The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Love, Faith, and Sex

Finished watching the entire run of "Firefly" and then "Serenity", the movie Joss Whedon made from it. Without knowing what was going on behind the scenes, I would consider this a perfect example of excellent "Space Opera" at the very highest level...and also a perfect example of what is wrong with SF, sociologically.

WARNING: SAMBO ALERT

If I'm right, the series is a perfect example of the human unconscious at work. All of his attention on making the best show possible (and it is great!) he balances images of male and female, white and black (Asians are mostly absent, even though Chinese is spoken in spurts). I'd heard from about ten people that the show was fabulous...and it was mostly white females, doubtless happy with the depiction of women. Again, there are very strong and capable...even uber-strong...in the cast. But if you look at it through the sexual lens, "Firefly" is as retro as anything done in the 60's. Science Fiction loves to consider itself progressive, but it is actually conservative as hell. Ron Glass plays "The Shepherd", the only black male in the cast, and a literal Spiritual Guide. He has no family, he doesn't want sex, he is only there to provide guidance to the white folks. P.S., he dies in the movie, allowing the others to get all teary and vow revenge. Yawn.

It is notable that NO other black male figures appear in the entire run of the series...until the very last episode, when there is a bounty hunter, very black. And what is virtually the FIRST thing he says to the first white woman he meets? "Have you ever been raped?" Repeating this threat several times. Wow. So...good black men are celibate and elderly. Bad black men are young rapists. Black women are all right as long as they have sex with white men. The collective unconscious at its best.

Now, then...my guess is that someone, say a black guest at a dinner party, perhaps, mentioned to Whedon the rather noxious results you get if you examine the show through a sexual lens. So in "Serenity" he took steps to correct this, a TOTALLY admirable thing. So we get the lethal "Operative" played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He is really kind of the "anti-Spiritual Guide", a devilish, brilliant, hyper-efficient killing machine working for the Alliance. Beautifully written, he really added tension to that movie, and I loved it.

When people ask: "why do you talk about this so much?" It is precisely because of Firefly. Because people with good intentions, who believe themselves liberal about racial issues, will create the exact same vomitous images if they are allowed to go unconscious. Because not a single person who recommended it to me, knowing my sensitivities, guessed that I might have found elements offensive. That would be like me enthusiastically recommending a show where the only women were raped and powerless. Doncha think I'd be kinda dumb to do that?

The only answers are to continue the conversation, and for more non-whites to be in positions of power in Hollywood and New York. And Washington, of course.

But I want to say again..."Firefly" is a terrific show. I'm glad I never watched it in original broadcast, because it would have hurt to watch it canceled.

##

"The emotions of Faith, Love, and Sex are the most powerful of all the major emotions"--Napoleon Hill. Again, I'm looking at "Think and Grow Rich", going back to the basics of my success education, looking to shore it up and plug loopholes. This triad is fascinating because most of the books that imitated it, or interpreted it, leave out the "Sex" part. Later in the book, he suggests that some of the most successful men in the country would postpone a major decision until after they had "meditated" on it in bed with their wives!

It would be fascinating to read a book like "Grow Rich" interviewing successful men and women in the same way. Not possible, because "Rich" has already been written, and therefore people kinda know the answers people are looking for. But does this work as well for women as men? Let's say yes. "Yes" because I would think that sex, with someone you love and are committed to, is both a celebration and an additional investment in the future. Even with birth control, your hind brain knows that vaginal intercourse is what makes children. I would think that holding your goal in mind during sex would be one of the most powerful processes imaginable.

It would be easy to imagine that on an unconscious level, your brain is saying:

1) Do I have the support for this? Is my (wife) in alignment with me? Will she love me more or less, if this happens? Will the sex get hotter or cooler?

2) Will this provide greater security for my family? If I have more children, will they be brought into a world of plenty?

3) Will this goal make the world a better place? Will it be a blessing to the world my children inherit?

There are so many more. But the basic idea of "You become what you think about", and blending love, faith, and sex into a single force...hmmm. It feels like what people were saying, without realizing it, is to align your chakras, align your internal resources all in the same direction. You want to do everything you can for those you love. Sex is a fantastic positive reward for right action. Faith in our abilities to fulfill our dreams is critical. Once these three are moving in the same direction, we refine, clarify, prioritize and find new and better ways to energize our actions.

But love, faith, and sex are the primary powers, according to the 500 most successful men (and a few women) of the early 20th Century. Anyone think it doesn't apply today? Anyone used these principles, or have questions about them?

17 comments:

Charles said...

"If I'm right, the series is a perfect example of the human unconscious at work."

If you look at Firefly/Serenity in a vacuum, without consideration of Whedon's other works, your idea about the unconscious mind at work could have traction. But then again, if you look at Buffy and Angel, both done before Firefly/Serenity, then you have the characters of Gunn and Robin Wood, both strong, positive, Black males that have an intimate relationship with White females.

Just wanted to point that out...

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I'm not surprised you'd have a Sambo alert on Firefly/Serenity for this (can't comment on Buffy and Angel, since I haven't seen those), but also not particularly surprised by "Because not a single person who recommended it to me, knowing my sensitivities, guessed that I might have found elements offensive." Frankly, from my white woman's perspective, it's just so refreshing to see a science fiction show that gets women as well as this one does, that any racially problematic stuff would have to club me over the head a lot harder than Firefly (with its multiracial cast of generally strong characters) does for me to notice it much. After watching so much stuff that doesn't get women at all, it's like water in a desert seeing something like this. (Also, as a woman in a technical field, I readily identified with the Hayley character.) Unless I quite consciously put on my "how would Steve Barnes see this" lens, which I sometimes do now that I've read your Sambo alert stuff for this long.

As spiritual guide characters go, I found Shepherd Book kind of a fun twist on the concept because he's a lot more worldly and more aware of the ways of the powerful than most such characters (not that that alters the sexual dynamics you're talking about). I do remember the "Have you ever been raped?" line, though, and that it felt worse because the only other black man in the series was Shepherd Book, than I think it would have if there'd also been some normally young and virile black male character who wasn't threatening rape.

In general story telling terms, though, I found the series some of the best science fiction I've seen.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

Steve - I agree with you on Shepherd Book, but I'm generally willing to give Firefly/Serenity a pass on the sexless spiritual guide bomb because I thought that Book was the most interesting of all the characters on the show. He was my favorite, only surpassed in the movie by the Operative (a classic James Bond-esque villain. Intelligent, well-trained, and utterly amoral. In a movie landscape where most black villains are simple thugs, he was perfect.).

wraith808 said...

... I thought that Book was the most interesting of all the characters on the show.

I wholeheartedly agree with that, and that he was also the best written of the main characters. Though he was the most well known actor before the show, he was so well acted and written that the fact that Ron Glass was well known to me before the show was lost in the character.

And I loved the teasers thrown in the novelization of the relationship between Book and The Operative.

Shady_Grady said...

I never saw Firefly, just Serenity so the Shepherd Book character didn't bother me that much. Sounds like Firefly might not have been my cup of tea.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I liked Shepherd Book; I agree with Reluctant Lawyer and wraith808 that he was the most interesting character in the show. I even liked him better than Hayley, who was the character I personally identified with most. But I also think that once you've made the only black man who's a regular character on the show celibate, having the one other black man prominently featured in one episode threaten rape feels viscerally unpleasant; so Steve has a fair point with his Sambo alert, and in that sense the movie, with the Operative, was better. But in the show as a whole, up to that point, Shepherd Book didn't exactly scream "yet another spiritual guide" to me, particularly since he actually came across as more complex than some of the other characters.

Steven Barnes said...

Firefly was an EXCELLENT show, make no mistake. I will probably purchase the series and film.
##
And as for "Buffy" and "Angel"--I have no idea who whispered in Whedon's ear over the seasons. But I can almost guarantee you someone did.

salina said...

woww. I'm sitting here looking at the Firefly box of dvds next to the player. I've had it for a month, strongly recommended by a close friend. Haven't felt compelled to watch it...now I don't want to. But I enjoyed Serenity..hmmm

wraith808 said...

And as for "Buffy" and "Angel"--I have no idea who whispered in Whedon's ear over the seasons. But I can almost guarantee you someone did.

Interesting point. Both Charles Gunn and Robin Wood were later additions to the cast. They both had layers akin to Derrial Book- some tapped and some untapped. I especially like the treatment of Charles Gunn; his evolution over the course of the series was interesting to say the least.

I really wish you knew about these two- there are definite questions and themes that are brought up with their characterization that would be quite interesting to discuss.

####

And to those who begin to dismiss Firefly because of Derrial Book and Jubal Early, I'd suggest not having such reactions without watching. As I said, Derrial Book was one of the best characters in the series IMO, in writing and acting. And though Jubal Early had some qualities inimical to positive characterizations of Blacks in the series, he was a very interesting character in his own right and Objects in Space is one of my favorite episodes, along with War Stories and Out of Gas.

As an aside, I long for the day when casting can be about who is best for the role and not race, sex, etc. One of my favorite movies of the year was Up, and I loved the fact that it had an Asian lead character- and the fact that he was Asian was never brought up. It was just a descriptive quality, just as you might talk about the fact that he was overweight. Not to marginalize culture or anything, but in the end, isn't that what it's about? The character and the characterization more than the outer trappings?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Thanks for the bit about the problem of aiming for "just enough". I think it's something I can work with.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Thanks for the bit about the problem of aiming for "just enough". I think it's something I can work with.

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