Postcolonial Feminist Theology and… Deep Space Nine by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergIt’s no secret here that I am a big fan of science-fiction and fantasy. Discussing the NASA Space Program, the shuttle Curiosityvideo gaming and cosplay is fun for me, and I assert that there is transformative and hopeful potential in these kinds of imaginative fictions. I also find that when done well, science fiction offers soci-political critique and encourages us to critically engage our own world without (no pun intended) alienating some part of its audience completely, as many political debates are apt to do. For example, I use a clip from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) in my ethics classes to discuss issues of motivation, intention and end result–as these concepts relate to war and violence. (The clip is from the episode In the Pale Moonlight, and you can see it here.) Episodes like this one can be used to refigure issues we struggle with today, projecting them into a future struggle from which we can draw comparisons to our own time.

Recently I have been reading Kwok Pui-lan’s book Postcolonial Imagination & Feminist Theology; at the same time, I have been re-watching some episodes of DS9. Powerfully addressing the ways in which Western theology helps to reinscribe colonial ideology and practice, Pui-lan argues for (and exemplifies) the creation of new, emancipatory, postcolonial feminist theological discourses. Reading these “texts” together, I was struck with how powerfully DS9 illustrates many of the postcolonial politics and tensions Kwok Pui-lan considers in her book. She describes a “contact zone” as “the space of colonial encounters where people of different geographical and historical backgrounds are brought into contact with each other, usually shaped by inequality and conflictual relations.”[i] DS9 explores this place of contact, imagining how the different parties involved are changed by the encounter.

This is Captain Sisko, played by Avery Brooks

Captain Sisko, played by Avery Brooks

DS9 (1993-1999) follows the journey of Captain Benjamin Sisko as he takes command of the Bajoran space station formerly known as Terok Nor. Bajor has recently won its independence after 50 years of Cardassian occupation. Devastated by genocide and war, Bajor invites the United Federation of Planets, another “Alpha quadrant” superpower, to help defend its borders while it rebuilds. Trek fans are usually meant to identify with the Federation, whose home planet is Earth and whose captains’ adventures we follow throughout all the Star Trek series. But DS9 problematizes the Federation’s intentions. It wants Bajor to join the Federation, but is this really what’s best for Bajor?

At first Sisko is committed to the Federation’s plans—after all, as former security officer and Maquis spy, Michael Eddington sarcastically taunts: “Nobody leaves paradise. Everyone should want to be in the Federation. Hell, you [Sisko] even want the Cardassians to join. You’re only sending them replicators because one day they can take their ‘rightful place’ on the Federation council.”[ii] Eddington’s critique exemplifies the “evolutionary” narrative Pui-lan observes within colonialist theological mythology. She argues that colonial Christian theology tends to emphasize its superiority by ranking itself against what it defines as “primitive spiritualty,” and arguing that it fulfills the religious promises of other traditions. Pui-lan also discusses the way in which even the term “religion,” conceived within Western discourses of colonialism, is often coded to mean “Christian religion,” and sets Christianity up as a standard by which the category is defined and measured.[iii]

Sourced from:

From Word of the Nerd

Federation mythology can be compared to colonial Christian theology. The Federation is a colonial entity: it literally makes colonies throughout space, but on uninhabited worlds. Many inhabited worlds though, actually apply to join the Federation—their applications weighed against strict guidelines of cultural, moral and governmental “development.” Setting up a standard for membership, however, Federation citizens or governing bodies can also fall victim to a sense of superiority, which is what Eddington accuses Sisko of doing. The Federation itself is not bad, it may even be a good place to live; but it is only one (good) way of experiencing the galaxy. The writers of DS9 invite us to consider how, and where our ‘good intentions’ become imperialistic.

Thrust unwittingly into the role of “Emisary to the Prophets,” Sisko becomes an important figure in Bajoran religion; and his gradual exposure to the deeply spiritual Bajoran culture changes him. He eventually comes to stand against Bajor’s entry into the Federation and gives up Star Fleet for a more important spiritual calling. While Sisko’s role as the de-facto spokesperson for Bajor is quite problematic, he also serves as a kind of witness who comes to know himself better through encountering the stories of “others”— a phenomena Pui-lan observes among many researchers doing postcolonial theology.

Arguably the main character and so, the primary lens for the audience, Sisko is both male and black, a hybridity and lens that the series explores in many episodes, particularly during time travel episodes and in Sisko’s spiritual visions and dreams. In the episode Beyond the Stars, Sisko slips into a dream world of mid 20th Century America. He is “Benny Russel,” and his ground-breaking science fiction story “Deep Space Nine” is rejected because the captain is black. Benny is then fired on his first day back at work after a racially motivated attack. When he finally wakes from this vision, Sisko asks, “What if all this is the illusion?…For all we know, at this very moment, somewhere far beyond all those distant stars, Benny Russel is dreaming of us.”[iv] The closing image is powerful: Sisko faces his own reflection, as Benny Russel, on the surface of a window screen. The audience, likewise, is invited to look into the ‘mirror’ of the screen.

The characters on DS9 are all a kind of mirror; and if one accepts the invitation to gaze upon oneself, the backdrop to the reflection is a postcolonial one.

Major Kira and Gul DukatCapturing what many postcolonial theorists have observed as the feminization of the colonized, the relationship of Bajoran liaison officer Major Kira Nyrse to Cardassian prefect Gul Ducat depicts the way in which the colonial ideology is also one of sexual control.[v] After Bajoran Independence, Ducat, who was in charge of the Occupation, continually tries force a relationship between Kira and himself. He draws her in with kind words and gifts, threatens, simply insists on the rightness of his viewpoint, and even uses his half-Bajoran daughter to try to manipulate Kira into liking him. She girds herself with memories and testimonies of the Occupation, a defense against his attempts at recolonization.

Dukat is eventually arrested, but during transport to a war crimes trial the ship crashes. Dukat abducts Sisko from the crash site, so he can prove that he is not the monster everyone thinks he is. He wants Kira to love him (and sleep with him). He insists that he and Sisko are “old friends.” Embodying the colonizer’s “consistent and unconscious need or demand for psychic affirmation”[vi] that Homi Bhabha so keenly observes, Dukat seeks affirmation from those he has oppressed. The real “trial” takes place in the cave where a wounded Sisko tries to placate his violent kidnapper—a scene that Pui-lan’s work reveals, is meant to gender Sisko as inferior, weak, humiliated, feminine, and colonized. But Sisko, like Kira, fights back. The Waltz (also a gendered title) culminates in Dukat’s explosive “self-defense:”

Sisko: You were prefect of Bajor during the Occupation, true or false?
Dukat: True.
Sisko: And you were responsible for everything that happened under your command, true or false?
Dukat: True.
Sisko: So, that means that you were responsible for the murder of over 5 million Bajorans on your watch, true or false!?
Dukat: False! I tried to save lives… [vii]

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For a time, Cardassia regains Deep Space Nine.  Sisko leaves his baseball on his former desk as a message to Dukat that he’ll be back (click for source).

Dukat concludes that it was the Bajorans’ fault he had to kill them: if they had just known their place he wouldn’t have had to do it. “It’s their fault that he’s a monster; and he should have killed them all”… He reveals his hate in a fury of defensiveness, ultimately, revealing an ideology of cultural superiority and paternalism. Difficultly, the Western audience watching this scene is asked to see his or herself in the face of both Sisko and Dukat.

Kwok Pui-lan’s book asks us to consider many questions. “What sort of female gendered bodies and subject are produced by the globalization process?”[viii] Who benefits from particular relationships and theological ideals? “How do we come to know what we know?”[ix] I have learned a great deal asking these questions in contexts both real and imaginary.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

[i] Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 82.
[ii] “For the Cause,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, May 6, 1996.
[iii] Pui-lan, 196-198 & 204.
[iv] “Beyond the Starts,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Feb. 11, 1998.
[v] Pui-lan considers the sexual control implicit in colonization throughout the book. She quotes Ana Laura Stoler, who writes “the management of the sexual practices of colonizer and colonized is fundamental to the colonial order of things.” Stoler in Pui-lan, 143.
[vi] Pui-lan, 118.
[vii] “The Waltz,” Star Treck: Deep Space Nine, Jan. 8, 1998.
[viii] Pui-lan, 136.
[ix] Pui-lan, 30.

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4 replies

  1. I used to like sf a lot, too, but I sort of fell out of the habit because so many of the stories I was reading started emphasizing technology over human conflict. I sure did like the little fellow who wanted to phone home, though.


  2. Hi Sara —

    Interesting post. I have also used sff to allow my students to see things that they might overlook in their everyday context (what Bertolt Brecht called “the estrangement technique” or the “alienation technique”), but can’t deny in the sff.


    • Thank you Nancy. Yes, that is definitely part of why I use SciFi. I will have to look up this work by Brecht, as I have not read it. Funny, the first thing I thought of when you listed these techniques was the literary theory common to magical realism known as “the shock of disrecognition,” but this is more the opposite of these two techniques. It is placing something ‘strange’ into a familiar context, rather than placing something familiar within a ‘strange’ context (if that is what the theories you reference are describing).
      Thank you again! :)


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