Enterprise's T'Pol: Identity as a Multi-Faceted Battle of Gender Expectations.

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Author: Bryana Fern
Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,236 words

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It is no secret among Star Trek enthusiasts and popular critics that Enterprise is one of the least popular series of the Star Trek franchise, having received the lowest viewer ratings and being cancelled in 2005 after only four seasons. (1) One of the main criticisms behind the show's unpopularity is in the female Vulcan T'Pol, played by Jolene Blalock, although what makes her interesting and complex as a character is the way she subverts the gender expectations established by her physical appearance. (2) T'Pol faces criticism for her stoic language, monotone speech, and logical demeanor that do not match her overtly sensual presentation in a thin bodysuit. Through this subversion, T'Pol suggests that physical appearance can be deceiving when it comes to society's expectations concerning gender performance, both in our twenty-first century society of Enterprise and the twenty-second century of the story's time.

T'Pol's character is one of assertive feminism that deserves scholarly attention. Enterprise fully embraces the third-wave feminism of post-modernism that Martha Rampton describes as characteristic of a celebration of ambiguity that breaks boundaries. (3) T'Pol furthermore exemplifies Judith Butler's "surface politics of the body" (416) in the way that her sexually physical appearance automatically dictates her social behavior expectations; yet, she subverts surface politics by displaying a complex identity that rejects cultural demands. T'Pol's complexity in regard to her identity is created through "sustained social performances" that actually work in a "strategy that conceals gender's performative character" (Butler 421). Butler is known for this theory on performativity, but I am interested in the way surface politics influences this attention to physical appearance in the example of T'Pol. I apply surface politics here directly as a means to consider physical presentation in relation to social expectations. T'Pol actively rejects the notion of a fixed social performance, which makes her frustratingly complicated for viewers who argue that she does little besides sexualize the show. She undermines expectations in relation to her culture as a Vulcan, which dictates that she use logic, reason, and discipline over emotion, and because she chooses to integrate emotions into her identity and make personal choices with which her tradition would not approve, she forges a multi-faceted individualism that separates her from her culture and immerses her in a human one. T'Pol's ability to circumvent the surface politics established by her sexual appearance and Otherness as one of only two aliens on a human ship speaks volumes for her ability to control her own narrative arc within the series. She subverts the surface politics that would work to control her, and manipulates them for her own self-interest instead, which allows her assertive feminism to break beyond the show's overt sexuality. In doing so, she complicates the Vulcan culture that so many Star Trek enthusiasts find fascinating and--incorrectly--one-dimensional.

T'Pol is a far more complex character than most Star Trek fans will grant, and little scholarship on her even exists, despite the show's end over a decade ago. This hole in criticism is largely due to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503293