Fictional Worlds and Self Serving Lies
Firefly and Serenity are, among other things, Westerns. The Western is, among other things, a telling of the founding myth of this country designed to whitewash some horrific truths, mostly the genocide of Native Americans, but also at times the Confederacy’s motivations secession. In the classic Western, Indians are savages, and the heroes like Jesse James or Josie Wales get some of their tragic nobility for having fought for honor on the losing side of the civil war. At its worst, the Western is a self serving lie. One of the strangest things about Firefly and Serenity is that the creators have given a fictional world where the most troublesome parts of the myth of the West are actually true. The surrogates for Native Americans really are savages. The surrogate for the Confederacy really was justified in its cause.
What is going on here? Race has always been a blind spot for Mutant Enemy productions, but the creators of the show and movie must be aware of the meaning of their symbols, and can’t seriously intend us to believe that Native Americans are savages. Whedon has claimed that the origin story for the Reavers absolves him of charges of racism This doesn’t work, as has been pointed out by [person at Firefly talk] because it actually only feeds into the myth of the savage native, in particular, the Heart of Darkness idea that the savage is both a person and something within all of us. Even if the creators intended the origin story for the Reavers to push the audience away from racist interpretations it simply doesn’t succeed. The racist meaning is still there.
The interpretation of the Confederate imagery is different but equally problematic. There might be more sympathy here for claiming that Firefly and Serenity should prompt us to reconsider the justice of the Confederate cause. The justifications for the outer planet rebellion in Firefly and Serenity do mirror the justifications given by the CSA for war, excluding the defense of slavery. But this will only get us so far. Once you exclude the ad hominem tu quoque fallacies from confederate apologists, you are not left with much of a justification for war.
I will argue that we should take Firefly and Serenity as an exercise in moral empathy. By moral empathy I mean the process of taking on someone else’s world view. Creating a fictional world where the founding myths of our country are true give us the opportunity to understand the worldview of people who believe the founding myths, without having to actually present them as being true of the real world, or even a particularly good analogy for the real world.