In the twenty-first episode of the fifth season of The Next Generation, THIS IS DEEPLY UNCOMFORTABLE. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For misogyny and consent
I’d like to think this is a thoughtful examination of agency and consent, but at times this episode was just so relentlessly uncomfortable that it was hard to parse my feelings on it. Perhaps it’s supposed to be this way. Maybe the writers wanted us to question the idea that women are supposed to exist solely for men’s pleasure. (You know, they could have also used this episode to do that to point out that there are people who aren’t interested in women, but ALAS. I’ve given up the hope that Star Trek will do something like this.) But I think there’s a serious flaw – and a rather ironic one – in the framing of this story.
Granted, it was clear to me that the writers knew they were handling a timebomb. As soon as one of the Ferengi let Kamala free, the script repeatedly addresses how fucked up Kamala’s life has been. At the age of four, she was taken from her mother and immediately indoctrinated into this system. It makes me wonder: would Kamala have turned out differently if she’d not been immediately pushed into this? Would she have developed into a different person? I know it’s ultimately a pointless hypothetical, given the end of this episode, but I can’t help but think about it. Throughout “The Perfect Mate,” there are glimpses of another future for Kamala, but she never gets to realize it.
Instead, she spends a great deal of this episode acting like a more harmless version of a siren more than anything else. It’s unnerving to watch, especially since Famke Janssen is so good portraying this character. We watch as Kamala changes based on the desires of every man she meets. She’s just one of the guys in Ten Forward. She growls at Worf. She teases Riker with her sexual appeal. And when she’s with Picard, she’s… well, probably the closest to herself that someone like her can be. Thinking about that makes my head hurt because how could she ever have had a chance to develop her own identity if she was being molded into the perfect mate at age four? Is there a “Kamala” underneath everything? If so, I think we see it during the scenes with Picard.
I think that what “The Perfect Mate” tries to tell us is that Kamala finally experienced genuine happiness and companionship with the one man on the Enterprise who wouldn’t exploit her. As a metamorph, she was ideal for everyone else because they could have her perfect partner. But thanks for Dr. Crusher’s rant earlier in the episode, Picard can’t think of Kamala as the other men do. He helps her have freedom of movement about the ship; he tries to get her to think about the implications of her role; and he offers her sympathy and understanding instead of sexual pleasure. And I don’t question the fact that Picard was the one guy on this ship to treat her this way. He’s always been respectful like this.
But that’s more or less where this falls apart for me. The tragedy of Kamala’s life is that she’s prepared herself for an arranged marriage for years. She can perfectly bond to any man around her due to her empathic powers and her metamorph nature. She’s also been raised to understand that every man in any room will desire her and her body. And then she meets Picard, who fights harder than anyone else to avoid exploiting a vulnerability. She can’t have him, and yet? She’s the only one he wants. And due to the nature of this show, her resolution here is final. That’s it. She’s stuck with Alrik, who cares more about negotiations than an arranged marriage, and she’ll never get to experience being in love.
So she’s cast off the Enterprise, and her story becomes development for someone else. Even in the end, within a script that urges us to rethink how women exist relative to men, we’re shown that a woman’s characterization is there to build up a man. This is more Picard’s story than hers, especially since we get to see his interaction with Dr. Crusher. It’s about his dedication to duty, and his dedication to doing what’s right. I mean, it always had to be, right? This show is about how these explorers are changed and influenced by their experiences. Still, it’s an unfortunate end to this episode because it’s like… the writers are aware enough about this to create the situation, but then they end up fulfilling the same thing they created.
The video for “The Perfect Mate” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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