To Seek Out New Star Trek Fans and Form New Star Trek Civilizations
As the most well-studied fandom, Star Trek fans have shaped the way that seminal concepts in fan studies have emerged.
At 50 years old, Star Trek has wonderful, diverse legacies, one of which is the interdisciplinary teaching and research field of fan studies. Fan studies, the academic study of fans and fandom, exists on university campuses around the world, is explicitly represented by research journals such as Transformative Works and Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, and motivates thousands of student essays, conference talks, interviews, dissertations, books, blogs, and documentaries. However, fan studies would be nothing without Star Trek and its enthusiastic, devoted, and prolific fans.
Founding theorists of fan studies, including Henry Jenkins, Camille Bacon-Smith, Constance Penley, and many others, cut their teeth studying Star Trek fans. Star Trek fans were (and continue to be) the most well-studied fandom. As such, they have shaped the way that seminal concepts in fan studies have emerged, starting with the reality of female-dominated media fandoms, and including the politics of “slash” and “het”, the tension between canon and fanon, fan communities’ practices, fan-producer relationships, and fan activism.
In studying Star Trek fans, fan studies scholars realized an enormously influential truth that still holds today: media fandoms, like Star Trek’s, are predominantly female. In each of the below examples of what Star Trek fans have given to fan studies, it has been women fans who have led the way. That is not to say that Star Trek didn’t have a lot of male fans. Rather, it's to say that Star Trek fans who were active collectively as a fandom were mostly female.
Prior to Star Trek, fans who met at conventions or exchanged newsletters or otherwise operated as a fandom, were largely male and organized around their shared affinity for the genre of science fiction rather than a specific media text like Star Trek. But Star Trek fans changed the nature of fandom and, as early fan studies scholars noticed, they were also overwhelmingly female.
Star Trek fans created “slash” when they insisted that Kirk and Spock’s relationship was not only the most important one on the screen but was also romantic in nature. Slash is a genre of fan fiction and fan art that features a homosexual romantic relationship between male characters of a book, show, or movie, which does not exist in the original media text. The term slash comes from the slash punctuation mark used in the expression “Kirk/Spock” or K/S, which was the way that fans designated the genre and character pairing of their fanworks. Slash is in opposition to het, which features heterosexual romantic relationships between male and female characters.
While fan studies scholars study many aspects of fans’ behaviors, they have devoted a vast amount of intellectual space to the study of slash. Early essays on slash by Joanna Russ, “Pornography by women for women”, and Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana Veith, “Romantic myth, transcendence, and Star Trek zines”, recognize slash to be a kind of utopian romance among equals, nearly always written by women fans for, as suggested by Russ’s title, other women fans.
There's no one for Kirk but Spock, his true equal. Slash is not traditional romance, nor is it traditional porn. Slash is closer to erotica in that the emotional development of the characters is as important -- if not more so -- than any physical sexual exchanges.
In creating het, Star Trek fans also made the “Mary Sue”, a young, plucky, near-perfect romantic partner for Kirk. The Mary Sue is an archetype, much derided by fans whose tastes for fan fiction and fan art are arguably more refined. Bacon-Smith, in her ethnography, Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, conceptualizes the Mary Sue as an important rite of passage for Star Trek fans.
Fans start by projecting themselves into their fanworks through the Mary Sue as she serves as a place for authorial wish-fulfillment. As fans mature in fandom, they leave the Mary Sue behind, often forgetting her importance in their own fan origin stories. The Mary Sue, much like slash and other genres and tropes that got their start in Star Trek fan fiction, is a well-established and -studied convention that has migrated to other fandoms.
Slash and het stories come out of fanon (sometimes called “head canon”), a concept that describes fans’ collective, commonly held assumptions about characters’ backstories and particular scenes’ subtexts. Fanon is always in some kind of conversation with canon, that is, with what can explicitly be known from the original text. For example, “Mary Sues” work as a genre because fans agree on the following fanon assumptions about Kirk based on his canon actions of playing romantic leads an episode at a time: Kirk is a flirt; Kirk is drawn to smart, capable people; Kirk will do anything to protect his crew; and Kirk will always put the needs of the Enterprise before his own needs for romance.
Enter the Mary Sue. She is a smart, young Ensign, who catches her Captain’s eye, impresses everyone with her heroics, and ultimately sacrifices herself for the Enterprise-- often so Kirk won’t have to-- leaving him with a broken heart. Fanon assumptions that give rise to Kirk/Spock, however, include reading sexual tension between the two characters’ on-screen heated exchanges and playful banter.
Star Trek fans gave fan studies scholars their first opportunity to look at fans as communities with shared interests, values, and practices. Jenkins’ influential book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, traced fans’ collective efforts through the production and circulation of zines, which were edited collections of Star Trek fans’ fan fiction, essays, and fan art, and fans’ activities at meet-ups and ever-larger conventions or “cons”. For Jenkins and many other early fan studies scholars, Star Trek fans became communities that could be studied precisely because they had achieved a consciousness of their fandom. Fans recognized themselves as a collective, using their own term, “fen”, as the plural of fan.
Though Star Trek fans didn’t call it vidding, fan studies scholar, Francesca Coppa, in her essay, “Women, Star Trek, and the early development of fannish vidding”, credits these fans with creating the practice of splicing together original visual media texts to create an alternative narrative that can then be shared among a community of like-minded fans. Bacon-Smith spent time in fans’ living rooms, studying them as they “trained” new members into the fan community through an initiation ritual of watching slash readings of Star Trek.
Using two VCRs, fans would piece together existing scenes into a new sequence and then record that to show new fans. The new sequences featured long, smoldering looks and moments of heightened tension between Kirk and Spock as well as knowing glances from other crew members such as McCoy and Uhura to indicate that they either suspected or knew of their romantic relationship.
Star Trek fans demonstrated the often fraught power dynamic between fans and producers of media texts. Mobilized by calls to action in fanzines, Star Trek fans used letter-writing campaigns to get successive years of Star Trek: the Original Series, renewed, syndicated, and much later, made into movies. They worked with series creator, Gene Roddenberry, to get two additional years of the original series picked up by NBC.
Fans even famously appealed to President Ford and NASA to have a space shuttle named after the Enterprise. To this day, Star Trek fans -- now through social media -- speak collectively to demand new television series and movies, particular character pairings, and diversity of characters. As a result, fan studies scholars see fans’ activism as a pivotal moment in their recognition of their own power as co-producers of media texts.
Fan studies scholars have made an entire teaching and research field from studying the demographics of particular fandoms, the cultural values, practices, and products produced by fans, and the ways that fans interact with each other and media producers. All of these reflect points of inquiry that emerged alongside Star Trek fandom. Every way that fan studies scholars think about fandom can be traced to Star Trek fans. If the women who loved Star Trek and built communities around their shared love hadn’t boldly gone where no fans had gone before, there would be no modern media fandoms and no fan studies.
Mary Ingram-Waters, Ph.D., a media studies scholar at Arizona State University, walks the fine line between being a fan and a scholar of fandom. She is the founding director of ASU’s Fantasy Sports Working Group, where she works with undergraduate honors students to research the social dynamics of fantasy sports fans. Her work on fans has been published in Transformative Works and Cultures.