This past weekend I had the privilege of attending Joss in June, an academic conference on the works of Joss Whedon held at Cleveland Community College in Shelby, NC, where I also got my first taste as a presenter. While there, I also had the privilege of meeting a number of great people, including one of my professors at The Mythgard Institute, Dr. Amy H. Sturgis.
I started my day by arriving at the conference about 45 min. ahead of time and sitting in my car (with the A/C on full blast!) for about 20 of those minutes while I practiced reading my paper one last time. When I finally went inside, I got to spend a few minutes chatting with Dr. Sturgis before everyone was ushered into the banquet room for some opening remarks. The first session started promptly at 9:15.
Thar be spoilers below. I don’t know why I felt compelled to write that in a piratey accent, but in my brief synopses of the panels I attended below, you should be aware that there are spoilers for various and sundry Whedon productions. Also, please note that while I’m recapping some of the papers I heard, these are by no means an attempt to recreate the presenters’ full arguments, and I may (unintentionally) get their arguments wrong.
Session 1, Panel 3: Morality & Ethics
Molly Race, an independent scholar, presented a paper titled. “Making Compromises: Morality in the Dollhouse.” Molly argued that the difference between life and death in Dollhouse is the ability to form a moral code. (Incidentally, just before the keynote address at the end of the day, I had an opportunity to debate with Molly which was more ethical, using dolls or robots [a la the BuffyBot] to attend more than one panel simultaneously. We reached an impasse.)
Paul Race, another independent scholar, presented “Faith and the Firefly – Building a Moral Center by Consensus.” Paul surveyed the various value systems of the crew of the Serenity, showing how they changed (or didn’t change) over the course of the series, and how the movie Serenity showed some regression of values in some characters.
Greg Knehans from UNC Greensboro gave a presentation titled “‘I am the Law’: Buffy, Alain Baidou and Betrayals of Ethics.” Primarily, Knehans used the story arc from Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to explain the moral philosophy of Alain Baidou. I won’t even attempt to summarize this, but will note that I’ve added Baidou’s Ethics to my Goodreads to-read list.
Session 2, Panel 4: Comics
I really wanted to attend both panels in this session, but not being very familiar with Whedon’s work in comics, I chose to attend Panel 4.
Elizabeth Rambo of Campbell University presented “Banter, Battles, Betrayal, and ‘Kissy th’ face!'”, essentially an overview of the themes and formats of Sugarshock, a short digital comic series Joss wrote about an intergalactic band that saves the universe by singing the saddest song ever written. I was completely unaware of this comic before this presentation, and it was great to see what Joss can do with his quirk turned up to 11 (or maybe like 15…).
Independent scholar Jed Harris-Keith gets extra credit for presenting what unpredictably (to me, anyway) could be called the most controversial paper of the day:1 “How Joss Whedon Made Scott Summers a Man: Exploring Masculinity and Adulthood in Astonishing X-Men.” Jed deftly showed how Whedon managed to make Cyclops overcome his arrested development and learn how to control his powers.
Somehow, Masani McGee from the University of Rochester got me to enjoy looking at men’s bodies for 20 minutes in her presentation titled “‘Big Men in Spangly Outfits’: Spectacle and Eroticism in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers.” I don’t feel that I should say anything more than that.
Session 3, Panel 6: Firefly
I was really looking forward to this panel all day, since Firefly is my favorite Whedon production. I wasn’t disappointed.
Tamara Wilson of Flagler College shared her paper titled “Cannery Row and Firefly – Misfit Crews in Lonely ‘Verses,” which essentially compared and contrasted quite a few of the characters and situations from each. I’m not a huge Steinbeck fan, but she may have convinced me to re-read CR in a new light. (The shortness of it helps, too.)
Sara Hays from Middle Tennessee State University talked about “Tight Pants and Pretty Floral Bonnets: Outfitting the Outlaws of the ‘Verse.” Between this and the “Big Men in Spangly Outfits” presentation in the previous panel, I can honestly say I spent more of my day hearing about costumes than any other particular topic. Sara took us through the migration of the various outfits in Firefly, showing how they changed over time and what the changes communicated about the characters, and then the somewhat dramatic shifts in costumes for Serenity. (In retrospect, it would be interesting to see how the costume shifts may align with the value shifts Paul Race discussed in Panel 3.)
Amy Sturgis presented “‘Crowded in My Sky’: Frontier Narratives and Freedom in Firefly and Serenity” (part of a longer essay included in The Philosophy of Joss Whedon), which ties together a number of ideas, including how Malcolm Reynolds more closely adheres to the archetype of a Turnerian frontier hero than other, better-known icons like characters played by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, or even other science fiction characters like Han Solo. Amy also showed how Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” apply, with Mal representing negative liberty and the Alliance representing positive liberty.
Session 4, Panel 10: New Lenses
I went first. My paper was titled “Exploring Cabins in the Whedonverse Woods.” Basically, I took a look at the movie The Cabin in the Woods and three episodes from Whedon TV shows (Buffy 3×5 and 5×20, and Firefly 1×13) to show how the cabin scenarios in each of them has a focusing effect that elicits certain character actions which otherwise would not be drawn out.
Alex McCown from The New School for Social Research presented “Don’t Go Into the Basement: The Cabin in the Woods and the Ideology of Horror as a New Way to View All the Whedonverses.” Alex argues that Cabin provides a single ideology through which to view all of the various Whedonverses, which have no single ideology between them, and that comprehensive view allows new insights into Whedon’s works that otherwise were not available. (There were some interesting intersections between Alex’s paper and my own, without any significant overlap.)
Linda Jencson of Appalachian State University discussed “Of Vampires, Transylvanians and Gypsies in California, and the Russian Mafia in Space: Joss Whedon and Russophobia.” Whedon has been criticized for various missteps in his portrayal (or lack of portrayal) of non-white, non-Western characters. To the list of criticisms, Linda adds Whedon’s portrayals of Eastern Europeans, in particular the characters of Jenny Calendar and Dracula from Buffy and Adelei Niska from Firefly.
After the panels, we got to hear a great keynote address by Rhonda V. Wilcox on Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and the various ways he modernized it and how it differs in particular from Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 version. I won’t try to summarize this, but it somehow left me wanting to see Whedon’s version even more (which, no, I haven’t done yet…).
All in all, it was a great day.
1. It wasn’t that controversial.