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When the winter of COVID-19 began, I had ambitions. I was going to turn my dissertation into a book, write fiction, finally read Proust. Maybe, by bundling up and embracing hot toddies, I would even keep dating. Instead, I became infatuated with 1960s William Shatner.
It was a dark time. In mid-February, it became clear that Montreal’s 8 p.m. curfew, introduced as an emergency measure after the holidays, would be extended indefinitely. I lived alone and taught remotely. Zoom parties produced despair. Just as I was about to crack, fly to Alberta and risk infecting my parents to interrupt the solitude, there he was: James T. Kirk, of the Starship Enterprise. With his square jaw and hazel eyes, he stared out at me from whatever clever Netflix algorithm decided I needed saving.
Like many people now in their 30s, I grew up with ambient Star Trek. I’d seen a few of the films and scattered episodes of The Next Generation but never really followed the show. I had missed Shatner’s peak as a sex symbol by three decades, so in my head he was an aging man who gave hokey cameos. My exposure to the original series was limited to a free trial of the Space Channel when I was 9. I remembered the tribbles – not how much time Kirk spends shirtless, and certainly not the entire episode he runs around in a leather harness.
I quickly went from watching one episode on impulse to consuming four a day, with increasing libidinal investment. So like any socially starved literary critic, I came up with some theories to explain my new virtual love life.
Theory One: I am a disappointment to feminism and myself.
The annoying thing about lusting after Captain Kirk is that the show so obviously expects straight women to lust after Capt. Kirk. He’s the archetypical alpha male, solving problems with fist fights and hogging all the romantic storylines. Trust me, my usual type is not action hero space bros who stare suggestively at the camera. But maybe my Kirk crush meant that evolutionary psychologists had a point. Stripped of my ordinary social groups, I was giving in to some deep biological programming to seek out a high-status mate. Roll back the clocks and bring on the dominant men in uniforms.
To make matters worse, the original Star Trek’s gender politics are atrocious. The show deserves a lot of credit for racial representation, but most female characters are glorified secretaries and the casual sexist comments are so dated they are more kitsch than offensive. Sure, I could find some minor compensations. The 1960s had more achievable beauty standards, so depending on the episode, Kirk is kind of thick. Also, Shatner is from Montreal! Two points for civic pride. Mostly, though, this theory made me sad.
Theory Two: Actually, I am attracted to the homoerotic subtext between Kirk and Spock, and I know how to celebrate queer love when I see it.
Alongside Shatner’s biceps, prepubescent me had overlooked the scenes where Kirk thinks Spock is giving him a massage or thanks him for providing “emotional security.” The sexual tension between the Captain and his hyper-logical Vulcan first officer is so palpable it birthed an entire genre of fan fiction. Now known as “slash,” this genre depicts supposedly heterosexual characters falling in love and getting it on, with varying degrees of explicitness. It originated as Kirk/Spock, and they remain the most iconic pairing.
Naturally, I spent several evenings reading peer-reviewed scholarship on slash fiction (remember the 8 p.m. curfew?). Some academics claim Kirk/Spock is an instinctive reaction to the show’s sexism. The women are so boring that you imagine romance between the men. There are more fun interpretations, though: Kirk/Spock has been disowned by the Star Trek franchise and therefore represents queer resistance to capitalism! The emotional captain and rational Vulcan are an example of Aristophanes’s divided self, and their coupling transcends gender! The evolutionary psychologists have their own take: Straight women who enjoy slash fiction had higher degrees of testosterone exposure in the womb, which you can measure based on the length of their fingers. (My fingers are indeterminate.)
From this perspective, my Kirk infatuation was just me picking up on the great intergalactic saga of the world’s first space husbands. It was delightful and harmless and possibly progressive. Then I had an even better idea.
Theory Three: aspirational narcissism.
This one was by far the best for my ego. Maybe I did not want to hook up with Capt. Kirk. Maybe I wanted to be Capt. Kirk.
I have a track record that helps make this one plausible. As a teenager, I did not get what all the fuss was about with gender representation in fiction. I just identified with the men. Who cares about Penelope when you can imagine yourself as Odysseus and go on an adventure? My attachment to Kirk was a renewal of this old habit – and a form of yearning for my prepandemic life. I had spent a decade on the move, living in Vancouver, Bogota, Paris and New York, stopping off in other countries for weeks or months. There were some great travel flings along the way. After a year locked up in my apartment, that lifestyle seemed like the rough equivalent of space travel.
When I passed this idea on to friends, they enthusiastically indulged me. One pointed out that, like Shatner, I have a square jaw. And my last important relationship involved a mathematician, so the Spock thing still holds. My drag king persona had been delivered to me fully formed, and I should consider giving students the option of calling me Captain.
It’s been a few months now and my Kirk obsession has largely faded. It helped that the third season of the show was awful. But mostly the snow melted and curfew was pushed back to 9:30, so my daily life felt a lot less dire.
Along the way, I realized that my parents, back in Edmonton, had also been rewatching the original Star Trek. They did not want to discuss my relationship with William Shatner. Perhaps, though, we were all just part of the nostalgia zeitgeist, fleeing the present for the comfort of the past. The optimism of Star Trek made for a promising escape. So did its near-total lack of continuity, whereby the trauma of one episode was forgotten by the next. The resulting world was far more stable than our own.
As the prospects for a return to normal increase, I find myself less committed to getting a Capt. Kirk Halloween costume. I remain grateful for the distraction and for the colleagues who put up with all the Star Trek memes and mash-up videos. But now that I can start pursuing my own life again, romantic and otherwise, I hope to do so with a certain Kirk-like swagger.
Amanda Perry lives in Montreal.
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