Star Trek vs. Star Wars: A Look at Bullying on Any World

Psychologists and actors compare lessons on bullying across space and time.

Posted Aug 17, 2014

My friends and comic-colleagues Ali Mattu ( and Andrea Letamendi ( have conducted a series of panels comparing "The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars" at Comic-Con International's conventions (WonderCon Anaheim and San Diego Comic-Con) over the past two years, with Brian Ward (Shout! Factory) moderating each time. These geeky psychologists show that science fiction can help people explore very real psychology. As successful science fiction and fantasy writers know, speculative fiction's fantastic elements require greater realisms in all other aspects for readers and viewers to accept their stories at all. Fantastic stories can, therefore, sometimes provide greater exploration of the human condition.

Actresses Chase Masterson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and Catherine Taber (Star Wars: The Clone Wars) joined their episode III panel, which focused on the science behind family, relationships, friendships, and bullying. Given that the topic of bullying has overly entered my "Beyond Heroes and Villains" topics lately, I'll share the panel's discussion on it here, courtesy of Dr. Mattu. You can read the complete panel transcript at his website ("The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars WonderCon 2014 (Recap)" or watch this video. Watching this panel from the audience, I was surprised that the hands raised when Ms. Masterson asked who in the room had ever been bullied, although a slight majority, was not an even larger majority.

Excerpt on Bullying from
"The Psychology of Star Trek vs. Star Wars Episode III"
(WonderCon Anaheim, 2014)

Brian: Something that’s very important to everyone on this panel is something we as fans deal with quite a bit so we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about bullying. Does everyone know Katie the “Star Wars girl”? She was bullied for taking a Star Wars water bottle to school. Cat saw this story online and made it her mission to gather people and support Katie. Chase has teamed up with Katie’s mother, Carrie, who wrote a fantastic booked called Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear. The two of you have teamed up to create the Anti-Bullying Coalition. Everyone on this panel works with children on a regular basis, including the two doctors, and deals with the problem of bullying. Let’s talk about this problem.

Andrea: It’s not a new problem but what is new is the internet and the bullying process. I grew up in a time when people said, “suck it up, get over it, get a thick skin, this is a right of passage, everyone goes through it.” But when you see the true impact of bullying, there are long standing psychological repercussions including anxiety, depression, and PTSD. I do want to be clear bullying happens in a different way because of the internet. The anonymity of the internet can generate more bullying behavior. It’s a struggle to identify it and intervene with it.

Brian: Andrea, you’re a trainer and, Ali, you work with this on a case by case basis. Talk about your experiences with it.

Ali: My experiences are both professional and personal. I got into Star Trek with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country around 4th grade. I didn’t realize that Star Trek wasn't cool. I thought it was very cool! I used to bring myStar Trek stuff to school all the time. When I got to middle school, there was a group of students who came to school with their Star Trek shirts and were bullied. I stood by and I did nothing. I did nothing because everyone did nothing. I learned a lesson that day – Star Trek isn’t cool. Don’t talk about it otherwise you’ll get beat up. Moving forward, I was at high school and reading the Star Trek 30th Anniversary Magazine at a bookstore. A bunch of guys came in, started yelling at me, and said a bunch of derogatory things to me. It took years and years and years to undo that psychological damage until I was able to talk about Star Trek. It wasn’t until my fiancée over there [points at audience] was able to help me…wait, I should mention her name, Nhu-An Le is your name and I love you...until my fiancée was able to encourage me to be a proud geek and then the good doctor over here [points to Andrea] helped me figure out how to weave these things together – that’s how this panel came to be. The way we change this is by changing the culture. Make it unacceptable to see bullying and just stand by. We know the research on conformity – it only takes one person to stand up and change the situation. That’s exactly what Cat and Chase are doing here. They’re creating awareness and making it cool to stop these things from happening.

Brian: Cat and Chase, let’s talk about your thoughts on bullying.

Chase: This is the type of program that needs to happen at conventions –the real world meeting the shows we love. I’m excited about our coalition. Our mission is to let people know that there are choices when you see someone being bullying or when you are being bullied. There’re strategies to reduce the chances of being a victim to this. How many of you guys have been bullied? [Audience raises hands] See it’s the overwhelming majority. We want to show kids that there are options. Most bullying stops if there is just one person that intervenes. There are ways we can support each other and help people know that things get better. It’s like the Star Trek quote, “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Wait, did I just go to the dark side?

Ali: Yeah, that’s a Star Wars quote. But judge you by your words I do not.

Chase: I’m sorry!

Cat: The reason I responded to this is because it breaks my heart to think that a little kid would feel so bad for no reason. I wanted Katie to know that I think she’s cool and a lot of other people think she’s cool too. It’s not just about talking to kids who are being bullied, it’s also about talking to kids who aren’t being bullied. We need to make sure we teach our kids that if someone is being mistreated, it doesn’t take a huge gesture to help. It can be as simple as saying, “Hey, that’s not cool.” That can stop bullying. If we’re kind to each other and stick up for each other, then the bad guys don’t stand a chance. That’s one of the things I love about Star Wars – you have this group of a ragtag people coming together fighting for good. I believe that good always wins. But of course I am light side. Empowering kids to stand up for themselves and for each other is what we need to do. Of course when things get dangerous you have to involve adults and with the internet today that can happen quickly. Even with Instagram, one of my nieces was telling me how people post comments about pictures being ugly. I think it would go a long way if people said, “Hey, that’s not cool.”

AndreaMicroaggressions are a form of bullying. It’s when someone says something that sounds harmless but it’s actually demeaning. They’re often race or gender based statements. We need to fold microaggressions into the concept of bullying. For example, sometimes people have met me and said, “your English is really good” or “you sound very articulate.” It’s kind of like a backhanded compliment. I talk about microaggressions a lot when it comes to female geeks because a lot of times I’m asked, “Oh, are you buying those comics for your boyfriend or kids?” Each time I have to say, “Oh no, I don’t have any kids and those action figures are for me.” When I write about this topic I point to both sides as being responsible for this interaction. The person implying that my entry into the geek world is because of a male is an accusation that doesn’t sit well with me. But did you notice I get defensive and I’m very quick to get back at him? That’s not me. Because of this microaggression, the interaction became intense and I didn’t get the chance to tell the person, “Actually I’m a big fan of Batman: The Animated Series; let’s talk about that.” I could potentially connect with that person and correct his idea that I’m not there for me. It’s a two \-way street.

Ali: Let’s think about the idea of microaggression. You might be thinking, "Well, that’s just one little comment.” But think of the cumulative impact of that. Let’s say people continue to claim you’re a “fake geek girl” and that happens all the time in lots of situations. That’s going to have a huge impact on you down the road, where you go, what you do. The other thing Cat was talking about with social media and Instagram, one of the biggest challenges we have is the way a lot of these technologies have evolved is that they strip us of our humanity. It turns out that one of the most important ways of having empathy for someone else online is through eye contact. How much eye contact do we have on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? It’s very easy to do stupid things online with social media. A lot of the comments that become bullying happen very quickly, spiral out of control, and have a huge impact on people. This’s why I love places like this where we can come together and build a community to support each other and take some action again this. That’s how we’re going to solve this problem.

Chase: Another important part of this is not just that we need to form a culture of tolerance. We need to form a culture of love. Just true grit supportive yay you wherever you are love. Support for each other and celebration of each other’s differences.

Ali: We have four words in Trek: Infinite Diversity, Infinite Combinations.

Brian: What does Star Wars have?!?

Cat: “The force is strong with you.”

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