An empathic guide, and a voice of conscience, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) isn’t just an important character in Star Trek: The Next Generation – she’s also one of the great female icons of the sci-fi genre itself.
Now, I know what you’re thinking; Troi – oh she, the wearer of over-sexualized uniforms, a victim of psychic rape metaphors, and character thrust into Enterprise’s role of traditional feminine caregiver – has never exactly been thought of as a feminist role model. Indeed, ever Sirtis herself has openly criticized how her character was handled during The Next Generation’s seven-season run.
“Troi was not supposed to be the chick on the show,” she’s quoted as saying in The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams: The Complete, Uncensored, and Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek (2016).
Adding that the introduction of the plunging neckline to her leotard put an end to Deanna’s role as ‘the smart one’, Sirtis adds:
“Gene [Rodenberry, Star Trek: The Next Generation creator] said she was intended to be the brains of Enterprise, which you would never know from watching it. She was supposed to have equal the intelligence of Spock… [but] I became decorative, like a potted palm on the bridge.”
In a separate interview with TrekMovie, Sirtis takes this thought even further, suggesting that she was never truly satisfied with her character’s arc and development on The Next Generation.
“I’ve always said we didn’t really know very much about Troi,” she says. “We knew she had a crazy mother, she was from Betazed, and she liked working out, but really that was it.”
In Defense of Deanna Troi
It’s a fair point, I suppose. And I’m not here to suggest that Deanna Troi is a flawless feminist creation, believe me. But here’s the thing; the sci-fi genre tends to traditionally present its “strong” women as stoic, closed off, or in extreme control of their emotions. On the opposite side, we have the “weak” women; the love interests, the damsels in distress, and the overly-emotional characters who have little to no input on the important decisions being made by their male contemporaries.
Deanna, though, offers up something different. She is an empath, a counselor, and… well, she served as lieutenant commander for years before being promoted to the rank of commander. Which means that she serves on the bridge. This means that she’s allowed to – nay, expected to – give her opinion on major Starfleet matters.
Think about that for a moment, okay? Troi’s high-ranking position aboard Enterprise is due to her own personal strengths. Her own personal strengths, in turn, are her empathy, warmth, and sensitivity – all of which, as traditionally “feminine” qualities, are usually seen as a weakness on paper.
That’s right, dear reader; the idea that being aware of one’s emotions should be deemed a flaw is an age-old one. Because, in a world that glorifies strength and power, being a hypersensitive person (like Troi) immediately feels like a weakness. In 2022, though, we’re finally starting to understand the truth; that feeling things more intensely than others is an invaluable asset. Why? Well, firstly because (as Troi herself exemplifies time and time again) these people possess the uncanny ability to recognize and understand emotions in themselves and others. This potent cocktail of self-awareness and social awareness makes them natural communicators; like Troi, they can reach those among us that others find difficult to approach (such as, say, Michael Dorn’s Worf) and help keep things running smoothly.
Perhaps this skill of Troi’s is, somewhat ironically, best depicted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Loss’ (S4, Ep10). In the episode, the counselor temporarily loses her empathetic abilities. Even without them, though, she is able to listen to the words not being said and recognize that one of the ship’s crew members – Ensign Janet Brooks (Kim Braden) – is really struggling to deal with the loss of her husband. And that’s in spite of the fact that Brooks has been presenting herself to the world as being very much okay. She’s volunteering, she’s working on improving her language skills, and – as she proudly tells Troi – she hasn’t missed one single hour of work.
While everyone else aboard Enterprise might have taken Brooks’ self-appraisal as fact, Troi listens instead to the words which have gone unspoken.