On the Indelible Queerness of Captain Philippa Georgiou

Copyright: CBS

Warning: the following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery.

It has been nearly three and a half years since the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, when the hype surrounding Captain Philippa Georgiou—widely promoted as the first Asian captain since Hikaru Sulu and the first Malaysian in Trek, ever—ended abruptly in her death just two episodes into the series. Many fans who had been excited to see a woman of color at the helm were shocked and disappointed, not just that the show had fridged her so quickly, but also when her body was later revealed to have been cannibalized by Klingons, and a twisted version of her character revived for the next two and a half seasons.

When asked about prime Georgiou, showrunner Alex Kurtzmann stated, “Yes, 100 percent, she’s really dead.” Yet she lives on in the show in countless little ways: her heirloom telescope visible in the background of Saru’s quarters, Michael sharing a memory of her with Tilly as the latter prepares to take the conn for the first time. But it’s not her leadership style or beloved possessions that have garnered her a devoted following in fandom spaces. It’s the unmistakable air of queerness about her character.

When we’re first introduced to Georgiou and Discovery’s leading woman, Michael Burnham, they’re taking a walk alone on a desert planet, which is pretty gay. They’re having light banter that could be read as flirtation about whether or not they’re lost, which is very gay. If they don’t make it back to the ship in time, the colossal storm brewing overhead is going to strand them on the planet with nothing and no one but each other for 89 years, which is extremely gay. Burnham questions her with increasing frustration as Georgiou calmly finds them a way out, which ends up working, resulting in Burnham directing a look that’s halfway between frustration and wonder at her. Basically, Georgiou immediately comes across as a soft dom who loves to tease her long-suffering sub, a dynamic so sapphic that this definitive ranking of Star Trek women by lesbianism put Georgiou at #4, behind only Tasha Yar, a couple of extras seen dancing together, and actual canon lesbian Jett Reno.

Copyright: CBS

As if her character’s introduction wasn’t enough, the tension between Georgiou and Burnham flies off the charts in later scenes, in a series of charged confrontations that unintentionally spark the Federation-Klingon war. Though you could argue that a large part of that is simply the power difference inherent in any superior/subordinate relationship, Georgiou’s reaction to Burnham’s act of mutiny is an emotional lashing out, betraying deep personal hurt. The show makes no attempt to hide the fact that Georgiou and Burnham’s relationship goes beyond that of a captain and her first officer—in fact, that was the writing team’s intention. Unfortunately, the writing team later ruins this by deciding that Georgiou sees Burnham as a daughter, which, if anything, is an indicator of society’s inability to view older women as anything other than maternal figures. (This happens again with mirror Georgiou’s departure in season 3; Burnham describes her as “like a mother, almost; like a sister, almost,” which is really just kind of weird.)

Despite this “mothering,” Georgiou/Burnham remains the most popular ship for fans of her character, who cheerfully ignore canon in favor of imagined worlds where Georgiou is alive and well and never thought of her first officer as her daughter. The age difference between the characters is no barrier, either: after all, the hallmarks of sapphic pop culture include the movie Carol (2015) and power couple Holland Taylor and Sarah Paulson, the former featuring a comparable age gap, the latter, an even greater one. Even those who don’t ship Georgiou with Burnham overwhelmingly headcanon her as queer, despite the franchise’s best efforts to straightwash her with an ex-husband and a male lover in the Discovery novel tie-ins. But perhaps the most compelling evidence (to non-sapphics, at least; I maintain that the desert scene is peak lesbianism) is the threesome mirror Georgiou is shown having with a couple of Orions, one male, one female. If this Georgiou is meant to resemble her prime universe counterpart in every way save tendency towards murder, then surely prime Georgiou, too, is bi- or pansexual.

Why does it matter that Georgiou is queer? Simply put, it matters because her character is groundbreaking in so many other ways. Georgiou is neither white nor male and speaks with a distinctly Malaysian accent without it being a caricature of her ethnicity or nationality. She is sarcastic and playful, which makes her funny in a way Asian characters aren’t often allowed to be. Most of all, she’s in a high-ranking leadership role, something real-life Asian Americans continue to be barred from. Her being queer doesn’t just help to combat the dearth of sapphic Asian representation in media. It allows queer people of color to see themselves in positions of power where they can affect real change in the world, turning the principle message of her character—“I was a human who had seen a life of loss, but still chose hope”—into a rallying cry to retain tenderness for themselves and others even as they fight viciously for what is right.

It matters, too, that prime Georgiou is queer as well as mirror Georgiou, because mirror Georgiou is a genocidal dictator and a walking leather fetish, which feeds into the the evil bi stereotype and hypersexualization of East Asian women and is therefore arguably terrible queer representation. It matters that prime Georgiou is queer so we remember to be outraged at her death as the first in a series of heartbreaking writing decisions regarding the show’s queer and trans characters. It matters that prime Georgiou is queer because her name appears on the list of Starfleet’s most highly decorated captains. In our present, where so much of queer history and so many queer people in history are only just starting to be remembered, Georgiou’s name on that list symbolizes a future where neither the person nor their queerness is forcibly erased from memory. Where the contributions of queer people of color are not simply acknowledged, but celebrated on a universal scale.

Copyright: CBS

It has been nearly three and a half years since Georgiou’s appearance on Discovery, but she has left an indelible mark on the lives of those who saw themselves represented in her for the first time. Through her legacy, the hope of a brighter future lives on: a world where a Malaysian woman can be a captain, command respect, playfully sass her first officer-slash-girlfriend, and bestow nuggets of wisdom upon her crew in the same breath.

Written in honor of Captain Georgiou January – February, a month-long event organized by the team at We Are Captain Georgiou (who are also putting together an appreciation fanbook). The event ends on February 15, but the fanbook will continue accepting submissions after that. All are welcome—come join in the festivities and/or submit to the fanbook!