When I was young, there wasn’t a lot to choose from in children’s media. This was before the internet and back when there were only a few tv channels. What there was was mostly written for the “average kid.” Those of us who weren’t “average kids” (whatever that even means) didn’t have much chance to see ourselves reflected in the things we watched and read.
As a young person who enjoyed reading books, learning things, and thinking, I didn’t have many role models in my media. “Smart” characters tended to be portrayed as weirdos and outsiders. At best they could be inventive but eccentric cranks like Professor Calculus from Tintin. More often they were comically bumbling know-it-alls like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew from the Muppets or Owl from Winnie-the-Pooh. They were often insufferably arrogant about their intelligence, like Brainy Smurf. This was the image of smartness I saw as a young child: smug, generally useless, and barely tolerated by the people around them. (It’s also true that these characters were invariably male, but that’s a separate issue for another time.)
Then I discovered Star Trek. I can’t remember how old I was, but I was still pretty young when my sister and I stumbled across afternoon reruns of original series episodes on one of the local channels. I was hooked. It was my first exposure to adult speculative fiction, and it opened up a whole new world of storytelling to me, but there’s no question that there was one thing about Star Trek I loved above all else: Spock.
In some ways, Spock was like the other “smart” characters I had seen before. He was an outsider, an alien on a ship full of humans. He had quirks. He was sometimes razzed on by other characters (especially Dr. McCoy). But despite these things that set him apart, he was emphatically part of the crew, embraced and appreciated by them. His knowledge and intelligence were respected by his fellow spacefarers and often contributed to solving the problem of the episode. Spock was the first time I saw a smart character who was valued for being smart.
Anyone who knew me as a child knows how deeply I identified with Spock. I was Spock for Halloween at least once (and probably more often, though I can’t remember). When teased by my classmates (I wouldn’t say I was bullied, but kids are kids—sometimes people were mean to me, sometimes I was mean to them) I imitated his arch emotionlessness in self-defense. I devoured any kind of Star Trek trivia, but it was always Spock I loved the most.
As I grew older I gathered more role models for people who loved knowing things and whose knowledge was appreciated by those around them, from Sherlock Holmes and Brother Cadfael to Professor McGonagall and Jadzia Dax. But you never forget your first. Spock will always have a special place in my heart because in him I saw the first glimmer of what I wanted to become: someone whose love of books and ideas could become something valuable I could contribute to the world around me. I know I’m not alone in these feelings. I think a lot of the quiet, bookish kids of my generation first saw ourselves in Spock.
We’ve come a long way since then. There’s lots more to choose from for kids’ tv, movies, and books these days. I wonder if that makes a difference, or if there are other touchstone characters for younger generations of thoughtful, curious kids.
What about the rest of you? Who was the fictional character you first looked at and thought: “That’s me?”
In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.