The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Remember the Past & Captain Kirk Accurately

I recently read an excellent, long article about how the popular conception of Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series is all wrong. He never slept with a green woman, or even slept around: He was not a womanizer. His relationship history is reasonable and shows no pattern of abuse, not even emotional abuse. He wasn’t a maverick who didn’t obey orders or a jerk. He was competent, and even an intellectual, and the most important thing to him was his ship and the safety of the people on board it, not personal glory or any such thing.

We have weird ideas about history. A lot of it comes down either seeing the present as better, or worse, than it is.  We think we’re all better than the late 60s and early 70s when it comes to gender relations, for example, so we assume that Kirk was bad that way.

But, in fact, the conception of masculinity that we have in male movie leads today is completely foreign to that time. Even the “action” leads don’t look body builders, and, except in martial arts movies, they can’t win fights against lots of other guys, and so on. They aren’t power fantasies, in part probably because so many guys had been in real brawls and fought in wars.

Even the Dirty Harry movies show Callahan as very much not super-human. He isn’t an action hero as we typically define them: He can’t take on large numbers of “mooks.” He wins at least one iconic fight simply by outsmarting his opponent who drowns by being unable to stop his motorcycle from sliding into the ocean.

This is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of bad masculinity around then: There was a lot of wife-beating, for example. There was a lot more actual violence, period. But it was far less glamorized than we make ours–there was little pretense that it was pretty.

And it didn’t involve men with big muscles; that wasn’t the masculine archetype. Even John Wayne, while big, was not a body builder.

We have images of the past that are archetypes, and those archetypes aren’t necessarily right. The whole incel thing is unimaginable from a 70s perspective. Whatever has gone wrong with men in our era is not what was wrong with men in the 70s. We have actual different pathologies and in some ways (not all) they are worse.

Certainly we are less free in many ways than the 60s and early 70s were. It isn’t even a question: You could walk into almost any non-military building back then with no security. There were less cameras. Credit scores and drug tests were far less common. More drugs were legal.

In other ways we are more free, especially in terms of sex.

We use the past to justify the present, and to argue for our preferred futures. We caricature it, pick out highlights, and so on.

Some of this is inevitable, but it’s wise to at least know what we’re doing. And when the actual original resources are available, we should respect them. The movies and the TV shows of that era still exist. In many cases, we can easily still see them.

It was not “every thus” that TV was a sexist wasteland. In fact, Star Trek was a utopian show, trying to show a world in which gender and race mattered less than it does today, but where it still did matter (one of Kirk’s ex’s broke up with him because she hated that as a white male he got preference).

It wasn’t a dinosaur show that was evil–it was better than many shows are today. And Kirk wasn’t Don Draper sitting in the captain’s chair. He was a far, far better man.

Anyway, read the article. It’s important beyond the specifics of the case, but it’s also a good read.

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Further Reading: May 3, 2018


Further Reading: May 4, 2018


  1. While I find the use of the meme “toxic masculinity” to be irksome – another identy politics type trick to bully some faction of the old, dominant demographic – I’ve LONG viewed Kirk as kind of dumb and corny. The dumbness relates to his frequent recourse to fist fights, in a world where a phaser set on “stun” will work just fine. Some more level-headed coolness, as is abundantly evident in pretty much all of the subsequent Star Trek captains, would not have detracted from the character.

    If I wasn’t so allergic to the term “toxic masculinity” – which is often just a controlling code word/phrase targeting ANY expression of “masculinity” – then I might say “Kirk was annoying because he exhibited toxic masculinity”.

    But, I’ll just stick with “dumb” and “corny”. I’m just not into abusing the English language, or using it as a means of deracination, thought control and manipulation. And even if my use of the phrase “toxic masculinity”, applied to Kirk, would have been insightful back in the day, under current conditions, it would get confused with the social justice warriors’ bag of tricks, and even reinforce their meme warfare. Ah, no thanks. I’d rather expose the cultural Marxists, than reinforce them.

    BTW, I’m convinced that the original Star Trek suffered greatly from what I’ll call episode-ism. Trying to pack a complete narrative into a single segment, week after week, is a formula for mediocrity. (Seems to work just fine for comedy, however.) The new Battlestar Galactica was far better drama, in part because it wasn’t hampered by having to develop new characters every week, much less introduce a central dramatic conundrum, as well as resolve it, that frequently.

  2. Hugh

    Think you forgot a link to the article.

    I feel that popular culture reflects our anxieties. I see all the comic book movies filled with super heroes possessing super powers reflects our own sense of disempowerment. I also see the zombie fixation as both a symbol of alienation and an inchoate reaction to a society which no longer functions.

    Star Trek was about optimism. We had a big project to unite us and inspire us in the space program. We had the feeling of building toward something. And Star Trek reflected that. Now we need to unite simply to avoid the consequences of inequality, climate change, and overpopulation.

  3. Dan

    “Anyway, read the article.”

    Kinda need the link, first. 🙂

  4. “This is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of bad masculinity around then: there was a lot of wife-beating, for example. ”

    For the record, a wife is as likely to beat her husband as a husband is to beat his wife.

  5. A1

    Hi Ian

    Is there a link? Sorry if I am blind and am missing it. Excellent article. Personally I think the comic book is now the prevalent art form these days. When I watch a TV show or movie I view it though the lens of a comic book and the excessive violence becomes bearable.

    Remember the old Batman where the actors were not good at choreography and they used “POW” and “WHAM” for the fight scenes? I wish movies would go back to that. Would be cheaper than the phenomenal amounts of money spent on over done special effects.

  6. Julia Versau

    Good essay, Ian. Link to the piece you read? Thanks!

  7. Ian Welsh

    Woops! Article link added.

  8. NR

    metamars: That’s not what “toxic msasculinity” refers to at all. It’s the idea that modern societal ideas about what it means to be masculine don’t allow for a full range of human experience and are actually quite harmful to men.

    I’d suggest reading up on it:

    “This concept of toxic masculinity is not intended to demonize men or male attributes, but rather to emphasize the harmful effects of conformity to certain traditional masculine ideal behaviors such as dominance, self-reliance, and competition. Toxic masculinity is thus defined by adherence to traditional male gender roles that restrict the kinds of emotions allowable for boys and men to express, including social expectations that men seek to be dominant (the “alpha male”) and limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger.”

    These ideas can be quite harmful to a man’s psyche.

  9. Heliopause

    Since I’m old and grew up with the original Star Trek in real time I have some of the same perspectives on Kirk as the author of the linked article, unfettered by the cultural drift he rightly identifies. I also think his analysis is strained at times and maybe off-kilter in places. No surprise. Moving on:

    “He never slept with a green woman”

    I think this elides a basic problem the series faced when depicting interactions with extraterrestrials, i.e. its budget. Kirk did in fact have sex (or close to it) with quite few non-humans (and androids) who were portrayed by lovely young white actresses because they couldn’t afford the prosthetics. So while “didn’t sleep with a green woman” is technically true, he did in fact do kissy face with all manner of exotic creatures (and machines). Whether that makes him a “womanizer” is a matter of semantics, I suppose. It’s also true that many of these liaisons were coerced by circumstance, but note that Kirk almost always has a sparkle in his eye at the end of the episode. The producers were in fact trying to walk a fine line in depicting Kirk, juggling several cultural norms and the demands of network TV of the time.

    “His relationship history is reasonable ”

    This is true. The most notable thing about Kirk and women is that he was an incurable romantic, with a series of failed long-term relationships that pained him deeply. Recall the early episode “The Naked Time”, which reveals Kirk’s greatest fear to be loss of control, and his greatest regret to be his inability to maintain a long-term relationship, themes that would be revisited in “Wrath of Khan” and elsewhere. Overall Kirk is a man who likes sex, even semi-coerced sex (?), but loves and respects women as sentient beings and not mere objects. As mentioned above, in this sense he was walking a fine line between the cultural norms that were shifting in the 1960s.

    One place the author didn’t go (that I saw, the piece is very long and I skimmed over parts of it) was the movie “Forbidden Planet”, which was produced not very long before Star Trek and inspired much of its ethos. In this movie a ship full of horny young male sailors goes to a planet with only one female, who is 19, in heat, and otherwise interested only in fashion and cute animals. Only a few years later Roddenberry is depicting space ships full of both women and men navigating the conflicts between their careers and sexual desires. Quite a leap in a short period of time, really, and I think it should have been part of that very lengthy essay.

    “He was competent, and even an intellectual”

    Another good point. A theme the series returned to more than once was Kirk outwitting advanced computers. Not exactly the mindless “man of action” we often think of.

  10. @NR

    I skimmed over that. Certainly, there’s some things I would agree with. And certainly, it’s impossible to disagree that to “limit their emotional range primarily to expressions of anger” is a bad thing.

    I’ve had “toxic masculinity” thrown at me once, when I made a mathematical argument comparing the multiple murder atrocities in the US attributed to white nationalists vs. Muslims. But that one annoying encounter with an identity politics victim, so I shouldn’t read too much into that.

    I don’t have the time (or frankly, the inclination) to delve into this too much. However, I’ll make a couple of comments regarding societal attempts to degrade positive or neutral aspects of the masculine.

    One is the attempt by school authorities to make my nephew go on Ritalin, when he was a young boy. My mother, who had two boys, diagnosed his condition as “being a boy”. I had heard the author of “Toxic Psychiatry” interviewed by Gary Null, and talked to my sister-in-law against going this route. She didn’t allow it, and my nephew turned out just fine. (Yes, I KNOW that ritalin can be a blessing for some kids). Just recently, I heard Gary Null say that a new study showed that letting kids have 2 play recesses a day had a remarkable salutary effect on their behavior. I suspect my mother would have known this also.

    Another disturbing effect of deracination, which I blame, in part, on neuterization of men (psychologically speaking), is this phenomena of mass rapes and assaults that have been observed in Europe, with no violent response by men, even after it’s clear that the authorities are covering up the assaults. If you consider (good) masculine behavior to protect women, and weaker folks, in general, even at the risk of your own life, then inflicting a de-masculinization on society is not a good thing. Certainly, if I was a British girl living in an area where a Pakistani grooming gang was active, I’d feel a lot less safe than if I was a Russian girl in Murmansk (

    Violence inflicted by men on other men, to protect their women from getting harassed or worse, was mutually accepted by Greeks and Turks living near each other. (See the book “Not Even My Name: A True Story”). Sure, they were both patriarchal societies, but I’m sure the Greek and Turkish men loved their sisters, wives, and mothers, anyway, generally speaking.

    I leave it to others to decide whether or not these two examples of societally induced toxification/neuterization of boys/men are related to “toxic masculinity” in it’s most generally used sense.

  11. StewartM

    But, in fact, the conception of masculinity that we have in male movie leads today is completely foreign to that time. Even the “action” leads don’t look body builders, except in martial arts movies they can’t win fights against lots of other guys, and so on. They aren’t power fantasies, in part probably because so many guys had been in real brawls and fought in wars.

    This has struck me many times, it’s why I don’t like most WWII movies (and a lot of Teevee history of it is almost as bad).

    Compare the movie “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949) versus a war/action movie today. In “Twelve O’Clock High” you see character after character who do heroic stuff—but many don’t survive. One by one, their “number” comes up and they get shot down. At the end of the movie, General Savage, Mr. “hard-ass” who was put in charge of the bomber group because the previous commander identified too-closely with the fate of his men–he cracks too under the psychological strain. The message of the movie was “war is bigger than any one individual, no one is immune from the damage it wreaks, both physical and psychological, and it takes a large collaborative effort to win”.

    Contrast that with all our action superhero movies today, where one (or a collection) of superheros come in to save the world. My favorite anthropologist Marvin Harris once wrote that most art is propaganda, most serves a social/political intent, and the propaganda today tells us that the bigger-than-reality Nietzschean/Randian/Carlyle hero does it all. Given that niches with the same thing they say in our economy about the “job creators”, is this shift at all surprising?

    Another example is the recent movie “Fury”. I couldn’t watch it all on a flight, it was so horrible on so many levels–but when the tank crew commander orders the reluctant rookie to shoot German POWs as the rookie is just being ‘unrealistic’ about war and can’t fathom what “really” needs to be done, I couldn’t help but think “Ah, Hollywood’s justification for ‘special interrogation tactics!!” Plus the tank tactics in “Fury” were laughably bad to make for Hollywood drama. Tanks just don’t fight that way (if they want to survive, that is). If you’re in a tank, the idea of even non-penetrating rounds hitting you is not a comforting thing, and if one hits you a typical response is to throw the thing into reverse and find cover.

    I have Vasiliy Krysov’s book about his fighting in Soviet AFVs on the Eastern front, and once his SU-85 regiment was confronted by a German Panther tank popping over the edge of a rise during the battles around Brussilov in the Ukraine in November 1943. His own company fired when the Panther appeared, with five 85 mm rounds hitting the Panther’s armor almost immediately–and they all bounced! But that was enough for the German crew, they threw open the hatches, jumped out of the Panther, and ran! I am sure that German crew was thinking that ‘we may not be so lucky with the next incoming series of rounds’ even though the Panther’s front armor was a tough target for Krysov’s 85 mm gun.

  12. someofparts

    Well, I say more power to men who are evolving or even just thinking about it or talking about it.

    In a world where Maggie Thatcher and Hillary Clinton are the flowers of feminism, real feminism is good and dead.

  13. Ché Pasa

    Try thinking of it this way: The original series was conceived and pitched much like a Western in space. Roddenberry had written scripts for “Have Gun, Will Travel” and some of the themes of that series were transferred to “Star Trek” when the time came. Themes that included complexity in dealing with “strange new worlds,” females, aliens, and outlaws.

    The Enterprise was on an exploration and colonial support mission. They were forever answering distress calls and attempting to come to the rescue of colonies in distress for one reason or another. They routinely encountered natives who didn’t like them and wanted them gone, but because of the Mission, they couldn’t do that; they had to project Federation power and if possible, impose Federation control. On the other hand, there was that pesky Prime Directive…

    It’s pure revisionism to claim Kirk wasn’t a womanizer in the original series. He most definitely was. His susceptibility to female charms was part of his character. And it was widely noted at the time. Paladin, too, was a notorious womanizer, though his encounters were somewhat different.

    The conventions of series teevee at the time did not allow detailed exploration of what Kirk did with his many female companions. But the suggestions were sufficient to assume he periodically submitted to his randy nature.

    Contrast that with the near celibate characters of Picard and Janeway.

    The fistfight was part of the Western convention, and Kirk was involved in one egregious fistfight after another. It was a staple of the series — and seemed silly to many viewers. Why are they always fighting with their fists? But then, phasers on stun wouldn’t have taken up as much time nor would they have allowed Kirk to display his acrobatic skills or get his shirt ripped off — as he surprisingly often did.

    Of course we shouldn’t leave out the many gladiatorial contests in the original series.

    The series featured plenty of cheesecake and beefcake, after all. Shatner was not a body builder, no, but for the times, he was pretty well put together, and he was shirtless in quite a few original episodes. For the most part, the rest of the crew was not, though it wasn’t uncommon for males on those strange new worlds to wear little, just like the females — who were frequently dressed in the scantiest of glued on garb.

    As for that crew, the periodic loss of Redshirts has become a meme. Redshirts are sacrificial in episode after episode, so frequently do they expire that it’s almost taken for granted that a few of them– or sometimes many — will perish. Kirk’s attitude toward the loss of his Redshirted crewmen is much like that of the Bwanas in Tarzan movies when the native bearers fall off the narrow Precipice trail: “Poor devils!” If that.

    Yes, of course, history is misremembered, but the various iterations of the Star Trek franchise play frequently on the teevee, and it’s not hard to follow Kirk’s (and Picard’s and Janeway’s and Archer’s) characters — seeing them through contemporary eyes, and for those of us old enough, remembering them as they were seen back when.

  14. Chipper

    “most art is propaganda”

    I’d have to agree. It’s ironic that “liberal Hollywood” which is indeed populated by many liberal people (you know, what passes for liberal these days in the US) manages to produce so many deeply conservative movies.

  15. Merasmus

    Uh, when was the last time you actually sat down and watched the original Star Trek? Star Fleet is literally portrayed as not allowing female captains, and there’s an entire episode where
    Kirk and a woman swap bodies, the woman being an inept and overly emotional captain.

  16. I read the long article you linked to about the reshaping popular conception of Captain Kirk. The article was indeed long and what was most disturbing to me was the style and vocabulary of some of the writing in the article. Many of what I think were oblique references to current culture left me less illuminated than mystified. Similarly the occasional brief wanderings through current social theory — at least I think that’s what they were — were as clear as some of Slavoj Žižek’s discussions of Lacanian psychoanalysis in relation to the drift of current affairs. In spite of these difficulties with the writing I did begin to wonder what the mis-remembering and mis-representation of Captain Kirk meant and I was especially pleased by the tie made between Kirk and Hornblower — something I never noticed and now greatly appreciate. I’m not sure the article clarified for me a cause, purpose, or intent behind the mis-remembering and mis-representation the article presented. Why is this happening and happening now? Maybe the answers were coded in those passages of the article I couldn’t understand.

    To this question I would add a question related to writing in the article rather than its content. I believe I am reasonably well-educated and intelligent and willing to make an effort at understanding material I find difficult. [I looked up ‘dybbuk’ and ‘kyriarchy’ and slowly puzzled out the meaning of ST TOS and the other acronyms that crept into the text.] So unless I am greatly overestimating my education, abilities, and efforts, which is entirely possible, for whom was this article written? I’m reasonably sure it wasn’t written to communicate with me.

    I would also add a further context within which to remember Kirk. The Star Trek series came along while the nation was involved in the Space Race. I lived through those times and remember the palpable feelings of a national transcendence. The character of Kirk captured for me some of this striving and I found an identification with Kirk and Spook which I never found with any of the characters in the later instantiations of Star Trek with the possible exception of Picard in the episode “Inner Light” [referenced in the article]. I saw one of the latest Star Trek movies and although the special effects were splendid neither the plot nor any of the characters captured my imagination or my sympathies.

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