Friday, February 08, 2008

Back Through the Wormhole, Part VI: Ode to Kira

The breathtaking awesomeness of Kira Nerys, which has been recurring theme in these essays, became apparent to me only a few episodes into my journey back through Deep Space Nine. Almost as soon as I came to this realization, I started pondering a question: how is that this fantastic character, who is strong, capable, confident, and decent, doesn't have pride of place in the pantheon of kickass female characters in genre television? Why isn't her name mentioned in the same breath as Susan Ivanova and Dana Scully, Buffy Summers and Aeryn Sun? What I'd like to do in this essay is take a closer look at Kira, at the qualities that make her so awesome, and most particularly the ways in which she works as a female character. I'd also, however, like to look at the ways in which Deep Space Nine undermines Kira, and serves both her and the show's female fans ill.

Kira's most prominent quality is the fact that she's an imposing fighter. This is the woman who, with a knife wound in her gut, took out a Klingon warrior in "The Way of the Warrior," who held her own against a Cardassian fleet in "Emissary" (as well as coming up with the insane notion of moving the station to the mouth of the wormhole) and against a Romulan one in "Shadows and Symbols," outnumbered and outgunned in both cases. Whether she's fighting hand-to-hand, organizing guerrilla campaigns and resistance movements, commanding a starship, or overseeing the station's day-to-day operations, Kira Nerys is someone you want on your side, and wouldn't want to come up against. She's tenacious and strong-willed, whether she's fighting a bureaucracy in "Progress," interrogating a prisoner in "Duet," or fighting desperately to hold on to her identity in "Second Skin."

What I like best about Kira's strength is that it doesn't undermine her femininity or her ability to relate to others. She has a healthy social life, and over the course of the series she engages in several healthy, loving, sexual relationships. At no point is it suggested that the difficult experiences of her life have hardened her to the point where she can't experience intimacy, or that her lover needs to teach her to be vulnerable. Kira is damaged, but that damage doesn't render her incapable of functioning normally, nor is it used as a justification or apology for her toughness, though both originate in the same circumstances. Neither is Kira's rage--her default reaction when she's frustrated or confronted with injustice--treated as an illness or a symptom of dysfunction, any more than Sisko's similar tendency to go off the handle in the show's later seasons is. Kira simply runs hot, and though her anger can sometimes lead her to act recklessly, most of the time she doesn't allow it to control her.

Even more interesting to me than Kira's physical prowess and her strength as a leader is her emotional and moral strength. She is, I believe, the moral center of the series. She's the person who can always be counted on to speak the hard truths--when she tells Sisko not to go against the Propehts' warnings and marry Kasidy in "'Til Death Do Us Part," or when she urges Winn to step down as Kai for the sake of her soul in "Strange Bedfellows"--and who most fully understands the necessity of sacrifice and selflessness--when she sets Laas free and sends Odo to him "Chimera," or when she agrees to lay down her life so that the Defiant crew's descendants can live in "Children of Time."

One of Kira's greatest flaws is her tendency to assume a kneejerk us vs. them mentality, distrusting the Federation at the beginning of the series and the Cardassians throughout it, disdaining Bajorans who collaborated with the Cardassians so completely that she repudiates her own mother in "Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night," and even earning Odo's wrath in a throwaway episode like "Playing God" when she suggests that destroying a nascent universe in order to protect our own is justified because it's "like stepping on ants." Kira's moral grounding, however, is so sound that she's usually able to overcome this attitude. We see this most often when it comes to Cardassians. Though she never allows herself to forget the crimes they committed against her people, Kira is capable of sympathizing with individual Cardassians--the troubled clerk in "Duet," Legate Ghemor in "Second Skin" (whom she later tends to in his dying days in "Ties of Blood and Water"), Damar, Ziyal, and even Dukat on certain occasions. (It's particularly interesting to compare Kira's ability to judge Cardassians as individuals with O'Brien's inability to do so, in spite of the fact that his grievances against them pale besides hers.) Kira isn't a person for shades of grey--she has very clearly defined notions of right and wrong--but her capacity to overcome both her own prejudices and received morality allows to judge each case, person, and action on their own merits, which in turns makes her the most subtle and sophisticated judge of moral dilemmas on the show.

All of which is to say that I like Kira because she's an adult. It's all too often the case that female characters--even the strong, kickass ones--are portrayed as girlish or immature. Kira is a grown up--in her professional conduct, in her personal relationships, in her moral behavior. She's the person who makes the hard decisions and the big sacrifices because she won't allow herself the luxury of shirking them. There's a scene in "The Way of the Warrior" in which Dax is trying to teach Kira to relax in a holosuite program of a famous Trill spa. Kira, equal parts embarrassed and bemused, complains that the program is nothing but an illusion, and finally admits that she can't see the point of indulging in fantasies as Dax is trying to teach her to do because she doesn't have much of an imagination. On one level, this is sad--Kira's imagination is underdeveloped because she's lived the kind of life that very quickly does away with one's inner child, and the matter-of-fact, practical mindset that that imaginativeness results in is not very appealing to the more fanciful geeky mentality of Deep Space Nine's fans--but it is precisely the absence of almost any kind of childishness that I find so appealing about Kira.

Unfortunately, though Deep Space Nine's writers did an excellent job of creating Kira, they more or less failed when it came to giving her interesting things to do and developing her character. As I've already written, the best episodes of the first season focus on Kira, and on her coming to trust the Federation and see herself as someone in power rather than someone fighting power. From the second season onwards, however, Kira stagnated--she was a fantastic person, and the show never stopped showing us that or giving her opportunities to be fantastic, but she would never again get a chance to grow or change, and not until the sixth season resistance storyline would she get to headline a plot arc again. Also, though Kira continued to be the focus of individual episodes, their thrust changed in the second season. Bajoran episodes, I've already noted, were handed over to Sisko in the show's second season, and when Kira got a chance to deal with the political situation on her planet, it was usually through a personal connection.

"The Collaborator," for instance, is an excellent episode, and Kira is both smart and principled in it, but she becomes involved in the investigation of Winn's allegations against Bareil not because she's a high-ranking Bajoran officer and an important player in her planet's political matrix, but because she's in love with Bareil. The third season episode "Shakaar" might almost be a retread of the first season's "Progress"--Kira is asked to persuade belligerent Bajoran farmers to sacrifice their own interests for the greater good of Bajor. In "Progress," however, the man Kira had to evacuate was a stranger. She was sent to him because of her professional position. In "Shakaar," she's chosen because she has a personal relationship with the title character, who was the leader of her resistance cell. The episode even states that Kira's distrust of Winn is primarily rooted in her resentment of Winn's part in Bareil's death, not her intimate knowledge of Winn's moral failings. The "Shakaar" patterns persists in almost all of the Kira-centered episodes after the first season. In "Defiant," Tom Riker manipulates her into helping him hijack the ship by striking up a flirtation with her; in "Ties of Blood and Water," Legate Ghemor offers to impart his secrets to Kira before his death because he thinks of her as a daughter; in "Covenant," Kira gets a glimpse of the Pagh-Wraith cult because Dukat wants her to like him.

(There's also an unfortunate to undertone "Shakaar," in which Kira allows herself to stop grieving for Bareil, when one watches it with the knowledge that she and Shakaar will later become lovers. It's almost as though she's being handed from one to the other. In fact, though I've said that Kira's romantic relationships are healthy, they are also, with the exception of her affair with Bareil, told from the man's point of view. Shakaar exists solely to spark Odo's jealousy--his and Kira's relationship is only ever viewed from the outside--and her relationship with Odo is related almost exclusively from his perspective.)

And then there's the pregnancy. For the life of me, I can't understand why this storyline didn't appall me the first time I watched the series. I don't mind the original concept--it's a rather neat way of getting around Nana Visitor's real-life pregnancy without saddling the character with a child, and it makes sense to me that Kira, under those circumstances, would consent to carry the O'Briens' child--but almost from the minute the pregnancy is introduced Kira is infantilized. She doesn't just lend the O'Briens the use of her uterus for a few months--she lets them take over her life. A grown, independent woman, she allows herself to become a lodger in their home, a junior member of their family. It's possible to argue that Kira gets something out of this arrangement as well--a family--but her increased closeness with the O'Briens during her pregnancy doesn't translate into a long-term relationship after Kiroyoshi is born.

Just in case Kira's willingness to become Aunt Nerys wasn't creepy enough, we have "Looking for Par'Mach in All the Wrong Places," and the downright scary revelations it makes about Kira's arrangement with the O'Briens. Why in the name of all that is good and holy is O'Brien handling Kira's pre-natal care at the beginning of the episode? Why is Julian handing him medication and instructing him in Kira's care? Is she incapable of seeing a doctor and managing her health? And what about the complete breakdown of personal boundaries that is O'Brien helping Kira out of baths and giving her intimate massages? I realize the point of this hellish plotline is that O'Brien and Kira's enforced closeness gives rise to romantic feelings, which at least means that the episode isn't trying to argue that a pregnant woman is not a sexual being, but that closeness happens because O'Brien assumes that Kira's being pregnant with his child gives him the right to think of her body in a proprietary, albeit initially asexual, way, and to take liberties with it, and Kira accepting that he has those rights. Say it with me: ewwwwwwwww.

Just about the only thing that salvages the pregnancy arc is its penultimate episode, "The Darkness and the Light." I've already spoken about this episode as a vehicle for Deep Space Nine's sophisticated political writing, but it's also a fantastic Kira episode, hearkening back to the deep core badassery of first season Kira. For the first time in what seems like forever, Kira is mad. That anger drives her to violence and irrationality--when she tries to open the door to the O'Briens' decompressed quarters and very nearly vents the atmosphere in the entire corridor, when she attacks a security officer who tries to stop her from doing so, and most especially when she takes off on her own, huge pregnant belly before her, to track down the man who's been killing her friends. This last one is not a very smart thing to do, but "Between the Darkness and the Light" acknowledges that it's something Kira has to do, or else risk losing who she is--just as she has to resist the Dominion occupation in "Rocks and Shoals" if she hopes to hold onto her soul.

As I've already said, "The Darkness and the Light" dares to paint Kira in an unflattering light by presenting us with the ugly consequences of her actions during the occupation and her complete lack of remorse for them, but it also challenges us by breaking a sacred taboo--that a pregnant woman is never allowed to put her unborn child in danger by engaging in risky activity. There isn't even any justification for Kira's decision to go after her tormentor--by the time she does, Odo is already closing in on him--but it's something she has to do, and the episode makes no apologies for it. "The Darkness and the Light" also plays around with the familiar plot of a female character pursued by a serial killer. Like those characters, Kira's decision to go after the killer herself lands her in trouble, but she gets out of it by herself (or rather with the baby's help--the killer keeps her alive because he doesn't want to kill the innocent baby, and the anesthetic he gives her is ineffective because of a pre-natal medication she's on, which allows Kira to overpower him). All Sisko, Odo and Bashir can do when they find her is give her a ride home.

Deep Space Nine's ending finds Kira bereft and alone. All of her adoptive families have left her--Bareil, Ziyal, Jadzia and Ghemor are dead; Shakaar, Odo, and a significant portion of the station's command crew have left. There is, however, no doubt in our mind that Kira can survive and even thrive. The last shot of the series pulls away from Kira and Jake, gazing out of one of the station's windows at the wormhole that has carried away both of their loved ones, but also together and willing to continue with their lives and the tasks ahead of them. It's a testament to Kira's strength that she can survive the ordeals she goes through over the course of Deep Space Nine's seven seasons. Just as it is a testament to the strength of the character that it can survive the alternating bouts of neglect and character assassination inflicted on it by the show's writers, and still emerge from them a remarkable, admirable creation.

4 comments:

Stephanie said...

You know I've disagreed with you on some things in the past, but right now, the only thing I can think to say is Wordy-McWord.

Kira is the reason I started paying attention to the Trek franchise - and this is the honest truth. I was 13 (roughly) and looking for a grown-up female role model when DS9 premiered, and Kira provided for said need in spades. Thinking back, I think she was my first genuine crush, actually. I wore a Bajoran earring to school to emulate her and everything. And a year later, I spoke for the first time at a fan convention (the topic being "Strong Female Characters (or the lack of such) on Trek") mostly because I wanted to talk about Kira. Oh man, did I love Kira.

And even as a kid, I noticed the deficiencies you described above during the "middle years." No, there's not a single thing I dispute in that discussion. Indeed, I distinctly remember watching "The Darkness and the Light" on its original air date and cheering because Kira was back and committing in-character acts of insane badassery.

Ah, Kira. I'm going to have to steal my brother's DVD's and watch some DS9 soon...

ad said...

To suggest an answer one question you brought up, I think the reason Kira is not as well remembered as Buffy, Aeryn etc is described in your essay.

Kira is a reasonably normal, decent person without an especially memorable character arc. People remember interesting characters, not decent ones (although the categories can, of course, overlap), and characters with epic arcs, rather than those with few or quiet arcs.

Kira is therefore overlooked for much the same reason that DS9 is.

Iain Clark said...

I have nothing much to say except that I'm really enjoying this series of DS9 ruminations. You've put a lot of effort into them and it's appreciated!

I think Kira is a fantastic character, and I remember being a bit bemused that (particularly after the S4 revamp) the writers sought to "sex her up" with increasingly bouffant hair, make-up, and a slightly slinkier uniform. Even making her the object of Odo's affection is a way of softening the character a little, I think. The holodeck scene you mention with Dax is part of this, and it manages to feel clunkingly exploitative, even if Kira remains true to herself throughout. At one stage I had a horrible feeling of dread that they were aiming for a Kira/Dukat romance.

It's really a miracle that Kira survives intact and remains as effective and iconic a character as she does.

Anonymous said...

Hi, came upon this netsurfing.

I don't love Kira personally, but I agree that she is to a large extent the center of the series; if her character (or actress!) hadn't been so well done, the show would not be successful.

In re: the question of why she isn't venerated in the Sci Fi Women pantheon (and now I have preempted my response), I think the answer is that Kira isn't a goddess. Buffy is the Chosen One. Ivanova is stubbornly solid despite her self-deprecation; she goes out like a Valkyrie; in the same way that all the major players on B5 (all but Londo) are larger than life, she's larger than life. Scully is a sort of avatar of faith in reason and science (even if she hadn't become a madonna figure); Aeryn Sun and Crichton is like the seduction story of an Amazon Queen.

Kira? Kira is (ironically enough) human. She's a lot less larger-than-life than Dax, Worf, Sisko, even Quark, because her story isn't reductible to types, even though she's certainly badass. What was so pronounced in B5-- the gods walking amongst the people, striated down from Vorlons to Delenn & Sheridan to Londo and Garibaldi to the peons-- is here too: people, mingling with the archetypes.

Another way to put it, I guess, is that all of those women-- and also the new Starbuck-- were all in their way The Fonz. Kira is not The Fonz. In a way, that makes her cooler. :)

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