It occurred to me recently that Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, portrayed by the formidable Nichelle Nichols, wears a red uniform. This may not be immediately surprising. Lots of people wear red uniforms in the Original Series. All the nameless “redshirt” security guards, yes, but also the entire engineering department, which naturally raises the question: Which is Uhura? Not security, clearly, which leaves engineering.
This realization struck me because fans seem to have conflated “communications” with linguistics at some point after the original series, largely due to the 1985 novel Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan. In actual episodes, though, she’s not presented as a linguist but an expert in the sophisticated technology required for the Enterprise’s communications, including long-range with Starfleet, intraship coordination, and interfacing with alien ships’ technologies. She doesn’t pull out a dictionary, she crawls under her station to reconnect wires. She’s in the engineering department, not the humanities.
A few examples: In “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, she pops under her station to “rig up a subspace bypass circuit,” identified as “very delicate work.” Spock comments that no one else is more qualified to do it and leaves her alone. Spock. Spock doesn’t think he himself could do a better job on that circuit. (Nichelle Nichols has also commented that she saw Uhura’s relationship with Spock as one of a student and mentor). Another one, easy to miss, is tossed in at the beginning of “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” The initial goal, before they were waylaid by the gamesters, was a maintenance check on an automated communications outpost, so Uhura is tapped for the landing party.
Uhura is shown speaking Swahili on multiple occasions, it seems to be her first language, and that may be part of the reason her character is nudged that way later. However, it’s generally presented as character backstory and part of an effort to show people of all nationalities on the Enterprise, not connected to her professional qualifications. Think about it: With a universal translator, why would they need a linguist on the bridge? On the ship as a backup, certainly, but not on the bridge.
This matters, not because linguists are dumb — it’s just as valid as any other profession and super interesting! — but because Uhura is not a linguist, yet is continually pushed in that direction, a more “feminine” direction. It matters because we still have so few representations of women in STEM fields, let alone women of color, and one representation makes all the difference. Before 1985, Uhura was a symbol drawing women into NASA and the STEM fields at large, and she deserves a little recognition!