In "Destiny," a third season episode of Deep Space Nine, the show takes a moment to address workplace harassment and discrimination. Chief Engineer Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney) discovers he has to work with a Cardassian engineer Gilora (Tracy Scoggins) to create a communications relay. Gilora is dismissive of O’Brien’s work because he’s a man; on Cardassia, only women are considered good engineers. When she discovers he’s skilled, she comes onto him in a blatant and extremely workplace inappropriate way: “I am quite fertile," she declares, “I could provide you with many healthy children.” Cardassian women interpret irritation as flirting, so when O’Brien was snappish and distant with her, she took that as a sign of interest, rather than the opposite.
The interaction between Miles and Gilora is only a subplot in the episode, but it’s typical of a common SF/F move; call it the reverse discrimination trope. In reality, it’s women, not men, who face skepticism and sometimes sexual harassment in STEM fields like engineering. Deep Space Nine turns that around. Miles has to deal with having his competence questioned and his personal boundaries violated.
The interaction is humorous, but the message is clear: some variation on “How would you like it?” Men are generally the perpetrators of workplace discrimination; Deep Space Nine has Miles experience discrimination to make men understand the experience of women who are targets. By making the oppressor the oppressed, science-fiction makes oppressors empathize with those they treat unjustly.
That’s the most charitable interpretation. But there’s reason to wonder how effective this approach is, and whether it’s intended to confront oppression at all. The reverse discrimination trope is not only a staple of SF/F, but reactionary discourse as well. Showing the oppressor as the oppressed isn’t always a plea for empathy. Sometimes it’s a call to paranoia, to proactive resentment and even to violence.
For example, it’s common in current discussions of employment issues to find men framing themselves—like Miles—as the oppressed victims of supposedly prejudiced women. A 2018 Pew Research study found sweeping discrimination against women in STEM fields; 29 percent of women reported lower pay than men doing the same job; 20 percent said they were (like Miles) slighted in the workplace.
Yet men, and especially white men, are convinced they suffer from reverse discrimination. “Today the white male is the enemy. I’ve seen too many qualified white males passed over for promotions or advancement in favor of a woman and/or minority,” one 47-year-old male engineer said. Someone with those beliefs wouldn’t see Miles’ plight as a reversal. He’d just see it as vindication of his worst fears.
You can see a similar dynamic in one of SF’s most common plots, the reverse invasion narrative. British, American, and Western audiences have thrilled to stories in which Britain, America, or the West have been the target of colonial invasion and genocide at least since The War of the Worlds. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Independence Day, and The Avengers, they do to us what weonce did to them. One of the clearest examples is the 1984 film Red Dawn, which imagines a Soviet/Cuban invasion of Colorado. The Wolverines, brave American resistors who take the name of their local football team, are, like the Viet Cong, victims of imperial aggression. It’s possible to read Red Dawn and similar narratives as anti-colonial. Americans are asked to think about what it means to be occupied by a foreign power; that might make them not want to support invasion.
However, it’s undeniable that Red Dawn is a paranoid Cold War fever dream. US leaders warned during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, that the USSR’s aggressive expansionist agenda, if left unchecked, would eventually lead to a direct threat to US interests. Red Dawn imagines that the last domino has fallen, and that the Soviets have attained their final goal of conquering the US homeland. The message is not “Don’t be like those imperialists.” It’s “We had better do unto them, or they’re going to do worse unto us.” It’s the same kind of conspiratorial projection which justified the Nazi genocide. Hitler was convinced that Jewish people were determined to seize control of the world and eliminate Aryans.
There are ways to address prejudice without the reverse discrimination trope. One possibility is to present worlds in which discrimination doesn’t exist in the same way so that, for example, women are accepted as equals in STEM fields. Deep Space Nine is an example here too; Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), is the station’s chief science officer, and is commonly shown solving complicated technical (or technobabble) problems. She’s treated with respect and everyone defers to her expertise.
Another approach is to portray discrimination straightforwardly, without reversing its targets. This is the approach of one of the most famous Deep Space Nine episodes, “Far Beyond the Stars”Avery Brooks directed the episode in which his character Captain Benjamin Sisko has a vision of the past in which he sees himself as a 1950s science-fiction writer, penning stories about a Black captain on a far-future space station.
In the episode, Sisko, writer, experiences very recognizable racist employment discrimination. The magazine he writes for doesn’t want him to appear in promotional pictures, and refuses to print his story about his Black captain, because that kind of antiracist idealism is politically unacceptable. The storyline directly addresses the kind of reactionary fandom tendencies which still lead to backlash when Black actors are cast as, say, Heimdall or Johnny Storm. “Far Beyond the Stars” makes viewers of whatever race identify with a Black character, rather than assuming you can only feel empathy for white male Miles.
But just avoiding the reverse discrimination trope doesn’t solve every issue of representation. Presenting a world in which women are equal can make it seem like bigotry’s easy to overcome, and can be an excuse to gloss over instances of objectification and harassment (which aren’t uncommon in DS9 scripts.) It can also seem hypocritical when management treats female actors with casual disdain. DS9 showrunner Rick Berman reportedly refused to consider letting a burnt-out Terry Farrell go to part-time for season seven, instead preferring to kill off her character.
Even directly portraying and condemning discrimination can backfire. On Deep Space Nine, the Ferengi are sexist, and bar women from all paid employment. A number of episodes revolve around female Ferengi demanding the right to engage in commerce, or demonstrating that they are as good at business as Ferengi men. But the Ferengi are ugly alien outsiders at best, and vicious anti-Semitic caricatures at worst; their treatment of women is easy to dismiss as the problem of that other lesser culture over there. It’s not reversal, exactly, but it’s still projection. Someone else is the bigot, and human male viewers are safely let off the hook.
Making thoughtful art is hard, and making thoughtful art about systemic oppression is arguably even harder. There’s no short cut or one formula for handling difficult issues with insight. Telling the oppressors that they’re oppressed mostly won't lead to soul-searching; it just makes oppressors feel justified. Miles O’Brien may be good at his job. But having a Cardassian woman condescend to him isn’t likely to engineer a more just future.