Deep Space Nine is the only series to give a lot of time to the Ferengi, and the writers tread a fine line. How do you get the audience to empathize with a bunch of self-centred, greed-driven, horribly sexist aliens while not , on some level, condoning those characters’ beliefs or behaviour?
Some episodes (I’d argue “Rules of Acquisition”, for example) do a decent job at this. But on the other end of the spectrum, I’d list “Profit and Lace” as one of the most sexist Ferengi episodes.
In the first scene, Quark is negotiating with one of his dabo girls, Aluura.
I know it’s Quark and we’re not supposed to admire him or want to emulate him, but it’s important to take note of this exchange, where he compliments her for her outstanding work, but then threatens to fire her unless she learns to give him oo-mox.
Aluura: But I’m always nice to you.
Quark: I think you could be nicer.
Aluura: How much nicer?…(he hands her a book on a PADD)…Oo-mox for Fun and Profit?
As they’re finishing up the conversation, Rom bursts in, upset because he hasn’t been able to contact their mother on Ferenginar.
The brothers go to Ops and soon find out the reason: Ishka and Grand Nagus Zek are on their way to Deep Space Nine
Overall I think Ishka is a pretty cool character. She’s overtly feminist feminist and driven by the cause of getting equality for women on Ferenginar. She’s really smart and also a loving mother who pursues a romantic relationship with Zek. I love, love, love how she always calls Quark out on his shit.
The only slight drawback is that her struggles are usually presented as comedy for the audience. It makes it hard to really feel how much it must suck to be a Ferengi woman.
When the Nagus’ ship docks the couple greets Rom and Quark and reveals the bad news: Zek is being deposed for giving women the right to wear clothing. Brunt is the acting Grand Nagus.
Quark: If Ferengi females can wear clothes in public, then they can leave their homes. If they can leave their homes, they can go to work. If they can go to work, they can make profit.
Ishka: What’s the matter, Quark? Afraid of a little competition?
Back in Quark’s quarters, Leeta comes by and Zek immediately starts ogling and hitting on her. Ishka chides him, reminding him she’s Rom’s wife, so she’s broke.
“Doesn’t look broke to me,” he replies.
Ishka’s plan is that they’ll invite all the Ferengi Commerce Authority commissioners to the station, where Ishka will impress them and they’ll see that there is profit to be made in letting women wear clothing.
But after Quark, Nog and Rom work at the invites, only one commissioner is willing to come. His name is Nilva and he’s the head of Slug-o-Cola, “the slimiest cola in the galaxy.” Ishka reminds them at least he’s influential, but just as they’re starting to feel a bit less hopeless, Brunt shows up and kills the buzz, as Brunt is wont to do.
After he leaves, Ishka comes to Quark’s quarters to cheer him up a bit, but instead they launch into a shouting match:
Quark: I want Zek to be the way he used to be, before he met you, before you twisted his thinking with your feminine wiles.
Ishka: Before he met me, Zek was a lonely, unhappy man.
Quark: But he was rich. He was the most powerful Ferengi alive. Now what is he? A puppet. And you’re the one pulling the strings, making him dance to your evil, feminist tune. You’re the worst thing that ever happened to Zek. You’re the worst thing that ever happened to me. In fact, you’re the worst thing that ever happened to the entire Ferengi Alliance.
She responds that at least she’s not selfish and miserable like him, but then suddenly collapses and has to be taken to the Infirmary.
Doctor Bashir tells them Ishka needed a new heart and will be fine but needs to rest and be kept away from Quark. Unfortunately, a gloating Brunt who evidently never learned the definition of “hubris” reminds them Nilva is expecting to meet a Ferengi female.
Zek has one of those so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas: Quark will dress as a woman and be temporarily surgically-altered by Bashir to pass as a Ferengi female for the meeting.
Somehow we’re supposed to believe that in mere hours, just by this change, Quark also becomes significantly more emotional and concerned about being beautiful.
He sounds really hurt when Leeta says he looks just…”nice”. Then:
“I’m staring at my hips – aren’t they too big?” he asks urgently.
It reminds me a bit of the TOS ep “Turnabout Intruder”, where Kirk’s body is taken over by a woman, which manifests mostly by him getting hysterical.
If the mood swings and image-consciousness weren’t irritating enough stereotypes for you, Quark then actually gets ditzy:
“All these facts and figures…they’re too much for me to remember.”
Rom gives him lessons in how to walk and sit and there’s a bit of veiled homophobic humour as everyone looks askance at Rom knowing how to do these things “like a woman.”
Nilva arrives on the station and wants to see Zek right away. Off the cuff, Zek introduces the new Quark as “Lumba” – a joke because of the way he initially walked as a woman, lumbering un-femininely.
Despite the earlier gender-induced stupidity, Quark pulls it together at dinner with Nilva. He suggests a plan for Slug-o-Cola:
Quark: Target the new female consumer. Make Slug-o-Cola her drink.
Nilva: Nothing’s stopping her from drinking it now.
Quark: But you’re not encouraging her either. The slimiest cola in the galaxy. That kind of slogan doesn’t appeal to women.
Nilva: Well, what would?
Quark: Let me see. Slug-o-Cola contains forty three percent live algae, right?…Well, how about something like, Drink Slug-o-Cola and keep your teeth a sparkling shade of green.
Nilva is more than convinced: he now really wants to get with Lumba. He invites Quark/Lumba back to his quarters and chases her around a table and behind a curtain. Quark/Lumba tries to fend him off with a chair and with insults but to no avail. This is a comedic scene and you can’t help but laugh because they’re Ferengi, but (feminist killjoy in the house) it’s uncomfortable when you realize this is actually an attempted rape.
Luckily, Brunt comes in and announces Lumba is really Quark: a man. Quark immediately changes his tune, caressing Nilva’s lobes and kissing him full on the mouth to try and convince him Brunt is lying.
When Nilva still isn’t sure, Quark says, “Oh, all right” and opens his shirt:
“Now are you sure?” Quark/Lumba asks.
“Completely,” Nilva says.
Having sorted out the situation for Zek, Quark is back in his bar in his real form. Odo comes by and finds him being sentimental and romantic over a ring Nilva gave him, because that’s what women do.
Odo: You’re being a little overly sensitive.
Quark: I’ve only been a male again for six hours. My hormones must still be out of balance. My emotions are raging out of control.
Zek and Ishka come to say goodbye and Quark acknowledges the experience has made him “more compassionate, more empathetic, more nurturing.”
Finally, Aluura comes in and says she read the book on oo-mox. Quark immediately apologizes for the sexual blackmailing thing, and tells her she is a great employee and deserves a raise.
But she seems…disappointed.
“It’s just that Oo-mox sounded like fun. The tympanic tickle, the eustachian tube rub, the auditory nerve nibble.”
Quark says his decision is final, but then has second thoughts and runs after her:
“What am I saying? Aluura, wait!”
Because the whole boss/employee power dynamic and previous threats thing is totally unimportant as long as she says she wants to.
I. Just. Can’t.
What we learned from this episode:
- Star Trek still hasn’t figured out how to have a male character temporarily play a woman without embodying egregious stereotypes about women.
- You can write a story about fighting for women’s equality and still have men save the day.
- If necessary, you can always prove you’re a woman by flashing your boobs.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail