Camille Bacon-Smith Looks at Star Trek Fandom

This essay was written in response to a reading assignment for my “Science Fiction and American Culture” class.

We read Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth by Camille Bacon-Smith.

It also makes reference to Brian Stableford’s book, The Sociology of Science Fiction.

female star trek fan

By pop culture geek (Flickr: Star Trek Federation Officers) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In the book Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, Camille Bacon-Smith looks at, describes and tries to explain a segment of Star Trek fans. This segment is predominantly female and writes about characters from the series in ways that some think are not “in character” for those characters.

Writing (and creating in general) is a focal point of the community. Through writing about Star Trek, its characters, and its “universe,” members of the community can share a common base of knowledge, share their feelings about life and discover who they are. This is what I found most interesting in Bacon-Smith’s book — the way that writing served as a tool for self-discovery.

Unlike Stableford, who did his research by reading the fiction and the letters that the readers wrote (and were published), Bacon-Smith “infiltrated” the community. She became an active member of the community she was studying.

Interestingly, she was a fan of Star Trek before becoming an ethnographer of its fandom. I think this is especially apparent in some areas of the book. She would often neglect to define terms (often the more obscure), but then she’d go into great detail about others (often the more well-known or obvious).

I also am quite curious what Starsky and Hutch has to do with Star Trek. I can understand Blake’s 7 and even, with a small stretch of the imagination, Beauty and the Beast, but Starsky and Hutch? Where did that come from? Bacon-Smith mentions the fiction coming from this fandom but never explains why she’s talking about it. I think she might have gotten too close to the community to be able to come all the way back out and see it objectively.

This method of ethnography — becoming a part of the community that you are studying — has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages include a deeper understanding or at least exposure to, the culture you are studying. Stableford wasn’t able to acquire information that was not written down and published. There are many things that people will not write down and definitely not publish. Through becoming a part of the community and by extensive interviews with members, Bacon-Smith was able to get the kind of information that Stableford lacked.

However, there is also the danger that when you are inside the forest all you can see are the trees and not the whole forest. Bacon-Smith may have gotten lost in the particulars. Most of Enterprising Women was spent analyzing the literature that these fans wrote rather than commenting on their culture. Also, because she got so close, the ethnography almost became an autobiography. The problem with autobiographies is that they can never be considered objective. Bacon-Smith’s work is a subjective account of what she experienced.

This does not reduce the value of the work, however. As with all studies of human behavior, one needs to look at the situation from many different viewpoints. Bacon-Smith’s study, in conjunction with a study conducted from a different vantage point, would be very useful in understanding this community. I have some problems with her generalizing about the psychology of women. How do we know that women act this way because it is in their nature or just because that is how they were raised? We don’t. The debate over nature versus nurture still rages today. Bacon-Smith states that

    fanwriters, like soap opera fans, want to see characters change and evolve, have families, and rise to the challenge of internal and external crises in a nonlinear, dense tapestry of experience. Whether because of innate qualities or socialization, women perceive their lives in this way, and they like to see that structure reproduced in their literature.

(italics added, p. 64).

My immediate reaction was, “And men don’t?” Maybe because I’m female as well, I find it hard to believe that men don’t perceive their lives in a nonlinear way, that men don’t perceive that events are going on in other people’s lives at the same time that other events are going on in their own. In Sherry Turkle’s The Second Self, Turkle writes about how computers, “long a symbol of depersonalization, … long a symbol of the power of the ‘big’ — big corporations, big institutions, big money — began to acquire an image as instruments for decentralization, community, and personal autonomy.” The community Turkle is discussing is predominantly male, however, they are behaving in what I gather, from reading Enterprising Women, is a distinctly feminine manner. I don’t think that the women Bacon-Smith was studying were behaving the way they were because they were women. I think they were behaving that way because of the circumstances that made up their lives. Albeit, most of these circumstances were created by a masculine culture dictating feminine behavior, but I don’t think she can generalize to the extent that she did. I think there are plenty of men out there behaving in similar ways, but with a different genre.

At some point in the book, Bacon-Smith mentions what these women have in common. They are all women, they were loners, perhaps women with what has been considered masculine drives in their youth. They were independent and different. They didn’t fit in. First, I think this is common to science fiction fans in general — male or female. Second, I think that the particular cases she mentions does adequately explain why these women may behaving the way they are. However, she doesn’t go much into it. She leaves much of her explanation of why these women are manifesting their particular behaviors to the reader’s intuition.

Too much of the book is spent in literary review and critique. The book seemed more like a work of literary criticism than a work of ethnography. Within that criticism, I noticed favoritism in the four genres she and critiqued: Mary-Sue stories, Relationship and Lay (whomever) stories, Homoerotic or Slash stories and Hurt/Comfort stories. She spent approximately nine pages dealing with the Mary-Sue genre, 12 dealing with Relationship and Lay (whomever) stories, 22 on Hurt/Comfort and 26 on homoerotic fiction. Interestingly enough, after reading the book, I would have put this in a different order. Although she spent 22 pages discussing Hurt/Comfort, she didn’t have much to say about it. But, even though she spent nine pages discussing Mary-Sue stories, she had a lot to say about them. I got the impression that she liked Mary-Sue stories and was intrigued by the homoerotic fiction. She professed to finding Hurt/Comfort stories “difficult” to deal with because of her “strong aversion to violence.” But then she spends 22 pages discussing this genre and admits to reading one of the stories several times.

First of all, if it was that bad maybe she shouldn’t have read it, at least not several times. And secondly, I’m sure that not all Hurt/Comfort stories are all that violent or difficult to read. For instance, in the movie The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker has his hand chopped off and is comforted by his friends Han Solo and Princess Leah. This was a minor part of the film, but it is a Hurt/Comfort story. Given the descriptions that Bacon-Smith gives of the majority of the Hurt/Comfort stories, I just didn’t understand her aversion.

Many researchers (as discussed by Bacon-Smith, Jenkins, and Penley) find this particular community of Star Trek fans radical or deviant. I don’t think this is the case. From reading Enterprising Women, I get the impression that this is just a group of women who get together and help each other survive life in today’s society in a way that they find mutually fulfilling. I think this particular version of Star Trek fandom is just one example of a multitude of ways of dealing with our society. There are certainly a lot of other choices to pick from if one wanted to study deviant behavior. I think these women are basically harmless. Let them have their fun. They’re really not hurting anyone — at least not now anyway.