Originally published in Infinite Unknowns for Brooklyn Zine Fest 2014
If I were to say “Captain James T. Kirk” to you, what’s the first thing to pop in your head? Is it Shatner—or Pine, if you must, though most of what follows doesn’t apply to his turn as Kirk—with that green (yellow!) tunic, those smart black trousers, that rakish grin?
Do you see him struggling with a Gorn, or berating a Khan? Is that yellow (green!) tunic ripped to show his smooth barrel chest, gleaming with good, honest, 23rd century sweat? Or, do you see him embracing one of dozens and dozens of lovely, lovely ladies? Smashing his cheek passionately against their faces, careful not to topple their towering beehives?
Probably it’s the latter, right? (It’s okay if it’s the former, or a combination of the two. He totally hate-made-out with Khan Noonien Singh at some point; I’m confident we can all agree on that.) After all, Jim Kirk is a Lothario for the ages—a space-faring seducer of the innocent and the practiced alike. He’s a man’s man, a real cad, a libertine of the first order. He wines ‘em and dines ‘em and loves ‘em and leaves ‘em. He’s the walking embodiment of chauvinist piggery! Even people who have never watched Star Trek a day in their lives can tell you that.
Or is he? No, honestly, is he? Because I’ve been rewatching the Original Series a lot in recent years, and I’ve got to tell you something.
I hope you’re sitting down.
Here it is: Captain Kirk is a PADD-signing, starship-commanding, capital-F feminist.
We all know the show aimed high, for the lofty social equality ideals Gene Roddenberry wanted Starfleet to exhibit. That it fell short of embodying those ideals is no secret, either. The show was very much a product of its time; the miniskirts, token diversity, and occasionally insultingly disappointing metaphors for the racial and gender politics of the 1960s show us that.
But Kirk is—surprisingly, so surprisingly—a proponent of the fair and equal treatment of the sexes, in word and deed. He’s not perfect, of course, but for most of the show’s run he comes the closest of anyone, even the logical Mr. Spock. Kirk treats women fairly and as equals, even when his rank exceeds theirs, and shows no resentment or insecurity toward those women who outrank him.
Let’s take Charlie X, for example. When Yeoman Rand is in the uncomfortable position of being the object of Charlie’s burgeoning and deeply creepy crush and asks Kirk to intervene so she doesn’t have to hurt the kid, he doesn’t dismiss or belittle her report. He doesn’t try to rationalize Charlie’s predatory behavior. Instead, he explains to the young man that his actions are unacceptable; that women are autonomous beings deserving of respect; and that to disregard their wishes is unacceptable.
It’s an attitude that’s on display in almost all of Kirk’s dealings with women during the run of the show. He tries to persuade or influence a variety of women (as should be expected in his role as a representative of Starfleet and in those times when he has to undertake a diplomatic or espionage mission) but he rarely demands unless pushed to that point by unethical or criminal behavior. He trusts women—those in his crew as well as his colleagues—to make their own decisions, even when they aren’t necessarily the ones he would make. And for all his cultural cachet as an indiscriminate Don Juan, he’s repeatedly shown to be a serial monogamist attracted to smart, headstrong, independent women.
In Where No Man Has Gone Before, we see Kirk appeal to Dr. Dehner’s intellect and training instead of her emotions. In two episodes in which we see a Kirk that is dismissive and possessive of women—as well as sexually aggressive—both of these pseudo-Kirk versions are explicitly framed as the polar opposites of his character. He deflects Lieutenant Moreno’s advances in Mirror, Mirror, and tells her he believes that she’s a smart and capable officer with myriad routes to power and influence beyond the ones she employs as the captain’s mistress. Even amid the festering pile of sexist garbage that is Turnabout Intruder, Kirk suggests that he’s sympathetic to Janice Lester’s suggestion of institutional sexism within Starfleet and her inability to engage with it in a satisfying way, though the show itself certainly isn’t.
There are stumbles, of course. Kirk isn’t a paragon, nor were the men and women who wrote him. But what we saw of him over three seasons and six movies was a portrait of a man who overwhelmingly embodied the ideals of the future he inhabited, and one I sincerely wish the rebooted series had understood and updated as impressively as they did the warp nacelles.