Firefly and Western Literature
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Firefly and Hybridity

From Neil Campbell:

‘This is not a Western Western.  It’s a different Western’: Firefly and Hybridity


It is clear that as a postwestern Whedon wanted to create a vision of cultural mixing – especially out in the ‘Border Planets’ where the Alliance (with its cold, sterile, efficient bureaucracy has not always FULLY realised its monologic dream. For these spaces in the show, it is the West that figures again and again as the model – or at least, a version of the Old West frontier town, half-built, in process, anarchic, wild sense of whiteness to the fore.  Whedon’s Westworld of F/Fly reclaims the aspect of the West and often in Whedon’s take on it, multi-ethnic.  Often in the classic Western the cultural vision is purged of ethnic difference, or reduced to a few stereotypes with an overwhelming that we know did exist, immigrant, multi-lingual, full of ethnic diversity and odd mixtures. In the few opportunities afforded on F/F, Whedon insisted (or allowed) this rich cultural fabric to show through.


In an essay in the Firefly Companion vol. 1 (p. 82) it states the show was intended as ‘East meets West’ evoking both the Civil War era of the Old West and ‘oriental influences’ – we see it everywhere in the minutiae of the show’s design (soundtrack, sets, costumes – e.g. the Browncoat worn by Mal was made to suggest this specific conjoining of cultures: ‘a mishmash of a bunch of different things and a little Han Solo thrown in’, Comp vol 2, 116) – and characters like Inara and the linguistic use of Chinese in the show). What is interesting about this is the extent to which (once again) in the spirit of the postwestern, self-reflexivity of the whole show, it echoes a powerful scene in one of the most important literary westerns The Virginian (Owen Wister, 1902) when the author describes the cultural mix of the frontier / border West.  For Wister, it was the kind of ‘mongrel’ culture that needed sorting out by the Anglo Saxon spirit and the ‘civilization’ that only the eastern (as in NYC and Europe) could  bring to the savagery of the West.  I’ll outline the scene below –


In one scene in Owen Wister’s classic novel, The Virginian, the West is seen as exactly a space of difference being transformed into ‘America’, forging the East (the ‘tenderfoot’ narrator) and the South (the travelled Virginian) with the ‘rainbows of men – Chinese, Indian chiefs, Africans, General Miles, younger sons, Austrian nobility, wide females in pink.  Our continent drained prismatically through Omaha once’. In this space, this ‘prism’, language and meanings collide and refract as the cosmopolitan ‘bill-of-fare’ announces ‘salmis, canapés supremes’ and ‘Frogs’ legs á la Delmonico’, while the owner speaks of eggs as ‘white wings’ and rare beef as ‘slaughter in the pan’. In this prismatic, hybrid mix Wister captures a vision of a diasporic West full of encounter, contact, and fusion, a vision he is swift to consign to the past, like the Indian and the buffalo, referring only to the palace as a lost, nostalgic memory of another West already being over-taken. This is a revealing episode, demonstrating a consistent pattern in Wister’s novel whereby an awareness and fascination for ideas of cultural mixing, of a ‘subject-in-process’, and of the West as diasporic are tempered and retreated from by a more conventional belief in and desire to institute an essentialized American identity as the ‘natural’ product of the social evolution of the fittest.


So my point is that it is as if Whedon recuperates the ‘prismatic’ West described and denied by Wister as a better and more healthy vision of the world (universe) than anything as standardised as the one proposed by the Alliance – its chrome and silver controlling order that Whedon called ‘antiseptic and annoying’ (Companion vol 1, 96).  There is part of Whedon’s ragamuffin crew that smacks of the hybridity that Wister denies, something of the disorder and ambiguity of Mal’s world that clearly stands against the oppositions posed in the show: terrifying savages (the Reavers) and the sterility of the Alliance.  Serenity (and its multi-racial crew), is the space that moves, the ‘third space’, the in-between.



One Response to “Firefly and Hybridity”

  1. Scrambled first paragraph – don’t know why!

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