The other day, I was helping my mom pack to move, while watching old Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns in the background, and I asked her whether she considered herself a Star Trek fan. Even though it was she who introduced me to Star Trek in the first place, and I consider myself a second-generation Star Trek fan, I never really thought about whether Star Trek was that much a part of her identity that she considered herself an actual fan of the show, the way she would, say, Law and Order (which she has an encyclopedic knowledge of).
I grew up with her stories about her watching reruns of Star Trek: The Original Series when she was pregnant with me, and memories of watching TOS around the kitchen table during Sunday dinner after church, but even so, my mom is definitely Not Geeky, so I had no clue how she self-identified her own connection to the franchise.
So I asked her:
“Mom… do you consider yourself to be a Star Trek fan?”
“Oh, well, I mean I guess I do,” she responded hesitantly. “I mean, up to Deep Space Nine, I hated the one with Janeway, what was that one called?”
“Oh yeah, I hated that one,” and then she proceeded to talk about Avery Brooks and the Borg for 20 minutes.
My conversation with my mom got me thinking a lot about what it means to continue to connect with fandom as identity—or not—at different points in your life. It’s an especially interesting thing to think about during a time when geek culture is deeply entrenched in mainstream pop culture, and participatory fan culture as a lifestyle has become more socially acceptable, even embraced. The performance of fandom identity—and by “performance” I mean how we publicly signify, display, and share our fandom—is often shaped by access and the sociocultural communities you identify with. Having welcoming access to spaces—physical or virtual—where you publicly share and connect with others in a fandom makes all the difference in how, or if, you connect with a fandom as an expression of your identity. For my mom, growing up as a Black woman in the 1950s and 60s, her Star Trek fandom (such that it was) was peripheral in her sense of identity and self. But I do wonder if things would have been different if she had known of spaces or connected with communities that shared her fannish interests.
Maybe, maybe not. My mom had other things in her formative years—her church, her community activism, her kids—to be the focus of her day-to-day sense of identity. But Star Trek, and the universes and possibilities of its stories, was important enough to her to want to share it with someone—namely me and my stepfather—every weekend. We were a fandom micro-community of sorts, and I personally discovered an entry point to geek fandom identity through them that carried me into my own adulthood, even if that wasn’t her intention.
My mom watched a lot of Trek in her early adulthood, but she’s not deeply into SF/F otherwise. She doesn’t read comics. She doesn’t know what a con is, even though I go to at least one every year, and have to re-explain it to her every time I do. But she also has strong opinions about her favorite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and has tried, with interest, to watch all of the Star Wars films with me (even though she can’t get through them all).
She’s generally “geek adjacent,” which is the kind of baseline knowledge of geek-focused media that most casual followers of pop culture have. By comparison, between the grounding of her Star Trek influence and the language and expressions of geek culture that surrounded me (X-Men comics at the grocery store, Star Wars action figures for Christmas, Robotech on local TV), geek culture was an everyday part of my childhood life and conversation with friends in my largely Black middle-class neighborhood. Even so, geek fandom as a self-identifier for my own identity wasn’t really a concept for me growing up either. I didn’t know about or participate in the more traditional signifiers of contemporary geek fandom: going to cons, participating in on- or offline fan communities, or hanging out in comic book shops, until I went off to college.
But as I settle firmly into middle age, I actually feel pretty geek-adjacent as well, at least by contemporary standards of fan engagement. I’m pretty behind on every single geek franchise out there; when I was younger, I would have been at opening night for every Star Trek, MCU and Star Wars movie premiere, but now I’m very happy to wait a couple of weeks, or even just wait for the movie to go to streaming. A lot of this just might be about the shifting life priorities that invariably happen to everyone over time; sometimes you just lose interest in certain media at some point and you move on to something that engages you more.
But much like sociocultural differences, how fandom is defined and performed in the age of social media means different things than they used to. I’m a young Gen-Xer, old enough to remember a time before social media-focused fan communities and the mainstream popularity of fan gatherings and conventions, but also young enough to be a digital native of Twitter, Tumblr, Ao3, etc. What it means to be a fan “in your off time” is different than what it means to be a fan where there is no off-time, when fandom can be a daily, potentially 24-7, pursuit.
Because of that, I’m surprised at myself, at how often I am apologetic, or even reluctant, to define myself as “geek-adjacent” in certain social circles. Early this year I was on a panel at C2E2 in Chicago and I had mentioned Star Trek: Discovery in passing. Afterwards I was approached by a guy who wanted to have a detailed conversation about plotlines, etc., and I had to pump the brakes on his enthusiasm a bit. “I’m not THAT into it, sorry,” I muttered to him, sheepishly. “I’ve only started watching and I probably won’t get to the rest of the season for a bit, I’m kind of busy these days.”
Making that kind of admission can make anyone feel like a “fake fan,” especially when participatory fan culture and content immersion are part of the expectation of “true” fandom. However, it’s exacerbated by the general feelings of imposter syndrome that can come from being a woman of color in fandom spaces. Geek culture has traditionally centered the experiences and perspectives of a very specific kind of fan: the 18-25-year-old white cisgender middle class American male. It’s this so-called “ideal demographic,” his money, his participation, the lifecycle of his fandom, that is primarily courted and rewarded by media companies. This is the person whose lifelong loyalty is primarily valued; and his entry point and consumption within a fan community is usually analyzed and validated.
There’s an assumed baseline of knowledge or behavior for “geek cred,” whether it’s actively policed or not. And when it is policed, it’s often based around racialized and gendered identities, who gets to be seen as a “real” geek, whose cultural memories and activities are seen as valid. I call it the Ready Player One mindset of fandom, based on the Ernest Cline book and Steven Spielberg film where one obsessively geeky white guy’s pop culture interests are essentially the basis of all cultural memory in the book’s dystopia.
When I think about the current rules of engagement/consumption for fandom and what they’ve evolved into, I do sometimes wonder if there’s a room for the person I am now: a “lightly geeky,” casually interested fan with a history of being more highly engaged. It can feel disingenuous to be a “true-but-casual” fan, the kind of fan that drops in and checks out at one’s leisure, but still makes time to occasionally socialize and be present in public fandom spaces, but it especially stands out in spaces that make assumptions about the validity of your fandom and don’t necessarily make room for people like you in the first place.
When white male fandom gatekeepers who do look down on those whose entry points into geek culture come in ways deemed “unconventional” (Marvel Comics fans who were introduced by the MCU, or fans who get introduced to any mainstream geek franchise from reading and writing fanfiction or sharing memes on Tumblr or Twitter), a lot of those unconventional entry points do fall along the many lines of access and community that I previously mentioned: sociocultural, generational, economic. A person of color/white woman/working class fan who may not have access to or feel welcome in traditional geek fandom space may feel more empowered to connect and participate in non-traditional ones where our presence isn’t challenged or questioned.
For such fans, what it means to be a fan, to do fan participation, often does look different, and that’s fine, and frankly normal, even if some of the traditional “rules of engagement” for fandom tell us otherwise. That’s because those rules are based on very narrow and exclusionary definitions of both fan identity and behavior. There are generations’ worth of marginalized fans whose experiences in fan communities aren’t seen as valid, or acknowledged at all. But fan identity and participation is so much more diverse and complex than the teenaged-white-male-fanboy-at-the-con so prized by mainstream culture. And fandom identity, like identity overall, doesn’t exist in a neat or linear fashion for everyone; for most of us, pastimes, passions, and what grounds our sense of self ebbs, flows, and evolves. Anyone who falls outside of the demographics or behavior that corporations and mainstream culture define as “valuable” fandom have every right to claim the fandom identity that’s important to them, nonetheless.
Even so, it will always be a bit curious to me that the person who introduced me to Star Trek is hesitant to acknowledge her identity as a fan, her adjacent geekness. Her love and passion for the stories and characters of Star Trek inspired me, and my happy childhood memories made enough of an emotional impact on me to embrace geek culture as a formative element of my life and sense of community for many years. But her experience—and mine—are more than valid. My mom can certainly feel justified in calling herself a Star Trek fan even if she still doesn’t know what a con is, but managed to pass on Star Trek knowledge and her admiration of Nyota Uhura to her daughter. And in turn, my “lightly geeky” fandom is real and enduring, even if it takes me another six months to finally finish watching Star Trek: Discovery.
© 2019 Keidra Chaney