MIT's Henry Jenkins on How Star Trek's Spock Paved The Way for Obama


Yes, yes - it’s no big secret that I’m a fan-grrrl from way back, so you can only imagine my squeee! upon reading Henry Jenkins’  pop-culture essay in which he maps the linkages between Spock and Obama.  (Jenkins is the director of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program.)

(Mash-up courtesy of Upsidethehead.)

Did Leonard Nimoy and Star Trek help pave the way for an Obama candidacy?   Jenkins concludes - in his essay published yesterday in his blog, "Confessions of an Aca-Fan" - that the show did, indeed, plant some early seeds of acceptance for bi-racial marriages and their off-spring.  (Spock’s mother was human; his father was Vulcan.)

In retrospect, of course, the original television series is outdated, but its influence cannot be overlooked.

At a very young age, in advance of the 1968 presidential election, I clearly recall spotting bumper stickers that said "Mr. Spock for President."  

At that point, Mr. Spock and Leonard Nimoy were wildly popular figures.  In an era when bi-racial couples were ostracized and their children shunned, Star Trek, with Spock as the mixed race metaphor, simply did an end-run around our prejudices and went straight for the unconscious - a kind of media neuro-linguistic programming.  The idea that we could accept, even admire, a mixed race being blossomed deep.

Now, it’s "Obama for President."  

Here’s how Jenkins’ thoughts spun out after he was asked the following question during an interview last week for NPR’s In Character: "What contemporary figure has the same qualities as Mr. Spock?"  (Click here for Jenkins’ blog and read the entire essay.  Check the In Character link too, for lots and lots of chatter about Spock.)

I thought about Syler from Heroes as another prospect, no doubt influenced by the casting of Zachary Quinto to play Spock for the forthcoming Star Trek prequel movie. In both cases, you had characters who are defined through their otherworldly intelligence. Syler, like Spock, is someone who can bitch slap you with his brain. And in both cases, there is a deep distrust of that intelligence and their rationality is seen not as impartial but as self-absorbed and antisocial….

….At the time, my main point was that Spock was an explicitly mixed race character on American television at a time when most programs hadn’t come to grips with identity politics.  Star Trek’s Spock was born of a human mother and a Vulcan father….

….A similar construction of multiracial identity has taken shape around Obama who has sought to construct himself as not only post-partisan but also post-racial.   It’s striking what a high percentage of media coverage of Obama describes him as African-American, despite the fact that he has a white mother….And because he is a man literally of two worlds, he is seen as being capable of translating between Terrans and many of the other races they encounter as they "boldly go where no man [one] has gone before."….

….if you look at how Obama has constructed himself, it is as someone at home with both blacks and whites, someone whose mixed racial background has forced him to become a cultural translator….

…..I’ve been surprised by how quickly the blogosphere picked up on the Spock/Obama comparison. Almost immediately, I started to see people construct graphics around the Spock/Obama theme, which clearly resonated with people other than myself…

And, as a child raised in a conservative Irish-Catholic household in a small Iowa farming community, dreading almost every minute of Catholic school and those bat sh*t crazy nuns, the following graf by Jenkins in particular struck a chord for me. 

I, too, watched Star Trek during its original run, at a very early age.  I stumbled upon the series by accident and I still have never forgotten that first, jaw-dropping episode - the one featuring the Gorn - and I never missed another episode.    To reach for the stars, for the adventure beyond, sounds corny, I know.  But that’s what I learned from Star Trek.  

For me, the connection makes sense on a somewhat deeper and more personal level. I am a first generation Star Trek fan and I’ve long argued that many of my deepest political convictions - especially those surrounding equality and diversity - emerged from my experience of watching the program as a young man growing up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights era…

..In its own small way, Star Trek and Spock may have helped to prepare the way for Obama’s victory in the Democratic primaries, helping us to imagine a different set of relationships between the races. Nowhere was this social utopian vision more fully expressed than the "great friendship" between Kirk and Spock and so we can see some legacy of this theme of acceptance across racial boundaries…

Upsidethehead offers coffee mugs, t-shirts and coasters with a mash-up of Obama as Mr. Spock.  This is just too cool.  I’m ordering the women’s v-neck T. 

Nimoy! Talkin’ Obama.

AND…a teaser trailer (just in case you haven’t seen it) for J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek XI, a filmthat keeps getting pushed back and pushed back, but is finally coming to theatres in May/2009.  Squeee!  This totally gives me heart palpitations.  (Full screen here.)