“We’re Making A Better World”: The Individual and Society in Joss Whedon’s Work

In anticipation (and celebration) of Dollhouse’s (Joss Whedon’s new series, for those living under a rock) premiere, I’ve decided to dedicate this week to Joss Whedon and the various themes found within his work. This is part one, which is cross-posted on my personal blog.

In Joss Whedon’s work, there is a pervasive theme of a constant conflict between those who operate within an official capacity to govern a society, and those who exist as individuals within that society. This is a theme that ties directly to Whedon’s feminism, but for the purposes of this post I am going to attempt to stick to the differing philosophies espoused in Whedon’s work among his heroes and antagonists – and at times his wayward heroes. The title of the piece comes from The Operative, a character present in the movie Serenity who is embedded in the government of the Alliance, the ruling body of the Fireflyverse. For Whedon, governments and governing systems are almost inevitably drawn to working toward the greater good (that is, if they aren’t working for a greater evil, like Wolfram & Hart was), while his main characters – those who mostly exist on the outskirts of their societies – are most likely to be maimed in the realization of that philosophy and who are themselves representatives of a more individualistic philosophy.

The Alliance, The Watcher’s Council, and The Initiative fall under that faulty belief that the individual life is worth sacrificing if it means ensuring the prosperity and safety and stability of the many. The individual pieces are less than what makes up the whole, and the whole is worth preserving. This is why the Alliance is able to justify adding Pax to the air of Miranda, and why they are able to justify, if only implicitly, its use in the first place once events go horribly wrong and destroy a planet. “We meant it for the best” becomes an absolving statement, wiping away any guilt or hint of wrong-doing. Killing 99.9% of a population on a planet and turning the remaining tenth into sadistic, mindless killing machines is forgivable if it was the unfortunate conclusion of a noble experiment. “We meant it for the best” allows for any number of actions, because if the goal was to “make people safer” any series of experiments or threats against individuals becomes understandable. If condemning one girl at a time to a short and violent life of demon fighting protects the rest of the populace, then that one girl is to be sacrificed so the rest of humanity does not have to be disturbed by thoughts of vampires or demons or wars. If ignoring one girl’s humanity is necessary in order to turn her into an “instrument by which” an unaltered body fights a war, then that body of Watchers can feel justified doing so. If the Alliance needs to take a girl-genius and strip her of her humanity and her sanity in order to combat a threat they accidentally created in the march toward achieving the greater good, then they can create a certain righteousness around the task. If the government wants to create a program meant to create the perfect hybrid warrior, a warrior made from various bits of demon and technology, they can wipe their hands clean on the thought that they were seeking to prevent unnecessary deaths in the preservation of their country when the whole thing comes crumbling down with a 40% casualty rate among soldiers unfortunate enough to get caught in the crossfire.
But again and again, Whedon stresses that the path of working toward a greater good is not the correct path; that going down that path just ends in the destruction of innocents, of individuals that make up that state. Again and again, he points to the comforting thought of working toward that greater good when disaster strikes to be a cold one. He does this by first and foremost making his main characters those who end up on the short end of the above policies. We don’t see those people whose lives are made better by pursuing the greater good. We don’t follow those who live the privileged life of not being interfered with or trampled upon. We are instead privy to the trials and tribulations and tragedies of those adversely affected, and those who are directly utilized for the pursuit of that greater good. We see people like Buffy Summers, and River Tam, and Malcolm Reynolds. And we see the journeys of those individuals who decided to put that greater good above the individual. In Serenity, the Operative’s life revolves around his philosophy that he is a monster, but that his monstrous, evil, deeds are necessary in order to create that better world, that world without sin. He doesn’t expect to live there himself, because he understands that there is no place for him there. He becomes a changed man, a broken man without a personal philosophy, once he is shown what kind of world is created when individuals act to create a world such as the one he envisions. We see it in the journey of one of Whedon’s errant heroes, when Angel decides that in order to win, he has to shed the rules by which he has lived by, when he decides that winning is more important than the individual good. Angel fails to rid Los Angeles of evil because he doesn’t get it, until the point he does. Until the moment of his epiphany, he isn’t truly a hero, because he isn’t fighting the good fight because it is one worth fighting; instead, he is fighting “for redemption, for a reward, finally just to beat the other guy”. Once he recognizes that redemption and reward will only be possible if he isn’t fighting for himself but for something greater than himself – when he isn’t fighting for selfish reasons but because it is the right thing to do – and that winning the larger war is not only not probable but not wholly possible, he turns himself around from the darker path. His epiphany, articulated as:

In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win… If there is no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do, now, today… All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer, as they do. Because, if there is no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.

is the enduring and most prevalent theme of Whedon’s work (and it is perhaps my favorite line of any show ever, even though it is present in my least favorite Whedon work). There is no big win, and the so the individual – and the individual act – becomes tantamount. The individual pieces are a greater sum than the society they make up; and because of that, the society cannot be made better or greater at the expense of those pieces. Individual rights and freedoms and individual autonomy and respect is what makes the greater picture. It means that we cannot sacrifice the individual, because if we do then our society is worth less.
And some characters never have to be an Angel or an Operative in order to fully get it; they do not need the epiphany. Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t, in either Firefly or Serenity. Mal fights the Alliance as a Browncoat because he believes that the freedom allowed without the totalitarian rule is worth the sacrifices that have to be made. After the Alliance wins, we see that although the Central Planets are prosperous, the Outer Rim planets are still destitute and, as Mal says, the ruling philosophy seems to be “unite all the planets under one rule so that everybody can be interfered with or ignored equally”.  It is Mal who fights the Alliance and the Operative once they want River, because he has the “theory that [she’s] a person, actual and whole” – and that River, as broken and insane and potentially dangerous she is, as broken and insane and potentially dangerous as the Alliance made her, deserves to live and to be free; that River has worth in and of herself because she is a person, that she is and should be recognized as something more than simply a weapon or an inconvenience. And then there is Buffy, who is both an individual who has been interfered with in pursuit of the greater good and the one who has to fight to preserve the world – and who has to make decisions from time to time about sacrificing the individual in order to ensure the continued existence of the world. In The Gift, Buffy is faced with the prospect of killing her sister in order to prevent an apocalypse. She isn’t as poetic as Angel, when he has his epiphany, possibly because for Buffy there is no epiphany; there is just this unarticulated belief about the workings of the world, what is right and what is wrong. When she says, “I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices, if everything else just gets stripped away. I don’t see the point”, she may just as well be asking if the world is worth saving if actively killing an individual is the price. She seems to, rudimentarily, be grasping toward the idea that what makes the world worth saving are the individuals present within it; and though they may die in the name of its protection, like Larry the football player did and as Anya will and as Buffy herself did, killing someone she has sworn to protect in order to protect some other people is in violation of that code. For Buffy, she doesn’t fight to save the world because the world is inherently worth saving, but because those who occupy the world are. The individual lives are of greater importance than the whole.
Within that belief is the belief in equality, is the belief of human rights, is the recognition of the importance of feminism. And the tension between the two beliefs, the belief in the needs of the society above the needs of the individual, seem to be inherently present in Dollhouse as well. In Dollhouse, Echo is just an object to be used, to be utilized by the shadowy society she exists within. And since Joss Whedon has said that part of the show is Echo questioning who she is, and what she is made of as an individual entity, I suspect this theme may be even more blatantly exercised in Dollhouse than perhaps anywhere else; since there will be conceivably less of Echo in the beginning than of River or Buffy, the idea that even her individual personhood should not be made submissive to the needs of her society will offer an even more concrete rule – that no matter what, the individual is an entity unto themselves, even if they can’t remember exactly who they are.

One Response

  1. I’m intrigued to see how similar Dollhouse is to Dark City, another tale that toys with the popular conception of the individual as an entity unto him/herself. Both follow characters who are frequently mind-wiped and sent to live out different lives, and both attempt to address the question of “what makes a person?” I’d say more, but I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

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