Star Trek: Discovery has premiered and the new lead has already piqued our interest: Sonequa Martin-Green plays a woman named — Michael? Turns out this is something of a signature move by Discovery’s producer Bryan Fuller, who has a habit of writing women characters with traditionally masculine names.
As someone who went out of their way to avoid all information about the show, it took me a while to realize that the "Michael" Captain Georgiou was referring to was indeed Martin-Green’s character. Then my heart skipped a beat at the thought of the characters using gender-neutral pronouns and Michael Burnham being genderqueer or nonbinary.
Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. Michael is consistently referred to in female pronouns, and while we aren’t 100% sure of her own pronoun preferences, she appears to be comfortable with her identity being female. Martin-Green has already mentioned the possibilities her character’s name could potentially explore, including genderfluidity. I am really on board with that, but why couldn’t the show have opened with it?
Gender as a spectrum is still a concept many fail to grasp. It's akin to people’s resistance to the spectrum of sexuality not many years ago. That struggle has not yet been fully won, sadly, and gender conversations still take a backseat today. Possible points on the spectrum include transgender, genderfluid, agender and many more, but how many of your favorite shows and films have addressed or explored this topic? Discovery has the potential to be one of the first, but so far, it seems Michael will not be the hero of the gender spectrum story.
Burnham is already an intriguing character, burdened with demons from the past and facing an uncertain future. In just three episodes, she's gone through one of Star Trek’s more unusual arcs: faithful commander to hysterical mutineer to a fish out of water aboard the USS Discovery. She was an outsider at the Vulcan Science Academy, as she was the first human to attend. Later, aboard the Shenzhou, Burnham’s human appearance clashes with her Vulcan behavior, setting her apart from the crew. Now, as the instigator of a devastating war between the Federation and the Klingons, Burnham is a criminal whose brilliant mind is being employed for unknown purposes by the mysterious, Machiavellian Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
There is so much "otherness" to Burnham that I can almost forgive the creators for not adding another dimension to her. I love the fact that Martin-Green has said that her character inherited her father’s name. Hence, by being female but owning this name, Burnham is already quashing the norm. Wouldn’t it be even better then if she inherited this first name because Burnham is her mother’s surname? Or, perhaps, Burnham is named after both her fathers! There are so many possibilities to subvert the audience’s assumptions of gender norms — I can only hope the creators squeeze them in as if it's no big deal.
Most conversations about diversity in media focus on race and on the sexual orientation of the characters. You would think a franchise credited with inspiring our favorite technology would be ahead of the game when it came to inspiring societal change, as well. Unfortunately, we know how often the studio producers got in the way of positive change in #StarTrek shows.
In 1966, the original Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," cast Majel Barrett as the ship’s first officer. That was swiftly changed in the new pilot, with Spock becoming Kirk’s right hand. Later, fans were promised, by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry no less, that Star Trek: The Next Generation would include gay characters. Despite some homoerotic allusions, nothing concrete ever came to fruition. All signs point to Discovery being the first Trek show to finally include a gay character, a belated inclusion in the franchise after the fleeting glimpse we got of Sulu walking away with his male partner and their daughter in Star Trek Beyond.
The closest a Trek show ever got to studying gender identity was TNG’s fifth season episode "The Outcast", which featured a genderless alien race called the J’naii — but any Trek fan can tell you that the execution of the episode’s central concept missed the mark by a few lightyears.
Giving a female character a traditionally masculine name blurs the lines between genders. This is where the argument of making the character outside the gender binary comes in, and, more importantly, casting an actor outside the gender norm. There couldn’t have been a better opportunity, or greater excuse, to increase inclusivity than enlisting a gender non-conforming actor for the role of Michael Burnham.
Gene Roddenberry had always pushed for change. His message of equality gave us entertainment’s most groundbreaking moments and established the expansive landscape that most of Hollywood still struggles to adapt to, even today. The bridge of the Enterprise has always attempted to reflect the diversity we see in everyday life and every Trek show has continued to build on this foundation. The first two episodes of StarTrek: Discovery were stellar in their representation, not least because the Captain and Commander of the USS Shenzhou were both women of color. Curb your celebrations, however, because from Episode 3 we join the USS Discovery and the status quo of predominantly white male characters (and actors) is restored. That is not to say that the characters aren’t compelling — they are, and I am looking forward to getting to know them better.
But, as intriguing as these characters are, it heightens the fact that Discovery has missed a few opportunities, especially with regard to Michael. There are genderqueer celebrities out there, like genderfluid Ruby Rose from Orange is the New Black, who certainly warrant a place in the 23rd century. The onus is on Hollywood to look beyond and explore this new frontier.
There has been a lot of talk surrounding the new television adaptation of Locke & Key, the comic series by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Despite being an Earth-bound story, the character of Dodge provides ample opportunity for the creators to break the mould. With Dodge’s constant use of the gender-altering key, the character is both and either gender several times. The creators would do right by readers and viewers by setting a new precedent and casting a non-cisgendered actor in the role.
So far, Martin-Green has proven herself to be capable of carrying the show on her still-young shoulders. Not an easy task given that Discovery has already faced backlash from bigoted fanboys who never realized the series was about cultural understanding and diversity. I take nothing away from her performance, but this is 2017: audiences are calling for diversity to go beyond just skin deep. It is time to explore the gamut of human identity and a show like Star Trek couldn’t be a better place to start.
Trek has been ready to expand the sexuality of its characters before, but the time is ripe for it to investigate the spectrum of gender, as well. Let us not forget, Burnham isn’t the only character on Discovery. The show’s creators could potentially explore all genders and more with other characters.
The doors are still open, however, (as Martin-Green has said so herself) to explore the genderfluidity of this character. Could this suggest there are other characters in the Discovery universe who are just as fluid? Perhaps Michael is the springboard from which we can possibly see characters (and more importantly, actors) who embody the spectrum of gender identity in future episodes. Even if it turns out that Michael is just a cisgender female human with an unusual masculine name, Discovery has accomplished what Star Trek has always done: started a conversation and expanded our minds, yet again.
Do you agree that Star Trek: Discovery should have boldly gone to explore the gender spectrum? Let me know in the comments, and check out the teaser for next week's episode: