Nobody’s Gay in the Twenty-Third Century: Star Trek Reboot Fanfic and Foucault
Paper presented at “Representations of Love in Film and Television,” Film & History Conference, November 2010, Milwaukee, WI.
There is a moment in J. J. Abrams’s 2009 Star Trek when an intoxicated—and clearly civilian—Jim Kirk makes a pass at Starfleet Cadet Uhura, hoping to win her over with his smarts. “For a moment there I thought you were just a dumb hick who only has sex with farm animals,” is Uhura’s cheeky reply. “Well—” Jim’s eyes glaze as though he’s contemplating the possibilities—”not only,” he smirks. For a slash fangirl, Jim’s answer is the perfect in—if farm animals make the list even jokingly, what or, rather, who else might Jim Kirk have sex with?
The alternate reality introduced by Abrams’s movie not only “rebooted” the Star Trek franchise, but simultaneously created a whole new dimension of Star Trek fandom. Given that Star Trek: The Original Series pioneered slash fan fiction—that is, fiction written by fans and in which “a pair of (established) male characters is portrayed as [having a homosexual relationship]”—the new movie was destined to take up the tradition. And although the classic Trek and reboot fandoms often overlap and intertwine, slash fanfic written using the characters as they are presented in the Star Trek reboot differs from that written for the original series in how fanfic writers figure the particular sexualities of the movie’s leading men. Drawing on Foucault’s theory of sexuality as a social construct and his discussion of “liberation” versus the “practice of freedom,” as well as the Star Trek reboot’s characterizations of Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and Dr. McCoy, this paper examines the presumption of possibility for male/male sexual relationships in reboot fan fiction.
The original Star Trek television series (or, TOS) posited a future of many social advancements—such as equality among races, nationalities, and genders—even though in the everyday lives of show’s contemporary audience these were highly fraught issues. The Star Trek franchise has since also boldly explored themes of interspecies relationships, but it is reboot slash fanfic writers who have broached what may be the final social frontier: sexuality.
In order to show how reboot fanfic is different, let me first cover what is typical. It’s true that all slash fan fiction wrestles with the issue of sexuality. Representing two men who are portrayed as straight, and often in a heterosexual relationship, in the source text as plausible sexual partners requires some legwork from fic writers. In our reality, and often the reality of a source text, there are social norms and stigmas attached to homosexuality that fanfic writers must either incorporate or circumvent in order to make the slash “believable.” Some fandoms have an easier task of this than others. For instance, the BBC series Torchwood features Captain Jack Harkness, a man who hails from the fifty-first century, is a self-described “omnisexual,” and whose love interest on the show is Ianto, the young male office attendant—easy peasy. But in the Stargate: SG-1 fandom, for example, writers who slash Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson must tip-toe around the American military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as well as address what it is, exactly, that draws the snarky Air Force colonel and over-smart archeologist—or any two men in any fandom—together. Assuming aliens didn’t make them do it (as aliens sometimes do), more often than not the answer is that one of them is gay and the other is . . . persuadable. It’s essential to note that all fandoms produce stories in which a character comes to terms with, or at least personally acknowledges, his homosexuality, despite any obstacles or prejudice presented by his society. Every fandom has its own conventions for how this trope plays out, and there is a variation on the theme for every writer who undertakes the task, but most slash stories make reference to homosexuality in some way.
As the progenitor not just of reboot but of all modern media fandoms, TOS fandom literally invented some of the tropes for bringing two male characters together. “Aliens made them do it” stories originate in Trek, as do the related “fuck-or-die” fics, in which the characters must have sex in order to save their lives, and the authors thereby side-step the taboo against same-sex sex. But the most important, and perhaps defining, trope in Trek fan fiction is much less dire. What fans of both Trek universes adhere to above all else is that Kirk and Spock, through mutual respect and deep friendship, develop an attraction to one another because they share what Constance Penley calls, in her 1992 essay on Trek fandom, cosmic destiny: “the two men are somehow meant for each other and,” Penley writes, “homosexuality has nothing to do with it.”
Except, in TOS stories, as in most fanfic, homosexuality always has something to do with it, even if obliquely. No matter what means a writer uses to bring Kirk and Spock together, there is always a moment when the characters worry about consequences. Sometimes Kirk resists his feelings because he’s “not gay,” other times Spock provides a logical argument in favor of their coupling, and frequently the two confront together how their command relationship may change and whether to inform members of the crew. Even if the writer’s implication is, as Penley puts it, “that somehow the two men are lovers without being homosexual,” homosexuality is still present as a kind of problem that needs an explanation or justification for why it’s okay for two men to want each other.
In large part, stories that address the issue of sexuality this way are concerned with what Foucault calls “liberation”—they often feature a character whose identity as a homosexual “has been concealed, alienated, or imprisoned in and by mechanisms of repression” (p. 282). Here is where fan fiction in the Star Trek reboot fandom does something remarkably different: rather than require that homosexuality be central to a character’s self-identity and recreate society’s mechanisms of repression, reboot fanfic skips the problems associated with liberation altogether and presumes possible, without explanation, justification, or identification, that two big, damn space heroes would hook up to have hot, hot sex. Sexuality in reboot fan fiction is, effectively, not an issue at all.
During the course of an interview from the early 1980s Foucault asks rhetorically, “Does it make sense to say, ‘Let’s liberate our sexuality’? Isn’t the problem rather that of defining the practices of freedom by which one could define what is sexual pleasure and [what are] erotic, amorous and passionate relationships with others?” (p. 283). In other words, Foucault shifts the problematic from justification of sexuality to a search for new definitions of pleasure and new types of relationships. Reboot fanfic makes this same shift: the characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are not struggling to liberate themselves in reboot stories; instead the men act and engage and experience freely—they practice freedom. And it’s the fan fiction writers who are granting them that freedom.
In his later work, Foucault is interested in “how the subject constitute[s] itself”—the ways in which people actively make themselves subjects within a power structure. I am interested in how fanfic writers constitute characters as subjects. Fan fiction is predominantly written in a close third-person point of view—a position which allows writers to narrate a character’s internal commentary, to tell readers, for example, how Kirk feels about Spock and what Kirk thinks about those feelings. In this way writers determine characters’ subject positions: they choose how the characters identify themselves, whether they think of themselves as “straight” or have always known they are “gay.” But in reboot fandom, writers free the characters from those types of labels and the social constraints they entail. Fanfic writers are bound by the current conventions of power that define homosexuality and marginalize homosexuals, but they posit Star Trek characters who are not. By and large in reboot fanfic, the characters do not hesitate or question their same-sex attraction, if they comment on it at all, and neither do their crew-member confidants. The surprise of attraction in reboot fic is the surprise of affection, not orientation.
There is a high premium placed on “capturing” character in fan fiction, and the most acclaimed fanfic writers are typically those who are faithful to character voice and attitude. The 2009 Star Trek universe provides new backstories for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, which alter their voices and offer character details that open up fresh avenues of exploration for fanfic writers and that, in some ways, further enable slash pairings. Classic Trek‘s Kirk is a corn-fed golden boy, a role model—wholesome and whole. Reboot’s Kirk is a hard-drinking bad boy, a rebel—bold but broken. In fact, the leading men of reboot are all broken (a term that gets used in the fandom a lot). Character traits that served as idiosyncrasies in TOS are intensified in reboot to give this “broken” effect. Captain Pike describes Kirk as “genius-level” but also identifies him not just as a troublemaker, but a “repeat offender.” Pike also tells Kirk, “So your dad dies, you can settle for a less than ordinary life,” which positions him as the opposite of TOS Kirk, whose father, we later learn, “proudly lived to see [him] become captain of the Enterprise.” Spock also loses a parent in reboot universe, an event that compounds the ridicule and discrimination he experienced on Vulcan for being half human and leads to a shocking emotional outburst. After the destruction of Vulcan, Spock classifies himself as a “member of an endangered species,” a radical shift for his character and the Trek universe itself. Even McCoy’s classic roles as divorcé and drinker are presented with a harder edge: disheveled and drunk in his first appearance, McCoy grumbles that he’s “got no place left to go” and must join Starfleet because his ex-wife “took the whole damn planet in the divorce.” And McCoy’s introduction as Kirk’s compatriot at Starfleet Academy has created a vast population of Kirk/McCoy fans, a new twist to Star Trek’s slash tradition.
The men in reboot have known hardship, and, it’s worth noting, their fractured families and failed relationships are familiar for a generation of viewers who have also had to settle for less than ordinary lives. So the characters in reboot are broken, yes, but also broken open. We’ve been provided their backstories, but we’ve also only just begun. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy’s pasts present writers with new potential—our heroes are professional explorers, and the mission in fic now is to explore one another. By the end of the movie, Kirk and Spock now have more in common than they initially imagined, a friendship to build, and a still-undeniable destiny to discover. McCoy is now the man who knew-Kirk-when and the doctor who will, fans imagine, endeavor to keep saving the captain from himself. In making use of these details, fanfic writers have also created a new trope: time and again in fic, these broken men fix and fulfill each other. What roadblocks to relationships that do exist are ascribed to the characters’ personalities and tensions in their pasts, not matters of sexuality.
Owen, a lifelong Trek fan and die-hard slash fan, observes that “older fics often use the fandom cliché of Kirk never having been with another man before. He’s always painfully, painfully straight until someone else corrects that (usually Spock).” But, says Owen, “the new Kirk seems to often be portrayed as almost omnisexual. Very Jack Harkness.” And here we return to our opening question: who else might Jim Kirk have sex with? The answer in reboot fic is everybody. Both Kirks are playboys on screen, but reboot writers portray their Kirk as willing to get it on with anyone, of any species or any gender. And it’s not just Kirk. Particularly in early reboot fanfics, same-sex attraction is noticeably normalized. Usually it’s by omission—sex scenes unfold or a relationship develops with no comment from the characters on this as an unusual circumstance or cause for controversy. Other times, writers use the future to their advantage. In one story, for example, the writer notes that “McCoy liked to think himself as a consummate 23rd century man, but he’d bedded fewer boys than girls.” In reboot fic, remarks Owen, “The 23rd century in general is portrayed as very omnisexual. Even in primarily heterosexual fics, same-sex couples and [characters who disregard sex when considering who they find attractive] are common.”
Foucault proposes at the end of The History of Sexuality that “one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality . . . were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex.” That day for reboot writers is the twenty-third century. They write characters who find our twenty-first century’s ideas of sexuality just as uptight and overregulated as we, Foucault points out, view those of the Victorian era. Today the terms “homosexuality” and “gay” control our discourse and define our boundaries. But in the twenty-third century of reboot fanfic, nobody’s gay because the label “gay” isn’t used.
The definition of slash I provided earlier—that slash is fanfic in which “a pair of male characters is portrayed as [having a homosexual relationship],”—actually comes from the Oxford English Dictionary. It is interesting and indicative to me that the OED—a source by which academics swear, an entity that aids in the organization of our knowledge formations—specifically identifies the relationships in slash stories as “homosexual.” For the literal lack of a better word, slash is drawn into the construct of “homosexuality.” But the work of reboot fanfic writers demonstrates that this capitulation to ready-made definition is too easy, and in creating a space that presumes possible erotic and romantic entanglement between men without regard to sexuality, reboot fanfic practices Foucault’s version of freedom. Because, “It’s not enough,” says Foucault, “as part of a more general way of life, or in addition to it, to be permitted to make love with someone of the same sex. . . . It’s only a matter of integrating this strange little practice of making love with someone of the same sex into preexisting cultures; it’s a matter of constructing cultural forms” (p. 157). Whether in real life or in fandom, the processes of liberation only take us so far. Star Trek reboot fanfic moves beyond the debate over mere sexuality by creating and exploring new cultural forms of pleasure between men—forms that may be, as yet, undefined.
Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for the Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997) pp. 281–301.
—–, The History of Sexuality, Vol 1: Introduction (New York: Vintage, 1990).
—–, “The Social Triumph of the Sexual Will,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), pp. 157–162.
Constance Penley, “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture,” in Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossman, Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 479–500.
© shannon cole 2010