University of California at Santa Barbara professor Constance Penley is an academic expert on Star Trek fan culture, but that's not the only reason fans might be interested in her. In its back-to-school issue last month, Rolling Stone Magazine named Penley one of the nation's "dangerous professors" because of her course on pornography. In addition, she was one of the artists who worked on the Melrose Place art project that created the work of the character Samantha Reilly for the series.
This association with porn and pop culture doesn't seem to have interfered with her authority as an expert on science fiction, punctuated by her recent appearances on the Sci-Fi Channel as a commentator during broadcasts of the original Star Trek episodes. Nor does it seem to have hurt her academic career - Penley chairs the film department at UCSB, teaches women's studies, and is a visiting professor this semester teaching a graduate art course at Mills College. But it certainly makes her controversial.
A founding editor of the feminist film journal Camera Obscura, Penley has edited and authored several books and dozens of papers, but the 1998 publication of her NASA/Trek is receiving a different level of attention than her previous work. To the uninitiated, the title NASA/Trek probably doesn't raise eyebrows: it appears to suggest a split discussion of the space agency and the spacefaring series, which is one of the projects of this study of space travel and gender in the public imagination. Subtitled "Popular Science and Sex in America," the slim, witty volume covers such topics as sexist jokes about Christa McAuliffe, NASA's refusal to consider experiments with contraception in outer space, and the literary antecedents of Star Trek fan fiction.
But to those familiar with the popular use of "/" or "slash," NASA/Trek suggests something much more subversive. "Slash" refers to the rewriting of media characters in a sexual or romantic paradigm - specifically male buddy pairs. The primordial couple of fan slash publications were Kirk and Spock; the initial fan stories positing a sexual bond between the two men identified themselves in fanzines as "K/S," which led to the use of the slash as a convention for everything from S/H (Starsky/Hutch) to J/B (Jim "Sentinel" Ellison and Blair Sandburg), though the convention has crossed over into general adult fan fiction such as Mulder/Scully and Xena/Gabrielle.
In the introduction to NASA/Trek, Penley labels the "homoerotic, pornographic, utopian romances" set in the Star Trek universe "ingenious subversions" of a popular legend, and adds that slash fans made her realize that NASA creates popular legend just as Trek does - for instance, in the ongoing repression of the details of the deaths of the Challenger astronauts. Though she writes "as a fan of NASA," Penley does not hold back in her criticism of the agency in its gendered double standards, its sexual conservatism that is both a cause and effect of women's being denied equal opportunities in space, and its mismanagement of the Teacher in Space program. Still, Penley's book is very positive about NASA, Trek, and the role both play in our slow progress toward the stars - and toward the idealized universes of our science fiction, both canon and fanfic (popular fan terms for the actual events of a series and the fan fiction created by viewers, which may diverge wildly from "reality" as posited by the series).
When I caught up with her, the professor was in the midst of preparing for the start of classes at UCSB, finalizing a syllabus for her class at Mills College, working on a "Porn 101" book with artist Susie Bright and scholar Linda Williams, and writing an essay for a Sotheby's catalogue for the Melrose Place art project. Penley was invited to be a part of that group by Mel Chin, an artist who was commissioned by Mocha in Los Angeles in the fall of '95 as part of a project "to do huge interactive public art pieces that would engage in what they called complex negotiations with some community of Los Angeles," Penley laughs. "Mel was looking at Melrose Place one night, and thought, 'Oh - gallery space!' He contacted the head set decorator, who was excited at the prospect of getting free artwork, and the project took off.
Ultimately a group of over 50 artists, in collaboration with the writers, producers, directors, set decorators, and actors, created over 150 works of art and props for the series, with their own subversive elements. "They wanted it to look very Southern Californian, so we did pastels of Southern California scenes, but they were all of places where violence or murder had occurred - the Tate-Bianca Mansion, the Chateau Marmont, the Ambassador Hotel, Nicole Brown's house, the Viper Club," Penley points out. "We made pieces that try to intersect a world of art and a world of television. For example, one character got pregnant, and we know what happens to pregnant characters on television: they either have the baby or have one of those convenient miscarriages. So for two entire episodes, she was confined to home because of her difficult pregnancy, and we wrapped her in a quilt whose pattern was the chemical formula for RU-486!"
Though Penley never considered herself an artist, she spent time every week working on the pieces with art students. "Why I loved this was because it was just the perfect extension of my interest in fandom - but in this case it was actually getting inside the show and transforming it." It was always the group's wish that the project end with the pieces being sold at an auction with the proceeds going to foundations that support women's education, so when Sotheby's volunteered the auction house and the auctioneer for November 12th on Rodeo Drive, Penley agreed to write for the catalogue.
"This will be like another performance piece, because we put a whole scene of Sam's paintings being auctioned off into Melrose Place to anticipate our own auction," she says. "We got them to shoot a scene with Heather Locklear and Rob Estes in our exhibit at Mocha as it was going up. They have this long discussion about art, standing in front of our pieces, and we're in the background as extras. I always have to admit, I had so much fun doing this! It's just the perfect fan thing. I'm trying to show how this kind of artistic activity is really an extension of what fans are up to all the time."
Penley discovered slash because of film studies, then discovered porn because of slash. When Camera Obscura was doing a special issue on science fiction and sexual difference (later published as Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction), she came across a now-famous article by Patricia Frazer Lamb and Diana L. Veith, which in turn led her to an essay by award-winning science fiction author Joanna Russ, "Pornography For Women, By Women, With Love." Fascinated, Penley tracked down Frazer to ask her to write for Camera Obscura, and learned from her the address ofOn the Double, a zine that publishes the titles and addresses for current and popular slash. "So I just started ordering like crazy."
Though she says her colleagues suggested that she was really "doing ethnography" rather than voraciously consuming amateur porn, Penley insists that she had no idea it was going to be an academic object for her when she started reading slash; "I just thought it was great stuff! Like a lot of women, I didn't have a lot of access to visual pornography, so this was the hottest porn I had ever come across." Although she was married at the time to the co-editor of her book Technoculture, Andrew Ross - another Rolling Stone "dangerous professor" legendary for his flashy clothes and for calling the Constitution "a con job" written by white elitists - her colleagues and partner raised their eyebrows when dirty drawings of Kirk and Spock started showing up on her desk.
Nonetheless, when Penley was invited to a slash con in Houston in the mid-'80s, "I just immediately got on the plane. I wanted to know, who are these people? I had so much admiration for what they do." She followed the con circuit from Houston to San Diego to Golita, California, where she currently lives - which coincidentally is host annually to what the professor describes as "probably the most self-reflexive and intellectualized of the slash cons. We still have the stripper show, but there are really in-depth panels. In this year's convention packet they had the introduction to NASA/Trek - it was really something to walk down the hallway and see people reading it."
So how did a "dangerous professor" and self-confessed slash slut hook up with the Sci-Fi Channel for official Star Trek commentary? "That is a very interesting question!" she exclaims. "The person who was subcontracted by the Sci-Fi Channel to find people to be interviewed is actually a Ph.D. in film from UT Austin, so she knew about my scholarly work. She proposed me; she had given them a copy of NASA/Trek, but I'm sure nobody read it. One thing really struck me when I was on the set there: these were all kids! They had never seen the original Star Trek."
The interviewer on the Sci-Fi Channel wanted Penley to talk about sexism and misogyny in the roles for women on Star Trek, "but I don't find that interesting." During the second part of "The Menagerie," Penley discussed instead her interest in what fans do to subvert the text of the show. "I kept trying to bring it around to the fans - I think I said at one point in the interview that I'm in fact less interested in Star Trek as a text than I am in looking at what fans do with it, how they creatively interact with it and engage with it," she notes.
Penley has served on panels with Professor Henry Jenkins of M.I.T., the other major name in academic study of fandom, and is a bit bemused by what fans think of academic culture. "They put on this skit where they made fun of academic writers on slash on the grounds that we were too easy on them, too celebratory - they were a bit bemused with the section of NASA/Trek that asked the question of what kind of American fiction was slash writing, and they were going, 'Oh! We're a literary legacy!'"
But Penley realized that no one had ever asked the question before, and wanted to place slash writing within a historical as well as sociological context. "I was at a sociology graduate field work seminar, and a sociologist put the question to me of how typical is this slash impulse," she explains. "I didn't know that this was 'the typicality question' in sociology, and that I was supposed to go out across the culture and see how widespread this behavior was. Instead I answered it as a literary historian, and I said, 'I think that this goes right back to the 19th century. It's typical to the concerns and thematics of American fiction writing, both high and low.' I was already starting to get the idea that it was literary work. I finally realized that it was indeed an ingenous fusing of the male quest romance with the domestic or sentimental novel, in a way that elided most of the problems with both." Thus, Penley posits slash as a merger of two quintessentially American literary genres, which makes overt the homophilia in stories of men on the frontier, yet permits the familial sort of bonds found in women's domestic novels.
"Slash fandom is about women writing," she insists. The professor hopes to work more on this topic, possibly in conjunction with a documentary filmmaker from Glasgow who has interviewed the thirteen surviving women who had tested for the Mercury program. After hearing Penley on a BBC radio program, he contacted her and the two met in Edinburgh. "He asked me if I would be interested in being a part of this film, and I said yes, but I would be interested in having it be about current and former astronauts and women who played fictional travelers in space, like Kate Mulgrew and Jodie Foster and Erin Gray, because that would make it more about women in space in the cultural imaginary. I might go back to that, but I have too many projects!"
Penley insists that she wrote NASA/Trek not just for academics and fans, but for a much broader population of people interested in science and culture. "More and more I'm not interested in writing just to produce scholarship - I want to get the kind of scholarship that we do in the humanities out circulating in other public spheres," she says, borrowing a concept from literary theory. "NASA/Trek was not just for academics; I really wanted scientists to read it." The book received lengthy positive reviews in science journals, including Nature, New Scientist, and Space Policy, with affirmative nods in Science and The Economist.
Whether this will prove detrimental to an academy that prefers mentions in French theory journals is a different question, but Penley doesn't think so. She wrote one essay, 'From NASA to The 700 Club (With a Detour Through Hollywood): Cultural Studies in the Public Sphere' for the book Disciplinarity and Dissent in Cultural Studies, in which she makes the point that pornography is not banned because it's "unpopular speech" which would offend most people, but because it is "popular speech" - vulgar not in the obscene but in the working-class sense. Another publication, "Crackers and Whackers: The White Trashing of Porn" in the book White Trash: Race and Gender in America, makes a similar argument.
"I've had a very lucky academic career - I have been able to get away with just following my fascinations," she says, though she is quick to add that she has received vicious criticism from conservative academics, plus Pat Robertson, and the L.A. police - not to mention the faction of feminists who oppose pornography as inherently misogynistic. Penley decries the media's insistence on portraying extremists and outsiders as if they represent the mainstream of feminism - "Feminists are the sex police," she scoffs. "I want them to show there are more women who are pro-sex and anti-censorship than there are MacDworkinites" - followers of Catharine A. MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, two famous feminist anti-porn crusaders. "That's one of the reasons I wanted to do my porn class: I knew it would get a lot of attention, and I wanted to get a picture out there of a pro-sex, anti-censorship feminist. And it worked!"
The Rolling Stone article, too, offered her a chance to take a public stand, despite the theme of dangerous professors. "I found out who the other controversial professors were going to be, so I felt I was in good company. And also, I can't believe I did this, I wanted to point out because so many people think it's a generational issue - it's the young post-feminist, third wave who are the pro-sex types, against the old puritanical anti-porn feminists - but I'm about the same age as MacKinnon and Dworkin. So the Rolling Stone fact checker comes back and says, how old are you? I had to go in the pages of Rolling Stone as fifty years old! It was hard for me to give out my age to be splattered across Rolling Stone, but it made the point."
"I certainly don't feel fifty," Penley adds. "But technically, I am. And still having this much fun!"
Click here to buy this book from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews