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Essay: Problematic Space Cowboys

Written to appear in a friend's fanzine, sometime.

Problematic Space Cowboys

Here’s how it is. There was a really great space western tv show--had a great cast, great writing. Despite all of the episodes being aired out of order, some episodes not being aired at all, and a Friday night death slot, it was much beloved. It eventually got a DVD box set, a full-length major motion picture, a documentary about the fandom, and a passel of sporadic comic books. The show was called Firefly, and its fans were called Browncoats.

This ain’t their story.

Something must be in the air recently because people have been rewatching Firefly. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary in this; it’s a good show, and there’s been a dearth of space operas recently. (It’s probably telling that the recent Star Trek films have spent more time on Earth than boldly going anywhere.) It’s tenth anniversary was over a year ago, largely remarked upon by a couple of posters sold from specialty geek shops. So maybe it’s time for nostalgia. After all, in some ways, the space western is as nostalgic as it gets.

The trope is probably most famous per Gene Roddenberry’s classic billing of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars”: all adventure and romance, thrilling heroics, and just enough exploration and science to justify the next set of make-up prosthetics and mildly racy costuming choices. At its best, you get the brilliance of the original series and at its worst you end up with a hot mess like Cowboys vs. Aliens. There’s something beautiful and primal about “the final frontier” with its connotations of brave new worlds and, sometimes, hints of Manifest Destiny; maybe even that Battlestar Galactica-esque “all of this has happened before and will happen again.” And that is where we start to get into trouble.

Let’s rewind a bit. In terms of genre, the Western and the Adventure Story came of age roughly around the same time, at the turn of the twentieth century. In many ways, they were responses to the massive urbanization that was taking place in the period; the actual frontier began to shrink as jobs and wealth started to concentrate in the cities, developing an urban sprawl of population centers along the American coastlines that left a rural middle land hastening to keep up. There was little left that was either unknown or unspoiled. In fiction, on the other hand, the world was always ripe and new and undomesticated. Only two decades later, Science Fiction as a genre came into its own as well, echoing the same basic premises as the other genres, only clad in bright metal and tubes instead of leather and dust.Together, Westerns, Adventure stories, and Science Fiction stories made up three-quarters (the other two being Mysteries and Romances) of those cheap and popular publications called the pulps.

Now, these three genres shared a few preoccupations in addition to their mass-consumer appeal (and probably because of it). One was with what we might call “traditional masculinity” or even hyper-masculinity; the heroes were often the sort of ruggedly handsome, muscled, masters of nature that are perhaps best represented by figures like Tarzan or John Carter of Mars. Another preoccupation was with race, promoting a form of white superiority (again, perhaps best represented by Tarzan) over Africans, various “green men,” and of course, the Indian.

[Note: For the rest of this essay I’m going to use the term “Indian” because that was not only the name of the stereotype, but also a very specific fictional representation independent of any genuine Native American or member of an indigenous tribe.]

And this is what brings us back to Firefly.

You’ll notice in Firefly that the world as represented is explicitly shown to be a hybrid of Western American culture and Chinese culture--or at least, some of the trappings of Chinese culture. Because for a world whose denizens speak American English and Chinese interchangeably, there doesn’t seem to be all that many actual Chinese people there at all. In fact, the main cast and the majority of the guest stars are pretty damn white, with only a couple of African-Americans (and one notable British Black) to lend any diversity at all. We might also question why, especially in the motion picture Serenity which had wider distribution, the main villain (Chewitel Ejiofor) was conspicuously English.

That brings to: Who is the greatest enemy of the intrepid frontiersman? The Indian.

Firefly makes the interesting choice to not fill its worlds--all of which, incidentally, seem to be the terraformed moons and planets of a singular solar system, somewhere further than our own--with its own natives. Instead, the insidious foreign enemies are the Reavers, who are initially portrayed as “men gone mad at the edge of space” (“Serenity”). In a later episode, “Bushwhacked,” the crew finds a ship that had been attacked by Reavers, leaving only a single survivor. One whom, our Captain Reynolds maintains, is not longer human himself: “Reavers ain't men. Or they forgot how to be. Now they're just nothing. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing, and that's what they became.”

This story has more in common with the captivity narrative of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than it does with most traditional Western stories, not even those as problematic as The Searchers. While older westerns may be preoccupied with race and miscegenation, Firefly instead is preoccupied with a trauma so absolute that “Charity is a bullet in the brainpan.” In short, the Reavers are not only nonhuman, but have no culture and presumably no natural children. As explained in the film Serenity, Reavers are the victims of a government mind control experiment, the survivors of whom have become destructive cannibals whose ships have no radiation shields, leaving them physically scarred and (likely) infertile. Their only way to “reproduce” is to make others like them. And yet, Reavers are self-aware enough to coordinate sophisticated attacks on population centers and enemy fleets, leave traps, and apparently, want to continue their line and culture. Indeed, as they are coded as being pushed farther and farther into the margins of space as civilization expands, we are encouraged to view their disappearance as favorable to the common good.

Whedon consciously adopted the visual and narrative language of the Old Western interpretation of the Indian in creating the Reavers: "Every story needs a monster. In the stories of the old west it was the Apaches" (Arroyo). In commentary for the DVD of Serenity, he also references film westerns that were his inspiration for scenes in the film, including the moment in Ulzana’s Raid when a cavalry officer shoots a woman to prevent her being raped to death (as Mal shoots a man in Serenity) and the scene of the Reaver fleet appearing from the Oort cloud as a reinterpretation of the “Indians coming over the hill” moment in classic films. And though by the end of Serenity we are informed of the true nature of the Reavers, we still do not view them as victims. Indeed, as River Tam triumphantly slaughters them en masse, we feel her victory, not their tragic defeat.

And speaking of tragic defeats, let’s talk about the other meaning of Serenity.

The background of Firefly as introduced in the pilot is in the aftermath of a stellar Civil War between the Independents and the Alliance. Captain Mal Reynolds and his second-in-command Zoe Washburne served together as Browncoats who opposed Unification; we’re never told what instigated the war or what the Independents were fighting for (some variation of Planets’ Rights?), only that the Battle of Serenity Valley, at which both Mal and Zoe were present on the losing side, sealed the fate of that conflict. (Whedon has also stated that for this sequence he was directly inspired by Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, a historical novel that retells the battle of Gettysburg across both sides.) Throughout the show, the language of the Civil War and Reconstruction is reiterated, from direct dialog such as “We will rise again!” (“The Train Job”) to passing references to slaves and plantations (“Serenity,” “Shindig”); given the apparent ongoing existence of a slave trade, the War for Unification was something quite different than the American Civil War.

Mal carries his own psychological scars from the War, as comes up repeatedly in the show. In “Serenity,” Badger tells him “What were you in the war, that big war you failed to win? You were a Sergeant, yeah? Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds, Balls and Bayonets Brigade. Big tough veteran. Now you got yourself a ship and you're a captain. Only I think you're still a Sergeant, see. Still a soldier, man of honor in a den of thieves.” In “Bushwhacked,” he tells the Alliance Commander who has also addressed him as Sergeant that he “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.” Again, there’s that helpful passage in “The Train Job,” and still later, in “The Message,” the central theme is about the inability to ever truly “come back” from a war.

Now, a cynical person might ask what separates the PTSD of Mal from the trauma of the unnamed victim of the Reavers in “Bushwhacked.” They are both white men in their prime, only one is designated “hero” and the other as either “victim” or “nonhuman.” In reality, of course, the difference is that they play different roles in a distinct cultural narrative that has been historically arbitrated: the “noble Southerner” who must carry on and the “noble savage” who is only doomed to die. From John Carter of Mars to Dances with Wolves, we have seen that story before, and here it is again. It is problematic because you’d think we’d have a different narrative by now (or by five hundred years from now).

“It is the way it is,” Mal says in “Serenity,” but you’d think we could maybe do better than that.

Sources and Resources

Arroyo, Sam (October 20, 2005). "Joss Whedon Panel @ Wondercon: Full Report.". Comic Book Resources. 2005 Boiling Point Productions DBA Comic Book Resources.

Rabb, J. Douglas; Richardson, Michael. “Reavers and Redskins: Creating the Frontier Savage.”

In: Wilcox, Rhonda V., and Cochran, Tanya R.,eds. Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier. New York: I. B. Taurus, 2008. p. 127-138.

Shaara, Michael. The Killer Angels. Ballantine Books, 1974.

Watt-Evans, Lawrence. “The Heirs of Sawney Beane.” In: Espenson, Jane/Yeffeth, Glenn, eds. Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2004. p. 17-28.



( 4 comments — Add your .02 )
Mar. 25th, 2014 04:58 am (UTC)
*makes a note to read this ASAP and comment sensibly, either here or on paper*
Mar. 26th, 2014 03:46 pm (UTC)
Huh. I never considered a lot of those things at all. The lack of Chinese or other Asian faces was what initially bugged me, but the Reaver/Indian connection didn't even occur to me. But then, I'm not one for deconstructing narrative in things I like. I usually have to have them pointed out to me, so thanks for your essay! Gives one a lot of food for thought.
Mar. 26th, 2014 06:14 pm (UTC)
<3 <3
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 26th, 2014 06:13 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I went looking for info on that and found this essay which also brings up Inara being Arabic etc.
( 4 comments — Add your .02 )

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