No Empathy for the Empath: The Violations of Counselor Troi

By Michelle T.

(Content Warning: Discussion of sexual assault/rape ahead.)

Counselor Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation is a character frequently maligned by fans. Usually you hear more comments on her outfits and cleavage than on her personality or accomplishments. It’s pretty clear that the writers didn’t know what to do with her, and it’s not until much later in the series that she gets substantive stories. What I’d like to talk about specifically, however, is how often this character is assaulted, either physically or mentally. For a show that is supposed to be progressive and egalitarian, the character of Counselor Troi is abused in a way that is unacceptable to those values.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love TNG whole-heartedly. You can love something and still see problems in it, though, and love it despite them. That caveat being added, let’s look at some examples.

There is about one episode per season where something terrible happens to Troi, but I’m going to focus on a few of the more egregious examples. The first episode of season 2, “The Child,” may be the episode that I have the most problems with. An alien entity in the form of energy comes aboard the Enterprise, and we see it exploring different areas of the ship, seemingly looking for something. It creeps through a few other crewmembers’ quarters until it comes to Troi’s room, where she is asleep. This thing moves under her blankets and slowly slides its way up and then disappears inside her body. Troi wakes up quickly, looking shocked and confused. That sounds disturbing, doesn’t it? It should. That’s because it’s what no one in the episode ever calls it: rape. Counselor Troi is raped by an alien being and becomes pregnant.

I think it’s what happens after the rape that disgusts me so much. Troi is brought into the observation lounge, where the senior staff openly discusses her situation with little thought for sympathy or privacy. Marina Sirtis plays this well, despite the bad writing. You can sense the humiliation and pain as she walks in and doesn’t meet anyone’s eyes. She sits at the very end of the table, away from anyone else, and is clearly very uncomfortable. Riker, her former lover, is completely without sympathy. Instead he’s suspicious of her and demands to know who the father is. “This is a surprise,” he says. I like her response quite a bit, “More so for me.” Troi then is forced to explain to her mostly male audience how it happened. “Last night, while I slept, something which I can only describe as a presence… entered my body.” She’s describing a rape, but has to do it in front of her coworkers and then listen to them discuss what to do about it. She sits in silence while the men try to decide whether having the baby is a security risk, or if the fetus should be aborted. Troi’s body isn’t something she has control over in this moment, but something the senior staff debate. This scene is disgusting in so many ways.

Finally, Troi speaks up and tells Captain Picard that she is going to have the baby. To his credit he gives her the ultimate decision, saying, “It seems, then, that the discussion is over.” At least one of the men in this room respects her right to make this decision for herself.

After this we see the pregnancy progress at an unnaturally fast rate. Within 36 hours she is ready to give birth. As if listening to a room of colleagues discuss her options wasn’t bad enough, she has to give birth with a room full of people watching. Some of them, armed security officers, are there without her permission. Riker is creeping just out of her sight the entire time, too. Presumably if she had wanted him there she would have asked for him. Somehow, though, Deanna remains calm, kind and patient during this ordeal. I think it speaks of a great strength of character that she is able to forgive the others and still feel a great deal of love for the child she has just given birth to and loses almost as quickly.

There’s a lot more I could say about that, but let’s move on to our next example: “Hollow Pursuits.” Yep, this is the episode where we meet the infamous Lieutenant Reginald Barclay. The episode centers on Barclay’s addiction to the holodeck and his considerable mental issues. One of the central characters in Barclay’s holodeck fantasies is Troi as a romantic object. Troi, Riker and LaForge enter the holodeck while one of Barclay’s programs is running to find him and come across the holodeck versions of themselves. The first person they encounter is Troi as the “goddess of empathy,” dressed in a ridiculous Greek goddess-style outfit. She is clearly very uncomfortable with it and tries to delete the image. Riker thinks it’s hilarious and stops her. He feels differently, of course, when he encounters Barclay’s version of himself later.

I know a lot of fans tend to play this off as comical, but pause for just a minute and think about it. How would you feel to find that someone you work with uses your image and personality as a romantic object in a fantasy? I would be creeped out. It’s creepy and weird. It would be like finding out that you are the subject of someone’s self-pleasuring fantasies. If I were Troi, at this point I might have refused to counsel Barclay and made someone else deal with him. She still does her job, despite how uncomfortable and awkward that would be. Deanna is a consummate professional in this and other equally bad situations.

In an otherwise stellar season that brought us amazing episodes like “Darmok,” “Ensign Ro” and “The Inner Light,” twelve episodes into season 5 we get “Violations.” We see in “Ensign Ro” that the writers can create and write for compelling women, but they still drop the ball with Counselor Troi. In “Violations” the Enterprise is hosting an alien race with telepathic abilities, and Troi initially tries to help Jev, whose father speaks poorly of his abilities, by bonding over their overbearing parents. He repays her sympathy by forcefully inserting himself into her mind. He creates a memory of Troi being sexually assaulted by Riker, possibly raped. We don’t see the end of the memory, as Troi falls into a coma at this point. So in this episode, not only is Troi essentially mentally raped, but the memory inserted into her mind is of a sexual assault by someone she loves and trusts. Later on, after she awakes from her coma, she is forced to relive the experience. Jev is supposedly trying to help her find out what happened, and she has to explain the false memory of the assault in front of Captain Picard and Worf. She breaks down recalling it and ends up weeping. Once again Troi has to deal with an assault in front of others, and is not seen dealing with or talking it about in any really meaningful way.

A very similar incident also happens in the last of the TNG movies, Nemesis. Shinzon pushes himself into Deanna’s mind as she is being intimate with her new husband, Commander Riker. It starts off as a romantic scene between two of our beloved crewmembers, but is perverted by Shinzon inserting himself in Riker’s place. Troi is clearly disturbed and traumatized. She yet again goes through a medical examination and debriefing in front of the senior staff. She requests to be relieved of duty, seeing this connection as a liability. I would imagine she wants time to deal with the assault emotionally as well. Picard denies her request, and says that if she can endure more of these assaults that he still needs her at his side.

So, to get this straight: Picard’s counselor has just been violated, and he denies her leave. Not only that, but he asks her to endure it again. He has asked Troi to endure mental rape multiple times. The complete and utter lack of sensitivity in this scene is disturbing. The sexual assault, which it is, despite not being physical, is treated as no big deal. They still refuse to call it what is. It’s referred to as a “violation,” and not mental rape.

This scene seems to serve little purpose beyond Shinzon’s amusement, and to later be used as a plot point. Deanna uses her forced mental connection with Shinzon and his viceroy to locate and target Shinzon’s ship. She does this voluntarily, too, sacrificing her own comfort to help the Enterprise. Deanna says, “remember me” as she targets and fires on Shinzon’s ship, and it’s clear that this is her recourse for justice. For once we see her getting revenge for the wrong done to her. She has to take the opportunity herself, however. Her fellow officers or captain do not give it to her.

Most of the time, Deanna does not take the matter into her own hands. She remains professional and keeps doing her job, despite the violations she continually suffers. We do not see her given a chance to talk to anyone about what has happened, or deal with the assaults in any meaningful way. We know Star Trek can deal with important social issues and hit it out of the park. Just look at “The Outcast,” “Measure of a Man,” or “The Drumhead.” With the issue of sexual assault Star Trek falls far short. I am not saying, by any means, that it should never be used in television or movies. It needs to be done in a sensitive and meaningful way. Deanna Troi’s assaults were not handled meaningfully or even sensitively. They are plot devices and little more.

It can be used in good ways. Take, for example, a show like Jane Campion’s ‘Top of the Lake.” The main character, Robin, suffered a rape as a teenager. We see Robin still dealing with the consequences of her rape as an adult, and her process of working through it. That rape is what drove her to become a law officer specializing in sexual assault. She uses what happened to her as an impetus that drives her to keep it from happening to anyone else and to help victims seek justice. A show like “Top of the Lake” shows the effects of sexual assault on women and the men around them. We are not given a chance to see those effects in Deanna Troi’s case.

For a show like Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is a huge disappointment, particularly to many of its female fans. There are times when TNG handles female characters extraordinarily well, but this is not one of them. Deanna Troi was treated very poorly in this area. In the very least, if they wanted to include those violations of her character, they could have used her as a vehicle to explore the issue of sexual assault in a meaningful way. But they don’t. For some reason this issue is taboo, and they do not even name it for what it is.

Deanna does eventually develop into a character with more depth, but it is a shame that it had to be at the expense of being treated so badly for so long. So if you’re one of those Star Trek fans that dislike Counselor Troi, give her a second shot. For everything this poor woman has gone through, it’s amazing that she has not given up on her career entirely or had a mental breakdown. She’s a lot stronger and more resilient than she seems. Here’s to hoping that any future Star Trek incarnations use sexual assault as a way to initiate dialogue on the issue, rather than just a plot device.

Michelle lives in Fargo, ND, where she does normal people things by day and nerdy things by weekend and night. Her interests range from Star Trek, to history, archaeology, languages, fantasy and sci-fi, and cats.

11 Comments ON " No Empathy for the Empath: The Violations of Couns... "
  • alt_example

    wardcalis April 13, 2015 at 11:13 am - Reply

    I agree with much of what you wrote. I fear it comes down to this. Rick and Gene, are predominantly the main wrighters for the show back then. Being both male and from authoritative backgrounds neither had the experience to even see many of those encounters to be as bad as rape. Most males don’t understand the psychological ramifications that can happen even from a near miss when a black and white rape doesn’t actually take place. They chalk those reactions up to just being hurt feelings and think the woman should just get over it.

    Even though the cast, namely Sirtis and Stewart, were aware and demonstrated an understanding of what would of truly happened and how it would of effected the person experiencing the event, they were still bound by script.

  • alt_example

    GavinRuneblade April 13, 2015 at 1:29 pm - Reply

    The issues with these episodes and Diana go well beyond just Star Trek. In the past 5-ish years there’s been a real push to redefine what is and is not rape, because most of what people talk about as rape, what is sometimes called “the rape narrative” pretty much is non-existant in the real world. By contrast, the sorts of rapes that DO happen are often not considered rape and not treated as seriously. This is just about the only way rape and sexual assault are handled in movies and TV.

    There were several studies from 2010 and later (I’ll find some references/links later, not at a place where I can do that just now) that asked men if they had/would commit rape, almost universally all said no (unsuprisingly). Then they asked if men had/would perform certain actions, most of which got very different responses. The view that emerged from these and follow on studies was that first of all, stranger rape is almost a statistical non-event (less than 5% of actual rapes). The other 90-95% the rapist is someone who knows the victim. Also, overwhelmingly, drugs and alcohol are used to render consent impossible. Violence is rare. This is key to understanding the move to redefine consent from the general public’s assumption of “no means no” to a more powerful “yes means yes”. In other words, if you can’t get a yes, it was rape. A woman (or man) being silent and not resisting, is not consent. Being unconscious (especially if drunk or drugged) is not consent. Amazingly, very few people really get this concept. Hence all the men in the studies claiming they never committed rape, but then admitting they drugged women to be able to have sex with them.

    Because most people (including almost all TV and movie writers) assume that “if it wasn’t a stranger violently forcing sex then it wasn’t really rape”, then the assaults Troi had to suffer were never seen by the writer as rape. If the definition of rape is changed over time to become “yes means yes and everything without a yes is rape” then future characters will be seen differently, and hopefully, treated differently.

    From my own perspective, the biggest missed opportunity(s) was that they never took these plot lines as a chance to look at revenge vs forgiveness and the psychological ramifications of both choices. Marina Sirtis is absolutely a good enough actress to have handled those sorts of stories, and Trek’s emphasis on being a utopia where the characters are supposed to be idealized rolemodels who can make decisions we people of today find hard would make it the perfect place for such a discussion. Alas, it was not to be.

    On the episode with Barclay’s holodeck fantasy specifically, I wish I could remember where to point the credit for the statement, but alas my memory has failed me. Anyway, there was a female celebrity who was asked about being objectified by men and having in other interviews mentioned it wasn’t a big deal. A woman interviewer called her out on that attitude. She explained, “*I* am not an object. That picture is. That’s not even me. It is a character that exists for the purpose of arousing male viewers. Anyone is free to objectify that, because it is an object. If they think it’s ME being objectified, they’ll be very disappointed.” And then the conversation went into a discussion of self confidence and owning yourself rather than letting other people define who you are.

    On Diana Troi specifically, I remember that one of the things I always liked about her, and how Marina portrayed her, was that she found her own answers when she had problems, she didn’t surrender her problems to other people to solve for her. And when people came to her for help, she guided them to finding their own answers as well, she rarely solved peoples problems for them. While there were times the writing didn’t live up to the above, mostly this was true. I always respected that about her.

  • alt_example

    Cookiecupcakes April 13, 2015 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    This article is amazing and it really made me think differently about Troi. I already liked her character before this, but I have a deeper respect and appreciation for her now.

  • alt_example

    Rom April 14, 2015 at 1:16 am - Reply

    I think Natasha Yar had it far worse. If you go into her childhood you will see what I mean. I’ve sometimes wondered if the reason they killed off Tasha was because her back story was so horrific.

  • alt_example

    seannewboy April 15, 2015 at 8:22 am - Reply

    A wonderful article, professors should use this article, when covering sexual assault topics.

  • Pingback: Links for Nerdy Procrastinators, April 24 (2015) | A Balanced Shelf

  • alt_example

    meow point1 February 2, 2016 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    Some of those things were sexual, but others were romantic, but not sexual or unrelated to sex. Therefore, it was not all rape, and the pregnancy alien did not have actual sex, so I wouldn’t call it rape.

    • alt_example

      Lee July 8, 2017 at 3:40 pm - Reply

      So let me get this right. You do NOT see this, ‘a being forcing entry into once body, which then results in an unwanted pregnancy’, as being rape? In that case you should consider maybe checking yourself for I sir, smell on you the foul smell of ‘bullshit and denial’.

  • alt_example

    Ted May 27, 2017 at 11:00 pm - Reply

    Just my two cents…

    I thought the ready room discussion in the child was intended to make the viewer feel uncomfortable to further the point that it was an inappropriate reaction. The crew was, understandably, worried about the safety of the ship, but forgot/overlooked that it was Deanna’s body that had been violated and her choice. Picard reminds everyone of that, but the safety concerns raised by an unknown alien raping and impregnating a crew member can’t be easily ignored. The problem with tackling current social issues aboard a star ship means occasionally it gets lost in translation.

    I do think the violations resolution was unsatisfactory. That Picard would mitigate what Jev did by saying we all have that seed inside us is insulting to the victims and viewers.

    Note-in the Barclay holodeck episode they encounter the Riker parody before Troi. It doesn’t change the sexually demeaning nature of her hologram, but Riker’s reaction is because she told him to lighten up when they encounter his diminutive hologram. He’s just asking her to follow her own advice.

    Overall, I agree. Troi’s character is one of the most abused on the show. She’s mostly used as a love interest for some alien visitor as a way to get in their head in lieu of an inner monologue. It gets old, but as the show progresses you do get more.

  • alt_example

    Poppy March 15, 2018 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    The last thing I’d ever want to be is a rape apologist, but, I have to point out a couple things. First, not to excuse the problem, but this is a series filmed in the nineties and you’re looking at it through the lens of 2015 sensibilities. I remember watching this concurrent to a time of considerable harassment in my own life when I was quite sensitive to the topic, and it didn’t seem to me that problematic. There were attitudes that needed examination, and they are being examined nowadays, but overall and for its time, it was pretty good in my eyes. The level of pressure applied to questions of, for example, post-rape bodily autonomy seemed downright trailblazing to me at a time when that was a visceral concern of mine. I would also like to point out that in the admittedly horrible episode “Violations”, they do indeed call it what it is at the very end of the episode. The father uses the “r” word with zero equivocation and speaks of their civilization’s resolute accountability and virtual eradication of that crime. I can see how Picard’s stance on the problem might seem a bit apologist, but in the larger context of his character and the show, I think they were trying (somewhat tunelessly) to get at the nuances of sexual violence – ie the monster myth wherein rapists are only sinister monsters who leap out of the shadows rather than otherwise ordinary men who allow their desires to go unchecked to the point where they prioritize them over the sanctity of another person’s mind and body. In the nineties I think it played a whole lot less impotently.

    All of that said, I definitely agree that Troi got the short end of every stick in the series, most specifically the sexism stick. I think it probably makes these violation episodes seem all the worse because her character wasn’t given much depth. I do think their heart was in the right place overal in terms of writing female characters, but until you let women actually write *ourselves* into these stories, you’re not going to see the depth. But I still am 1,000% a Trekkie, warts and all, because in the not-so-vast landscape of sci fi lite, they always tried the hardest.

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