In Which I Join a Growing Number of People who Care about Underwear in Star Trek

Pencil sketch of Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan in cut shower scene from Star Trek: Into Darkness

My sketch of Khan in the deleted shower scene from Star Trek: Into Darkness. Apparently, this is what an apology for sexism looks like.

I’m currently working on a significantly longer post comparing the new, 2013 movie Star Trek: Into Darkness with the older, 1982 movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

But in the meantime, there’s this.

“This” being a youtube video of a clip from Conan, in which J.J. Abrams discusses his decision to show Dr. Carol Marcus (played by Alice Eve) in her underwear in one Into Darkness scene that is developing some notoriety, while cutting a scene that shows Khan (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) taking a shower “of evil.”

I have no problem in general with nude or partially-nude scenes of actors of any gender (or race, or appearance or able-bodiedness or whatever) in the movies. Movies are about people and people sometimes get naked. But I confess that I did not like the Carol-Marcus-strips-to-her-underwear-and-Kirk-takes-a-peek scene. This is not so much due to delicate sensibilities on my part.

I just thought it was pointless.

I prefer that scenes which show a bit of skin serve some purpose beyond showing skin. I prefer that most scenes in movies serve a larger storytelling purpose. Your characters are naked? Fine. What’s the reason? Your characters are fully dressed? Fine. What’s the reason? Now, technically, you can argue that Carol Marcus has a reason to strip to her underwear in the scene under debate. After all, her character is getting changed. That happens, right?

But she’s getting changed on a shuttlecraft en route to a different location, with Kirk right there in the room with her. This is already starting to look a little less natural and a little more forced. But close quarters, right? These things happen.

And normally, one expects that she would change on the ship and then get into the shuttle, but I guess she was in an all-fired hurry, so . . . okay. It still feels like the universe is conspiring–in an artificial, rather arbitrary way–to give us a scene of the good scientist in her underwear.

Also . . . and I’m not sure about this one because I cannot, for the life of me, remember exactly which scene this changing-room moment is leading up to, but . . . isn’t she going planetside with Bones/Dr. McCoy to show him how to disarm a torpedo? Didn’t he have to get changed too? And isn’t it a bit telling that I can’t clearly remember the reason the movie offered for this scene? (When I asked the Boyfriend, he couldn’t remember either. This is our best guess, though, as the torpedo-disarming scene is the only scene we remember her wearing a spacesuit in. And we saw this movie in theaters only a few days ago.)

So if she is going planetside to disarm advanced weaponry with Bones . . . where is Bones?

If we absolutely have to have a changing-room moment, wouldn’t it make more sense to have Dr. McCoy and Dr. Marcus changing together, all business-like, scrambling to get out of their Fleet uniforms and into their spacesuits as quickly as possible? And if you want to keep the camera on Carol more-or-less exclusively for a scene like that, fine. At least that scene has a reason to exist.

And if you really must shoehorn in a scene in which Kirk pervs on Carol because “Kirk will be Kirk” or whatnot, okay. But can it at least go somewhere? It’s not like Kirk and Dr. Marcus build a romantic relationship from this point on, or anything. She eventually signs on as a permanent member of the crew, but somehow I don’t think that Kirk’s spying on her when she told him not to turn around was really a selling point.

And we already had “Kirk will be Kirk” moments in the movie. When Carol first shows up and Spock finds her somewhat suspicious, Kirk is all “Documentation? Pshaw. Pretty women get on my boat no questions asked.” And then of course there’s that earlier scene in which he’s in bed with two beautiful women (twins? sisters? the same actress digitally doubled?) with CGI tails.

Yeah, none of these examples are the best “Kirk will be Kirk” moments. Wrath of Khan, can you show us a more subtle and humorous way to point out that Kirk is a womanizer?

McCOY: Did she change her hairstyle?
KIRK: I hadn’t noticed.
McCOY: Wonderful stuff, that Romulan ale.

And that’s how it’s done. McCoy calls Kirk on his appreciation for a female crew member and Kirk coyly denies it–but we can tell from his tone that he’s protesting too much. And Lieutenant Saavik, the woman under discussion? She stays fully clothed for the entirety of Wrath of Khan, but because she has changed her hairstyle and manner of dress for this one scene, McCoy and Kirk find her physique, hair, etc. more noticeable. Into Darkness, however, lacks the subtlety and delicacy that Wrath of Khan uses in its portrayal of female sexual desirability and male sexual desire. Wow, that was a weird sentence to write. (Sadly, female sexual desire is not terribly important to either movie.)

Anyway, to return to my earlier point: I don’t mind nudity or partial nudity in the movies as long as there’s a good reason for it.

I couldn’t discern a “good reason” for Dr. Marcus’s underwear scene in Into Darkness, so let’s examine the reasoning J.J. Abrams offers on Conan.

ABRAMS: I don’t think I quite edited the scene in the right way.

I agree. Her pose and position in the frame make her look less like a Star Fleet officer in a life-or-death situation and more like a lingerie model showing off the new Winter line.

ABRAMS (cont’d): But, y’know, look, she–look, to me it was a sort of balance. There’s a scene earlier where he [Kirk] is not dressed either. So it felt like it was a sort of, y’know, a trade off. But some people did feel like it was, uh, y’know, exploiting her and while she is lovely I can also see their point of view.

Oh, you’re not. You can’t be. Are you referring to the scene when Kirk is in bed with the two CGI-tailed women? Because that’s the only scene I remember Kirk being naked in, and if that’s the scene you mean, your definition of the word “balance” may need some recalibrating.

O’BRIEN: Okay, well there is, I think we should explore this more. This is the photo still of her in the scene–very beautiful. [Still of Alice Eve in her underwear goes up and audience cheers.] And you have defended this–you can take it away–our director wanted to keep it up.
ABRAMS: I’m not defending it. [Audience laughs.] But, but, but, but, but–there’s a–I think we have a picture of Kirk who’s also. . . . [Still of Chris Pine in bed goes up and audience cheers.] He’s in bed with a couple girls.

Wow. You really did mean the scene with the CGI-tailed alien women. You meant the characters who maybe had a line and a half between them, and whose sole purpose in the movie was to show that Kirk was having sexy fun times with them. Are you seriously arguing that you made up for a scene that objectifies women with a different scene that objectifies women?

ABRAMS: Actually, we had a scene–this is, this is true–we had a shot of the villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch. We had a scene with him where we saw him actually taking a shower. And I actually brought a piece of the clip.
O’BRIEN: This didn’t make it, it did not–
ABRAMS: It’s not in the movie! But we had this and this is one of those things that we ended up cutting. So we can show it.
O’BRIEN: Let’s take a look at this.
[Clip of Khan, shown from the waist up, showering to dramatic music.]

Are you really making this argument? Really? It’s so wonderful I can barely contain myself. Oh, it’s like snarky feminist Christmas.

First of all, showing a man from the waist up is a very different kind of ‘exploitation’ than showing a woman in a bra and panties from the hips up. Because, for one reason or another, our culture does not recognize that men’s pectorals can be erogenous zones just as women’s breasts can be, and therefore a man’s chest is not usually considered taboo. If this particular shower scene showed Khan from his hipbones, or showed his buttocks or even the small of his back, I could see a different argument being made.

Second of all–and this is what really gets me–Abrams appears to be arguing that one of the things that makes the infamous underwear moment more acceptable is that the movie, at one point, “had” this shower scene–which was then cut from the movie.

No, Abrams, you do not get ‘equal opportunity exploitation’ points for a scene that you cut from the movie.

The movie is in theaters. This scene is not in it. This scene is not a part of the movie. Therefore, it in no way mitigates whatever degree of outrage, disappointment, dissatisfaction or disapproval I may have regarding the other scene.

The idea that you think you would get any cookies for either:

  1. Showing Kirk in bed with hot, CGI-tailed alien women post sexual romp, or
  2. Having at one point made a shower scene with Khan that was then cut from the movie

is quite frankly laughable.

Now that this scene has gotten some critical attention, people (including me) seem to be crawling out of the woodwork to debate the heck out of it.

A lot of the conversation seems to surround writer Damon Lindelof’s “apologetic” tweets on the subject. Here is a link to a HuffPost article (in Women’s Issues, natch) that discusses said tweets:

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually see an apology in there. “We should have done a better job,” “something that some construe as misogynistic,” “will be more mindful in the future”–yeah, none of that is exactly an “I’m sorry.”

Which is fine. It’s not like I was looking for an apology. And since Lindelof is a Hollywood writer who is still writing for Hollywood, I actually vastly prefer a promise to do better over an apology for something already done.

But a lot of the coverage surrounding these tweets is calling them an apology. Which is interesting all on its own. Because to me they look more like the “I don’t agree with you but I understand that you’re upset and I’ll try not to upset you in the future” kind of thing that I would want to call a “nonpology” if it had ever aspired to be an apology in the first place.

And note that Lindelof, just like Abrams, is trying to get away with the “but Kirk was disrobed too” argument–which seriously misses the point.

So I’m glad that both Abrams and Lindelof acknowledged that this scene upset people. I’m glad that Lindelof announced that he would try to do better.

But this reiteration from both parties that Kirk was shirtless too suggests to me that both Abrams and Lindelof might be a little fuzzy as to what ‘doing better’ might actually entail.

Because complaining about gratuitous female nudity in movies–which comes out of a long history of women being sexually objectified and exploited in the media–is not the same as a call for more male nudity. And showing a woman in her underwear on display for a male character (Dr. Marcus being watched by Kirk) is not just the gender-reversed equivalent of showing that male character in his underwear, enjoying women sexually (Kirk playing with his alien bedmates).

Because it’s not gender-reversed. Because those two scenes? They have basically the same problem. They position Kirk as the one who enjoys and the women as the ones who are being enjoyed.

But hey, if you want to take my objection to a cinematic trope that reflects and perpetuates the sexual objectification of women as a call to show me more scenes of naked men in movies, then by all means, show me more scenes of naked men in movies. We’ll call it a consolation prize.

Just make sure those scenes make the final cut.