It’s funny the way memory works, and the random things that come back at the oddest of times to lead your mind off on a tangent…
Back when I was around twelve or thirteen, I would drag my mother to Star Trek conventions. I was the only one of my circle of friends who was into anything remotely sci fi-related or geeky. Most of my friends were into soap operas and figure skating, so my mother got to be the lucky victim of my obsession.
The kind of conventions we went to were nothing like major sci fi conventions. These were the small, traveling versions, usually featuring one special guest – someone like Marina Siritis or William Shatner – and a dealers’ room. That’s it. There was some light programming, mostly clip-based videos set to music and shown on a big screen, the kind of thing you find made by fans and posted on YouTube these days. There was also a warm-up act to the main speaker, usually a question and answer session with people who may or may not have been directly involved with the making of Star Trek, but who presumably had enough authority to provide answers that could be considered “cannon”.
I don’t remember which convention it was, or the names of the two men doing the warm-up Q & A session, but I do clearly remember my question. Back then, I was largely innocent of fan culture and issues of sexism. I was also innocent enough to think nothing of standing up in front of a room full of people and asking what I thought was a simple and pretty straight-forward question: Why aren’t their any female Cardassians or Ferengis?
The Next Generation was still on the air, and DS9 was still relatively early in its run, so this was true when I asked the question. As I said, I asked it innocently, in the spirit of curiosity, not in the spirit of calling bullshit on the series. The answer I was given however, something I could only recognize looking back on it, was complete and utter bullshit. I don’t remember the exact wording, but essentially, ignoring the Cardassian part of the question, I was told that there couldn’t be any female Ferengis, because they were giant bags of hormones who would be so aroused by the sight of men they weren’t related to that all the blood would rush to their nether regions and they would scarcely be able to walk let alone function in society.
Looking back, the answer encapsulates the worst stereotypes of fan culture – the assumption that your audience is largely male and straight and thinks just like you, and therefore it’s perfectly acceptable to throw out a flippant and deeply sexist reply to a simple question. Asked by a twelve year-old girl. Sitting next to her mother.
At the time, I accepted the answer. What else was I going to do? And while I got the gist of it, a lot of it probably went over my head anyway. But whether or not I fully understood the answer, or the larger implications, I still understood this: It wasn’t a remotely satisfying answer.
Fast forward a few years, and lo and behold, DS9 introduced several recurring, named female Caradassian and Ferengi characters, including Gul Dukat’s illegitimate half-daughter, Ziyal, and Quark’s mother Ishka. Even though they were linked to male characters on the show, they weren’t defined solely by those relationships and they had agency of their own. Ishka in particular took joy in defying Ferengi custom by wearing clothing, conducting business, and earning her own profit. Even though I no longer went to conventions by the time those characters made it to the screen, I still watched the show, and I was thrilled.
Like I said, I have no idea how connected with the show the men who conducted that Q & A session were, but deep in my secret heart, I like to pretend that their unsatisfactory answer to my question nagged at them. I like to believe it got them thinking – wait, why aren’t there any female Ferengi and Cardassian characters? And I like to think one of them decided to do something about, all because a twelve year-old girl asked an innocent question.