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Friday, May 30, 2014

Reading Joss Whedon: The Limitations of Academic Specialization

Joss Whedon is a creator of science fiction and fantasy content for television, movies and comic books who is highly regarded.  I jumped on the Joss Whedon bandwagon the first time I heard Firefly's theme song.  I had to see the show that was prefaced by such a powerhouse of a song.  I had watched  Buffy and Angel in the desultory manner of the casual viewer  I find the main protagonists of those earlier Whedon shows unengaging, and they turned the apocalypse motif into a cliche through overuse.  I did enjoy Faith, Giles and the evolved Spike on Angel.  There were some episodes on Buffy and Angel that impressed me, but I wasn't part of their primary audience.

 Firefly was different, but not because it was a science fiction western.  That particular mix of genres had become so banal as of 1950 that science fiction magazine editor Horace Gold wrote an editorial attacking it called "You'll Never See It in Galaxy". (Galaxy Science Fiction , October 1950)  Decades later when I became active in science fiction fandom, I encountered  the term "Bat Durston"  in fannish vocabulary.  It meant any fiction superficially gussied up with science fiction elements, but which actually wasn't science fiction at all when closely examined. The term had its origin in that 1950 editorial.  In 2009 Nathan E. Lilly wrote an article for Strange Horizons in order to explain why the science fiction western needed rehabilitation.  He called it  "The Emancipation of Bat Durston" and mentioned the Firefly film, Serenity, as an example of how the science fiction western was being reclaimed in current media.  You can find that piece at Nathan Lilly article.  The type of science fiction western that was being written in 1950 was a reification of  the values of the 1950's.   Joss Whedon subverted the traditional science fiction western in Firefly.  The trouble is that one academic writing about Firefly in this anthology, who didn't know the history of the science fiction western, appeared to think that Whedon invented it.

 This is what happens when academics are too specialized.  They know the body of work they are studying, but they are ignorant of the context from which it sprung.  If you are unfamiliar with that history, you don't know what is in continuity with earlier work and what is a departure from it. 

This is why I was initially sceptical of the value of Reading Joss Whedon.  I downloaded this book from Net Galley, and here are my considered opinions after having finished the entire volume.

                                                  

 Joss Whedon scholars examine how each Whedon project relates to other work by Joss Whedon and how it expresses the characteristic Whedon themes.  They don't situate it within the science fiction genre as a whole, or necessarily within the larger universe of work aired on television.

David Kariemba wrote an essay on the significance of Buffy's first season.   One aspect that Kariemba doesn't deal with is whether it has enduring significance.  For example, when "The Witch" first aired,  its critical approach to gender in such activities as cheerleading may have been unique, but since then I believe that Glee has dealt with this theme more thoroughly and effectively.

It's also possible for a Whedon scholar to attempt to shoehorn Buffy into a major archetype even if it doesn't particularly fit.  Archetypes have specific attributes.   Robin Hood is a thief who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.  If an author portrays a thief who doesn't do these things, he is not a Robin Hood.   In  "Hero's Journey, Heroine's Return: Buffy, Eurydice and the Orpheus Myth" Janet K. Halfyard  unsuccessfully makes the argument that Buffy is an Orpheus figure.  The only thing that Buffy has in common with Orpheus is having gone to the Underworld.  There are other mythic figures that have accomplished this feat.  For a list from various mythologies see the article Descent To The Underworld on Wikipedia. Halfyard  redeems herself  when she states that Buffy could also be seen as Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, to Willow as Orpheus.  I thought that this made mythological sense.  Orpheus is a magician in the esoteric tradition known as Orphism.  Willow is related to that aspect of Orpheus.   She used magic to bring Eurydice/Buffy back from the Underworld.

In the Firefly essay section, we find that it's the transgressive characters that make this series stand apart.  I can definitely agree with the Whedon scholars on that issue.   River is the first of Whedon's truly extraordinary woman rebels.  No matter what the authorities have done to her, she re-emerges  to fight them again.  Although radical theorist Audre Lorde tells us in an essay that "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House," River is literally in a position to do exactly that when she uses the modifications that the Alliance has given her against them in Serenity. Inara may be a geisha or a heteira.  Both of these were positions of honor in their respective cultures which subverts current Western ideas about women and sexuality.  Yet no mention is made in this anthology about how unusual women like Kaylee the mechanic still are in both fiction and the real world.   That's why I love Mercy Thompson, the shapeshifting garage mechanic in Patricia Briggs' novels so much, and that's why I am so impressed with the real Kaylees of the world like Inna Pasportnikova, a Russian aircraft mechanic who was the friend of the Russian WWII ace, Lilia Litvyak .  (See my review  Lilia Litvyak of the White Lily which was the first one on this blog.) My brave friend, blogger Tara Chevrestt,  wrote about current discrimination against women who are aircraft mechanics on her blog. (To find out more see  her post Sex Discrimination Still Rampant in Aviation: A True Story  on Book Babe.)  Characters like Kaylee can inspire more women to believe that they can become mechanics, so that this will not remain such a male dominated profession.  This means that Kaylee is also a subversive woman.

Sometimes narrow specialization means that the scholarship doesn't inquire deeply into the topic.  In "Wheel Never Stops Turning: Space and Time in Firefly and Serenity" by Alyson R. Buckman, the author compares the Alliance actions that created the Reavers to what the American government did to  Native peoples in the 19th century.  She says that the Alliance intentions were benevolent and so were those of the U.S. federal government toward the Native Americans. This means that Buckman accepted propaganda as the true agenda of both the Alliance and the U.S. federal government.  The real intentions of the U.S. federal government toward Native Americans in the 19th century were genocidal.  Those that survived were victims of cultural genocide.    The Alliance also isn't as benevolent as they claimed. The Browncoats saw through the Alliance PR about itself, and so did River.  She was tortured and brainwashed as punishment for her independent thinking.  I find it disturbing that Buckman doesn't realize that her analysis was so superficial.  She knows the episodes of Firefly, but she hasn't grasped its subtext--what Joss Whedon was really trying to tell us.

In the first essay on Dollhouse, my favorite Whedon series, we have another attempt to shoehorn the central character into a myth.  In this case, it may have been Joss Whedon who did the original shoehorning because he named the character Echo.  In "Echo, Narcissus and the Male Gaze in Dollhouse" by K. Dale Koontz, Koontz tells us that the Echo of Greek myth, like Echo in Dollhouse, "loses her ability to speak as punishment for challenging the prevailing power structure."  Is this a valid reading of the myth? I don't think so.  The mythic Echo was silenced by Hera/Juno, the wife of Zeus/Jupiter.  Why?  Because she covered for her friends who were having illicit sex with Zeus/Jupiter.  Hera silenced Echo because she couldn't directly challenge her husband.  She was powerless against him.  Not only this, but the mythic Echo wasn't challenging Zeus' authority either.  She was indirectly assisting him by distracting Hera.  Koontz gives us the myth's storyline in her essay.  I am not analyzing the myth using an external source.  So both of us read the same myth, but Koontz thinks that it directly parallels the story of Caroline, the original identity of Echo in Dollhouse. Caroline was silenced and her personality was wiped for challenging Rossum, the corporation that runs the Dollhouse.  She is the second great woman rebel that Whedon created.  Her roots are not in myth.  She is another version of River from Firefly.  Only in this version, the authorities aren't just trying to destroy the identities of dissidents.  By the end of the series, we learn that Rossum's intention is totalitarian. They meant to control all of humanity in the same manner as the Dolls. Over the top?  Maybe not.  It seems to me that there are real world corporations whose will to power could be a match for Rossum's ambitions.

I did really like Koontz' quote from Kierkegaard  "Life is lived forward, but understood backward."  For those who are introspective, memory makes sense of experience.  History, the memory of our species, is introspection writ large.   Without memory, the individual isn't able to find meaning in life.  Without history, humanity as a whole doesn't understand itself.  Memory is identity.  When Echo lost her past as Caroline, she lost her sense of meaning without which she had no identity.  Echo's identity as a Doll is said to be a palimpsest.  She gets new made to order personalities to suit the fantasies of clients.  Each new personality writes over the previous ones.   A palimpsest is an ancient scroll that is continually being erased and written over.   I feel that this is a metaphor for history as written by the victors, and for memory as it really functions.   We forget and/or reshape our memories to suit new self-concepts.  This re-shaping can be voluntary.  We applaud the ingenuity of those who re-invent themselves in order to become more successful in their careers.   Yet when an individual's personality changes due to involuntary loss of memory, it's a tragedy.  In real life this tragic metamorphosis often happens as a result of Alzheimer's Syndrome rather than a Dollhouse type of dystopian conspiracy.   Yet the reason why I love Dollhouse is because it deals so centrally with what it means to be human.

In "There Is No Me; I'm Just A Container: Law and the Loss of Personhood in Dollhouse" by Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan, the authors discuss the legal issues raised by the series.  They pointed out that even Adelle, the representative of the corporation that runs the Dollhouse, believed that the Dolls could be raped and was outraged by such incidents.  Yet when I looked at the circumstances which she considered rape, they all involved persons who hadn't paid for the privilege of intimate contact with the Dolls.  So it was probably the lack of compensation that bothered her, not any violation of the Doll's rights or personhood. 

Finally, I have a problem with scholars who distort ideological positions with which they disagree.  This happened in  "Memory and Identity and Whedon's Narrative Ethics" by J. Douglas Rabb and J. Michael Richardson.  The authors seem to believe that Ayn Rand would have approved of the Alliance in Firefly because it combined American laissez faire with Chinese bureaucratic efficiency.  I don't agree with Ayn Rand myself, but I am very familiar with her work.  She called capitalism "the unknown ideal" because she was convinced that it hadn't really been tried.  She hated mixed economies that defile the purity of free enterprise.  Entrepeneurs were her ideal, never bureaucrats. An authentic individual follows his or her own rules, not rules created by others as bureaucrats do.  In Rand's philosophy, they are called "second handers".  It seemed to her that if they thought for themselves, they would all be innovators with their own corporations rather than bureaucrats.  Of course, large corporations founded by innovators could not be administered without bureaucrats, but Ayn Rand apparently never considered the pragmatic reality of business.  She romanticized business and we are currently living with the legacy of her unrealistic ideas. 

I would have liked to have seen less narrowness and more rigor in these essays, but I did learn a great deal about Whedon's perspective on his series that I hadn't previously known.  I very much admire the projects where he was given freedom to express his themes, but television is a very collaborative medium.  Indie projects where Whedon could have complete control have smaller audiences than shows produced by major networks or movie studios.  I would have loved to see what Whedon could have done with Wonder Woman, but Hollywood apparently wasn't ready for it.  Perhaps one day Whedon will again helm a project as extraordinary as Firefly and Dollhouse.  I look forward to it.


                                          
                                                                         

                                           
                                                      Gold Venetian Mask
                              Courtesy of Victor Habbick
                                          from   Freedigitalphotos.net


                                                      
                                     

                                           





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