Thursday, 23 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: Why the Abrams Defense Doesn’t Work

(NB: I'm a film and gender theorist by training, but I'm also a huge Trekkie of many years' standing. Please don't mistake this for an anti-Trek rant; it's not. STID is not my favourite Trek movie by any stretch, but I'm about to go and see the film for the third time and I am very much "SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY" about anything to do with Kirk or Spock. This is a response to an effort to position to Marcus Sequence and the Kirk Sequence as something they're not, pure and simple. I didn't like the scene in the movie, but it wouldn't have bothered me enough to write about it without Abrams' appearance on Conan.)

In the wake of the recent controversy around a scene in the new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, in which Science Officer Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) strips to her underwear, writer Damon Lindelof took to Twitter to offer an apology to fans and moviegoers offended by what they saw as exploitative female bodily display. “I copped to the fact that we should have done a better job of not being gratuitous in our representation of a barely clothed actress,” he wrote on his Twitter feed (@DamonLindelof). “What I’m saying is I hear you, I take responsibility and will be more mindful in the future.” He did, however, qualify the apology thus: “We also had Kirk shirtless in underpants in both movies.” Likewise, director JJ Abrams, appearing on US talk-show Conan on May 22, posited not only the Kirk scene - in which actor Chris Pine is seen shirtless in bed with two scantily clad alien women - as a balance to the Marcus scene, but also suggested that a further sequence, cut from the theatrical release, in which villain John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) showers as the camera pans in on his naked upper torso, effectively answered accusations of sexism.
I want to use this article to argue that these counter-scenes - what I’m referring to as the Abrams Defense - do not, in fact, redress issues of sexual objectification and female bodily display. In doing so, I want to bring in issues of power, dominance, and the gaze, and to look at the disavowal mechanisms built into the Kirk scene that effectively allow him to reclaim his objectification in a manner denied to Marcus.

1. The Marcus Sequence

In order to do so, it is important to understand the mechanisms of the Marcus sequence. She and Kirk enter a shuttlecraft to prepare for her journey to a nearby planetoid, and she is obliged to change out of her Starfleet fatigues into a flight suit. She asks Kirk to turn around, he complies, and she begins undressing. However, as they talk, Kirk cannot resist looking over his shoulder to see what she’s doing, and, despite her injunction, he turns and views her in her semi-nakedness. She stands, in a medium long-shot that takes in the entirety of her underwear-clad torso, arms spread in irritation, and repeats, more firmly, “Turn around.”
Superficially, the dialogue might appear to suggest that Marcus dominates the exchange. She is, after all, his subordinate, but she issues a command and he obeys. The sequence is played for comedy, and the implication (confirmed by Abrams in the interview) is that Kirk - already established as an inveterate womaniser - cannot help but disobey any instruction that prevents him from consuming the female body in some respect. Part of the humour, indeed, is derived from the inversion of the command roles: Marcus, a Lieutenant, appears to have subordinated Kirk, a Captain, using the sexual power of her body.
Yet it is this very discursive mechanism, I want to argue, that strips her of agency. Mulvey’s notion of the Gaze (2009: 19) posits the gaze as, in and of itself, indicative of an imbalance of power: the woman is passive, objectified, “to-be-looked-at”. It is Woman-as-Spectacle: reduced to an aestheticised, fetishised sexual object, presented for the viewing pleasure of the (heterosexual, male) viewer.
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance,” writes Mulvey, in her influential Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (2009), “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditionally exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness… Traditionally, the woman has functioned at two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.”
This is precisely the function of Marcus’ bodily display in this sequence: she is erotic object for both the audience and for Kirk. Given the flimsiest of narrative rationales for her nakedness, this can only be called Marcus-as-Spectacle, and, under Mulvey’s theoretical framework, Marcus is, essentially, robbed of any power or agency that the scene may have attempted, dialogically, to afford her. Moreover, by specifically seeking to forbid Kirk’s look - and by having him violate her injunction - she is diegetically denied agency over the use of her body as spectacle. Her desire to order the terms of her own display is irrelevant: it is simply ignored.

2. The Kirk Sequence

The semiotics of male bodily display, on the other hand, are more complex. That the gaze is gendered male (or at least masculine) is a cornerstone of film and gender theory, and it is borne out by a consideration of those generic forms that spectacularise the male body – particularly, but not exclusively, the historical epic. However, it is important also to understand that the masculinity that informs the gaze – regardless of the lived experience of those identifying as male/masculine and the plurality of subject positions available to them – is itself constructed by a gender hegemony that is so pervasive and internalised as to be, essentially, invisible. This idealised form of performing the male can be seen in apogee in the form of the “warrior hero” archetype, which, according to Caroll (2003: 33), “has historically been used to create social and cultural norms of manhood, defined by characteristics of race (white), class (wealthy), and physical stature (grand). All of these traits exist in art as ideals of the form to which men of all backgrounds should aspire.”
Moreover, as Donaldson (1993: 646) argues, “Heterosexuality and homophobia are the bedrock of hegemonic masculinity… A fundamental element of hegemonic masculinity, then, is that women exist as potential sexual objects for men while men are negated as sexual objects for men.” As such, if the gaze is male/masculine and hegemonic masculinity is exclusively heterosexual, then any cinematic gaze that fetishises the male body implies a homoeroticism that must be denied in order to maintain the hegemonic ideal.
The generic conventions of the historical “toga” epic are a case in point: predicated on spectacle, the aesthetic and cinematic markers of the genre include copious bodily display. While this includes both male and female bodies, the preponderance of the former has led several scholars to consider the strategies available for disavowing the homoerotic anxiety engendered by the gaze. “In a heterosexual and patriarchal society,” says Steve Neale, “the male body cannot be marked explicitly as the erotic object of another male look: that look must be motivated in some other way, its erotic component repressed” (1983: 13). Indeed, given the recent resurgence of the epic film (300 [Snyder, 2007]; Troy [Petersen, 2004]; Gladiator [Scott, 2000]; and a host of small-screen productions set in ancient Rome:Spartacus Blood and Sand [2010]; Rome [2005]; etc), in which the male body is, once again, spectacularised and displayed for the uneasy male gaze, a number of theorists have sought to interrogate the means by which these texts in particular have attempted to mitigate or elide the homoerotic.
Neale discusses the use of violent action - by or against the male body on display - as a narrative mechanism that allows the text to advance an alternative motivation for the male gaze at the male body. “The repression of any explicit avowal of eroticism in the act of looking at the male seems structurally linked to a narrative content marked by sado-masochistic phantasies and scenes,” he argues. “Hence both forms of voyeuristic looking, intra- and extra-diegetic, are especially evident in those moments of contest and combat” (1983: 16-17). Jerry Pierce (2011) expands upon this, but, revealingly, offers additional mode of disavowing the homoerotic by explicitly restating the heterosexuality of the male lead: what he calls “heteroperformance”.
Heteroperformance within the toga movie fulfills a slightly different function than, as I will argue, it does within Star Trek Into Darkness, but it remains relevant nevertheless. Within the toga movie, heteroperformance is deployed as an answer to the gender paradigm that has been well-established within the conventions of the genre: the essentialised masculine/feminine binary that uses gender slippage (conceived in strictly hegemonic terms as deviation from “traditional” notions of masculinity in particular) as a marker of deviance and villainy. For a full discussion of the paradigm (particularly as regards the infamous “Oysters and Snails” sequence excised from the cinematic release of Spartacus, 1960), see Winkler (2001), Hark (1993), Futrell (2001) etc, but for now, suffice it to say that, where good/bad is conceived of as masculine/non-masculine, and masculine is exclusively and performatively conceived of as heterosexual, heteroperformance is deployed to restate the heterosexuality of the male lead in unambiguous terms and thereby deny the homoeroticism that attaches to his screen persona through the display of his body. It is, essentially, a mechanism for “re-masculinising” him in the face of the feminising threat of the gaze. And one of the mechanisms employed to re-masculise the man whose masculinity is threatened by the gaze, argues Pierce, is “direct action taken by a character (wedding ceremony or consensual sexual encounter)” (2011: 42, emphasis is mine).
Kirk’s “balancing” shirtless scene, therefore - setting aside, for the moment, the fact that he is accompanied on screen by two women in a similar state of undress - is not only informed by a dialogical construct that does not appeal to the same power/non-power discourse, it is also informed by a mechanism that actively seeks to disavow the feminising (disempowering) gaze, through “re-masculinising” him via a consensual sexual encounter. Two consensual sexual encounters, in fact. Both at the same time. It is, therefore, vastly unequal, in terms of power dynamics, to Marcus’ scene, in which she stands, half-naked and displayed for the camera’s objectifying eye, and in which her instruction not to look is violated not only by Kirk, but by the audience as well.

The John Harrison Sequence

The most salient fact about the Harrison Sequence, as a counter to the Marcus Sequence, is this: it was cut. A sequence that failed to make it to the theatrical cut is, essentially, inadmissible as evidence against gratuitous use of female display in a sequence that not only made it as far as the finished movie, but which was also prominently featured in the advertising campaign. Nevertheless, the fact that it was cut is, I would argue, revealing in and of itself.
Consider the arguments above concerning the mitigation/disavowal of the homoerotic. The male gaze at the male body must be recuperated through a specific series of mechanisms - violence/violent action or heteroperformance - in order to mitigate the anxiety it provokes. However, the image of Harrison, in his implied nakedness, static beneath a stream of water - at least, inasmuch as it is possible to discern from the fragmentary clip released on the Conan show - spectacularises Cumberbatch’s body while neither mitigating the spectacularisation nor providing an alternative motivation for the male gaze. Moreover, Abrams’ positioning of it as counter to the eroticism of the Marcus Sequence indicates its purported appeal: the female gaze. But the gaze is not female, at least not within the hegemonically constructed apparatus of cinematic display. As Mulvey argues (2009), whether or not the owner of the gaze is biologically male, the gaze is masculine - and it is this masculine subjectivity that is internalised by both female and male viewers. “Men act and women appear,” says John Berger (1972). “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female.”
Quite simply, the Harrison Sequence, included as is, would seem to deny the recuperation required by the hegemonic gaze under the terms argued above. It is impossible, of course, without access to considerably greater detail about the sequence, its location in the narrative, and the rationale behind the decision to excise it from the theatrical release (as shown on Conan, it would appear to have been a late excision, as it seems to have non-diegetic music added), to draw any sweeping conclusions about the significance of its removal, but, considered in line with a discussion of the gaze, and of the homoerotics of male bodily display within a hegemonically conceived viewer subjectivity, its excision would seem to confirm the gender hegemony encoded into the movie through both the Marcus Sequence and the Kirk Sequence. To include it would be to render Kirk’s heteroperformance incoherent – this is not the gaze discourse adopted by the movie, because the movie does not seek to challenge the hegemony of the gaze, regardless of the protests of its director.


While it might seem redundant to hold Star Trek Into Darkness – which is predicated on mass appeal and therefore reliant on the unifying rubric of hegemony to pitch a culturally recognisable ideal to as diverse an audience as possible – to a gender paradigm that remains elusive in mainstream cinema as a whole, by seeking to deny the gender imbalances contained within the movie, Abrams and Lindelof have, essentially, asked to be evaluated on these terms. And this matters. It matters because, as Donaldson (1993: 646) explains, “The ability to impose a definition of the situation, to set the terms in which events are understood and issues discussed, to formulate ideals and define morality is an essential part of [the operation of hegemony]. Hegemony,” he argues, “involves persuasion of the greater part of the population, particularly through the media, and the organization of social institutions in ways that appear “‘natural,’ ‘ordinary:' ‘normal’.” The very existence of the counter-outcry, declaiming the need for the Abrams defense in the first place, on the grounds that it’s “only a movie”, indicates just how “‘natural,’ ‘ordinary:’ ‘normal’” is the influence of the gaze within cultural discourse.
Neither the Harrison Sequence nor the Kirk Sequence are able to act as a “balance” for the Marcus Sequence – as regards the Kirk Sequence, the terms of the gaze are unequal, rendering the power discourse unequal; as regards the Harrison sequence, any notion of “balance” was lost when Cumberbatch’s shower scene ended up on the cutting room floor. It is unsurprising, however, that Abrams and Lindelof felt justified in arguing otherwise – this is the nature of hegemony, to dictate the terms of the debate and, where necessary, to deny its existence. Yet, considered in line with key elements of film and gender theory, the Abrams Defense ends up ringing slightly hollow. It simply doesn’t work.

Works cited:

Berger, John (1972). Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin)
Donaldson, Mike (1993). ‘What is Hegemonic Masculinity?’ in Theory and Society, vol. 22, no 5, pp. 643-657
Fitzgerald, William (2001). ‘Oppositions, Anxieties and Ambiguities in the Toga Movie’ in Sandra R Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T McGuire (eds),Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Futrell, Alison (2001). ‘Seeing Red: Spartacus as Domestic Economist’ in Sandra R Joshel, Margaret Malamud, and Donald T McGuire (eds), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press)
Hark, Ina Rae (1993). ‘Animals Or Romans: Looking at Masculinity in Spartacus’ in Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark (eds), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (London, Routledge)
Mulvey, Laura (2009). ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan) 2nd edition
Neale, Steve (1983). ‘Masculinity as Spectacle’ in Cohan, Steve and Hark, Ina Rae (eds), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema(London, Routledge)
Pierce, Jerry B (2011). ‘“To Do or Die Manfully”: Performing Heteronormativity in Recent Epic Films’ in Cornelius, Michael G (ed), Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film (Jefferson, NC, McFarland and Company, Inc)
Winkler, Martin M (2001). ‘The Roman Empire in American Cinema After 1945’ in Joshel, Sandra R; Malamud, Margaret; and Maguire Donald T (eds), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press)


  1. It was Marcus and Bones that went to the planetoid, not Marcus and Kirk...? (your failing memory x2 for me :D)

    1. D'oh! That bit I actually DID remember, but it reads like I didn't! Better change it to "to prepare for HER short journey to a nearby planetoid". (Going to watch the movie again tomorrow and fill in the brain-gaps.) XD

    2. ETA - fixed it. Thanks for your comment!