You CAN win the Kobayashi Maru.

Gonna keep this brief, ’cause it’s 1:30 am as I’m writing this, and ’cause tomorrow I’m taking a 6-hour flight to Cali to attend the Nebulas and hopefully either win, or cheer while someone I really like wins. It’s a win-win, so no need to wish me luck; if anything, wish me safe and stress-free travels.

Anyway. Just saw Star Trek: Into Darkness, and I have some thoughts. Those thoughts will require spoilers, so beware, anyone reading past this point. Also, spoilers for a brief mention of Iron Man 3.

Seriously, I mean it.

Okay. Basically I thought the film was OK. Not nearly as good as the first Abrams Star Trek, but I also didn’t think it was dumb, as some folks did. It was somewhere between dumb and good. And this isn’t a review, so I won’t go into that any further.

The discussion I’ve been following around the film is re its whitewashing of Khan, who canonically is supposed to be an Indian Sikh. Now, note that the original ST whitewashed him too, having white Mexican Ricardo Montalban play the role — in brownface, no less, at least in TOS — so if anything, Abrams is staying true to the original series’ awful handling of race issues in this respect. (Yay? ::sigh::) This is a problem because whitewashing is a problem — and because, as the Racebending article notes, Khan represents a chance for an actor of color to smash a stereotype by playing someone smarter than the heroes; you just don’t get to see that kind of thing often, in Hollywood.

However, as a friend pointed out to me in private conversation, it also would’ve been a huge problem if an Indian Sikh had been selected for the role, because the average American is bigoted as fuck and can’t tell their Sikhs from their Muslims, and can’t tell either group of people from the caricatures and stereotypes that the media has fed us for years, now. So having a Sikh in the role of a terrorist (who describes himself as “savage”, no less) would have meant reinforcing those stereotypes.

You see the conundrum: whitewashing vs stereotyping. Erasure vs. dehumanization. Destroying careers and dreams vs destroying lives. Which is worse? Whatever you pick, it’s a devil’s bargain.

But that’s bullshit. Because a forced choice between one form of bigotry or another isn’t a real choice. It’s the common choice that people who live in a bigoted system feel compelled to make, but it’s also a lazy choice. If you find yourself trapped by this choice, it means that you have absorbed so much systemic bigotry that you can’t even consider a third option — or a fourth, or a fifth. To buy into this choice, you must accept the premise that some degree of bigotry is always unavoidable — that bigotry is normal and natural and not the result of an artificial bind you’ve put yourself into.

Fortunately, Star Trek itself provides us with the perfect metaphor for this kind of false dichotomy. In the ST universe, all Starfleet Academy cadets have to face the Kobayashi Maru — the no-win scenario. The cadet is put into a situation in which they have to make the best of bad choices, and someone always suffers, no matter what the cadet decides. Kirk is infamous in Academy history for having cheated in order to win — the “problem” being that no one suffered as a result of his choice. But what is cheating, but a way of working around a rigged system? And what are bigotries like racism and sexism, but huge and complex rigged systems which hurt some groups in order to privilege others? These systems perpetuate themselves by making us believe that there’s no way for everyone to live in our society without somebody suffering. That we should just accept the oppression of some groups as unavoidable, not worth trying to change, maybe even a good thing somehow.

But What Would Kirk Do?

(Yeah, I went there.)

This is ultimately why I’m frustrated by ST:ID — and by J. J. Abrams. Because he’s a good writer/director, usually, and I think he got lazy here. A good writer doesn’t just give up at “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” A good writer should be able to think of something else.

As a side-note, I’ve been raving about Iron Man 3 since I saw it for its clever, multilayered handling of its own racial Kobayashi Maru. Given a choice between adhering to the really grotesque canonical portrayals of the Mandarin and whitewashing, the producers of that film chose “parody”. They parodied whitewashing itself, and the racist/nationalist attitudes which cause it. They used Ben Kingsley — an actor who is biracial and has built his whole career around being able to pass as white or “play race” whenever necessary. Meanwhile they deliberately, consciously pointed this out to the audience, and overtly screwed with the viewer’s racist assumptions about who’s a terrorist and where terrorists really come from. They chose a third option, and the result was awesome. So it can be done.

…Dammit, I meant for this to be short. -_-

27 thoughts on “You CAN win the Kobayashi Maru.”

  1. Knowing the major twist in Iron Man 3 was what really made me want to see that movie in the first place. The trailers all made it look like the Mandarin was going to be as one dimensional as the comic books from the 60s so it was a pleasant surprise (first on spoiler sites) to see that they didn’t do it that way.

  2. There’s a second problem with having Kahn be white, though. Kahn is a genetically engineered superman. So when Kahn is white he’s a literal embodiment of white supremacy, (maybe the movie takes a different tack, I’m going off of classic stuff)

    So if someone who merely has dark skin and a Sikh name is perpetuating racist stereotypes, than short of pulling the exact same trick as Iron Man 3, we have War Games instead. The only winning move is not to play. By which I mean don’t make a movie with the character of Kahn.

  3. Some interesting thoughts there (this was the ‘unfortunate casting choice’ I referred to in my Facebook post after I saw it.)

    I’ll admit that the fact the Cumberbatch character even turned out to be Khan kinda irritated me – when the first whispers about ‘whitewashing’ I was rather complacently saying to myself ‘I wish people would stop making a fuss. There’s no way he’s actually going to turn out to be Khan, that would be a stupid thing to do.’ So egg on my face!

    The thing is, it would actually have been very easy to avoid the problem: you could have exactly the same story, but just make the Cumberbatch character another member of Khan’s crew, not Khan himself. It could then have referenced the original continuity without being quite as entangled with it.

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  5. It’s a shame alright. I always had my forlorn hopes set on Hindi cinema wunderkind Aamir Khan to play, er, Khan. Charismatic performer, scary eyes.

  6. I was actually hoping the would take a metafictional way out. Given the actor and his capabilities for delivering a very intense rant, I would love to have seen a moment when he describes waking up to a new, horrible face that completely erased his identity. “I was a king. And now I am this – a dull, anonymous face in the crowd.”

    But this is the downside of writer’s rooms or writing by committee. Ideas like this get filtered out for the safest possible route which, from what I understand, is this film. It is the safest route for a sequel.

  7. After the whole “Black people looting in the face of disaster, because Duh! Black people!” debacle that was Cloverfield, as well as his complete inability to resist paying homage to himself, I am pretty done with and underwhelmed by JJ Abrams. But you’ve renewed my interest in seeing Iron Man, so thanks for that! I could really do with a nice film right about now.

  8. Patrick,

    Well, Khan as an Indian would be a literal Aryan, so that doesn’t actually cause a problem with the canon — and as we’ve seen with the Boston bombing perpetrators, most Americans don’t actually understand what terms like “Aryan” or “Caucasian” mean, and they don’t realize these terms were appropriated from other people. So in some ways it’s better that they have Khan being played by an Anglo-Saxon (which is also an inaccurately used term in the US, though not as bad as the other two — most white Americans who describe themselves as such are actually Scots-Irish, not Anglo-Saxon, but I digress). Because at least the American audience recognizes that most creepy eugenicist plans to create the ubermensch are “supposed” to result in someone with white skin.

    Not using Khan is an option, though not an ideal one. Khan’s acknowledged as the greatest villain in the Star Trek canon; Abrams would’ve had to go there eventually. But there are other options besides “don’t do Khan”. Andrija’s suggestion, frex, or Chris’s. And others besides.

  9. To clarify my earlier comment, Kahn as a Sikh (and thus presumably of a Punjabi ethnic group) is the subversive element of the original character. We have the genetic superman, who by White Supremacist ideology should be white, but instead is Indian. He’s an embodiment of a refutation of at least some forms of ideas of racial inferiority. No one comments on this in Star Trek, because the Federation doesn’t have a white supremacist ideology (in theory anyway), and so it isn’t strange to them, and because Roddenberry and co have to slip this by CBS.

    When you cast him as white instead, that element is lost, and he instead becomes an embodiment of white supremacy.

  10. Khan should have been played by an Indian actor. There are plenty of brilliant Indian actors who would have loved to sink their teeth into the role of such an iconic villain. Is it really so hard to write a villain role for a brown-skinned actor and not make him a horrible racist stereotype? Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity, anybody? Why the Abrams brain trust couldn’t figure it out is beyond me.

  11. Patrick, yes, that was precisely my point. White supremacists — at least the ones who believe in “Aryan supremacy” — don’t actually know what they’re talking about. The original Star Trek knew this and picked an Aryan superman who actually was Aryan in order to fuck with people. (Then whitewashed him on the actor. ::sigh::) Thing is, it didn’t work. The then-audience of Star Trek doesn’t seem to have understood that the brownfaced Khan was meant to be a ding at their sense of racial superiority; I can’t see any commentary to that effect, anyway, when I look up reviews of the TOS episode. What the audience seems to have picked up on is that “brown people are dangerous, fanatical, and want to take over, and they will take your white women if they can”. Anti-white-supremacist message: failed.

    So again, I think having Cumberbatch play the whitest of the white supermen is more effective at getting that message across. I don’t think this was the best way to handle it, because Cumberbatch also reinforces the message of white supremacy at the same time, sadly, but he is the better of the two bad choices on the table.

    But what if there was some commentary in the film to get the original message across? “Khan was genetically engineered from Anglo-Saxon (or Nordic or whatever) stock by white supremacist scientists who believed in the idea of the ubermensch…” Or what if they’d selected an actor who more obviously fits the physical ideal that the white supremacist movement strives for: blond, buff, etc.? Then there could’ve been some kind of tongue-in-cheek nod to his Indo-Aryan name, or a reference to his genetic engineers deliberately bringing in Indo-Aryan genes but not the skin color, etc. Frankly, I can think of half a dozen ways this could have been handled better.

  12. Given all the talk about the new movie, I got “Space Seed” out from the library and watched it.

    Scotty is checking the cryo chambers on the Botany Bay: “They’re mixed types. Western, mid-European, Latin, Oriental.”

    Casting of Khan’s followers seemed typically white-bread, but in dialog they acknowledged that superiority was not a racial attribute.

  13. Reading further about Space Seed, the original story pit Kirk against a Nordic Ubermensch.

    Then Ricardo Montalban was cast in the role, and once a darker-skinned actor was chosen, they changed the character to a Sikh.

  14. I think the thing that disturbs me most about this “you can’t win” rhetoric is that it recasts the (usually white) people in charge of producing the media as the real victims. Poor J.J. Abrams, having his casting/storytelling decisions scrutinised in the context of Hollywood’s long history of racial othering. How awful for him. Clearly the poc criticising him are the ones with the real power in this situation.

    That said, some good ways to avoid this situation would have been:

    1) Not remake Wrath of Khan – with the added benefit to the audience of not having to sit through that shallow parody of the Spock death scene.
    2) Not rewrite Khan’s character – CumberKhan is less superman-dictator, more one-of-our-own-gone-rogue, presumably so this can be a movie that is About Terrorism. Making it about terrorism makes its racial politics even more fraught than they already were.
    3) Acknowledge it – Iron Man 3 did, and this whole reboot setting provides even more opportunity than there would otherwise have been to comment on the original movies.

    But then, any of these options (and I’m sure there are others I haven’t thought of) would have necessitated thought and engagement with the original films and the context in which they, and this one, were made.

  15. Addressing your first thoughts:

    I really think you should have won. The Killing Moon was easily one of the most interesting books I read last year.

    That said, hope you had safe and stress-free travels.

  16. If cheating on the Maru as a rigged system is one option, that’s the option I’d have liked — don’t do Khan. There actually is no requirement that the new Trek does Khan just because it was a successful choice — thanks to Montalban and the really awful first movie lowering expectations — for the old films. And especially don’t do Khan as a completely different story and slap his name on there. The original Khan in the t.v. episode came out of the genetic experiments that led to World War III in the Star Trek universe, long in their fictional past — the past coming back to haunt them. Kirk proposes exile on a harsh planet, Khan accepts. In Wrath of Khan, we learn how much the “superhumans” have suffered on the exile planet and the film has a strong parallel to the exile of Native Americans to reservations. Khan is portrayed sympathetically in this by Montalban; his rage is understandable, even though his goals are not. It was that film that made Khan beloved as a villain for Trek. He had his time in the sun, such as it was.

    When Abrams created an alternate universe Star Trek, he made up a villain, also partly sympathetic. There were certainly many problems with that film, including red jello, but what was great about it is that it took altered versions of the old characters and had them in a new universe and sort of new situations with new villains. It kept in touch with what people had loved about the series, while moving on into fresh territory. To have BC, good actor though he is, do some rigged version of Khan as white supremacist terrorist just sort of spits on what Montalban did and turns Star Trek into being a second rate rehash for me. (I feel similarly about the upcoming Superman movie — it’s yet another origin re-telling, as if no other story works for that figure.)

    Abrams and co. could have made another new villain who could do interesting things without being a stereotype or whitewashed. Could have been BC as a terrorist who believes the Federation’s values are wrong and who is terribly smart but isn’t Khan. Slapping Khan’s name on to it was clearly a safety action — if we make him Khan, then the faithful will come and we’ll get a Wrath of Khan effect even though it doesn’t make any sense! More to the point, Abrams was drawn to the Trek franchise for its optimism, as counter to Nolan’s bleak Dark Knight. But in the second movie, they’ve decided to go borrow Nolan’s subject matter, much divorced from Trek’s heart. Instead of making it really about today, Abrams is just rehashing the issues of the 1980’s, when Wrath of Khan came out and the Dark Knight version of Batman debuted, with dribbles of the old series. So I’ll go see it for the sake of the actors’ performances, which were what sold the first one, but it sounds utterly boring in plot and a whitewash of the whole universe — and of the multiethnic U.S. we have today.

  17. Rebecca Godina

    I have an idea to cheat the system… how about if they hadn’t have made Khan a villain at all?

  18. Richard Montalban wasn’t white. Granted the ST:TOS creators still fucked up by thinking all brown people are interchangeable but Richard Montalban wasn’t white, he even founded an NGO to help Latino actors.

  19. Belatedly — people have asked how I would resolve the matter, if I’d written the script.

    It’s a little late for the best solution, which is that I would’ve made sure the series’ cast was representative of the whole Earth’s population, like the Federation claims to be. If that was the case then the bulk of the cast would’ve been Asian (including Indian), in which case then Khan could have been played by an Indian Sikh without instantly becoming The Brown Guy of the film. Any stereotyping as a result of his appearance would’ve been mitigated by counter-types of the same ethnicity. If that had been done throughout the franchise from its inception, villains could be any damn race the producers wanted.

    Barring that, I would’ve done it for at least this film (and its predecessor), since they’re supposed to represent the ST universe-but-different, and since these films should show some evidence of the franchise updating itself for the times (in more ways than just having a younger Kirk and snarkier Spock).

  20. Komal, “Latino” is an ethnicity. “White” is a race. Montalban is indeed Latino. He is also, however, white, because you can be Latino and also be a member of any number of races. His parents were European — immigrants to Mexico from Spain. There’s a reason they put him in brownface in the original series, and it’s because he wasn’t brown on his own.

  21. I love it. Thank you for soaring off into a long post again that completely makes sense! I learn so much from your blog.

    I’m tackling the last rewrite on books I wrote from the gut, with a transgender hero. I’m a transman. I started like Stephen King with an I-Guy and then propelled my poor hero into a wish story that slammed him with all sorts of typical hero-problems, Destiny and all. I had tackled diversity in the books. But I was in a panic and I watered down my GBLT themes, watered down some of the racial, religious, ethnic and feminist themes as well, toned it down in fear of it not being salable and in some aspects because I hadn’t thought through my own issues.

    Now I’m correcting that problem in the final rewrite. Taking the brakes off. Every one of your long blog entries has helped me understand my books better and it’s downright spooky the way you answer my unasked questions. I should probably put you in the dedication “For synchronicity in blog writing.”

    Your books inspire me directly in technique. Your blog entries are valuable lessons. I have a short list of favorite authors I study, they have to be on my “reread a couple of times a year” list to be that worthy. You got that with the Dreamblood series and now I’m enjoying the trilogy.

    Thank you for being you.

  22. Oh duh, the actual point I meant to comment on.

    Yeah. I don’t believe in kobayashi maru either unless its the inevitability of my own and everyone else’s mortality. If it’s a test it can’t be made unwinnable. If it’s real, something real, stupid and accidental is going to bollix it and then bad things happen anyway, but while I’m alive there’s some chance of sorting that out.

  23. Interesting take and edifying comment thread. I have something to add that I haven’t seen come up in the various discussions I’ve read around this casting decision. It’s orthogonal, but related, and I hope I’m not too far off topic. Sorry to comment on such an old post, but I thought you might find this interesting.

    Although the Space Seed episode was indeed an anti-eugenics story, it came at a time when a revolution in genetics was taking place and people were starting to ask if the early 20th century eugenicists’ only mistake had been to predicate their theories on racism rather than biology. The Federation’s oft-referenced ban on non-medical genetic augmentation, a theme explored in every incarnation of the franchise, is basically saying eugenics would be even worse if you could actually create a superior human, as opposed to simply promulgating the myth of a master race. To quote from a JAG officer on Deep Space Nine, “for every Julian Bashir that can be created, there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings.” It’s also been implied that other species have been able to use genetic augmentation responsibly, suggesting the problem for humans might be our historical genocidal tendencies.

    The non-canonical Eugenics Wars novels explore the secret history of an attempt to create a multiethnic race of benevolent supermen and superwomen who could be installed in positions from which to amass political power around the world and guide it toward utopia, but which backfired when the superpeople began fighting each other and their creators for global domination, with Kahn and his followers coming out on top before being deposed. I personally think that’s a much more interesting premise than conventional racism, but I can’t deny Cumberbatch’s masterful performance, if you’ll pardon the expression.

    I agree there were any number of third alternatives. Especially given the alternate universe angle, they could at the very least have lampshaded it by suggesting there were an multitude of Kahns in as many timelines, all different and yet, all the same.

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