HIGHLY OFFENSIVE FERENGI: RACIAL ISSUES AND STAR TREK'S MULTICULTURAL DEEP SPACE NINE
STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE is the third official Star Trek series based on the ideas of the late Gene Roddenberry. The popularity of the Star Trek series has earned them an honoured place in America's popular culture.(1) Likewise, scholarly attention to Star Trek points to its importance to the study of media culture.(2) Star Trek, even before its broadcast of television's first interracial kiss, has always had two missions. The first, its entertainment mission as part of the television industry, is the well known: "Its five year mission is to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man [sic] has gone before."(3) Deep Space Nine's creators, Berman and Pillar, state the second is the less publicly articulated mission of addressing matters of socio-cultural concern.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is very successful in syndication and with Star Trek fans.(4) DS9 assembles the most racially and ethnically diverse group of all the preceding Star Treks. The most prominent difference is that the lead character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, is played by African-American actor Avery Brooks. Brooks is the first (and so far the last) Black actor to play the lead role in any Star Trek series or film. Equally important, the basic plot of DS9 (throughout its seven year run, 1993-2000) revolves around the problems associated with different "races" of peoples living together in an hostile environment. In the Star Trek universe humans have supposedly rid themselves of racism as Hurd explains, "prejudice is gone and brotherhood reigns supreme."(5) However, this is not the case for all cultures on DS9. For example, until they left the region (somewhat like a colonial power withdrawing from Africa in the 20th century) the Cardassians used the Bajorans as slave labour to build DS9. However, these fictionalized and futuristic racial themes are thinly veiled comments on contemporary situations. Bernardi's and Pounds' treatments of race in Star Trek are the most significant works to date but they primarily deal with the Star Trek films and the Star Trek series before DS9. Bernardi finds that despite its multicultural universe the Star Trek franchise fundamentally supports a vision of a "white" future where assimilation, not diversity, is the goal.
In order to make sense of race in a science-fiction text this research uses Omi's and Winant's concept of racial formation as its explication of race. This definition, "emphasizes the social nature of race, the absence of any essential racial characteristics, the historical flexibility of racial meanings and categories, the conflictual character of race, at both the 'micro-' and 'macro-social' levels, and the irreducible political aspects of racial dynamics."(6) This view allows for race to be understood in terms of social interaction. Therefore, race is not dependent upon any outdated notion of race as skin colour or other physical attributes. Hence race is socially defined and inextricably tied to the socio-political aspects of a culture. This is significant as Bernardi argues, "the imaginary time of Trek speaks to the real space-time of race relations."(7)
This essay investigates one of the many racial issues that are prominent on the beleaguered space station, Deep Space Nine. Despite its multicultural crew and focus on the constant, and sometimes violent, clash of differing ethnic values, DS9 perpetuates racial stereotypes and promotes mainstream cultural assimilation as a noble, desirable quest and as the correct way for the racialized "other" to exist.
A Brief Look at Star Trek's Mission
The Star Trek vision as created by Gene Roddenberry and carried through related films and television series is one "of a hopeful future in which different intelligent species - as well as different humans - can co-exist harmoniously."(8) Hurd explains that Star Trek's, "original intent was to explore and disprove the encoded prejudices of contemporary society by displacing the debate onto a future and presumably utopian society."(9) Indeed, Roddenberry explained the Star Trek series originated from his love for science fiction and the restrictions placed on television subject matter in the 1960s, "I decided to steal a page out of Jonathan Swift's book, Gulliver's Travels, and talk about some strange polka-dotted people and be able to get away with those things which censors might now overlook."(10) Blair argues that when Star Trek appeared in 1966 the country experienced social upheaval. President Kennedy had been assassinated; the US was involved in the Vietnam War; soldiers, Civil Rights and other activists were fighting and dying for their beliefs (often on the evening news). Society was divided on several issues and opposing groups formed. Blair points out "[Star Trek] touches viewers where they feel alien and in need of a more generous concept of self and society in which the alien [other] has a place."(11) Pounds argues that "the most distinguishing feature was [Star Trek's] willingness to reflect at the heart of the [Star Trek] concept the social change that the civil rights movement fostered."(12)
Moreover, Logan argues that Roddenberry and his cast, the most diverse group (international and interracial) ever on television to that date, made questioning mores, norms, conventions and standards of the 1960s a fundamental part of the series. Roddenberry states, "we talked about very positive philosophies, tolerance, and understanding."(13) Hence, Star Trek was designed to reflect the values of racial equality and multicultural brotherhood.
Star Trek: The Next Generation continues many of the themes and ideas of the original series and added aspects of the 1980s. In The Next Generation the themes and policies of the Reagan/Bush era dominate. The concerns of the Federation are much broader and the older captain, Picard, of the USS Enterprise is more diplomatic and less war-like. However, in contrast TNG is more militaristic than its predecessor. The Enterprise is no longer the seemingly lone scout but takes part in many Federation battles. In ST: TNG, the strength of the Federation is often used as a universal police force to promote humanist goals.
Roddenberry's moral mission continues on ST: DS9. Yet Deep Space Nine differs from the other Star Treks in many respects. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine presents modern day problems ignored in the other series. The most distinguishing difference between Deep Space Nine and the other Star Treks is that its base is stationary, a space station. The crew of DS9 cannot boldly go where no one has ever gone before, but instead must boldly stay and deal with the problems of the past as they enter an uncertain future. The station is itself in disrepair; even though it was once a thriving trade centre it is ruinous, bleak and "analogous to the present-day urban situation."(14) Television critic Jeff Jarvis explains DS9's connection with modern problems, "ethnic hatreds are proving to be a worse threat to peace than ideologies. . . . [as] many races coexist in a testy truce . . . . It is more than just a [Star Trek] spinoff--it's a wholly new show with its own vision and its own messages for our new world."(15)
These features create a Star Trek environment on DS9 quite unlike the clean, well functioning, orderly Starships of the two previous series. DS9 reflects many contemporary problems as it denies the technical utopia suggested by Star Trek and ST: TNG. Perhaps the production designer for DS9 best explains the dreams of DS9's creators, "[In the future] historians . . . [will say] Star Trek's cinematic voyages into the awesomeness of space usually asked questions of relevant social significance and, sometimes offered wise and timely answers to those questions."(16) Therefore, the creators of the Star Trek universe in general and of DS9 in particular, see Star Trek as suggesting ways of helping modern day humans solve their social problems through moral fables of the future.
Popular Communication and Popular Culture
In order to gain some perspective on what racial issues are important to the audience of DS9 the present study is situated within the growing body of qualitative studies of media audiences.(17) Lindlof argues that qualitative research of media audiences enables scholars "to construct theoretical propositions which . . . may address such domains as the interpersonal negotiation of media content."(18) One way to find out what viewers of programs find important is to monitor electronic mailing lists that are fan based. On these "mail lists" the fans talk openly about issues they find significant.
On a fan based international electronic mailing list devoted to Star Trek issues concerning race and DS9 occasionally surface among the participants. In 2001, the year after the DS9 series ended, and with the newest Star Trek series Voyager airing, a major discussion occurred on the electronic mailing list involving one of the main "guest stars" of the DS9 series, a Ferengi named Nog. The discussion, that developed into an argument, revolved around the fact that Nog became a member of Starfleet (rising to the rank of lieutenant by the end of the series). Implicitly, one side argued that Starfleet was open to any race and, thus, there was no problem with Nog being in Starfleet. The opposing argument implied that Ferengi are unsuitable for Starfleet service because their race is morally unfit to be good Starfleet officers. One of the many websites devoted to all things Trek-related spells out the problem, "Nog joined Starfleet in Season 5 [of the series] . . . . He's the first ever Ferengi to join Starfleet - something which Ferengi wouldn't usually dream about, because in the Federation there's no money."(19)
Nog and Affirmative Action
In June of 2001 the discussion "thread" began with one participant wondering how Nog had gotten into the Starfleet Academy in the first place. Another member, Jesse, responds, "As I see it there are two possibilities, 1) He got in under some obscure ethnic diversity clause, the first Ferengi in Starfleet. 2) Desperate times for desperate measures? [Starfleet] needed people because they knew they were going to have to go to war." Regardless of the fact that Jesse did not mean to be offensive, one implication of this statement is that Nog is a racialized "other" who does not belong in Starfleet except under special race-based circumstances.
Pat responds and changes the subject heading from "Why enlist?" to "Why enlist?: Highly offensive reasoning" suggesting a change in the thread and in the tone of the discussion. Pat writes, "I find your first possibility . . . extremely offensive and more importantly, a sad example of how far we are from the Star Trek universe Gene Roddenberry envisioned." Pat makes the explicit move from 24th century fictional future to 20th century racial politics by explaining why Nog was accepted, "Nog got in because he was qualified, not because of his ethnicity . . . . Do you [Jesse] assume that all minorities who work with you got their jobs because of their ethnicity?" Pat takes Jesse to task for suggesting that Nog needed special help to get into Starfleet, demonstrating that the thread has focused on race and ethnicity. Pat drops any pretense that they are discussing the fictional Ferengi and uses contemporary language to explain Jesse's arguably offensive remark.
Kelly joins in defence of Jesse's remarks by attempting to explain them to Pat, "The fact that the Ferengi not only are not part of the Federation but also are perceived in a very negative way, is enough to make many people think that maybe there is some kind of affirmative-action like regulation." Kelly's advice that the Ferengi are "perceived in a very negative way" suggests that negative racial stereotypes are at work in the way the show presents the Ferengi. Further Kelly alludes to the "many people" who acknowledge this negative stereotype and look for modern day explanations for why this despised race would be allowed into the mainstream military/police force of the future. Pat is not convinced and responds:
One of the things about ethnicity, racism, [and] sexual harassment is that perception is often reality. Anytime someone uses affirmative action as a reason someone [else has] achieved success . . . [we should all find it offensive]. Why, because that person has labelled someone inferior, that their race [or] gender [is] the sole reason for them achieving success, . . . not their talent. That [type of thinking] is poor logic and should not be [accepted] in any society.
Pat refuses to accept Kelly's compromise position that since the United States currently has affirmative action polices that help "othered" peoples gain admittance to honoured "white" institutions then perhaps this is indeed also the case in the 24th century. Pat fires back:
I think you are all missing the point. Why suggest that Nog's race was the dominant factor in his acceptance to the academy? . . . . To have the idea that Nog's race played a major part in his admission [to Starfleet] rolling around in the back of your mind, whether you want to admit it or not, tends to imply [you believe in the] superiority [of one race] over other races . . . [and] that is offensive.
Pat argues that to claim that Nog was accepted into Starfleet because of his race is offensive.
Asa argues, "Look, we weren't trying to make a comment on today's political landscape." But this is not entirely fair as Asa denies the well established and accepted fact that Star Trek is always about current times and contemporary events. After denying the connection to the present day Asa immediately returns to that very comparison, "However, affirmative action does exist in the US, and there are people who got into college through [affirmative action policies] that wouldn't [have] ordinarily . . . . Good or bad, it is a reality." Asa's return to the here and now actually supports Pat's argument by suggesting that the discussion really is not about a fictionalized future, it is about the present and the racially charged politics of affirmative action. It should not be implied that any of these postings were intended to be racist. The discussion is cited here to point to the fact that Nog's Starfleet career was understood as a racial issue by these fans of the series.
The argument raged on for over two weeks with many messages devoted to the thread. Ultimately the argument was not resolved in any sort of group agreement. Instead, like many discussions on electronic mailing lists, the combatants eventually tired of being unable to convince one another that one position was correct and the other wrong and the thread simply ended. Therefore, using this discussion thread as a cue from DS9 fans that Nog's Starfleet career is an important race topic, this investigation analyzes the transformation of Nog from lowly and detestable Ferengi to venerated Starfleet officer as one site for investigating race relations on DS9.
The Significance of Race in Media Culture
Rhodes explicates the history of the mass media is a "struggle between the transmission of racist ideology and dogma, and the efforts of oppressed groups to claim control over their own image."(20) In this way, past racist perspectives reproduce themselves with each new generation of media producers. Therefore, the mass media perpetuate racist stereotypes by communicating them through a racist perspective of the world. The significance of this research is in its contribution to the dialogue concerning mediated views of race relations with a focus on cultivating media literacy by assisting the audience in understanding the discourse on racist ideologies.
The Ferengi Race
Perhaps the most telling description of the Ferengi is the one that the show's creators, Berman and Piller, wrote explaining the race to the writers and producers of Deep Space Nine. Berman and Piller explain that, "The Ferengi race. . . . are ugly, sexist, greedy, little aliens who are interested only in profit and getting their hands on anything of yours they happen to fancy."(21) Furthermore, Bernardi describes the Ferengi as:
Greedy humanoids, they horde and fetishize gold pressed latinum - the rarest commodity in the galaxy. They are short in stature and have very large ears . . . . They have big noses, bad teeth, and yellowish-orange skin. They have an almost insatiable desire for alien females, particularly white women, and they treat their own females as possessions; Ferengi women are not allowed to wear clothes. For these reasons . . . almost all Trek races detest the Ferengi.(22)
Bernardi also explains that Star Trek fans have argued on the electronic mailing list that the Ferengi are comparable to Jews while other fans object to the racist implications of these comparisons. The point of this current study is not to argue that the Ferengi are or are not consciously patterned after racist Jewish stereotypes. However, there are some striking similarities between the creators' description and common negative Jewish stereotypes as described by Wilson. Wilson explains that "overtly malevolent and clearly anti-Semitic [stereotypes portray] Jews as pushy, covetous, clannish, ill-man-nered [sic], ruthless, dishonest, mercenary, grasping, overbearing, sloppy, loud, money-loving, and uncouth."(23) Regardless of any direct or indirect connections made by fans between Ferengi and anti-Semitic stereotypes, the fact that the Ferengi are an "othered" race in the Star Trek universe is key to this analysis.(24)
Nog, The Ferengi?
Nog appears as a prominent character in approximately 47 of the 176 episodes of DS9. In three episodes from the first season, 1993, Nog's character is introduced and developed. In "A Man Alone" the relationship between Nog and Jake Sisko is established. Nog is a teenage Ferengi boy and Jake Sisko is the twelve year old son of DS9's Commander Sisko. Sisko believes the older Ferengi boy to be a corruptive influence on Jake. Similarly Nog's uncle, Quark, believes that interaction with the human boy will be morally damaging to Nog. Likewise, Nog's father harshly warns him "not to have anything to do with him [Jake]." Thus the clannish nature of the Ferengi and the fact that their race is considered unfit company for humans is established.
In "The Nagus" the friendship between Jake and Nog is again threatened by their racial differences. Nog's father, Rom, insists that Nog drop out of the school, run by the humans, because he feels that their value system will corrupt Nog. Rom is concerned that Nog will be adversely affected by his interaction with the humans and might turn him against his clan. Nog is torn between his dedication to his family clan and his friendship with the other, non-Ferengi, students in his class. Jake's father, Sisko, is in favour of Nog leaving the school as he tells Jake that Ferengi and human races are not compatible and should stay separate. Jake rejects his father's prejudice and claims that it is unfair for Nog to be denied an education based on his race. Despite Jake's open-minded view of race relations the episode implies the racial status-quo of the Star Trek universe: Ferengi are detestable others and should not mix with "decent" races. As support for this idea, throughout the first three seasons Nog routinely behaves in the stereotypical Ferengi manner: lying, cheating and stealing. This is in keeping with Berman's and Piller's description of Nog as a "bad boy, the kind of kid our parents didn't want us to associate with."(25)
In the third season, Nog's character begins to change as he decides to enter Starfleet Academy on Earth. The 1995 episode "Little Green Men" relates Nog's trip to Earth to begin the academy training. By 1997, Nog has returned from the academy and has become an active member of the DS9 Starfleet crew. In "Empok Nor" Nog is instrumental in a dangerous mission that helps the crew recover vital parts needed to repair DS9. In "Rocks and Shoals" he fights valiantly with Sisko and others in a dangerous mission on a desolate planet. In the 1998 episode "One Little Ship" it is Nog's technical knowledge of Starfleet ship controls that allows Sisko to save the crew of the space ship, The Defiant, and regain command of the vessel. After attending Starfleet Academy, the first Ferengi to ever do so, Nog is behaving in some surprisingly non-Ferengi ways. He is now part of a non-Ferengi team, he works toward goals that will not profit him personally, and he no longer steals or cheats. Nog seems to be adopting the values and morally "upright" behaviour of more "respectable" Star Trek races (such as the humans).
It is the 1998 episode "The Siege of AR-558" that ultimately establishes Nog's total transformation from greedy Ferengi to respected Starfleet ensign. In a desperate resupply mission headed by Sisko into enemy Jem'Hadar territory, Nog is essential to discovering an enemy camp and saving the lives of his comrades. While returning to warn Sisko, the scouting party is attacked and Nog is injured. The result is that Nog is a hero, but his valiant efforts exact the loss of his cultural identity.
In the beginning of the episode, Quark goes to the bridge of The Defiant where ensign Nog is at work with the crew. The script for the scene states that Nog is embarrassed by Quark's presence and after Sisko insists that Quark leave, Nog says to Sisko, "Sir, I assure you that won't happen again."(26) Nog's discomfort around his Ferengi uncle demonstrates that he now considers himself more Starfleet crew member than Ferengi clansman.
Later, Quark and Nog are together with a group of battle-weary Starfleet crew members on the beleaguered planet AR-558 when Quark, referring to the Starfleet members, says to Nog, "this isn't the Starfleet you know." Nog shows support for his comrades, "Sure it is. It's just that these people have been through a lot. They've been holed up here for a long time . . . seen two thirds of their unit killed . . . but they haven't surrendered [to the Jem'Hadar] because they're heroes."(27) Quark continues to badger Nog about the inferiority and untrustworthiness of the humans, but Nog refuses to respond and walks away. Nog is no longer able to listen to Quark's verbal attacks on the humans and feels an emotional distance from his uncle.
Quark brings Nog food at Nog's guard position. Nog takes up the post using his extra-large ears to listen out for Jem'Hadar attackers. The script reads:
Nog: Thanks, uncle, but I can get my own food.
Quark, the typical Ferengi, believes that Nog is no longer interested in remaining faithful to his racial heritage. Quark sees that Nog wishes to be accepted into the dominant culture of the Star Trek universe.
Quark: What's the matter, Nog? Afraid of looking weak in front of the [humans]?
Nog: I want to earn their respect, if that's what you mean.
Quark: At the price of your soul? [Suggesting that to risk his life for a profitless cause is a sin]. Look at you . . . you hold that phaser rifle as if it were made of pure latinum.
Nog: We're in the middle of a war and this rifle can keep me alive. I'm a Starfleet officer.
Quark: You're a Ferengi . . . and I wish you'd start acting like one.(28)
Soon after, Sisko must send Nog on a reconnaissance mission with two other scouts, Larkin and Reese, to find the enemy encampment that threatens their survival. When Quark demands to know why Nog is being sent, Nog explains that his large ears will allow him to hear when the scouts are near the Jem'Hadar. Nog turns to Sisko and says, "You can count on me, sir. I'll find the Jem'Hadar."(29) True to his word Nog helps the scouts find the enemy encampment and on the way back to Sisko's base Nog's hearing once again comes in handy. The script reads:
Larkin leads Nog and Reese back toward base camp. Suddenly, Nog tugs at Larkin's sleeve, stopping her. Both Larkin and Reese look at Nog, wanting to know what's up. Nog listens again, then signals that he's heard something . . . movement up ahead. Larkin nods she understands, and then quickly motions for them to fall back.(30)
The Jem'Hadar patrol attack the scouting party killing Larkin and severely wounding Nog, but because Nog warned them before the attack, Reese is able to save Nog and they both escape back to Sisko's base camp. Reese reports that Nog "did all right" and the script direction reads "Sisko nods, he knows that coming from Reese that's no small compliment."(31) Nog's leg is amputated and Sisko visits him as he recuperates. Sisko tells Nog, "I'm proud of you." The scripts explains, "Coming from the captain this means the world to Nog."(32) In this episode, Nog leaves the Ferengi values behind. He has not only risked his life but given his leg in an effort that would not profit him financially. Although still a Ferengi, Nog is no longer a devoted member of the clan. He socially casts off Ferengi-ness for the values and behaviours of the dominant culture that detests the Ferengi. Nog continues through the end of the series as a Starfleet officer. In the dramatic conclusion of the seven year run, Nog is promoted to lieutenant because of his valorous duty. The result is that the series suggests that Nog's conscious decision to adopt the mainstream culture of the Trek universe is a noble and desirable decision. In the end, Nog is a hero not a detestable Ferengi.
Conclusion: Assimilation is the Answer
Bernardi argues that the mainstream dominant culture of the Star Trek universe is "depressingly Western and painfully white."(33) Despite its multicultural cast and "melting pot" space station (or perhaps a more apt analogy would be a tossed-salad), DS9 continues the franchise's white vision of the future that Bernardi illustrates. Nog, a recurring character throughout the seven year series, grows from Ferengi boy to a man who adopts the values of a culture that despises his race. DS9 shows us that Nog makes the "right" and "noble" choice and rises above his despised race to embrace the values of the dominant culture. Nog proves that a Ferengi can abandon his "detested" culture's values and become a "credit to his race" from the dominant culture perspective.
This vision of the assimilated "other" is a longtime media stereotype. As Rhodes argues, racist culture needs racist media to promote racist values. The dominant perspective that makes the Ferengi race detested is the same one that validates Nog's rejection of his culture. If the Star Trek franchise truly wants to embrace multiculturalism and diversity then it will have to consider the "other" in non-ethnocentric ways. Star Trek's professed moral mission is to ask "questions of relevant social significance and . . . [offer] wise and timely answers to those questions." (34) Unfortunately the reality of Star Trek is that it continues to perpetuate racist stereotypes and visions of the future that are far from multicultural.
The fans on the Star Trek electronic mailing list called attention to this space-race problem on DS9. They were unable to reach a consensus on whether Nog got into Starfleet on an affirmative action program or not. Of course, using all of the textual data concerning Nog and his Starfleet career there is no concrete evidence to suggest that he was accepted because of affirmative action polices. The electronic mailing list members took a contemporary argument against affirmative action to make sense of Nog's acceptance to Starfleet Academy. However, what the textual evidence does suggest is an even more racist conclusion. The conclusion is that Nog simply stopped being a Ferengi and assimilated into the dominant Star Trek culture thus making himself acceptable. Interestingly, the participants themselves implicitly considered this explanation at least once when Asa suggests that Nog and his father Rom are different, "they're enough of an oddity that they're considered 'strange' by their counterparts." Although the participants differed as to whether the Ferengi were actually based on negative Jewish stereotypes they nonetheless realized the "othered" status of the Ferengi and exposed the dark side of Star Trek's "white" future.
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