When Men were Men and Women complained (S02:E13)

I’m examining the impact Star Trek: The Next Generation had on my formation. The introduction to this series can be seen here.

The Icarus Factor
Riker contemplates a promotion to captain and taking his own command, while seeing his estranged father for the first time in fifteen years.

(This episode has some large spectres over it: namely, the two complementary rigid gender roles that I grew up with. Will’s father Kyle Riker and Deanna Troi appear to portray the most pure “man” and “woman” as I was raised to understand them. So, my reaction then and now cannot help but be flavored by the fact that these were both reflections of people I knew, and a kind of ideal to live up to — or at least supposedly inevitable realities to live with (that men and women are separate species with predetermined behavior matching these characters). I know others grew up with similar stereotypes affecting them, and I know we can find plenty of examples of these tropes in the media. I don’t know how widespread these were, though, or when. I don’t quite know how to place them sociologically… though I do believe the primary “man” trope on US television has shifted away from this boomer era authoritarian, and into goofier stereotypes. “Woman”, I believe, is still defined by her emotional intelligence in particular areas, though both then and now there were clear limits to that emotional understanding.)

The bulk of the story here is the content of Will Riker’s relationship with his father Kyle. Kyle is an imposing figure: arrogant, competitive, defined by his career, dismissive of emotional displays and unwilling to admit mistakes or be vulnerable. The two of them lost Kyle’s wife and Will’s mother when Will was very young, and it’s clear that whatever Kyle’s strengths are, being a father – especially a single father – was not among them. The senior Riker related to his young grieving son almost exclusively as a competitor. It would seem he did little to provide for the young man’s emotional needs, and instead employed various strategies of neglect and aggressiveness that built no trust between them. Though Kyle can express the sentiment that “I can talk to a whole roomful of admirals about anything in the galaxy, but I can’t talk to you about how I feel” (just in case the audience misses this flaw of his), he still can’t express anything further about those feelings. The adult Will still doesn’t feel heard, seen or loved by his father, who appears to feel entitlement for his return and is put out that he hasn’t been forgiven his faults.

The two men take the knot of grief, pain and broken relationship to the Holodeck for a space-age martial arts match. The anger and bitterness pours out, as they compete about whose grief is bigger and say many things that probably should have been said years ago. At one point, Will realizes his father has broken a rule, and pieces together that his father always won sports they played together by cheating. Kyle proudly owns up to his strategy, explaining that Will could best him from an early age, but he had to “keep him interested.” Now, to my mind, they finally get started on a potentially useful conversation here. But there is no further unpacking of the feelings that have been spewed, and no negotiation or attempts at common ground that I personally would want. Instead, this catharsis is enough to bring them to hugs and expressions of love… which is probably exactly what my own brother and father do in similar situations.

Deanna is aware of some of the emotional truths behind Kyle’s lack of parenting skills and how that affects Will. She makes mention of the competition, and indirectly addresses some of Kyle’s entitlement issues. She then appears to lose all of her insights into relationship and throws a fit when the two men seek the catharsis of a sports match between them. She and Pulaski see it as barbaric as a Klingon ritual Worf engages in for a side plot, and the two women have one of the most obnoxious exchanges in the series:

Deanna: In spite of human evolution, there are still some traits that are endemic to gender.
Pulaski: You think that they’re going to knock each other’s brains out because they’re men?
Deanna: Human males are unique. Fathers continue to regard their sons as children even into adulthood, and sons continue to chafe against what they perceive as their fathers’ expectations of them.
Pulaski: It’s almost as if they never really grow up at all, isn’t it?
Deanna: Perhaps that’s part of their charm, and why we find them so attractive.

At fourteen, I could already see that:
a) Despite hating Kyle Riker, I had thought beating somebody up would be cathartic plenty of times. I could see the appeal for them, and wished I had the knowledge and capacity to pursue similar cathartic strategies in respectful ways in my own young life.
b) Deanna just felt smug about being superior to a relationship that – as she describes it – exactly mirrors her relationship to her own mother.

Today, these obnoxious gender-defined behaviors and the related “insights” about men and women – including the dreaded “men never grow up” trope – really make me want to hit something.

We learn a significant amount about Dr. Pulaski here. She has 3 ex-husbands who are friends of hers now. She nearly married Kyle Riker, and seems to understand him quite well, perhaps even mirroring many of his traits. She is equally dismissive of Will’s feelings about his childhood and agrees with Kyle that he should just get over it. There’s also an odd, awkward throughline for Pulaski in this episode, involving Pulaski giving her chicken soup to a patient, and Troi’s credibility receiving a stunning blow with the observation that “Dr. Pulaski’s greatest medical skill is her empathy.” In the context of this episode, I begin to wonder if some writer involved in creating Pulaski was looking to do something edgy with gender, creating an abrasively assertive yet “empathetic” female character. In case it’s not obvious by now, it’s my opinion that this flopped badly.

I suspect that this episode spoke to the emotional lives of some of the male viewers (and writers?) of the show. I was perhaps supposed to be included in its intended audience by my “inevitable” sympathizing with the plight of the women. But, then and now, I don’t fit well in either camp. I was offered these two stunted roles as a kid, and have never found either appealing. Rather than any emotional trajectory I’ve ever seen explored in stories with these stereotypes in them, I’d rather the gender roles themselves be questioned so their obvious flaws can be prevented from doing more damage.

1. I can’t find where I got this image from. But these aren’t real footnotes anyway, since everything belongs to Paramount. So I’m not going to feel bad about my shoddy sourcing here.

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