Keiko O’Brien is Not a Bitch

Keiko with resting bitch face.
Keiko with resting bitch face.

If you do a bit of cursory namesearching of Keiko O’Brien on ~the Trek web~, you’ll soon discover a consensus among the fandom that she’s, well, a bitch. Get this: she’s not. Keiko O’Brien is not a bitch.

Keiko has the unfortunate problem, as do many female Trek characters (at least until recently), of being rather unfairly written. Although Dax and Kira seem to be exceptions to this rule (and DS9 seems to be better in this aspect, as does Voyager), women in Trek — and here, I’m thinking specifically about TNG — are written in a way that lacks emotional depth, strength, complexity, and interestingness (did you know this was a word? you do now).

If you were watching TNG for the first time and gave a quick glance to the Enterprise’s senior staff, you might feel hopeful that this isn’t the case — but you’ll unfortunately have that hope crushed soon into watching.

Tasha Yar is a strong and assertive female security officer — and a skilled fighter — and this seems cool and all, until you follow her dialogue and see that she’s written to have a shallow angry response at anything and generally lacking emotional depth beyond that (with the exception of her tryst with Data in “The Naked Now”). Even Denise Crosby herself was frustrated with the direction of her character, and left the show not long after its debut.

And Deanna Troi, with her being an empath and partial telepath, one would think TNG would take advantage of and utilize her ability in interesting ways to drive the story — but sadly this is not the case. Rather than using her empathic abilities in strategic and advantageous ways to tip the power dynamic in the Enterprise’s favor in encounters with aliens, she simply interjects to give such insightful and instrumental stratagem as, “he’s mad,” and, “he’s angry,” things we in the audience observed with our human eyes minutes ago on the giant Enterprise viewscreen.

As for Dr. Crusher, the skilled and cool-under-pressure Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, the 24th Century Fox — she serves as an intermittent love interest for Captain Picard, and serves as a supposed voice of moral authority that puts the ship and crew at risk as often as not. Aside from having a couple strong episodes (“Remember Me,” where she gets trapped in a warp bubble; and “Suspicions,” where she convenes a group of scientists to explore a Ferengi scientist’s research about multiphasic shielding that can fly into a sun’s corona), she was hardly a central driving character in most of the stories. Except for the sexy ghost episode. I will die on the hill of the sexy ghost episode.

Keiko O’Brien was introduced to the show as Chief O’Brien’s wife-to-be in “Data’s Day,” with the only background information given being that she’s a botanist and that Data introduced her and the Chief, and in this episode she nearly calls off the wedding out of nowhere and snaps at Miles. As a first impression of the character, a first appearance, she’s cast in an unlikable and unflattering light, especially facing off against our lovable, relatable everyman character in Miles, who’s maybe the only character on the show you’d actually want to grab a pint with.

For the most part, she exists in the show only in the context of being the Chief’s wife, aside from passing comments about her tending the arboretum — and often they’re bickering. In much of her and Chief O’Brien’s interactions in both TNG and DS9 (but especially DS9), she’s written as snippy, demanding, complain-y. Two examples of this: in DS9, she was vocally opposed to the Chief’s being stationed there; and in “Fascination” she acted quite hostile toward our beloved Chief during the Gratitude Festival, out of absolutely nowhere. On screen, they seldom have good chemistry together, but this is no fault of the actress.

Keiko is not a bitch — she is unfairly written. She is presented as an unsympathetic character, complaining to — and bickering with — our buddy down at the pub Chief O’Brien. This unfair characterization is aimless, especially in light of the episodes where she is a strong character — defending her classes from Kai Wynn’s religious censorship, defending the Cardassian orphan Rugal from Miles’ racially insensitive comments, fighting to prove Miles was innocent in an unfair Cardassian trial, helping him heal after seasons of “Miles Must Suffer” pain (like being stuck in the mind prison or enduring Cardassian dental horror.)

Regardless of these, the negative characteristics have an outsized influence. If the writers unintentionally kept writing this one character into unsympathetic positions, it’s maybe because everyone else chose to be there and she’s the only person who’s there out of spousal obligation. She’s not a defined ‘bad’ character, not a cartoonish supervillain like Dukat becomes or the ambitious bureaucrat from Hell the fire caves like Wynn, or an obstacle to other characters attaining their goals, and yet these negative characterizations pop up frequently.

It’s easy to look at a character and make a quick value judgment. It’s even easier to yell online about it. And I’m usually a pretty big fan of yelling online, in general. But in the case of Keiko O’Brien, she gets some hate among Star Trek fans that’s unwarranted — and it’s due to the unfair writing of her character, as happens to many female characters in sci fi TV and in Trek — at least until the newest generation of Star Trek shows. Being more progressive tends to tamp down on the bitch factor — you can’t make every character unlikable.