Prom. The word conjures up familiar imagery: white stretch limos, pink sequined dresses, corsages (really though, what’s the purpose of a corsage? Is it a bracelet? An ornament?), twinkling lights accompanied by slow music in the gymnasium which has been converted into a quasi-ballroom of sorts. Sounds familiar, right? Well, to me, these are scenes cut from popular culture sources with Mean Girls and She’s All That providing most of the visual fodder, because I never went.
I skipped it and watched Star Trek instead.
High school wasn’t easy. At some point, I was deemed “book smart” which translates to unpopular, and like a brand, if followed me throughout each grade. If you didn’t fit into a specific mold, it basically meant you were a prime target for bullying. Certain social interactions like lunch in the cafeteria, group projects, or picking team members for dodgeball, all proved terrifying for me. One could also argue that carrying around my copy of the Star Trek Encyclopedia, and skulking off to the computer lab to work on my Borg-dedicated website weren’t exactly setting me up for popularity. But that’s the thing about being popular and accepted: it’s all about conforming. And there was something about that that didn’t quite sit right with me.
Growing up, Star Trek was a big part of my life. The very first show I watched was Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it became the template by which I viewed the world, showing us the values that really matter: compassion, understanding, reason, and hope. By the time I got to high school, I had been spoiled by having both Deep Space Nine and Voyager on the air. And so I would come home everyday from school and tune in to my beloved shows. When there wasn’t a new episode airing that day, I would take a VHS from my stack of tapes, and play whichever episode I had previously recorded. My routine of re-watching Star Trek episodes after a difficult day at school felt comforting. Seeing the familiar faces hanging out at Quark’s bar or on the promenade, being privy to the conversations of the characters in Voyager’s mess hall, rooting for everyone stuck in tricky situations — it all helped me feel as though I were part of something bigger, a place where I belonged and wouldn’t be judged. I escaped into a world where things like prom and popularity weren’t nearly as important as they were in my head. I mean, if you’re going to head to head with the Dominion, it makes one silly dance seem a whole lot less important.
What really resonated with me was that the characteristics which seemed important in the limited world of high school didn’t really matter in the broader scheme of Star Trek. Being popular wasn’t anything tangible. It only meant that people liked you because you “conformed.” In the universe of Star Trek, conforming was as foreign to the writers as rock music was to the Kilngons. Each character’s uniqueness was truly singular in a way that was all their own. Even more admirable, they didn’t try to become something they weren’t — they embraced it. Odo was a grouchy and principled changeling. Jadzia had several lifetimes under her belt, but her zeal for life and enthusiasm reigned free. The Doctor was a hologram who despite his lousy bedside manner, was one of the most relatable characters. Seven was a former Borg who despite her brilliance, was just as socially awkward as I was. Star Trek showed us that the outside is immaterial; it’s who you are deep down that should be celebrated, your uniqueness and how you stand apart is the thing which makes you special. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re popular or not, you’ll always have friends who admire what makes you unique. You’ll always be a part of something bigger than yourself.
When prom was on the horizon, I remembered Seven of Nine in “Someone to Watch Over Me.” I, too, felt like an outsider looking in on social interactions, just as she had been observing B’Elanna and Tom in the mess hall. Like Seven, I tried to put myself out there over the years, figuring out ways that I could be accepted. My attempts at engaging with others were just as cringeworthy and awkward as Seven’s first date in the holodeck. Perhaps going to prom might’ve helped my cause towards popularity. But you know what? It wasn’t who I was. I wouldn’t be true to myself. So instead of getting dressed and forcing myself to engage in an uncomfortable situation for the sake of others, I did what made me feel content. I settled in on the couch with my favorite Romulan warbird t-shirt, microwaved some popcorn (the kind with extra fake-butter), and watched our beloved Voyager crew in one of my all-time favorite episodes: “Blink of an Eye.”
In the end, Seven put a temporary pause to her social interactions. She’d come a long way, but she needed time to engage socially in a way she was comfortable with. Prom might’ve been the highlight of senior year for many of my peers, but to me, it just really wasn’t on the radar. There’d be plenty more social events for me to tackle on my own time, when I was ready.
Star Trek embodies self-acceptance. It shows us that It’s our uniqueness which makes us important. Conforming into something you’re not is the antithesis of Star Trek’s values. Sometimes not fitting in, as long as we’re true to ourselves, is all that really matters. At the end of “Someone to Watch Over Me” Seven toasts, “to all that makes us unique,” undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of Star Trek. And in a way, it’s in contrast with what’s important to a teenager in high school where blending in and being like everyone else is what matters. Star Trek shows us that we should be who we are and embrace it, not be embarrassed of it because it doesn’t make us popular or accepted. Bullies only put us down because we’re different.
It took missing a seemingly important event like prom to realize what truly matters, and that’s being who you are, doing what’s important to you (not what’s important to other people), and accepting that it’s what makes you different that should be celebrated. I mean, look at Garak. The guy’s not winning any popularity contests, and yet he’s the most fascinating character in the Alpha Quadrant. Plus, I’m pretty sure he skipped prom too.
It’s been almost twenty years since my senior prom. I’ve never regretted not going, even though it’s known as a veritable right of passage. Skipping prom and practicing self-care by watching Star Trek is actually something I’m really proud of. I didn’t force myself to go because it’s what everyone else was doing. I did what was best for myself at the time. There's absolutely nothing wrong with avoiding an uncomfortable situation if that’s what you need to do. We’re taught to participate, be social, engage, etc. but sometimes we need to listen to ourselves first. That’s part of what makes us unique. So here’s a toast to all that makes us unique — be true to yourselves.
Hrisoula Gatzogiannis (she/her) has a B.A. & M.A. in Classics and now works in digital strategy. She loves writing, and has authored a few books on various subjects. She currently resides in Boston. You can find her on Twitter @MissHrisoula.