are positions where the risk of abuse runs so high that, in this century, we have laws against romantic involvement in such circumstances.
I don't think Janeway would intentionally hurt Seven, but her own needs could get in the way of her protege's need to learn independence. Seven must learn to be happy as an individual, apart from the demands and desires of others. Even if Janeway lusts for Seven -- for which I've seen no evidence on the series, though maybe I'm biased because I don't lust for Seven -- Janeway needs to act like the authority figure and respect those limits.
Moreover, if Janeway's feelings toward Seven are indeed maternal, she needs to start employing discipline before her spoiled brat gets out of hand. If she harbors erotic yearnings which make her unable to hold Seven to the same standards as the rest of the crew, then she needs to put someone else in charge of Seven's training. Or, if she insists on creating a double standard for Seven, Janeway needs to remove the other woman entirely from the chain of command, lest her own authority become meaningless. The effects of that for Seven would undoubtedly be disastrous - she'd be isolated from the only other humans around at precisely the moment she needs to become comfortable with them and their standards of behavior. While the crew might accept Janeway having a relationship with either a senior officer or some minor cadet who never sets foot in the briefing room, I can't imagine officers will appreciate having their training and expertise shoved aside to make room for Janeway's pet Borg. We've already gotten suggestions that Torres and Kim resent Seven always having Janeway's ear. That would get worse by a great order of magnitude if Seven became the captain's girlfriend as well as her latest reclamation project.
Take "Dragon's Teeth," for instance - an episode I liked very well in most regards, as it reminded me of original Trek. Yet if anyone but Seven had disregarded Janeway's authority and woken up a dormant alien who started a war, Janeway would have confined him in the brig for thirty days. When it's Seven of Nine, she barely chastizes. It looks like rampant favoritism, which is bad enough if Janeway shows it towards a protegee. If Seven were more than a protegee - if she were a lover or even a good friend - it would represent precisely the sort of fraternization that destroys trust and comradeship. For years I've been listening to people say Janeway can't date Chakotay or Paris because it wouldn't be good for morale, she couldn't be impartial about that crewmember. Yet Janeway has punished all her bridge officers for infractions far smaller than most of Seven's.
I'm all for questioning the status quo, so I understand why many people like watching Seven criticize Janeway's rigid devotion to Starfleet principles. But the effect isn't just to erode potentially outdated strictures. It makes Janeway look like an inflexible, unadventurous woman, on a personal level and a command level. If Seven of Nine were a man who questioned Janeway's authority so frequently, I'd go berserk. I'd assume the writers were trying to give us a message about the incompetence and lack of authority of women in command positions. It's only because Seven is female that I can stomach her at all. But it's still obvious that she's a boy toy, the mouthpiece of the men who write the series when they want to ridicule the captain. It's not all sexism; literary critic Harold Bloom might say the writers feel a need to deconstruct the Star Trek milieu that came before so they can leave their own mark. The patriarchal concept of "anxiety of influence" makes it necessary for them to lampoon the ideals Gene Roddenberry created, so they can prove this series is theirs, not his. But since Janeway represents those older ideals, she's the one who comes across badly.
I'm sure Brannon Braga (whose sexual proclivities have been well-detailed in Details Magazine) knows all about Janeway/Seven subtext. Lots of men are turned on by images of women together; it's a staple of American pornography. I am loath to analyze the differences between the lesbian acts in girlie magazines versus whatever might be labeled "authentic" lesbian images, since many lesbians enjoy the same visual stimuli as straight men, and since reducing desire to gender is very artificial. Those of us who enjoy erotica -- particularly those of us who are women, living in an era when certain prominent feminists insist porn is inherently misogynistic -- try to be aware of the elusive line between what's sexy and what's exploitative, and we certainly don't always agree.
I believe that any onscreen suggestion of sexual attraction between Janeway and Seven is displayed for the titillation of male viewers, since male viewers are the show's target audience. As such, the concept feeds into a crass commercial use of women's bodies and feelings even if the images are arousing for some female viewers as well. We're all slaves to entertainment culture and the thousands of unconscious assumptions it puts in our heads. I'm well-aware that underlying my desire to see Janeway have a romance, there's a hundred jumbled stereotypes from Disney cartoons and romantic movies and fairy tales, insisting that a woman's not truly happy without a mate. I'm also aware that those same influences have informed my own choices in life, and those of most women of my era. It's hard for most women to conceptualize what a woman of the 24th century might be like, so think how much more baggage the mostly-male writers of Voyager bring to the table.
Before writing this article, I sat down with Adrienne Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" to see whether it had anything insightful to say about female independence, about a future where women would not depend on men emotionally, financially, or physically. But I kept remembering Joanna Russ' "utopian" novel The Female Man, where the women lobotomized and ultimately exterminated all the men once they concluded men and women are basically different species. It's not much of a stretch from "Fair Haven" to imagine a future where all men are as disposable as Janeway's holographic lover -- something a woman turns on when she wants satisfaction and turns off when she's finished. The notion strikes me as cynical and fatalistic. It feeds into the assumption that even when we're consorting with aliens, men will always be from Mars and women from Venus.
Even if we don't have a recent image in our culture of a woman in a happy monogamous heterosexual relationship who maintains her autonomy, that doesn't mean it's an impossible concept. In fact, I think it was possible on Voyager, and we came very close to seeing one. I've been trying to explain literally for years now that my interest in a Janeway/Chakotay pairing had very little to do with the personal chemistry between the characters, though the chemistry fed the larger picture. There are lots of shows where we can watch people engaged in passionate romances. What there has never been anywhere on television is a woman in Janeway's position in a romance with an equal, particularly not where the romance had passion and desire as opposed to the meeting of the minds between married scientists.
There was a chance for Voyager to break genuinely revolutionary ground, to insist that a man and a woman can be equals and can fall in love and can work and fight and take risks together, without either of them being diminished. I think this would have been more revolutionary, and much more dangerous to the writers' conservative status quo, than a woman-to-woman relationship which feeds male fantasies and is thus comparatively safe.
A Janeway/Seven pairing may appeal to some lesbians and feminists because these are two strong women who don't need a man (except when they do, as "Someone To Watch Over Me" and "Fair Haven" indicate). But both characters are circumscribed by the demands of male demographic-dominated UPN. Even when there's connection between the women, what we're getting strikes me as being flagrantly entertainment for men. Whereas I bet a real relationship between Janeway and Chakotay -- or between Janeway and any man which did not involve the subordination of one or both of them -- would give Brannon Braga erectile dysfunction.
Since I have no confidence that we will ever see Janeway in a positive heterosexual relationship, I'll take what I can get. I would love to see a real gay relationship developed on Voyager. Seven of Nine has already expressed token disdain for monogamy, and she's experimenting with all sorts of aspects of her identity. While I'm betting we won't see overt lesbianism on UPN until monster truck rallies fail to bring in sweeps month ratings, there's no reason why Seven couldn't have a discreet relationship with another woman. Someone close to her own status, someone who is not the captain of Voyager and the closest thing she has to a parent. It would drive the boys wild and make a lot of young viewers happy. It might even make me like the character, since she'd get some emotional development that wasn't at Janeway's expense.
Then Janeway would have one less burden to worry about, and might finally feel free to love someone who wasn't a reflection of her own superficial fantasies -- if the men who write Voyager are capable of conceiving of a character who could love a woman in a position of authority without being defined in relation to her supremacy. It's time to let both these women out of their closets, but not by putting them on display for the boys.