Star Trek and the future of male friendship

Curator's Note

In Manhood in America: A Cultural History, Michael Kimmel does not forget Star Trek, for it “reveal[s], perhaps more clearly, if unintentionally, than any other TV show, the growing crisis of masculinity.” That crisis appears in Kirk and Spock’s friendship, one of the constants in the series. Kirk may have a woman on every planet, but they come and go. Spock, however, is an unchanging presence in Kirk’s life, and also a safe one. He is primarily asexual, and audiences need not suspect that their relationship will change into something untoward. In the rebooted Star Trek movies, however, the nature of their friendship has changed. Kirk is still a womanizer, but Spock, too, has a girlfriend. Their friendship could be destabilized by their potential rivalry—after all, Kirk makes no bones about his attraction to Uhura—but the biggest change is Spock’s new status as a sexual being. Bridget Kies sees Spock’s new sexuality as normative: “In the reboot universe, Spock is transformed from virginal to heteronormative. His relationship with Uhura explicitly defines him as heterosexual and therefore assuredly masculine.” I argue, though, that Spock’s relationship with Uhura makes him anything but “assured.” For if the new Spock is capable of heteronormative sex, he is capable of sex, and what is to say he is not capable then of sex with Kirk? Indeed, the Spock of the reboot is much more passionate than Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. He loses his composure after Vulcan is destroyed, and he, not Kirk, screams “KHAAAAAAAN!” in rage and despair. The newly passionate Spock, then, brings that passion to the Kirk-Spock friendship, and their relationship is tinged with a frisson of sexual tension. But why now? Is the newly titillating relationship a result of fan fiction? Star Trek has a long track record of responding to the desires of their fans, so has the proliferation of slash fiction that unites Kirk/Spock infiltrated the main stream movies? Or perhaps, as Jane Ward argues, all male friendships are essentially homoerotic, or at least audiences fear that they are so. Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 209. Bridget Kies, “‘A Friendship that will define you both’: Star Trek and the devolution of American masculinity,” Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3 (2016), 426. Jane Ward, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 7.


Hi Deanna, Thanks for reading and citing my article. I see your point about the possibilities for Spock's sexuality, that perhaps the matter is not about whether he expresses hetero- or homosexuality but that he expresses sexuality at all. This is analogous to the claims I cite, borrowing from Cait Coker, that Kirk’s sexuality can also be read as not fixed, monogamous heterosexuality (e.g. what else does he sleep with besides farm animals?). In both cases, I see reflections of your arguments from Ward. Eric Anderson notes the increased inclusivity toward flexible sexuality that masculinity now encompasses, but rightly notes that this is not descriptive of every man and every male relationship. Certainly media industries have identified the latent homoeroticism of male friendships as a potential marketing tool. I do think in the case of the reboot, there is a conscious line-walking to sell to the Kirk/Spock fans old and new while preserving the exterior image of heteronormativity for a more conservative audience base – which may well be evolving faster than I write this post. I’ll leave with this gif from the Golden Globes that encapsulates this discussion.

I really enjoyed your article, Bridget, and thanks for responding here. Another thing that I couldn't mention in my brief notes is Star Trek's blending of actor/character. In your article, you make note of the actor who plays Spock in the reboot: Zachary Quinto, of course, has come out as gay. Then the newest film--Beyond--curiously merges actor and character with the contentious relationship of Sulu. Sulu's gay marriage in Beyond is an homage to the actor who played him in the Original Series, but I call the relationship "contentious" because George Takei himself called the choice "unfortunate."

Lots of food for thought here! You make an interesting point about Spock being overtly sexualized in the Abrams 'verse in a way he wasn't in TOS. I think you're right. However, I don't agree that TOS Spock is portrayed as "primarily asexual," though I see what you're getting at. Although he's not banging everything that moves like James T., he is a very sexy dude, and quite a few beings in the series react to him as such. At later points in the series, he seems more receptive to, and even interested in, the attention of other attractive beings. Perhaps it's the shipper in me talking (yes), but the sexual tension between Spock and Kirk in the TOS, while not overt, is more immediate to me as a viewer than any between them in nu!Trek. That said, I think you're on to something when you note that Abrams and company are keenly aware of the history of K/S, the granddaddy of all slash ships. It's fascinating that that awareness (of the audience's desire to see/read Spock as a sexual being), is portrayed via a heterosexual romance with the potential of a threeway. It's an interesting contrast the one moment of such on-screen awareness portrayed in TOS (ok, in Star Trek V): Spock halting Kirk's embrace by saying "Please, Captain. Not in front of the Klingons."

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