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A Marxist reading of Firefly

Saturday 29 September 2007, by Webmaster

You Can’t Take the Sky From Me: A Marxist Reading of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”

[As part of my Theory3073 Class, we are required to provide three critical responses/commentaries as part of our course work. In addressing Marxist theory, the first of our major perspectives taken within the course, I chose to complete the following assignment as a way of testing its legitimacy and its use as a way into new forms of media.

Normally I’d put this type of stuff at my TV blog, Cultural Learnings, but in this case I’ve chosen to place it here due to its application to academic endeavors. I might end up using certain aspects of this within my thesis, although I have pretty much decided I could theoretically use every single perspective in the history of literature in my thesis, so I will need to pare that down. Anyways, I’m posting it online so I can use YouTube to illustrate my points, and to share with everyone. So, enjoy!]

You Can’t Take The Sky From Me: A Marxist Reading of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”

In reading Terry Eagleton’s Marxism and Literary Criticism, my immediate reaction was how this related to television (For those who know me, this should not be surprising). This is, obviously, a flawed perspective, but what I came to understand reading the text is that a Marxist perspective puts a very different perspective on literature, and that applying this to a television show could reveal hidden complexities and detail that would elevate it to a level of literary scholarship. It is with this eye that I turned to Firefly, which I realized was not just another science fiction series. The result was a greater understanding of the series’ representation of class, unique for the genre, and also the complexities of its largely invented superstructure.

The realm of science fiction is a world in which idealist systems of governance and society have been the relative norm. If we look to Star Trek, it represented a world where there was no struggling working class and no sense of economic structure: rather, food came out of magic machines and life was threatened by arch-villains as opposed to the struggle of the masses. Even Star Wars’ Tatooine, despite the representation of slave labour within Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace, is never seen as a class struggle but rather a personal issue for young Anakin and his mother. And really, let’s be honest: they don’t even have it so bad when it comes to slaves.

Joss Whedon, meanwhile, wanted to create a science fiction environment where things weren’t all shiny, and where true political and social ramifications not only existed but set the stage for the action that would follow. Firefly is not a glorified and idealized view of the future, but one that actually features an acknowledgement of the impact of things such as base and superstructure on the production of language, and as a result the production of literature. As a result, it is possible to view the production of society within the series itself as a unique case study of the Marxist analysis we have discussed in class.

Now, Marxist theory (in its vulgar form) operates best within a vacuum that doesn’t take into account the various complications to its structure. In other words, while theoretically strong, it actually fails to engage with most practical concerns of society and complications that it doesn’t take into account. As a result, you might think that extending this theory into the vacuum of space might solve some of its problems. I want to look at this view within two frameworks: one looking at the metafictional literature (In lyrical form) presented within the series, and then the series itself as a Marxist form of literature.

The world of Firefly is a vast expanse of space where terra-forming allowed Earth to expand its population onto a series of border planets. What makes this unique is that Earth’s leadership was provided by, according to the scenario, a relationship between the Chinese and the Americans. After this period, a civil war broke out between the Alliance (The government forces) and the Browncoats, the civilian troops fighting for their freedom and autonomy. The loss of the Browncoats resulted in the full takeover of the Alliance outside of the border planets, creating a centralized power who seeks to dominate culture and society within its sphere of influence.

This present an extremely unique set of political circumstances based on the Marxist principles of base and superstructure. While the relations of production remain largely the same, although uniquely presented within a science fiction series, it is the superstructure which is extremely complex. The ideology of the society is a complex and oppressive government force that we never get a true sense for, and is a unique view into the production of literature within this environment. As Eagleton notes when discussing literature and ideology, vulgar Marxism “tends to see literary works merely as reflections of dominant ideologies” (Eagleton 17).

The creation of literature within Firefly can most be seen in Season One’s “Jaynestown,” where the ship visits a planet where a large working class rallies around the image of one of the show’s most surly characters, Jayne. After arriving, they discover that Jayne has become a folk hero, and they have composed a song in his honour. This, unfortunately, is the closest that Firefly came to showing us the creation of literature within this theory.

This relates to Eagleton’s allusion to Althusser, in that ideology (And therefore literature, if we’re following said complex mess), “signifies the imaginary ways in which men experience the real world” (18). This song is disconnected from the politics, and demonstrates how ideology can define one’s living conditions and their desire for a saviour. They start to create ways to relate to the world, a simulation if you will, to avoid the drudgery of their basic existence. This, of course, relates back to Jameson and the concept of simulation, which relates back to Baudrillard, and emphasizes the degree to which literature can gain this level of cultural and social significance. This song, as silly as it is, changed their lives and united a society.

However, as in itself a created text, viewing it through a class-based lens of Marxism gives us a new sense of the show’s ability to engage with those sectors of the population in a real fashion. As a piece of literature, it is both cognizant and aware of the social structures, and is willing to (if anything) extenuate them within its construction. The lower class becomes abandoned settlers slaving away while their corrupt government fails to offer them proper protection and medical supplies, as opposed to just a storyline that our heroes need to remove themselves from. In other words, it is more of a reflection of society and its relationships than any other form of science fiction, and perhaps even closer to that reflection than some “realistic” dramas.

A Marxist perspective isn’t perfect in regards to Firefly: the reflection is not overly precise within a vulgar perspective, and we don’t gain enough information about The Alliance to truly judge the relationship that they have with other class systems within the structure of the series. However, what a Marxist Literary analysis does is pinpoint and emphasize what makes Firefly different from other science fiction: it’s real. It is about the grungy reality of space, as opposed to its shiny futuristic spaceships, and in representing these class struggles it is raising issues that other shows refuse to raise. Although I was admittedly in love with the show before this point, viewing it through Marxist eyes has provided a greater understanding of its genius.

1 Message

  • A Marxist reading of Firefly

    30 September 2007 15:53, by DurangoKid

    Try reading "On Capital" (Das Capital), which is Marx from Marx’s mouth. You’ll see that Firefly leaves out most of how commodities are produced in the ’verse, except for some strong hints here and there. One might infer that the war between the Browncoats and the Alliance was a struggle for the control of production, ergo, the Alliance succeeded in gaining control of labor, markets, and resources. The core planets live off the surplus labor of the outer planets. In one episode a trader brags about selling slaves for terriforming. Let’s not forget the Mudders, either. One might argue that Mal does the same in his "salvage" operations. Or you could argue that what he recovers has no market value until he and his crew add their labor to bring these commodities to market. If this stuff was so valuable to the Alliance, why don’t they salvage it? So, the class struggle is alive and well in the ’verse and it’s about the same old thing: who benefits from whose labor.

    On a slightly deeper level, the idea of billions of humans traveling tens of lightyears to a new planetary system is way far fetched. There isn’t enough value in the Earth’s economies to devote to such a huge undertaking, not to mention where the energy is supposed to come from. 100 years in the future there will be no economically viable supplies of coal, oil, fissile isotopes, and gas. Fusion is the only thing left and it suffers from major problems of scale and containment. Solar and the resultant biomass are too diffuse to continue the large scale working of metal that would be required for an interstellar exodus from Terra Familiarus. Earth is likely the only planet humans will ever live on in any great numbers. 500 years from now there will be Mals roving the countryside scavenging bits of metal and other materials. Imagine Jayne breaking up concrete to get at the rebar to sell to smiths who make horse shoes. It’s also likely that the Earth’s population will be about 1 billion. If the 1700’s are any clue, firewood will be in short supply and the average person will have to struggle to get enough calories every day. The Mals and their crews will have a meager existance at best.