In the four years I spent at J.R. Masterman, navigating my descent into nerdiness while fighting the inevitable onslaught of puberty, there’s one moment that I would consider to be “life-changing”. A moment I still remember vividly today, even as those Spring Garden memories fade deeper into the past. Ironically, this life-changing moment is connected to Star Trek, and I didn’t even realize it at the time. And you all know how I feel about Star Trek.
My seventh grade science teacher, Mr. Mealey, was a huge Trekkie. In every class he brought along a black book with him. It was titled, All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Watching Star Trek. Somehow he always found a way to relate this show to whatever we were learning in class. At the time the only thing I knew about Star Trek was that it had Professor X and that guy from Reading Rainbow in it.
One day, at the beginning of class, Mr. Mealey asked us to take out a blank sheet of paper.
“Draw a doctor.”
Everyone looked around at each other. Here he goes with one of his weird experiments again, I thought. Confused, but afraid (he was a tall, commanding guy), we all got started.
What does a doctor look like? I cycled through images in my mind. Well first, he has to have a lab coat. I drew a figure (or blob because a suck at drawing) wearing a lab coat. Next, I added a stethoscope around his neck, and a pocket protector with pens. Last was the shiny head mirror. Or in my drawing, just a smaller circle above my doctor’s head. Ten minutes later,
“Pencils down. Look at your drawings.”
Mr. Mealey then followed with a few rhetorical questions.
“Is your doctor male, or female?”
“How tall are they?”
“Are they skinny, fat?”
“Long hair? Short hair? Curly?”
“Glasses? Or no glasses?”
“Is your doctor black, white, asian, hispanic?”
“Is your doctor, the same color as you?”
That last question took me out of whatever early morning daze I was in. I looked down at my doctor and clearly he was as white as the paper I drew him on.
Up until that point, I didn’t know of a doctor that was black. All of the leads in every hospital show or movie in the 90s were white. And I watched a whole lot of TV as a kid.
In that question, my science teacher revealed to me how much media could influence my outlook on life. How the lack of certain images could limit my belief in the reality of them. I didn’t draw a black doctor because I couldn’t see the potential in my own self.
Lack of diversity in media is a means of maintaining social inequality. The late professor George Gerbner coined the term symbolic annihilation to express this concept. And it’s a real thing that perpetuates Hollywood like a plague. But if you go behind the scenes, this annihilation, intentional or unintentional, makes total sense. There are very few writers of color in the writer’s rooms of our favorite shows.
America, we can do better. I’ve seen us do better. For the past 50 years, Star Trek has been going “where no one has gone before” on screen. The first interracial kiss in TV history, black leads, female leads, multi-gendered characters, an entire planet run by women!? Star Trek has been pushing the boundaries on all sides, showing us that roles on-screen do not have to be limited by race or gender.
Film and Television inspire. We see aspects of our own selves in the protagonists of the stories we watch. And we see our potential in a protagonist that thinks, acts, and looks like us.
Happy 50th Star Trek. Look out for my spec script in a few years, Bryan Fuller.