I’m not really a fan of heroism.
Most guys seem to think of themselves as heroes. That’s a grand, sweeping statement, and a generalization, I get that. All I can do is tell you what I see. What I see is, plenty of guys who think they’re good people blast around like they’re doctors on ER, sweeping random extras aside as they rush to save small children. For those of us who don’t think of ourselves as extras in someone else’s movie, those of us who have lives and hero’s journeys of our own, this kind of attitude is beyond frustrating. In fact, the effect of this self-aggrandizing attempt to feel like a hero is to marginalize all the rest of us, the women and people of color and disabled folks etc who don’t fit in to the pretty picture that this supposed hero is trying to build.
I really, really don’t like the kinds of heroes who are self-selecting, called to the role of hero, of leader, by nothing save their own egos. That was the kind of hero I grew up with. That was the kind of leader I grew up with, the kinds of men who by virtue of aggression disguised as competitiveness had won positions of leadership they did not know how to properly occupy. I am cynical when it comes to leadership, and in particular male leadership. I have earned my cynicism through betrayal.
I am drawn to Mal of the television show Firefly and the feature film Serenity because he has earned his cynicism the hard way. Mal is, in my humble experience, by far the greatest male creation of Joss Whedon’s empire. He is more heroic than BtVS’s Angel, cleverer than Wesley, wiser than Giles. He is the sole lead male character who exists outside of the bright-eyed optimism that inadvertently defines Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and yes, loyalists, I know what I’m saying! Buffy the Vampire Slayer insists that good will win out, that the Slayer will die but not stay dead, that boys only transform into vampiric would-be rapists because of the influence of demons or some other supernatural means. Buffy fights to uphold the norms of her world. She is a warrior of her civilization, trying to keep capitalism intact.
Firefly holds no such illusions.
Mal is an anticapitalist antihero. He believed in something, but his battle to defeat the evil empire did not end the way Star Wars would have us believe. Instead, Mal fought his battle to save the universe, but capitalism won and he lost. Mal is not a warrior on capitalism’s behalf, he is a warrior on humanity’s behalf. For this, we might declare him an antihero, but I disagree.
Mal’s story asks: what would happen if we dropped a traditional classical hero into the post-21st century political scene? Who would he fight for? How would he articulate his position? How would he survive, alive in an absurd world, in which the acclaimed heroes are military men who ask no questions of the commanders who order them to destroy the lives of strangers to make more room for capitalist enterprise to grow and grow until all else dies in its path?
Mal has responded to this world by becoming a cynical, greedy, despairing monster. Mal adapts to his monstrous civilization by becoming enough of a monster himself in order to survive it. And yet, Mal proclaims his true heroic nature loud and clear when he makes the decision that reignites his own story. The choice that begins the series is Mal’s unwise, seemingly self-destructive decision to invite River Tam and her brother Simon to remain on board Mal’s ‘hunk of junk’ ship. This is an issue because the dominating political force of his civilization, The Alliance, currently hunts River. They want her back, bad.
In Mal’s world, the secret with the power to destroy his civilization, and potentially to build a new one, lives in the body of a girl. They have tortured her into emotional paralysis, and she reverts into a childlike babbling state whenever she feels threatened. In Mal’s world, the heroic feminine counterpart to his bold, swaggering and overtly masculine form of heroism is a teenage girl tortured into insanity.
In Mal’s world, what makes a man a hero is his willingness to listen to that tortured, mentally unstable girl. He protects her, at the risk of his ship and his crew and everything he loves in the entire world. Mal refuses to allow his survival instincts to overwhelm his intention to be a good human being, to be someone who takes care of other human beings, however broken they may be. He wakes up when the universe calls him to wake up, reclaims the rebellious, passionate part of his soul that losing the war nearly beat out of him. Mal makes a choice to be a different kind of man, and then he follows through.
His choice comes with loss. His passenger and spiritual leader, The Shepherd, is horribly murdered, and his pilot and dear friend Wash is killed. In an unfortunate and classist misstep in the feature film, all of Mal’s past clients are murdered offscreen. Protecting River is a struggle with real lived consequences. Doing the right thing is costly, financially and spiritually and every other way. It does not feel good. River and her brother are not always grateful, and certainly do not repay Mal’s sacrifice in any of the traditional ways. River does not fall in love with him. Simon does not repay him in gold or an honorary title. Mal the hero barely makes a dent in the universe, until the very end of the film.
Yet Mal remains a hero. He allows fate to call him to account, and he answers. Mal wakes up. He decides to be more than he thought he ever could be, and he does not back down.
Maybe that’s my definition of being a true hero. Somebody who recognizes fate when it arrives, and responds unwaveringly, no matter the cost. Someone who recognizes that even a crazy teenage girl is worth being listened to, is valuable, is a soul large enough to hold the entire universe in her hands. Someone who protects the vulnerable, no matter what clothes she shows up wearing.
Someone who chooses justice. Because no matter how bad things get, life is worth fighting for.