Serenity and Ideology: an Essay

It’s about time that I addressed Serenity, seeing as this blog is named after a moment in that film. There is much to say about it, but I’ll start with an essay that I wrote for my Philosophy and Film class for our unit on film ideology. It references various theorists discussed in class, but you don’t need to know about them in order to understand what I’m saying (I hope). Enjoy!

The film Serenity, written and directed by Joss Whedon, contains within it a very Marxist message in its criticisms of the upper-class’s oppression of the poor via ideology. Although it includes the idea that oppression can be maintained through film, it also shows the liberating potential of film to break through ideologies to the truth underneath. In this way, Serenity agrees with Benjamin in that film can reveal truths about our everyday lives that we might not see otherwise and disagreed with Adorno’s universal condemnation of film. The film itself is produced by a major Hollywood company, and as such it could be seen as ideological, but that ideology is qualified by the particular way that the film was produced as well as by the message of the film.

Serenity clearly holds the message that the upper classes oppress the poor and maintain this oppression via misinformation. The very first scene of the movie tells the story of the war between the ultimately victorious Alliance and the Independents, told with an obvious bias towards the Alliance: “The Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe, and now everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.” This scene of brainwashing through misinformation switches jarringly to a scene of actual brainwashing: to a girl being implanted with behavioral conditioning by Alliance officials. Any resistance to the Alliance is portrayed as futile and foolish, and their power is so complete that any who try to live outside Alliance control, such as the film’s hero, Mal, are reduced to living illegally and to fighting amongst themselves. As Mal puts it, “I put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. So here’s us on the raggedy edge.” The Alliance is a nearly perfect example of the Marxist claim that the oppression of the poor occurs in a large part because of brainwashing ideologies projected by the upper-classes.

Alliance ideology is maintained not only through classroom lectures and behavioral conditioning, but also through film. The news on television is used by the Alliance to spread misinformation, they use security cameras to spy on the people, and, perhaps most importantly, they send subliminal messages through film in order to trigger their behaviorally conditioned subjects. Film is the means by which the Alliance maintains control of the less privileged while giving them a semblance of freedom and autonomy. In this way, film functions within Serenity in the way that Adorno feared: it works to pacify the lower classes, leading them to accept the ‘truth’ with which they are presented through film because it so resembles reality.

However, this Marxist’s worst nightmare is not maintained throughout the film: the Alliance’s oppression is precisely what defeats them in the end. The Alliance literally creates their own worst enemies in the forms of a behaviorally conditioned subject who uses that conditioning to reveal a government secret about an oppressed planet whose surviving inhabitants have turned savage, and a frustrated rebel who decides that the world needs to know the truth about the Alliance and subsequently ‘sics’ the savages on the Alliance’s armada. This is not, strictly speaking, a Marxist solution to the problem of ideology or oppression, seeing as it is only one small group of the lower class who is fighting back: there is no revolution, and the lower classes remain subjugated and subdivided. However, there is a very Marxist undertone in the idea that oppression will eventually backfire on the oppressors.

Significantly, the Alliance’s defeat comes primarily through film. Although the Alliance’s military defeat is significant, it accomplishes little except to allow Mal to undermine the Alliance’s ideology by broadcasting a video explaining the truth. As the character Mr. Universe says, “You can’t stop the signal,” or, in other words, the truth will come out one way or another. In this case, the truth came out in the same medium as that which hid the truth: in film. Adorno might argue that by using film positively, Serenity is merely excusing its own existence, thus allowing ideologies to spread, and this argument may have some support. However, Serenity is only exploring the potential of film to enslave or liberate, and makes no Adorno-like claims on what film actually is. In this way, the use of film in Serenity is similar to its use in the film Inglourious Basterds, in which film is clearly being used to spread oppressive propaganda, and yet that propaganda is undercut by a creative use of that same medium.

The message of the liberating potential of film is undermined somewhat in the fact that the film which is so devastating to the Alliance is a historical record, not a staged narrative. The argument could be made that, since the Alliance maintained their oppression by telling stories and were undermined by the reality, that films about fictional events can only serve to support oppressive illusions. However, the focus of the films in Serenity is not on exposing reality, but on telling the truth—two related but distinct ideas. For example, the dreams of the character River, one of which involves her being viewed as though on a film screen, are highly unrealistic, and yet each serve to reveal some truth about the Alliance. In River’s case, it is only by stepping back from reality that the truth can be seen. When one is too close to reality, the only message that can be conveyed is that of the reality, or that of the oppressed society, but stories can assist in revealing the truth. This is a very Benjamin perspective on film in that he believed that “[t]here is always something more to see in a reality mediated technologically, and, through this mediation, reality becomes its own critic.”[1] Truth can be seen more clearly through mediation—be it film or story or both—rather than through our immediate experiences.

As a science fiction film, Serenity is, according to Benjamin, in a particularly good position to break through ideologies. This is partially because it is not realistic: it portrays a universe which does not exist, and as such requires a certain amount of imagination from its viewers. Imagination, as Benjamin says, has great liberating potential, and even Adorno seems to think that if one can use film to make people think imaginatively, that that is a good thing.[2] Also, Serenity is a film about technology, including film, robotics, medicinal technologies, and machinery, which Benjamin believes to be ideal for helping humans to grapple with the technologies in their own lives.[3] Not only is Serenity a film about technologies, it also uses a wide array of technology in its creation: there are special effects, models, zooms, long takes, and much creative editing. Thus, the role and potential of technology are front and center for the audience, encouraging them to confront those realities in their own lives.

Despite the overarching message of Serenity as a critique of ideology, the case could be made that the film, as a product of a major Hollywood company (Universal Studios), is inherently ideological. One could say that the film is a product of the upper-class, created in an environment that caters to the rich, and as such cannot help but convey an ideology, as Adorno might argue.[4] This may very well be the case, but I am inclined to wonder whether the specific method of film creation does not have more of an ideological effect than the name of the company that produced it. The very fact of the film’s existence suggests that there are forces other than upper-class oppression at play; forces which undermine whatever ideology Serenity may have picked up as a result of being produced in Hollywood. Serenity, by all the normal rules of Hollywood, should not exist. It is the sequel to a failed television show which gathered so much post-cancellation support by fans that the show creator was given the chance to give the story some closure by way of a movie. Serenity exists, in other words, because the story originally failed to work within Hollywood’s rules, but there was a small-scale people’s revolution in protest to that fact. Whether or not the content of Serenity has been affected by its origin in the upper-class is open to debate. However, if the origin of the film has such an ideological impact, one must also keep in mind that Serenity was created in the context of popular approval and corporate disdain. Although I am stepping somewhat outside the filmic elements of Serenity in making the above argument, I feel justified in doing so, partially because Adorno himself pays much attention to the market of Hollywood,[5] and partly because the story of Serenity’s origin is well known (and for the uninitiated, there is a feature about it on the DVD), making the message implicit in the origin story likely to be on the minds of the viewers.

Despite being created in an environment that propagates ideologies, Serenity makes a valiant attempt at exposing the potential misuses of film.


[1] Esther Leslie, “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film” in Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives ed. Mike Wayne (London, Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2005), 43.

[2] Leslie, “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film”, 41; 37.

[3] Leslie, “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film”, 42.

[4] See Leslie, “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film”, 34.

[5] Leslie, “Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film”, 34.

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~ by ntertanedangel on June 18, 2010.

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