Saturday, November 26, 2011

Prestige Television, Joss Whedon and the End of History (Repost)

Update: To those of you linking from Whedonesque, welcome! This is, by and large, a political blog, but I'm a huge Buffy and Firefly geek. So, if you're here from Whedonesque, you might also be interested in this essay: Big Damn Heroes!

Note: Someone mentioned I should repost this - it was written pre-Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and I have quite a different take now (which speaks to the paradigm-shifting nature of OWS). Also, this post was originally cross-posted at Daily Kos and, it turns out, Buffy fans are OWSers - in a way, it was this essay that got me involved with OWS because two Buffy fans who commented (including David Graeber) were involved in the earliest days and, because I knew of them as fellow Buffy fans, I paid close attention. Okay, here's the essay...

Prestige Television, Joss Whedon and the End of History

Amanda Marcotte recently wrote this piece discussing today's "prestige television" and its exploration of masculine themes. Marcotte concluded TV producers have not been able to "stray away from the magic formula of building a show around a powerful man grappling with the limits of traditional masculinity."

*Gasp* I almost can't believe she said this. How can you possibly talk about the television revolution and not include Joss Whedon?! And once you include Joss Whedon, you couldn't possibly make such a claim (not to mention Veronica Mars, Gilmore Girls and The Sarah Connor Chronicles - ht Nate).

I would argue Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the watershed moment that marks the beginning of "prestige television." It was one of the first shows of "prestige television" quality and it was also one of the first shows that simultaneously pursued episodic and season-long storylines. It used to be that TV shows were short and movies were long; now, movies are short compared to television shows that pursue storylines that run for an entire season or, indeed, multiple seasons. Many will roll their eyes at the comparison (and you're an elitist snob, by the way), but I would argue it is a breakthrough on par with Dickens and Dostoyevsky publishing serialized novels in newspapers.

Perhaps Whedon is absent from Marcotte's analysis because he clearly undercuts her thesis - Whedon, of course, is known for his strong female characters and Buffy was a conscious subversion of female stereotypes. Moreover, Whedon's shows - Buffy, but also Firefly - explored feminist issues in important and subtle ways. And the subtly and nuance comes from the fact that Whedon hasn't created a single female character or just one type of strength: Whedon has created numerous memorable female characters (Buffy, Faith, Willow, Cordelia, Anya, Kaylee, Zoe, River, Inara) and through them he explores the nuances of the questions confronting third-wave feminists (from the nature of strength to the role of sexuality to the respectability of prostitution).

Much has been made - rightly - of the feminist themes in Whedon's work. I've twice set out to write about these themes in response to Marcotte's piece. And don't get me wrong, I love the fact that Whedon's shows represent so many different types of female strength. But Buffy and Firefly aren't just feminist shows. Whedon's shows - like the great films of my generation - are a comment on the times and speak to my generation's struggle to find meaning in an end-of-history context. And by "end of history," I simply mean an era where there is no significant resistance to the prevailing authority.

The rap on my generation, Generation X, is that we're cynical and apathetic (we're the Slacker generation). And the hipsters of subsequent generations have, if anything, taken these tendencies a step further. On the face of it, these generations' highest aspiration appears to be mockery avoidance. But this apathy and cynicism should be seen against the backdrop of the unchallenged hegemony of corporatist, consumer culture. As Francis Fukuyama concluded when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we had reached the "end of history." For better or worse, this was it. Shopping malls for everyone!

David Graeber - astutely, I believe - interpreted Buffy the Vampire Slayer in this end-of-history context:

Today's rebellious youth . . . are reduced to struggling desperately to keep hell from entirely engulfing the earth. Such, I suppose, is the fate of a generation that has been robbed of its fundamental right to dream of a better world. The very notion of being able to take part in a relatively democratically organized group of comrades, engaged in a struggle to save humanity from its authoritarian monsters, is now itself a wild utopian fantasy--not just a means to one.

And if this was the subtext of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in Firefly the subtext became text.

The Firefly characters, like ourselves, live in an end-of-history era - that is to say an era where there is no viable challenge to the existing authority. The former resistance fighters, known as browncoats, are just trying to eke out an existence on the frontier of the solar system, out of the reach of Alliance control. Thus, the theme song - which Joss Whedon says he wrote before he wrote a single episode of the show - is an anthem of defiance by the defeated:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me...

The series opens with an idealistic, religious Malcolm Reynolds (Mal) and his comrades-in-arms, including Zoe, fighting an impossible battle against the Alliance and almost prevailing. When the resistance lays down arms, Mal is profoundly disillusioned. Cut to six years later and Mal is no longer a believer - in God or anything else. As David Graeber noted with respect to Buffy, in this context (an end-of-history era), finding a group of comrades and getting far enough from the reach of authority to be free becomes and end in itself:

Mal: Let me show you the rest [of the ship]. And try to see past what she is and onto what she can be.

Zoë Washburne: What's that, sir?

Mal: Freedom is what.

Zoë Washburne: I meant, what's *that*?

Mal: Oh, yeah, just step around that. I think something must have been living in here. I tell ya, Zoe, we find ourselves a mechanic, get her running again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe even a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come — and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.

~ Out of Gas

They have no hopes of toppling the Alliance and living in a free society; they're just trying to preserve their personal freedom. It's no longer about winning, it's about not personally succumbing:

Simon: I'm trying to put this as delicately as I do I know you won't kill me in my sleep?

Mal: You don't know me, son, so let me put this to you plainly: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed.

Simon: Are you always this sentimental?

Mal: I had a good day.

Simon: You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages... half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you're harboring known fugitives.

Mal: We're still flying.

Simon: That's not much.

Mal: It's enough.

~ Serenity

Mal, once an idealist, is now an unflinching realist; indeed, Mal and the crew of Serenity live on the edge of "the black." And the question Firefly asks is whether there can be meaning and hope in such a world? In Firefly, as in Buffy, the answer is yes. And that hope is not divine or revolutionary - it's a hope grounded in the power of a chosen family:

Saffron: You're quite a man, Malcolm Reynolds. I've waited a long while for someone good enough to take me down.

Mal: Saffron... you even think about playing me again I will riddle you with holes.

Saffron: Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does. We play parts.

Mal: You got all kinds a' learnin' and you made me look the fool without trying,
yet here I am with a gun to your head. That's 'cause I got people with me, people who trust each other, who do for each other and ain't always looking for the advantage. There's good people in the 'verse. Not many, lord knows, but you only need a few.

~ Our Mrs. Reynolds

I don't think it's an accident that in the above-quoted passage, Mal explicitly rejects the capitalist view of human nature. To economists - the high priests of capitalism - human beings are assumed to be profit maximizers, who are "always looking for the advantage." Rejection of this, it turns out, is the glimmer of hope to be found on the edge of "the black" - there is no God, no hope of defeating the Alliance, but there are "good people in the 'verse. Not many, lord knows, but you only need a few."

And to this glimmer of hope, Whedon adds a touch of solace - namely, Firefly affirms that even if there is no alternative - even if the resistance to authority has been defeated - that doesn't make the prevailing authority right:

Alliance Officer: For some the war will never be over. I notice your ship's called "Serenity." You were stationed on Hera at the end of the war; Battle of Serenity Valley took place there if I recall... Seems odd that you would name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.

Mal: May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.

~ Bushwhacked


  1. This is spot-on, and I hope you're able to expand it further.

  2. You've really got me thinking about the beginning of "Prestige Television." When movie critic Lisa Schwartzbaum in 2006 called this current era "the Golden Age of Television," you could recognize the shows that led to such an era, and Buffy and Firefly were two of them. I'd argue the beginning of "prestige television" was Twin Peaks, something quite beyond its time, but Buffy and Firefly were the signifiers that something was happening on the small screen. Very apt article, and I'm fascinated by the OWS analogies.

  3. This was an issue when I originally posted. Be clear that I didn't say Buffy was the first, but that it was a "watershed moment" in that it was one of the first that: 1) were of "prestige television" quality; AND 2)simultaneously pursued episodic and season-long storylines. It was not the first, but if you're trying to mark the beginning of this era, Buffy is arguably a marker of the beginning. There of course was some build-up to the era and there were important precursors, but I would mark Buffy as the beginning.

  4. Buffy struggled with power throughout her time as a Slayer and coming to terms with power became watershed moments in her life. At first Buffy refused to accept her responsibility as a Slayer; she didn't ask for it, didn't want it, and suffered greatly after receiving that power. But as she grew older she learned to accept the power within her and resist society's attempts to usurp and control it.

    At first she had to deal with the authority structure of the Watcher's Council. They were accustomed to exerting absolute control over their Slayers, training them to follow in an outlined path. But Giles abandoned that attitude, which never suited his nature anyway, and accepted Buffy's refusal to give up all power over her own life. She built up an alternate power structure with her friends and turned to her mother for emotional support, not the men of the Council.

    When the Council tried to break her by taking away her slayer powers and trapping her with a vampire, she not only won but she did the unimaginable--she turned her back on the power structure altogether. She refuses to work for the Watcher's Council and in retaliation they remove the support they grudgingly provide for the slayer. The Council sees the Slayer as disposable; when one dies another takes her place, so they keep the slayer poor and dependent and under their control. But Buffy realizes that they are wrong; they only exist because the Slayer exists and only she has enough power to fight their battles. Buffy rejected her subservient role in the male power structure and asserts her equality.

    But Buffy's biggest challenge is in the last season, in which she is overwhelmed by supernatural enemies and human difficulties. She tries to fight the way she was taught but she is losing. At first she thinks she needs to be tougher, stronger, more powerful, but when she is offered a great deal more power, pure supernatural power, she turns it down. Everything she learned in her authoritative power structure had been wrong. Her family and friends and emotions gave her strength, not her training and weapons. Refusing to see the enemy as some faceless Other, always to be fought and "demonized," gained her crucial helpers, friends and lovers. Buffy demanded to be who she was, not who everyone told her to be, and when they told her she was powerless and she would never win, she refused to listen to the negative voices anymore.

    Instead, Buffy gave her power away. She shared it with as many people as she could, and they all came together, all the powerless girls and women who were standing tall and standing together for the first time, and they were a force that could not be defeated.

    And that is what OWS is, people sharing power and money and help instead of hoarding it for themselves, afraid that if they gave any away they would be helpless in our merciless society. We will win as long as we share power with each other and refuse to listen to the voices that whisper in our ears, voices that tell us we're weak and bad, that everything is hopeless and our failure is inevitable, that this is the way it always has been and always must be. They're nothing but voices, they are the powerless ones, for the moment we stop believing them is the moment we become free of their power.

  5. Great points Susan (for those of you who aren't familiar, make sure to check out her blog - it's linked in my blog roll). It actually reminded me of the comment David Graeber made when I originally posted at Kos. Be right back with that...

  6. This was before OWS, not sure what he would say now. But when I first posted it, David Graeber made this observation:

    The way I figured it, there was a kind of logical progression of the seasons, based on who the villain was

    Season #1 - the Master, conventional evil vampire lord
    Season #2 - Spike & Drusilla, charismatic Sid & Nancy sort of vampire duo

    but then he started escalating levels of authority

    Season # 3 - the mayor (with help from the principle)
    Season # 4 - the US government
    Season # 5 - a God

    at this point they couldn't exactly escalate any higher level of authority to oppose so they took it to a more subtle, inner level

    Season # 6 - the nerds; but also of course Willow, which shows that the enemy becomes something inside ourselves

    Season # 7 - Buffy realizes that she is herself the enemy, as she becomes more and more of an authoritarian jerk, and finally, kills off her own authority

  7. I think the issue is how you define "prestige." Marcotte seemed to define "prestige television" by the critics at top media outlets (NPR, BBC, etc.) instead of academics, who tend to prefer BtVS. It's been over ten years since the show premiered, so I think that most of us forget that critics were initially lukewarm about it. They still don't like it as much as they like male-oriented fare.

    To be fair, Buffy paved the way for its successors by convincing networks that a show can be highly-rated and high-quality at the same time.

  8. Someone over at Whedonesque claims I have argued: "Malcolm Reynolds represents an explicit rejection of capitalism." Of course, I haven't and that can only result from a wilfull misreading of what I've written. What I've said is that one line - not the character himself, but one line - explicitly rejects a capitalist view of human nature. Not capitalism itself, but the very specific, very narrow capitalist view of human nature.

    As for Fukuyama's famous essay, I'm really referring to an "end-of-history" context as expressed by David Graeber in his Buffy essay. Yes, I use the phrase "end of history," but I was counting on an audience with a bit better reading comprehension and frankly, a bit more good faith.

    Clearly, he/she (how much you wanna bet it's a he) saw this as anti-capitalist screed and reacted emotionally.

  9. It's fallen out of fashion, but the X-Files, which predates Buffy by about 3 years, played its own part in launching the era of "prestige television." And Scully, for all her faults, was a pretty kick-ass character, too.