On “Kirk drift,” the strange mass cultural misremembering of Captain Kirk

In this really fantastic long-form essay published in the online magazine Strange Horizons, Erin Horáková digs into the weird way William Shatner’s James T. Kirk has been collectively misremembered by popular culture. As she writes:

There is no other way to put this: essentially everything about Popular Consciousness Kirk is bullshit. Kirk, as received through mass culture memory and reflected in its productive imaginary (and subsequent franchise output, including the reboot movies), has little or no basis in Shatner’s performance and the television show as aired. Macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination.

Horáková walks through the phenomenon in great detail because, as she notes, “I believe people often rewatch the text or even watch it afresh and cannot see what they are watching through the haze of bullshit that is the received idea of what they’re seeing. You ‘know’ Star Trek before you ever see Star Trek: a ‘naive’ encounter with such a culturally cathected text is almost impossible, and even if you manage it you probably also have strong ideas about that period of history, era of SF, style of television, etc to contend with.”

Horáková goes on to explore the ways in which “Kirk drift” is connected to toxic masculinity, history, culture, and so much more. For instance:

The heterosexism goggles, which derange content via chauvinist interpretive paradigms, become not just inaccurate but horrifying when we look at episodes like “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” How would you read the scene in “Gamesters” where Kirk, terrified (with some reason) Uhura will be sexually assaulted and that he’ll be able to do nothing to help her, seduces his own captor in an effort to protect Uhura and get his people out of this situation if Kirk were a woman? What about the surveillance, fear of death and fear of getting an enslaved person punished due to his non-compliance in “Bread and Circuses”? Why are we cheerleading a vision of masculinity that cannot even acknowledge vulnerability and trauma in these cases, when if this were a woman we’d see these situations as coercive and violating?

You can read the full essay on Strange Horizons.

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