This article deals with the subjects of the Holocaust and racism and may be uncomfortable for some readers.
It goes without saying that the Holocaust is an incredibly sensitive and delicate subject. Even titling this article Whoopi’s “whoopsie” might be enough to seem flippant or even offensive to some folks – but I just couldn’t resist the pun. If you haven’t heard about this controversy, I’ll briefly recap what happened before we get into some analysis and a consideration of what – if anything – it could mean for Star Trek: Picard Season 2.
Whoopi Goldberg, who plays the role of Guinan in the Star Trek franchise, is the co-host of The View, an American daytime television talk show. She’s known in that context for being bold and outspoken, particularly on issues of race in the United States. On a recent episode of The View, Goldberg made controversial remarks about the Holocaust, claiming that the event “isn’t about race” because it concerned “two white groups of people.” I encourage you to view the full exchange in context (you can find it on YouTube) but suffice to say that controversy soon ensued – and the condemnation of Goldberg’s comments even reached mainstream news outlets on this side of the Atlantic.
Goldberg has offered her apology for the remarks she made, and it’s worth pointing that out before we go any further. She apologised for “the hurt [she] caused” and reiterated her support for Jewish people and Jewish communities around the world. It’s not for me to decide whether her apology is up to code, and again I encourage you to read it in full. I felt it important to point out that she has issued an apology before proceeding any further.
The Holocaust is such a unique event in the history of our world that it almost beggars belief that a 66-year-old woman, who otherwise seems to be well-informed and whose job it is to discuss current events, could be so profoundly ignorant or misinformed about what it is. Holocaust education, at least here in the UK, has been a big part of the history curriculum in schools for at least fifty years – if not longer – and there are many institutions around the world dedicated to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims and promoting education about the Holocaust. Less than a week ago, on the 27th of January, we marked Holocaust Memorial Day, a worldwide event held on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
On a school trip to Germany almost thirty years ago I visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp and saw firsthand the kind of facilities that the Nazis used to keep political prisoners, Romani, Jews, and everyone else that they deemed “sub-human” or “undesirable.” Seeing the camp is something that has stuck with me for decades, and the sombre lessons that my class had about the Holocaust and the extermination of Jews are likewise seared in my memory.
British-made documentary series The World At War has one of the best educational pieces about the Holocaust that I’ve ever seen in its episode Genocide, and if you can find a copy I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a harrowing watch, but for anyone who wants to learn more about this defining moment in history, and the events that led to it, The World At War presents the history of the Holocaust about as well as possible, and includes interviews with survivors.
Outside of conversations and discussions about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust itself, it’s almost never a good idea to bring up the Holocaust. Politicians, commentators, directors, and even journalists have all found themselves in trouble for saying something stupid or ill-informed, or for using the Holocaust as an unfair comparison to something else happening in the world. And when making unprepared, unscripted remarks – as Whoopi Goldberg appears to have been – misspeaking is all the easier.
I can’t defend what Whoopi Goldberg said. It was so ignorant and stupid that she deserves all of the backlash she receives. It’s also indicative, at least to me as a non-American, of America’s continuing obsession with black-and-white race issues that completely ignore every other marginalised group. Almost sixty years after Martin Luther King dreamed of a country where everyone would be judged by the “content of their character,” America seems more race-obsessed than ever – and that obsession with black-versus-white racism comes at the cost of marginalising or completely ignoring practically every other group.
Part of Whoopi Goldberg’s defence of her original remarks, made during an appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, drew on her own understanding of race and racism as an African-American, and appear to me to reinforce the idea that too many Americans have a strange, warped misunderstanding of what race even is – as well as who can and can’t be racist and how racism itself works. To me, that’s indicative of a fundamental failure of the American education system and of the way racial issues in America are discussed and debated.
So that’s my read on what happened. Given the outrage that Whoopi Goldberg’s comments understandably generated, I wanted to step back and consider what impact, if any, the controversy now engulfing her may have on Star Trek: Picard Season 2, which is scheduled to premiere in just over four weeks from today. Goldberg is set to reprise her role of Guinan, bringing the character back to our screens for the first time since 1994’s Star Trek: Generations, and she was recently featured in a big way in the latest trailer.
At time of writing, no one involved with Star Trek: Picard Season 2 has made a public statement on the Whoopi Goldberg controversy, but I don’t see how that can be sustainable, especially when the cast and crew get on the publicity circuit and start giving interviews in the run-up to the season premiere. Whoopi Goldberg, having just made her first big appearance in the new season’s marketing, may have been slated to make appearances or give interviews about the show – but I’m not sure whether that will happen at all now, or whether her role may be scaled back.
Sometimes they say that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but take it from someone who used to work in marketing: this is about as bad as it gets in terms of publicity! The last thing anyone involved in Star Trek: Picard needs is for Whoopi Goldberg’s comments to overshadow the show’s return, so in my opinion the producers and actors need to get together and put out a statement relatively quickly, and certainly before they get out on the publicity circuit. That way they’ll be able to refer to their statement when the inevitable questions are asked.
I’ve heard from several people who say that they’re either not going to watch Picard Season 2, or that they’re far less enthusiastic about supporting the upcoming season in light of Whoopi Goldberg’s comments. There’s a danger for ViacomCBS that this will snowball if they don’t handle it well, perhaps leading to an unofficial boycott or significantly fewer viewers tuning in, so the corporation and its marketing team really need to get out in front of this as quickly as possible.
There’s a theory from the world of literary criticism that I think is worth discussing: “death of the author.” Originally proposed in 1967 by French critic Roland Barthes, death of the author basically argues that we should consider a work of literature on its own merits, separating the writing from the writer. Death of the author has since been applied to other forms of media, including television and film, and in this context we’re looking at whether it might be possible to separate the performance from the actor – to enjoy Guinan without celebrating Whoopi Goldberg.
The two sides to this never-ending discussion are as follows: either it’s possible and desirable to separate the art from the artist, considering the merits of a piece without any consideration for who the author or artist was, or it isn’t possible or desirable to do so, and that the context of who the creator was matters in a fundamental way to the work in question. With actors this is, perhaps, more readily apparent because we can see and hear them; it’s far more difficult to put an actor out of our mind while watching and listening to them in real-time.
My take on death of the author varies somewhat. If an artist, author, or performer is long-dead, it’s much easier in my view to analyse their work, and even enjoy their work, without paying too much attention to who they were. The performance has outlived the performer, so to speak. But when dealing with living people, I find this far more difficult to do. I understand Barthes’ arguments about objectivity and judging a work on its own merits, but when people hold outspoken or particularly harmful points of view, I find it much more difficult to set that aside for the sake of art or entertainment.
J.K. Rowling is perhaps the best example of this, in my opinion. Her blatantly transphobic statements and support for “gender critical” groups and causes has made it significantly harder for me to enjoy the Harry Potter series for which she’s best-known. I find it difficult to separate Harry Potter, either in book or film form, from J.K. Rowling in light of her offensive statements and the positions that she’s known to hold.
So when I hear Trekkies say that they can no longer support Star Trek: Picard in light of Whoopi Goldberg’s comments, I fully understand. I can empathise with that position because it’s very similar to how I see the Harry Potter series, and I wouldn’t want to tell anyone that they should feel differently. It can be difficult to set aside the artist and just focus on the art, especially when dealing with an actor who we have to see and listen to.
I would say, though, that Whoopi Goldberg is nowhere near as important to Star Trek: Picard as someone like J.K. Rowling is to Harry Potter. She may only appear in one or two episodes, and as recently as last month it wasn’t even certain that she’d be appearing at all; her appearance in the trailer confirmed it. Had remarks like these been made by someone like Sir Patrick Stewart or one of the show’s senior producers, Star Trek: Picard would be in a lot more trouble. In my view, it’s probable that the show will be able to weather this storm, even if it loses some viewers in the process.
Whoopi Goldberg has offered an apology, and in the coming days I would expect to hear something from the Picard Season 2 cast and crew, disavowing her comments and perhaps dropping her from the publicity circuit or reducing her importance to the show’s marketing campaign. That will most likely allow Picard Season 2 to get through the next few weeks in the run-up to the show’s broadcast.
In a way, this couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the new season premiering in just over four weeks from now, this is the moment for the marketing campaign to truly gear up and start promoting the show’s return. It’s been two years since Picard Season 1 went off the air, so for casual viewers and for fans who aren’t keeping up-to-date with the ins and outs of Star Trek, simply getting the message out about Picard’s return has to be top priority. There’s no doubt in my mind that this controversy will be a distraction, one that the show absolutely does not need.
But I don’t believe it will be a fatal distraction, at least not as things stand. Whoopi Goldberg isn’t likely to be cut or edited out of Picard Season 2, and even seems likely to retain her job on The View, despite her remarks. There’s enough time over the next month for the marketing team to move past this controversy, which, like so many others, will have a relatively short shelf-life on social media before fading away.
I’m disappointed with Whoopi Goldberg. Her character of Guinan is so calm, ethereal, and wise that it can be jarring, as a Trekkie, to see Whoopi Goldberg talking up a storm on The View at the best of times, and this controversy is an even more extreme example. However, I note that she has at least made an attempt to apologise – and seems to be sincere. And on the positive side, her initial ignorance of the Holocaust may have shone a light on a far broader lack of understanding and proper education about the event in the United States, potentially exposing more people to the reality of what happened, thereby preventing this kind of blinkered, ignorant point of view from being espoused in future. Better education and a better understanding of the Holocaust are badly needed, it seems, and Whoopi Goldberg may have inadvertently aided that cause.
Star Trek: Picard Season 2 will premiere on the 3rd of March 2022 on Paramount+ in the United States, and on the 4th of March on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and around the world. The Star Trek franchise – including Picard and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.