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.

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