The Problem of T’Pol

Good costuming supports the character and the story. I’d be negligent in my analysis if I didn’t address the costume-and-characterization baggage T’Pol carries around.

It’s quite possible T’Pol would be costumed differently without Enterprise’s behind-the-scenes issues related to brand overexposure, critical reaction, and low ratings. There is a distinct shift in her main fashion choices after season two – what I call an explosion of color, texture, and skin – that were not so secretly driven by ratings desperation. The costume shift coincides with a change in format and theme song; the showrunners were making choices and changes to win back and/or build the audience. It’s important to understand this context even as I make the argument that these choices should be understood as T’Pol’s in order to look at her character and storylines from a sartorial perspective.

Enterprise is a prequel and has all manner of prequel problems. Arguably these most affected T’Pol (who was first intended to be T’Pau, the Vulcan matriarch of Spock’s family introduced in TOS “Amok Time”). Spock’s presumed status as the first human/Vulcan hybrid, the child of the first human/Vulcan marriage, and the first Vulcan to join Starfleet [ETA: this has since been proven incorrect by Star Trek: Discovery] put constraints on T’Pol’s storyline. When events occurred that contradicted those presumptions – e.g. T’Pol joins Starfleet – the series and fans determined explanations – e.g. it was a field commission and the difference in her uniform can be considered an indication it was maybe not entirely official. Creative continuity is a fixture of serial fiction, but that’s an example of costuming effects on same.

Spock became a surprise sex symbol in the original series. T’Pol’s sex appeal was implanted into the character. In 1966 Leonard Nimoy was considered unconventionally attractive, but Jolene Blalock was a former model. Like The Next Generation’s Deanna Troi and Voyager’s Seven of Nine, T’Pol was outfitted in figure clinging jumpsuits. In the latter two seasons, in direct response to low ratings, these jumpsuits featured a plunging neckline:

and were now rendered in soft or shiny fabrics and feminine colors:

T’Pol’s casual clothing included pajama-like outfits in no less than seven colors, four of which were separates that show off her midriff. She appears naked in five episodes and in her skivvies in six. 

Notably, every member of Enterprise’s crew appears in their underclothes during decontamination sequences in which they rub an antibacterial lotion over each other’s bodies. Enterprise sexualizes and objectifies everyone, but T’Pol most of all.

Now, ignoring external context, what do T’Pol clothing choices tell us about her character?

She is comfortable with her body and knows what looks good; when she finds a silhouette and texture she likes, she gets it in all her favorite colors. The choice to wear a form fitting jumpsuit rather than more traditional robes says she’s active and doesn’t like to be constricted. When she becomes a Commander in Starfleet her jumpsuits are made in the softer fabrics and more feminine colors of her casual clothes. This indicates that given more options T’Pol prefers a feminine aesthetic. She is, in short, a girly-girl fashionista. And that, in short, is GREAT. Women (and Vulcans) are more than one – or two or five or twelve – things. T’Pol’s not afraid to get dirty, literally or figuratively. She’s bruised knees and afternoon teas.

I hate that T’Pol (and seriously, everyone on the show) is so incredibly and overtly sexualized and objectified throughout the series. Because she is a great character. The central theme of Enterprise is curiosity, the only ‘emotion’ vulcans allow themselves, and T’Pol is the personification of that theme. If only the showrunners trusted their premise, their actors, and their audience instead of defaulting to gimmicks and grabs. I’d like to watch that series.

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