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07 December 2010 @ 02:06 pm
Serenity Found  
Serenity Found is a set of essays on the Firefly TV series and the film Serenity edited by Jane Espenson. I found them a rather mixed bunch. My initial thoughts, after reading the first couple, were that the authors tended to rather over-state their case. I think Firefly was one of the best drama series of the past decade, however that doesn't mean I think it represented a quantum leap forward in either the insertion of social commentary into TV-SF or in the representation of women in genre shows.

However I was fascinated by a trio of the essays which, almost certainly unintentionally formed a dialogue with each other. Freedom in an Unfree World by P. Gardner Goldsmith interpreted Firefly and Serenity as a libertarian political tract, one in which the allegorical links to the American Civil War highlighted the South's position as one opposed to excessive government meddling. Mal Contents by Alex Bledsoe focused on the character of Malcolm Reynolds and explicitly rejected the idea that he is some kind of libertarian hero, stressing instead his teenage-like refusal to accept any authority over him, any criticism of his own authority or indeed any responsibility for others beyond those in his immediate vicinity. Bledsoe's theory is that it's only towards the end of Serenity that Mal is motivated by any kind of principles beyond self-absorption and knee-jerk rebellion. The Bonnie Brown Flag by Evelyn Vaughn examined directly the Civil War allegory and tried, though I'm unconvinced it succeeded, to address the erasure of the issue of slavery from the allegorical story. This highlighted one of the aspects of Goldsmith's essay that troubled me. In painting the South as heroic libertarian heroes, freedom fighters and underdogs and sidelining completely the issue of slavery it rather showed up, I felt, one of libertarianisms flaws - it's failure to account for the way the privileged tend to rise to the top in an unregulated environment and human-kind's unfortunate tendency to assume that people with superficial differences either do not count, or are happy with their lot. I find it hard to consider a side which was in no small part funded by slave-owning and motivated by a desire to protect the practice, even if it did not primarily consist of slave-owners, as suitable role-models for heroic freedom fighters and I doubt, somehow, that was Whedon's intention. It seems more likely that he found the cause of the South in the American Civil War a convenient allegory for Malcolm Reynolds' knee-jerk rebelliousness.

But, in the end, it has to be said I came away from the essays less happy with the Firefly stories than I went in. While I accept that slavery was far from the only issue involved in the American Civil War, I'm uncomfortable that the series can be read as a vindication of the South's position, that it provides a way for people to erase the issue of slavery from the conflict and, as a result, let's them view the Confederates as heroic freedom fighters and, essentially, the good guys. I also think libertarians should find themselves better heroes.

This entry was originally posted at http://purplecat.dreamwidth.org/28122.html.
parrot_knight: US_politicsparrot_knight on December 7th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC)
It seems that the collection might say more about the perspective the writers have on American history than the series itself. Personally, I see Mal as comparable to those Americans sceptical about the merits of the US Constitution and who preferred their freedoms guaranteed by the Articles of Confederation; there is a school of historical writing to this day which regards the US Constitution as enshrining a coup against the people, though it appears that most of the population are not aware of it.
louisedennislouisedennis on December 7th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
Goldsmith certainly seemed be coming from a position in which he viewed the US government as a tyrannical oppressor whose power had been entrenched by the defeat of the South.

But this seems to be a reading in which Americans would be freer, better-off and happier had the South won which may be the case if you are white, but something like a third of the population of the South, at the time of the Civil War were slaves and I don't see that this libertarian ideal would have done much for them.
bunnbunn on December 7th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC)
This is an awfully complex debate. I don't know what I think about it... Reading about the Civil War left me feeling morally quite confused about the whole situation. Obviously slavery is wrong, but the North is quite repulsive in parts too.

I think... I don't think that writing sci fi that uses the Confederacy as very partial inspiration, without slavery, is wrong. Writing historical or 'what if' fiction without it would be, but Firefly is not that.

American history is often very readable, I have found : they don't seem to have the English historian's belief that Short Easy Sentences Are Wrong.
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 03:56 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bunn on December 7th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 04:25 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bunn on December 7th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 04:48 pm (UTC) (Expand)
parrot_knight: US_politicsparrot_knight on December 7th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
The defeat of the Confederacy and the establishment of military rule by the union army in the south was a triumph for a particular interpretation of the United States Constitution; after the Civil War relations between the states, I think, lose the character of diplomatic relations between countries which they had often had. It's often said that it was only after the Civil War that the idea of the United States as a singular entity overcame that of it as a collective - "this United States" replacing "these United States" but I'm not sure how true that really is.
(no subject) - ladyofastolat on December 7th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 06:07 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bunn on December 7th, 2010 06:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 06:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
daniel_saunders: Radcliffe Cameradaniel_saunders on December 7th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
I've seen at most one episode of Firefly (I can't quite remember), so this may not be relevant at all, but liberal opinion in Europe in the 1860s was pretty much entirely on the side of the south. The Civil War was perceived as being entirely about state's rights vs the union, not slavery (to be fair, even Lincoln thought in these terms). IIRC, Gladstone even contemplated taking Britain to war on the side of the south, although there were other big political factors influencing this.

So, what I'm saying is, this may not be a pleasant attitude (and parrot_knight is right that it says as much about the authors of the essays as anything else), but it isn't an unprecedented one.
philmophlegm: aimingforhishead2philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
Our posts crossed, but what we say doesn't contradict.
louisedennislouisedennis on December 7th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
I'm not assuming it's unprecedented, but I don't like treating, even silly TV shows as things that exist in isolation without looking at, and accepting, the way they allow people to justify their own beliefs.
philmophlegm: aimingforhishead2philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
British commentators seem to downplay the other roots of the American Civil War, and concentrate on the slavery aspect. Mind you, they aren't alone, as this famous scene from The Simpsons illustrates (Apu, the illegal immigrant convenience store owner with a PhD is applying for American citizenship):

Proctor: All right, here's your last question. What was the cause of the Civil War?
Apu: Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and inter...
Proctor: Wait, wait - just say slavery.
Apu: Slavery it is, sir.

I haven't read that article, but I have seen similar libertarian arguments about Firefly. For example, Joss Whedon won a Prometheus Award (libertarian SF award) for Serenity. Surely the fact that there is no suggestion in Firefly that the Independents kept slaves means that it's ok to see them as heroes doesn't it? If you read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, you're clearly meant to see Aslan as a hero. But we know that Aslan is allegorically meant to be a christian allegory, and didn't nasty christians start the Crusades? Well maybe, but in the book, Aslan's followers don't do anything bad, and in Firefly, the Independents don't keep slaves. If they had, it would be a different matter.

Incidentally, I don't think libertarians tend to go for heroes. We're too free-thinking for that for the most part. It's the authoritarians and statists who go around wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, attending Nuremberg rallies and reading Polly Toynbee.
louisedennislouisedennis on December 7th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
All I can answer to this really is that the essays certainly seemed to consider Mal as, potentially, a libertarian hero and the South defeat of the South as a defeat for libertarianism. Even allowing the Civil War to have been caused by a complex set of factors, 30% of the population of the South were slaves and I don't see that the South's libertarian credentials were doing much for those people. If libertarianism wants to vindicate the South then it needs to explain how libertarianism would have brought freedom to the slaves or it needs to reject the South as some kind of last gasp libertarian cause.

I also love The Lion, the With and the Wardrobe but that doesn't stop me being uncomfortable with some of the ways it acts as a christian apologia, and some of the attitudes it tacitly vindicates by making its allegorically christian protagonists a good deal nicer and more sympathetic than many christians have en masse, historically, been. I also think, from a Christian perspective, it wraps up a number of attitudes which probably are not particularly Christian into the allegory and thus, to a certain extent, tars Christianity with the brush of some of Lewis' own prejudices.
philmophlegm: aimingforhishead2philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)
I think we can probably agree that if you support slavery, then you ain't a libertarian. After all, libertarianism is all about freedom of the individual. Nowadays we tend to think of that in terms of freedom from the state, but in a society where it is possible to own other people, then libertarianism has to include freedom from other people.

bunnbunn on December 7th, 2010 04:19 pm (UTC)
This sort of debate always makes me think of Thomas Jefferson...
(no subject) - philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bunn on December 7th, 2010 05:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 06:06 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - bunn on December 7th, 2010 06:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC) (Expand)
grahamrobinsongrahamrobinson on December 7th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)
Out of interest, how many westerns have you watched? I'm always intrigued how people's views of Firefly vary with their exposure to that genre.

And add another voice to the "slavery not being a big motivator for the civil war" choir.

louisedennislouisedennis on December 7th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
I've not seen many westerns since I was a child when they seemed to be on endlessly. I wouldn't at all describe myself as much of a fan of the genre.

I didn't mean to imply that I thought slavery was a big motivator for the civil war (EDIT: I simply don't know enough about the war to have an opinion). But I stick by my point that the libertarian position seems to be one in which makes it easier for people to assume that certain other groups of people don't count, or don't need assistance, and their championship of the South (if, indeed, they do champion it) rather reinforces that belief of mine.

Edited at 2010-12-07 04:01 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - parrot_knight on December 7th, 2010 04:10 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 04:15 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - king_pellinor on December 7th, 2010 08:54 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lsellersfic on December 7th, 2010 08:57 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - louisedennis on December 7th, 2010 08:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
sophievdennis on December 7th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that the weakness of the essays is in treating Firefly as simple allegory for the American Civil War. Allegory is a highly simplistic reading of just about any fiction: see the knots people tie themselves in trying to apply purely allegorical readings to LotR (WW2) or Star Wars (Vietnam / Cold War). It's not surprising then that they have difficulty fitting an allegorical reading to the stories.

Andy points our further that a) Mal is more anti-hero than hero. As Whedon has said himself, this is Han Solo, not Luke Skywalker; and b) that the Government in Firefly is more the classic Sci-Fi totalitarian set up.

To my mind, though, Firefly as classic Western - with all the character tropes that involves - is a much more robust reading.
louisedennislouisedennis on December 7th, 2010 05:00 pm (UTC)
I think Bletsoe made the points very well about Mal's failings as a hero. His was my favourite essay of the piece, I think, since he talked quite starkly about how unsympathetic Mal is, essentially, on the page and the way in which Nathan Fillion turned him into a sympathetic character.

I think Goldsmith definitely saw the Government in Firefly as a fairly direct allegory for the American Government both present and at the time of the North's victory. I think his reading of Firefly is, as you say, wrong, or it at least misses many subtleties and complexities. I could probably have teased out my unease better but there was a conflation of libertarianism = Mal Reynolds = the South = good and current US administrations = the Alliance = the north = bad that made me deeply uncomfortable and uncomfortable that that reading was there in Firefly to be had.
(no subject) - sophievdennis on December 7th, 2010 05:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - philmophlegm on December 7th, 2010 06:28 pm (UTC) (Expand)