Thursday, December 30, 2010

What Haunts Me About Firefly

We all know what 'Firefly' is about, right? Mal was one of the Browncoats, who fought a failed war against the Alliance and, after it was over and his cause of freedom was lost, he went out to the frontier to live free like a person oughta. The Alliance and "civilization" are slowly encroaching on his wild frontier, but he's determined to defy them any way he can.

It's a great story, one that feels authentic because it is authentic. Joss Whedon took his inspiration for his "space Western" by transplanting a lot of the causes of the original "Wild West" to a different setting. The original American frontier got its reputation for lawlessness due to an influx of Confederate veterans who felt frustrated and bitter living in the Reconstruction South. They migrated westwards, where they used their military skills to carve out a living however they could. Until, of course, the federal government moved west as well, taming the new frontier.

So the Browncoats are basically the Greybacks. Which is what haunts me...because Joss Whedon never really says why the war started. What was the cause the Browncoats fought for? Mal and others say that the Alliance "meddled", but that was the basic attitude of most slaveowners as well. Mal certainly doesn't seem to show any socially unpopular attitudes--he's friendly to Book, to River, to pretty much everyone as far as a misanthropic cynic like him is capable of being friendly--but what did he stand for? What made the Alliance say, "No. This cannot be tolerated, not in a civilized culture"?

I wonder. And I wonder if maybe Joss Whedon didn't intend me to wonder, just a little.

16 comments:

Chris Lawson said...

It's been a while since i watched Firefly but I thought it was explained. I was always under the impression that they were simply fighting for the right to govern themselves, that the Alliance controlled all trade, limited commerce between the more remote worlds generally did the whole taxation without representation thing. I just took the whole was as more of a failed American Revolution that still resulted in the Wild West.

jng2058 said...

The question depends on what you take to be your source material. If you only use the 13 episodes of Firefly itself, then you're free to imagine whatever you want, because they don't really say.

If, however, we expand our background to include the film Serenity, then we're left with the impression that the Alliance decided that there should be one government over all worlds and expanded aggressively to ensure that it was so. Presumably after a few outer worlds were conquered, the remaining fringe planets banded together as "The Independents" but eventually were overwhelmed by the superior resources of the Alliance and brought to heel.

Having then conquered all of space, the Alliance (or whatever faction of the Alliance, including the Blue Hands, had that aggressively Utopian outlook) decided to take it a step further and try to "improve" people, leading to the Miranda disaster, the Reavers, River, and Mal outing them at the end of Serenity.

Alas, the failure of Serenity at the box office means we'll likely never know what happens next. Would there be a revolution? A new civil war? A democratic overthrow of the corrupt administration?

Given the damage to the Alliance fleet by the Reavers and the likely undercutting of public confidence in the government, the Alliance is likely as weak as its ever been, so conditions are ripe for any kind of chaos and revolt.

The thing of it is, within the context of the series and Serenity, you can maybe see why the Alliance came to that conclusion. After all, Earth had been rendered uninhabitable, presumably (at least in part) due to the conflicts of the many nations. Given that the Alliance represents a conglomeration of the United States, Great Britain, and China into one super government, you can see how such an organization might decide that the only way forward was a single entity ruling all of humanity so that the destruction of Earth wasn't revisited on an interplanetary scale.

I'm not saying they're right, mind you, but you can see how they could get to that point.

On Smash said...

First let me say that I'm a person of Hispanic non-European descent (mostly)one thing that bothered me about Firefly is the thinly disguised Confederacy Lost Cause nonsense. I understand the romance of it but the reality is quite ugly.
It's the same thing with Steam Punk. It's all nice with steam powered airships & cogs pasted on things but really a large part of the 19th century was stealing people's lands and White man's burden. I understand that parts of Africa and Asia were not Utopia but 2 wrongs don't make a right...ever.

jng2058 said...

I don't know, On Smash, I think you're overstating you case quite a bit. After all, the idea was to simulate the Wild West in space. One reason the Wild West was so wild was the influx of ex-Confederate soldiers moving away from Federal control. To simulate that, they had Mal and Zoe be soldiers from the losing side.

(Whether or not it was a good idea to be so literal in their portrayal of "The Wild West in Space" is another question entirely, but you have to admit that they had a clear destination in mind and went for it full speed ahead...for better or worse.)

Considering that Zoe herself, to say nothing of Book and Inara, was clearly of non-caucasian descent, its hard to argue that Firefly is endorsing slavery or racism.

Whedon himself being a New Yorker born and bred, I kind of doubt he grew up romanticizing "The Lost Cause" or dreaming of being with Lee at Gettysburg or chanting "The South will rise again" with a beer in his hand while wiping his tears with an authentic Confederate battle-flag.

In the end, the nobility of the Independents is a plot point only in that it ennobles Mal with A lost cause, without necessarily promoting THE "Lost Cause."

Also, considering that "steampunk" as a phrase has become so widely diffused that it covers everything from the airships in Final Fantasy to the Gnometech of World of Warcraft, to argue that everything about the term is automatically about 19th Century colonialism is just silly.

Anonymous said...

^ cosigned.

On Smash said...

Not saying that Whedon is a racist or neo-confederate just the concept of "The Lost Cause" that bothers me even if it's just window dressing or a jumping off point for a story.
As for steampunk now it's a large enough genre but still based on the Victorian era.
Both the Victorian Era and the Civil war were morally complicated and make for good drama or entertainment. It's when it's just used so casually, just for japes.

On Smash said...

This reminds of the episode of Deep Space Nine where the Vic Fontaine's program is altered by a "Jack in the box" that threatens Vic's holographic existence.In order to save him the crew is going to pull off an Ocean's 11 type job. Sisko is asked by his girlfriend Cassidy but is hesitant because the holodeck program takes place in the early 1960's and he says that our type of people (African Americans) were not even allowed in casinos or hotels in that era.
Eventually he relents.

Chris said...

There's an episode ("Shindig", I believe) where Mal's opposition to slavery is pretty well stated. It's also at least suggested in a couple of episodes that slavery is, if not legal, at least tolerated by the Alliance. So, it's really not a clean mapping of Confederates to Browncoats.

While I certainly do not attempt to deny that white colonials are most definitely among history's biggest bastards, you can likely find atrocities behind every historical affectation, whether it's a Caucasian culture or not.

Also, I think it is possible to separate the affectation from its darker historical trappings. When people dress as medieval knights at the Ren Faire, it's likely they're not advocating wanton rape and pillage. Ditto for people dressed as samurai.

So, again, I can certainly see why people would have issues with a TV show, movie, etc that promoted slavery or genocide, but putting your main character in a cowboy hat and a six-gun doesn't necessarily promote either.

Rwolfarth said...

I think that Whedon has been pretty clear that the inspiration for Firefly is Western genre convention rather than Western history.

If you DO look at Firefly as historically based, the treatment of Reavers (pretty blatant Native American analogues, at least pre-Serenity) as mindless savages desiring only chaos and destruction becomes at least as problematic as the Confederacy stuff.

The awkward truth is that Whedon constructed a world where some of the most destructive myths about 19th century America are true. His Indians REALLY ARE pure evil...his Confederacy REALLY DID secede because of states rights (they even had bad-ass black soldiers!).

Viewing it as a sci-fi Western, I love Firefly excessively, but I do shudder at the thought of anyone thinking the historical allusions represent more than genre trappings.

Anonymous said...

I don't recall there ever being much depiction of the Alliance as anything other than scenery-chewing villains. They cut into the brain of one of the main characters before the show even opened, bear in mind, and where authority figures appear, they're seldom properly on the side of justice. Once you tie Serenity into the continuity, it's pretty clear that the Alliance is a pretty straightforward villainous body.

I think Whedon wrote a rather escapist Wild West where the War of Central Aggression is pretty heavily cast. If anything, as mentioned, it may be problematic that he did in fact make the equivalent of the historical Union a callous fascistic inhuman tyranny, and the equivalent of the Native Americans as actual mindless ravaging hordes.

I don't think we were meant to examine the motives of the Browncoats or the Alliance any much more deeply than "Our heroes were Browncoats, therefore those are the good guys, the villains are Alliance, therefore those are the bad guys." If so, Whedon does a terrible job of following through on that, what with the non-consensual brain surgery on and ruthless hunt for an innocent young girl being a major plot element.

In a way, I think it might have been more interesting if there had been more ambiguity to the scenario - Mal having to actually defend his choice in a more complex context of wrongs on either side - but I don't think it would have gotten even the one season it managed if Whedon had written it that way.

jng2058 said...

It isn't entirely true that there were no sympathetic Alliance representatives. The alliance city-ship captain in "Serenity" chooses to let the ship go in favor of rescuing what he thought was a ship in distress.

Likewise the captain of another Alliance warship in "Bushwhacked" was grateful enough to let Mal go after Mal saved his life.

So regardless of what we think of the the guys making the big decisions, there's at least some of the people who do the work who are still upstanding folks.

Anonymous said...

@jng2058

I did say SELDOM. The point is, however, that the Alliance as a whole doesn't really seem to ever do much good. When Alliance representatives do so, they're usually contravening the likely wishes of their superiors - letting Mal & crew go, for example.

The point is that not much effort is spent on introducing shades of gray for the sides of the war. The Alliance is a pretty clear boogeyman, because for every officer who does something like responding to a distress call, there's a group of soldiers who plant grenades in apples during the equivalent of that famous WWI Christmas Truce - occasional decency counterbalanced by some pretty melodramatic villainy.

Ben said...

Here's something creepy though (and hey, I LOVED Firefly). The two real badguys in series and movie are black. Interesting decision given the transparent Reconstruction period allegory. Given that Firefly has a) a series ending and b) a movie ending both of which feature black villains (admittedly badass though psychotic ones) I think this question bears the asking:

How wise, considered, thoughtless etc. is it to feature two pitiless black male villains in a show which explicitly has as its parallel Reconstruction / Wild West fallout of Reconstruction? Whedon's love affair with the Ole West is fairly explicit in the show, with Mal Reynolds only a hairs breadth away from good ole boy Burt Reynolds at times (when he is not being John Wayne, Indiana Jones or Han Solo that is). As has been obsered this love affair seems to go hand in hand with a need to recapitulate the tropes of Reconstruction through a lens of anti-Colonialism (anti-Globalisation?) in which we (Yankee imperialists) are figured as the bad guys - a neat self critical maneouvre for which the Reconstruction romance is the smuggler's vehicle of choice. And hey we weren't celebrating the Wild West and cowboys and villifying Native Americans (reivers) at all you see, we were getting at the USA (Alliance) and its global agenda!!

The danger always is that an elaborate dance has to be performed about the less PC aspects of the Western in order to idealise it now...hence the elaborately po-mo figuration of prostitution in Firefly as closer to a free-market version of Indian Courtesanship. But when it comes to the Black Villain figures (in what, remember, is essentially a romancing of the angst of the Reconstruction South) Whedon appears to feel less of a need to dance around our sensibilities. Even wierder is the name of the first black villain - Jubal Early - who was a prominent Lost Cause "imagineer" responsible for peddling much of the romantic chivalrous tosh about the South after the war, and even wierder that he is none other than Nathan Fillion's ancestor (according that is to ever reliable Wikipedia.) So maybe Joss was knocking back those long necks after all - hey he writes country tunes!

Anonymous said...

It's not that complicated.

In FIREFLY, Joss Whedon imagined a Confederacy that had never had slaves and never had the racism that accompanied slavery.

Remove entirely the racism/classism/sexism and the slavery from the Confederacy, and you remove most of the things that make it "the bad guy" in any legitimate tale.

Furthermore, without the racism/classism/sexism and slavery, the actions of the Union seem fairly fascist.

I doubt he did this for any sort of nefarious reason. In the past, Joss Whedon has enjoyed thought experiments, and this was probably just one more thought experiment: a post-Civil War IN SPACE in which neither side was fighting about slavery or racism.

Anonymous said...

For Ben:

I think you meant to write
"according that is to ever UNreliable Wikipedia"

So I fixed it for you.

You're welcome.

mikelly said...

He was also put in Confederate pants.