Why the Abrams Defense Doesn’t Work: Homoerotics, Heteroperformance and the Gaze in Star Trek Into Darkness
By Rachael Kelly, PhD
Originally published on www.rachaelbkelly.blogspot.com,, 23 May 2013
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, 2013, 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.
- The Marcus Sequence
In order to do so, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of the Marcus sequence. She and Kirk enter a shuttlecraft to prepare for the journey to a nearby planetoid, and she’s 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 can’t 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 is that Kirk – already established as an inveterate womaniser – can’t 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/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.
- The Kirk Sequence
Male bodily display, however, is 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. If the gaze is male/masculine and hegemonic masculinity is, per Donaldson (1993: 646) exclusively heterosexual, then the fetishisation of the body connoted by the gaze can be seen to engender a homoerotic anxiety that must be denied. “In a heterosexual and patriarchal society,” explains 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).
Much scholarly work has been conducted, within the genre of the “toga” or “sword and sandals” epic, to interrogate the strategies available within its generic conventions to defuse or disavow the homoeroticism encoded into its spectacularisation of the male body, a key element of the spectacle that is an important marker of the genre. Indeed, given the recent resurgence of the epic film (300; Troy; Gladiator and a host of small-screen productions set in ancient Rome: Spartacus Blood and Sand; Rome), in which the male body is, once again, spectacularised and displayed for the uneasy male gaze, scholars have sought to interrogate the means by which these texts have attempted to mitigate/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, however, discusses an alternative 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 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, 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 male display. 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 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. 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.
Conclusion: 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-discourse 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 alternatively motivating 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, 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. “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.
And that, essentially, is why the Abrams Defense simply doesn’t work.
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)
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Neale, Steve (1983). ‘Masculinity as Spectacle’ in Cohan, Steve and Hark, Ina Rae (eds), Screening the Male: Exploring Masculinities in Hollywood Cinema (London, Routledge)
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