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Where No Racist has Gone Before: Code of Honor and the Representation of Blackness

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.
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For the first guest post in the TNG Retrospective, we’re revisiting the absolute nadir of TNG’s vision of the future: “Code of Honor”. I reached out to my friend, Johnathan Flowers, Ph.D., currently of Worcester State University, whose work focusing on the areas of culture studies, personhood, and artificial intelligence from intersectional, feminist, and non-western perspectives makes him an ideal choice explore the racist ideologies and outline exactly how much of a failure this episode actually is.

“Code of Honor” is undoubtedly the most racist episode of The Next Generation, if not one of the most racist episodes Star Trek to date, this much is obvious from the responses of fans and the cast to the episode. However, what seems to be missing from many analysis and reviews of the episode is why the episode is patently offensive. While many argue that Code of Honor is racist for the portrayal of all black Ligonian cast, it is my argument that the source of the racism is grounded in the racist ideologies operative in the episode. To be clear, it is the representation of black and white bodies through racist and colonialist ideologies in “Code of Honor” that gives the episode its racist character.

The initial premise of the episode is that a lethal plague threatens the Federation colony of Styrus IV, the cure for which is only located on the planet Ligon II, the society of which is depicted as technologically behind the Federation and characterized by the importance of personal pride. Due to the Prime Directive, the Federation has been reluctant to contact the Ligonians until it was discovered that Ligon II possesses a cure for the plague ravaging Styrus IV. This premise establishes the Federation’s interest in Ligon II and the Ligonians not as in the context of diplomacy or potential invitation to the Federation but rather in its resources to be exploited. Put simply, the Federation is interested in the Ligonians for their planetary resources, and not because they view them as candidates for inclusion into the Federation.

To this end, the Federation crew only respect Ligonian customs only to obtain access to the vaccine, and only because the Prime Directive prevents more direct intervention. Picard laments that were it not for the Prime Directive, Picard would view himself as possessing a moral obligation to impose Federation custom onto the Ligonians to ostensibly civilize them through Federation annexation, stating, “By our standards, the customs here, their code of honour, is the same kind of pompous, strutting charades that endangered our own species a few centuries ago. We evolved out of it because no one else imposed their own.”

Looking to the Ligonians themselves, they are all Black, specifically, all Black men, dressed in such a way as to recall afrofuturism as imagined through the mind of whiteness. The Ligonian honor guard are all bare chested, clad in lots of shimmering material, and wielding spears as if a culture technologically advanced enough to develop transporter technology also could not develop phaser or energy weapon technology and equip their honor guards with it. Of note is Lutan’s own garb: golden where the honor guards are blue. Lutan’s garb also includes a golden turban as if the copious amounts of gold demonstrates his wealth. Completing their “noble savage” afrofuturism is the presence of ritual scarification on all the faces of the honor guard and Lutan himself. The bare chests and shimmering material serve as a stark contrast to the clean lines and subdued colors of the Federation uniforms and act to enhance the “primitivity” of the Ligonians in contrast to the Federation.

During their initial introduction, we get our first display of their cultural primitivity as demonstrated through patriarchal, hypermasculine tropes. Upon being introduced to the senior officers of the Enterprise, Lutan expresses surprise at Natasha Yar’s introduction as Picard’s chief of security, a surprise that is intensified when Lutan’s second in command, Hagon, who refers to Yar as “woman,” attempts to force his way past Yar, who ultimately ends up throwing Hagon to the ground and delivering the samples to Picard herself. Hagon’s actions imply that Yar is of little value, so much so that even Picard’s introduction of her as his chief of security fails to give the Ligonians pause in their disrespect. What is clear at the initial introduction of the Ligonian delegation is their lack of concern or respect for the personhood of women in their company.

This lack of concern for the personhood of women is a crucial facet of Ligonian society: when a woman in Ligonian society marries a man in Ligonian society and becomes his “first one,” all of her wealth and lands transfer to her husband. When or if she dies, or if the husband chooses another first one, the lands transfer to the husband in perpetuity. This background informs the ways in which the Ligonians treat the women of the Enterprise crew, specifically Natasha Yar. Indeed, after the Ligonian delegation retires to the conference room Riker notes the interest of Lutan and his party in Yar’s position as chief of security, explaining to the Ligonians that Yar’s position is not uncommon within the Federation, to which Hagon responds “with us, it is the duty of women only to own the land and the duty of men to protect and rule it.”

There is also a racialized component to Hagon’s words: if we are to treat “the land” as a metaphor for Ligonian society, then we can read Ligonian culture as relegating its women, who are all uniformly Black and dark-skinned, into the role of the “Mammy.” Explained by Carolyn West, the “Mammy” is a “subordinate nurturing, self-sacrificing, domestic servant who happily performed her duties with no expectation of financial compensation,” and this description of the “mammy” has been taken up by other Black Feminist Scholars to describe the burdens placed upon Black women within the Black community, not merely as imposed by the wages of whiteness. Through this lens, the forced responsibility of Ligonian women to “own the land” itself becomes a mode of socially reinforced “mammy-dom,” leaving the men of the society free to pursue their own aims, even if those aims include other women.

It is on this basis that Act II culminates in the abduction of Natasha Yar by Lutan, who intends to replace his current first one, Yareena, with Yar. While Lutan’s interest in Yar, which was signalled by the Ligonian discussion in the briefing room, and Lutan’s own statements that Yar may be “exactly what (he) needs,” reinforces Ligonian perspectives on the instrumental value of women as objects, rather than agents. For Lutan, and Ligonian culture, the sole purpose of women is to provide a means whereby men can attain additional power for themselves. As such the narrative constructs Yar as the ultimate prize due to her physical prowess, Yar’s physical attractiveness, combined with her status as a Starfleet Security Officer on the Enterprise. This point is driven home by Data where he compares the abduction of Yar to counting coup, wherein kidnapping Yar would earn Lutan a particularly high honor. To this end, his actions in Act II serve to provide viewers with a window into Lutan and Ligonian culture through explaining Lutan’s actions as a culturally sanctioned activity aimed at allowing Lutan to increase his social standing through taking something of value from a superior individual. However, given that Lutan is a Black man kidnapping a white woman, the racialized elements of the narrative cannot be ignored in favor of a strictly misogynist reading.

First, Yar herself stands as an epitome of a kind of pure white womanhood symbolized by her blonde hair. Despite lacking the length generally associated with pure white womanhood, her short blonde locks serve as a symbol of her liberation from traditional stereotypes like the kind that confine Ligonian women and Counselor Troi. Furthermore, Yar’s principle objection to Lutan’s advancement is her career as a Starfleet officer, so, as heir to the gains of white feminist ideology, she has the luxury of placing her career ahead of her sexual desires or the responsibilities imposed upon her by her culture. Yareena, Lutan’s first one, does not by virtue of Ligonian societal mores. This distinction between their cultural and social positions serves as one of the first ways that Code of Honor serves to construct white womanhood as more valuable than its pastiche of Black womanhood.

Lutan’s desire to possess Yar and subsequent kidnapping renders clear that the narrative of Code of Honor views whiteness as property and, moreover, the possession of a white woman as a sign of status. This notion of Black masculinity possessing white womanhood has been the subject of social and cultural construction and critique: as whiteness as property which conferred white privilege was inalienable from white bodies, the only way to possess the property of whiteness as a non-white individual was to possess a white body. Specifically, the possession of white women’s bodies was said to confer upon the possessor the privileges of whiteness. If a non-white body could come to possess a white body, through the possession of a valued object of whiteness, that non-white body could be seen as having increased its social standing.

Yar’s blonde hair and white skin, despite her federation uniform, enable her to stand out against the Blackness of Lutan’s skin, that of the Ligonian honor guard, and the Blackness of the Ligonian population, symbolically reinforcing her white womanhood. Nowhere is this more apparent than when she is seated next to Lutan at his center-place during Picard’s forced admission of Lutan’s superiority in taking Yar, a scene which itself has overtones of white fears of being cuckolded by the overwhelming sexuality of Black men. Amongst the arranged Black bodies, Yar’s white femininity stands out by contrast, and this contrast that lends her value to Lutan, meaning that her whiteness takes on the function of property. The possession of whiteness therefore enhances the social standing of the individual who possesses it.

Yar’s articulation of white womanhood is amplified through the ways in which Yar’s attraction to Lutan are presented as shameful because they recall the construction of white female desire for Black male bodies in the mode of the “black bull” or the “stud,” stereotypes which exaggerate Black male sexuality through its construction as an object of envy and desire by whiteness. Yar admits her attraction to Lutan only when “tricked” by Troi, so her sexual attraction is grounded in the appeal of being desired by a “basic male image” as Troi describes Lutan. This description recalls the construction of Black masculinity as both hypersexual and hyperviolent by its Blackness, which drives home the point that white women’s desire for Black men was something a source of shame. Yar’s desire for Lutan, her enjoyment of his gaze, while simultaneously being ashamed of that desire is therefore in keeping with her construction as an archetype of white womanhood.

Finally, if Yar is the epitome of white womanhood, then Yareena is confined by the controlling images of Black womanhood. However, there is another controlling image that dominates Yareena’s characterization: the Sapphire. The Sapphire emerged as a controlling image of Black women to avoid the threat that Black women’s justified anger represented to the patriarchy. In the case of Yareena and Yar, this anger is made plain by Yar’s selection by Lutan to be the new first one and by Yareena’s subsequent challenge. Yareena’s anger prevents her from recognizing that Yar’s concern with Lutan and Ligon is grounded only in acquiring the vaccine for the Federation. Moreover, Yareena’s anger is not narratively directed towards Lutan, the individual responsible for forcing Yar and Yareena into the situation of combat, but towards Yar for the mere act of being present and desired. That anger is depicted as lethally dangerous, as she invokes her right to combat in an attempt to resolve the situation. Her anger is thus contrasted with Yar’s own attempts to pacify Yareena and prevent bloodshed, which Yareena rejects out of hand.

As the Sapphire, Yareena’s anger at Yar immediately vanishes upon her defeat and then is redirected towards Lutan whereupon she selects Hagon as her new first one, thereby stripping Lutan of his wealth. This choice makes no sense as the episode established that men selected the women, and it strips Yareena of her agency as her marriage to Hagon would undoubtedly mean the loss of her lands and wealth. Yareena ultimately selects the “safe” Black man over the more threatening, sexually aggressive Black man, whom Yareena selects to be her first one due to his lack of aggressive masculinity. Thus, the narrative demonstrates that the only “good” Black masculinity is a “safe” Black masculinity, one which is constructed as subordinate not only to white femininity but to Black femininity as well.

To conclude, “Code of Honor” is undoubtedly one of the most racist episodes of Star Trek to be filmed. Frakes’ description of “Code of Honor” as a “Racist Piece of Sh*t” is not only apt, but extremely accurate given the time in which the episode was filmed and its subject matter.

Rating: Beverly Crusher Love Candle Bad

One thought on “Where No Racist has Gone Before: Code of Honor and the Representation of Blackness”

  1. Wow. I probably saw that when I was a kid, but that sounds like a real trash fire of an episode.

    Thanks for the deep dive.

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