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. -_-