Thursday, January 22, 2004

The film also includes another set of references not belonging to the Cold War but to the internal history of the U.S., reflecting a nearly universal problem on our earth: racial prejudice. These were references to attitudes and actual popular sayings (the two Enterprise crewmen exchanged several about the Klingons in a few seconds: they all look alike, they smell, and most are mentally inferior;) that white Americans applied to African Americans.

It is a striking and daring parallel to add, characteristic of Star Trek at its best in raising issues of contemporary significance with a bit more depth. At first, racial prejudice doesn’t seem to apply to the Russians, although the country is so vast that it blurs the distinctions between white European bloodlines and Asian. (Hitler considered the Slavic peoples to be inferior to his idea of Aryans; they were to be the ultimate targets of his genocide, after he worked out the mechanics against the Jews in the Holocaust.)

But its equivalent was definitely present, even as late as the 1980s, when a television commercial purporting to show a Soviet fashion show presented old, overweight women modeling baggy military garb. This was in line with Soviet stereotypes going back to the 1950s. (Of course now, sleek Russian women are among the most fashionable icons of beauty in the world.)

Relating stereotypes of Klingons to racial prejudice is fitting, not only because Klingons were always portrayed as dark-skinned, and beginning with Michael Dorn in TNG, they would often be played by African Americans) but in terms of Star Trek’s classic treatment of aliens.

The tendency to stereotype unfamiliar and “different” peoples has been present in the U.S. since Europeans confronted Native peoples, and debated whether they had souls. Part of this tendency is motivated by fear—not only fear of the unknown, but fear of a potential or actual enemy. This is clear in the stereotyping of the Russians: they were portrayed on the one hand as backward and inferior, and on the other as inhumanly strong and powerful, men with the souls and power of robots who would kill with single-minded devotion to an ideology, completely without remorse.

When Scotty says that the Klingons don't value life "the same as we do," it's a common stereotype used for Asians, particularly in the World War II/ Korea/Vietnam era, though we hear it more now regarding Arabs.

That’s pretty much how aliens were portrayed in science fiction, especially when they were clear stand-ins for the Soviet threat in the 1950s. But even before then, space aliens were differentiated from humans by portraying them as unfamiliar ethnicities and supposed inferiors. Asian aliens were particularly popular: Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon was low-budget obvious, but pretty much the template.

Even Leonard Nimoy was cast an alien because of his “exotic” looks, i.e. his dark hair and less than leading man features. For years he joined the other dark-haired Jews playing Italian hoodlums and dark-haired Italians playing American Indian villains. That’s how far Hollywood and “popular taste” was from infinite diversity well into the 1960s.

Eventually Star Trek would add elements of Asian architectures and cultures to the Klingons, but in a much more positive fashion. In Star Trek VI, Klingon garb (at least the costumes not leftovers from the first movies) was a bit more Asian, while Michael Westmore added beards cut in English Elizabethan style, a subtle visual support to all the Shakespearian references.

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