Sociologist John Tenuto shares some preliminary findings from his study of scifi fandom…
The concept of the Star Trek fan is a myth.
Those attending Star Trek conventions see a variety of people that questions the simplistic view that all Trekkers are the same. Star Trek fans are multifarious in political views, occupation, demographics, and shape. Yet, the myth persists that all Star Trek fans are similar. Similarly geeky. Similarly minded. Similarly shaped. Similarly bereft of social relationships. This is not true. Never has been. Probably never will be.
Origins of the stereotype
The media certainly plays a role in the perpetuation of the myth or stereotype. Media coverage of the 40th Anniversary conventions focused on the usual issues. The media showed fans dressed in costumes because this is a interesting visual, even though the majority of fans do not dress up for conventions (see CNBC’s “Star Trek Fans Say Beam to Las Vegas” and corresponding video for a good example). The media focuses on the consumer aspect of being a Trekker, connoting that the fees for autographs or collectibles are problematic, or that fiduciary fan expressions are somehow unique to Trekker experiences.
When favorable, media discussions of Star Trek fans often have two related features. First, the reporters or writers makes certain to distance themselves from Star Trek because they do not wish to be considered Trekkies. Second, the reporters will include one or two jibes at Trekkies labeling them as geeks or such similar disparagement. No better example of this can be seen than in the recent Variety article “Love and money fuel “Trek” trips” by Brian Lowry. This favorable article regarding Star Trek provides all this and more. The first paragraph writes that Star Trek fans’ adoration of Star Trek is described as “if more than a little geeky.” The next paragraph then goes on to say, “ Granted, 40-year-old men wearing Spock ears must find love where they can get it, but in hindsight, there was much for them to like.” Imagine what the article might have said if it had a negative view of Star Trek and its fans.
The media discussions of Star Trek XI also include a focus on fans. Articles found at Trekmovie.com show a tendency for the media to discuss whether the creators of Star Trek XI are fans themselves, or how the film will meet the expectations of the Star Trek fans.
Sociology, the discipline that I teach, is a science qualified to discuss media myths. Sociology utilizes the scientific method to study what sociologist Peter Berger called “the world taken for granted.” It is certainly taken for granted that Star Trek fans are what the media presents. Yet, are they?
Lets look at the data
I am currently studying science fiction fans. Nearly 7,400 people have been kind enough to help with questionnaires about themselves as Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek fans. The process of studying the results has begun, and the preliminary data is telling.
First, some caveats. These questionnaires are not a random sample of Star Trek fans. The summaries of the data here does not apply to all Star Trek fans for that reason, but rather the people who answered the questions. Yet, it is interesting to see what the 1743 Star Trek fans who completed the Star Trek questionnaire discuss. Also, the questionnaires are only from those fans who are 18 years of age or older. Younger fans may have very different experiences or view regarding Star Trek. They are not represented here. With these caveats, here is a few interesting facts about 1743 Star Trek fans.
TNG is still the fan favorite, but no consensus
This does have implications for Star Trek XI. Next Generation and DS9 appear to be more popular among the 1602 fans compared to Classic Trek. The interesting question is which of the versions of Star Trek is the favorite among different fans or non Trekkers because these audiences are needed for the next film to be a blockbuster.
What do you mean there was no one in costume?
One of the assignments for the students who take my Sociology of Star Trek class at the College of Lake County is to attend a convention with a sociological perspective. Invariably, there is disappointment because the students wanted to see more fans dressed up in costume. This is certainly a media generated stereotype because of the focus on costumed fans. The media may not see costuming appropriately. Costuming is a creative attempt by fans to display their affinity for Star Trek. This active, creative process often results in amazingly detailed costumed. Yet, the irony is that while the media focuses on this because of its interesting visual presentation, it often results in a denigrations of the costumed fans. Two recommended books for this topic are Will Brooker’s ‘Using the Force’ and Heather R. Joseph-Witham’s ‘Star Trek Fans and Costume Art for Star Trek’.
For those who have attended a Star Trek convention, it is no surprise that only 8.9% of the 1522 fans answering the costuming question mentioned they had dressed in a Star Trek related costume in the last 12 months. 25% of these fans mentioned that they had worn some type of Star Trek item of clothing (a hat for instance). More Star Wars and Superman fans discussed that they dressed in costume (22.2% of the Star Wars 3306 fans answering the question, 12.6% of the 1901 Superman fans answering the question). The two books recommended above offer several positive academic reasons for costuming for fans of Star Wars and Star Trek.
Trek has the lowest rate of convention costume wearers…
Not all single men living in their mom’s basements?
Saturday Night Live to the contrary, Star Trek fans who answered the questionnaire are educated, engaged in personal relationships, working in a variety of careers, and not very good examples of the labels often associated with them.
Of the 1508 Star Trek fans answering the question, 34% mentioned they had earned a undergraduate degree, 18.3% earned a graduate degree, and 5.5% earned a Phd or similar education. Comparatively, the U.S. Census in 2004 mentioned that 23.8% of Americans 15 years of age or older had earned a B.A. degree or higher. These Trekkers are educated. 1516 Star Trek fans answered the question regarding whether they are male or female. For Star Trek, 78% were male, 22% were female. The stereotype that all Star Trek fans are males loses its creditability even more so at conventions. Most Star Trek fans answering the questionnaire did not attend a convention in the last 12 months (13.7% had attended). At conventions, though, one sees a pronounced equality represented. At the Creation 40th Anniversary Star Trek convention, there was a 51% male, 49% female representation for the general admission seats. This is no surprise since women have played a major role in the history of Star Trek conventions. For a discussion of the history of conventions, please see the book The Making of Star Trek Conventions by Joan Winston. Comparatively, Star Wars sees similar numbers with 3306 people answering the question for Star Wars, 82% are male, 18% are female. Fans of Superman who are female are less represented for the questionnaire with 1838 people for this question, 88.5% were male, 11.5% were female. The myth finds no expression with these Trekkers.
Trek has the highest rate of women fans…
Star Trek fans are engaged with relationships, despite the myth. This question asked about the person’s marital status when completing the questionnaire about Star Trek. Of the 1519 people who completed the question, 41% are married, 5.9% are divorced, 5.7% are with other domestic relationships showing a significant presence of gay Star Trek fans, and 46.9% are never married. The United States Census collects data differently, yet here are some numbers for discussion. According to the Census in 2001, marital status when completing the census showed that 43.7% of men married once are married and 40.7% of women married once are married. 8.8% of men and 10.8% of women are divorced when completing the census questionnaire. 24.6% of women and 30.9% of men were never married. Star Trek fans are social people according to the data and interviews for the Sociology of Star Trek.
The data results will be available soon regarding Star Wars, Superman, and Star Trek fans. This brief discussion hopefully achieved the greatest gift that sociology provides, a more accurate view of the groups of society. The irony is that while several Star Trek episodes such as “Balance of Terror” discuss the importance of seeing people as individuals, Star Trek fans often are presented as a similar group. IDIC should apply, yet doesn’t.
Star Trek XI should not attempt to appease the fans, because there is no single view for Star Trek.
Here are some numbers that show that while there are social patterns among Star Trek fans who completed the questionnaire, for example, the fans are educated, there is a great variety that needs discussion.This is the list of the first 100 people who completed the question “Which character from Star Trek is your favorite?” The Star Trek characters voted for represent a variety of shows. It also represents the variety of fan views and experiences.
TNG may be the fave show, but Kirk and Spock top the list of fave characters
About the author:
John Tenuto is a sociology instructor at the College of LakeCounty, Grayslake, Illinois. He teaches a class called ‘The Sociologyof Star Trek’. Professor Tenuto is currently on sabbatical comparing fans of Star Trek to other genres.You can help by filling out a questionnaire, available here