“Born This Way”: The Outcast
So remember back in the “The Host” essay when we were talking about clumsy, confused, poorly handled episodes that kind of make a big mess of gender and sexuality? I said there were three big ones that, due to their relentless terribleness or just general incompetence, singlehandedly saddle Star Trek: The Next Generation with a reputation for heteronormativity and homophobia, no matter how many admirable strides it manages to make elsewhere. The first was “Blood and Fire” (and by extension “The Naked Now”) and the second was “The Host”. “The Outcast” is the third.
Buckle in tightly, kids.
“The Outcast” is a story about a planet (of hats, natch) where there is no concept of gender. They view “dividing people into two genders” to be a retrograde and “primitive” notion and consider themselves more “enlightened” as a result (and Holy Goddamn Shit that’s a can of worms I’m not even going to go anywhere remotely near the ballpark of). Commander Riker gets involved (in more than one way) with one of their scientists, an individual named Soren. During their time with the Enterprise crew, Soren learns more about the human notion of gender and it influences culture, society and behaviour, especially when it comes to romance. Soren takes to Doctor Crusher in particular, viewing her as a model female because of her more traditionally femme aesthetic, and ultimately confesses to harbouring long-held strong feelings of being female too. Because identifying as either male or female is punishable by death in their society, Soren has explored her feminine side by engaging in romantic relationships with men in secret. Eventually, Riker and Captain Picard violate the Prime Directive again by criticising the gender laws and negotiating for Soren’s clemency.
It would be eminently understandable if, given the rough plot synopsis above, you would be considerably taken aback to learn what the creative team actually meant for this episode to be about. You see, the real doozy is when you find out that Rick Berman and writer Jeri Taylor considered “The Outcast” to be a strong “Issues” story about homosexuality and homophobic prejudice. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion, Rick Berman said
“We thought we had made a very positive statement about sexual prejudice in a distinctively Star Trek way, but we still got letters from those who thought it was just our way of ‘washing our hands’ of the homosexual situation.”
While in Star Trek: The Next Generation 365, Jeri Taylor said
“’The Outcast’ allowed us to explore the issue of sexual intolerance in a unique, offbeat way. I identify with the disenfranchised and the powerless of our world. So I really wanted to make a statement for tolerance, broad-mindedness and acceptance for those who are disenfranchised.”
And it’s at this point the wincing and cringing commences, because I don’t think there’s a single episode where the creative team is more ignorant, ill-informed, off-target and off-the-mark aboutanything than they are in this one. You would be entirely forgiven if, as a new viewer lacking in this context, you were to be flabbergasted by how utterly out-there and out-of-touch Berman and Taylor sound in the above quotes, as the actual extant text of “The Outcast” has essentially zero things to do with homosexuality or homophobia. The persecution Soren faces, first of all, is very explicitly about her gender identity, not her sexual orientation (more on that later), and furthermore actually seems to conflate the two through a deeply heteronormative lens.
There is simply no getting around the fact that Soren only begins to act on her feelings of dysphoria and take a stand against her oppression after she goes through a relationship with a straight white cis man. I know some homosexual people figure that part of themselves out as the result of an initial crush or romantic encounter, but it’s incredibly insulting and reductive to do a story like this implying that this is the only way that can happen. Likewise, it’s also a big issue that there are no secret men in J’naii society who are romantically involved with other men, or secret women involved with other women. In the episode about homosexuality. As is the fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation put Will Riker in a straight romantic relationship with a character coded as gay played by a woman.
Rick Berman said that last one was due to business reasons, that “…having Riker engaged in passionate kisses with a male actor might have been a little unpalatable to viewers”. But isn’t that the exact sort of close-minded bigotry and intolerance Berman claims this episode exists to combat? That’s cowardly, plain and simple: Your convictions and ethical positions are hollow and meaningless if you’re not prepared to stand by them and put your money where your mouth is when it really counts, and flipping off overly pragmatic and pandering studio executives or narrow-minded nerdboy audiences is precisely when it really counts. Star Trek is in a unique and powerful position among large-scale Soda Pop Art things to critique society and show a path forward, and it’s nothing short of squandering and irresponsible to not take full advantage of that. And it should be noted that Jonathan Frakes himself has publicly gone on the record to call this decision out numerous times, as well as the one to cast female actors as *all* the J’naii characters.
Then there’s the just straight-up overt sexism. I have no idea what possessed Taylor to turn Worf into such a flaming misogynist in this story, but boy is he ever, complaining about “women’s games” featuring “wild cards” and loudly proclaiming on several occasions that heteronormativity is the right and natural way of things. All this apparently from the same guy who “appreciates strong women”. I know Ron Moore turned Klingon society into an explicitly patriarchal one where women are second-class citizens and Worf apparently seemed to have a sitcom level understanding of women in a couple episodes, but those are the issues of other people, and one would have thought Taylor would have understood Worf’s unique position as an expatriot better. Doctor Crusher barely avoids falling into this too, as her discussion with Soren teeters dangerously on the brink of declaring that stereotypical western signifiers of masculinity and femininity are the sole arbiter of gender. Thankfully, the script gives her a line where she “can’t recall” a time when men and women weren’t considered equal, and Gates McFadden gives her usual exquisite touch to hedge against any infelicities.
I guess at least in Worf’s case you could make the, admittedly stretched beyond recognition, argument that this is his way of dealing with his confusion and embarrassment over potentially developing feelings for Deanna, because he’s a big dumb man who’s too prideful to come out and admit that, especially to himself. Maybe that’s what happened in “Ethics” too. But while that may be something one or two people on staff may have been able to relate to, that’s not how I like to read Worf and contradicts his behaviour as recent as last week’s episode. Speaking of weird things involving Deanna, there’s also that odd scene where Will asks her permission to get involved with another woman, as if he was still involved with her. I mean, he never has before. Neither has she, for that matter. Granted it would be a nice scene if, say, Will and Deanna were in a polyamourous relationship but, as I keep pointing out, they aren’t supposed to in any kind of a romantic relationship at this point, let alone a poly one.
Now after all that, you might be surprised to hear me say there is one way you could read this story that would turn its entire legacy 180 degrees. This redemptive reading does, however, require one to completely ignore everything absolutely everyone has ever said about “The Outcast”. Although it may well be a shockingly poor story about homosexuality and homophobia, by either divine providence, sheer dumb incompetence or some combination of the two, you can actually read it very convincingly as a halfway decent story about being transgender. Because that’s really what Soren is: She’s known she was female since she was very young, had to explore her identity her own way with no guidance, help or support in absolute secret and knows if this ever got out her life would be in extreme danger. Ironically, through their appalling ignorance about what it means to be homosexual, Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor have, completely accidentally, pegged what it’s like to be transgender pretty much bang on. Even more ironically, should you choose to read it this way, “The Outcast” goes from a washout to being even more admirably progressive than it was trying to be in the first place.
This is hard to do though, especially given Soren’s big speech at the end:
“I am female. I was born that way. I have had those feelings, those longings, all of my life. It is not unnatural. I am not sick because I feel this way. I do not need to be helped. I do not need to be cured. What I need, and what all of those who are like me need, is your understanding. And your compassion. We have not injured you in any way. And yet we are scorned and attacked. And all because we are different. What we do is no different from what you do. We talk and laugh. We complain about work. And we wonder about growing old. We talk about our families and we worry about the future. And we cry with each other when things seem hopeless. All of the loving things that you do with each other – that is what we do. And for that we are called misfits, and deviants and criminals. What right do you have to punish us? What right do you have to change us? What makes you think you can dictate how people love each other?”
It’s a lovely sentiment, to be sure, and the first few lines back up our redemptive transgender reading pretty strongly. But then it quickly swerves back into the obvious intentionality sphere, as the second half of that speech couldn’t be more about homosexuality and homophobia if it literally came right out and said it was. And again, not at all to take away from that intent: It’s obviously correct and something certain kinds of people are still grappling with to this day. But it makes my job more difficult and frustrating given how poor everything else about this episode is.
(Indeed the only other thing noteworthy about “The Outcast” is that it’s also famous for introducing the life-size model of the Type 6 shuttlecraft that will be used throughout the rest of the series. It’s not the first time we’ve seen the ship itself, which debuted in “Darmok”, but this is the first time we got to see the full set for the little craft. Galoob had a Type 6 miniature as part of its Micro Machines starships line and described it “as seen in the episode ‘The Outcast’”. Although Galoob’s model was very appropriately named the Berman, the actual shuttle in this episode is the Magellan. The Berman shows up *next* week. Either way, the Type 6 is an iconic ship for me regardless of “The Outcast”, and got two miniature playset vehicles based on it from Playmates.)
As much as this might redeem, however, I still don’t think even that’s quite enough to salvage this one. Let’s be perfectly honest: Even in the kindest of lights, this is no “Love is Everything. Risk Your Life to Elope!”. It doesn’t even come anywhere near the same county, let alone the same ballpark. Even if you do grant the transgender reading, you’ve still got the script conflating sexual orientation with gender identity, and it’s still an enormous problem that Soren only starts to act after falling for Will Riker. Actually, it’s even more of a crippling problem in this case, because a person’s internal sense of gender has even less to do with romantic relationships than their sexual identity does. You could argue that this kind of sloppy handling of gender and sexuality might have been fair and progressive for 1992 and that I should be kinder to Star Trek: The Next Generation for dipping its feet in waters we’re only beginning to fully understand now, but I maintain that it’s telling Star Trek: The Next Generation is still finding itself outclassed by the now seven year old Dirty Pair TV show.
July 26, 2015 @ 11:30 pm
Do we have any record of contemporary responses to the episode by gay and trans TNG fans? How did LGBT viewers, whom the episode purports to address, interpret it in 1992?
Conflating sexual orientation and gender identity is something that people still do. But In 1992, being transgendered was, basically, a cultural joke. There's more information, visibility and empathy today than there was back then, but it's a long way from equal justice for all. I guess I just don't have the high expectations of risk-averse cis-het TV executives from 1992 that you do.
July 27, 2015 @ 4:47 am
"Do we have any record of contemporary responses to the episode by gay and trans TNG fans? How did LGBT viewers, whom the episode purports to address, interpret it in 1992?"
We do, and they more or less hated it. Like Rick Berman said in the quote I cited, most LGBT viewers felt this was a dismissive, handwavey and insultingly inauthentic representation of their orientation and the persecution they faced. And they made a lot of the same criticisms I did.
July 27, 2015 @ 5:58 am
The debacle of this episode and its reception reminds me of some of the debates I've heard over the importance of diversity in a TV series' writing staff. Yes, anyone can approach a theme themselves, even one involving the struggles of a marginalized group, and their success will be a function of their writing talent. Individual talent is important, but you can be the most talented TV writer in human history, but still cock up your story if you write without any knowledge of how the group in question actually lives and thinks.
I'm reminded particularly of the Doctor Who episode Kill the Moon, which was a brilliant example of a Doctor Who horror story until we got to the choice discussion. I wrote in my own post on that episode that the writers and creative staff of the episode – all male – just didn't notice all the anti-choice messages that were peppered throughout the latter half of the script, and that they stumbled into emphasizing these messages.
It's not that a white cis person, like the TNG production leaders, can never write an intelligent story about a group like homosexuals or transgender people. It's that they have to put a lot more research, knowledge, and reflection into the matter before they can. A transgender person can more easily write a quality story about being transgender because they've lived through the experience. The knowledge is theirs and their friends. Folks like me have to be taught, engage, and learn. Even after such a process, which would be very long, we have to be very careful. Members themselves have already lived it.
July 27, 2015 @ 6:19 am
I remember finding the episode intensely moving at the time, and thinking to myself "oh this is about gay oppression" and not noticing there was anything wrong with the approach. Of course, that was my positionality showing. A complacent, right-on, 16yr old cis-het male. At that point I was still a year or so away from consciously knowing a gay person (she subsequently became my best friend ever) so I was horrifyingly ignorant about gay issues, despite my sympathy. Was this episode constructive in my learning process? I think the exact opposite. It probably did more harm than good, reinforcing mindless prejudices while reassuring me that I basically understood the issue and was 'one of the good guys'. Yeurch. This episode may even be greatly responsible for my subsequent violent reaction against Trek in later years. But the redemptive reading you offer is fascinating. Great work (again), Josh.
July 27, 2015 @ 6:27 am
@Adam: Indeed, after 'Kill the Moon' aired, I mentioned to someone, my wife maybe, that while there were things I liked about it, "This is the worst mangling of a show's big important social moral since that episode of Star Trek where they tried to be pro-gay-rights by having Riker bone the only straight woman on the planet of the angry lesbians"
July 27, 2015 @ 7:57 am
I suppose it would be worth mentioning, because I don't think it's entirely clear in the piece I wrote, that I find it unlikely Rick Berman and Jeri Taylor knew literally nothing about homosexuality. I'm fairly confidant they knew as much about it as a reasonably well-educated, progressive cis white straight person could in 1992. But damn if they didn't pen just about the single worst allegory for it imaginable.
That's the rub, of course. It wasn't good enough back then, and it's certainly not good enough now.
July 27, 2015 @ 10:18 am
SFDebris disdainful summary of this episode tallies up the results of this episode's confluence of bad Big Message writing, all-female planet of hats casting, and heteronormativity pretty well, I think: The big gay rights episode ends up being about "one woman's brave quest for cock on the Planet of the Lesbians."
And yeah, somewhere buried in this terribleness there's the potential for a decent episode about trans rights, but let's be honest, Trek is way too heteronormative and stuck on traditional Western notions of gender (to the point of replicating them in very nearly EVERY CIVILIZATION IN THE UNIVERSE) to be able to pull that off.
July 27, 2015 @ 12:08 pm
To top it off, it's boring.
I mean The Measure of a Man is a dishwater gray courtroom story and it's still somehow riveting and exciting compared to The Outcast, thanks to enough tension being in the air you could cut it with a laser scalpel.
TNG just won't be the incarnation of Star Trek that handles these things very well. Because these aren't "next stop on the space tour" problems. They're long-form, you gotta live with these issues for a while problems.
July 28, 2015 @ 2:34 am
If only there were some Star Trek franchise that stayed in one place to explore how social and individual storylines played out over a long term. It'd also be awesome if that franchise had a major Trill character, since they're the species in Star Trek that had the most potential to explore allegories, possibilities, and the social situations of science-fictional gender transition.
I'm sure the results would be wonderful.
July 28, 2015 @ 6:15 pm
You know, it could be. It could also maybe completely be the salvation of the Ferengi concept by exploring issues of gender equality that its viewers might take 15-20 more years to start making any social progress on.
They could even have a exploration Trill character interact with a Ferengi on a daily basis and really, really get into some sex & gender politics. But it all seems like such a long-shot.
July 29, 2015 @ 11:54 pm
All you comments are valid, of course, and, Jack Graham, I'm sorry you felt this did more harm than good. But I saw this as a child of 8 (it was only about the third or fourth TNG episode I've ever seen) and feel that it had a positive influence on me. Even then, I think I knew that sometimes boys would want to less like 'boys', and the same with girls, and I wanted a steer on that. I'm a cultural optimist in most cases, and think that most people can see through the metaphor and apply it to other cases. I appreciate people who, both now and at the time, thought that this steered onto the rocks by having a 'Androgynous people really want to be gendered' moral, but, I assure you, some of us who were kids exposed to this took constructive stuff out of it, were moved by Soren's plight, and went on to use it in positive, discovering sympathetic ways in our teens and beyond. Does that mean 'The Outcast' is only intellectually and emotionally useful TV for an 8 year-old child? Possibly, but I doubt it. Baby steps are still steps. Think of the kiss in 'Plato's Stepchildren'. Was that 'perfect'? Of course not. But still…..
August 7, 2015 @ 9:12 pm
I'm usually more of an "intent isn't magic, but it's still data" kind of guy. The quote's from the awesome trans activist and writer Katherine Cross, who's written extensively about how dismissing context and focusing entirely on individual experience ultimately turns activism into a series of purity tests that can become impossible to navigate, ultimately doing more harm than good. And every now and then, I've felt like this blog has dipped its toes in the stream of "let perfect be the enemy of good," disregarding intent, history, and context in the interest of criticism.
Not here, though. "The Outcast" was an important episode, and they blew it. Big time. I get that some folks who hadn't known any gay people thought it was eye-opening, and that's awesome, but my Gawd, this is a prime example of being super preachy AND missing the mark. You're completely right that it throws trans people under the bus in the interest of addressing homophobia, and doesn't get the difference between preference and identity. And christ, that monologue is straight out of the Big Golden Book Of Earnest 90s Monologues About Gay People. You know, the ones where "we're just like you, we complain about work…" Lotsa gay people complaining about work in the early 90s, apparently…
August 8, 2015 @ 1:41 am
(re-reading my comment: I want to be clear that TNG blew it, not this blog. This blog nailed it with this analysis of an embarrassing episode that causes more problems than it solves.)
August 31, 2015 @ 9:46 am
Yeah I think this episode blew it with its representation of Riker too, as he would in my vision of him, been happy to kiss a man (in the version of the story where the character is attacked by their race for wanting to be a male with a male), and Riker was in a happy poly life.
March 19, 2016 @ 5:44 pm
Just recently discovered your blog and am really enjoying it. I know these comments are coming several months late, however I hope you don't mind me adding them for others who may still come along and see the valuable analysis you've provided here.
I've seen all of TNG many times, but have never been knowledgeable in the least about behind the scenes writing so was actually never aware the writers were trying to do a story on homosexuality with this episode. I guess ignorance is bliss because I always read this episode as a heteronormative story about a relationship between a male and female, and if you choose to look at it that way, I think there are some feminist readings that can be teased out of it – however ironic that may be considering the writers' intentions.
Riker is often touted as the show's bonafide 'ladies man', and most of his female partners in the series are undeniably objects of the male gaze. Soren's a departure from this in that she's not sexualized, mentally or physically, and thus doesn't function simply to reinforce Riker's manhood and sexual virility the way many of his other, more fetishized female partners in the series have.
Riker does try to play the role of the masculine protector, coming in at the end of the episode to try to save Soren from her oppressive society, but this actually doesn't turn out that well for him, and he and Worf end up looking a bit silly. Soren calmly explains to Riker that it was all a mistake, she was sick, so they have no future together – making Riker and his heroic mission appear irrational (having violated the PD) and emotionally impulsive – typically feminized traits.
In terms of the view that Soren only decided to act and stand up for herself after having gone through a relationship with a cis white man – I can see this argument, however I've always perceived a kind of self-contained, tragic fatalism in Soren's story, independent of Riker. It wasn't simply their relationship that led to Soren's defense of her gender but also the reality that she was finally and unwittingly found out by her people after years of living as female in secrecy. Considering the society in which she lived, it is conceivable that she was going to be discovered eventually. I didn't really see Riker's relationship with Soren effectively producing her attitudes and decisions as much as it simply served as a trigger and catalyst for a sequence of events in her life that I think were quite possibly and tragically inevitable.
As a woman and a feminist, Riker has never been one of my favourite TNG characters, because of the 'ladies man' epithet attached to him and all the patriarchal connotations that come with that; my favourite Riker episodes therefore tend to be the ones with more 'political' storylines ('The Pegasus', for example). But read as a Riker episode, I actually prefer this one over many others in which the show revels in Riker's 'ladies man' rep in all its patriarchal glory.