I watched Joss Whedon’s Serenity last night, for about the fourth time, and loved it just as much as ever. It is in so many ways such an excellent movie, and like the TV show, Firefly, that it is based on deserves many more plaudits (and much more popularity) than it gets.

Watching Serenity, it really is impossible for me to shake the feeling that Joss Whedon is really latching onto a confederate lost cause symbolism in his story, and risking importing a very racist and particular political subtext to his movies. I’m not American and I don’t know how Americans think but it seems to me that this is a pretty hot-button issue over there, and the implicit connection of confederate lost cause ideology with libertarianism must surely be controversial.

It’s not as if it’s hard to see in the movie or the TV show, and Serenity particularly has a very strong libertarian message. There’s no direct racism, of course, with some good strong black characters, no evidence of racial ideology or consciousness in anyone’s interactions, and an episode where it is made clear that Mal is opposed to slavery, while the Alliance (at least tacitly) approves. So it could even, I suppose, be imagined as an allegory for a world where the confederacy won and the “browncoats” are actually a Unionist rump. But I don’t think anyone sees it that way, because the genre conventions and the imagery of the story are too strong to allow it.

I did a bit of fossicking online for opinion on this, and I noticed that libertarian reviews of Serenity seem to completely miss the confederacy issue altogether. This William H Stoppard review, for example, is quite thoughtful but seems to miss the obvious symbolism of the browncoats. This review on Stockerblog seems to give a sympathetic overview of Whedon’s libertarianism and the central messages of the movie, but glosses over the relevance of the civil war imagery, which seems a little untenable. I would observe that the Guardian’s review also doesn’t mention it, which is a surprise from a generally anti-libertarian newspaper giving a not particularly positive review[1]. Fraggmented mentions it, and probably isn’t alone in being suspicious of Joss Whedon’s attitude towards race.

I think it’s probably possible to see the civil war in the Firefly universe as reflective of a kind of combined American War of Independence / Civil War mixture, with the Alliance at least partially based on the British, as well as the Union. You could also probably argue that Whedon has done enough work in the series to neutralize the toxic politics of modern Confederate Lost Cause-ism, through the additional material he puts into the setting and through the actors themselves, so that he’s reconfiguring classic Wild West stories to pull out their racist overtones, but retaining their frontier/libertarian message. I think this is probably what he’s done, and it’s a testament to his powers as a script writer, and the skills of the actors, that he can present an otherwise quite misanthropic man – Mal – and a strongly libertarian political message, wrapped in suspiciously pro-confederate imagery, in such a way that those of us who aren’t misanthropic, libertarian or racist can enjoy and sympathize with.

fn1: but then it’s worth noting that the reviewer knows nothing about science fiction – he claims that the original star wars is “now reconfigured as Episode IV: A New Hope, ” so I think we can reject the conclusion that the reviewer knows anything about film, science fiction, or indeed even the reviewing process.