Fascinating: The Transformation of Mr. Spock and the Decline of American Masculinity

When I was a child, I very much admired Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human first officer of the Starship Enterprise. The Vulcan’s signature image included a raised eyebrow and the utterance of a single word: fascinating. Indeed, in my teenage years, Spock intrigued me enough to mention him as a possible dinner companion when the admissions-essay prompt on my University of Pennsylvania application asked me who, living or dead, fictional or non-, I would like to share a meal with. Spock got me into the Ivies.

Live long and prosper.

Today, Mr. Spock—along with the concept of masculinity that he represents– finds himself living in a trailer park and not at all prospering. This transformation of the Vulcan first officer—from the calm, collected, rational being played by Leonard Nimoy to the troubled, priggish Star Fleet officer played by Zachary Quinto–sheds some light on the demise of American masculinity in the last forty years. In this essay, I’m going to explore the historical origins of the Mr. Spock of the 1960s, discuss the vision of masculinity that this character represented, and then ponder Spock’s withering under phaser fire from the Feminist movement and photon torpedo hits from what the British sociologist Frank Ferudi has termed “therapy culture.” Finally, I’ll meditate briefly on what we’ve lost through the transformation of Mr. Spock.

When the Vulcan first officer stepped onto the bridge of the Enterprise, it was 1966. The planet had suffered from the effects of two major world wars. A third inter-continental conflict, the Cold War, with its brush fires in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, threatened to explode into a conflagration. Since 1914, approximately 100,000,000 people had died from war, starvation, revolution, genocide, poison gas, carpet bombing, and the effects of two atomic weapons. One of the roots of all the carnage was unchecked emotionalism. Patriotism and nationalism are simply emotionalism run amok. While there’s nothing wrong with a good Fourth of July parade, super-nationalism consists of nothing but strong emotions manipulated by politicians and a powerful armaments industry.

Adolf Hitler, the master emotional manipulator, convinced the population of Germany to destroy over eleven million Jews and other “undesirables” and lay waste to half of Europe. Japanese Imperialism and even the class rage of the Bolshevik revolution were manifestations of unchecked emotions manipulated by unscrupulous leaders. These emotions led eventually to the Rape of Nanking and the Battle of Stalingrad: complete disasters in terms of human rights and civilization itself. The Allies, prosecuting what Studs Terkel has called the “good war,” also fought with barely controlled rage. Consider the firebombing of Dresden, which set the air of the German city on fire, and the instant atomization of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Paul Fussell writes in Wartime: Culture and Understanding in the Second World War that Admiral “Bull” Halsey hung from the tower of his flagship giant banners reading, “Kill Japs. Kill More Japs. Kill. Kill. Kill.” Clearly, strong unchecked emotions had brought death and destruction to the world; such emotions combined with the splitting of the atom led the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear annihilation in the 1950s and 1960s.

Into this environment beamed one of the most philosophically interesting and humanly-needed fictional characters of the twentieth century: Mr. Spock. The Vulcan hailed from a planet that had almost destroyed itself because of emotional excess. Then emerged a Gandhi-like semi-messiah named Surak, who preached the use of logic and emotional restraint. Vulcan philosophy seemed to combine the best of Stoicism with Buddhist meditation practices. Interestingly, while Spock, whose raw physical strength far surpassed that of humans, could certainly employ violence when he needed to, he preferred negotiation leading to the mutual meeting of needs.

Often reminding Kirk of the larger stakes in any particular situation, Spock served as Jim Kirk’s right hand man: “As you know, Captain.” Beyond keeping Kirk from making a fool of himself, Spock existed first and foremost as a scientist, who wanted to understand, not to destroy. In addition, Spock hailed from a family of diplomats. Diplomacy recognizes emotions, but it tries to contain them within a field of logic.

Spock’s cultural decline was foreshadowed in one late-series episode. Broadcast in 1968 and the show’s one nod to the counter-cultural revolution in full swing both on American campuses like UC Berkeley and in the works of Frankfurt School Marxists like Adorno and Marcuse, “The Way to Eden” has the Enterprise pick up some space hippies, who are seeking the planet Eden, a paradise. While Jim Kirk is beside himself with the hippies’ deportment, Spock actually sympathizes with their counter-cultural values. Indeed, he understands their antipathy toward over-engineered society. In exchange for their better behavior, Spock even uses the Enterprise’s computer banks to help the 24th century hipsters to find their planetary paradise. Thus, Spock, while serving logic, clearly empathizes with the desire for a better world represented by the counter-cultural movement of the sixties. He’s far from being a heartless stooge working for “the man.” However, the difference between the hippies and the Vulcan is that while both seek a better world, the latter won’t allow himself to be overpowered by emotion. He seeks compromise based on rational decision-making.

To my mind, the Spock of the 1960s represented one possible healthy role model for men. He understood the power of his emotions, respected difference, and kept his impulses under control, all the while seeking Plato’s good and Aristotle’s truth. And it’s important to realize that historically Spock represented a sane alternative both to the political disasters preceding him and the cultural nastiness that followed.

Fast-forward to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. A lot has happened to American masculinity and American culture since Jim and Spock beamed off the Enterprise for the final time. Simply put, the Eden-seekers have carried the day. Second-wave feminism, which was just getting started when the hippies searched for Eden, has reached its destination: the complete destruction of masculine values. Healthy masculinity, which never denied emotions but kept them in check because of a respect for their power, has fled the stage. Therapy culture, described so well by Frank Ferudi, teaches us that we are all out of control emotionally and that we can never hope to gain control of our emotions without paying vast sums of money to people who are there to “help” us. Reason and utopian dreaming have been replaced by a winner-takes-all identity politics that respects only the quantity of representation and not the quality. The Spock of the 1960s, created and written by men and women who had witnessed emotions gone amok, has been replaced by Homer Simpson as the paragon of masculinity.

God help us all.

Into this cultural mess steps the Spock of JJ Abrams. Jim Kirk has been transformed from an explorer who reads Moby Dick into a juvenile delinquent only interested in shagging Orion girls. His Vulcan friend isn’t much better. This is not your father’s Mr. Spock. This Vulcan is portrayed as a prig who needs to get in touch with his human side and feel more, not less. Gone are the history lessons that created the original Mr. Spock. Granted, the destruction of one’s planet would emotionally compromise anybody, but ironically the reason the villain destroys the planet Vulcan is is the seeking of revenge, the very thing that the 1960s Spock knew drove all civilizations to the brink of disaster. Making out with Uhuru, this Spock ultimately wants Kirk to destroy the villain. Nimoy’s Spock would have recognized that by extracting revenge, he’s creating more hatred.

This sea change of a cultural icon suggests the demise of American masculinity. When I was a child, my father, born in 1927, and part of the Greatest Generation, often told me, “Play it cool.” This was the cool of Spock, of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. This coolness represented a masculinity in touch with but in control of its emotions, a masculinity that emphasized the reaching of goals while practicing self-mastery.

Today, It seems as though America offers two versions of masculinity, neither of which is very healthy. The first is male as buffoon, as represented by Homer Simpson. Homer couldn’t understand his own emotions if he fell over them and is incompetent at almost everything. The battle of the sexes so hilariously conceived of by James Thurber in the 1920s and 1930s has ended in the ascendency of Homerism and the XBox. The second version of masculinity in today’s culture is the antithesis of the first prototype: the hyper-masculinity of the stockbroker, the warrior, and the athlete. Unlike the first kind of men, these guys know exactly what they want. Unfortunately, as Bernie Madoff, Norman Schwarzkopf, and Lance Armstrong have shown us, what they want is often domination and victory–at any price.

We’ve come a long way from the Spock of Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry. The journey has been, for most men, pretty emasculating. We are told to let our feelings all hang out. What has that gotten men? A divorce rate of fifty percent and the revenge politics we’ve practiced in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the original Mr. Spock still offers us a way out of the cultural malaise men find themselves in today: Play it cool. Search for the truth. Practice meditation and maybe even celibacy. Empathize with the practitioners of identity-based politics. But don’t slavishly agree with them.

And despite women seeming to fall for soft men, whom they tend to dump, if we develop our inner Spocks, we will reclaim a kind of masculinity that the world needs and that women really want. If you don’t believe me, ask Uhuru.


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