Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s labor hero Leeta (turned Terran Empire mastermind), Chase Masterson, is a real-life hero and self-proclaimed social justice warrior. After Masterson became one of the first victims of online doxing after a member of her fan club released her private information to a dating website (read the actor’s telling of the story here), she decided to start volunteering.
Beginning at Homeboy Industries, which is a way to improve the lives of former gang members in East Los Angeles and make delicious food (I discovered Homeboy in 2002), she learned about the power of compassion, a safe environment, and skills training in changing lives. Then, in 2013, Masterson founded Pop Culture Hero Coalition, along with award-winning author Carrie Goldman.
Before Masterson left for the 2022 Star Trek Cruise, I had the chance to speak with her about her work with Pop Culture Hero Coalition and how her role as Leeta on DS9 inspires her to think about how she can help others.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Rebecca Kaplan: According to the iSafe Foundation, over 50% of teens experience online bullying. How does the Pop Culture Hero Coalition harness the power of pop culture stories to help victims of bullying?
Chase Masterson: Pop Culture Hero Coalition teaches children, teens and adults to be heroes for themselves and each other, including ending bullying. But we don’t teach it like a pep rally or anyone shaking a finger. Instead, we teach core values of healthy identity, empathy, compassion and self-compassion to get at the root problem.
Bullying happens because of fear or a lack of self-regard. I don’t care if someone weighs 800 pounds; if someone calls them fat, it’s because they’re being a jerk. The bottom line is the bully is the person who needs to learn how to get at their root problems; let’s address that. So, we teach children a healthy identity. Unfortunately, many adults need to remember that too.
We also work with bullied kids, teaching them resilience and a healthy identity. It’s never your fault; it is always about the pain and mess inside the bully.
We use stories like Wonder Woman, Harry Potter, The Avengers—these iconic stories teach children how to stand up for themselves and each other. We also teach things like nonviolent conflict resolution. The difference between social conflict and bullying. The difference, on social media, of what’s funny and what’s mean. These are all relevant issues few places teach, so we’re getting at the core of this to make people’s lives better.
RK: What is the difference between social conflict and bullying?
CM: If you and your friend are going to eat someplace, you always eat because your friend likes it, and you say, “Hey, listen, I would love to go to this other place that I like.” And, your friend responds, “No, we need to go to this place.” Then, you come back and say, “This doesn’t feel fair.” That type of thing is social conflict.
If somebody wants to break a boundary of yours, like, “Can I borrow this shirt again? Can I do something that you don’t like?” You can say, “Listen, I’m not okay with this. I feel like you are taking advantage of me.” That’s speaking your truth. Whereas, if you were to say instead, “You are so selfish, and I can’t stand you.” That could be considered bullying because it’s name-calling, which is crossing a boundary in the other direction.
RK: When working with fandoms, like Harry Potter, JK Rowling herself has said some problematic things. How does that work?
CM: I think it’s terrible what JK Rowling has done to the trans and LGBTQIA+ community, especially because she was entrusted with their hearts and minds. There was a huge amount of respect and regard for her because everyone thought she was genuinely inclusive. When she started to say these harmful things on social media, many people got hurt.
Some people have chosen not to be fans of her work, and some have decided to separate the author from her work. That’s an ongoing subject. I think it’s everyone’s choice to do what they want to do in that situation. I feel that Harry Potter still has many important things to say to us about bullying, racism, classism, resilience and strength and fortitude, standing up for each other, becoming upstanders rather than bystanders, and resolving social conflict nonviolent conflict resolution. It has a lot to say about power imbalance, which relates to all things.
I can stand behind Harry Potter, but I cannot stand behind JK Rowling’s message to the LGBTQIA+ community.
(Writer’s note: I am transgender, and I am part of the giving up Harry Potter camp for full disclosure. While I cannot speak for all trans people, I rarely get a thoughtful response when I raise JKR’s transphobia; I believe Masterson’s answer is important to include as a model for cisgender people wishing to discuss HP.)
RK: Is there anything you think the fans, nonprofits, official organizations and Star Trek itself can do to address online bullying?
CM: I think fans need to be consistent in calling it out. We need to get used to saying, “Stop, not on my watch. This is not okay. I don’t want to see this in my feed. It’s not okay for you to talk to them that way.”
If that gets to be a back and forth thing and somebody defends their awful thing, they’re not your friend. They don’t deserve to be following you, and you can cut them off and say, “I’m sorry, I can’t be in contact with you if you’re going to behave this way. It’s against my principles.”
We enact a radically passionate culture centered around kindness and inclusion, compassion and empathy, and not just acceptance of differences but cherishing of differences. If we can enact that kind of culture, people who are bullying, marginalizing or hurting each other won’t last long in it. I believe they will feel awfully out of place when we hold a mirror up to what they’re doing and say, “You can’t play with us in our yard. You can’t interact with us if you’re going to behave that way now.”
There are differences of opinion, which goes back to social conflict versus bullying.
I don’t want to see racists or bigots in my feed. So I’ll say, “If you’re going to believe them, I’m not going to interact with you.” But if differences of opinion don’t fall in those categories, then discourse is okay. You can say, “I’m sorry. So-and-so was not a great captain,” but you can’t say someone’s a fool for thinking so. You could disagree respectfully as long as it doesn’t get into demeaning each other.
RK: Pulling from Pop Culture Hero’s mission statement that addresses bullying at pop culture cons. How should large fandoms like Star Trek address bullying and prejudice?
CM: With a message as straightforward as Star Trek’s “infinite diversity in combinations,” I hope that would mean everyone who loves the show embodies that message truly, and many fans do. It’s wonderful. But truly shockingly, there are a lot of fans who don’t use that concept in real life.
You see a lot of online bullying, Twitter bullying, a lot of gatekeeping and people shutting each other down. That is precisely the opposite of what this show stands for, which is mutual respect, everyone having a place at the table and being allowed to speak their truth from their heart. But if their truth is bullying, it doesn’t mean that’s okay—this show teaches us to react with the better parts of ourselves.
When I see that bullying on Twitter, people marginalizing each other, gatekeeping, shutting each other down, it’s horrifying—and this is something the actors talk about amongst themselves. We see this; Trek fans standing up for things in the political sphere that make no sense to us, standing behind candidates who are racist and enacting racist principles and policies and inequitable policies.
That is something Gene Roddenberry would be heartbroken over and angered at because one can’t talk out both sides of their mouth. Either you love the show and what it stands for, and you do it in real life, or you don’t understand what this show means, and what Roddenberry meant it to mean, and what the writers still mean for it to be today.
RK: How did your time on Star Trek impact your work with the Coalition?
CM: My work on Star Trek is a huge part of what inspired the Coalition. I have always been inspired by the vast majority of Star Trek – and Dr. Who – fans, who they are, what they stand for, how they play that out in real life. It’s the loveliest group of fans with the most integrity. Ever since I got on the show, I’ve been heartened and inspired by the real-world work fans do and the voices they use in the real world reflecting these shows’ values. My work on Trek has directly given way to the Coalition’s work.
I thought if we could use these stories in other ways in real life, why not take them into schools? Why not create a stronger push for social justice? Yes, I did use those two words. Why not? I’m a proud social justice warrior. I have no complaints about being called that. Why not use those more directly to impact the world we live in and make it better? Let’s make this a world where we can all live long and prosper.
RK: Can you explain the Heroic Journey Curriculum in lay terms?
CM: The Heroic Journey Curriculum is a 32 lesson plan program. Again, not like a pep rally but an extremely in-depth program teaching healthy habits for ourselves and our ways of interacting with the world around us.
Learning how to resolve social conflict through nonviolent conflict resolution and how to be heroes in the world, it helps to have psychological fortitude, healthy identity, resilience, and self-compassion. We teach those core values, and we teach kids to break stereotypes. We teach cherishing and upholding other cultures, so kids don’t grow up to be the police who are afraid of people of color or anyone who treats people of color differently.
Here’s an example, those guys having rallies with torches, thinking someone will replace them: no one wants to replace you! Just because we make room for someone else at the table and uphold someone else’s culture and values don’t; mean our own is any less. People have to know they have a rightful place in the world and not be threatened by other people’s proper place in the world.
RK: Like implicit bias?
CM: We teach kids how to end implicit bias. We teach them not to see others as a general part of a people group they might have preconceived notions about. We teach them just because you say peanut butter doesn’t mean you have to say jelly as your bigoted uncle does.
We can teach you to stand up to your bigoted uncle on Thanksgiving in a healthy way that doesn’t demean him but asks questions. What would make you think that? Well, do you see this? Do you see that? Do you see these countless examples of another way of looking at things? That kind of healthy dialogue is what can change minds and hearts.
I have a friend named Christian Picciolini, who used to be one of the head white supremacists in this country before he was dramatically turned around. He had a truly dramatic turnaround, so much so that he formed an organization to help people get out of white supremacy and was awarded by President Obama for his work. Dramatic turnarounds are possible. I think when we see how our heroes are flawed, we’re not afraid to face flaws in ourselves and admit that maybe we were wrong, misled, or just downright wrong about something. There’s room for growth in everyone.
RK: Is the program based on a psychological or learning model?
CM: We are truly honored to work with some incredible pop culture fluent clinical psychologists. Dr. Janina Scarlet is our chief psychologist and brilliant. She is also the creator of Superhero Therapy and a book of the same name and 11 other books. She is a Cherynoble survivor who overcame her struggles early in life because of her love of X-Men, which taught her resilience. She learned to speak English when she came to America at 12 and then earned her neuroscience and psychology doctorates. Along the way, she was bullied and had an incredible number of challenges and is one of the most amazing examples of resilience a person could ever see. She is now a leading trauma expert.
RK: Is that why she made the coloring book?
CM: Yes. Dr. Scarlet created the coloring book Super Kids. It’s for hospitalized children or chronically ill children. It helps them navigate loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear, shame, self-doubt and other issues. It also helps them know that they are more than just their illness (available here).
We also have a comic book, Lights, Camera, Identity… Never Alone to support LGBTQIA+ kids and young adults, written by our brilliant senior vice president, Raymond Litster, featuring four cast members of RuPaul’s Drag Race, who lent us their images. It’s beautifully illustrated by an artist named Mister Loki.
I’m just so proud of this work. We have given 9,000 copies of that away to LGBTQIA+ centers nationwide, free of charge, during the pandemic. It contains a lot of incredible mental health skills. It’s also available on our merchandise site at bekindmerch.org (writer’s note: with the $10 donation, you receive one comic, and a second comic is donated to a partnering LGBTQIA+ or like center).
We also feature “be kind” t-shirts, baseball caps, water bottles, mugs, tote bags and other items that serve two purposes: it’s a great message to spread and one of our primary sources of funding our work. We have had a lot of celebrity support. Actors ranging from Rainn Wilson, William Shatner, Joe Gatto, Jeff Goldblum, Sonequa Martin-Green, and many other fantastic people have stepped in to help promote the “be kind” merchandise and our work.
RK: What was the fan reaction to Leeta and Rom’s marriage on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine?
CM: I think that Rom and Leeta are seen as one of the greatest love stories of Star Trek. I have heard some people come up and say, “But Rom? Really?” But I don’t think those people get it because it’s a very Star Trek message that you can’t judge a book by its cover. People are always more than they seem at face value, and it is about what people are on the inside. It’s about connecting over shared values.
When Rom and Leeta connected at “Bar Association,” he stood up to Quark. Rom made courageous moves, falling in love with a woman who was not a Ferengi and breaking all of those customs. Leeta also made courageous moves in insisting we didn’t have a prenup that Rom and I, our love, would be forever, and that was just it. Our commitment was to keep and not blame anybody who makes a different decision, but both characters were so much more than they seemed. I think that is a very Star Trek message, and I am so grateful for it.
In addition, Max Grodénchik is one of my favorite people on this planet and my favorite Star Trek cast member. I think his work on-screen was brilliant, and in real life, he’s down to earth, lovely, humble, wildly creative and a great person. We’re still good friends. I couldn’t be more grateful and honored.
This interview was originally published on 3/8/22.
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