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Why It’s Awesome To Be a Joss Whedon Fan

October 23, 2009

So I’ve been working non-stop since . . . sometime on this HUGE writing project that, if handled properly, may be read by as 1/20th many people as come here every day to check and make sure that Summer Glau is actually as beautiful as they remember, cuz it’s hard to wrap your mind around that.

But tonight Fate, in the form of a faulty cable modem, decided to give me a break. Naturally, I went to the closest coffee shop where I could log back onto the web.

But I can’t actually work here, since work involves many bulky pre-industrial technological artifacts known as books.

So . .  .  someone pissed me off this week some blatant click-bait about why it is sub-awesome to be a Joss Whedon fan. Think it had five BS points, just skimmed it. So I went on Whedonesque and fired off five reasons it is, in fact, super-awesome to be a Whedon fan. Five minutes later, I thought of a sixth, but when I got back on the black, the thread had already been deleted, and with it my lovely typings.

So I thought I’d try and reconstruct them here. No, maybe I’ll just come up with another five.

1. Death. Narrative comes from ritual, and the first rituals we humans created were about death. We’re the only animals that recognize death, that know we’re all going to die. A whole school of psychology, terror management theory, has grown around Ernest Becker’s insight that we put a lot of energy into the denial of death–into closing our eyes to the central fact of life.

A lot of rituals are pretty godawful. Scapegoating rituals dump all the world’s evils in one person or group into one designated Death Bringer and symbolically kill death. Even when the killing is real, it’s a symbol–an empty, fearful gesture that allows people to tell themselves, hysterically, and only temporarily, that they’re good. After all, did they kill evil? Little Red Riding Hood is a good story, and one we should keep telling ourselves, as long as we don’t take it literally.

But there are rituals that help us deal with death, and thereby deal with life. The Catholic ones I love link winter with spring, suffering and salvation, death and rebirth. The best rituals take you past the literal reading of Little Red Riding Hood to its spiritual side. We’re all Little Reds who stray from the path because we want to play with the flowers–just like little fuzzy animals who can’t control the impulses that draw them to things that smell pretty and look attractive. Edible. Which brings us to the other character we all are, the Big Bad Wolf. Whenever we do anything wrong–from the tiniest failure of patience to indulging the mass production and destruction of scapegoats–the Big Bad in us devours the Innocent Little One. And we’re all the hero, the rescuer, confronting the Big Bad violently, cutting open his belly, Caesarean-style, so the Little Red one can be reborn. We’re born innocent, yes, but after that, we have to earn it, to work for it, to fight for it. And, at our best, to die for it. Heroes confront death. They remain as terrified of it as the first humans who ever understood how their stories had to end, but they confront it–face it–and transcend it. That’s Buffy’s arc from “Prophecy Girl” to “The Gift.” It’s Harry Potter’s arc over the course of seven books. We’re all death’s bitches, and only by facing that do we ever become death’s conquerors.

We see this in a thousand ways, even while averting our eyes from it. We honor the profession of medicine. Not “instinctively” (I hate it when people misuse that word) but spiritually. Doctors, nurses, biochemists–they have to study our animal nature, see everything that can go wrong with the body, in order to help overcome all the frailties that animal nature is heir to, including the one frailty that always wins in the end. They have to think about what no one wants to think about, see what we’d rather not see. And by taking on this burden, they transcend it. Caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, feeding the hungry–all the things that separate the wheat from the chaff–require facing the fact of animality: the fact that our bodies fail, and are terribly vulnerable to the elements and predators, and we need constant maintenance and fuel just to stay alive. When you hear someone compulsively blame the homeless for their plight, you’re listening to the voice of fear. If you can tell yourself that bad things happen to people because they’ve been bad, maybe you can convince yourself–for a little while–that doing good things will protect you. Actually helping the homeless, however, requires recognizing their common humanity and yours. That is terrifying, and every day of Penny’s short life reminds her of how a lifetime of great good can lead to . . . things being a little better. For a little while.

So, were we talking about someone? Oh, yes. That writer. Too many TV writers intoxicate us with the literalized Little Red Riding Hood. Act I: Innocence is victimized. Act II: The hero identifies Evil Incarnate and does battle, as reasons to Kill It Kill It pile up. Act III: The Death Bringer is slain by the hero, and the community is restored to pure wholesome goodness. The good guys live, cuz they’re good! It’s amazing how many people think they’re watching realism when they’re told the latest rehash of this fairy tale, minus all the elements that clue a child in that it’s not real.

Whedon confronts that. Buffy is so much more than a vampire slayer, a killer of evil incarnate. How many times has he shown us reasons to shudder at someone’s drive to kill a Death Bringer. (The werewolf hunter. The Knights of Kill Dawn.) Or long for a demon’s redemption. (I won’t insult your intelligence by filling in this blank.) Or just laugh at the idea that you can solve your problems by putting a stake in someone’s heart? Bad guys don’t always have to die in his writing. The assumption that killing a bad guy is what makes a hero often backfires in life and, less often, in popular art. But when Whedon writes, some bad guys get redeemed.

And some good guys die. Again, more like in life than in popular art.

It’s easier to deal with death in the real world when you deal with it in ritual. It isn’t fun, but like a military burial at Arlington, it is sublime, transcendent, mysterious and good. Even when Whedon was trying to express the meaningless of death in “The Body,” he beautifully captured the meaning of that meaninglessness–and so transcended it. Tara’s death was terrible enough to show us how it could lead to a fate worse than death–the loss of self, the betrayal of a lost lover through the betrayal of love. Penny’s death revealed the real hero of that story; her presence wasn’t fully felt until her absence. The deaths in Whedon’s writing are a gift.

OK. That’s one reason.

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2 Comments
  1. Pointy permalink*
    October 24, 2009 2:20 pm

    Art at the Auction has an intriguing take on last night’s episode, “Belonging.”

  2. Rosie permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:56 am

    “We’re all death’s bitches, and only by facing that do we ever become death’s conquerors.”

    We’ll never conquer death . . . no matter how many times we try. But we shouldn’t be death’s bitches either. It’s just a part of our experience. That’s all.

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