Type JournalArticle
Date 1988-06
Volume 5
Number 2
Tags Project: Star Trek, Star Trek, Kirk/Spock controversy
Journal Critical Studies in Mass Communication
Pages 85--107

Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching

Fan writing is an almost exclusively feminine response to mass media texts. Men actively participate in a wide range of fan-related activities, notably interactive games and conference planning com- mittees, roles consistent with patriarchal norms that typically relegate combat—even combat fantasies—and organizational authority to the masculine sphere. Fan writers and fanzine readers, however, are almost always female. Camille Bacon-Smith (1986) has estimated that more than 90% of all fan writers are female. The greatest percentage of male participation is found in the "letterzines," like Comlink and Treklink, and in "nonfiction" magazines, like Trek that publish speculative essays on aspects of the program universe. Men may feel comfortable joining discussions of future technologies or military lifestyle but not in pondering Vulcan sexuality, McCoy's childhood, or Kirk's love life.

Mary Ellen Brown and Linda Barwick (1987) show how women's gossip about soap opera inserts program content into an existing feminine oral culture.

It should not be forgotten, however, that fan writing involves a translation of personal response into a social expression and that fans, like any other interpretive community, generate their own norms that work to insure a reasonable degree of conformity between readings of the primary text. The economic risk of fanzine publishing and the desire for personal popularity insures some responsiveness to audience demand, discouraging totally idiosyncratic versions of the program content. Fans try to write stories to please other fans; lines of development that do not find popular support usually cannot achieve financial viability.

Hunter's conception of character rape, one widely shared within the fan community, rejects abuses by the original series writers as well as by the most novice fan. It implies that the fans themselves, not the program producers, are best qualified to arbitrate conflicting claims about character psychology they care about the characters in a way that more commercially motivated parties frequently do not. In practice, the concept of character rape frees fans to reject large chunks of the aired material, including entire episodes, and even to radically restructure the concerns of the show in the name of defending the purity of the original series concept. What determines the range of permissible fan narratives is finally not fidelity to the original texts but consensus within the fan community itself. The text that they so lovingly preserve is the Star Trek that they created through their own speculations, not the one that Roddenberry produced for network air play.

The reason some fans reject K/S fiction has, in the end, less to do with the stated reason that it violates established characterization than with unstated beliefs about the nature of human sexuality that determine what types of character conduct can be viewed as plausible.

Consumption becomes production; reading becomes writing; spectator culture becomes participatory culture.

I have sought, where possible, to employ fan terms and to quote fans directly in discussing their goals and orientations toward the program and their own writing. I have shared drafts of this essay with fans and have incorporated their comments into the revision process. I have allowed them the dignity of being quoted from their carefully crafted, well-considered published works rather than from a spontaneous interview that would be more controlled by the researcher than by the informant. I leave it to my readers to determine whether this approach allows for a less mediated reflection of fan culture than previous academic treatments of this subject.

Abstract

This essay rejects media-fostered stereotypes of Star Trek fans as cultural dupes, social misfits, or mindless consumers, perceiving them, in Michel de Certeau's term, as "poachers" of textual meanings who appropriate popular texts and reread them in a fashion that serves different interests. Specifically, the essay considers women who write fiction based in the Star Trek universe. First, it outlines how these fans force the primary text to accommodate alternate interests. Second, it considers the issue of literary property in light of the moral economy of the fan community that shapes the range of permissible retellings of the program materials.

Name Role
Henry Jenkins III Author