Heroic Humanism and Humanistic Heroism in Shows of Joss Whedon

“That’s why we write in the first place. To find our darkest place and lift it up into the light where we wish we were standing.”

— Joss Whedon, (hereafter JWCH)

For those who believe that popular culture, and especially popular narratives, can be an important place to explore meaningful ideas, Joss Whedon has been something of a patron saint. Whedon’s focus on female strength tends to be the most visible part of his work—this has much to do with his self-professed feminism. In what follows, I’ll be looking at a set of somewhat different, though not wholly unrelated aspects of his life and work. The first is his humanism, which I will then relate to his ideas of heroism. Given the breadth of his creative output, I’ll focus on two examples, Firefly/Serenity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’ll suggest that in addition to telling good stories that raise important issues about gender, they’re both also thoughtful considerations of heroism in contemporary humanistic terms; specifically, both re-examine the relationship between the hero and the larger community. (For the purposes of this piece I’m taking Firefly and Serenity as a continuous narrative whole, thus the Firefly/Serenity notation. When I am speaking specifically of an episode of the show or of the film, I will note them separately.)

Remember that amazing moment when the Sunnydale High School students acknowledge Buffy’s place as class protector and then give her an umbrella, a moment that should be cheesy, but is somehow perfect? Or when the townspeople want to burn River as a witch and Mal says, “Yeah, but she’s our witch”? Those moments feel good because they’re nice, but I’ll be suggesting that there’s more to them than that.

It’s true that Whedon often reshapes the hero most noticeably by changing her gender, but his versatility as a storyteller has allowed him to speak with insight and nuance on a range of important ideas. Alongside his intentional focus on girls with killer roundhouse kicks, his work has repeatedly taken up a network of ethical concerns. Who are we? How should we live, act, choose, love, fight, die, value? Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly/Serenity take up these questions from different angles, and the most reliable constants seem to be that the questions are difficult, that the answers will shift just as the characters in question (and, by extension, the viewers) become comfortable with them, and that the odds are not usually in our hero’s favor. These dark odds do not, however, lead to a fatalistic viewpoint; there is usually a glimmer of hope, though it may be a faint one.

Given the recurrence of these ethical concerns, we might wonder what sort of worldview underlies them. Without delving too deeply into theories of authorial intent, a glance at outside events and relatively recent history may provide some useful context. In 2007, Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplaincy sponsored a three-day conference called “The New Humanism.” The Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy refers to many definitions in its online literature, including this one from the American Humanist Association: “Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.” (Humanism and Its Aspirants: Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to the Humanist Manifesto of 1933)

Their goal was to highlight humanism as the philosophy most representative of the majority of people around the world who self-identify as having no religion, and to show that this can be a “diverse, inclusive, inspiring way to live… a way of uniting those [nonreligious] people into a positive community that can make a major contribution to a more peaceful, more stable world.” (Greg Epstein, quoted by Arianna Markel in The Harvard Crimson, April 23, 2007).

At that conference in 2007, the first annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism went to Salmon Rushdie. In 2009, their third went to Joss Whedon. In his acceptance speech, Whedon spoke very little about his creative work, focusing mainly on his understanding of humanism, and its relationship to religion and faith. He described religion as a tool created by human beings to answer a need that is not going away, then differentiated religion from faith, saying that neither, especially the latter, is the opposite, or in his language “the enemy,” of humanism…

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole — until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.