The Surprisingly Progressive Sexuality Of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION’s Female Characters

Things on Picard's Enterprise are not as prudish as one would think.

My most cherished childhood memories are of my mother braiding my hair while we watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. As a young girl I was in awe of how close this makeshift family became and the variety of cultures they crossed paths with. Rewatching the series as an adult I noticed something I hadn’t before: the healthy sex lives of the women on the series.

While at times constrained by its network, Star Trek: The Next Generation has a surprisingly progressive approach to the sex lives of its female characters including main cast members counselor Deanna Troi and chief medical officer Beverly Crusher. In the universe of TNG women have robust, healthy sex lives without being punished for it, pathologized, or having to compromise their careers in ways we still witness on modern television.

It may seem questionable to consider Deanna Troi a progressive character considering how mightily the writers struggled with her characterization in early seasons. Sometimes the way she bounces between outfits, hairstyles, and important traits suggests the writers didn’t know quite what to do with her. But one thing I’ve always admired about Deanna is her friendship with former lover Commander William Riker. Deanna and Riker are pretty much the platonic ideal of how to conduct yourself when your ex just happens to become your co-worker. Their relationship is defined by a mix of mutual respect, love, and camaraderie. They’re able to call each other “imzadi” (the Betazoid word for beloved) one moment and give each other romantic advice the next. On another show they would have a will-they-won’t-they-dynamic that could have easily taken over Deanna’s arc as a character. Sure, they eventually get married in Star Trek: Nemesis (the less said about this film the better). But it’s their dynamic during the series that underscored how TNG subtly argues that a woman’s sexual past and romantic life shouldn’t be the only thing that defines her identity. 

The sixth season episode “Man of the People” demonstrates the contradictions in how the series approaches Deanna when it comes to her sex life. The episode itself is absolutely bonkers. It follows a visiting diplomat using Deanna as a vessel for his negative emotions, sort of like a reverse psychic vampire, which causes her to age rapidly and act like the intergalactic version of Mrs. Robinson. Deanna soon starts behaving erratically — canceling appointments, lashing out at other crew members, seducing any man she comes across — with no one any wiser as to why. Thanks to knowing her so well, Riker is the first to realize something amiss and takes a crucial role in her survival. It’s the kind of episode that could easily fall into troubling waters. But I appreciate that the performances make it clear the problem isn’t Deanna expressing her sexuality but acting recklessly enough to threaten her position as a counselor. Also, watching actress Marina Sirtis vamp it up is pretty fun. When she stares down a hot, young Ensign I wasn’t sure if she was going to eat him alive or convince him to come back to her room. Sirtis said of her performance, “I played it like these were underlying parts of Troi that she controlled or managed to suppress. And just looking in the mirror was all I needed to change. When I look in the mirror and see Troi, it's a very soft and gentle look. In the scene in Ten Forward where my hair was up, I saw Anne Bancroft in the mirror. I saw Mrs. Robinson and that's what I played.” 

Thankfully, Beverly Crusher isn’t as prone to shifting characterization and outfit changes as Deanna. As a single mother, Beverly has flings, intense connections, and was shown to have a healthy sex life, as episodes like “The Host” show. She even has a romantic tension with Jean-Luc Picard that they choose not to act on out of professionalism. Balancing successfully between sexual desires, career pursuits, and interpersonal dynamics wasn’t only the domain of main characters. K’Ehlyr, a half human/half Klingon Federation emissary, may have only appeared in only two episodes but she casts a long shadow. Part of that is thanks to being the mother of Lt. Worf’s only child. But she's also one of the franchise's most badass minor characters thanks to the way she rocks a jumpsuit and flirts aggressively enough to dominate Worf while shirking Klingon tradition along the way. 

The best example of TNG’s dedication to expressing women’s sexuality in subversive ways is perhaps Deanna’s mother, Lwaxana. She’s equal parts vibrant and unnerving. Or to quote Deanna, “You’re not just incorrigible, you’re insatiable.” Even when her ostentatious presentation and disregard for boundaries can grate, her willingness to believe in love in the face of many heartbreaks and appetite for men is utterly delightful. When TNG debuted in 1987 actress Majel Barrett Roddenbery, known as the first lady of Star Trek, was fifty-five years old. Even today women over fifty openly enjoying sex and romance is a rarity in the television landscape, particularly in genres like science fiction. Lwaxana isn’t completely alone in this small club with Mariah from Netflix’s Luke Cage being a recent addition. Likewise, Gates McFadden and Marina Sirtis were 38 and 32, respectively, at the start of the series. It’s difficult to imagine a major franchise, especially one trying to gain new relevance after a decades-long break, casting its two female leads as women over the age of thirty. It isn’t even just the casting that makes TNG progressive. It’s far too rare to see main female characters on television who aren’t primarily defined by their romantic situation, to the point it obscures what truly makes them fascinating. (Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder are examples of this unfortunate trend).

TNG wasn’t perfect in its exploration of sexuality. Despite being forward thinking in many other ways, Star Trek has never had an explicitly gay character. The most recent Star Trek film portrays John Cho’s Sulu as gay. Sort of. Sulu’s kiss with his husband was left on the cutting room floor. And while the intimacy between them is apparent I’m not sure I would have realized they were supposed to be a couple unless I had read about that beforehand.  Writer/producer Brannon Braga has said TNG was under particular pressure by affiliates to be “family friendly” prohibiting the series from delving too deeply into more radical depictions of sexuality and gender despite the hopes of cast members. In the fifth season TNG episode “The Outcast”, Riker falls in love with Soren, a member of an androgynous race who dares to be female even though that is a criminal offense in her culture. Jonathan Frakes, who played Riker, felt the episode wasn’t “gutsy” enough and should have cast a man.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the most audacious and greatest entry in the franchise’s history, took things further than TNG. Its female characters are even more dynamic, diverse, and complex particularly when it comes to their sexuality. DS9 marked the first same-sex kiss of the franchise, involving science officer Jadzia Dax. But unfortunately the writers never explicitly define Jadzia as bisexual or show her in a relationship with a woman afterward. The same goes for the other women on DS9, not counting mirror verse versions of course. Since TNG and DS9, the language we use to discuss sexuality and gender have greatly evolved. It’s foolish to ignore the historical context and other constraints put upon the series that has held it back from being a bit bolder in its exploration of sexuality. But it would also be a mistake to discount what strides TNG made. 

Even with its issues, TNG is a powerful, occasionally subversive series in its creation of characters like Beverly Crusher and Lwaxana Troi. From its debut in 1987 onward, TNG showed women with sexual appetites, unapologetic desires, and various relationships without it coming to completely define them. They were complex and respected in ways that I wish I could say was a reality today. Perhaps this is why watching these women still strikes a nerve. They give us hope that the progressive future Star Trek imagines, where women’s complexity is acknowledged and our sexuality isn’t denigrated, can be a reality.