I have somehow found myself involved in a controversy surrounding Star Trek Into Darkness. Shocking, right? Well, the nature of the controvery is surprising to me - I've found myself fending off Twitter attacks from people who think I'm the guy who started the whole 'Alice Eve in her underwear is sexist' debate. ComicBookMovie.com even ran an article about me, declaring my 'man card' null and void.
I think it's interesting that one of those pictures has a half-naked sex slave while another has Uhura dressed provocatively in an evil alternate universe. The other two are from JJ Abrams' films. It's pretty clear that Star Trek's day-to-day vision wasn't about half naked ladies.
First, an explanation as to why Alice Eve's strip scene is a big deal:
In the movie her character, Carol Marcus, pulls Kirk aside and they have a short walk-and-talk that leads them to one of the Enterprise's shuttlecraft. She's telling him about the properties of the torpedos that her father has placed on the ship and how she can open one up to look inside, but feels she should do it planetside to avoid blowing up the starship. As she tells this to Kirk she asks him to turn around and then she strips out of her clothes. He, being a frat boy in this timeline, peeks at her. She stands, posing, before him in her skivvies.
There are a couple of problems with this scene. For one thing, there's absolutely no reason for her to be stripping. The movie doesn't even offer the flimsiest of explanations, like having her get radioactive goo on her clothes after examining the torpedos. I honestly don't know why she has to strip down in this moment during this conversation. It's almost like the actions of someone with a mental deficiency.
Director JJ Abrams has said that the movie has equal opportunity toplessness, and that Chris Pine had been topless in bed earlier in the film. But there the nudity was motivated - it was a post-coital sequence. It's exploitative, but within acceptable boundaries - ie, Kirk has a good reason to be wearing no shirt.
More than that, the strip scene is one of the few defining moments Carol Marcus has. In this film her character is defined largely through her relationship with her father and the fact that she strips. She has one big moment in the movie, defusing a torpedo, but she does it by simply ripping out the bomb's guts - this doesn't show off any of her skill or ability. Marcus is a woefully written character, and so the strip scene becomes all the more pronounced. The film also gives short shrift to Uhura, having her entire arc be only about her feelings for Spock; Spock, meanwhile, has a more nuanced arc dealing with the loss of his homeworld, his attempts to adjust to Kirk's style and his burgeoning friendship with the captain. This is a movie that really doesn't have much time for women, and when there is time for them it prefers to get them undressed.
This is all doubly troubling because Star Trek, historically, is the most progressive franchise. The show's vision is based on a progressive view of the future where people live and work together in harmony despite race, class, nationality or even homeworld. Yes, Trek traditionally had a very 1960s pulp sexuality to it, and there were plenty of scantily-clad women on the original show, but their half-nakedness was almost always motivated by the story in some way. Nobody in Star Trek dropped trou in the middle of a discussion just for the hell of it.
What's more, the original Trek is about to turn 50. Yes, it was very progressive for its time, but hopefully we have progressed even farther in the last half century. To say 'They did it back then' is actually about as moronic a reply as you can give.
To his credit, writer Damon Lindelof has taken full responsibility for the sequence. He acknowledged on Twitter that it was gratuitious in a bad way, which takes a lot of courage. JJ Abrams then went on Conan and addressed the issue, and then dropped the most tone-deaf defense imaginable: he explained the movie originally had a scene where Benedict Cumberbatch showers, and then showed that clip. Twice.
But here's the thing: THEY CUT THAT OUT OF THE MOVIE. The argument being made isn't that JJ Abrams is shooting naked scenes to get his rocks off, it's that he's including them in his movie for no good reason. It's clear that Abrams looked at the shower scene and decided it didn't need to be in the movie. Why didn't he make that same decision for the underwear scene? The argument that some make online is that the underwear scene sells tickets - well, Star Trek Into Darkness did not appeal to women (according to exit surveys), who did not come see the movie in large numbers. Maybe selling a buff Benedict showering would have sold some tickets to women? Why is it okay to exploit Alice Eve's sexuality to sell tickets, but Cumberbatch's scene ends up on the cutting room floor?
I actually thought that the 'Cumberbatch had a deleted shower scene' defense was a joke until I watched the clip. That's how lame, pointless and kind of offensive this defense is.
As for my man card - I feel pretty secure with it at the moment. I don't think standing up for the rights of others is somehow shameful or not masculine. Hell, I think standing up against exploitation of others is about one of the manliest things you can do. I understand that some guys don't quite get why this scene is problematic, and it's possible that my explanations above didn't help. That's okay. What's important is that understanding that people do find it problematic and respecting that fact. As white men it's sometimes not obvious to us why something offends people who don't look like us, and the first response shouldn't be to minimize their feelings, it should be to try and figure out why they feel that way.
I'm all for naked women in movies. I love gratuitious sequences of nudity and sex, especially if they feature very attractive people. At the same time I don't like seeing entire genders reduced to sexualized representations, especially in a series that has long inspired my personal belief in social justice and equality.