Friday, September 29, 2017

'About A Girl' - The Orville, Allegory and the Social Construction of Disability

Like most Star Trek fans, I’ve been looking forward to the release of Star Trek: Discovery with a mix of excitement and anxiety. Will it be good? Will it tank? Indeed tensions have run high in the fan community, and it really has been an emotional rollercoaster. Thankfully we’ve at least had Seth Macfarlane’s off-brand Trek clone The Orville to keep us entertained. And while the first episode was nothing spectacular to write home about, the subsequent episode really began to find its footing as a dramedy. It was becoming a show that strove to find a perfect balance between humor and Star Trek-style storytelling, but that still sometimes missed the mark. A loveable rogue in the world of grimdark 2017 science fiction shows.

Which is why the third episode threw me for such a loop in the best possible way.

The premise of ‘About A Girl’ is a simple one; the USS Orville’s chief tactical officer is a man named Bortus, who hails from the all-male Moclan race. Among Moclans, being born female is exceedingly rare, and is often considered a disability, which is why it is all the more shocking to learn that Bortus and his mate have given birth to a female baby. What follows is a debate among all crew members and Bortus himself that eventually leads to a tribunal held on the Moclan homeworld to determine the baby’s fate. Admittedly, this plot is fairly standard fare for a sci fi, and it does come across rather simplistic with regards to the transgender issues it overtly tries to tackle by using gender as the allegory (namely, the assumption that biological sex is linked to gender comes to mind…though then again maybe for Moclans it is? We never really find out). That being said, while the metaphor is about gender identity, it succeeds far better as a commentary on pre-natal disability screening…especially as it relates to autism. You see, Bortus has his change of heart on whether to perform the procedure on his daughter while watching the 1960s Claymation Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer movie with two other crew mates, and it was the story of Rudolph’s assumed deformity actually saving the day that, rather humorously, makes him reconsider his entire stance.

Putting aside the occasionally weird humor for a moment, the episode does raise the very real question of a what a disability actually is. After all, biologically, there was nothing wrong with Bortus’ daughter – she was a perfectly healthy baby girl. The ‘disability’ in the minds of the Moclans was her potential inability to partake in society as an adult, along with a host of perceived stereotypes about people with her ‘condition.’ This should ring a bell for any one of us who are familiar with the neurodiversity movement, as well as the push to cure autism through in utero screening. Bortus himself says it best when he wonders how he could possibly dare to make a decision about the future capabilities of a being he only just brought into this world. It all serves to highlight a very real fact – that disability is as much a social construct based on what is arbitrarily considered ‘normal’ as it is based on biological realities. Had Moclans been a typical race with two biological sexes and a range of internal genders, the question of Bortus’ child’s sex would never have even been an issue. Circumstances, and prejudice, determined her fate more than anything else. That ultimately, even the best arguments by Orville XO Kelly Grayson failed to persuade the court to respect the baby’s birth sex also points to a harsh reality – that true social change is hard, and often requires far more work than one trial in one courtroom can accomplish.

In the end, ‘About A Girl’ is an overly simplistic and somewhat problematic allegory when taken on face value as being about the struggle for transgender rights. It still succeeds in that respect mind you, but not nearly as well as it does when considered as a metaphor for disability and autism rights. The fact that, at the end, the court still forced the baby to go through with the procedure was painful to watch, and it damn near brought a tear to my eye, but it did so in the best tradition of Star Trek shows of yore. When one considers the arrogant pride with which some countries have recently proclaimed to have ‘eliminated’ Down Syndrome through selective abortions and in-utero testing, the profound, powerful message of this episode is all the more needed. After all, there really is NO way to know what kind of value someone will have, or what kind of contribution they will be able to make until they’re given a chance to develop and grow. So is The Orville the best science fiction show I’ve ever seen? Definitely not…and in fact I very nearly stopped watching it after the horrible writing of the pilot episode. But had I done that I’d have missed out on a show that, while often ham-fisted, also manages to  write decent allegories of important issues like these.

And you know what? Any show that can make a commentary about in-utero genetic screening and the social model of disability while also showing a gelatinous alien flirting with a human doctor within the same 45 minute run time is a-okay with me!

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael


  1. I agree with you about the better conparison to disability; I also appreciated the point subtly made in the show about how a great writer, in the midst of a society with such ingrained internal prejudices, can do great work, but perhaps only while living apart from them and beyond their bad influence.

    1. (This is Adam, I'm just logged in on my other Google account)

      Exactly Dave! It was such a deep and thought provoking episode that I put down my phone and laptop and focused with 100% attention while I watched - something I rarely do with ANY show. Don't get me wrong I love Discovery too (so far it's incredible!), but that The Orville successfully channelled TNG while also being entertaining in its own right and making a point about social constructs really threw me for a loop. That I didn't enjoy the latest episode of The Orville isn't really about if it was any good - it was really just that so far, nothing could measure up to 'About A Girl.' If this is how good it can be after 3 episodes, I think after a year or so we will have a genuine TNG successor on our hands.

      And hey having not one but TWO distinct versions of Roddenberry's vision on TV at once is something I've not had since childhood. I love it! :)