The Duck of Minerva

Serenity Now

9 May 2008

At the urging of a friend, I have recently finished consuming the complete box-set of Joss Wheddon’s now-defunct Firefly TV series plus the feature film Serenity. (Totally missed this show in 2002 while writing my dissertation.)

Though my partner can’t quite see what I like about Firefly/Serenity(and didn’t accept my claim that I was viewing it as a mere artifact of popular culture – really), truth is it’s a damn cool series that should have survived beyond one season.

If you’re unfamiliar with Firefly, here’s the premise: humankind has colonized a new solar system, characterized by a strong, centralized, bureaucratic, quasi-authoritarian “Alliance” that governs the central planets through an elaborate system of surveillance and benevolent but Orwellian incentive structures. However the Alliance struggles to maintain control over the outer planets, which are largely characterized by tribalism and vigilante law akin to the U.S. Wild West or, for those on whom the metaphor is not lost, ungoverned spaces of today’s globe in which criminal networks, banditry, slavery and insecurity thrive. In other words, the political geography of the series rather resembles Thomas Barnett’s distinction between the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrating Gap.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the “good guys” of the show are not the Alliance civilizers, keen to spread rule of law throughout the fringe, but rather the crew of a smuggling ship captained by a one-time anti-Alliance insurgent and his sidekick, plus various crew and passengers picked up for utilitarian reasons along the way. The series follows their everyday life skirting Alliance officials, bartering, smuggling, and shooting when necessary.

But the series seems less about a band of criminals than about survival of kin-groups under failed state systems. Of particular interest to people concerned with governance under anarchy is the complex way in which honor codes come to check otherwise self-interested rationality.

I haven’t (yet) delved into the considerable fan writings on Firefly/Serenity, but I did discover a brilliant gender analysis of the series published last year in the British Journal of International Relations. (It came to my mind as I considered the bleg PTJ posted recently about how to teach globalization and security.) Christina Rowley writes:

“[Joss] Whedon’s vision appears to share much in common with Cynthia Enloe’s (1996) appeal that we focus more of our analytical attention on the ‘margins, silences and bottom rungs’ of world politics, in order to illuminate the amounts and varieties of power that are required to be exerted in order to keep the world functioning as it does…. The Issues with which F/S engages – e.g. travel and migration, trade and smuggling, crime and terrorism, prostitution and sex work, individual and societal security – are simultaneously local and international – or, rather, post-national.”

The show is also, Rowley argues, “post-feminist” insofar as:

“the individuals who comprise Serenity’s crew and passengers, and the situationg in which they find themselves, provide critiques and alternative visions of what it means to be gendered.”

She fleshes out this claim with reference to Zoe the warrior wife, Kaylee the sweet, sensitive ship’s mechanic, Inara the high-class Companion (geisha/prostitute) and various other protrayals of women and gender issues in the show. (Rowley spends only one paragraph on the men of Firefly, unfortunately, although in my mind different constructions of good and bad masculinity underpin the show, and Jayne Cobb’s gradual conversion from greedy, Neanderthal-esque cretin to good guy sidekick is one of the most interesting themes.)

At any rate, perhaps partly due to the misfit between “post-feminist” narratives and an increasingly retro gender culture characteristic of post-9/11 US political culture, the series failed after one season. But thanks to the show’s strong and growing cult following, this could change. Fan organizations such as and are dedicated to “keep[ing] the fandom growing” not just in its own right but also to bring back the show by demonstrating that “we Browncoats are a mighty force of consumers.”

One site exhorts fans to “throw a conversion party,” “make your own bumper-stickers,” “call Universal” or (two of my favorites):

“Any time you rent a sci-fi, western or action movie, put a small flyer or sticker on the case underneath the DVD. Where the renters will see them, but employees inspecting the cases won’t.

Type in into any public access Internet computer you come into contact with (libraries, computer stores, cyber cafés, etc) and leave it on the screen when you leave.”

(Geez, the SaveDarfur coalition could take some pointers from this movement.)

Such efforts (and this blog post should in no way be construed as guerilla marketing of this type) have not yet succeeded at either reviving the series or securing the right to produce Season 2 informally, but they did result in a major feature film.

As Americans grow weary of the US government’s Alliance role, might there may indeed be more mass support for pro-libertarian shows of this type? I suppose that depends on your estimate of the relationship between foreign policy and popular culture, on which I’m no expert. Thoughts?