by Imani Ribadeneyra, Kyle Schmitt and Maria Schwanke
“Trekkies are the only fan subculture listed in the Oxford English Dictionary” – Trekkies
We think it is important to keep the following two class objective in mind when considering the Trekkie fandom and its adherence to our understandings of a subculture.
– Critique representations of marginal subcultures
– Understand relationship between popular culture and subculture
“Fans, Networks, Pirates: Virtual and Media Subcultures,” from Subcultures Written by Ken Gelder
Ken Gelder delves into virtual and media subcultures, a community that Star Trek is central to. He discusses the representation and interpretation of many of these media subcultures and illustrates how they are often viewed with negative connotations. It can be argued that many representations of marginal subcultures are biased and provide examples from only a few members or perspectives of said cultures.
One such instance is the notion “engrossment” within subcultures as outlined by Fine. In subcultures such as Star Trek and online “role-playing-games or RPG” members of the subcultures become “engrossed” within the culture neglecting their “real lives” and approach their participation as a sort of “vocational calling.” This notion outlines a level of involvement that comes at the expense of ones connection to the “real world.” It is argued that this “imbalance” between “virtual” and “physical” reality is claimed to lead to “pathologisation,” and other deranged tendencies. Gelder also describes the participation of individuals within these online communities and other similar subcultural communities as a means of nonconformity, dissent and active rebellion against the outside world. However, it must be considered that perhaps these individuals are not “rebelling,” but attempting to find somewhere they belong.
Another representation of fandom members is as “textual poachers”, which is often referenced as “parasitic” to popular culture as members disregard notions of intellectual property. This is particularly relevant to the notion of the subcultural fan as an “amateur producer.” Fandom participants produce “zines,” which are fan written forms of media that are in contrast to the otherwise prevalent corporatization of mass media production. In these zines fans imbibe their own fantasies or interpretations of the media text within their own work giving birth to feminist Star Trek worlds and homoerotic Kirk/Spock relationships.
Another conflict within the representations of media subcultures is the notion that these communities are simultaneously exclusive and inclusive, “social and self absorbed” (144), anonymous and yet a place of community, solidarity and identification. These seemingly conflicting ideas are brought together in subcultures -particularly those that proliferate online – where individuals with access to the textual and technological material are given the opportunity to find community, self-actualization and acceptance.
In conclusion, the Internet acts as a “strengthening agent” for many subcultures, connecting those who may otherwise not be connected. It provides individuals and subcultures with a new platform through which everyday interactions and cultural activities can take place, however it also provides consumers with a means of activity outside of the otherwise “controlled communication system” within popular culture (149).
To learn more about Ken Gelder:
“Utopian Enterprise: Articulating the Meaning of Star Trek‘s Culture of Consumption”
Written by Robert V. Kozinets
Robert Kozinets explores the Star Trek subculture in relation to its role as a “utopian refuge” (67) for those who feel ostracized, alienated and disheartened by modern society. He does so through the lens of a “quasi-member” of the Star Trek subculture, through his own fieldwork at conventions, online chat rooms, email interviews and as a longtime viewer and collector.
Kozinet defines subcultures as groups of individuals who define themselves by cultivating significance and community based on particular beliefs and ideals in contrast to society as a whole. The term subculture itself is often associated with the “deviant,” the “parasitic,” the “subaltern,” and is frequently seen as subordinate to the hegemonic structure of popular culture. The specific term “subculture of consumption” was devised by Schouten and McAlexander, and signifies “a distinctive subgroup of society that self selects on the basis of a shared commitment to a particular class, brand or consumption activity (p. 68).” For Kozinets the term “culture of consumption” articulates an inter-textual or “interconnected system of commercially produced images, texts, and objects” that individuals utilize to find community and meaning within their lives.
Star Trek is a science fiction television series originally aired in 1966 that takes place in a “post-capitalist social and technological utopia” 300 years in the future. The Star Trek subculture is part of the avid enthusiast culture of “media fandom.” These fans can be considered an “elite fraction” of the mass audience, distinguished from other general “followers” by the connection of their social and cultural identity and the given media. These fans typically “consume resistantly” as they see their relationship to the media object as deeper than mere consumption practices. They also assemble together to form communities of media fandom and actively find ways atypical ways to participate and immerse themselves within the media.
The first theme Kozinets examines is the notion of Star Trek subculture as a “utopian sanctuary.” (71) The original series set up this framework through their relatively ground breaking treatment of the “social taboos” of the time, by placing women and people of color in authoritative roles and depicting the gender and race interactions in a non-prejudiced manner. To the viewer the show illustrated a world in contrast to the “imperfections” of everyday society and many disenfranchised individuals became drawn to this “utopian world.” Many fans interviewed by Kozinets refer to Star Trek fandom as a means of escape from loneliness. In the Star Trek universe there was “no racism, poverty, deformity, idiotic nationalism or political injustice” and the fans see Star Trek fandom as an “aspirational vision.”
The second theme discussed is the stigma faced by those who identify with Star Trek. Frequently the Star Trek subculture is marginalized and represented as a consumption practice associated with “fanaticism, immaturity, passivity, escapism, addiction, obsessive consumption, and the inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality” (73). As a result of this labeling many Star Trek fans attempt to minimize or to conceal their relationship to the show out of fear of ridicule. However, once these fans are in “safe places” within the Star Trek community this “shame” in the outside world plays a strong bonding role and encourages a “depth of (loyalty and) involvement” with the media and the Star Trek community than may not have otherwise existed.
The third theme considered is the likening of Star Trek to “mythic, sacred and religious meanings (76)” by members of the subculture. Kozinets claims these connections illustrate the extent of the investment that fans have in the franchise as fans articulate the notion that Star Trek is something “greater-than-the-self.” This mentality manifests itself through the idea that Star Trek fandom is partially about “creating” the future depicted in the show through charitable works and social involvement. However, Star Trek fandom is also often labeled as a “sacred consumption” practice where consumers legitimize their consumer behavior through “religious” and moral dialogue.
The “utopian” ideal of Stark Trek has proliferated in the minds of consumers who have re-appropriated the Star Trek universe to answer to their individualized needs. The subculture is simultaneously dependent on and in contrast to popular culture as Star Trek fans actively individualize their consumption practices. Star Trek fans struggle to maintain the “identity” of their culture amongst the capitalist pressures of popular culture and the commercializing pressures of the media industry.
To read this complete text and other texts by Robert V. Kozinets: http://scholar.google.com/citations?user=_TUaYW4AAAAJ&hl=en
To learn more about Robert V. Kozinets visit his personal blog: http://kozinets.net
“Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching”
Written by Henry Jenkins
Henry Jenkins explores the stigma surrounding the Star Trek subculture and the ways in which the members interact with the media texts in the context of hegemonic society. “Trekkies” are often stereotyped by popular culture as juvenile “misfits,” and “crazies.” These fans are seen as “poaching” features from media texts to suit their personal needs leading to their “two-form” relationship with consumer culture. Members of the Star Trek subculture simultaneously absorb and transform the consumer culture identity of Star Trek and participate with the media as active consumers as opposed to passive consumers. While the subculture is often reprimanded and looked down upon for their “appropriating and re-appropriating” of original texts, Trekkies legitimize their actions through their belief that they are “rescuers” of the true meaning of the primary text, upholding the “moralistic laws” pertaining to the treatment of Star Trek.
Star Trek fans transform their personal reaction to the media text into social interaction and convert an otherwise passive relationship into an active one. An example of this is Fanzine literature or fan written texts based on the original media. The majority of fan writing is actually authored by women. Jenkins reasons that this is perhaps because many popular culture media texts are written with women “on the edge” of male narratives therefore forcing women to reinterpret these texts to find a “female narrative” to which they can relate and experience female pleasures. These female-authored fanzines are a way for women to find ways to express themselves outside of the patriarchal hegemonic structure of popular culture, especially in a masculine literary genre like Science Fiction. In the original series the networks believed the conservative public would not want to see women in positions of power and these fan writers are attempting to ” repair the damage” caused by Star Trek‘s “inconsistent and often demeaning treatment of female characters” (457).
An important concept that one must keep in mind is that while fans have points of contention within the original text they continue to have respect for the original creators of Star Trek. While they redesign the text to fit their personal interpretations they attempt to “stay true” to the characters and remain “faithful” to original vision. Fan writers also see their involvement as a means of “keeping Star Trek alive” in the face of consumer and capitalist ideology. Jenkins argues that “fans are not empowered by mass culture; fans are empowered over mass culture” (469). They utilize certain aspects of mass culture to “explore their subordinate status, envision alternatives, to voice their frustrations and anger, and to share their new understandings with others” (469).
To learn more about Henry Jenkins visit his personal website: http://henryjenkins.org/aboutmehtml
Roger Nygard’s 1997 documentary Trekkies hails viewers to witness the Stark Trek phenomenon and the passionate and committed “geeks” that make up the fandom. The film’s narrative is stationed primarily in a number of national Star Trek conventions but does offer a range of other secondary locales – a Star Trek themed dentist’s office, the future birthplace of Captain Kirk, a burger joint that is a hot-spot for Klingons – in a seeming effort to demonstrate the expansive reach of the fandom. As the documentary progresses and the viewer becomes increasingly familiar with the many aspects of the Star Trek fandom subculture, there is a degree of transition of from spectator to convention attendee. We are contemplating how accurate to the show the collar stitching on our Starfleet uniform is. We are witnessing the exciting auction battle for the Klingon “turtle” prosthesis. Ultimately, we get to experience, for the 86-minute run of the film, what it means to be a Trekkie.
Before delving into the specifics and functionalities of the documentary, it is useful to consider how or how not the film conveys the Trekkie fandom as a subculture in relation to Gelder’s 6 characteristics of a subculture.
1. Negative Relation to Work: Though the film notes that some fans have been inspired to pursue professions in the science field, the Trekkie fandom as portrayed in the documentary seems overwhelmingly categorized as “play,” separated from the “real world,” and somewhat of an interest and hobby.
2. Transcendent of Class: The variety of fans included in the show range in profession, age, gender, and sexuality, therefore highlighting the transcendence of mainstream class. Still, the film examines some of the hierarchies that develop within the fandom subculture (Trekkies vs. Trekkers) that are separated from mainstream class distinctions.
3. Territoriality: The focus on national conventions as community hubs is quite exemplary of the Trekkie subculture establishing a territory of operation and community.
4. Existing outside of the Domestic Sphere: With the example of Gabriel and his father, it is evident that the fandom subculture can exist within households and be a fundamental aspect of family. The majority of the subculture, though, involves strangers coming together and forming their own community and “family” structures.
5. Characterized by Excess: This is a major focus of the film. The focus on numbers of conferences attended, the amount of money spent on costumes and memorabilia, and the demonstration of the fandom interacting with the fans’ mainstream lives are just a few of the examples of the portrayed excess.
6. Refusal of massification: Images of the elaborate costuming, speaking in Klingon, and the element of role-playing and adaptation in the documentary all contribute to the understanding that the Trekkie fandom is acting in accordance to its own rules rather than those of the mainstream.
The application of Gelder’s characteristics of a subculture to the film’s portrayal of the Trekkie fandom solidifies our understanding of the fandom as truly subcultural.
The Technicalities and Function of Trekkies
The multi-perspective nature of the film- which includes accounts from Star Trek fans, former actors, executive producers, writers, and many individuals connected directly or indirectly to the fandom- works well to immerse the viewer into the fandom’s dynamics and the incorporation of the fandom into the lives of the fans. The inclusion of the actors’ account of past conventions and the Trekkie subculture acts as a voice of testimony. This gives the film significant credibility because it is utilizing actors – people who participate in the subculture but not seen as extreme fanatics – to contribute to the work and message of the film. The dominant force moving the film is that of Denise Crosby who played Security Chief Tasha Yar in Season One of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is through Denise and her interviews with fans, actors, etc. that the filmmakers access a more genuine and personal look into the subculture. It is someone who knows the show and knows the culture around it prompting fans to discuss what the show means to them personally. In this way, what may seem like a film of expository modality at the start comes to incorporate a more interactive modality. Further, it is not just the host that comes face to face with the fans, but the viewer as well- in a more representational sense, of course.
The documentary is edited in such a way that pseudo-monologues are the main structure for fans to talk about their experiences, passions, and adaptations of Star Trek into their lives. The viewer is routinely faced with a close-up shot of a fan talking about how much they’ve spent on Star Trek memorabilia or an actor talking about their craziest convention story. These close-up shots ultimately interpolate the viewer and make him/her feel as if they are the ones engaged in the dialogue. This works to make more intimate the connection between the viewer and the fans as the subjects. There is a greater understanding of the nuanced and complex persons who make up the fandom; they become more human than was expected at the start of the film.
And what is it that we expect at the start of the film? What is the objective of the filmmakers in creating a documentary about the seeming fanatical subculture of Trekkies? The film’s poster, as shown above, frames the film as a sort of comedy, guiding the viewer towards a prejudiced gaze that will lead them to understand the fans as excessive, immature, and hilarious in their delusion. Before even engaging with the narrative, the viewers expect to laugh. Let’s be honest: they will. The filmmakers don’t hide the fact that they are portraying the character and quirks of the Trekkie subculture in a humorous light. Their attention to the excess of time and money required to be a fan, their focus on the role-playing to which the fans commit, and their inclusion of Star Trek fandom seeping into quotidian life are meant to make viewers chuckle and shake their heads. Yet the image of Trekkies we have at the close of the film is much more complex than the naïve and fanatical image that we start with.
The narrative is a development towards an image of Trekkies as not only humans but humans that are able to draw significant moral values from the show. The trajectory of the film covers the subculture’s implications in the fans’ lives from the trivial – like how many figurines a fan had collected over the years– to the more profound and endearing – like the ways in which the show helped foster feelings of confidence and self-acceptance in those who were without. In considering the development of representation of the fans as the film progresses, it becomes more appropriate to see the film as operating with a humane gaze. The final scenes are more emotionally charged in their depictions of the fans and convey some of the more transcendent qualities of the subculture as providing the fandom with a sense of community that they don’t feel in mainstream society. The camera acts as an extension of the filmmakers as they aim to demonstrate that Trekkies are not the immature, disillusioned, obsessive fanatics that the film took to portraying at the start. Rather, they are real, relatable people who have manifested their passions for Star Trek into positive outlets their personal and professional lives, something admirable by any social standard. Though the documentary opens with a seeming trivialization of the Trekkie subculture, it takes the viewer on a logical progression of looking past the superficial into the subculture’s deeper values – a process common to any confrontation with something foreign.
Comparing Trekkies to Jesus Camp
The first topic that come up in our class discussion was how greatly Trekkies differed from Jesus Camp. Trekkies framed the subject of the documentary in a completely different light and had a much lighter hearted and feel-good tone throughout the film’s narrative.
There were several key factors that distinguished Trekkies from Jesus Camp;
Variety of Subjects and perspectives within the film
Exposure to Subjects’ Lives outside the Subculture
The Star Trek subculture was framed as an unaggressive, all accepting, and non-controversial group. In essence they lived by their motto of “IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations),” where being different was not only tolerated but appreciated. Trekkies weren’t illustrated as trying to convert the world to “their motto,” they weren’t even trying to force the greater world to engage with their Star Trek world.
We also discussed how Jesus Camp introduced the conflict between Evangelicals and the general public at the beginning of the film. The director’s use of the radio host instantly created a hostile ‘us vs. them’ narrative. While Jesus Camp depicts Evangelicals as pushing their beliefs on others the Trekkies were depicted as simply wanting to freely live their Star Trek lives and did not seek to impose on anyone’s political/religious views. This documentary angle gave Trekkies had a much funnier, lighter and more relatable tone than Jesus Camp throughout the film.
The documentary structure of Trekkie followed a simple dialogue between the interviewer and the film subjects. It was very easy to see the ways that the subjects of the film were being prompted and we were also aware that it was Star Trek actress Denise Crosby who was doing the prompting. This transparency gave the documentary a much more natural and relaxed feeling, as opposed to Jesus Camp where we were thrown into extreme religious situations and dialogues without an understanding of the interviewers framing. Additionally, in using actual Star Trek actors as interviewees they allowed a credible and semi-removed yet familiar source to speak on the subject. In allowing these seemingly logical voices to chime in and support the subculture, the directors allowed trekkies and the culture as a whole to gain some credibility and an approachable quality, whether the audiences understood or participated in the subculture itself.
Another important aspect of Trekkies was the objective manner in which they exposed the audience to a wide variety of Star Trek subculture members, and showed that these Trekkies had a wide variety of skills, jobs and hobbies outside of their subculture. In Jesus Camp we were provided with a one note extreme evangelical narrative, while in Trekkies we saw a variety of faces and heard from a variety of voices. We saw trekkies outside of the convention center at their jobs or in their homes and got a better look at their lives as a whole. This allowed the audience to potentially see themselves in the culture or rationalize why someone might want to get involved at varying levels. In accurately representing the diversity within the subculture it helped to break down some stereotypes or biases audiences may bring with them to the film.
Trekkies integrate their individual identities into the Star Trek culture in order to personally flourish within the fandom culture. They bring their different talents and skills to serve different purposes at the conventions, whether it be at their individual Star Trek clubs or on the web. Whether it be writing a script or fanzine, creating costumes, or coding online they all contribute different things to the fandom individually.
As illustrated by this text, many individuals in the class noted that Trekkies were also able to be successful members of society outside of their subculture. On several occasions the audience was shown the variety of skills and intelligence that many trekkies have.
Bill Nichols assumes three main ways for constructing reality through representation that are expository, observational, and interactive. We see Trekkies as combining expository and interactive modes of documentation because it addresses the viewer, puts forth a fairly distinct argument and utilizes interviews as evidence. Additionally, we can see the filmmakers influence throughout the overarching narrative of the documentary and within the face-to-face interviews with Denise Crosby. Overall it appeared clear to the class that the filmmakers wanted the audience to walk away with a positive view of the Star Trek subculture and the interviews conducted were fundamental to the creation of this argument. It is important to recognize that no matter how hard documentarians try their media form arguments about their subjects as depicted by the “supposedly” objective filming of Jesus Camp. A documentary will frequently contain a certain amount of bias, whether intended or not.
Fan Culture and its Relation to Popular Culture
The class discussion then moved on from the comparison of the documentaries to the relationship of fan culture to consumer culture. We came to the conclusion that all subcultures are inescapably linked to the ideology of consumer culture in one way or another. No matter how “deviant” they are, subcultures define their identities by what they do or do not consume and thus their communities inescapably function in a manner based on their relationship to popular culture. In the end in a capitalist society producers will seek to capitalize on the public regardless of their interests, tastes or ideology.
On Twitter the class also became very interested in how popular culture framed and represented fan cultures in general. Is it possible for a fandom to exist in the media and not be stigmatized? Does the stigma end once the fandom is brought into the mainstream?
It quickly became apparent to the class that most of the time in order to even become a fan of something you needed to watch, see, or hear it, which normally involves buying or consuming something. Consumption as identity becomes increasing important in fan subcultures leading to a strong sense of hierarchy among those involved.
Trekkies were constantly bragging about how many conventions they’ve been to, what model space craft their building, how much merchandise they have, what their replica costume looks like, and how much they’ve spent on all of it.
Identity and Fandom
But even in this fan culture consumption we see that there is a hierarchy involved in not just what you consume but how you consume it. There is definitely a merit won for a Trekkie who is able to create something completely from scratch that pays homage to Star Trek. The DIY phenomenon definitely has a place in this fan culture, as it does in many subcultures that speak to an idea of authenticity and commitment to the culture. In consuming the series and then making it their own, trekkies have achieved the ultimate authenticity as a fan. This idea of individualization is described as ‘poaching’. They simultaneously can recite the show and then go online and create their own script respectfully enhancing the brand of Star Trek according to their individualized needs.
An important point we came to in class was that fan culture is not a means of passive consumption but of media adaptation and active consumption as fans independently and creatively interact with the media text. In this way they absorb the media and transform it to suit their own needs
Another important aspect of subcultures and fan cultures especially those that are directly involved in mainstream consumer culture is that often times when a subculture gains popularity it is brought out of the fringe into the mainstream in order for producers to capitalize on their trends/tastes. Bringing a subculture into the mainstream waters it down so that it can be appropriated and desirable for the average consumer as depicted by the tweet below.
The overall class and twitter discussion revolved around this idea of subcultures in relationship to consumer culture at large, and what ways these two things play off, disobey, and enhance each other. Regardless of how “deviant” a subculture is they exist in a capitalist/consumer culture. Defined by the distinct and individual ways they consume, members of subculture are often times defined even more strictly by their patterns of consumption and behavior.
A large majority of the discussion also was based around how framing, subjects, editing, and structure are all decisions made by documentarians that directly dictate a film’s narrative and the audience’s relation to the subject.
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