Intergalactic Sex: Interview with Constance Penley

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Intergalactic Sex: Interview with Constance Penley
Interviewer: Nat Muller
Interviewee: Constance Penley
Date(s): Feb/March 1998
Medium: online
Fandom(s): Star Trek
External Links: in the table of contents (Fringecore)
Intergalactic Sex: Interview with Contance [sic Penley]
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Intergalactic Sex: Interview with Constance Penley is a 1998 interview with Constance Penley.

The interview was conducted for "Fringecore 3."

Some Topics Discussed

  • Penley's book NASA/Trek
    • how the institution of NASA has been modelled on Star Trek and vice versa
    • "In the second section of her book, she describes a group of women fan 'zine writers (the so-called K/S slashers) who write gay erotic fiction with Captain Kirk and Spock as inter-galactic lovers. I asked her about this weird and wonderful phenomenon."
  • "the American entertainment state is owned by 5 corporate entities" and what this means for profit and culture
  • "netnannies" and censorship
  • Penley's statement that there are no "lesbian slash stories" for Star Trek, specifically Uhura/Chapel because "No! And that's because those characters were not fleshed out in the television show."
  • are authors preforming "literary drag"
  • "[K/S] writing has been going on since the early seventies, and over time Kirk has been more feminised or Spock has been more feminised."
  • AIDs and the appeal of writing m/m in the future and in outer space
  • what Penley feels is why fic about Kirk and Spock having children is unpopular
  • Spock as a "racial other" -- "And I argue that slash-writing solves that, because Spock is truly equal to Kirk. He is the racial other, but he is shown to complete Kirk as Kirk completes him."
  • Penley's analogy in NASA/Trek: "between "Star Trek" and the American myth of the 'New Adam'. You know, like Kirk and Spock being like Natty Bumpo and his side-kick Chingachook."
  • female bodies as "problematic"


In the light of your latest book Nasa/Trek you outline that the female K/S slashers are at the same time techno-cultural producers and consumers. But hasn't it been the case that within the patriarchal context women are mostly presented as 'conspicuous consumers' of technology? Why are women allowed to consume, but under no circumstances produce technology?

It's long been an interest of mine in studying how all kinds of people, but mostly women, transform themselves from consumers to producers of culture and technology. That's why the K/S slashers have been particularly important to me because of the way they are very aggressive about the uses of technology in their immediate home and work environment: from desktop publishing to the VCR, to the internet. At the last slash convention I went to there were 50 women in the room, and all but 2 of them were on the internet. The 2 holdouts complained that it was too expensive for them and that it was technologically intimidating. Well, by the end of the hour-long meeting those women had been cajoled and mentored into giving the internet a try. So what I like about the way slash fans become not only producers but also consumers of culture and technology, is that they do it in a very democratic way: you don't move forward to the next level of technology till everybody is ready to go. I don't want to overly celebrate the women slash fans, but still, I do think it is something we can really learn from. It is really a model that is the very opposite of this much derided picture we have of women soap-opera viewers and romance readers. What it does is not only suggest that there are all sorts of assertive kinds of activities that women have in relation to popular culture and mass-media. But also that maybe we should go back and look what's going on with romance readers and soap-opera viewers. Maybe there's a little more activity or inter-activity there than we previously acknowledged.

Do you think that this female technological self-sufficiency - that is the act of producing and consuming at the same time - poses an active threat to phallocentric hegemony?

You're raising a question that is the most difficult question at the heart of cultural studies. Which is: what is the relation of a cultural realm to the realm of political economy. What difference does it make that people are refunctioning technology and mass-media to suit their own ends and that it doesn't do anything about the situation of ownership; the increasingly consolidated globalised ownership of technology and media. When I am teaching these counter-cultural and popular practices of appropriation of high technology and media, I also at the same time show my students this wonderful fold-out chart that shows how all of the American entertainment state is owned by 5 corporate entities. I want the students to keep that tension in mind, that it's extremely interesting and that we can learn a great deal from studying this popular resistant transformative practices. But we always have to be asking ourselves what effect it is going to have on changing ownership. I want to argue that these cultural practices are political, because all politics now is culture. Call me an idealist with a capital 'I', but I do think that if we can change the way we think about our world. If we can come up with democratic, egalitarian, non-racist and more economically just visions of the world then it HAS to have an effect on the political-economical ways that we organise the world.

I liked the way you drew the 'gynosocial' parallel in your book between the female K/S slashers and 19th century women novelists. Doesn't it strike you as very queer - in every sense of the word - that women create this bonding by writing homo-erotic fiction? Do you see this as a critique on our culture of homosociality, with its inherent homophobia?

O yeah! There are so many issues here! I think that there are socially positive reasons why the slash fans write their sexual and social utopias and critical imaginings with 2 men. And also I think that there are some negative reasons, which not so much speak against the women writers, but speak against our culture in the sense of what is possible and what is not possible. So I think that the positive reason is the fact that they take actually existing characters, and turn them in an egalitarian couple. In other words, they chose Kirk and Spock because they felt they were almost there on the television programme. They really wanted to make them 'all that they could be'. Let me put it this way... I think they chose to write with men because it was an easier way to imagine an egalitarian couple. When I have asked the slash fans why they don't write with women characters, or men and women, then they say: "Well, we've tried!!" They just end up writing bad romance novels, because it is so ingrained in us that dominance and submission, aggressivity and passivity are going to be axed on to masculinity and femininity.

I like your use of the term 'fleshed out'; don't you think that maybe, as women writers, the slashers could give [Uhura/Chapel] and other f/f] characters more 'body'?

No. Because they were so ridiculous and limited in the original show, you know. There's too much back story there. There's just no way you could do anything with Nurse Chapel, for example. And also there's the knowledge on everyone's part that the actress who plays Nurse Chapel, played the first officer in the pilot! Focus audiences in the late 60's wouldn't accept a woman as a first officer. So she got changed into 'the nurse'. And all Star Trek fans hate that so much!! But people are slashing strong women characters that are on television now. For example Xena, the princess warrior and her companion. It's also true that the producers of that show put lesbian imagery in there. But you really need something to work with; you can't just take something that was pathetic and limited and ridiculous and build on that. Oh, and then the negative reasons [for using 2 men in the stories]... I talk a bit about them in my book. There is a rejection of women's bodies here. Women's bodies are a political, religious and moral battleground. So when you are going to be writing fantasy stories, why not write with bodies that are less problematic?

You mention in your book that stories about Kirk and Spock having a baby are not popular. Do you think that in an age of cloning and genetic/reproductive manipulation, this is an articulation of the female anxiety for androgenesis? Is this the ultimate taboo? The unwriteable, the unimaginable?

I think the reasons why the fans don't like the Kirk-and-Spock-have-a-baby stories, is that raising the whole spectre of childbearing and childraising - which still is primarily the woman's job and burden - just kills the eroticism. Now romance novels have just in the last year started producing stories about single parents getting together. So it's trying to eroticise parenthood, and make it interesting and sexy. I made a comment one time to a group of fans and asked: "Is this a very anti-child culture?" And everybody just said: "YES!!!" Now many of the fans do have children, but at the level of writing erotic fiction, raising the scepter of childbearing and childcare is for many just libido-killing.