Saturday, August 8, 2009

From Emily: Sci Fi Ethnocentrism

I recently saw the Star Trek movie. Growing up I was a bit of a Trekkie - my family watched Next Generation reruns as far back as I can remember, and new episodes of both Deep Space Nine and Star Trek Voyager when they were on the air. When I was younger I enjoyed the shows without thinking too much about their social depictions of various races and genders, but lately I've felt frustrated with how ethnocentric the series is.

I'm not just talking about the fact that a universal translator allows everyone to speak in standard American English, and yet it allows people from some nationalities to maintain their accents, or about the womanizing ways of Captain Kirk. I'm not even talking about the low representation of black, Asian, and Hispanic characters, though I think that's a serious issue. For me, the strongest indication of the racist nature of Star Trek's vision is the representation of Vulcans and other non-human species.

I guess I've got to be a nerd if I'm complaining about something like that, but really, think about it - Spock is older, more experienced, and more disciplined than Kirk. When Spock becomes acting captain of the ship in this new movie, it only makes sense. And yet, everyone from Kike to a future version of Spock wants Kirk to take his place. Kirk's valor hasn't even been tested - all he's ever done is cause trouble and fight Star Fleet protocols, but this human is the one who "must" be in command? Even in an alternate reality, where the destruction of Vulcan and the death of Kirk's father has changed everything, Kirk still gravitates toward being in command, as if the Universe is determined to place a bold and rash human in authority.

I've never really understood why so few Star Fleet Captains and Admirals are anything other than human. After all, Vulcans live longer and are more intelligent. And what about other species? Vulcans look very similar to humans, so at least they show up in positions of high command, but nobody who is blue or greeen, or who has tentacles, or who in short looks different from the average white man or woman makes it into positions of authority. Not to mention the lack of homosexual and bisexual characters. What's more, few of those white authorities are women. When women are in positions of authority, they're often despised admirals, or members of alien species that are apparently more accepting of gender differences.

Star Trek Voyager handled multi-cultural issues better than many of the earlier shows, but even Tuvoc (a Vulcan who is also the only prominent black character on Voyager) never becomes a captain or even a first officer. When Janeway's white, human, male first officer dies, she replaces him with Chekotay. While Chekotay's presence is a reminder of the variation among human cultures, he is nevertheless a rebel who is propelled into a position of authority largely because of Janeway's instincts. It's only fair to note that these instincts go against her close friendship with Tuvoc, but nevertheless her gut guides her to place someone who is similar to her in a position of authority.

I could go on about this for awhile, but I have a feeling anyone who isn't familiar with Star Trek Voyager is already lost. Just suffice it to say that being human-like often appears to be the driving force behind who is put into positions of power in Star Trek's Star Fleet organization. This concerns me because, if we can't handle the idea of fictional people who are unlike us being in charge of a group that includes humans, then we probably have issues with others who don't look like us being in authority over us. I'll leave it to you to decide how true this is in politics, business, religion, etc.


  1. Wait, really?

    Think of what the original crew was like in the 1960s. You had a Russian, an Asian, a Scot, an African, two Americans, and a Vulcan. Although you make a good point about how the series has developed to be human-centric, which I’ll address later, please keep in mind that in its original incarnation it was all about the future of the human race and how we should (and Gene Roddenberry hoped we would) put aside our differences. The original series even had the first inter-racial kiss on TV, though there was mind control involved if memory serves. Still. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told Nichelle Nichols she should stay on the series, even though she felt her character wasn’t important.

    As to whether or not it’s ethno-centric, that might be more a function of trying to make a franchise that people will watch than the actual goals of the show and the movies. "Human rights. The very name is racist," says a Klingon officer in Star Trek VI. Yeah, but there were not extra-terrestrials around when we invented the term, silly Klingon. Still, it’s an interesting way to bring up the point of what human rights means in a sci-fi setting with other intelligent races. Not ethno-centric.

    And one of the funnier moments is in Star Trek IV when Chekov, a Russian, is asking where the nuclear ships are in San Francisco. It's a joke largely lost on us these days until we remember that the movie came out during the cold war.

    In short, Star Trek was originally about how the human race could be awesome. And having watched probably too much of the various serious over the years they certainly have had their share of homosexual moments, and for their commanders they've had an American, a Frenchman, a Black Guy, a Woman (and Janeway sucked as a captain because of the script writers, not because she was a woman), and yeah, another American. That’s not even to mention the host of aliens they’ve had running around as regulars, from an android (Data) to two incarnations of the same character, both the memories of several different previous hosts of their mutual symbiote (the Daxes from Deep Space 9).

    I’m sorry, I find your accusation that Star Trek is too ethno-centric to be limited in its investigation of what Star Trek has actually done and tried to do as a method of social commentary. I won’t argue it’s been perfect, but you certainly shouldn’t be as concerned about it as you appear to be.

  2. Oh Carl. Clearly I am not as big of a Star Trek fan as you. You're right about one thing - my perspective on it is limited. But you never answered my main concern, which is not about which human races are represented on the show, but rather about which races, gender, and species are put into positions of command, such as "captain."

    As to your argument that the show is being ethnocentric for its audience, rather than because the creators want it to be ethnocentric, I never said the show was trying to be ethnocentric. Well-meaning people who do great things are still capable of producing ethnocentric works. Just think of how many writes and philosophers have done that, and all with the best of intentions! But then again, maybe we'll disagree there too, since philosophy is your field.

  3. I'd also note that it's interesting how diversity is measured in the popular imagination- we get one Asian man, one African-American woman, a couple of White women, and Spock (in The Original Series) and call it diverse- even though the rest of the crew is White and male. Diversity isn't measured by how many singular representations of various races and sexes you include; the crew isn't "diverse" just because five of the Enterprise's 430 crew members in TOS aren't White males. In order for true diversity to occur, the Enterprise needs a better ratio than 1:86.

    Yes, I looked that number up. Take that, Nimoy!