Kes is introduced as a hostage. A victim. A bruised waif. A damsel in distress who Neelix tricks Captain Janeway into saving, which sets up the Kazon enemy arc that lasts into season three. Some hours later Janeway destroys the Caretaker’s array (stranding them all in the Delta Quadrant) specifically to save the Ocampa, a race the Caretaker has been ‘protecting’ – aka hiding and coddling – from the universe for generations, from the Kazon, who Janeway decides are the bad guys based on Neelix’s intel (super questionable seeing as he straight out lied to them!), the Caretaker’s feelings (super questionable seeing as he kidnapped them from across the galaxy!), and the fact that Kes is an abused child.
It’s like that tumblr meme: the Caretaker posted “Protect the Ocampa at all costs!”, Neelix reblogged adding the screencap above and when it came across Janeway’s dash she deleted her tumblr, and all her friends tumblrs, and a bunch of tumblrs Tuvok flagged as problematic, and moved everybody over to pinterest.
Thanks to Starfleet medicine and magic, Kes almost immediately reappears unbruised and in the outfit from the season one promotional photos:
I have to imagine Neelix had this dress on his ship because the crew would have dressed her in a medical robe or some kind of Fleet jumpsuit right? And I don’t think she had time to direct the replicator. Anyway, Kes barely appears as a battered little girl and spends the rest of the episode and most of the first season as an intelligent, compassionate, and most importantly active member of the DQ band. Kes, Janeway, and Paris are the only characters who get an arc in the pilot and Kes directs action and saves people just as much as she is directed and saved. Which is why I HATE that she is introduced as a powerless child.
One: Ocampa live an average of 9 years and Kes is not quite 2, in theory that equates to 18ish. I don’t know how old Neelix is supposed to be, or what the life span of a Talaxian is. But Jennifer Lien was 20 and Ethan Phillips was 40. Even ignoring actor age, it’s clear that Kes, a teenager who has been literally and figuratively sheltered by not only her family but a “benevolent” alien babysitter and lived underground her entire life, and Neelix, a man who fought in a war for years and has been a scavenger long enough to own his own ship, are not equals in terms of age or experience. So introducing Kes as not only a young girl but a young girl who has been assaulted makes their really disturbing relationship even more awful.
Two: Kes is the most traditionally feminine woman character on the show (it’s one of Voyager’s strengths that Chakotay and Neelix and even Tuvok have traditionally feminine attributes). Introducing her as a trope paints those feminine traits as weak – making it seem that Janeway and Torres and eventually Seven are strong despite being women.
Three: Kes’s role is undefined throughout her time on Voyager. She has a garden, she learns medicine from the Doctor and mindfulness from Tuvok, she shows interest in piloting and states that she wants to be a physician. But she is outside the command structure and while Neelix is chef, consultant, and ‘morale officer’ Kes is just sort of there. She’s clearly the closest thing they have to a nurse/medic but no one ever calls her that as they do Paris. All the maquis and the felon get ranks and uniforms but Kes doesn’t even get a position. It may not be fair to compare her to all these adults, most of which at least went to the Academy for a a few semesters, so let’s compare her to Wesley Crusher. He was made an Acting Ensign in the sixth episode of the series and gets a uniform in the third season. Maybe Kes would have been made an official crewmember and/or passed her medical boards if she’d stayed longer, but she still would have been behind Wes.
Now, it’s not necessary for Kes to be treated like crew or Starfleet. But it adds another layer of ‘other’ and ‘different’ and we start to wonder why. And given that she is a young woman, and is introduced having already been victimized – by the Kazon, by the Caretaker, by her society, and arguably by Neelix – she gets stuck there. She has power, she has agency, but she has no authority and seemingly no way to get any.
So. I hate how Kes is introduced but at least her aesthetic is clear from the start: cute babydoll dresses, layered, with tights. She’s a pixie!