Star Trek and the Culture of Fandom

By Professor Daryl G. Frazetti - April 26, 2011

StarTrek.com welcomes the newest addition to our blogging family, Daryl G. Frazetti, Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at CSU Channel Islands. Here, in the first piece, Professor Frazetti examines the topic of Star Trek and the Culture of Fandom. 

Star Trek and the Culture of Fandom

Who are Star Trek fans? They are not simply teenage boys who live in their mother’s basements as the stereotype goes. They are not the glimpses of costumed characters the media airs when the Trekkies come to town. They are a diverse and vibrant cultural entity. Star Trek fans are educated, with as many, if not more, female fans as male fans, and come to fandom from a broad spectrum of age and demographic. This phenomenon of fandom stems from the fan attraction to the meanings in the mythos of Star Trek. Myths are value-laden discourse that focus on the examination or explanation of the human condition, therefore Star Trek is indeed a powerful myth that has acted as the basis for the formation of the fandom culture. Star Trek represents modern/progressive myth, and as such it legitimizes fan participation in numerous activities. Myth explains the meaning which fans have assigned to both Star Trek and the archetype characters it has created. Star Trek acts as a secular myth for contemporary times by providing cultural symbols and meanings that serve as a model for the formation of a distinct culture. 

Through the data of the fandom survey that was conducted in 2010, it can be said that the Trek myth is quite real to members of fandom, and like all myth, it is subject to continued reinterpretation on the individual level at varying points in time by the believers in the myth. There is certainly an incredible amount of individuality throughout the culture of fandom.  Despite this, it is still possible to identify core meanings in Star Trek, meanings that bind the individuals together as a valid cultural entity. The utopian future, concept of IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations), and the humanistic study of the humanity are ideals shared across fandom. Star Trek is a futuristic portal, allowing fans to learn from the past, make changes in the present, and strive for a Trek future. Fans have found compatibility between the messages of Trek and personal beliefs, incorporating the myth into their daily lives with ease. All of this and more became clear, as a better understanding of the fans surfaced through their participation in this survey.

This survey was not intended to be the final word on fandom, as it is still quite the task to gather data and find a way to best represent the vast diversity that is Star Trek fandom. This survey was intended to reach out as far and wide as it could through the internet and act as the best guide to date on fandom. The following represents a brief synopsis of the data, particularly of some of the more focused on areas showing up on a variety of discussion boards. 

The original fandom survey began as a small scale project to collect data on fan culture for a chapter on this topic in my forthcoming text, “Anthropology of Star Trek.” In an attempt to explore stereotypes and simultaneously reach out to the population of fans that are not always the ones focused on by the media, what most would call the “armchair” or “average” fan, I had constructed a fairly comprehensive survey, oftentimes asking the same question in different ways, and reaching out to both the online and convention communities. The anonymous survey was conducted online and 5, 041 individuals participated.  Fandom reaction to results has been interesting to say the least, with buzz about the ratio of female to male fans, how fans rate their participation, and the perceptions of costuming. For those not wishing to read an entire paper, this brief has been developed for the purposes of taking a bit more of a look at those target areas.  As is the case with any culture, Star Trek fans are quite the diverse group, and the data from this survey certainly supports that in a very large way.  

One of the most interesting aspects of this survey was seeing how so many fans paused to give thought to their definitions or perceptions of Star Trek, fandom, and themselves. Many times emails would come in asking if someone should take the survey as they watched the shows but did not attend conventions, yet may have collected merchandise or had been influenced in some way. They were asking because they were not certain if they were part of fandom culture, or if a friend or family member were part of fandom culture. In attempting to gain as detailed a perspective of this culture, it was hoped that the survey would reach out to folks exactly like this, and many responses indicated that indeed they were what would be referred to as “arm-chair” fans. It was also interesting to see how many took this survey after having made such inquiries with me, and perhaps even more interesting to see how some of the responses evolved. Fans may not have begun with a high rating of themselves in comparison to how they felt other fans were involved in fandom (per the media stereotypes), yet had quite a bit to say regarding how they may have been impacted or influenced in some way in their lives (educationally, professionally, personally, or with respect to community involvement) through Star Trek. This supports the notion of a much deeper, much more diverse, fandom than what is typically portrayed by the media, and even in many instances by other fan groups or fandom outlets. 

When fans were asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1-5 (1 being the least active, 5 being the most active) and were offered the opportunity to explain their rating, this is what resulted:  

- 13% identified themselves as professional fans (fans who are now professional and working in Trek) and considered to be highly involved.

- Overwhelmingly, 82% considered themselves to be average to below-average in terms of involvement.

- 18% went all out to go into elaborate detail about how extremely involved they were as fans. 

This group reported such activities as attending more than 10 conventions a year, belonging to 2 or more groups/clubs, having careers influenced by Star Trek, taking on Trek-related personas and being involved in costuming, and being either raised on Star Trek values or currently teaching others the values of Trek, including raising their own children on Trek. 

- Others reported such activities as being involved in convention organization (11%), and following Star Trek in some way online (73%). One final note, 3% responding mentioned being hardcore prop collectors and another 17% commented on how their involvement with Trek has declined as they have aged.

The end result is a portrait that looks as though many who participated in this survey were either “arm-chair” fans, or did not feel what they did to be a part of Trek actually counted since it did not compare in their eyes to what they see the perhaps more stereotypical fans doing. Many of the 82% stated that they did not regularly attend conventions, some never have attended a convention, some purchased some merchandise, and many did not. Some had Trek related clothing (t-shirts and such) and many did not. A good majority of fans perceived of themselves as having a very low level of involvement. Most followed the shows in syndication or on DVD, with some reporting they follow the comics, magazines, books, or online discussions. Fans responding in this group felt that someone else was far more active as a fan than they were. This meant that if a fan wore costumes, attended conventions more frequently, collected merchandise, or followed actors, then they were seen by their own cultural peers as more active.  

Results such as these were not expected, but were also not surprising either. Most fans participating fell between the ages of 41-50, single, and held some higher educational degree, indicating that many were indeed “arm-chair” fans who were now focused on other areas of their lives such as careers perhaps. Some also indicated working more than one job or a return to school for further training/education. Many also had reported that if they had the income, and/or time, they would find themselves more involved with collecting or traveling. Going online, and therefore participating in such a survey, is how these fans remain connected with Star Trek. Such results indicated a greater diversity in fandom, a greater number of fans simply do not fit the media molds of what a fan is. All Trek fans are simply not all that much alike. Go to a convention and you will find even there that fans pocket off into clusters with like minded folks just as groups do in any mainstream culture, and just as those do who do not participate in a stereotypical way.  All cultures need diversity in order to survive, grow, and thrive. Star Trek fandom is no different, and these results certainly support a greater deal of diversity than fandom has been given credit for.  

Arising from Japanese origins, specifically anime, “cosplay” in the United States has now grown via science fiction and historical fantasy. Fans partake for a variety of reasons, many to emulate characters who have been most influential in their lives, or to take on personas based on a group or character they feel they most identify with (Klingons, Vulcans, Spock, Kira). It is not unusual to see many attending conventions, as such venues offer fans this opportunity to enter their personas and more fully participate in the myth, in the narrative that has become so personally meaningful to them. However, it is not a requirement to take on a persona or wear a costume of some sort in order to participate. Given how many do though, allows the media to focus in on this aspect, creating the stereotypes that still hold up today. Many fans did in fact feel that those participating in costuming or any type of role play at a convention often give off the impression that they are not fully in touch with reality, do not always see the actors as real people, and are not considered to be the majority of fans throughout the vastness of the fandom culture.

These same individuals have expressed concerns about the constant portrayal of fandom by the media as being all about folks dressing up and gathering by the thousands to collect merchandise and autographs. Not the case. Fans participate obviously in many ways, and most simply choose these other ways to take part in the myth. What was “normal” or what was “deviant” or “extreme” was asked of those taking this survey. Fans themselves were asked to describe and define these terms as they pertained to members of their own culture. Yes, the results did shatter the stereotypes, but were not unexpected, particularly given the amount of outreach for participants.  

Some data of interest: When asked to define “normal” (comments were sorted and categorized, then sorted by number of participants per question):

- 67% stated that watching the shows, reading novels, or wearing a t-shirt and some merchandise collecting was normal. 

- 59% stated in some way that wearing costumes and/or attending conventions was normal. 

- 81% noted that community involvement or using their Trek interest in some positive way in life was normal. 

- 79% stated that anything not obsessive in some way, living in the real world still, and being an all around good person, utilizing the values and ideals of Star Trek in some way constituted normal.                                      

One fan simply stated that to them, normal was going on a Trek cruise and meeting other professionals that just enjoy Trek and have a normal mainstream life. To most this was the case as the data suggested, most fans are just leading average lives and enjoy watching the shows and occasionally enjoy connecting with other like-minded Trek fans.   

So, what did fans say about what was “deviant” or “extreme”? (comments were sorted and categorized, then sorted by number of participants per question): 

- 89% of respondents stated deviance could be defined as those who could not differentiate between reality and fantasy.

- 67% of respondents stated deviance could be defined as those who made Star Trek their entire world.

- 47% of respondents stated that deviance could be defined as those who dressed up.

- 39% of respondents stated that deviance could be defined as those who take on persona names or refer to themselves as any rank.

- 13% of respondents stated that fans producing fan films were considered to be deviant.

In part, responses demonstrated that many fans viewed those taking on personas, chasing actors, or costuming to the point of continuing such behaviors even outside of the convention arena were considered deviant or extreme. Meaning they did not appear to have social networks outside of Trek or have other interests outside of Trek. To those responding here, a good majority also felt that these sorts of actions, even dressing up, did not reflect what was felt to be the average Trek fan. Yes, this does debunk the stereotypes, but this is not a culture that can be pigeon-holed. It is a diverse and dynamic entity, well supported through the data in this survey. One quarter of those participating were from outside the United States, which perhaps also lent support to the shaping of the data for these questions. Star Trek fandom is a culture that is not only a brief moment in time, forming only when a convention is held, it is a dynamic and evolving entity with much diversity, just as meaningful as any other cultural entity one could study. This survey was circulated to dozens of sites via the internet, as well as several dozen conventions during 2010, and is a good reflection of sincere diversity that exists, supporting that there simply is no basis for the ever lingering media stereotypes.  

Now onto women in fandom! Yes indeed, 57% that took this survey reported being female! That means 43% were males. That was not expected, but it was close. This data does support the history of Trek fandom, the current trends in fandom, and the rumors that have buzzed about since the 2009 film came out about how it brought in not only new fans, but more female fans. Women have held a strong presence in science fiction both as professionals and as fans for decades. Fanfic has been dominated by the female fan, and over the past several years, participation by women in fandom has been increasing. The data also demonstrated a correlation between age and sex, further supporting the idea that more women are entering Trek fandom due to the recent 2009 film. Of those females responding, 13 % were between 21-30, overall that age group accounted for 21% of respondents, the second highest age group following the 41-50 year olds, of which accounted for 34% of those responding to the survey in general, 19% were female. From Bjo Trimble and the original letter writing campaign to save the original series to Shirley Majewski (known fondly as the godmother of fandom), women have been a real driving force in Trek fandom. Various reports from the 1960’s and 1970’s rated female involvement in ranges between 17 and 80% at times, most especially in examining fanfic and clubs which were both female dominated areas in fandom and continue to be today.  

Summary

Overall, the survey actually supports data from several others that have been conducted on smaller scales throughout the past two decades. Certainly it is not the number of participants, but also how they are selected that support a survey such as this. It was hoped that in designing a self- selecting survey with questions that asked fans to rate themselves, describe themselves, define terms, and define their activities, by asking similar questions in various ways, and by attempting to attract a wide range of participants, that a more balanced view of the Star Trek fandom culture would emerge. The data provided by this survey and the ways in which it supports past surveys of fandom suggests that this is a good indicator of much of the true nature of the culture and the overwhelming reports of the binding ideologies of IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations) and Humanism. Yes, it would be more practical to select participants, a sample of the fandom, as self – selecting surveys can be biased. Given how supportive this data has been of other surveys is encouraging, and using this method has led to a more focused project that will be a full ethnographic study now, where a small and focused sample will be selected, making for a more scientific survey of fandom. In remaining unbiased, questions will again be designed in such a way as to not elicit specific responses. Additional methodologies will include observation/participant observation, and interviewing. 

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Click HERE for the full survey results paper. 

Daryl G. Frazetti : www.academia.edu/darylfrazetti 

Bio: Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at CSU Channel Islands, Camarillo, CA. Research areas include science fiction in higher education, the subculture of fandom, fan films, science fiction as mythos, using science fiction to explore fieldwork and human existence, and exploring various science fiction literature and pop media as both cultural mirrors and cultural teachers.  Primary area of interest: Star Trek. Forthcoming text, Anthropology of Star Trek, is based on the course of the same name, created by Professor Frazetti. Professor Frazetti also speaks at various conventions and schools on the cultural and curricular significance of science fiction, fantasy, and comics. 

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