Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Purplebelly Speaks

Caution: Blasphemy Ahead!

At times I feel like the only Sci-Fi nerd who wasn't orgasmic over Firefly. I mean, I thought it was a clever show, original and well written, but it wasn't such a huge deal for me. Admittedly, I'm not the most impartial of voices; Joss Whedon is responsible for several lingering scars upon my psyche - and Alien: Resurrection is only the most obvious one - so I'm still a bit resentful. Mind you, there was a lot to like in Firefly. The low-tech dusty ugly universe was realistically rendered and quite a departure from what we normally see in TV Sci-Fi. The stylistic fusion of American and Chinese culture - a highly plausible future world - was believably done. And it being a Whedon show, it was nothing if not cleverly written. And like any Whedon-penned project, it was often too clever for its own good. Because in the writing, we saw Whedon's strengths - his gift for dialogue and invented slang, his ability to play with audience expectations - and his weaknesses - his lack of subtlety, his tendency to go for the easy joke at the expense of character development. To me it was a curiosity. Sometimes quite entertaining, and sometimes annoying (that damned pseudo-19th-century jargon got on my nerves), but it was never all that compelling for me.

But apparently it was compelling for a lot of people. I had heard of the Browncoats, the self-declared brotherhood of devoted fans of the series, who in large part helped get the Serenity movie made. But I had no idea how large and dedicated a group they were until recently. When I first discovered Podcasts, I was introduced to Marc Gunn, Texas musician and the hardest-working man in Podcasting. Not only is he a talented folk musican with FIVE regular Podcasts to his name, but he's also a Browncoat. And through his Podcasts I came to realize that the Browncoats were as numerous and far-reaching as Trekkies - only less pathetic. Among their ranks are some quite talented musicians, who latched onto the folksy charm of the show and the romantic ideal of the Browncoat: veterans of the losing side - "but not the wrong side," in the words of our main character Malcolm Reynolds - in the Unification War. Just as the Browncoats were mercilessly defeated by the Alliance but still carried on, so did Firefly fans carried the torch for the show after it was mercilessly cancelled by Fox. Fox became the symbol of corporate greed and lack of imagination, and Joss Whedon became the poster boy for the rebellious - and ultimately successful - artist.

I don't share this romantic view, however. Maybe I just am biased against Whedon, but there is an undertone to Firefly that I find discomfiting. Thematically, the story is a twist on the "space western": low-tech as it is, we actually have frontier communities and farmstead planets and actual cowboys in space. So the Unification War - between the powerful federalist Alliance and the scrappy frontier-dwelling Independents - can be seen as an analogue to the American Civil War. Only in this war, the Union are the bad guys.

This is what makes me uncomfortable, and it's not just because I'm a born and bred Yankee. Romanticization of the Confederacy is nothing new in American culture. As Americans we tend to identify with the rebel, the underdog, the hopeless cause, and nothing says "rebel" more than Johnny Reb himself. The simple Good Old Boy who picked up a gun and fought for his home is a very American idea. We're a country forged in the fires of populist rebellion; such things will always strike a chord with us. In Firefly, that romanticization came to a head. The Alliance, who sought to unify all the scattered human colonies under one government, is a faceless bureaucratic space empire with little regard for civil liberties or due process. The Independents, the rebels who reisisted and were defeated, are represented by our main character Malcolm Reynolds. Former soldier, now embittered antihero who makes his living on the edges of civilization, running cargo both legal and otherwise, and confounding the Establishment in little ways whenever he has the opportunity. Sci-Fi nerds have compared Malcolm Reynolds to Han Solo, but I think a more apt comparison is to Jesse James. Soldier turned outlaw, only a heroic figure because he's less powerful than the people he victimizes. That's what a Browncoat is: the little guy struggling against the Machine, who keeps flying against all odds.

Unfortunately, that's not what a Confederate was. A Browncoat is a Confederate with all the thorny moral issues of the nature of the Confederacy removed - and YES, dammit, there WERE moral issues behind the American Civil War. Yes, slavery was not the only issue that led to the war, but it was one of the main issues. The fact that the Confederacy made a point of slave ownership in their short-lived constitution says something about the part it played in the Confederate social identity - the identity of the gentleman farmer who didn't like the way society was going, and decided to form his own instead. It was that very attitude that led to Secession: the Confederates were not being oppressed. American society was simply changing, in a way that they didn't like. They felt that gave them the right to leave the Union, and Abraham Lincoln disagreed. According to that great President, no single state, no group of states, had the right to dissolve the Union. The United States was a great thing, not to be lightly cast aside by an alliance of malcontents with a distorted vision of the American Dream. That was why the Civil War was fought. To stop a mistake. To preserve a great thing.

In the Firefly universe, the Alliance is not the great thing Lincoln's Union was, and the Browncoats are fighting a heroic and noble war for independence. The romanticization of the the Civil War is here taken to an extreme: the Union as villians. If we see Science Fiction as allegory of modern culture, the implication is alarming. The belief that the government of the United States no longer serves the interests of the people to the point where the Confederates look like heroes...that's a disturbing notion. Made even more disturbing when you consider the current political climate in America. The infamous "Red State/Confederacy Map" comparison made its rounds during the 2004 election, and despite its inaccuracies the principle remains sound: the South DID rise again...and they're in charge now. It's hard to see former Confederates as heroes opposed to an oppressive government when former Confederates ARE the oppressive government.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into a clever little TV show. But once again, if Sci-Fi is a barometer of modern culture, the message behind Firefly is a provoking one. I believe in the Union. Lincoln's Union, a grand united republic capable of great things. I would fight to preserve it, not divide it, and I reject the rebels who would tear it apart because they just don't like the way things are going. So I guess that makes me a Purplebelly. And I'm proud of it.

But you keep flying, Browncoats. I hope my beloved Union never becomes your hated Alliance, but if it does...well, just keep flying.


Blogger James said...

I was never a Firefly fan, but I agree with your overall argument entirely.
Ang Lee's Ride With the Devil is the only civil war movie I can think of told from the anti-slavery point of view. It's kind of creepy, IMHO.

1:25 PM, November 05, 2006  
Anonymous Count Zero said...

Couldn't the same argument be made about the original Star Wars trilogy, though? I mean, the same elements are there - a group of plucky, ragtag rebels fighting against a government that they feel has grown beyond control and is taking away the rights of the people. And again, the Rebel Alliance (being, in this example, a stand-in for the Confederacy) are presented without any of those thorny moral issues that you mention, and the government against which they're fighting is once more ruthless, evil and oppressive. It's just that the Confederacy stand-in in [i]Star Wars[/i] have a magical space-hippy on their side.

Which isn't to say that I agree with the romanticization of the Confederacy; I think that's a horrible trend (idea? Habit?), and I think you make an interesting point. But I just don't think Joss Whedon (or George Lucas, for that matter) meant for the work to be read into that far.

11:13 PM, November 06, 2006  
Blogger Anarquistador said...

The simple fact of the matter is that Joss Whedon chose, quite blatantly, to make a Space Western. A LITERAL Space Western. His heroes are frontier-dwelling veterans of the losing side of a civil war. It's not a particularly long road to travel down. If he didn't mean for these things to be infered, I don't know what he did mean.

Star Wars was not grounded in reality enough, I think, to make the same analogy. The conflict is presented in too generalized a way: good versus evil, freedom versus totalitarianism, etc. The fact that the Empire was so clearly evil and our plucky heroes so clearly good-hearted (and plucky) foils any effort to draw a specific parallel - except perhaps for the fact that our heroes all have American accents and our villians have British ones...

3:54 PM, November 07, 2006  
Anonymous Count Zero said...

"good versus evil, freedom versus totalitarianism, etc."
Which is exactly what Firefly is about, too.

"The fact that the Empire was so clearly evil and our plucky heroes so clearly good-hearted (and plucky) foils any effort to draw a specific parallel"
Didn't you mention in your initial post that the Alliance was portrayed as being "clearly evil" while the Browncoats (or at least the crew of Serenity - not all of whom, mind you, are technically Browncoats) are...well, good-hearted and plucky?

I agree that it's not a long road to follow to read the series as supporting the Confederacy; and it had ocurred to me before you brought it up, as well. But I think ultimately Whedon was trying to tap into something a little more elemental than that; while yes, there are clear parallels, the Confederates weren't the only people who've ever fought against a sitting government, and certainly weren't the last; they weren't the only ones who lost, either. And in terms of myth/legend/fiction, the theme of a group of people fighting against a corrupt government is probably one as old as government itself.

With the Chinese influence on the show, perhaps an argument could also be made that the Browncoats were based on the group that inspired the old Chinese epic The Water Margin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Margin), who also fought against a sitting government and eventually surrendered.

1:07 PM, November 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're taking to much into this... yes, the concept started from a Civil War point of view... but only in the sense that one side supported unity and the other didn't. But I think you can almost say it seems more like the U.S. Revolutionary War... only, what it would have been like if the U.S. had lost. There are many more parallels in that war with the show then the Civil War...
I personally think the show is brilliant and the jokes don't at all get in the way.

11:39 PM, June 10, 2008  
Blogger Zac in Virginia said...

Ah, I'm glad I found this post again. It's what got me to look for all the Civil War/Confederacy references in the series in the first place. Thanks for that ^_^

I think the writers could've been tapping into Confederacy imagery and dialog to push our buttons, to see things from a different angle. How many other sci-fi series are from the perspectives of criminals and outlaws?

For plenty of people alive today, the Civil War was about states' rights and federalism, and while it's obviously about other things, there is, as you said, an awful lot of appreciation for the Little Guy in U.S. culture.

To respond to concerns that this sort of thing completely ignores the issue of slavery, well, you're right. It does. The Confederacy was not exactly a moral and upstanding group of people. But then again, how many "splendid little wars" has the Union fought against an underdog who *was* moral and upstanding? Plenty of small-time dictators and faux-collectivist plutocrats, maybe, but nobody very nice.

For that matter, the U.S. was the governing body that elected Andrew Jackson, a fine populist hero who commandeered the death and destruction of a great many Amerindians. The idea that analogies are wrong or bad because they prop up "the bad guys" is a little silly, given that there really aren't any good guys, either. There's just people.

3:46 AM, July 26, 2008  

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