Film Corner: Star Trek: The Wrath of Yawn

[Content Note: Spoilers for Star Trek: Into Darkness; racism; sexism.]

So, this weekend, I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness. I wanted to like it, but, alas, I did not. There were a lot of problems with the film (for me, and no one is required to agree): The story was insubstantial; Kronos looked like a soundstage; there were gaping plot holes (why did Bones did Khan's blood specifically, when he could have used the similarly genetically engineered blood of any of Khan's 72 compatriots still aboard the ship?); when Bones is more compelling than Kirk, there is officially A Problem. Etc.

I don't have high expectations for a Star Trek film, but Into Darkness failed to meet even my meager expectations.

One of my expectations, which was apparently a foolish one, was that the iconic Khan Noonian Singh, a Sikh character, would not be whitewashed. Whoooooops! Silly me. Of course Khan was played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who is white. Marissa Sammy at Racebending:
It wasn't perfect in the 60s when Ricardo Montalbán was cast to play Khan (a character explicitly described in the episode script of Space Seed as being Sikh, from the Northern regions of India). But considering all of the barriers to representation that Roddenberry faced from the television networks, having a brown-skinned man play a brown character was a hard-won victory. It's disappointing and demoralizing that with the commercial power of Star Trek in his hands, JJ Abrams chose not to honour the original spirit of the show, or the symbolic heft of the Khan character, but to wield the whitewash brush for … what? The hopes that casting Benedict Cumberbatch would draw in a few more box office returns? It's doubly disappointing when you consider that Abrams was a creator of the television show Lost, which had so many well-rounded and beloved characters of colour in it.

...I'm happy that actors I enjoy like Zoë Saldaña and John Cho are playing characters who mean so much to me, and that they, in respect for the groundbreaking contributions by Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in these roles, have paid homage to that past.

But all of that will be marred by having my own skin edited out, rendered worthless and silent and invisible when a South Asian man is portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch up on that screen. In the original Trek, Khan, with his brown skin, was an Übermensch, intellectually and physically perfect, possessed of such charisma and drive that despite his efforts to gain control of the Enterprise, Captain Kirk (and many of the other officers) felt admiration for him.

And that's why the role has been taken away from actors of colour and given to a white man. has always pointed out that villains are generally played by people with darker skin, and that's true … unless the villain is one with intelligence, depth, complexity. One who garners sympathy from the audience, or if not sympathy, then — as from Kirk — grudging admiration. What this new Trek movie tells us, what JJ Abrams is telling us, is that no brown-skinned man can accomplish all that. That only by having Khan played by a white actor can the audience engage with and feel for him, believe that he's smart and capable and a match for our Enterprise crew.
Sammy also makes the excellent point that "the secrecy prior to release around Cumberbatch's role in the film" is an obfuscation which, while positioned as a mystery to heighten anticipation for the film, also serves to prevent "advocacy groups like from building campaigns to protest the whitewashing. ...[Studios] don't want their racist practices to be called out, pointed at, and exposed before their movies are released" so they keep whitewashed casting secret until a film's premiere, under the guise of the thrill of reveal for fans. Gross.

And then there's this: One of the main arcs of the story is Spock's emotional expression, or lack thereof, and through part of the film, he and Uhura are fighting because she feels that when his life was in danger, he expressed no sadness, anger, whatever about their relationship and what losing him would do to her. He later explains that he chose not to feel/express those emotions because they're too hard, and that his lack of emotion is evidence of what she means to him. She is moved, and satisfied.

Later, when Spock thinks he has lost Kirk, he cries openly. Blah blah exposition about all the emotions he's feeling. Me, yawning in the theater—because I am so goddamn tired of the "straight men's stoicism is evidence of how much they care for women, but they have all the feels for other straight men" narrative.

The "chick flicks are total garbage, but, man, did I bawl my eyes out at Brian's Song" is such a classic trope that it's become a punchline in films. There's an entire scene in Sleepless in Seattle dedicated to this trope, where Tom Hanks and Victor Garber make fun of Rita Wilson for getting emotional over a romantic movie only to cry about the end of The Dirty Dozen.

There are similar narratives about men who only shed tears over/with male teammates, or men with whom they served in the military. And similar narratives about fathers/sons: I have heard a man tell the story of how he "held it together" when his daughters were born, but "lost it" when his son was born. He told this story in front of his kids, as if it might not negatively affect his daughters (or the wife who birthed them) to know he was singularly overwhelmed by the birth of a son.

This isn't a neutral narrative. It reinforces the idea that women's value to men is less than men's value to other men. And in a film that barely features female characters at all, to see Spock explain to his partner that a lack of emotion is evidence of his care for her, then weep for his male friend, is problematic, to put it politely. (Which is to say nothing of the fact that his partner is a black woman, and his friend a white man—in a film already engaging in whitewashing.)

Which is not to demean the power and value of male friendships. Friendships are awesome. Yay friendship! But compare the reverence for male friendship in film (and larger culture) to the contempt and ridicule of female friendship: Star Trek is saying something profound; Steel Magnolias is a stupid chick flick, from which "Drink your juice, Shelby!" has been turned into a silly catchphrase that you can buy on a t-shirt. Media about men platonically caring for other men are profound; media about men romantically caring for women are garbage. And media about men platonically caring for women are virtually nonexistent, which is one of the reasons Elementary is such a radical show.

If you're purporting to show me the future, you've got to offer me something that actually looks progressive. Whitewashing and treating women as less than among men ain't it.

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