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Stripped Star Trek: When is it Gratuitous?

A while back I wrote glowingly about the new Star Trek film (or rather, I wrote glowingly about the idea of Starfleet and how fabulous it would be to work there.)

There was this one scene in the film that has drawn a lot of criticism from feminists–I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler to say that there’s a gratuitous underwear shot at one point in the movie (in fact I think it might be featured in the trailers.)

I’m told now that there were also strong objections to the underwear scene involving Kirk (Chris Pine), Gaila–the green one–(Rachel Nichols) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in the 2009 film–it was seen as a completely needless way to make the actors get their kit off.  But I didn’t think that scene could be described as completely gratuitous because it made sense and it helped to further our understanding of the characters.  Was it strictly speaking necessary to the plot?  Probably not, but at least everyone’s motivations for being undressed were clear: two of the characters were engaged in an intimate act, and the third…well, if YOU just interpreted an emergency signal from a Klingon prison planet, you’d want to change into something more comfortable too, I guess.

But as I said, that didn’t bother me because that scene became a comedy of manners: what it most reminded me of was the fast-paced hijinks in the play A Flea in Her Ear which I saw a few years ago at the Old Vic.  Sexual suggestiveness in and of itself shouldn’t be objectionable in a production, whether that be the witty artistry of the Old Vic or the blockbuster slickness of a Hollywood summer film.  Ribald humor is still allowed (even by feminists).  Because in both cases, the humor was about the very fact that sex and the social situations surrounding it are very funny; they are points of discomfort and unease and anxiety.  This ranges all the way from an individual’s anxiety to uphold (or to challenge) the social mores that govern our sexual lives and our social position as a result of our sexual choices, all the way down to the fact that bodies are quite amusing things when you stop to think about it.  (Or rather, our social expectations of bodies often contravene bodily action–or inaction–which can provoke a number of reactions, perhaps the kindest of which is laughter.)

In A Flea in Her Ear, a whole farce is built, layer upon layer like a house of cards, on the idea that a woman’s husband has lost interest in her (and is possibly cheating on her).  Part of the confusion arises because he happens to look just like the porter of a well-known seedy hotel which it turns out that a number of the woman’s close friends and members of her household have been frequenting (though she does not know this when she goes there to confront him.)  A hilarious double-time series of mistaken identity, speaking at cross-purposes, and unwitting imprisonments ensue, in the process exposing all the cultural expectations, moral assumptions, and absurd hypocrisies to which all the rather flamboyant characters are subject in their daily lives but which crumble at the slightest unexpected turn of events (or in a bordello, either way.)

That scene in Star Trek 2009 does the opposite, actually: it reinforces our existing impressions of the not-yet-Captain Kirk as a rather louche womanizer who remains persistently charming even under the most embarrassing circumstances (perhaps even reveling in them), and of Uhura as strong-willed, no-nonsense, and clever.  (And the green girl as…expendable lime-coloured eye candy.  She doesn’t even get the chance to get her own back later in the film, unlike the bar fight ensign from earlier on who memorably gets to throw Kirk’s “cupcake” line back in his face at a later point in the film.  Perhaps the filmmakers are saving it up, or something.)

So yes, there was a revealing clothing scene in the 2009 film but I actually thought it was rather witty.  This time around it fell completely flat on its face because the very simplest change in Science Officer Carol’s (Alice Eve’s) dialogue (“Please wait until I have changed into this special space suit, which has very conveniently been designed not to fit over my uniform, the uniform which every Starfleet officer wears all the time, despite the fact that there is actually nowhere to get changed in this space pod”) would have meant that there could be no possibility of Kirk ‘accidentally’ glimpsing his attractive female colleague in her skivvies.  Or, option two, since Kirk knows they are going to a radiation-dangerous place and that there radiation suits in the shuttle pod and yet no place to conceal oneself in the shuttle pod, he could have put two and two together (he is actually very clever despite his maverick behavior, as is revealed to us in little glimpses here and there throughout both films) and just chosen to not look for a bit.  Or, with the professionalism of people who frequently have to see more of the body than is socially conventional because they have a job to do and nobody actually cares in that situation, they both could have set conventional ideas of modesty (along with that coy little “turn around, but I’m not going to tell you why I want you to”) aside and she could have just got in the suit and not made a fuss about it. Or, Starfleet could design some proper radiation suits that go on over top of uniforms instead of forcing their employees to strip every time they have to examine some sort of energy anomaly.

So yeah.  If you’re going to bring some flesh to the screen, make sure you don’t leave your characters’ brains behind.

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