When we talk about the star trek universe and its diverse and striking lineup of beloved characters, a beloved little bartender often comes up in conversation. Not Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg), but Quark (Armin Shimerman), the lovable and often mysterious Ferengi aboard the space station of Deep Space 9. Watching the series today, however, it’s hard to tell how much Quark, as well as the stereotypical Ferengi, has aged, especially when looking at the series through the lens of racial profiling.
When Gene Roddenberry first proposed the idea of star trek in the late 60s, his heart was to create something different that could solve cultural problems through futuristic storytelling. He wanted to create a future where kindness and acceptance were key, full of optimism of a united future. As such, many episodes in the original star trek series focused on contemporary issues, such as racism and prejudice, which can lead to accidental discrimination (because it is strongly seen as accidental rather than deliberate). The problem with the Ferengi is an unfortunate result of the larger problem with a lot of extraterrestrial representation, although strongly present in the star trek franchise. When developing alien races and cultures, science fiction creators often fall into the same trap: defining them using human stereotypes. It’s almost impossible not to, because it would involve creating emotions that don’t exist or are at least unfathomable for humans.
The Klingons, for example, are personifications of a very human sense of pride, honor, and anger, and are heavily based on feudal Japanese culture. Betazoids represent emotions and empathy, while Vulcans show logic and rationality. These are all human attributes, all of which are part of what makes a human human. Each of us exhibits each of these characteristics, often all of them at the same time. Humans are not defined by any of these emotions; instead, a full culture takes elements of everything.
This does not mean that every species in star trek is without depth. Klingons are shown to have empathy much like Vulcans have emotions, though rarely. They are, however, stereotypes that reduce an entire species, let alone a culture, to one or two characteristics. This becomes a problem when the stereotype defining a particular species has, historically, come dangerously close to an anti-Semitic stereotype. star trekFerengi culture is obsessed with wealth, capitalism, and unprecedented greed, all typically discriminatory characteristics associated with the Jewish people.
Although cultural and personality traits do not directly draw a concrete parallel, their physical appearance could also be seen as dangerously anti-Semitic. The Ferengi’s defining anatomical features are large, exaggerated heads, large cartoonish ears, small dark protruding eyes, and demonic sharp teeth. Their general appearance had been described as a mixture of Nazi caricatures of Jews, especially with regard to their teeth. Some said it mirrored the story of Nosferatu, a wealthy vampire who writes in a strange alphabet, comes from the east to Germany bringing with him a plague, and wants to rob a young Christian woman.
The parallels don’t end there, as the Ferengi religion could be described as a parody of traditional Judaism. In the star trek universe, the Ferengi follow what they call the 285 Rule of Acquisition, loosely mirroring the 613 Commandments of Judaism. The Ferengi also regard business transactions as near-sacred activities and prohibit women from participating, much like in the Jedasim’s traditional exclusion of women who study Torah. In the The next generation episode “Suspicion”, it is also revealed that the Ferengi forbid the desecration of the deceased body, prohibiting Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) from performing an autopsy despite the suspected cause of death, a belief also rooted in Judaism.
As a counter-argument, the apparent anti-Semitic stereotype of their appearance, personality and culture could be explained as a very unfortunate coincidence. When the Ferengi first appeared in the first season of The next generation, they were originally supposed to be the next big bad guys, the new Klingons of the Original series. With the establishment of peace between the Klingons and the Federation, as well as Worf’s presence aboard the Enterprise, the show for the Ferengi had to take their place. However, there was nothing threatening or particularly frightening about the Ferengi, so they were quickly replaced by the Borg. It is only when they return to Deep Space 9 that the Ferengi were written to be greedy bargainers and hoarders of money. Their design was already in place long before these features were incorporated.
It should also be noted that the word “Ferengi” is derived from the Arabic word “faranji”, meaning “Frankish”, which refers to Frankish/European traders who made contact with Arab traders. You could say that with their repressive treatment of women, they actually represent fundamentalist Islam more closely than Judaism. For this reason, it is possible to explain their culture, just like many other races present in star trek, as a simple amalgamation of various cultures and human characteristics rolled into one. This results in drawing parallels, albeit unfortunate ones, with various stereotypes of human culture.
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