20 September 2007

Racist? Ignorant?

My boss described someone the other day as resembling a Ferengi. This got a laugh out of me, as I haven't seen Star Trek since high school, and it seemed like an odd thing to compare someone to. Today I mentioned offhand that I always thought the Ferengi were a Jewish caricature. My (Jewish) co-worker told me he had never considered that, never considered that the grubby, short, big nosed, big eared, money obsessed merchants could possibly be considered offensive.

This is what they look like, in case you are wondering.

Do I think that Star Trek is anti-semitic? Not at all. That show has had a long history of preaching tolerance and acceptance (and as people love to point out, the first interracial kiss on television happened between Kirk and Uhura). So how can something like the Ferengi pass unnoticed? It doesn't even seem very subtle to me.

I wrote a paper in college about this same issue, what I feel is unconscious racism. It may have something to do with the use of cultural shorthand to convey an idea without too much information, but when that cultural shorthand stems from something unsavory, well, it no longer becomes a valid shortcut.

Some examples.

I'll start with Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. This movie is full of them.

George Lucas is not an anti-semite. He's best buddies with Steven Spielberg, who is hardly quiet about his heritage. So how do we then end up with this guy?

A hook-nosed, conniving merchant/ slave trader. And what's more, he kind of SOUNDS Jewish. You half-expect him to start complaining about his mother.

We also have the Neimoidians, who look and sound like villains from a Charlie Chan episode.

Let's not even get started with this jive talking, cowardly dreadlocked guy.

Have you seen the new Transformers movie? Speaking of jive-talking, we've got a robot named Jazz that speaks with an urban African-American voice, dances at strange moments, and of course is the first one to die. I'm aware that he was originally a character from the cartoon, but I'm willing to forgive the Japanese for that. I'm imagining that the black population of Japan in the early 80's was probably limited, so they had very little material to work with. But how the hell did he get into the movie? It's not like there weren't another 10,000 other Autobots they could have replaced him with.

(If you wait until the end of this clip, you can see Jazz jive and dance)

That's not to mention these other faces we might recognize.

(above two images from hongpong.com)

I don't have any answers for you here, just questions. But when you're watching something on TV or seeing a movie, and you're thinking...something about that character bothers me...you are possibly right.


Laaw-yuhr said...

Yes, yes, yes! I've always thought the Ferengi were supposed to be "Space Jews" as one friend of mine put it. At least with Star Trek, the argument can be made that that there is some playful self-referencing going on as I'm pretty sure all the ST head honchos are Jewish. As in, perhaps the Ferengi are sort of an in-joke about stereotyped Jewish characters (and that's why sometimes they get to be heroes).

Lucas however is less subtle and complimentary in his racial allusions. He had a whole universe of people he could create, and instead he settled for Jewish, Asian, and Rasta stereotypes. I haven't been exactly pleased with his portrayal of chicks in the movies either. I mean, Padme dies IN CHILDBIRTH? I didn't realize the future took place in 1890.

And good lord, Jazz. (sigh) That's just shameful. We're lucky he doesn't offer to make the other autobots some fried chicken and watermelon.

I have a hard time believing that any of this is the least bit unconscious.

pistols at dawn said...

I never watched Star Trek, so I can't help you there, but I nearly spit out 63 ounces of Diet Coke when I settled in to watch the Star Wars episode I and it started out with those Charlie Chan bastards. I honestly swung my head around, looking to see other aghast faces, but saw none.

And Jar Jar? I kept trying to say, "No, he's just supposed to be silly..." but then he'd say something so clearly black guy-ish that you'd just hang your head in shame.

When I was at Andrew Jackson's estate (The Hermitage), there was a really pathetic attempt to cover over everything with a quick, "These days, calling African-Americans 'Auntie' or 'Uncle' is considered offensive." It was good times.

Grant Miller said...

I haven't watched any real "science fiction" since like 1983. But I remember in college reading, I think, "The Merchant of Venice" and learning how Shakespeare stereotyped Jews.

The Ambiguous Blob said...

I've never noticed this stuff, but I surely will now that you've brought it to my attention.

Lara said...

beyond science fiction creatures i cannot believe that in 2007, "yellow face" is used in blockbuster films by people like rob schneider.
you might find this article interesting on how cultural stereotypes pervaded sign language and how it had to be reformed to be more pc.

The Guv'ner said...

Weren't half the Star Trek cast Jewish? Shatner, Nimoy...ok that's not half.

Hee, the Ferengi dude does kind of look like Larry David however.