In the fourteenth episode of the second season of Enterprise, T’Pol deals with stigma. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For extensive talk of homophobia, rape/sexual assault, and ableism, specifically the stigma around chronic illnesses and HIV.
My gut reaction to this episode was that I was impressed, and upon reflection, there are large parts of this that I appreciate a great deal. It’s not often that metaphorical representations of real-life issues feel so detailed, and the introduction of Pa’nar Syndrome ends up being a way for the writers to engage with the homophobic implications of much of the stigma around HIV.
They engage with it, that’s for sure. But do they do anything with it?
I have complicated thoughts on “Stigma,” and it ranges from an appreciation to disappointment to anger. It’s hard to watch something that feels so personal unfold on this show, both because I’m not used to other people caring so much about, but also because… well, it’s Star Trek. While I’m thrilled that there’s a genuine polygamous culture that is openly portrayed on the show (FINALLY), we’re still referring to a longstanding series that still can’t seem to include any non-straight characters for more than a single episode. So how am I supposed to feel when the writers use a tragic and traumatic aspect of a culture that I belong to without ever really including any of us in it? That’s what I mean when I say that Enterprise engages with the stigma around HIV and homophobia. At the end of the day, they (largely) get to walk away from it. They can dip in, provide us with a story (and a really good one, I admit!), and then go back to business as usual.
And I don’t think this is a bad representation of how stigma works. Indeed, there’s a specific context here that makes this one of the best metaphorical inclusions of the issue that I’ve ever seen. In general, there is a stigma for Pa’nar Syndrome. Anyone who has it risks rejection, risks being ostracized, and risks becoming a marginalized member of Vulcan society. That’s just the baseline here, and it’s one aspect of the discrimination that we witness. But there’s a deeper level, too, and it concerns the means by which Pa’nar Syndrome is spread. That’s how “Stigma” addresses the absurd and tragic ways in which one particular group is asked to bear the brunt of a disease. Why?
Because they deserve it.
At least, that’s the logic that a large part of society asks people to believe. If gay men or queer folks simply didn’t violate the natural order of things, then they wouldn’t have been struck with HIV. It’s a punishment, and thus, they deserve to suffer the effects of it. And it’s not just a punishment; it’s a neon sign. It’s a way for those in power to identify the deviants and the sullied and the filthy. Why is it that HIV/AIDS is often used as a way to denote that something is dirty and gross? Why is it always the worst thing that can happen to a person? Hell, long before I came out, when I was still just a kid, I both heard and made jokes about having AIDS. It was the ultimate insult, and it was designed that way. No one survived HIV; no one lived with it. It was intended to be the ultimate deterrent to the vile practice of homosexuality.
And of course, it never worked. It never will. Instead, the stigma spreads. People don’t seek treatment because they are terrified of being labeled as an Other. People learn to devalue themselves because of an illness. People learn the worst of HIV and AIDS, unaware that there is a wealth of misinformation spread through our media specifically to demonize those who have it. Everyone loses, sure, but those asked to bear the sheer brunt of this are those who need help the most.
In that sense, I deeply, deeply respect T’Pol and the writing decision made to have her refuse to throw Vulcans who can mind-meld under the bus. She recognized what a terrible thing that was – to ensure that only those who contracted Pa’nar through “acceptable” means could be treated or given a chance in Vulcan society. Let’s dissect that, y’all! Because that means the only way for a person to be given medical attention and care for Pa’nar is if they are raped. That’s the bar set by the Vulcans! RAPE. Now, granted, we dealt with the implications of consent and mind-melds in “Fusion,” though that was aimed at one person who violated T’Pol. Like I said in the review for that episode, there wasn’t an attempt to say that all of those practicing mind-melds were awful, and this episode takes that a step further. Indeed, merely being born with the ability to mind-meld is all it takes to be an outcast, and so Vulcans hide this part of themselves, even if they have never practiced the act of mind-melding.
I think you can see the parallel there to the real world, though I think once you start examining the notion of “practicing” homosexuals, this all becomes incredibly messy, since that doesn’t really address people in the closet or aro/ace folks either. Obviously, it’s not a perfect metaphor, but it works more often than not. But in the end, I still feel strange about it. I enjoyed this episode because it was entertaining, and it made me love T’Pol a great deal more than I already did. Yet does it have teeth? Does it truly implicate those who are complicity in the monstrous system that leads to stigma? Not really. Perhaps we’ll get a follow-up later on that will do something to dismantle this horrible existence, but for now, the Vulcan leaders get exactly what they want. Yuris is removed from his position of power, and while T’Pol gets to stay on Enterprise, nothing is better for anyone else stigmatized by those in power. “Stigma” might say that this phenomenon is bad, but it doesn’t do much else.
The video for “Stigma” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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