Is Keiko O’Brien the Worst? A Discourse Analysis

Keiko smiling in her civilian clothes, from "Data's Day"

Keiko Ishikawa O’Brien has something of a reputation among Trek fans. Ask a random sample of about 100 viewers (which I did), and you’ll probably find that, of those who are avid TNG and DS9 fans, about two-thirds (64% in my survey) will say they love Miles O’Brien, the hardworking Everyman, while very few (6%) dislike him. On the other hand, only about 20% will say they love Keiko, and a comparable amount either dislike (11%) or even hate her (6%).

Most tellingly, over half (54%) will feel the need to mitigate their opinion of Keiko, usually blaming the writers for her flaws. Even her fans tend to admit that she frequently comes across as an unpleasant person, if not a shrill and shrewish wife with a serious case of Resting Bitch Face. “Their relationship,” one of my respondents concluded, “is a disaster.”

Keiko and Miles at their wedding

Certainly, that hat was a disaster.

In the name of research, I also waded through the comments section of a YouTube supercut entitled “Why Everyone Hates Keiko O’Brien,” where I found (amongst the usual horrifying nonsense) men complaining that she reminds them of their mother, or their ex, or that she represents “everything I hate about women,” along with much head-shaking about “poor,” “whipped,” Miles. One even had come up with a fun nickname for her: “Cakehole.”

Yet, just like my survey respondents, 41% of the commenters either defended Keiko or blamed her defects on bad writing. Many pointed out that several of the clips came from episodes where Keiko and/or Miles were literally not themselves. To this, video’s creator replied: “Yes she is possessed or otherwise being controlled in the majority of these clips. The point of the video is that, regardless of the reason, in 98% of the episodes she is in she is being horrible” (emphasis added).

Let’s examine that claim, shall we? A few years ago, I read a fascinating article entitled “Masters of Love,” which described a method used by psychologists John and Julie Gottman to analyze the discourse of couples, identifying happily-married “masters” of love, as well as unhappy “disasters.” By applying this analysis to the O’Briens, I attempted to determine once and for all whether Keiko really does top the list of punishments poor Miles is made to endure.

Miles O'Brien screaming

O’Brien. Must. Suffer.

For my analysis, I excluded interactions involving alien possession, cloning, or other mental alteration, but not physical alteration alone, as in “Rascals” (TNG 6.07). This left me with 543 utterances (272 Miles, 271 Keiko) from 22 episodes, covering the first 9 years of the O’Briens’ marriage. I then coded each utterance using a simplified version of the Gottmans’ Rapid Couples Interaction Scoring System (RCISS):

According to the Gottmans, a strong indicator of marital disharmony is the overall ratio of negative utterances for a given conversation (or episode in this case). For happy couples, this ratio hovers around 0.23 for both spouses. Unhappy couples generally have ratios greater than 0.50 for one or both spouses. Miles scored 0.31 on this scale: higher than the average happy husband, but well below the 0.50 mark.

Based my anecdotal evidence, I fully expected Keiko to have a much higher average score than Miles, and probably one above 0.50. I had to double-check my numbers twice before concluding that her average score came to 0.33: nowhere near the 0.50 danger zone and not even significantly higher than her husband’s. Why, then, do so many viewers perceive the marriage as unhappy, and Keiko specifically as the negative partner?

Let’s look more closely at the O’Briens’ average scores for each of the three negative codes:

Although no individual score crosses the unhappiness threshold, Miles has a higher score than Keiko for defensiveness, and Keiko has scores just below the danger zone for criticism and contempt. Here finally we see a reflection of Keiko as the critical and contemptuous aggressor and Miles as the defensive victim. According to the Gottmans, contempt in particular is extremely corrosive to marital harmony, so that even a small amount can have a significantly negative impact on the couple’s overall happiness (or viewers’ perception thereof).

And Keiko is certainly a master of contempt. Only 17 of her utterances to Miles (less than one per episode) are contemptuous, but each is a finely-crafted barb that inspires instant pity for the unfortunate recipient. Keiko’s scorn finds other targets as well, to equally devastating effect. Recall her stubborn insistence to Sisko in “Armageddon Game” (DS9 2.13) that Miles is still alive, despite video evidence to the contrary. Or her disdainful declaration to the Cardassian judge in “Tribunal” (DS9 2.25) that she has “no intention of testifying against [her] husband.” Or her confrontation in “In the Hands of the Prophets” (DS9 1.20) with the High Queen of Contempt herself, Winn Adami, in which she refuses to teach Bajoran religious beliefs in her science classroom, telling the scheming spiritual leader, “That’s your job.”

Keiko and Winn

Shots fired.

Keiko’s contempt is truly a force with which to be reckoned, but does it have the overwhelmingly negative impact on the O’Briens’ marriage that so many viewers believe? Fortunately, the Gottmans explain, humor and affection can provide an effective buffer against such negativity. In general, happy couples maintain an average humor/affection score greater than 0.12, while a score below 0.08 could indicate a troubling lack of affection.

Across all 22 episodes and 9 years of marriage, Miles and Keiko have average scores of 0.25 and 0.22 respectively: essentially off-the-charts rates of humor and affection. Barely a single episode goes by without one of them teasing, embracing, or professing their love for the other. Rosalind Chao herself once described Keiko as being all “sweetness and light” (DS9 Companion, p. 390). This more than compensates for any criticism, defensiveness, and even contempt in their other interactions, and helps the marriage survive a truly concerning number of alien possessions, age regressions, wrongful imprisonments, murder attempts, time-traveling daughters, and womb-jumping sons. Their affection is so omnipresent, in fact, that many viewers simply fail to notice it.

keiko and miles embracing

Keiko and Miles: Masters of Love.

Additional sources:

  • Erdmann, Terry J., and Paula M. Block. Deep Space Nine Companion. Simon and Schuster, 2000.
  • Gottman, John Mordechai. What Predicts Divorce?: The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Psychology Press, 2014.

  10 comments for “Is Keiko O’Brien the Worst? A Discourse Analysis

  1. Alex Greene
    February 21, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Good post, well researched. Admittedly, the research involved watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, so as research went it is always one of the more pleasurable duties when writing a blog about Trek.

    I think there could be a little confirmation bias in people’s perceptions of Keiko. Her barbs are particularly deep-cutting, as snark goes – I blame Keiko’s mother and grandmother, all those gruelling lessons in traditional kanji calligraphy, and the bitter taste of the water in the pot they used to clean the brushes with. Those barbs sting, and that makes them more memorable than Keiko’s sweetness and light, to the point where we think that the sweetness and light bit was a front – where in fact, it’s that, and not Snarky O’Brien, which is her natural personality.

    Keiko’s snark was her natural defense mechanism, and she was not afraid to turn her withering ire towards bigger and more menacing characters, even Worf (“Congratulations, you are fully dilated to ten centimetres. You may now give birth.”). When she fires out one at J Random Redshirt, the audience feels it like a straight kick to the soft spots, and we feel sympathetic pain.

    And then it would be wise to remember her pain, pains she could only feel from being a mother, such as when she feared that she would never get her Molly back in that episode with the time portal (“Time’s Orphan,” IIRC).

    Rosalind always played out Keiko’s pain and misery with aplomb. She put a lot into Keiko. So perhaps it is time that I should cut Keiko some slack.

  2. Laurissy
    February 21, 2017 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve always liked Keiko. I think she’s really undervalued. I like how she is spiky and won’t take o’brien’s crap but at the same time clearly adores the guy. She always came across as a real person rather than just someone’s wife. I kinda wish they did more with the teaching thing. Like she stands up to kai winn for her right to teach and then a couple seasons later she just gives it up. I know she’s a botanist but who’s teaching the kids now. Anyway i hope one day she gets her own show on women at warp.

  3. Mike
    March 7, 2017 at 12:54 am

    Excellent synchronicity; the timing is uncanny. We finished a few month binge of TNG and have been watching DS9 the past few weeks. After hitting S3 Ep10, I’d just about had it with her.
    I don’t want to dislike her and I came searching for others who might have a better perspective on the whole ordeal.
    I’m still not sure I like her (as my complaint has always been her normal snark and then seemingly-prepared negative reaction and indignant to Miles’ irritation at being snarled).
    However, I am glad to know I’m not the only one still thinking about this – and watching the shows.
    🙂

  4. Susan
    March 15, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Interesting article, and thanks for defending a wonder ST character and relationship.

    I feel like the problem with her reception is this:

    Especially in the 90s but sadly still today, women on TV are often played as one dimensional, or a caricature personifying a single emotion or situation. We actually GOT a complex human character with Keiko, and the audience couldn’t handle it. We see good and bad in the same person, after a lifetime of seeing characters as good OR bad but never real/both. We see someone dealing with real issues in a real way. We see a relationship (two people) dealing with good and bad. This never happens on TV. If a TV show has a couple fighting, it means serious trouble and usually the end, instead of real-life ups and downs. (Keiko gets the short end of the stick because we “know” Miles better and thus subconsciously take his side, despite his equal behavior in their partnership.)

    Her strong character moments, loving partner moments, myriad positive moments, are too often lost among what we’re conditioned to see as negative from a TV wife.

    I think she’s super 🙂 And I had to think long and hard about why so many dudes don’t like her character. I guess TV wives are supposed to smile and serve food and leave??

    (And can I just say Rosalind Chao is an AMAZING actress!!! She’s had some great roles in her career, but as Keiko I always imagine her in the DS9 episode where her body’s been taken over by the wraith and she’s eating those chocolates in the MOST EVIL WAY! In fact, I smile through that entire episode; she completely kills it! YAASSS.)

  5. Jorie
    June 8, 2017 at 1:55 am

    What a cool way of analysing this; thanks for your hard work that produced a great article!

    I think much of the hate for Keiko totally ignores the fact that her life sort of blows at the beginning of DS9 (didn’t want to leave the enterprise, did anyway, no botony, etc). It’s also interesting how people totally ignore the stress that has to be on her as a military spouse/mother during the Dominion war, especially when considering how frequently something tramautic happens to Miles over the course of the series. I think she’s a wonderfully complex character who maintains a decent, supportive attitude in both TNG and DS9 despite many hard times, so why would anyone actively dislike her?

  6. French
    November 10, 2017 at 2:07 am

    I actually looked this up because I find the chemistry between the O’Briens to be very genuine. It’s interesting to find out so many fans dislike her.
    I think that you did a great job laying this out. However you did fail to mention that in TNG Keiko called the wedding off and sort of strung the clueless O’Brien around for an entire episode before finally tying the knot. I think that’s probably a difficult first impression for fans to overcome. It might be that, no matter her sweetness, despite the banter they share, and regardless of the physical affection they show, people seem to always feel that Keiko yanked Miles around and has the family jewels in an iron grip.
    For my part though, I honestly feel like it’s a pretty realistic relationship. My spouse definitely sees the worst parts of me and I have never been able to use alien possession as a reason.

  7. PinkysMom
    February 7, 2018 at 11:47 pm

    I think her face is often inexpressive, with a limited range of emotion, and she is best at projecting judgment or dissatisfaction when she does emote. Her smiles seem rare and somewhat reluctant, and this stands against her as an easily likable character. So she is a strong personality and not easy to warm to—but O’Brien clearly loves her and wants a strong woman to please and live with, and I respect this. She’s real, if a bit stiff. The kind of woman your best friend marries and you wonder why—but he relies on her and respects her and forgives her moods. Some men love women with depth and live for those rare smiles. Because they know what they get back is the real thing—she can’t help but give it. It’s who she is.

  8. Stodgy Cat
    March 19, 2018 at 6:48 pm

    I am curious if people’s perceptions of Keiko vary depending on how long they have been in a long term relationship. I have grown to like Keiko (and Miles) more and more the longer I’ve been married because I identify with their issues… well OK not the alien possession, or war crimes trial, but you know similar tribulations in my marriage.

  9. Myra
    March 19, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    As a long time star trek fan, I admit to struggling with liking Keiko to the point that I would actually challenge myself to make sure I was giving her due respect and not seeing the character through an ill-conceived negative view I had developed somewhere along the way (i.e. we see what we’re looking for). My reaction to her character is troubling to me because I pride myself in questioning my thinking and reactions to strong female characters.

    I am going to use the new information you’ve prepared as I go through future re-watches (I am always watching Trek) and see if my perspective changes. I hope it does! As a woman, I try to make sure that I am not falling victim to society’s construct in how a “good wife” should “behave.” I also admit that I fell into blaming the writers. I felt like the writers wanted to portray a nagging wife and I was furious over it. I envisioned a group of men sitting around finding things for Keiko to complain about – I especially did not like this since Keiko and O’Brien’s relationship was the only one (onTNG) that showed a regular character in a long-term, committed relationship. My thoughts were often “Great…so, the one committed partnership on TNG has to show an unhappy/complaining woman.”

    Thank you for the new perspective.

  10. Jangled Decade
    March 20, 2018 at 3:32 am

    I appreciate the analysis and agree that Keiko gets a bad rap.

    I think it’s worth pointing out that using a tool like the RCISS is also going to skew the results negatively since, as a recurring character, she primarily appears in episodes where she is part of the storyline, which implies conflict. Miles and Molly are her only strong relationships with main or recurring characters, and conflict between a parent and young child isn’t “good tv” (see “Times Orphan” or pretty much any Worf-Alexander episode).

    Thus the viewer mostly sees Keiko when she has a conflict with Miles. The viewer doesn’t usually see their interactions when they aren’t in conflict. For example, we see a minor conflict when Miles discovers that Keiko is pregnant with Yoshi “on the first try” during a previous return, but there was no story-telling reason to show them on that previous reunion. Because DS9 isn’t porn.

    If we could tally the O’Brien’s off-camera interactions we would expect a lower ratio of negative interactions.

    To compound this, since the show establishes that Miles and Keiko’s bond is strong and healthy, any conflict between them is ripe for more poignant drama than conflict within a weaker marriage. This provides the writers an attractive hook on which to hang a story. [The show does the same with (for example) the Jake-Nog and (in reverse) Quark-Rom relationships.] Paradoxically, the stronger the relationship the more likely we are to get stories about conflict.

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