By now, the pop culture world knows the story of how Joss Whedon overcame the cancellation of Firefly to tie up many of the loose ends in the movie Serenity. What is less widely known is how Whedon’s fans, who bolstered him in this effort, turned Serenity into a movement, and in the process became real-life heroes.
In 2006, the year after Serenity came out, a fan in Portland, Oregon decided to hold a charity screening of Serenity on Joss’s birthday (23 June). The money would go to Equality Now, a women’s rights organization with which Joss is involved. The idea quickly mushroomed to events in forty-six cities in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Some events were simple screenings of the movies, while others included things like costume contests, dances and banquets.
There have been Can’t Stop the Serenity (CSTS) events every year since then, in a “season” running from June to September. In 2010 alone, there were fifty-two events worldwide. The events are facilitated by the CSTS Global team, who coordinate and provide technical support for the local events, as well as provide auction and sale items and official memorabilia. Seventy-five percent of each event’s profits must go to Equality Now, and crews of the individual events chose which charities receive the rest. Since 2006, over half a million dollars have been raised for Equality Now. The CSTS Global team and the local event crews are, of course, volunteers.
I am on the crew for one event, Nashville’s WhedonFest, which is in its third year. So what does the Can’t Stop the Serenity movement mean to me? I’ve found that there is a surprising overlap between fan activism and the themes in Whedon’s work. Specifically, those themes are Women’s Empowerment, Chosen Families, and Boosting the Signal.
One doesn’t have to know much about Joss to know that women’s issues are important to him. His work is filled with strong, three-dimensional female characters. From a feminist perspective, he occasionally stumbles, but his respect and empathy for women are obvious and consistent. He does more than pay lip service to equality by showing respect for women behind the scenes as well. Many important writing and production roles have long been given to talented women.
Joss traces this respect for women in large part back to his late mother, Lea Stearns, who was a strong person and a profound influence on him. It is not surprising then, that one of her high school students, Jessica Neuwirth, went on to co-found Equality Now.
Equality Now was founded in 1992, by Neuwirth and two other attorneys, Navanethem Pillay from South Africa and Feryal Garahi from Iran. Their mission is to promote and protect the human rights of women around the world. This is done by bringing the public’s attention to human rights violations against women and taking action to protest them. Their issues include, but are not limited to, human trafficking, economic participation, and domestic violence.
Whedon was honored by Equality Now in 2006 at their Men on the Front Line benefit dinner. In his speech, he played the dual roles of himself and the press, giving various answers to a question posed numerous times: “Why do you write these strong women characters?” In the end, the answer was simple: “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
Chosen families is a recurring theme in Whedon’s work. From the crew of Serenity to the “Scooby Gang” on Buffy, Whedon’s protagonists survive and succeed by banding together. Even if they do so just to survive initially (as in Firefly), they end up in the service of something more important than themselves. Dr. Horrible alone stands in contrast to this, and his aspirations to change the world take a tragic turn.
Whedonites United, the organization that puts on WhedonFest, is more than just a fan group or a CSTS crew. We’re friends who share in each other’s troubles and concerns as well as our joys and successes. What’s more, we all bring something different to the table to make our event happen. We have people who are good at getting sponsors, people who are good with technology, those who are good with money, and so on. Many of us are good cooks, and attendants at WhedonFest benefit from that every year.
Like the crew of Firefly, CSTS crews “aim to misbehave”… but only in the best possible way…
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.