The Romantic Myth and Transcendence: A Feminist Interpretation of the Kirk/Spock Bond

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Academic Commentary
Title: The Romantic Myth and Transcendence: A Feminist Interpretation of the Kirk/Spock Bond
Commentator:
Date(s): 1982 (oral presentation)
Medium:
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
External Links:
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

The Romantic Myth and Transcendence: A Feminist Interpretation of the Kirk/Spock Bond is the title of a 1982 oral presentation given by Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith at a conference.

The text of this presentation was reprinted with permission in the 1985 Sime~Gen zine Post-Syndrome: Considerations on Sexuality in the Sime/Gen Universe. While the topic and some of the contents of the book chapter and the oral presentation are quite similar, the 1986 version is very different.

In 1986, the presentation was revised quite heavily and included in the book "Erotic Universe: Sexuality and Fantastic Literature." with the title Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines.

"Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines" is oft-cited, and a very early example of acafandom.

Joanna Russ cited it her early works, as does Henry Jenkins in his book Textual Poachers.

This article was reprinted in full, with permission from the authors, in the Sime~Gen zine Post-Syndrome: Considerations on Sexuality in the Sime/Gen Universe. Following the reprinted article were several comments by fans.

The Introduction in "Post-Syndrome: Considerations on Sexuality in the Sime/Gen Universe"

The following article, while dealing primarily with the Kirk/Spock phenomenon of ST also brings up many interesting points for S/G fans to consider. In recent books, the protagonist is as likely as not to be a woman, but HoZ and, to an extent, UNTO, dealt with close relationships between men, and many female readers apparently found these books to be the most powerful ones in the series. Why should this sort of relationship, whether expressed sexually or not, be of such interest to women fans? In their article, Patricia Lamb and Diana Veith offer some reasonable explanations for this.

After the article are comments from several S/G fans who read it. I asked them the following questions: Do you feel, that any of this relates to the S/G series? If so, how? As women themselves gain more freedom to be strong and confident, will their interest in such male-male relationships fade? Why haven't we created any "female incomparables" in S/G fiction, now that women have begun to appear as rotagonists in the later books and stories? Or do you consider Ercy, Laneef, or Risa Tigue to be every bit as incomparable and admirable as Digen and Klyd?

Some Topics Discussed

  • Kirk/Spock relationship, both as an intense and exclusive platonic one and as a sexual one, both described using the term K/S -- the term slash is never used
  • zines
  • Leslie Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel
  • Lillian Faderman's Surpassing The Love Of Men
  • a 1979 Harvard Educational Review article by Carol Gilligan
  • the Ladies of Llangollen, two 18th century aristocratic English women, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who eloped and lived together for the rest of their lives
  • hurt/comfort, tying it in with sado-machoism: "Herein enters what we at first perceived to be an undue amount of sado-masochism, called the "hurt/comfort theme" by the K/S editors."
  • female and male attributes
  • patriarchy in space
  • strong theme of the aired show was manifest destiny, but this is not the case in zines
  • why has Kirk/Spock fic "gained such a hold on the imaginations of a large, well-educated, writing and reading female public as to come to make up a virtual subculture?"
  • the attraction of pairing the white with the dark...
  • "We have concluded that the K/S zines constitute a combination of a modern form of the "feminine" romantic novel and Fiedler's archetypal white male-black male relationship "haunting the American psyche."
  • lack of strong female characters in aired Trek, "There were no women incomparables in the ST series."
  • the Bem Sex Role Inventory
  • "In the ST world, there are no wives. No one stays home to worry or do the laundry."

Excerpts

Our thesis is that through a combination in the Kirk/Spock zines of fantasy and science fiction — Vulcan bonding and a 23rd century world of galactic exploration — the female writer-reader of this fiction can attain a unique blend of androgynous heroism and romantic love. Some explanation is perhaps needed first of precisely what constitutes the "Kirk/Spock" bond of our title. The Star Trek phenomenon arising from the television series of 1966-69 has given birth to a genre of fan magazines (fanzines, or, more simply, zines) which extends the existing relationship between Kirk and Spock to one approximating marriage.
As feminists, we were both acutely embarrassed at first by our fascination with the Star Trek zines we read. There were a number of good reasons for this embarrassment. The most important includes the romanticism of this literature, the intimate and even sexual relationship between the two very masculine, male characters of Kirk and Spock, and the absence of strongly positive female characters, as apparent in these zines as it was in the TV series. How could we read so much schlock about homosexuality in space? Then we discovered that we were not alone. And we began to search for the source of the strong appeal which this literature still has for us and for many others like ourselves.
There are two important differences between the zine adventures and those of the TV series. THe zine adventures have less to do with Manifest Destiny. Our right to explore and to extend our influence over other cultures was usually viewed positively in the series, even though it smacked of neo colonialism. Other life-forms encountered by the zine Kirk and Spock, whether "civilized" or not, are less receptive to the benefits afforded by contact with the more advanced Federation. In fact, these others are usually hostile. They make Kirk and Spock pay, often in pain and blood, for their interference, even if accidental. The Prime Directive is more fully operational in the zine stories, because the others are frequently portrayed as more powerful there than in the TV series. In the zines, it is less possible to extend the patriarchy into space. As a consequence, the zines have created a more dangerous universe. The dangers and frequent ensuing injuries inflicted on either Kirk or Spock (or both) lead to the "hurt/comfort" theme, a very important element of the K/S zines, discussed later in detail.
To repeat, what is this literature about? Why has it gained such a hold on the imaginations of a large, well-educated, writing and reading female public as to come to make up a virtual subculture? Why have we, as feminists, professionals, intellectuals, come to be so fascinated with the K/S zines, with their mating of two males who are seemingly stereotypically masculine, and with their unabashed homo-eroticism? We have concluded that the K/S zines constitute a combination of a modern form of the "feminine" romantic novel and Fiedler's archetypal white male-black male relationship "haunting the American psyche". They are in the stream of the romantic novel, despite the fact (rather, because of it, as we discuss later) that the psychic bond and homosexual relationship between two apparently ultra-masculine figures exist in a world remarkably devoid of female characters. The traditional elements of the romantic story are intensified by an admixture of mysticism and existentialism, also discussed later.
Theirs is a union of strengths, a partnership rarely possible between men and women today and certainly not a possibility between men and women in the ST universe as defined by NBC and Paramount. Although reminiscent of the bond formed between two men in combat (the "buddy" system) or in dangerous occupations where each must rely upon the other for their very lives, it is more than this. However, the zines assume that Kirk and Spock's commitment to each other is based upon an unguestioning reliance upon the courage, strength, and wits of the other. The zines do test the limits of their loyalty. Competition between them, however, is never a threat. As in the TV series, Spock has no ambitions regarding command. He does not covet Kirk's captaincy. He is content to be second-in command and to remain at the other man's side. Interestingly, his disclaimers regarding his lack of command aspirations are believed. This remarkable lack of competition between them makes their deep friendship possible.
Studies of the lives of American middle-class men have all noted the absence of psychologically close friendships among them. It is not, however, the fear of homosexuality that keeps men at a distance from each other. The nature of intimate friendships reguires a willingness to reveal one's deepest anxieties and greatest weaknesses. To be close psychologically is to be vulnerable. For a man to try to make a good friend of another man is to make himself weak before a potential enemy. Middle-class men find their closest relationships in their relationships with women. They turn to their wives and mistresses for psychological as well as sexual intimacy. Women can be trusted to know the weaknesses of men, for they are not in competition, and for a wife to use her knowledge of her husband against him is to use this knowledge against herself, for, in Tennyson's words, "They sink or swim together." The bonding and telepathic melding between Kirk and Spock will automatically' reveal each to the other, weaknesses and vulnerabilities, as well as strengths.
However romantic the K/S zine stories may be. Kirk and Spock's relationship is not analogous to the relationship between a man and a woman. The ST universe, as defined by NBC and Paramount, was a universe ruled by white male Humans. There was only one woman, and |a Romulan at that, who commanded. Another woman, Janice Lester ("Turnabout Intruder"), a former lover of Kirk, was driven mad by her frustrated aspirations. She could not reconcile herself to the limitations of her gender and committed acts that put her beyond the pale in her insane efforts to fulfill her "unnatural" ambitions for command. Women were portrayed in stereotypic fashion: as less competent and less trustworthy; as more sentimental, fearful and gullible; and as more often moved by their feelings and personal desires. There were no women incomparables in the ST series.
Women's aspirations importantly include a desire for truly equal and reciprocal relationships between people, especially in their intimate relationships. Many feminists despair of ever achieving such a relationship with a man. Certainly in a universe where women invariably have lower status as compared to men, this is not possible. While real women strive to create egalitarian relationships, true equality in heterosexual relationships faces its greatest challenge with the arrival of children. The arrival of the first child leads to more profound changes in the woman's life, for she is still the primary caretaker, and the child is viewed as her first responsibility, taking precedence before all else. A homosexual relationship neatly evades this issue. Perhaps one of the greatest appeals the zine literature has for its women readers is that neither Kirk nor Spock is required to sacrifice the work that brought them together. Their relationship is, in fact, usually portrayed as enhancing each one's competence in his work role and is often a form of reward for their successful achievements. Intimacy and achievement are not antithetical in the zines, while they often are in the lives of real women.
Why is it that the zines have not created women incomparables who are the equals of Kirk and Spock? Well, they have, on occasion, but rarely. And these powerful women function merely as devices to test Kirk and Spock's loyalty to one another. THeir presence assures us that even when Spock or Kirk has a real heterosexual choice, they will still choose one another. They have an intimate and, in many of the zines, a homosexual relationship, not because they fear women, are repelled by them, or view them as inferior, but because each has found in the other the ideal partner for life. Kirk and Spock are soulmates, the yin and the yang, the two halves of the egg united. They complete each other. Their ideal partnership is based on complementarity: Spock is reflective and unemotional, while Kirk is impulsive and passionate. It is also based on a high degree of similarity, for they are two powerful, competent males who share the same vision.
So the K/S zine stories are set firmly in the tradition of the romantic love story, whose components include forbidden love, the seeming impossibility of either one taking the initiative, many threats to their union, indeed their very lives. Kirk and Spock's is a forbidden love for three reasons: first, they are both male; second, one is outsider, alien, "other"; and third, the danger exists that a committed sexual relationship between them could endanger the ship and her crew, should the necessity arise to choose between saving lover or ship. The TV series, in fact, employed this latter conflict as a plot device in several episodes, in which Kirk or Spock chooses to imperil the ship to save the other.
Herein enters what we at first perceived to be an undue amount of sado-masochism, called the "hurt/comfort theme" by the K/S editors, which we thought an interesting, if transparent, euphemism. Kirk and Spock have an adventure in which one of them is seriously hurt. The other then has the opportunity'to touch, comfort, and care for his wounded partner. The adventure is merely a mechanism to get the two heroes alone or with a few others who then die, in order to explore the relationship as it truly is, or to deepen it. The adventure is a means by which the nature, strength, and significance of the relationship between these two men is revealed to us and, more importantly, to them. It is not an end unto itself. These "first time" stories give them the opportunity to be physically close and to recognize the inevitability of their physical love. The hurt/comfort theme of the stories, then, becomes a literary device to get them into one another's arms (and minds, eventually, with the bond). This is obviously an employment of feminine traits to bring about a desired mating: compassion, tenderness, affection, gentleness, and so on. The TV series itself (unlike most SF TV) placed a firm emphasis on the qualities of altruism and self-sacrifice inherent in these 23rd century people. The K/S zines simply carry these qualities a step further in personal relationships.
Once each has made the decision to commit himself to the lifelong bond, he is then passive in its hold, in the romantic and the mystical tradition, as are Tristan and Isolde "bonded" to one another quite literally by the love potion. The passivity we speak of here is one of the elements in the union of the mystic with her God, not a mundane ordering of one lover to be sexually passive (i.e., female) and one dominant (i.e., male). Kirk and Spock are passive in the sense that neither can be nor desires to be alone or wholly self-directing again. They have given themselves to one another and in so doing, through the bond, have become more than simply two people together. They constitute a gestalt now. However, the most appealing mystic quality of the bond is the noetic: each experiences an illumination, a revelation, an awakening of the self within the bond that is unavailable in "ordinary" relationships. One compelling series of stories (including a novel) begins with their deaths, resurrects them with the intervention of a super-race, and examines at length and in detail the rebuilding of the bond between them, which had been broken at their deaths. Their tender and yearning memories of the noetic and their determination to regain it lead them to resolve the bitterness and guilt each feels for the solitary and voluntary decision to be reborn, once the choice had been offered them.
The trust necessary to enter voluntarily into a lifelong bond such as this rests on their equality and not their differences. Where Spock is super-rational. Kirk is femininely emotional. As Kirk is Captain of the Enterprise, he is then Spock's commanding officer, but Spock is physically and intellectually Kirk's superior. Yet they must, in the mystical way of St. John of the Cross, live through the dark night of the soul, make the willing leap of faith into the unknown, lose their single, separate lives in order to gain a union of self with the other. All of the foregoing is the language of paradox, common to both romantic and mystical writing. Here it operates on a given of a genuine and realistic transaction between two fully aware people, both of whom possess and exercise judgment and physical and psychologicalstrength.

A radical feminist friend of ours who is highly critical of our fascination with the zines says, "Well, why don't you read and write about women doing what Kirk and Spock do?"

Given the limitations imposed upon women currently as well as historically, it stretches credulity to imagine female characters like Kirk and Spock. Fantasy must touch reality somewhere. Women, however, have never been limited in their ability to identify with fictional male heroes. It is our thesis that the zines are read for their presentation of a new kind of relationship that a growing number of women see as ideal. The characters are male because this new kind of relationship can exist more easily in a male-male relationship. What is more important is that it speaks to women's experience that the most satisfying relationships are with members of one's own sex, that it is only here that a relationship between two equals, valued for who they are, can exist. It gives them a vision, that it is perhaps possible for two people to share everything that gives meaning to their lives — love and work.
The second element, found, of course, only in the zines, is the homosexual, although not all the K/S zines are R- or X-rated. Referring again to our thesis that the K/S relationship is similar to the romantic friendships between women, Faderman contends that the romantic friendships between women that existed prior to the 20th century were not necessarily genital.
These stories recognize that even the most autonomous and competent individual needs to be loved and cared for, and that loving and caring for another can be a deeply satisfying experience. Being sensitive to the needs of others, gentle, tender, and compassionate has traditionally been defined as feminine. The zines provide plenty of opportunity for Kirk and Spock to behave in this way, especially toward one another. Consequently, their special relationship allows them to express aspects of themselves that have no other outlets. Kirk and Spock emerge as complete human beings for the first time and are not longer macho caricatures. The zines reveal the anima, or feminine, in these two very masculine men in a way that does not detract from their masculinity one iota.
We have had a number of ST K/S fans fill out the Bem Sex role Inventory for both the TV series Kirk and Spock and the K/S zine ' Kirk and Spock. While both are definitely portrayed as more androgynous, that is, highly masculine and highly feminine, in the zines as compared to their unequivocally masculine characterizations in the TV series, one is changed more than the other. That one is Spock. In the TV series, he is devoid of emotion and coldly computer-like and analytic in his thinking, with the exception of a few episodes in which forces beyond his control pushed his emotions to the fore. Also the TV writers occasionally gave him the merest hint of emotional response, primarily to Kirk. Needless to say, he had to become more expressive if his friendship with Kirk was to mature into a romantic friendship.

That Spock was changed more by their relationship always made us think of him as more feminine, for it is women who must adapt and adjust in order to establish and maintain their relationships to men. Spock does seem to play a female role in two other important-respects as well. First, he is alien in a way that ensures that he can never "pass" or attain full acceptance in a world dominated by white males. Some of his Vulcan characteristics, the computer-like mind and lack of emotion, were even depicted in the series as precluding the kind of achievement reserved solely for Kirk. These are interestingly the reverse of the so-called feminine characteristics which have traditionally been viewed as impediments to women's achievements.

What this signifies is that the initially more androgynous Kirk, who had to be an aggressive, ambitious, risk-taking, and competent leader to rise to the position of Captain, must also be sensitive to others and compassionate at times in order to be effective in that position. Secondly, Spock's Vulcan nature is no more enchanted with necrophilia than are women, the bearers of life. According to Erich Fromm, patriarchies are death-loving and death-seeking, for they must justify the use of violence to maintain status and power hierarchies, and they consequently glorify those who fill the roles of the maintainers of the status quo. One must remember that Kirk is a soldier and an outstanding success in a patriarchal system. Beyond his enjoyment of battle, his necrophilia takes the form of incredible personal risks. At times, it seems he has a death wish.

Spock, however, must suppress his protectiveness, his attempts to domesticate or tame Kirk, which he recognizes would only alienate his bondmate and reduce his effectiveness. Rather than attempting to make Kirk more cautious. Spock's solution always is to accompany his lover into danger, to be there to protect or to save him or to perish with him. Their adventures are shared. Each relies upon the other unquestioningly, for they are equally strong. In the ST world, there are no wives. No one stays home to worry or do the laundry.

Fan Comments Printed in "Post-Syndrome: Considerations on Sexuality in the Sime/Gen Universe"

Actually, it's not all that hard to understand why women find the ST zines interesting. Women have traditionally been fascinated by relationships. As for the sexual aspects, perhaps there is an element of curiosity at work here, a relationship that excludes women. I haven't seen the zines, but find this kind of bonding intriguing.

Historically, in Western cultures, women have represented security, stability, status quo, family, etc. With this symbolic baggage, they would have no place in the archetype Fiedler describes: rather, they would introduce a primitive element of competition between the men, especially since it has never been acceptable in this culture for a woman to "have" two men. In addition, those women are weaker, therefore producing the "ankle- sprainer" stereotype seen in countless grade B movies. That damsel-in-distress scenario would interfere with the men's relationship and their struggle against whatever forces challenge them. Note that the woman Hugh and Klyd seek is offstage as a captive. She comes between them.

If you go on to consider the typical fictional pattern of American marriage, one partner dominates, generally the male, while the woman, unable to control through direct confrontation, quietly manipulates things. But consider today how many women want to be honest equals in a relationship, worthy as individuals who bring necessary strengths and contributions to the marriage. And many men welcome it. However, others are threatened by it. It is hard to show one's weaknesses to someone who can compete, rather than exist as an adjunct.

So it would seem that this relationship, highly idealized, represents something many of us search for. I think the idea of two people — any two — who have an "unquestioning love which binds them together" is of particular interest in our time, not only because of women's liberation, but also because of the alienation many feel in America today, especially in the aftermath of the "me" 1970's and the growing emphasis on impersonal or isolated communication. In a world filled with computer-written form letters, a constantly moving society without community support, and people who must meet through computer dating and take- a-chance singles bars, we are more than ever ALONE. Women have been pushed to get out there in the cold and compete, dress for success, and fight.

The search for a love that accepts one unconditionally is becoming a more frequent motif in our pop culture. One recent example is Bruce Springsteen, whose lyrics in the past have been filled with violent imagery. He now writes in "Cover Me" about seeking shelter from the rain and wind outside and looking for a lover who will cover him. Again, in "No Surrender" he refers to blood brothers with a vow to defend. Last year's Air Supply hit, "Making Love Out of Nothing at All", is about a person who is talented apable, but unable to make it without the other person. (It has always sounded in parts like something a Sime might sing to a Gen. This superperson is reduced to crawling if he lacks the love the other makes out of nothing at all.) The idea is present in many other lyrics that are highly popular; they strike a chord in the listeners.

In any story or series wherein the major characters' survival depends on each other, it seems that a special bond develops in a partnership that works. It's always gratifying to see two people fight the elements that threaten them and then win together. It's symbolic of the kind of love for humanity and banding together we need in the world if we are all going to make it. When it works in fiction, particularly between very different people, it gives us hope. That is what I responded to in HoZ. It's Hugh's decision at last to commit himself to the trust and goals he sees in Klyd, after all that internal struggle. The transfer signifies that I successful union, a substitute for the sexual contact used in the ST zines. You find it in Joel's determination to overcome his problems and make a transfer; in Im's desperate efforts to save ? Digen, thus locking himself into a total dependency. In each situation the physical contact of transfer consummates the commitment. It would seem that actual sex is not necessary, but rather some physical representation of the relationship and intimacy.

Until recently, men have been the fictional heroes, the ones we expect to do the fighting. But I don't think that the hero figure today has to be male. In terms of two like Spock and Kirk, maybe it's not so much the male ideal that people respond to as the possibility that two people could trust in and rely on each other and respond to each other like one combined entity. With today's changing views, why not have two women who can face the odds in complete partnerships? Since the female qualities can appear in the men, why not show the strength, leadership, and courage of male figures in women? Perhaps it comes down to waiting for enough people to write it, and some editor to accept it.

I also find it interesting that the focus is on two men or two women. Why isn't anyone asking about such a bond between man and woman? Would that be hardest to accept? Would it be harder to write in staving off the element of romance as opposed to intimacy between equals? Would it be harder to see because it shows more real change than man/man or woman/woman pairs which do not threaten the status quo?

Let me open with three definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. "Love", as a noun, is "a strong affection, a warm- attachment, an attraction based on sexual desire"; as a verb, it means "to cherish, feel a passion, devotion or tenderness for, to caress, or to take pleasure in". "Lust" is a "sexual desire, often to an intense or unrestrained degree, or an intense longing". "Symbiosis" is "the living together in intimate association or close union of two dissimilar organisms, especially when mutually beneficial".

In most K/S stories that I've read (and this is backed by the article), "love" is the motivating factor in this type of story. As stated in the article, the emotional undercurrent is there, although initially deeply repressed, and it takes a physical ^ element (illness or injury in particular) to initiate the sexual union. In K/S, this invariably leads to a bonding situation. This ultimately becomes a "symbiosis". I would like to add here my own extension to the definition of "symbiosis": ". . . mutually beneficial, or without which one or the other organism (and perhaps both) would perish". This is repeatedly stated in fan Trek literature, and if we take THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK as "official" Trek, the Fal-tor-pan — another form of bonding — will prove the theory. Without Spock's rebirth, McCoy will die (or face permanent insanity — a worse fate).

Thus, the bonding comes before the physical union, and the bonding allows if not necessitates the physical union. For without the mutual trust and understanding, their union could not exist. Kirk and Spock, therefore, demonstrate "love/symbiosis".

In the S/G universe, the "love/symbiosis" certainly exists, but not in the same way. The closest example would be Ercy and Im'rahan, who helps her through changeover (the emotional stage) to First Transfer (the physical stage). Of course, we all know that bonding did not work as planned!

The more classic example in the S/G universe is the S/G "love/symbiosis" that follows a truly profound transfer experience, the "lust/symbiosis". Take Digen and Im'ran for an example. Digen was not drawn to Im as a person (emotionally) initially, but as a selyn field (physical). Once Digen knew how great Im's transfers were — and that Im could survive his draw — then he could allow himself to care enough about Im to allow the orhuen to form. Of course, LOT as an emotional aspect can only develop in a transfer- t compatible couple.

The symbiosis factor is more pronounced in S/G literature if an LOT bond is established. If the Gen dies, the Sime will rarely survive, unlike in the Trek universe, where we can only extrapolate that the bondmate will also die. In conclusion then, "symbiosis" — with its survival element inserted — is the goal of both K/S and the S/G stories. The typical K/S story tends to introduce the love/emotional aspect first, while the typical S/G story tends to introduce the lust/physical aspect first. This is less true of S/G fan fiction, which often shows a pair of children growing, like Rimon and Kadi, into the polarity of male/female (though not necessarily) and S/G concurrently. Could this be due to the fact that many of us are fen of both universes and we're trying to mold the S/G world to our perception of Trek?