My ten-year high school reunion is coming up this summer, and as I’m oscillating between feeling old and nostalgic, I keep hitting reminders of my youth. It’s as if all of us mid-80’s kids are skittering toward the three decade mark and remembering when. Back in the late 90’s when we were watching and listening to all the poppy culture around us, we had no Tweets or Tumblrs or Wikis to share our admiration to the world through. And remember how long it took to load those Angelfire Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan pages? So many broken images! It feels as though, at last, we’re making up for lost time.
This week alone I was treated to this fantastic essay on growing up with the Japanese anime Sailor Moon, which I very much did every turn-of-the-millennium afternoon. News is flying about powerhouse-of-my-youth American Idol coming apart at the seams (hey, whatever happened to Justin Guarini?) And all of a sudden, Kathryn Janeway memes are all over my Twitter feed.
I was obsessed with Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway. Ob. SESSED. As in nerdy devotion I wince recalling (think conventions, uniforms, and trying everything I could to get my hair into that puffy AquaNet bun-hive). For whatever reason I watched Voyager’s premiere with my dad, a Star Trek fanatic who had practically memorized every nuance of the original and The Next Generation series. I was 11 years old and instantly enthralled with the show’s lead character. I got the action figure, read her mass-market paperback backstory novelization, wore around a particularly hideous t-shirt with her head screened on it. I know that people, like my Trek-ambivalent mom, scratched their heads. What’s the deal with Janeway?
I didn’t bother asking the question when I was young, content with simply thinking she was the shit. But now, grazing through a sea of coffee-themed memes, I have to wonder what the magnet-appeal was. And in retrospect, it seems clear why Kate Mulgrew’s Kathryn Janeway felt like a beacon amidst Ally McBeal, Carrie Bradshaw, and Rachel from Friends. Janeway’s character was fearless and rooted with a Ned Stark-like sense of honor. She was smart enough to be in charge of a giant adventure-magnet ship hurtling through space. She wasn’t cruising the galaxy for love, and her romantic plotlines were sparse and subdued. She had no kids waiting back on Earth to get home to, no onboard pregnancy scares. She was working, dammit. And she so didn’t have time for that shit.
Her victories weren’t won on feminine wiles or seduction. She utilized reasoning, logic, and diplomacy to navigate her crew out of scrapes and make decisions. She wore a modestly tailored pantsuit.
Unlike stalker-like millennial female leads like Kerri Russel’s Felicity and Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, Janeway didn’t join Starfleet to follow a man’s dream and share a destiny. She left her fiance (and their pregnant dog!) behind for the opportunity of a lifetime on the Starship Voyager. And when the journey went awry and the ship was stuck on the other side of the universe, it took several years to get back in touch with Earth again. When she finally did, she learned that her left-behind love thought she was dead and married someone else. Sure, she was Susie Sadface for a bit of the episode, but life went on. She was okay. She still had her friends, her job to do, and her sense of self. I think she might have missed the left-behind puppies more.
When Voyager began its run, I was on the cusp of despising my brain. A year or two later, I would have traded all of my grades and talent in the world for a chance at being beautiful. I wanted to devastate with picture-perfect looks. As anyone who watched Topanga on Boy Meets World transform from quirky school nerd to hot girlfriend over a few years of TGIF nights, the right way to grow up seemed clear. You were supposed to outgrow precociousness like Saltwater Sandals and Lip Smackers.
And yet. For one night a week, on a TV series regaled to the world of nerd-dom, on a broadcasting network long-since vanished, Janeway offered a smidge of subconscious hope on the bridge between childhood and adolescence. Perhaps somewhere in my 11-year-old heart I realized that I had to cling to one hopeful role model, one example that maybe I wouldn’t churn out from the other side of adolescence as the sexpot. Maybe I wouldn’t date much. Maybe I would never want kids. And that was okay. One day I’d realize I grew up into the person I was supposed to be, and the things that I am not would no longer haunt and eat away at me every waking moment.
Because after this much come-of-age life, we’ve learned that good looks don’t offer salvation, and relationships rarely solve more problems than they create, and the world does not run on some fair scale of merit-to-reward. And watching someone in charge, refusing to be talked down by anyone of any damn species, steering through life with confidence, is as refreshing and inspiring now as it was when I was a kid. But now I know why. Allowing a woman to be as in control and prevalent as Janeway in a mainstream medium is rare. And wonderful.
It may have felt like an eternity across the galaxy, but 18 years after Captain Janeway took charge of that bridge, I feel closer to being that woman I loved so deeply for reasons I failed to grasp. And to be self-assured is worth falling down the wormhole for.