Star Trek and Society’s Ridicule of its Early Fans

Star Trek Fans in Mainstream Culture

Star Trek

Every year the entertainment world shifts its attention to sunny California for San Diego Comic-Con International. All sorts of people attend the event, from professional cosplayers to young children on a family vacation. On top of that, several high profile celebrities lead fans to wait hours on end in lines for Hall H that make the waits for Disney World attractions laughable. Top tier companies like Marvel and DC descend upon the San Diego Convention Center to take advantage of the abundance of consumers on site. Various media outlets cover the event, such as The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, not to mention the countless vlogs and reactions from prominent YouTube channels. The event has become so popular that the 130,000 tickets for the 2014 convention were sold out within minutes of becoming available (Lieu).

While fan conventions like San Diego Comic-Con International carry a festival-like atmosphere celebrating fandoms across all genres, society was not always so accepting of this kind of fan culture. One only needs to look at what the fans of Star Trek have endured over the years to understand that fans used to be dismissed as “others.” This concept is hard to believe in the year 2016 as Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary. However, Star Trek fans faced constant ridicule when the series was first released to the point where they felt unwelcome in mainstream culture. Anti-fans spread the message that being classified as a Star Trek fan was undesirable, so people should avoid expressing any knowledge or appreciation of the show so as not to be labeled as outcasts. Though materials ridiculing Star Trek fans can be uncovered in a variety of media, this article will focus specifically on portrayals of Star Trek fans in television.

Star Trek Fans Versus Literary Science Fiction Fans

Before the birth of television, science fiction found its home in magazines and books. This landscape began to change in the 1960s, especially with the first screening of Star Trek for fans at Worldcon in 1966. Once Star Trek landed on television, it “struggled for ratings the entire time it was on the air, and perhaps this pushed its fans to become more vocal and participatory” (Copa). As a result, other science fiction fans took notice, and “many traditional fans, whose culture continued to be centered around professional science fiction magazines, dismissed Star Trek as science fiction for nonreaders” (Copa).

Traditional literary science fiction fans wanted to separate themselves from Star Trek fans so much that they unofficially banned them from science fiction conventions. In response, “Star Trek fans, feeling unwelcome at science fiction conventions, would start holding their own conventions. The first of these was held in New York in 1972″ (Copa). This antagonism of Star Trek fans by literary science fiction traditionalists did not stop after this branching off, however. For example, literary science fiction fans created the “G.A.L.” (“Get a Life”) club for Star Trek fans and circulated fliers to join the club at science fiction conventions (Jenkins).

One might ask what the motives of these literary science fiction traditionalists were in ridiculing Star Trek fans. There were many reasons literary science fiction fans felt the need to distance themselves from Star Trek fans. People think fans “overvalue or overestimate the importance of their object of fandom” (Stanfill). People also envision fans as “extreme in their obsession with acquiring as much information about the object of fandom as possible. This intemperance and its associated lack of control sometimes takes a more sinister form, constructing fans as confused about the distinctions between fantasy and reality, which leads to connotations of insanity and lack of behavioral and affective boundaries” (Stanfill). Furthermore, “stereotypes about fans condemn who they are as people instead of what they do” (Stanfill). Because fans lack real relationships, they must create imaginary ones with the characters from their show. This paints a picture of immaturity and builds on the confusion between fantasy and reality. Finally, “fandom is often devalued as feminized — comprised of either insufficiently masculine men or hysterical women” (Stanfill).

Literary science fiction traditionalists wanted to avoid being characterized with these traits, so they took measures to ridicule and therefore distinguish themselves from people like Star Trek fans. In terms of visual signifiers, Star Trek fans are commonly identified as overweight and wearing large glasses and Vulcan ears, not to mention the colored shirts as seen on the show (Jenkins). One journalist even went as far as to describe Star Trek fans as “smelling of assembly-line junk food, hugely consumed; the look is of people who consume it, habitually and at length; overfed and undernourished, eruptive of skin and flaccid of form, from the merely soft to the grotesquely obese” (Hale). Anti-fans also regularly resort to name-calling, degrading Star Trek fans using words such as “gay” or “nerds.” All of these techniques serve to ridicule Star Trek fans and make them seem unappealing to other science fiction fans.

Television’s “Othering” of Star Trek Fans

One of the most popular examples of ridiculing Star Trek fans on television comes from William Shatner’s 1986 Saturday Night Live “Get a Life!” sketch. All of the common visual tropes of Star Trek fans are on full display, from the Vulcan ears to the glasses and colored shirts. The sketch propagates some of the familiar messages about Star Trek fans. They are portrayed as “brainless consumers who will buy anything associated with the program or its cast,” they “devote their lives to the cultivation of worthless knowledge,” they “place inappropriate importance on devalued cultural material,” they “are social misfits who have become so obsessed with the show that it forecloses other types of social experience,” they “are feminized and/or desexualized through their intimate engagement with mass culture,” they “are infantile, emotionally and intellectually immature,” and they “are unable to separate fiction from reality” (Jenkins). In the end, William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Kirk, becomes so exasperated from having to answer questions like confirming the combination used for a safe in a particular episode that he demands that the Star Trek fans at the convention “get a life!”

A similar portrayal of Star Trek fans can be seen in season seven episode eleven of Family Guy, “Not All Dogs Go to Heaven.” Two Star Trek fans bicker at a Star Trek convention over the specifics of plot points. Once again, the two fans appear to be middle-aged men, overweight, and wear glasses and the colored Star Trek shirts. They are even called “nerds” by two of the actors from Star Trek, who then proceed to beat up the two fans.

South Park – Star Trek Kids (Big Dong and Prosper)

In “Black Friday,” the seventh episode of the seventeenth season of South Park, Star Trek is parodied. The Star Trek fans are identifiable by their clothing and Vulcan ears, and they are characterized as “dorks.” Their sexuality even gets called into question as one of the characters says “they’re so gay.”

This stereotype dealing with the sexuality of Star Trek fans also appears in a clip from The Cleveland Show. In the clip, one of the characters complains that the decision he is facing is “harder than identifying a rapist at a Star Trek convention.” The scene then cuts away to two police officers interviewing a female rape victim. One of the officers asks the woman if she can describe the assailant. The woman says, “He was a white male, thirty-five to forty-five years old, glasses, bad skin, about fifty pounds overweight, smelled like Cheetos, and was carrying a poster with a Sharpie pen.” The shot expands to show a mass of Star Trek fans. The other officer declares that he knows what to do, and proceeds to ask who in the group is not a virgin. Only one hand is raised, and that person is placed under arrest.

The Cleveland Show – Star Trek Convention

Returning to the G.A.L. flyer referenced earlier, one can see a few of the Star Trek fan stereotypes that have been discussed. The flyer boasts “monthly laundry excursions,” learning how to speak Klingon, and memorizing every detail of the Starship Enterprise. This reinforces the perception of Star Trek fans compiling useless information and appearing unkempt.

This Get A Life Squad flyer promises "monthly laundry excursions," among other activities for Star Trek fans.
This G.A.L. Squad anti-fan flyer promotes “monthly laundry excursions,” among other activities for Star Trek fans.

Mainstream culture’s acceptance of the Star Trek fandom has come a long way since Star Trek: The Original Series aired in 1966. One can argue that Star Trek really became a mainstream hit with the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation in September 1987. The two-hour pilot for The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” attracted the attention of 27 million viewers (Vary). By early October 1987, more than 50 of the Big Three network affiliates preempted their own shows to broadcast “Encounter at Farpoint” (Harmetz). Viewers were not the only ones excited to board the Enterprise for a new adventure every episode. The Next Generation earned high critical praise as well. The show won 18 Emmy Awards, five Saturn Awards, two Hugo Awards, and the Peabody Award for excellence in television programming. In addition, it spawned three spin-off shows (Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Enterprise) thanks to its popularity and viewership.

In more recent years, J.J. Abrams has successfully rebooted the franchise, directing 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness and producing the latest release, Star Trek Beyond. Amid critical praise for Beyond, Abrams announced plans for a fourth film (Chitwood). If these new films are not enough for the Star Trek fandom, back in November 2015 CBS announced that Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman were creating a new Star Trek television series called Star Trek: Discovery, set to premiere in January 2017.

First Look – Test Flight of Star Trek's U.S.S. Discovery

Rather than being ridiculed, the Star Trek fandom is now celebrated in mainstream popular culture. Star Trek fans no longer have to isolate themselves at their own conventions. Instead, they can take center stage at the world’s biggest convention in San Diego. With a new film and television series on the horizon, Star Trek fans can confidently go boldly into the future. In short, it is a great time to be a Star Trek fan.

Works Cited

[1] Lieu, Lynn. “Comic-Con 2014: A feast for art and film fans.” The Desert Sun 21 July 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2014.

[2] Copa, Francesca. “A Brief History of Media Fandom.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006. Print.

[3] Jenkins, Henry. “‘Get a Life!’: Fans, Poachers, Nomads.” Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

[4] Stanfill, Mel. “‘They’re Losers, but I Know Better’: Intra-Fandom Stereotyping and the Normalization of the Fan Subject.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30.2 (2013). Print.

[5] Hale, Barrie. “Believing in Captain Kirk.” The Calgary Herald 26 April 1975: p. 10. Print.

[6] Vary, Adam B. “‘Star Trek: TNG’: An oral history.” Entertainment Weekly 24 September 2007. http://www.ew.com/article/2007/09/25/star-trek-tng-oral-history.

[7] Harmetz, Aljean. “Syndicated ‘Star Trek’ Puts Dent in Networks.” The New York Times 4 October 1987. http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/04/arts/syndicated-star-trek-puts-dent-in-networks.html.

[8] Chitwood, Adam. “Is Chris Hemsworth Returning for ‘Star Trek 4’? J.J. Abrams Teases Next Sequel.” Collider.com 15 July 2016. http://collider.com/star-trek-4-chris-hemsworth-jj-abrams/.

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I have a bachelor's in history and communication. When I'm not pretending to be a Jedi Knight, I can be found reading, playing video games, and watching television and film.

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51 Comments

  1. Tigey

    I’m not a Star Trek fan – not that there’s anything wrong with that – so I was unaware of the stereotype. Thank you for this enlightening article.

    • Thanks you! I’m glad I could shed some light on the history and portrayal of the fandom.

      • Tigey

        Here’s some good news for you: I mentioned your article today to a group of teenagers and they said, “No, you must be thinking of Star Wars fans.” So, not such good news for Star Wars fans if that attitude is widespread.

  2. As a fellow Trekkie, I have to say “Bravo.” Thanks for revealing the “struggle” to those that may not be aware.

  3. Munjeera

    The backlash after Shatner’s SNL appearance was unbelievable! In the end we had the last laugh. Trek is mainstream now : )

  4. calli
    0

    I loved the twilight zone and The Outer limits, and every black & white late night horror movie that I could sneak out of bed to watch, but there always seemed to be something missing, these things were just “Not quite right” & then came “Lost in Space” this new genre was Science Fiction & I was Hooked,then when I was in primary school, I was about 10 There was a “New” show coming to TV in Australia, I did not care that it was a Re-Run, I had never seen the first run, Star Trek emblazoned our TV screen at 6;30 on Sunday Nights, it had edged out Disney World, & I was enthralled, the Original Series was shown over & over again going to later & later time slots until it disappeared.

  5. King
    1

    I discovered “Star Trek” shortly after my family moved to Canada from Taiwan. Watching helped my English improve. The show was truly radical for its time. It was the first show to present a strong, and intelligent black female as a main character. It was also the first show to present a positive Asian lead character.

    • ashton
      0

      I first saw star trek in black and white when color came then things changed then came the next generation it got better from there both Gene and Leonard will be missed

    • That’s awesome that you used Star Trek to help you with your English. You’re right. Star Trek was indeed radical for its time. Thanks for sharing!

  6. fria
    0

    I still prefer Babylon 5.

  7. Knoll
    0

    It was Star Trek that was a key development moment for me. I decided to “out” myself as a Trekkie and SF fan with the view that people could like it or lump it. I know people have a lot tougher things to come out about, but this was a pivitol moment for me.

    • SING
      0

      I was in my 30s before I was comfortable telling people I was a Trekkie. I think a lot of us were teased for years by the few that did know.

  8. ExieBrand
    0

    Spock Lives!

  9. Precay
    0

    I am a PhD student in Folklore at a University. Last semester I had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate class on “FL and Star Trek” and bring a group of 13 students to a sci-fi convention. I found Star Trek to be an excellent way to teach basic methodological and theoretical principles in culture and ethnography.

    • That sounds like such an interesting class. Cons are a great place for learning about culture in a fun, lively environment.

  10. feeloing
    0

    Great piece on the Star Trek cultural phenomenon.

  11. Curt
    0

    I look forward to attending my first convention this year.

  12. Irish Calvert
    0

    Science fiction fandom is a hugely varied phenomenon, from MIT Star Trek fans to the Gaylaxian pressure group, from academics to pupeteers and collectors.

  13. Thed
    0

    In the 70s my dad made me watch star trek when his work patterns allowed us time together and in the 90’s/00s I sat and watched them with my son.

    • That’s so cool that it came full circle! I’m glad Star Trek gave you some great memories with your family.

  14. Jarod
    0

    My earliest tv memory (maybe 7 or 8) is rushing home to watch Star Trek on Thursday late afternoons. It must have been a re-run even then – and my first event tv.

    • I still have memories of rushing home from school to catch my television shows too. Thanks for the comment!

  15. Martino
    0

    Star Trek was all about what i ever believed in from a moral point of view. A multicultural crew, including aliens like Spock, where religion long gone and liberal values and fairness reigned supreme. But the Nazi US supreme rich would have nothing to do with it; for them just war and more war, that’s where the mega big profits are to be made.

  16. Ressie
    0

    Thank you for an interesting and educational piece.

  17. Strat
    0

    Quite an interesting piece! Like any culture, the most extreme behaviors typically get the most attention.

  18. Hurd
    0

    The characterization of Science Fiction afficianados as Star Trek nerds is a pitiable travesty. Much of the most interesting,imaginative and, dare I say it, prescient fiction of the last 50 years has been Science Fiction.

  19. SAMARA
    0

    If only the America of today could follow the values of Star Trek, this very American legendary series…

  20. Richelle
    0

    I’m a fan from the 60’s and it has been my pasttime since then , but the people I knew are long gone . Having been in the online community , it has surprised me the number of young people involved , currently.

  21. Lamar
    1

    Star Trek was a secular guide to ethics and morality in an era when the western world was experimenting with outrageously libertine culture. It was more than a fictional universe. There are many people who I have met who learned their values from this TV series, in the absence of any other institutional (eg church) guidance.

  22. I loved Star Trek 45 years ago as a kid, but it still seems progressively current as the show never shied away from confronting issues deemed less than humane. And, surprised that the comic book guy in the Simpsons was not mentioned as he has had many cameos that did not flatter Star Trek fans.

  23. Benoit
    0

    I am hoping future work on fandom continues to illuminate the true nature of this vast, global culture.

    • Agreed. I know certain colleges now have courses on fandom. It’s a fascinating subject that you can study and explore in a variety of disciplines.

  24. I love the original Star Trek cast and only until recently refused to like the newer films. However I have to say I enjoyed the latest Star Trek Beyond. You could tell that the cast enjoyed the roles they were playing and it brought back the nostalgic qualities that I loved with the original show while bringing in all the action and excitement of modern filmmaking.

    • I was doubtful of Star Trek Beyond when I first saw the trailer, but it really surprised me. I felt like the cast really stepped up their game for this installment.

  25. I’ve recently gotten into the original series (after simply being just a fan of the movies) and I think Star Trek is going to be my favourite for a long time, one that I’ll keep coming back to. I was unaware of how much ridicule fans of its early years went through, but then again elitism on fandoms always exist. At least the degrading connotation of being a nerd has decreased nowadays, and being a fan of fictional media is very much accepted.

  26. Allie Dawson

    My family and I have been Star Trek nerds for years now, so encounter with the stereotypes of fans was inevitable (though I never encountered anything quite as hostile as you’ve chronicled here). Thanks for such a great analysis of nerd culture!

  27. Great article. I first saw Star Trek in the late 60’s on AFN in Germany. I was a sophomore in high school and hooked. That show started my continuing love for fantasy and Sci-fi literature and movies. I’ve only recently ventured out to cons as an older adult. I love seeing the love for the original show. Just spent last weekend reveling in a BBC marathon of the show.i was in heaven. I guess we can all thumb our collective Trekkie noses at all the naysayers!

  28. I grew up with the next generation, and while I was too young to participate as a Trekkie, I was well aware that only “geeks” liked those kinds of shows. It has been interesting to watch how popular culture has come to respect the geeks and the nerds. As computers have developed and technology has become the rule rather than the exception, it seems that all of the engineers and programmers are getting their much deserved moment in the sun.

  29. I really like how this article tackles a real ideology for some people. I recently completed the finale series of Star Trek (Enterprise), and although this is more about the original (as any good article on the subject should be), I like the care that goes into the history of how this show that was cancelled and then 10 years latter resurrected in film became a cornerstone in science fiction, in the same way that Star Wars was for filming. Unlike Star Wars, people are more willing to accept fans of those than fans of Star Trek, which is why I felt this past 50th anniversary wasn’t as hyped up as Star Wars will be next year for it’s 50th anniversary (1977-2017).

    • Thanks for the comment! 2017 is going to be a big year for Star Wars. I can’t even imagine all of the celebrations and surprises Disney/Lucasfilm have in store. Can’t wait!

  30. It is definitely an interesting contrast between the original fan base growth it has seen in recent years. The fact that this isolated culture has become so mainstream does make one wonder about what separated culture now will become the next popular culture.

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