Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Special – Nyota Uhura (Part 2)

In the first part of the analysis, I looked at the eight most important appearances of the Uhura character in the movie and gave some initial thoughts regarding those appearances.  I have read commentary that looks to defend Uhura as she is portrayed in Star Trek (2009).  While I can appreciate the spirit in which Uhura is defended, I hope to list below why I do not generally agree with most of the defenses offered for her.

On the Uhura That Has Appeared Before:

The reason that I don’t jump on board that track is because the Uhura character has never been acknowledged as being a full part of the Legendary Crew of the USS Enterprise.  As I delved into with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the other crew members have memorable moments within the series and the films that fans can point to as to why they can be called legendary.  Uhura does not.  In 5 of the 6 (Original Series) movies, in fact, she never joins the landing party as a part of the Enterprise crew for a mission.  She is never given a scene where she can show how her skills are extremely valuable to the team.  Robert Wise’s Director’s Edition (Star Trek: The Motion Picture) cuts lots of her screentime because her dialogue is seen as superfluous.  Nicholas Meyer seems to do his utmost to minimize Uhura’s dialogue and dignity in BOTH of his films (The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country).  Leonard Nimoy…let’s start with the fact that Uhura isn’t even present when the ship she called home for more than 20 years is blown to bits (The Search for Spock).  Then, in the “feel-good” movie (The Voyage Home), everyone else is given a scene to showcase something after traveling back in time.

Everyone except Uhura that is.

Bill Shatner, for all of his faults, all of his shortcomings, and all of the criticism leveled at him, features Uhura more in his film than the other fan-celebrated Star Trek directors.

It is through that lens that I look at Uhura when she is onscreen.

Because when you take away the relationship that she has with Spock, there is nothing memorable about her character that you can take away from this movie.

I am still waiting on the movie that acknowledges Uhura the professional.

Uhura the expert.

Uhura the 6th Member of the Legendary Enterprise Crew.

Instead, other than her bantering with Kirk and her “relationship” with Spock, the Uhura character adds absolutely nothing to the movie.

On Uhura’s Qualifications:

Part of the reason why I harp on this aspect of Uhura’s role within the Star Trek Universe is primarily because of Hollywood’s acrimonious relationship with Black Women.  This is especially true of nerdly pursuits such as gaming, science fiction and fantasy, or even pursuit into the actual sciences.  Because of this, finding Black female characters anywhere becomes an exercise in near futility.

Opening and Closing the Book On the Relationship:

Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a movie that acknowledges that an African woman is beautiful and wanted.  In Science Fiction alone, there is a real problem with its (White) fanbase with regards to Black Women (and Women of Color in general).  You see it in all kinds of popular media.  Through that lens, Uhura’s relationship with Spock is legitimate defense.  Unfortunately, the relationship looks like it was developed for 2 distinct reasons, and none of them actually concern Uhura the character.

The first is for the character conflict between Kirk and Uhura.  Because Abrams is trying to cash in on fan-perception of Kirk’s character traits, “Screw Any Female That Breathes” Kirk is simply attempting to get Uhura to sleep with him.  The scenario throughout the movie plays like a typical modern Romantic Comedy, where both male and female banter acerbically up to a point.  The trailer for this movie also tries to throw a changeup; the implication is that Kirk actually sleeps with Uhura.

In the [Prime] Universe, despite his reputation, Jim Kirk never made any advances towards Uhura.  It is also telling that Kirk never has never denigrated Uhura in any capacity, and the only time he ever raised her voiced at her was when the two of them were under the effects of the Psi-2000 virus (although having to listen to Kevin Riley serenade over the PA while the ship is falling into the atmosphere would drive anyone to do the same).

The second reason is for the character conflict between Kirk and Spock.  In Roddenberry’s Trek, Kirk has always been Spock’s anchor; watch how many episodes where Kirk has to snap Spock out of some odd stupor, usually by provoking him.  The end result is usually Spock tossing Kirk around like a goose-down pillow before that anger cleanses Spock of whatever had been infecting him.  Most famously, Kirk does his best to help Spock during Pon Farr (TOS Episode “Amok Time“), but it happens often.

A final note:  Uhura never tells Kirk that she “Already has a boyfriend.”  Ever.  This is because of the fact that if she did so, having Kirk continue to hit on her would simply make him a completely unlikeable character AND ruin the “surprise” when Uhura and Spock kiss on the turbolift.

Uhura’s Interactions With Kirk:

Watching Star Trek (2009) gave me a sense of despair.  Uhura expends an extra dose of Sassy Black Woman with nearly every single line she utters at Kirk in the film.  More to the point, the only line she never utters with any kind of animosity or loathing towards Kirk is her final line onscreen, and even then that is open to interpretation.

There has been little commentary regarding Uhura’s behavior towards Kirk in this film, and part of that can be credited to the William Shatner backlash I noted back in the review of the movie.  Part of it can also be attributed to the illusion that Uhura had been defending herself against the unwanted attentions of Kirk.  Even Spock is shown as not holding any kind of extended grudge against Kirk for his actions.

Uhura’s Interactions with the Rest of Crew:

Except for her scene with Gaila, the only other people Uhura talks to directly are Captain Pike (all of 4 lines) and Sulu (2 lines).  She talks to no one else.

In Conclusion:

The Uhura character in Star Trek (2009) is a step to nowhere.  As I continue to note about  Uhura character as portrayed by Nichelle Nichols, she was often left behind on the ship (often by network TV edict) and then is virtually ignored in most of the movie series.  This Uhura as played by Saldana gets more screen time, is supposed to be seen as “sexy,” but that attractiveness (as well as her relationship) are not built on their own merits.  Instead, they are to advance character conflict between 2 other characters; Uhura herself is caught in the middle of it.  The fact that she was on one side of the conflict – from the beginning, it seems – doesn’t mitigate the scenario.

This is the Poisoned Chalice scenario:  Fans of the Uhura character have watched for decades as her character is ignored onscreen, given few lines, and stands in the background nearly all the time.  Now a new version appears, and she has more lines and is allowed to be considered attractive.  The downside?  She still contributes nothing to the story AND she continues many stereotypes of the roles of Black women in Hollywood.  If you’re thirsting for a Black female role that gets near the forefront, Uhura in Star Trek (2009) is tempting to take.

I prefer to look for an Uhura along the lines of the one portrayed in the Star Trek animated series episode, “The Lorelei Signal.”  Although it is a space version of chauvinistic European Myth, it is that Uhura which appears in this episode that need to be seen more often.

That is the Uhura I look for.

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2 Responses to Analysis: The Tropes of Women of Color in Sci-Fi – Special – Nyota Uhura (Part 2)

  1. The other thing is back in the 60s, simply having a black woman on the starship bridge as a “main” character (even tho she wasn’t listed in the main credits, and as you said, she wasn’t used that much, she was still there every episode) was important and pretty big even though they really REALLY should have done more. In the late 2000s, simply having her exist (and worse, be the plot device you’ve just outlined she is) is not special in and of itself, and it’s definitely not “good enough” >:| This is 50 years later ffs, Uhura shouldn’t still be the token black woman >_<

    • Heavy Armor says:

      Exactly.

      But it was even more than that. Nichelle’s Uhura was never Sassy. She was never pigeonholed into one of the other 6 stereotypes of Black women in Hollywood (Diva/Jezebel, Golddigger, Freak, Dyke, Earth Mother/Sister Savior, or Mammy). She was allowed to do the job she was given with competency and dignity (except under Nicholas Meyer’s watch). According to Nichelle, she had originally read for the part that would eventually morph into Spock (some notes: Spock’s original character was not cold & logical. In “The Cage,” that was supposed to be “Number One,” who was played by Majel Barrett. This was the part that Nichelle had originally read for. Given the brouhaha over Majel being a “Woman” Commander AND the USS Enterprise having a 50/50 male-female crew, I can only imagine NBC’s heart attack over a “Black & Woman” Commander).

      Considering that Science Fiction and Space Fantasy have been put the celluloid since the 1920s, it is distressing to me that the most recognizable Black Woman in Sci-Fi media is a role that is 45 years old (Uhura), the most recognized Latina role is Brownfaced (Vasquez from Aliens), and that East Asians in Sci-Fi follow the Hollywood edict of “All Asians Look the Same” (Chinese and Korean actresses playing Japanese-named characters, Japanese actresses playing Pan-Asian or non-Japanese Asian characters, East Indian/Pakistani actresses are rarely found in American sci-fi). Tokenism is alive and well, and operates under the auspices of the [White and] Male Gaze.

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