Kirk/Spock (originally called “slash” for the backslash between the names to signify their pairing as a romantic couple) has been a part of Star Trek (1966) fandom from its earliest days. Before the Internet, fan writers and artists shared original typed work and drawings, which made their way to copied and stapled or plastic spiral-bound fanzines. With VCRs came fan videos, combining clips to amass “proof” that Kirk and Spock were lovers. And the continued popularity of this pairing is easily seen in the many fan-made videos on YouTube, featuring clips suggestively juxtaposed, accompanied by a romantic soundtrack, or with intertitle commentary.
If there is no doubt that the appeal of the pairing from the original 1960s television program (and subsequent films) remains strong, the question of why remains equally potent. What made Kirk/Spock the original gay couple of (mostly female, mostly straight) fans’ fertile imaginations and artistic productions?
First, let’s discuss the criterion of “intention.” To me—and to many “slash” fans—it does not matter whether the producers of a text intended hints of homosexual desire in their characters. I am more invested in reception, in the reader’s/fan’s pleasures. This said, I find Alexander Doty persuasive in Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon when he claims, “In order to appeal to the largest audience possible it behooves the film and television industries to allow queerness some sort of expression much of the time.”
Apart from intent, there are many possible answers to why Kirk/Spock is so popular. In her ethnographic study Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1991), Camille Bacon-Smith placed the heart of Kirk/Spock attraction among straight women in the genre of hurt/comfort. Kirk and Spock frequently rescue one another from harrowing scenarios, displaying strong emotion and commitment. The greater the danger (hurt), the more compelling the rescue (comfort) for viewers and fan writers and artists, who create their own intense situations and have the freedom to end them with more than an embrace, a bridal carry to safety, or a “Welcome back.”
As I read the pairing—both within hurt/comfort scenarios and beyond—gender is at the heart of its appeal. In binary terms, Kirk can be seen to represent masculinity while Spock exemplifies elements of the feminine. Kirk is the captain, the leader; he loves to display his physical strength, he is promiscuous, and the emotion he shows most frequently is anger. Spock, by contrast, is a receptive follower; he is wholeheartedly committed to his mission and his captain; he can empathize with others by reading minds; and he loathes his emotions as they make him seem less professional. More generally, Spock, like “Woman,” is the “Other”: mysterious and unpredictable. (This opposition has racial connotations as well, with Kirk as white and Spock as racial Other.)
Of course, this list makes plain how easily we can argue the opposite. Kirk is feminine because he is more highly emotional; he depends on Spock’s support for his success. Spock is masculine in that he is the more rational of the two, and he has greater intellect. Depending on how we arrange our questioning, we find either balance or a challenge to traditional gender binaries.
Hence Kirk/Spock emerges as the perfect match. The two are not competitive but complementary, however we parse specific gender traits. Moreover, by removing women from the equation, complex issues of power imbalances and gender politics can be jettisoned for fan pleasure. Ultimately, I find this the most a convincing explanation of why so many straight (and bisexual) women continue to love Kirk/Spock, and how they choose other male-male television and film pairings to read as gay or “slash.”