By Nathan Comstock, Television Section Editor
Last week, I continued where my Connecticon and Revoluticon panels had left off, giving a brief overview of gender relations among the Romulan and Cardassian races on Star Trek. This week, we take on one of Star Trek’s most fascinating and problematic races, and find a surprising amount of resonance with our times. I’m speaking, here, of the Ferengi.
Although they haven’t gone through as dramatic a change as the Klingons or the Romulans went through from the original Star Trek to The Next Generation, those who know the Ferengi only from their frequent, zany visits to Deep Space Nine might have a hard time reconciling this with their debut appearance in the first season TNG episode “The Last Outpost.” These Ferengi, intended as more of a menacing villain than a source of comic relief, are more animalistic and barbaric, clothed in animal furs and armed with pain-inducing laser whips. It is in this episode that we learn that Ferengi women are confined to the homeworld, treated as property, and not allowed to wear clothing.
Although several characters, most notably rough-and-tumble female security chief Tasha Yar, do express some level of disgust at this revelation, it is not totally out of place as a trait associated with a villainous race. Villains are supposed to make us fear them, so having them support cultural practices we find abhorrent makes sense — just as the totalitarianism of the Romulans, the brutality of the Klingons, and, well, just about everything about the Borg exist to make us root for the good guys, so the misogyny of the Ferengi gives the Enterprise and her crew the higher moral ground. The problem comes as the race becomes more developed and more sympathetic, and the writers attempt to reconcile this with their attitudes towards women.
By the time Deep Space Nine debuted, the Ferengi had gone from slightly silly fearsome barbarians to a full blown parody of consumerist America. Every aspect of their culture aside from greed is quickly and completely shut down, and we get a society governed by “The Rules of Acquisition” (rule number one is “Once you have their money, never give it back”). The pilot introduces us to three individuals who will become the eyes through which we discover more and more of Ferengi culture. Quark, a stalwart believer in the ways of Greed and Profit; his brother Rom, an “idiot” with a secretly compassionate soul; and Rom’s son Nog, a cunning petty thief who eventually becomes the first Ferengi in Starfleet. Like B’Elanna and Worf, the evolution of these characters is fraught with conflicts between their morals and their heritage.
The first real examination of Ferengi women comes in the episode “Rules of Acquisition.” Quark is asked by the Ferengi leader, the aging Grand Nagus, to represent him at an important trade negotiation. He is joined by Pel, an ambitious young waiter with a keen business sense. As the episode continues, it is revealed that Pel is secretly a woman, dressed as a male to be allowed to make a profit and to see the galaxy. The ruse is discovered by the Nagus, who demands she return to the homeworld and surrender the profits. The episode focuses on Quark’s moral dilemma of whether or not to betray someone who has helped him to further his own profit, and as such largely avoids focusing on the disenfranchisement of Ferengi women. The attitudes exhibited by the main cast here are extremely problematic.
Jadzia Dax, a highly competent and intelligent woman with experience being both genders, is weirdly not incensed to learn of female Ferengi’s effective enslavement, instead spending the episode giving Pel romantic advice on the erroneous assumption that he is gay (she picks up on the fact that Pel is in love with Quark, but not on the fact that she’s female). This is jarringly out of character for Dax — in her interactions with the Klingons, she is happy to completely ignore any of their cultural precepts which she finds stupid (see her behavior towards Lady Martok in “You are Cordially Invited”)^. But there is not even the stock speech about the Prime Directive and not interfering in other cultures — Dax simply accepts the deplorable civil rights situation as a fact of life.
Later on in the series, we discover that Quark’s mother, Ishka, has taken to wearing clothing and making business transactions without even bothering to dress in drag. It is in this episode that we get the first voices saying “hey, this is wrong,” but even here, the focus is more on issues of family loyalty than on basic human rights. In fact, Quark (and to a lesser extent, Rom) continues to be visibly disgusted at the idea of a female wearing clothes or earning a profit, despite having lived the last three years of his life on a space station commanded by a woman. Now, having Quark continue to stand up for Ferengi ideals was in some ways essential to the character’s evolution (and Deep Space Nine was all about character arcs), but the result, when taken holistically, is a “heroic” character whose misogyny can be hard to swallow. As late as season six, Quark can be seen soliciting female employees for sexual favors and threatening to fire them if they don’t comply,^ and filming Major Kira with the intention of making a sexual holoprogram of her for a client, without her permission. In the rare episodes focusing on him as romantic lead, he frequently talks about sex as a business transaction (Nog does this as well.) But the disturbing thing about all of this is it’s completely played for laughs.
Yes, Quark’s sexual harassment of employees and blatant violations of a female coworker’s privacy are all comic relief. Even the episode in which the enfranchisement of female Ferengi finally occurs, “Profit and Lace,” is a farce where Quark spends much of the episode in drag, resisting the advances of an old Ferengi patriarch. And while the experience is meant to teach him a valuable lesson, it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Because the fact of the matter is, there are still places in the world where women are considered property and aren’t meant to be seen by anyone but their husbands. And even here in the United States, there are a remarkable number of men who still want to limit women’s freedoms. Workplace sexual harassment is still a huge problem, and our culture is a long way from gender equality.
Star Trek is known for bringing perspective to complex social issues. And in the case of women and the Ferengi, there was a real opportunity to tell relevant stories about sexism in our world. And they instead chose to make light of serious social problems. While there are things about the Ferengi on Deep Space Nine and Quark’s internal struggle that I find really compelling and interesting and even funny, the feminist stuff did not hit its mark. And I look at that as a missed opportunity.