Wednesday, May 22, 2013

'Star Trek: Into Darkness' (No, NOT 'Star Trek 2')- Natives and Federations Done and Doing Wrong

I'm nitpicky, so good God, man, don't call it Star Trek 2THIS is Star Trek 2. Kthx...

Obligatory image for thumbnail purposes
I figure I may as well follow the trend and  do some analysis of 'Into Darkness,' but  let me preclude it with the fact that I haven't listened to any podcasts or read any reviews or analyses save  the two I'll link to soon. And this isn't a review, it's an analysis. There's a difference. 

A good friend/fellow nerd and I were talking about the movie the night it came out (we're devoted and both saw it as soon as we could, given our constraints with  grad school). Here's a link to her review. (AND READ HER BLOG SHE'S MADE OF AWESOME)

So we discussed most of what she brings up together. Overall, though, the problems I care most about are succinctly thus: 
  • An opening sequence relying on stereotypes of primitive indigenous people.
  • An iconic character that was formerly intended, portrayed, and described in film/ television as a person of color being portrayed by a white actor, with that backstory conveniently left out.
  • Cryogenicly freezing a group of (alleged) criminals. 
  • A power structure that revolves around peace and non-violence producing large quantities of war machinery.
I want to focus on the indigenous stereotyping, as well as what I see as some pretty dodgy practices on the part of the Federation in the movie. And I want to lastly go into a brief comparison to Iron Man 3. But first, for a lovely and eloquent discussion of the whitewashing of Kahn, do read this piece from by Marissa Sammy:

Star Trek: Into Whiteness. 

So as Amanda  said, the opening scene is something straight out of Indiana Jones or any other adventure/explorer movie where our hero is, for some  reason, chased by angry  natives; like with Dr. Jones, Kirk  and Bones are holding a sacred object that the locals worshiped for some reason. And their reason for stealing it, like with various explorer movies, is one of imposed preservation- in order for them to "play God" (the words of Admiral Pike) and stop a volcano from erupting all over the people, they need to distract those people. Why? Because they're operating within the confines of the Prime Directive, wherein societies without technology are in no way to interact with peoples or pieces of technology from societies in the post-warp-drive era. Also, like other adventure/explorer movies, the  people  on this planet appear to be barely "civilized,"- we don't even really see any dwellings, they're barely  clothed (and barefoot), use spikes and  rocks, and  their language probably  sounds like  what  the Germanic people sounded like  to the Romans (which is to say, "Bar-bar-bar-bar," hence the word "barbarian"). 

I think this goes further than some other movies, though. At the end, once the people on this planet see the Enterprise, they immediately go from worshiping the thing Kirk stole to worshiping the ship- the last shot of these people is of one drawing in the sand an image of the Enterprise with a staff, while everyone else is genuflecting around him, their gestures aimed at what he's drawing. The problem with their reaction, from a Star Fleet officer's perspective, is exactly why the Prime Directive exists. 

But really, this speaks to broader, white cultural narratives in which persons of color are labeled as less (or entirely not) civilized and less (or again, entirely not) intelligent as whites.

The way the conversation with Pike goes suggests that the Prime Directive was agreed to, in part, to prevent the very  thing that happened- a culture being changed because it encounters something else. The assumption, then, on the part of the Federation, is that every non-technological civilization encountering Federation technology will do what these people did. So they're assuming that the civilization in question would be unable to discern that there is an organism-made object in front of them, not a celestial/immortal/whatever being that needs to be added to a pantheon of deities already being worshiped (or replace one or any). So sure, you could say the Federation  was right, even justified, since here's a case where what they attempted to prevent happened- but it's highly racist/speciest/whatever to assume your own is so awesome that it'll "convert" anybody else that's, essentially, naive/gullible/dumb enough to believe you. And it also suggests an underlying assumption that any society without the technology on its own wouldn't be able to handle it. The reasons for this, of course, could be varied, but there's an unstated assumption of incapability for pre-warp (read: Other) civilizations, and thus implicit suggestions of (moral) superiority on the part of post-warp civilizations (read: Self). 

But then, the fact that the filmmakers chose to show those people as that gullible is problematic, too. Sure, it's kind  of funny to see them bowing to a sand sketch of the Enterprise. And yeah, given the constraints of the film with respect to length and such, it's no surprise we watched an instantaneous, rather than gradual, incorporation of the iconography of a Star Fleet vessel into their culture. But this follows a huge trend in vast numbers movies depicting indigenous peoples as "backwards," dangerous, and easily duped: It only took a few minutes and one sighting of the thing, and their  entire worship system is altered. So often, protagonists are mis-perceived  by other species/ cultures/ entities as gods or muses or something, either through coincidence or deliberate manipulation- they become "living versions" of gods (Pirates of the Caribbean 2, The Road to El Dorado, Doctor Who).* And then, quite often, the hero(es) are supposed to be offered as some sort of sacrifice or eaten by the indigenous people. So lack of technology equates stupidity or savagery, oftentimes  both.

The turn to cannibalism, I assume, is a leftover from the stereotype that any person of color is dangerous, and especially persons of color that are indigenous to a given area in which white people are becoming  acquainted. This  isn't an example of the Noble Savage, but I sort of feel like the latter was a hyper-reactionary to critiques for the former; yet the inherent desire to view anything one can consider Other as scary, dangerous, threatening- it leads to somewhat indirect references to that fear. Rather than have the tribe/people show up with weapons in-hand and yelling incoherantly and making whooping battle sounds, they instead adorn the hero with flowers and feed them lots of yummy food while making gentle cooing noises (and women  usually wink suggestively at him if he's a he). So okay, Into Darkness doesn't resort to cannibalism, but the older stereotype of incoherent babbling and throwing rocks is pretty fucking obvious, here.

And while we're on the subject of sounds, I mentioned above that the "tribe" in the beginning of Into Darkness makes lots of somewhat disjointed-to-the-western-human-ear sounds, suggestive of lack of any actual grammatical structure. I highly doubt J.J. Abrams and his helpers actually took the time to come up with  a true language for those people, but alongside the rest, it's suggestive  of the  idea that language equals thought, which goes hand-in-hand with the gullibility/stupidity thing. If they were smarter, their  language would sound nicer, and we'd be under the impression it would make sense if we learned it, that it would have "rules" and the like. Again, if  they sound  different  enough, they must be unintelligent. So you get shit like  terribly broken English and stuff like the scene with  the "Indians" in Peter Pan ("Squa getum firewood!") (which is called Tonto Talk). These people are so stupid, they can't come up with something we'd constitute a "language structure." And if they were to try to speak our language, they'd do poorly at it.

But back to violence.. I'm not going to go into a huge history lesson, but look at American pop culture over time. Old Westerns thrived on the "cowboys v. Indians" narrative (that  would every so often contain a token individual Native that was able to communicate and would sometimes ally themselves with the cowboy(s)) (Tonto, of course, of The Lone Ranger). These narratives are a result  of American jingoism and the manifest destiny bullshit that led to the conquering of North America by white colonialists in the first place. And when I say "conquering of North America," I mean the conquering of her original people, not the land. So of course the indigenous are, sooner or later, going to start fighting back- but then, of course, they're perceived as the bad ones, the violent ones, because after all, it's our God Given Right to have this land, aye? Oh but wait, we're nice to the ones that learn our ways, so it's not like we're in the wrong!


Anyhoo, so, point, opening scene uses a lot of negative tropes and stereotypes about indigenous populations (while granted, in a scifi setting) in order to give us some comic  relief (and an excuse for Kirk and Spock to be in different areas of the room during the attack on all the captains and first officers). I'll admit, it was rather humorous, but really, now, this is the 21st century, and Abrams is supposed to be advanced. Instead, he's using primitive storytelling tools to do what more sophisticated writers would poo poo.

(See wut ah did thar?)

Small point now. They're mostly naked, covered in colored mud, and their tools are all run-of-the-mill tribal bullshit- rocks and sticks and spears. You can  harp on me about how those are quintessential "primitive" tools, but let's not forget these are supposed to be aliens on a different planet- why the hell must we assume the way human tools developed is the exact same way every single other sentient species would have theirs develop, too? I don't buy that "natural evolution of tools" argument. And taken into context, given all the other stereotypes, it just fits- I find it highly unlikely the producers/writers would have sat down and given the tools so much thought if they didn't think about, like, anything else.

Lastly, I'd like to bring up the reason the Enterprise crew  was there in the first place. Okay, sure, the race would have died without their help, but... well... that's kind of the point. They're helpless without the Good Guys swooping in and saving the day. It's a vague example of Mighty Whitey, but  more closely resembles the all-too-famous, post-colonial White Man's Burden. No, the the tribe isn't being taken away from their homeland, but they're still portrayed as helpless without the Enterprise crew. And the suggestion is that they need to change and  be more like the  Federation, otherwise they'll die (which fits better with the Wiki page  for the poem that inspired the name  of the trope- I was just sticking with TV Tropes because that site is fucking  awesome; the idea that it's up to the white people to save the colored people from themselves is rampant in cultural discourses, popular and academic alike) because they won't have the technology they "need" in order to survive on their own planet- as if the Federation knows best. 

Why is all of this problematic? Because indigenous cultures and peoples are still too often portrayed in fetishistic and devalued ways, that's why. It being sci-fi and these being a different species is entirely beside the point, too, so don't bother trying to throw that out at me. In fact, I'd argue the alien aspect makes it worse, because the people there are entirely fictionalized, yet  their entire portrayal makes them look stupid, savage, and helpless. And the producers didn't even bother to try to give them any distinct physical characteristics differentiating them from humans- they couldn't have given them, I don't know, tails or something? They may as well have been humans- they were shown no differently than humans, down to their physicality.

I imagine if you asked this person if it was racist, they'd say yes and laugh at you for asking.

Now, for the Federation itself. What the fuck?

As I said above, the Federation does a couple things that are pretty gorram shady, either as part of discovered backstory or described as taking place over the course of the film. The two kind of weave together, though, so I'll just talk about them inerchangably, because they  amount to at least one similar conclusion: 

The Federation is a bunch of hypocrites.

At least in JJ Abrams's world.

See, the Prime Directive, and thus the Federation itself,  is  all about non-intervention, peace, and  discovery. Yet they wake up a guy that Admiral Marcus claims  had been frozen for being basically a genocidal conqueror. Marcus's other decisions aside, I actually see no reason not to believe him about that, so then why would the Federation see getting the perspective of Kahn or any of his fellow super-humans as a good  idea?

But wait a second, they were frozen. And get re-frozen.

I think this freezing thing is a really convenient way for the Federation to get around its "no death penalty" policy. But why can't they  just store them in prison cells and try the rehabilitative practices they use instead of the death penalty on anyone else? We aren't told whether or not this was ever even attempted- and if the goal of the Federation is peace, they should try and try again at it, regardless of how many times it failed in the past. They shouldn't give up on rehabilitation. But instead, they  do. But since they can't technically kill them, they mostly do- because honest, how different is being frozen from being actually dead? They retain brain function, ,but that's it. TECHNICALLY, they aren't dead, but what kind of life  do they  have? None of any normative value. 

This may come as a surprise  to anyone  that knows me personally and happens to be reading this, but I honestly don't consider a vegetative state to be meaningful. Sure, it's life, but life and meaning share a space on a venn diagram- they aren't mutually exclusive, but I don't think they entirely overlap, either. Now, if a person is born with a cognitive disability, or experiences something that causes their mind to regress, that's different. Natural or un-intentional circumstances are one thing, and yes, the rights, autonomy, and humanity of those persons should never, ever, ever be disregarded or devalued; at the same time, quality of life must be taken into consideration, so while I'd never choose to pull the plug on someone that didn't say for me to, I've told myriad close friends and family members that if I ever get in an accident and, after being revived, need life support and am entirely unresponsive, etc., to jjust let me go.

But being forced into a state like that, be it by getting frozen, or through some other (likely horrific) circumstance (lobotomies, anyone?) is entirely different. So an institution such  as the Federation, one that professes the preservation of life and sentience, could then deprive a whole group of people (72, to be exact, right? I guess 73 if you count Kahn himself) of their sentience. It's not quite genocide, but only because of what comes down to, basically semantics. They're getting away with mass murder on a technicality, when their very accusation against these people is just that, mass murder.

This is why Kahn is actually pretty easily sympathizable (aw yeah making up words!). We know what  the Federation is doing is fucked up- but the thing is, this actually, I think, is meant to apply more to the militarization aspect than the freezing one.

Which is bollocks.

The militaritarization aspect goes hand-in-hand with this freezing thing, because it represents the Federation's arrogant stance for other peoples to take , which is basically, "Do as we say, not as we do." It's cool for the  Federation to have hugeass nukes, because other, more dangerous people do, too, and they're Bad. It's cool for the Federation to essentially kill a bunch of people,  but not someone else.

Sound familiar?

'Murica, FUCK YEAH.

I don't know if this parallel was intended or not, nor whether if it was made on purpose, if it was also meant to be a critique of this imperialist jingoism that's so prominent in the U.S.

Part of the ambiguity (intentional or not) comes from us conveniently not knowing just how much Marcus was acting on his own. He certainly presents himself as Federation-sanctioned, and that in itself is problematic. Even if the Federation didn't approve his actions, though, I think the assumption that they would have is enough to label the  Fe
deration as a group of imperialist assholes. 

But to play Devil's Advocate for a moment, I know from experience that it's often really hard to fight if you're operating under a different set of rules than your opponent(s). If the Federation refuses to have weaponry, any member societies will be extremely vulnerable to societies with more violent desires. So defensive measures are, you could say, entirely necessary. Of course, the limitation, then, is that they should never strike first. And framing the Klingons for blowing up the Enterprise unprovoked is definitely manufacturing a first strike on the part of someone else. 

I guess my point about the Federation, though, is that for all its self-aggrandizing philosophical dogma it projects and that thus comes out of the mouths of some of its members (ahem, Spock), there's a lot of hypocrisy and selective following of its own rules that forms a very intrinsic part of its operation. And that, my friends, parallels the way current imperialism and militarism are justified in our real world right now.

Finally, I promised some Iron Man 3 comparisons. Both movies obviously get at a lot of hypermilitarisation and state-sanctioned violent themes (although I don't really address those when analyzing Iron Man 3, as a commenter was ever so kind as to point out). But one thing both share in common is this whitewashing thing. The  Mandarin was portrayed by Ben Kingsley at first- which in itself is ish, since he played Ghandi before and does have at least some connection to persons of color; but  then he actually ends up being Guy Pierce, who is, as I put to a friend in person yesterday, "less not-white than Ben Kingsley." 

That's two major blockbusters in a month that did the secret-whitewashing thing that Marissa Sammy talks about in the article I linked up above, and she even brings Iron Man 3 up, too. And that's a serious problem. And while there could be some truth to the argument that Cumberbatch may being in lots of money, that's actually the problem- the bottom line is the main concern. And anybody  that knows me knows I'm a Cumberbitch. But for crying out loud, Abrams produced Lost, a show featuring this hunk of manmeat, goes by the name of Naveen Andrews:

I'm the first to demand Benny have my babies,
but Naveen Andrews... boy does he get my
ladybits a-goin'. 
And okay, I know I'm being silly, but honestly, apart from how fucking gorgeous he is. Andrews is a fantastic actor. The way he played Sayid in Lost was heart-wrenching, believable, insanely badass (one example of about a hundred from the series), and entirely on-par with anything Benedict has done in the past. And as riveting and badass as Cumberbatch was, I genuinely think Naveen Andrews could have done just as well. I'm kind of disgusted with Abrams for not having a person of Indian descent play Kahn, especially when he has access to Naveen. Shame on you, JJ. Shame on you. 

So disclaimer, since I know now I'm gonna get poo-pooed. As I said, this isn't a review, it's a critical analysis. I thought it was a pretty fun action flick. Was it a good Star Trek movie? Eh, not really, and far less so than the last one. But that discussion would be another entry... 

*A movie  I love that totally fucks with all of these tropes and more is Stargate. That movie is a gem. I could rewatch it weekly. 


  1. Naveen Andrews was also the first person I thought of who should have played Khan, what with the JJ Abrams connection.

    Secondly, "'Bar-bar-bar-bar,' hence the word 'barbarian'". Whoa. Mind blown.

    Finally, I also was disgusted when the indigenous people started worshiping the Enterprise. It was basically this:

    Native 1: I love worshiping this scroll! It has pretty colors!
    Native 2: Whoa, did you see that shiny thing? Let's worship that instead. It's even prettier! And shiny!
    Native 1: Okay!
    Natives: *worships*
    *forehead desk*


    Also, this collection of gifs makes me want to punch JJ Abrams.

    This is why I'm a Whedon fan. He can go into things like the Marvel Universe and treat them with respect while also making a summer blockbuster. Apparently, that's below JJ Abrams.

  2. lol, go Jon! That's pretty spot-on. And, alas, Abrams's attitude there explains why it doesn't feel 'Star Trek' enough- he's abandoning the philosophy stuff for the action.

    And yes, "barbarian" comes from the way Greeks and Romans "heard" people speaking different languages. Believe me, my mind was blown there, too.

    Sort of like how "bodacious" comes from "Boudica," the Celti queen that led a revolt against the Romans in like the first century CE. I learned that in high school and was like, "Whoa, 'Fergully' has such a different meaning now..."