December 29, 2006
Star Trek, Fan Culture, and Community Building: An Essay from Lincoln Geraghty

Maybe it is an overused example, and I know that at least two C3 affiliated faculty members have written on the fan community in one way or another, but Star Trek fans are likely the most analyzed fan communities in popular culture over the past several years. Both Henry Jenkins (look here and here and here) and Rob Kozinets (look here and here and here) have written several times about Star Trek fandom. But, because it has become a common example used by scholars to debate larger questions about fan communities and fan connections, these conversations have been invaluable for understanding fan communities in general.

One of the latest essays in that continued scholarly conversation is Lincoln Geraghty's piece "A Network of Support: Coping with Trauma Through Star Trek Fan Letters," who uses these fan letters to try and understand the way fans believe membership in some idea of a fan community has "helped them in daily life." Geraghty writes that he intends to try and understand "how far one might regard the Star Trek fanbase as a collective network of support. I believe that those fans who community through writing letters to fan magazines, as well as online chat rooms, are doing so in an attempt to contact fellow enthusiasts and share their own personal experiences, whether they are positive or emotionally traumatic."

Particularly, Geraghty examines ways in which the Star Trek is used as a way to deal with personal devastations, such as deaths in the family, and how the fan community can help cope with such tragedy. He writes about ways in which the Star Trek text and fellow fans are used as a form of encouragement or a way of recovery.

I've seen these phenomena play out in much different ways in the soap opera fan community, where the everyday interaction among characters on the show often draw on stories that are very close to the lives of viewers--illnesses, death, the loss of a baby, or other issues that may reflect tragedies in the lives of viewers or of those close to them. It is not surprising, then, when fans often break into discussions of problems in their personal lives on fan community boards, using the text as an excuse for community-building and to discuss personal issues.

There are also times when people bring sometimes very intimate personal experiences to the board in an effort to further discuss the text with fellow fans. In this way, the texts of these shows seem to build ways in which community members can converse about the types of things that they normally wouldn't share with people outside their closest friends and family members and explain why the text is often an excuse for community behaviors that extend far beyond pure enjoyment of a media brand.

Geraghty examines ways in which the Star Trek text draws conversations about the Vietnam War, bereavement, and disability and illness through fan letters and discussions, through an analysis of these fan texts. The essay emphasizes the ways in which these fan interactions explain the power of fandom as extending far into people's personal lives. Fans use the text as a way to understand and to articulate their feelings about very personal issues, the types of discussions that are much easier to have with analogies. So fans write about how they coped with a disability through their viewing of Star Trek, how their Vietnam experiences is tied into their Star Trek fandom or how Star Trek shows have helped them deal with a fellow viewer's passing who they were close to, such as a fan who writes, "When my husband and eldest son died two years ago in a tragic accident, watching certain episodes became more important, more poignant, bringing back special memories for my little boy and I."

Geraghty concludes that "part of the reason I believe fans look to Star Trek when they feel the need for emotional or mental support, and therefore transform the series into a collaborative medium, can be ascribed to Star Trek's sense of alternate reality." In this case, it is the distance from real experience that allows viewers to discuss much more intimate issues surrounding those texts, in much the same way that science fiction can be among the first genres to criticize taboo subjects in society, because it is so removed from "reality."

It's interesting to read the ways in which this fan community interacts opposed to my own interest in soap opera fan communities, where I see many of the same phenomena around a text that, while much more sensationalistic that the lives of anyone I know, still seems much more quotidian compared to aliens and space travel. While Geraghty writes about the ways in which this type of interaction seems specific to the Star Trek and other science fiction texts, I think the general interaction among fan communities serves a similar capacity across the board.

Then there are the times when the real world and the fictional world come strikingly close. See my analysis of fan response to the death of actor Benjamin Hendrickson, who played the role of Hal Munson on As the World Turns, back in July, here and here.

Geraghty's essay appears in the December 2006 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture.

Dr. Geraghty is a lecturer in film studies for the School of Creative Arts, Film and Media at the University of Portsmouth.