Uhura being single in TOS was not empowering.
She was single because the male leads were all white and as a Black woman she was less of a person than them, she was less of a person than a white woman, and the fact that this serendipitously ended up meaning that she didn’t have to spend all of her time mooning pathetically after dismissive men does not make that any more acceptable.
She got to sit in the back and rarely do anything and have her sexuality ignored not because they respected her so much as a colleague and a person, but because she was not a full, real human being and when you’re not a full, real human being the idea that actual people would ever desire you or romance you or love you is ridiculous. The idea that you might have any kind of sexuality at all, regardless of what it is, is irrelevant. You are invisible.
I could go further with this and elaborate on what Nichelle Nichols was put through by the network, the infamous plea from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for her to stay on the show despite mistreatment, or even her recent acknowledgment that they actually wanted to do Spock/Uhura in TOS but it was made impossible by the times. But that’s too much for this post and really the central point is the same as pretty much all discussions about race.
Namely, please consider the point of view from which you are approaching your analysis because experiences vary wildly and one size does not fit all.
Nyota Uhura is a Black girl and there is no angle from which her actually being allowed to have consensual sexuality, being desired, and being loved (in addition to having her job and intellect, no less) is a fundamental downgrade from what she had before.
In TOS, her being there at all was a massive step forward. Her mere presence in STXI puts her on par with that, and that standard, as indicated earlier, is not one that is often met even now.
I’ve always found it really, really difficult to describe or articulate how this invisibility feels, how it affects you and the way that you view and experience media. I remember someone posted a one page article or somesuch wherein all of the actors in STXI had just one little soundbyte type quotation about their character and their feelings about the original version. John Cho’s was him noting that his reaction to Sulu was essentially: “OMG AN ASIAN GUY IS ON TV.”
The comments on that post were filled with people loling about how hilarious John Cho is, as if he were telling a fucking joke.
I don’t know John Cho and am more than a decade younger than him, but I do very well know the immediate, gut reaction of OMG [A BLACK GIRL] IS ON TV because I have spent my entire life having that reaction. It’s not an exaggeration or humorous aside, neither is it calculated or intentional or even entirely conscious. It is genuinely nothing but the authentic surprise and delight that comes on the occasion when I actually see someone like me in my entertainment media.
Yes, even in 2009 with a Black president, it grabs my attention and sticks in my mind and I remember because it is made memorable by the overwhelming dearth that still exists.
OMG A BLACK GIRL! Gabrielle Union is guest starring on Life. OMG A BLACK GIRL! Dana Davis is playing the evil popular girl on 10 Things I Hate About You. OMG A BLACK GIRL! Rutina Wesley is doing what she can on the world’s weirdest and skankiest vampire show. OMG A BLACK GIRL! No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency exists.
OMG A BLACK GIRL! Zoe Saldana is a major character in a summer action sci-fi blockbuster. OMG A BLACK GIRL! She is ambitious and intelligent and clever without being a caricature. OMG A BLACK GIRL! She is not inexplicably denied any exploration of her sexuality by the narrative. OMG A BLACK GIRL! She is one half of the principle romance. OMG A BLACK GIRL! She is in love with and desired, romanced, and loved by one of the most iconic figures, not just in all of nerdom, but in all of popular culture.
A black girl is fucking Spock.
Nyota Uhura is not a white girl. Her just being there is still worthy of a fuckton of notice. This, right here, is one of the biggest coups in media representation that I’ve seen in my entire lifetime.