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The problem of gatekeeping in Star Trek fandom

Contributed by
Nov 29, 2017

There’s something happening with Star Trek: Discovery. The show is clearly popular; it scored an early renewal for a second season, and social media is abuzz with discussion and speculation every Monday after an episode airs. If you follow me at all on Twitter (or read my weekly recaps), you already know that I’m a huge fan of the show, which boasts incredible storytelling and intriguing characters.

But this isn’t a discussion of the merits of Discovery. Some, like me, love it. Others don’t. Still others are angry about the delivery method. Whatever your feelings on the show are, they’re your business. No show is perfect, and no show is for everyone, and that’s okay.

That being said, there’s been a disturbing trend among the ranks of Star Trek fandom that has turned its back on the show. It’s not enough that they don’t like it; they’ve decreed that anyone who enjoys the show isn’t a real Star Trek fan. And they’ll pop up in Facebook comments, in Twitter mentions, everywhere they can to make sure you know it.

I’ve been called a lot of things because of my vocal support for Star Trek: Discovery, from a fake Star Trek fan to a shill for CBS. The words don’t bother me. The mindset behind them, the gatekeeping of what a “real” fan is, does. The fact is that some people, mainly men, are trying to tell those of us who are enjoying the show that we aren’t “real fans” of Star Trek. And it just so happens that the bulk of these fans are women and people of color.

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This type of gatekeeping isn’t limited to Star Trek fandom; these toxic elements exist in pretty much every geek space. But one of Star Trek’s main values is diversity and embracing difference; this type of exclusion is antithetical to what the show is about. And it doesn’t help that it’s arguably the first in the franchise to cater specifically to a more diverse audience.

While Star Trek has often paid lip service to being inclusive, it hasn’t always measured up in practice — see, for example, the treatment of female characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Discovery, on the other hand, has a black female lead, who’s in a relationship with a South Asian man. The long-term pairing on the ship is a mixed-race gay couple. This show is specifically centering and reaching out to traditionally marginalized audiences. It’s not always perfect, but it’s doing pretty damn well.

There are legitimate problems that some have with the show, such as canon and continuity issues. But using these criteria to weaponize an argument about why the show is bad is incredibly insidious. In some ways, it’s even worse than hearing, “Star Trek: Discovery is bad because it has a black woman as the lead.” That we can all ignore (as frustrating as it is) as racist and sexist. But the thought that something as important as continuity within this universe should bother you but doesn’t? That will get into your head, especially if you’re new to the franchise and don’t have the extensive background that others do. That will make you start wondering if you are, in fact, not a “real” Star Trek fan.

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The fact is, we all interact with the things we love differently. I really enjoy reveling in things I love. I can forgive a lot (but not everything). Others express their interest in something by tearing it apart. They nitpick every last detail of what they love. We all participate in fandom in our own ways. I’d like the show to respect what’s come before, and I think Discovery does a great job of that. But I also recognize it needs to have room to tell its own stories. Others may not. Live and let live.

The problem arises when one person (or a group of people in this case) imposes their own standards for how they interact with Star Trek on everyone else. I fully believe that some people have trouble engaging with the show because various issues. You know what that means? That this show isn’t for them. But rather than accepting that, these gatekeepers decide that their opinions are fact. And then they try and impose their will and judgment on others.

This also brings in a level of fan entitlement that is pretty gross, when you think about it. It’s never fun when something you love disappoints you. But rather than giving it a fair chance, and then shaking it off and moving on if it continues not to work, these people proceed to harass anyone who does enjoy it. We don’t always get what we want out of our entertainment; I’d argue that it’s actually a good thing when the things we love challenge us.

Gatekeeping is lazy, small-minded, and quite frankly, it’s dumb. The idea that people are taking a franchise known for its commitment to inclusivity — Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, after all — and proclaiming that its diverse fanbase aren’t “real” fans is incredibly toxic. No fan owns Star Trek. Many of us who have watched every incarnation of the show feel a sense of ownership over it, but it’s not ours. It belongs to everyone. And as long as all of the gatekeepers are out there harassing people who enjoy Star Trek: Discovery, I’ll be here, reminding everyone that there is no such thing as a “real” fan.

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