Firefly and Western Literature
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The Confederacy and Firefly

In making my way back through the Firefly DVD set this time, one of the things that has struck me is the way the series negotiates the real history of America and the American West that provides the template for the fictional history of Firefly‘s universe. One of the unresolved tensions in the series is the conflict between the contemporary multicultural and progressive politics that it brings to the Western genre and the conservative (often racist) politics that informed its closest generic precursors–the subgenre of the Western popular at least from the 1930s into 1960s that some film historians have referred to as the “southern western.” In these westerns (such as My Darling Clementine), the cowboy hero is often a former confederate soldier, is often (as in The Virginian) a southerner, and the perspective on the Civil War is usually closer to Birth of a Nation than to the more egalitarian principles of Firefly.

If we think about the various ghosts that haunt Firefly, can the series not only evoke the Confederacy but also celebrate the former-Confederate cowboy-hero of mid-twentieth century Westerns without tacitly or implicitly evoking the politics that informed those source texts? Is Firefly moving “beyond” the politics of its sources (the real Civil War, the many fictionalized film versions of that war) or sweeping them under the rug?

I’ve noticed several moments that indicate that Whedon is aware of the ethical question of how do you appropriate the cool elements of these earlier Westerns without repeating their problematic politics. Most obviously, there is the decision to cast African American actors not only in the major support roles on the Firefly crew but also in major guest roles–as villains as well as heroes (Richard Brooks as bounty hunter Jubal Early in “Objects in Space” comes to mind). The presence of black characters visually asserts that this “rebellion” was not fought for the same reasons as in the Civil War.

Also, references to slavery crop up with some frequency in the series, sometimes as odd asides that don’t seem to have much to do with the main plot. The purpose of those references seem to be to establish Mal’s difference from the Confederate cowboys of earlier Westerns. In “Shindig,” the opening fight scene is sparked by Mal’s disdain for the group of men he’s playing pool with–who are slave traders. “They earned that [money] with the sweat of their slave-trading brows.” Other episodes suggest a reversal of the historical Confederate and Union positions on slavery, with the Union/Alliance practicing a kind of enslavement of its subject citizens (if not actually supporting slavery as such) and the Confederates/Browncoats opposing any imposition on individual freedom.

Mal’s antipathy to slavery is further established later in “Shindig,” when he comments to Inara, “You think following the rules will buy you a nice life, even if the rules make you a slave.” In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Zoe caustically comments to Mal, “Are you enjoying your own nubile little slave girl?” She seems to have chosen a comment that she knows will cut deeply: accusing Mal of being a slaveholder.

The frequency of references to slavery in the series seems to be an indication of the effort to distance it from the politics of earlier “southern westerns.” Does it do enough? Could the series have done more to acknowledge or comment on the politics of those earlier Westerns?

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One Response to “The Confederacy and Firefly”

  1. I think the answer is ‘yes’ (on the politics of earlier westerns) – and there has been similar criticisms of F/f’s failure to represent certain groups less favourably than others (the Oriental, for example). But in a way, given its odd production history and fate, this may not be a surprise. Shows were often written fast, under scrutiny by the Studios, and having to compromise too
    .
    One might add the politics in relation to gender (again much discussed in all Whedon’s work – with Buffy a key reference point)
    – does it do enough?
    But these points on the show’s engagement with the ‘southern western’ are great.

    I do it tries to think about issues such as hybridity and cultural mixing and if it does not resolve them (what TV show could?), it at least provokes the audience to consider some of the themes around race, power, and, of course, morality. All the time we are watching OUTLAWS and KILLERS with a conscience …


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