In poplar culture, Captain Kirk from the original Star Trek has a reputation of being a womanizer. Chris Pine’s portrayal of Kirk in the rebooted movies certainly plays up that character trait, but in Kirk’s original appearance, the second pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” it’s Kirk’s helmsman Gary Mitchell who follows a female crewmember with his eyes, holds hands with a pretty yeoman during a crisis on the bridge, and calls Dr. Dehner a “walking freezer unit” when she rebuffs his advances. Mitchell recalls that during their academy days Kirk was a “stack of books with legs.”
I grew up watching reruns of original Star Trek, and barely remember seeing any of them for the first time. On my umpteenth rewatch of “Wink of an Eye” as a young teenager, I noticed for the first time what was being implied when we saw Kirk sitting on his bed pulling on his boot, while the alien Deela brushes her hair in his mirror. Other episodes are more direct, but the amorous encounters are constructed in such a way that Kirk is never predatory, and the other party is very willing. In fact, it’s the creepily-lit, aggressive and sneaky transporter-created duplicate of Kirk who gets drunk and acts on his sexual attraction to Janice Rand, in the Captain Jekirk / Mr. Hyde episode, “The Enemy Within.” That episode’s climax requires the nominally “good” but indecisive and weak Kirk to acknowledge and reclaim his aggressive, animal half in order to regain his full identity — including his ability to command a starship.
Kirk’s masculinity is all so much more complex than the Adventures of Commander Sexybeard on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
For some reason today I was thinking of a scene from the first season episode Charlie X, featuring a teenaged orphan who grew up totally isolated from other humans.
This episode comes early in the first season, when the series had more of an ensemble tone, focusing more often on downtime between supporting crewmembers who form the shipboard community.
As Charlie struggles to deal with his crush on Yeoman Rand, Kirk offers some excellent advice that actually includes the word no. In this case, it’s Kirk himself saying no to the relationship; he isn’t actually coming out and telling Charlie to listen to Rand’s implied no; still, Kirk is definitely teaching young Charlie about boundaries, for the first time ever. The exchange focuses more on Charlie manning up and facing his agony, rather than recognizing the dignity and humanity and autonomy of women. Still, this Kirk seems like a pretty decent guy.
CHARLIE: Everything I do or say is wrong. I’m in the way, I don’t know the rules, and when I learn something and try to do it, suddenly I’m wrong!
KIRK: Now wait, wait.
CHARLIE: I don’t know what I am or what I’m supposed to be, or even who. I don’t know why I hurt so much inside all the time.
KIRK: You’ll live, believe me. There’s nothing wrong with you that hasn’t gone wrong with every other human male since the model first came up.
CHARLIE: What if you care for someone? What do you do?
KIRK: You go slow. You be gentle. I mean, it’s not a one-way street, you know, how you feel and that’s all. It’s how the girl feels, too. Don’t press, Charlie. If the girl feels anything for you at all, you’ll know it. Do you understand?
CHARLIE: You don’t think Janice. You. She could love me!
KIRK: She’s not the girl, Charlie. The years are wrong, for one thing, and there are other things.
CHARLIE: She can.
KIRK: No, Charlie.
CHARLIE: She is.
CHARLIE: But if I did what you said! If I was gentle!
KIRK: Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are.
CHARLIE: Then what am I going to do?
KIRK: Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.
CHARLIE: You don’t.
KIRK: Everybody, Charlie. Me, too.
My headcanon is that in these lines, Kirk is admitting that it sucks that he, too, has to restrain himself around Yeoman Rand. (Their repressed interest in each other is a recurring theme that sadly disappeared when actress Grace Lee Whitney left the show.)