When I was nine, the need to grow up came barrelling at me like an oncoming train, with me tied to the tracks. I had been bullied at school since age seven and it was only getting worse. My family was looking at moving out of the city to a tiny island. I also got my period. I was, quite literally, pulling my hair out.
I was most proud of doing well at school, but it was becoming increasingly clear that being a “teacher’s pet” was incompatible with being popular, especially for a girl. I didn’t know whether it was worth it to keep trying so hard.
In January of 1995 I sat in my dad’s big, red armchair in our living room, lights off, and watched the series premiere of Star Trek: Voyager on our tiny TV set. For months my parents had been pointing out articles about this new series and Star Trek’s first woman captain. I couldn’t wait. I had started watching TNG with my older brothers and sisters but this was going to be my Star Trek.
And as soon as I saw Kate Mulgrew as Captain Janeway, I knew she was going to be my Captain. She was lost in the Delta Quadrant, and I felt lost too, but she wasn’t going to give up. I had a poster of her on the wall next to my bed and when I had a rough day, I tried to imagine she was giving me advice. I’ll even confess I sometimes wore a red turtleneck and black pants to school: my version of Janeway’s uniform; my version of armour.
Over the next seven years as I grew up, I learned so much from her, and what I learned helped make me who I am today. Here are some of the lessons I’m most grateful for.
One of the very first things we learn about Captain Janeway is that she’s a scientist and a damned good one. Throughout the series we get to see Janeway using science to solve problems, often in collaboration with other women like B’Elanna and Seven of Nine. She’s also an explorer, with a curious spirit that draws her to investigate and really try to understand new spatial phenomena, worlds, and lifeforms.
“We seek out new [alien] races because we want to, not because we’re following protocols. We have an insatiable curiosity about the universe,” she tells Seven of Nine, who questions whether Voyager’s drive to seek out new life is putting them at risk.
Janeway inspired many girls and women to enter or advance in the sciences, including Italian astronaut Samantha Christoforetti, who recently tweeted a photo of herself wearing a Janeway uniform aboard the International Space Station.
I didn’t enter the sciences as a profession, but Janeway’s curiosity inspired me to keep reading and learning voraciously. Maybe more importantly, it helped me look up at the world around me, to question conventional wisdom. More and more, I found myself questioning gender roles, sexism, racism and homophobia. That brought me to feminism, and later, to secular humanism.
As a girl I learned from the world around me that my value was defined by being conventionally attractive and having friends, and later, a boyfriend. Over and over I got the message that being smart or skilled, or at least letting others know it, was a liability.
Janeway taught me you earn others’ respect not from trying to pretend you’re something you’re not, but from respecting yourself and showing what you’re capable of.
In “Parallax,” the second episode of the series, Janeway has a talk with her new Chief Engineer, B’Elanna Torres. B’Elanna thinks she can’t fill the role, that she’s too confrontational. She’s shocked to learn a former Starfleet professor left a recommendation on her file when she dropped out of the Academy. Janeway replies: “Some professors like students who challenge their assumptions, B’Elanna. And so do some captains.” Later on in the series she says: “I dread the day that everyone on this ship agrees with me.”
I’d argue Janeway is the most consultative Star Trek Captain. She knows the best decisions are made by considering differing perspectives. When someone comes to her to challenge a decision, her default is not to react defensively, but to hear them out, as in this scene with Kes:
Janeway is not only open to learning from others, but also dedicated to sharing her own knowledge and skills with others. Her scientific collaborations with B’Elanna are epic, and she also finds time to help Seven, Kes and others with personal challenges. In “Good Shepherd,” she even takes three underperforming crew members under her wing and mentors them on a special away mission.
In that spirit, I try to share my skills with other feminists and progressive activists, and to be open to learning from their experiences and interpretations as well.
In the episode “Night” Captain Janeway experiences depression, isolating herself in her quarters as the ship travels through a desolate, starless area of space. When I dealt with depression myself in my early 20s, it was really important for me to have a role model – even a fictional one – who had struggled with it and emerged on the other side. I’d argue Voyager did more than any other Trek to combat the the significant and harmful stigma associated with mental illness, and Janeway was an important part of that.
Janeway ends up stuck in the Delta Quadrant in the series premiere because she destroys the only way of getting home in order to protect a vulnerable alien species. Throughout the series she faces many ethical dilemmas, and there are arguably occasions where she crosses a line or makes a bad call (Voyager fans, you probably know which episodes I’m talking about). But more often than not, Janeway stands strongly for what’s right.
She repeatedly refuses to injure or exploit other lifeforms even when it would benefit Voyager. And she doesn’t back down to bullies.
Case in point:
To conclude, I’m immensely grateful to Kate Mulgrew, and the many others behind the scenes who made Captain Janeway what she was. Janeway was about more than being “politically correct” or just letting Star Trek tick off the woman captain box. Representation matters.
As Sally Ride said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Janeway was a huge step forward but Trek still has more to do to show more people – particularly women of colour and queer and trans people – what they can be. I hope future Trek incarnations will remember that and give others characters who can do what Captain Janeway did for me.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth post in a series of articles where contributors discuss their early feminist role models or figures who influenced their early feminism.