Manuscript draft

Katherine Sugg

Apocalypse and Masculinity in Popular Culture: Allegories of Crisis

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Sentimental Masculinity and the Liberal Apocalypse in Popular Culture

CHAPTER ONE: Apocalypse and (the Failure of) Critique in Children of Men and Mad Max: Fury Road

CHAPTER TWO: Settler Colonialism, Gender, and Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity: The Limits of White Irony

CHAPTER THREE: Crises of Masculine and Neoliberal Subjection in The Walking Dead

CHAPTER FOUR: Critical Futurities and Speculative Fictions in Sci-Fi Cinema: Sleep Dealer and Snowpiercer

Coda: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Allegory of Apocalypse Undone


Sentimental Masculinity and the Liberal Apocalypse in Popular Culture

You’ve seen what people do without leadership”


What is at stake in the gendering of politics? And for that matter, of narrative? That is, the stories we tell each other and ourselves about politics and people? Political theorist Bonnie Honig writes that both the dynamics and the rhetoric of domestic violence permeate the discourse and goals of U.S. President Donald J. Trump: “The Trump Doctrine, such as it is, applies not just to America’s allies but also to the American public. We are the wife, too. And it is an abusive relationship, as several commentators have pointed out: we are showered with praise one day, then thrown off-balance by strange behaviors or pummeled with rage the next.”1 In Honig’s estimation, echoed in various studies by masculinities researchers and feminist cultural critics, the perception of traditional forms of masculinity as endangered, or in crisis, translates into a defensive posturing among both individuals and political groups, who then resort to attempts to shore up, “defend,” and strengthen the position of that threatened masculine authority—most often through expressions of power, violence, and superiority that offend some but resonate with many others.2 And yet times have indeed changed and along with them, many ideologies and stereotypes of gender roles and capacities would seem to be outdated, even extinct. Still, in this era of Trump politics and superhero blockbusters, it would be hard to deny that the underlying logics and feelings associated with traditional gender roles—especially the need and admiration for a strong hero--persist for large segments of both the political and media consuming populations. That persistence may not just be of gender roles and a resistance to their transformation, but of the gendering of the very values that remain at the heart of U.S. society, and arguably all Western and Westernized societies. In highlighting how the stories that dominate popular culture, in this case the apocalypse narrative, reveal a collective attachment to various understandings of both societal futurity and sexual difference, this book argues for a sustained analysis of what we might learn from this intransigence lodged within collective imaginaries, particularly those that perceive the present moment as one of “crisis” and foresee some cataclysmic, nay apocalyptic, event that will soon decide “our” fate.

This apprehension of societal crisis in advanced capitalist societies, and often the planet, is an already-dominant trope of the 21st century that has been figured in popular culture, and in some political theory, through scenarios of large-scale civic and nation-state collapse and a growing cacophony of “end of history” discourses, and particularly in explicitly apocalyptic themes in film, television, video games and other popular culture and even news media. This eruption of apocalyptic discourse and storylines appears as part of a generally perceived experience of our historical moment as one of crisis and epochal transformation.3 Of course, both apocalypse and crisis are not specific to this millennium; as Bill Brown has noted, the preoccupation of modern Western society, and especially postmodernity, has long been trying to pinpoint the moment “when it all changed.”4 But while the most recent outburst of apocalyptic pop culture builds on a string of familiar concerns from the last half of the 20th century (nuclear apocalypse, alien invasion, the cold war, etc), the overwhelming ubiquity—and some say, banality—of the apocalypse in 21st century popular culture has become unavoidable.

In 1996, director Roland Emmerich released Independence Day, an “American epic science fiction disaster film” that starred the popular TV actor and rap singer, Will Smith, as one of the film’s heroic protagonists in an ensemble cast. In relation to my book's project, Emmerich’s interest in “redefining the event action film” genre is notable for how that redefinition and its preoccupations have continued to shape mainstream apocalypse scenarios. For a time, Emmerich emerged as possibly the most pre-eminent (or at least most well-known) among the market-savvy filmmakers envisioning the end of the world as we know it—a list that includes Danny Boyle, Joss Whedon, Alfonso Cuarón, and George Miller, among others. Emmerich's work is also the best illustration of how the apocalypse rose to its preeminence as a commodified and banal vehicle for Hollywood marketing juggernauts, as the disastrous remake, Independence Day: Resurrection (2016) so clearly demonstrates. These directors and films, for a variety of reasons and in a wide variety of tones, have generated a plethora of mainstream cinematic versions of how “we” would handle the coming catastrophe. The earlier Hollywood-produced Independence Day remains a guilty pleasure for many, largely thanks to the film’s action-packed special effects sequences, witty dialogue, and the charismatic performance by Smith, who co-stars with Jeff Goldblum and Bill Pullman. The key component in Emmerich’s movies is usually a male protagonist (or two, or more) who has been struggling with issues inside his family and/or work that have thrown his capacities and life direction into doubt. In Independence Day, that dynamic is first shown in the character of U.S. President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) a recently elected younger president, previously a war hero and fighter pilot in Iraq, whose poll numbers are failing (“That’s the problem. They elected a warrior and they got a wimp,” quips one on-screen TV commentator). In this film, as in 2012, the main characters’ manly trials (embodied by the hapless divorced dad played by John Cusack in the later film) are echoed in various secondary storylines focusing on failed fathers and stalled sons—men who just happen also to be ready and able to save the world from imminent total destruction.

The ironic, knowing tone of Independence Day and its foregrounding of at least one unconventional (that is, non-white) male protagonist in Will Smith's fighter pilot established a formula also picked up by others, including Joss Whedon in his various television and film works—the blockbuster Avenger films, etc—that include the cult TV series Firefly that is a focus in Chapter Three. In these and other cases I discuss, the seemingly tired genre of the sci-fi epic action film was given a turn-of-the-century boost through an apparent embrace of more contemporary ideas about race and gender, as well an ironic distance from the earnestness of the disaster epics and science fiction dystopias of the 1950s and 1970s, two previous eras in which they reigned. But the embrace of a “multicultural” aesthetics and ethos often coexists all-too-comfortably with a number of much more conventional notions about leadership and white supremacy, the nuclear family, national exceptionalism, and gender dynamics and qualities, i.e. the respective roles and talents of women and men, and whites and people of color. These failures of irony to produce a truly unexpected or distinct narrative, even when obviously intending to shake up popular genres and their politics of representation (at least as much as market considerations will allow), indicate the operation of some interesting dynamics within popular culture and its oscillations between contestatory and reifying tendencies.

I begin with Emmerich’s early hit in part because that film along with his subsequent blockbusters have played a significant role in the explosion of apocalyptic popular culture, as well the resurgence of the “Hollywood blockbuster.” 5 Also, the veneer of “liberal,” as in progressive and “modern” ideas about gender roles and racial hierarchies combined with clever dialogue and dramatic, and expensive, special effects have all become crucial to this winning formula, even as it has taken a darker turn in the later works of other filmmakers in the first decades of the 21st century in films such as Pacific Rim, the two Planet of the Apes remakes, and the zombie apocalypses of 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, Zombieland, etc. The preoccupation with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios in film and television (and video games and marketing) have drawn much attention from cultural critics and commentators. Some, like Evan Calder Williams, have linked this explosion to the inevitable dissolution of late capitalism, which starts in the 1960s and has been intensified (accelerated, some would say) since the financial crises of 2008. For Williams and similar theorists, the speculative fictions of apocalyptic narratives, particularly but not exclusively in science fiction, signal a renewed interest in radical, even utopic, possibilities for change on a global scale.

But Emmerich uses the apocalypse in a more recognizable, and "liberal," storyline, one that shores up both masculinity and familiar notions of patriotism and good governance, largely understood in simultaneously paternalistic and militaristic terms. Although somewhat criticized, Independence Day opens with unabashed iconography of U.S. nationalism (the Statue of Liberty, White House, American flags on the moon, etc) and then uses those images to show a United States “under attack,” including the widely admired and influential sequence of the aliens blowing up the White House and other iconic symbols of American power and order. Likewise, the characterizations of men making hard decisions, doing brave and dangerous things, and protecting their women and children appeal to longstanding stereotypes and pathos-laden understandings of family, marriage, and other “core” values. Even though Independence Day, like other films in the genre, includes a smattering of female (and non-white) characters who perform bravely and admirably, the principle plot arcs focus on men’s actions and female characters are valued primarily as romantic love interests and mother figures. For this reason, I describe this mainstream fantasy vision of gender as one based in "sentimental masculinity" -- an ostensibly feel-good narrative that features the redemption and triumph of an embattled man who is also a really nice guy.

In Apocalypse and Masculinity, I track the emergent logics that have guided both mainstream and more critical, or alternative, incarnations of the apocalypse allegory in order to more carefully assess the work that such allegories are doing for audiences and for the hegemonies of capitalism and dominant political ideology (not always coincident interests, though usually). I suggest that the lion’s share of this cultural work turns on key ideals and assumptions to which audiences in contemporary Western democracies are profoundly attached: particularly our intellectual and affective embeddedness in fundamental social and personal virtues and values that are assumed and shared by a collective social “us”—specifically in the U.S. (and possibly Europe) but also increasingly encompassing a globalized collective political and economic identity and culture. This complex of assumptions and ideologies about individuals and collectives—how they work, what they can and should do, what they “feel”—is rooted, I argue, in what Western political theorists and economists call “liberalism” or “classical liberalism.” While the discussions here will focus on the popular culture artifacts and evidence that most effectively illustrate these links, each chapter explores some principle ideas in cultural and political theory and their relation to popular culture that are key to understanding the operations of discourses of political and economic liberalism in U.S. society that are the focus of much of my argument.

The question of “liberalism” goes back to the word's roots in various understandings of what is meant by “liberty,” that is to say, freedom. In political philosophy, the problem of governance and society directly emerges from the early modern and Enlightenment eras' development of a concept of the "individual" in Western thought and the move toward a social contract theory of good political governance. The foundational thinker regarding this intersection of society and the human subject is often considered to be Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), whose notion of the "social contract" which prescribes that the legitimate grounds for the relationship between individuals and their collective governance should be consensual and support the status of individuals as essentially self-directed and free. For Hobbes and those that followed (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, Immanuel Kant--as well as more modern thinkers such as Isiah Berlin, ), the individual's capacity to act freely and without direct interference from other humans (negative freedom in "classical liberalism") is the priority of any system of governance that would preserve the security and well-being of a potential collective while doing as little as possible to impinge on individual liberty, i.e. the self-possessive freedom to act on behalf of one's own interests. Hobbes, as I discuss in detail in chapters One and Three, is also famous for his theory of sovereignty, elaborated in the work Leviathan, which insists on the collective imperative to consent to a "sovereign" power (in his time, a monarch) to ensure the security of a group, or nation--i.e. survival--and to lift humans out of their unenviable "state of nature," which Hobbes understood as a "war of all against all" directed by the inevitable greed and vanity that controls human behavior and interaction. In this formulation, social collectives (i.e. society) and government are both a necessity and a problem for Hobbes and other Enlightenment philosophers of free will and Western individualism.

Today's debates in political theory and cultural critique often turn on which "liberalism" one favors or considers most legitimate: the "classical" variety (i.e. old liberalism) or the left-leaning 20th century version of the term (i.e. new liberalism) that also understands individual agency and autonomy as forces that can be maximized by imposed general corrections (in the economic, state, and/or civil spheres of society) to inequalities and domination within society. However, much of my argument--and a surprising number of apocalyptic narratives--suggest that this fraught historical distinction may largely be moot. Because both perspectives assume a particular notion of the human subject (how it comes into being and what liberty will look like), the means that best move societies and individuals toward the fullest possible freedom for all (or at least most) may be distinct, but they share guiding myths and assumptions about what counts as both an individual agent and a liberatory, well-functioning social collective. And those foundational assumptions are why this book explores the ways that the precepts of Western individualism enshrined in both liberalisms surreptitiously remain active in popular cultural ideas about heroes and their plots, with a particular focus on the extent to which these precepts are profoundly gendered, and raced, even when they may purport to be challenging or overturning traditional social stereotypes and hierarchies.

The persistence of liberalism and its core values within myths of both heroism and ideal societies finds itself at an impasse in at least some of the recent pop culture apocalypses I study. And I argue that the presumption of both whiteness and masculinity in the narrativization of what human freedom, and human thriving, might mean underscores problems within not just a history of patriarchal white capitalism, but for the very notions of the human and of societal possibility that are likewise emplotted in those stories. That is to say, the question of agency--of the capacity to act without external compunction or interference--reveals itself in these apocalypse movies and tv shows to be increasingly apprehended as a profound difficulty, suggesting that in some ways we may have been missing the point. There are many invigorating contemporary thinkers addressing this problem, or crisis, of conceptions of agency, the human subject, and relations within collectivities. And Apocalypse and Masculinity will occasionally gesture toward some of the important emerging cosmologies that promise of an opening toward the "new" or the "next" phase of Western and/or planetary society and human subjectivity. However, my main focus is on how the apocalypse narrative as it is most often found in contemporary pop culture, mainstream and contestatory alike, indicates that the persistent ground of possessive individualism in the Western cultural tradition--the free white man, as it were-- is apprehended as simultaneously an endangered species and an ever-present menace.

From the celebratory liberal narratives of masculine, and American, triumph that Emmerich relentlessly parades--in the series Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012--to the more equivocal post-apocalypse scenarios of other, more recent, works, the pop culture apocalypse is very often a blunt and entertaining incarnation of the "monomyth" of the hero's journey. As influentially outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces (1949), the question of narrative patterns and protagonist characterization have long been a preoccupation of both literary and film studies. This book refers back to the somewhat older term of "allegory" to underline the pervasive operative issues at work in these popular culture examples, particularly because allegory underlines that narrative modes (such as allegory, realism, gothic, etc) are the vehicles for the expression of profound cultural dynamics and histories. The allegory of apocalypse thus conveys a plot that works along lines that dig deep and reflect profound ideological and political imaginaries in mainstream culture. As this book's title and my comments above suggest, a key aspect of the contemporary allegory of apocalypse is the role of sexual difference and the persistence of traditional notions of both agency and heroism as embodied in the key protagonists of much, if not most, apocalypse media, even into the 21st century. I argue that this significance reflects more than "just" a persistent misogyny in popular cultural imaginaries, but further that it articulates aspects of what we understand by the terms "agency" and "freedom," as well as heroism, action, resolution, etc. Recent popular culture narratives indicate how the impasse of the Western political tradition in the balance between self-possessive individual freedom and collective social contractual norms is being mirrored in the impasse created by genre conventions: i.e. the hero's journey and its relentless sameness in popular imaginaries. Or put another way, Apocalypse and Masculinity asks a couple of very simple questions: why is there an apocalypse brewing in the popular imaginary? And why is the central problem revealed by the apocalyptic crisis so often dramatized as the personal dramas of some (most often white) guy?

The notion of crisis, or krisis, as more of an opportunity than a disaster helps explain some part of the “why?” that drives my investigations. That is, because these films and tv shows invoke a terrible testing and collapse of all that “we” know, they give audiences a cathartic experience of crisis and disaster, whether feared or secretly desired, and then work through that imagined, or speculative, scenario over the course of the movie, television serial, comic series, or video game. Evan Calder Williams in his excellent study-cum-manifesto regarding the cultural expressions of late capitalism, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011), offers a classification of the distinctions between crisis, catastrophe, and apocalypse that illuminates the genesis of the apocalypse in recent popular culture. He explains that “crisis is a cyclical, expected expression, not a permanent state of affairs. It will pass and be passed through” where as a catastrophe “is end without revelation, a historical void, an end of the road that cannot point beyond itself” (4). These two conditions or states of societal “being” contrast with apocalypse, whose theological usage (eschatological, Christian, prophetic) is extrapolated into a more secular or universal event, a desired event in Williams’s view:

What we need, then, is an apocalypse. An apocalypse is an end with revelation, a ‘lifting of the veil.’. . . this doesn’t mean total destruction but rather a destruction of totalizing structure, of those universal notions that do not just describe ‘how things are’ but serve to prescribe and insist that ‘this is how things must be’.” (5).

This understanding of the apocalypse as the disruption of calcified ideologies and perceptions through a revelation that can potentially ‘save us from ourselves’ (whether from a dystopic totalitarian social order, environmental destruction, capitalist and state corruption, rapacious endemic violence and despair, etc) is in fact a deeply traditional conception of the apocalyptic as it was explained and understood by previous generations of literary and cultural scholars working in the last heyday of apocalyptic allegory as a field of study, the 1960s (Murrin, Cohn, Kermode, etc).

However, the growing purchase of a more celebratory understanding of apocalypse, like that voiced by Williams, rests on a profound shift in both the definition of apocalyptic crisis and the understanding of large-scale historical and societal dynamics. The current conceptual umbrella for these dynamics of collapse and, expectantly, regeneration is crisis, or krisis: when, as Williams puts it, “all is laid bare, and the dividing lines are incontrovertibly clear” (7). What I find particularly useful about Williams’s gloss of the crisis-catastrophe-apocalypse triad is that he emphasizes the role of temporality: the problem or question in each case is how to imagine what the present will lead to, anticipate the future, and conceptualize both probable and possible futurities. Other critics working on apocalypse and allegory have also turned to the relationships between past, present, and future to understand the apocalypse plot, and apocalyptic mode: that is to say, the larger issue of a prevailing historical imaginary underlies the question of why and how the apocalypse has accrued its narrative and cultural power. Apocalypse and other crisis plots articulate a desire to forecast and explain large-scale dynamics in societal moments of acute anxiety and fear about both ‘what we are’ and ‘where we are headed’. In A Sense of the Ending (1967), Frank Kermode uses the key term of “concordance” to underline the temporal imaginaries involved in apocalypse narrative that reflect the given understanding of past and future, one that “concords” both from the point of view of the investments and conceptions of the present moment. As a “mental structure” that allow us to make sense of time, Kermode argues that fictions of apocalypse provide a means for “temporal integration.” He notes, “all such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration meaning” (46). This work of making each perception of contemporary historicity meaningful and “concordant” with existing, or remembered, versions of historical unity results in “modifying the past and allowing for the future without falsifying our own present moment of crisis” (59).

As I note above, the notion of a Western modernity defined by its apocalyptic ending is not new and the persistent, even permanent, sense of crisis that connects both modernity and masculinity has been a rich area of investigation, in particular for American Studies. Kermode, for instance, remarked upon the deep structural connections between apocalypse and modernity in his seminal work The Sense of an Ending. And even then—during the Cold War and Civil Rights apocalyptic moments-- Kermode meditates quite critically on the collective impulse toward seeing one’s own time as exceptional, as a time of momentous events that signal and encompass “the end of the world as we know it.” While tied to a secular imaginary, Kermode’s characterization of apocalyptic coincides with scholars of the allegorical tradition in Christianity, in which the prophecy of a sweeping apocalyptic transformation/ending is the key narrative structure.6 Allegory joins other modern narrative forms to articulate a relationship to historical time that continually generates “doctrines of crisis, decadence, and empire, and the division of history into mutually significant phases and transitions” (Kermode 14). Kermode asserts that apocalypse has become key to modernity’s attempts to create “concordance” in our historical understanding, and that apocalyptic concord fictions have become “a permanent feature of a permanent literature of crisis” that characterizes Western cultural forms (124).7 But he goes on to caution that when the fictionality of apocalyptic fictions is “forgotten,” that is the critical moment when “we sink quickly into myth, into stereotype (124). Kermode and his contemporaries in the 1960s and 70s in literary studies were both more attuned to U.S. society’s deep links to eschatological Christian thought and more dubious of the fantasy—or wish-fulfillment—aspects of the rise of secular apocalyptic allegories in culture, both high and low, including canonical literature, science fiction, movies, and radio, and other mid-century expressions. Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millenieum (1961) criticized what he called “the central fantasy of revolutionary eschatology” for its rigid systemic vision and binary divisions which foreclose human freedom and individual variation in favor of an allegory of totalizing world change. As Jane Elliot explains in her study of 1960s popular fiction and political narrative imaginaries, for these mid-20th century critics, “the absolute, binary split created by the imminence of underlying narrative totalization produces a world that can only exist in two mutually exclusive versions: lack and fulfillment, dystopia and utopia, sin and salvation, election and damnation” (36).8

Somewhat ironically, this suspicion toward myth and other totalizing narrative explanations as structures of delusion and mass hysteria has most recently been replaced by theorists and philosophers who latch onto exactly that “speculative” aspect of apocalyptic narrative. Here, non-realist projections of apocalyptic crisis, catastrophe, and possible post-apocalyptic futurity speak to the utopian desire for radical change, for that cleansing end of ‘life as we know it’ that Williams hopes for. Some of this view of apocalypse derives from the influence of literary critic and theorist Frederic Jameson, who has long supported the capacity of science fictional non-realism and other forms of utopian narration to “think the break” of apocalyptic crisis in the effort to formulate alternatives to current social organization: “The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break” (Jameson, Archeologies of the Future 232).

Jameson, sometimes with philosopher Slavov Zizek, is also credited with the apocryphal statement of the contemporary moment, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”9 These emerging consensus points of left 21st century critique mark both a departure and a response to the equally apocryphal assertion in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama who wrote a brief and reductive, but hugely influential, paper for The National Interest entitled, "The End of History?"10 In that inaugural year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama opens with the oft-quoted and stunningly myopic assertion, "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the endpoint of man's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government" (4). As various scholars have noted, Fukuyama's piece was wildly premature but also oddly elegiac and nostalgic in its worry that "after" liberal democracy and capitalism are established in "most" of the globalized world as the unassailable pillars of politics and economies, there will be "boredom" and a lack of guiding values or struggles that can mobilize nations and individuals. To some extent, these predictions of "stasis" have been born out and many more recent critics of contemporary late capitalism, what is often termed "neoliberalism," describe the extent to which the evacuation of all non-economic interests, values, and logics have bankrupted both public life and individual psyches.11

On that topic of the barriers against thinking outside the confines of economic, or financial, measures of self and society, one of the most influential recent analyses comes from Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). Fisher's definition of "capitalist realism" has become perhaps the other most oft-quoted observation regarding the contemporary moment in cultural criticism: "the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it" (2). For Fisher, this cognitive impossibility is experienced by most people as a depressive apprehension of "realities" that are presented as necessary, and ultimately "good" : "Lowering our expectations, we are told, is a small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism" (5). For Fisher, the operative sense of "realism" is as pragmatic acceptance and "common sense": a realistic point of view has been cornered by the powers that support capital--media, the state, ideology, etc--and everything else is dismissed as dangerous illusion or foolish (i.e. childish or feminine) sentimentality.

But realism is also a mode of narrative representation, with roots in literature but also dominant in most popular media, that purports to present the world as it "really is," using the aesthetic tactics of detailed versimilitude, psychological characterization, and plausible sequences of cause and effect. When he adds, "Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism itself" (4), Fisher underlines how the widespread experience of entrapment within an economic logics that now seems to penetrates and smother every aspect of social, political, and individual psychic life also has seemingly captured the horizon of the thinkable in cultural representation. In the introduction to their collected volume Reading Capitalist Realism (2014), literary critics Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge excavate the links between Fisher's concept and questions of aesthetic representation (i.e. a realist mode) to further explore and elaborate the cultural, and thus ideological, dynamics that instantiate the hegemony of capitalist realism.12 In their overview of the relations between aesthetics and social and economic realities, Shonkwiler and La Berge review the other key concepts that have ventured to illuminate those dynamics, postmodernism and neoliberalism, to underline the continuities between these concepts and capitalist realism, as well as highlight the critical potential of Fisher's term and related critiques.

While I try to use it sparingly, "neoliberalism" is the term that is currently most often used to describe the contemporary (dating back to the 1970s, anyway) mode of capitalist economics and liberal (or neoliberal) state governance and to explain the surreptitious operations of global capital and corporate interests in the United States, and globally. As Shonkwiler and La Berge explain, "neoliberalism names those aspects of globalization that, under the auspices of the market, limit social functioning and naturalize structures of inequality" (loc.111). Discussions of "capitalist realism" orbit most obviously around the work of Frederic Jameson and discussions of "neoliberalism" and its domination in contemporary life often refer to French historian Michel Foucault and to the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Foucault coined key terms and concepts for the conversations around neoliberal governance and these appear at various key moments in my own discussions, though usually as informing the background of the popular culture example under scrutiny. One of these is "biopolitics" and the other is the "control society," which Foucault argues marked a shift, or transformation, in the modern state apparatuses of the "disciplinary society" that arose with the modern liberal capitalist state of the nineteenth century.13 Although these are long and complex discussions in the fields of political and social theory, what they share is a critique of the concept of individual agency and action as adequate to challenge or resist what Fisher elsewhere describes "as more like a transpersonal psychic infrastructure" that "convinces people that it is an irresistible force."14

For Jameson, Williams, and Fisher--as well as theorists such as Eva Cherniavksy, Steven Shaviro, Gerry Canavan, and others I quote at length--the complicities of realist representation with social imaginaries that cannot "think the break" can be countered, or at least challenged, in speculative and other non-realist fictions. Shonkwiler and La Berge also discuss the turn to forms of non-realism to provide the alternative imagined options that are foreclosed by political and economic discourses and institutions, but worry that this recourse "only shows the necessity of using fantasy to imagine other alternatives." Further, they comment on how "if it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, this must be at least partly because capitalist representation now specializes in previews of the apocalyptic" (loc. 137). This characterization of the apocalypse in popular culture as already captured, or "metabolized," by capitalist realism offers an interesting index to the problem of the apocalypse that Apocalypse and Masculinity, and especially this introduction, is working to track across its oscillations between commodified fantasy product and critical intervention. Like Fisher, Jameson, and others, Williams's conception of the apocalyptic rests on his belief that contemporary late capitalism is sliding into a state that is “statically catastrophic.” This apprehension of both the “state of emergency” of current modes of government and political economy as well as the stasis of that world system, its problem of endless self-perpetuation and no future, holds out the possibility of revisioning the future through the eschatological mode of apocalyptic prophecy, in revelatory allegories that can diagnose current crises and remake political and psychic imaginaries. Yet, the very ubiquity, and banality, of the apocalypse in popular culture--the banking on it, as it were--suggests the validity of worries voiced by Shonkwiler and La Berge, and echoed elsewhere.

Arguably, popular culture, and especially cinema, is where allegory has found its most comfortable perch: the nature of film and tv and the function of visual technologies (as opposed to realist literary fiction, for instance) collude in both medium and audience share to grab hold of public affects and imaginaries on a wide scale. As New York Times movie critic A.O. Scott observed in 2007, a crop of genre movies around that time (28 Days Later (2003), 28 Weeks Later (2007) and Dawn of the Dead (2004)) demonstrated that popular film had become the most effective and interesting purveyor of political allegory in contemporary culture.15 This allegorical turn has been confirmed in mainstream movies as diverse as I Am Legend and Wall-E and the more recent “blockbuster” (at least a planned one), the sequel Independence Day 2: Resurgence (2016). On the screen, images of apocalyptic destruction and the end of life—or at least the majority of humans and societies—on the planet can be conveyed through special effects and other awe-inspiring cinematic manipulations of audience perceptions that offer a gratifying apocalyptic fiction experience. Why this experience is marketed as entertainment and expected to be so gratifying for large numbers of people is actually a serious question that this book explores in depth. One element that almost all of these works share is that their apocalypse narratives are clearly intended to be read as commentaries on the current social and historical moment and its direction (either crudely or in varying degrees of narrative and conceptual sophistication)—i.e., they work as allegories.

The utility of allegory as a political narrative practice uniquely suited to “crisis” moments has been noted by literary and cultural critics every generation or so, ranging from Walter Benjamin’s The Origins of Tragic German Drama and including work discussed above from the 1960s and 70s on Biblical traditions in the early Christian era (Cohn), Milton and other 17th century cultural production (Murrin), and fictional rhetoric in the Cold War era (Kermode). The New World, i.e. the Americas, also has been characterized as quintessentially apocalyptic, whether understood through its status as a geohistorical event (the totalizing ending of the so-called "pre-Columbian," indigenous world, imaginatively and practically) or for its particular modes of modernist and postmodernist writing (Zamora, Kettler).16 The linkage between apocalypse and allegory in prophetic writing and art is thus both generically and historically well-established. In a general sense, Apocalypse and Masculinity investigates what makes these images and narratives so satisfying right now and to such a wide range of audiences. That is, what is behind this intensified pop culture impulse toward social and historical commentary—and cathartic experience—in apocalyptic form? And what are the potential impacts, both critical and colluding, on the those public imaginaries of social and individual realities and potentialities?

Fisher and Jodi Dean underline the "problem" of individual desires and collective political imaginaries in their conversation "We Can't Afford To Be Realists," particularly their distrust of public affects generated in a world where, as Fisher puts it, "for all capital's rhetoric of novelty and innovation, culture has become increasingly homogenized and predictable" (loc 590-91). As they go back and forth on that perennial question, what is to be done?, Fisher and Dean articulate a useful overview of "how an economic and political formation that emphasizes free choice, personal responsibility, and competition gives a certain shape to the subjectivity even of those who ostensibly reject it, a shape that is rather stunted, meek, and compliant" (Dean. loc 580). Dean and Fisher differ slightly in their understanding of the best response to this problem of subjects whose desires and psyches are always already captured by capitalist, liberal ideologies and logics.17 Dean counsels that we "discipline" ourselves away from the pleasures, "the goodies," that late capitalism entices us with, while Fisher argues for a more plausible redirecting of desire and political possibility toward a "post-capitalist" future, one that actually works--i.e. is not entrapped in an eternal "crisis" of stasis (and violence and brutal inequality) nor marching toward an inevitable apocalypse.

Here, the hope is that in critique and by exposing the gaps and falsehoods of capitalist realism, speculative fictions (and/or cultural and political treatises) can open cognitive space for a post-capitalism, which has the advantage , Fisher adds, that it actually "can deliver democracy" which will show "we are on the side of progress and enlightenment, while capital is on the side of barbarism" (loc. 692). But as they imply, and as critic Peter Paik has forcefully interrogated, the problem of subjectivity and political imaginaries also permeates apocalypse narratives in popular culture: on the one hand, such narratives ostensibly offer an alternative vision of the future, as well as a critical warning concerning present social and political organization. But on the other, as Paik details in his incisive study From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe (2010), the utopian, revolutionary imaginary that often generates apocalypse narratives (or prophecies, in the Biblical sense) has proven that it also, and inevitably, hits an impasse of limited imaginative options and often, intentionally or not, involve a "realist" depiction of the foundational violence required to sweep away an old order and install a new one. However, Paik also sees a powerful critical role for science fictional and speculative apocalypses in this dynamic of representation: because they often involve "inflammatory speculations about the nature of authority and depict the terrifying exigencies whereby political order takes root," such narratives prove "to be subversive of both the goal of utopia and the desire to secure the continuance of the established order" (22).18

The wedge in Apocalypse and Masculinity for addressing this problem of the repetition and replication of the violence and totalitarianism of political forms within popular imaginaries comes back to the standard protagonist in the apocalyptic film and television archive: the hero. It is in the visual styling and narrative characterization and position of the main character that many of these films and television series both confirm and, sometimes, contest, the desires lodged in audiences that enjoy and consume these ubiquitous apocalyptic scenarios--desires that often rest on the presumption of a decision-making, event-changing individual at the core of human affairs. When President Whitmore in Independence Day ultimately proves both his competence and his bravery in handling the alien invasion's world-historical threat to the nation, his character and his role in the plot of the film affirm a longstanding trope in U.S. cultural representations that use individual men and masculinity as a stand-in for the fate of white “national manhood” at a time of perceived crisis or ending. In her seminal work, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press, 1998), Dana Nelson situates “national manhood” as a U.S. “republican” subjectivity that is “consolidated. . . in imagined affliation with other men who have power over groups of people—the power to objectify, to identify, to manage” (3). I argue that that the apocalypse in question in a collection of contemporary film and television narratives is often surreptitiously, but precisely, concerned with the fate of this “professional manhood” and its deep links to Enlightenment and mercantile social formations, including democracy, the nation-state, and late capitalist ideologies of individualism and agency. As film theorists have long argued, movies are a particularly effective medium for this confluence of discursive and historical concerns, given how, as Contance Penly notes, classical Hollywood film “is powered by the desire to establish by the end of the film, the nature of masculinity.”19

To consider more deeply the function of gender, and especially of ideas about masculinity and heroism, that still circulate today in popular culture, I turn to the heady beginnings of feminist film theory. The 1970s and 80s saw the explosion of political energy from the women’s movement shake the foundations of film and narrative theory, often using the newly discovered (in the United States and England anyway) tools of psychoanalytic theories of human development, which put sexual difference and gender ideologies at their very core. This unlikely, and controversial, welding of French psychoanalytic theories and cultural studies generated a foundational body of work that, perhaps counter-intuitively, argued vociferously for the seriousness of popular forms and what we can learn from them. Where as some critics saw only dangerous political complicity and affective mass delusion in Hollywood cinema, Claire Johnston in 1974 argued that “a feminist strategy should combine, rather than oppose, the notions of film as a political tool and film as entertainment” (107). Considering the role of gender ideologies in popular Hollywood film in her seminal essay, “Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema,” Johnston further asserts that “In order to counter our objectification in the cinema, our collective fantasies must be released: women’s cinema must embody the working through of desire: such an objective demands the use of the entertainment film” (31). Johnston’s call is picked up by other feminist film theorists, particularly Laura Mulvey and then Teresa De Lauretis, who remind readers that to achieve any social and artistic revolution in popular culture, feminist critics and filmmakers (and audiences) must attend more rigorously to the psychoanalytic insight that audiences desire and understand what they are ‘trained’ to desire (through ideology, subjectivation, interpellation, etc) and that the expressions of that training (by society, history, family, etc) are inescapably evident in the narratives, and narrative pleasures, offered by Hollywood cinema and other popular culture.

The work of De Lauretis and Mulvey makes one of the most forceful and clear articulations of how this connection between a popular culture that aims to be liberatory, and that releases “our collective fantasies,” must reckon with its enclosure inside the circle of what history and society have made those fantasies into; an enclosure within ideology, one might say. And to a large extent, a key question I am raising in Apocalypse and Masculinity about sexual difference and gender ideologies repeats the inquiries of these feminist theoretical forebears, asking, What do “we” desire and how do we identify and understand the imbrication of these desires in history, political economy, and structures of power? This question and the function of popular culture illustrates how some collective fantasies cut across the apparent divides of us and them, male and female, white and non-white. Even when it is against an individual’s or a population’s apparent “interest,” the fantasies of whiteness and masculine authority—which are in effect longstanding and foundational fantasies (and traditional conceptions) of social order, justice and the benevolence of well-meaning authority —are widely shared. And yet even as these fantasies have been constituted by history and structures of political and economic (as well as familial and cultural) institutions, it has become clear that “we” do want something different, a desire or affect—both individually and collectively situated—that current apocalyptic stories signal, even as those stories often play into a host of retrograde desires and investments in these social hierarchies and the “order” they promise.20

The persistence of the gendered associations with agency and order is vividly apparent in popular culture mediums, particularly the growing dominance of comic book franchises in film and other media. For example, the highest grossing film of 2016 was Captain America:Civil War, a Marvel Comics ensemble behemoth that also follows the formula established by Independence Day (and proven spectacularly lucrative in the Avenger series, to mention another influence): witty dialogue, expensive special effects, ironic plot twists and characterizations that express a self-reflective tone and perspective on the genre. And to be sure, Civil War offers a seemingly enlightened view of superhero stereotypes and plot conventions. In terms of sexual difference and its presumed functions, Civil War frames its story of a "civil war" between two views of freedom and good governance--and the two "leaders" who are Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)--within an ensemble cast and plot dynamics that feature many distractions from seeing this crisis of governmentality and leadership as simply a white man's burden sort of thing. Several of the key players are female superhero characters, including Natasha Romanov, aka "Black Widow" (Scarlett Johanson) and Wanda Mashikov (Elizabeth Olsen), as well as the three Black superheroes: Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James 'Rhodey' Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), and T'challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). 21

For my argument, the problems raised by Civil War are most obvious in the plot line that begins with the catalyst for the whole conflict of the movie: an "accident" killing innocent bystanders during a mission in Lagos is caused by Wanda, the Elizabeth Olsen character who has not yet learned to properly control or manage her super powers, a hint given in her superhero name "The Scarlet Witch." Wanda starts off as a sympathetic but clearly rather "helpless" character who must be protected and managed by some man--thus her character arc begins as "victim" (of her own powers which come with suggestions of mental health/stability concerns thrown in) and then as more of a rogue villain who must be eliminated. The notion that a beautiful, vaguely outlaw and waif-like young woman is fundamentally “unstable” plays into a longstanding current in gender ideology that projects all sorts of irrationality onto the feminine--and is an important point of Chapter Two. Similarly, the main hard decisions for Natasha concern which male lead character to support and counsel.

Since the “crisis” of governmentality and legitimacy that the plot of Civil War enacts only engages female characters in roles that support or confirm decisions made by the male heroes, the dominant narrativity of the film arguably cuts along the lines of traditional gender stereotypes. This is a conservative reading, to be sure, but I use these broad strokes to highlight a recurrent theme in narrative theory and analysis: the role of narrative genres and their relation to historical contexts, especially in times of transformation or change. As De Lauretis puts it:

certain patterns or possibilities of identification for each and all spectators must be built into the film. This is undoubtably one of the functions of genres, and their historical development throughout the century attests to the need for cinema to sustain and provide new modes of spectator identification in keeping with social changes. Because films address spectators as social subjects, then, the modalities of identification bear directly on the process of spectatorship, that is to say, the ways in which the subjectivity of the spectator is engaged in the process of viewing, understanding (making sense of), or even seeing the film (Alice Doesn't. 136).

The female characters, and the non-white sidekicks, in Civil War are indeed more active, exciting, and powerful in ways not likely a few years back. The prevalence of female action heroes and protagonists (see the 2017 hit Wonder Woman, for example) is a development in popular cinema that speaks to DeLauretis’s emphasis on “social changes.” Nonetheless, many of these films and TV narratives, some of which are analyzed in detail in the following chapters, also illustrate the persistent stereotypes and fixity of gender roles, and particularly their association with who is the primary agent or actor in a story, which continue to dominate mainstream popular representations of “crisis,” including--or perhaps especially--apocalypse.

Apocalypse and Masculinity thus follows narrative theorists such as De Lauretis, Haydn White, and Victor Turner in the founding presumption that popular culture is a relevant archive in that challenging and endless project of telling, or tracking, "the history of the present." Because sexual difference plays such a primary function in narrative dynamics, particularly in the associations of agency with an acting, primary protagonist who is traditionally, and philosophically and linguistically, coded as masculine, the logics of gender dynamics in narrative reveal important information about both the generic conventions of popular representations and the dynamics that constrain as well as enable those conventions to change in response to the social changes, or "historicality" of social contexts. DeLauretis further explicates these dynamics in relation to the structuralist insight (via Greimas) that "all narrative is the movement of an actant-subject toward an actant-object" (Alice Doesn't. 112). While these positions would seem to be neutral in their gender content or reference, de Lauretis claims that the movement of narrative form in “fictional genres, ritual, or social discourses. . seems to be that of a passage, a transformation predicated on the figure of a hero, a mythical subject. . . what has remained largely unanalyzed is how this view of myth and narrative rests on a specific assumption about sexual difference” (Alice Doesn't. 113).

Apocalypse itself has a varied history of interpretation, which Ketterer and others such as Frank Kermode have traced as a kind of diagnostic of Western modernity. Since the early 19th century, the notion of a redemptive apocalypse with roots in Christianity, and especially the Book of Revelation, has been understood in contradictory ways. DH Lawrence called the Book of Revelation "the product of the spiteful wish fulfillment of the underprivileged, an expression of frustrated power lust" (in Ketterer, 8). In contrast to this Nietschzian version of apocalypse as a nihilistic discourse of the weak, other critics have emphasized the utopic aspects of apocalyptic transformation as showing the “epochal and triumphant social transformation that catastrophe” can lead to (Ketterer, 10). In these polarized characterizations, the question of masculine agency in the apocalypse emerges as likewise ambivalent. Given that the “crisis” of late capitalist modernity is so often pictured as a crisis of masculinity, what futurity for the gendered and racialized aspects of modernity is being projected in these narratives? Are these the last-gasp ventings of an obsolete and abject imaginary or the creative reworkings of the given material of race, gender, and political and economic orders into new visions of what may be possible?

The work of “crisis” is not only “catastrophe” or even war, though it can certainly go in that direction. Crises are opportunities for change, for seismic shifts in the structures that hold up our ideas, our societies, and our fantasies. The late liberal crisis of global democratic capitalism has come to seem strangely acute in the early 21st century. Why that crisis has emerged so dramatically and painfully is a question many political and cultural theorists are engaged in exploring, myself included. Apocalypse and Masculinity works to trace the fantasies that popular cultural narratives of crisis—and particularly of masculinity in crisis—reflect and sometimes remake particularly in the United States. The restructuring of our ideas about gender and sexual difference and race and white supremacy – and the capacities of men, women, whites, non-whites, various sexualities, bodies, etc. in the work of maintaining a society—are bursting out in many directions that are often simultaneously recuperative and revolutionary.22


Apocalypse and (the Failure of) Critique in Children of Men and Mad Max:Fury Road

I. Children of Men as Neoliberal Critique and Historical Argument

If the sentimental masculinity of liberal ideologies in mainstream depictions of ‘the end of the world’ shows itself to be a tired repetition of the status quo, other iterations of apocalypse prove to be more tricky to decipher. Two very popular and ostensibly “critical” twenty-first century examples of apocalyptic cultural production both challenge some of the most familiar political norms of late capitalism (race, class, citizenship) and yet may also leave intact key precepts and assumptions about gender and sexual difference embedded in liberalism. Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) work to expose the violence and abuse of our familiar forms of governance and competition for survival. However, these popular and insistently political films also may ultimately illustrate how, no matter what the intentions or design of any given cultural product might be, the work of thwarting the logics of liberal individualism in its apparent march toward capitalist armageddon is weirdly difficult to achieve, even at the level of imagination.

In his widely-admired Children of Men, Mexican director Alfonso Cuáron offers a searing critique of global capitalist militarization, its links to nationalist xenophobia, as well as economic and social inequality, and their shared imbrication in the workings of neoliberal state institutions and mindsets. Children of Men brings audiences into a world that looks familiar but which signals its science fictionality in various ways, including the initial announcement that it is literally “dying”: no child has been born in over 18 years due to a catastrophic and unexplained, but completely “global,” epidemic of infertility. This rather exaggerated allegorical plotline of a dying society with no future—one that cannot reproduce itself and therefore will not continue—allows Cuáron’s film to cinematically articulate political and philosophical critiques of contemporary social structures and a widespread sense of societal crisis. The near-parodic extent to which Children of Men encourages an allegorical reading is emphasized is the film’s opening sequences and throughout its plethora of visual references to Western history and familiar current events, even though the setting of the film is a near-future version of London in 2027.

Its explicitly allegorical mode forces audiences to approach the film and its story from a vantage point that refuses, or at least stymies, our accustomed expectations for realist narrative development and introduces a scene and exposition quite distinct from the 'liberal" apocalypses of Emmerich's films and other mainstream movies discussed in Chapter One. Using documentary-style imagery and camera work, Children of Men juxtapose a sci-fi premise with a familiar urban setting; an effect generated through the saturation of the film world with detailed visual references (and lots of BBC newscasts) and inclusions from contemporary, early 21st century life in Western industrialized cities. By adapting science fiction genres to an allegorical-documentary hybrid visual style, the film structures audience attention and emotional involvement in ways that emphasize questions of environment and world-building and pushes viewers’ focus toward the political and historical significance of the film’s set-up. The film literally begins with an explosion: an infamous bombing scene that involves a stunning, seemingly single-shot sequence of a man (who proves to be the main character Theo, played by Clive Owen) entering a café before work, getting his coffee, and leaving just as the cafe is blown up behind him.23 This establishing shot depicts horrific, ostensibly political, violence and culminates with the outline of a female figure stumbling out of the cafe and wandering dazed in the rubble in the streets, as she clutches a severed limb. Like other stand-alone images of misery and violence, the film presents us with a dystopic environment that takes precedence—at least initially—over the movie’s other, more “human,” plot elements and narrative developments.

This strategy, which I suggest is part of the film’s incitement to be read allegorically, remains dominant in its early sections. Theo is shown as a disaffected, cynical, and somewhat shell-shocked figure in a panoramic urbanscape of unfolding violence and chaos. The first thirty minutes of the movie take viewers from this apparently senseless bombing of the café to his ironic, and yet vaguely emasculating, interactions with his boss in a vast “Ministry of Energy” (where hundreds of employees sit in rows and stare listlessly at their computer monitors). The need to attach viewers to the character of Theo through more “personal” concerns of romance, personal history, and—ultimately—parenting and leadership play a larger role as the film progresses. Initially, the emphasis is on the historical and the environmental, conveyed through Cuarón’s infamous sequences of wide-angle long shots, interspersed with close-up reaction shots of Theo’s face. Cuarón has sometimes claimed that he never even read the P.D. James novel of the same name, which the film ostensibly used as its source material, and that the plot of a worldwide fertility epidemic was merely a device that he deployed in his effort to capture the ‘truth’ of the current world order as he saw it. It is this documentary preoccupation with a larger “truth” over plot or character that links the project to classic allegory. That is, in offering a narrative that de-emphasizes the conventions of realism in favor of a science fiction mode that eschews character study or development, Children of Men can be placed into the longer tradition of apocalyptic allegory, where prophetic and pedagogical appeals to the audience are the main purpose of the narrative (Cohn, Murrin, Kermode).24 Cuarón has himself described the film as an effort to expose the present as a moment of crisis through a vision of an apocalyptic future, one he wants to persuade audiences to avoid.

Throughout Apocalypse and Masculinity, I argue that the weight placed on images and figurations of masculinity—largely through a focus on action-hero style protagonists—operates as a key mechanism for maintaining and performing our attachment to, and entrapment within, the principles, ideals, and languages of what we might call capitalist selfhood.25 Across an array of critical theory and cultural studies texts, the critique of “neoliberalism” has arisen as an important challenge to the workings of liberal capitalist ideology, particularly as that ideology has solidified and morphed into its most recent forms of political pessimism and despair.26 This notion of neoliberal pessimism and crisis is reflected in features such as the intensified militarization of state apparatuses and society on a global scale and an unassailable embrace of “the market” that relies on notions of entrepreneurial solutions and self-management (i.e. personal responsibility and individual freedom). Key theorists in political and cultural theory argue that the large-scale triumph of narratives that emphasize individual rewards, actions, and responsibilities have displaced any democratic faith in collective political engagement and action.

The role of popular culture in both the embrace and the critique of this “capitalist realism,” as Mark Fisher has influentially termed it, remains largely ambiguous. Fisher notes that even films and other cultural products that are clearly critical of neoliberal solutions and capitalist market logics can generate a state of “interpassivity” in which, speaking of Wall-E, “the film performs our anticapitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity” (12). Gerry Canavan pushes Fisher’s analysis further to argue that much speculative popular culture indulges in a variety of “necrofuturism” that is at once critical and pessimistic, even nihilistic in that it generates narratives that “anticipate the future as a devastated world of death yet simultaneously insist that this world of death is the only possible future” (“If the Train Ever Stops.” 8). Several critics, including Canavan, Steven Shapiro, Evan Calder Williams, Sharai Deckard, and others have tracked ways in which the overlap of concerns between speculative fictions and political theory reflect the fundamentally political concerns and goals of speculation and science fiction genres in film and television.

While speculative fiction works to present alternative visions of futurity, the constraints of our historically determined comprehension and dominant narratives create a force field around the capacity to imagine alternatives. Likewise, narrative (and poststructuralist) theories of language, genre, and ideology have taught us that it can be surprisingly difficult to break the normative force of plot and character conventions in popular narratives and culture. Whether questioning the status quo of heroism, gender characteristics, or capitalist individual agency, popular culture traditionally veers toward comforting and less disruptive options. And even when it tries, Fisher notes, “A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism.” (16). The challenge of making legible and palpable the force of the camouflage and deception perpetuated by capitalist realism’s stranglehold on our imaginations has propelled significant works in recent apocalyptic film and television, particularly those that explicitly try to expose the internal contradictions and fantasy-led narrative conventions of standard liberal apocalypse narratives, such as the film and television examples I consider in the Introduction.

Rather than decrying the abuses of existing and/or future capitalist regimes, Cuarón chooses to “picture” them, noting often without plot or commentary, the features of a world and landscape exposing chaos, brutality, degradation, and despair. In translating this vision, he and set designers create a cinematic picture of the future saturated with objects and images chosen for their familiarity and reference, working to provide images full of “a contemporary iconography that is already engraved in human consciousness” according to one set designer (DVD commentary). In presenting this vision of a present-future dystopic, and dying, world, the main point is clearly its meta-significance and value as a prophecy of historical truth. Cuáron goes so far as to insist that except for “the human connections” in the film, “this would be like a documentary.”27 The film’s manipulation of image and sound, the preference for long-shot sequences that are panoramic and atemporal in cataloguing the horrors of contemporary sociality confirm Cuáron’s documentary aesthetics. As with certain literary narrative tactics, Children of Men could be said to use allegory “performatively”—foregrounding and underlining its allegorical status through cinematic techniques that do not allow the audience to “sink into stereotype” or the national fantasies promoted by conventional mainstream apocalyptic blockbusters.28 Among the national fantasies being refused, the film references both current U.S. anti-immigration attitudes and pro-market political ideology as well as notions of masculine agency and heroism; that is, the sardonic and disaffected Theo is clearly not your typical Hollywood action hero.

Some critics, such as E. Ann Kaplan, suggest that as a Mexican filmmaker, Cuarón is understandably attracted to a plotline concerning overpopulation and fertility issues, given how these issues mediate relations between the U.S. and Mexico (Kaplan 2014, 68). Like many other academic critics, though, I am most interested in how the film leverages its focus on topical questions of immigration, refugees, and the violent state exclusion and expulsion of populations as part of its critique of capitalist biopower on a global scale. In this sense too, however, the intertext of Mexico significantly shapes the film’s position on the questions and issues it raises. As Alicia Schmidt Camacho has noted, the U.S. militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border since 2001 has created new legal and cultural fictions about the border and migration, narratives that are now overdetermined by the regimes of criminalization and militarization in law and policy in the U.S.—and increasingly worldwide, as the Sudanese and Syrian refugee crises have made clear. In Mexico, frightening depictions of the border and the fate of migrants who arrive in U.S. cities are ubiquitous, fed by a steady diet of media images and reports of the violence generated by the Mexican government’s escalation of that country’s “drug war” and the dead, dying, or incarcerated migrants who have been captured by U.S. authorities on the northern side of the border.

Children of Men seems to work toward confronting cosmopolitan filmgoers with images that aim to break through the hardened apathy and indifference to the horrors that confront migrants and refugees on a global scale. Interestingly, the film presciently forecasts not only a series of U.S.-Mexico border crises, but other widescale governmental exercises of brutal violence and control associated with the conditions of perpetual war and the security states of post-911 Europe, as well as the U.S.29 Thus, particular scenes and shots in the film directly reference widely-circulated media images of violence, anarchy, and imprisonment that saturate U.S. and European newspapers and television screens, including large numbers of people held in cages, scenarios of prisoners being hooded and, it seems, tortured (i.e. the Abu Graib photos), hundreds of armed police guards with POLICE emblazoned on their shields as they stand before the cages of “fugees” (slang in the film for refugees). Cuarón has noted that he intentionally referenced images of bombings and war zones that echo contemporary news media, such as images of Jerusalem and Faluja, coverage of the wars in Afganistan and Iraq, and violence in Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine. After he leaves work, we see Theo again on a train as he rides through a quasi-urban “countryside” riddled with scenes of rioting, rotting livestock, and violent military police repression—even as the train’s inescapable monitor/marketing device produces an endless stream of ominous yet chirpy public service announcements that spout nationalist propaganda: “The World Has Collapsed. Only Britain Soldiers On.”

An opening voice-over that starts the movie also mimics a standard BBC broadcast, announcing headlines from the news over the contrast of a blank screen so that the voice of the commentator is all audiences know in the first 30 seconds. These material performances of the disembodied –and omnipresent—authority of nation-state media technologies of control and surveillance, along with the language of “security” and anti-immigrant scapegoating, dominates the film’s appropriation of such discourses and underscores their hysterical inflection in contemporary U.S. and European politics: “Day 1000 of the Seige of Seattle” is followed by “Homeland Security Bill is ratified. After eight years, British borders will remain closed. Deportation of illegal immigrants will continue.” Such meta-reflexive use of media and political discourse is a key trope of the movie’s first 30 minutes, conveying information about the plot’s “crisis” and how this dystopic society structures life through discourses of security, threat, and nationalism in a familiar and yet alarming version of the late capitalist grimness and despair audiences already know. While it would seem that the issue of the fertility crisis and what it means for “humanity” is the cause of that despair, the overall scenario of a corrupt, chaotic and violent society appears all-too-familiar. Children of Men‘s combination of a recognizable social landscape and the uncanny sci-fi differences (often themselves parodic extensions of current societal features) generates an ironic commentary on both the known present and the prophesized futurity: such as the multiple scenes that feature billboard and television adds for “Quietus,” the state-sponsored suicide drug that is advertised energetically on the ubiquitous television screens. As the soothing corporate medical spokesperson uses sympathetic language to describe “the desire to xxxx,” it becomes clear that mass suicides are being promoted as an economic and population control benefit to what is left of a functioning British corporate-state apparatus.

These are scenes that establish the background, or setting, for the main storyline—one that comes into play fairly belatedly—and they also baldly underline the historical link between its extreme but “realistic” science fictional portrayal of an imminent dystopia to a remembered archive of past and recent past atrocities, including the concentration camps and Gestapo squads of Nazi Germany. Drawing its “image repertoire” (Minh-ha) directly from current newspaper front pages and infamous archives of the 20th century allows Children of Men to create a historical concordance between 1) the horrific futurity the film presents, 2) contemporary military invasions of the Middle East and other crises (all of which have generated a worldwide growth industry in detention facilities and brutal policing, and a ‘nationalist’ media that broadcasts neoliberal jingoism), and then 3) back to the slightly more distant history of fascism in Europe and Nazi Germany.30 Here, the film appropriates the prophetic mode of the apocalypse allegory toward one of its foundational purposes, to warn an audience of ‘where this is headed”: in this case, a nightmare vision of where contemporary incarnations of “societies of control” are leading globalized Western modernity.31


The historical links visually woven by these sequences in Children of Men echo the arguments of a number of important political theorists concerned with neoliberal society and governmentality. Central to these discussions is the work of Michel Foucault and his concept of biopower, which has been further elaborated in influential philosophical texts by Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe. Mbembe, who coined the memorable term “necropolitics,” puts particular weight on a genealogy of capitalist democracies that tracks the governmentality of Nazi Germany to the present, a line also traced in Foucault and Agamben. However, Mbembe also underlines the key function of the slave plantation and other institutions of colonial expansion and oppression, especially slavery, insisting on the roots of modern biopower, and what he calls “necropower,” in histories of colonial administration and violence. The centrality of race to Foucault’s own discussions of biopower, most importantly in his lectures at the Collège de France, translated as Society Must Be Defended (1997, 2003) is likewise elaborated in Mbembe’s emphasis on coloniality as a key mechanism of both racism and biopower in neoliberal governance. Current expressions of biopower, Mbembe argues, are exemplified by contemporary modes of government that result in “the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence upon which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of the living dead” (Mbembe 2003, 40, italics in the original). In Children of Men, both Theo's deadened emotional affect and the large-scale images of chaos and despair underline the film's critique of contemporary social organization and political (i.e. military) governance as a totalizing and inescapable landscape populated by such living dead.

II. Masculinity, Race, and Apocalypse: Allegories of “Us”?

The pedagogical project of Cuarón’s film seems to be a good fit with its allegorical plotline and mode, particularly after that plot introduces its other main character, named Kee, who is a young African (or Afro-British, her national origin is not explicitly stated) woman, on the run as a refugee or “fugee” in the film’s parlance. Kee (played by Clare-Hope Ashitey) is young and sullen, with a recent past as a kind of prostitute, but it turns out she is now pregnant with the world’s first child in over 18 years, although neither we nor Theo learn that fact for quite a while. Kee is being “rescued” by a militant revolutionary group, the Fishes, whose leader happens to be Theo’s ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore). Julian contacts Theo after he returns from his sojourn to the countryside where he went to recover from the shock of the cafe bombing and visit his buddy Jasper (played by Michael Caine doing a full-on John Lennon impersonation). Theo’s night with Jasper offers some relief from the scenarios of horror and violence that open the film and allows Children of Men to elaborate more backstory for Theo and for the present situation. In the process, this male-bonding interlude also highlights the film’s complex references to 1960s-style revolutionary idealism and to political conviction and activism in general. While clearly a sweet man (and occasional pot dealer) who cares gently for his now-brain dead wife—a former journalist who sits silently and unresponsively in her wheelchair, the result, the film lets us know, of torture by M15—Jasper is presented as a figure in hiding from the world that is falling apart around him. Kaplan usefully places this scene in the temporal category of nostalgia, highlighting the refuge and fantasy created in Jasper’s time capsule of a home (Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” plays in the background) and what that quasi-domestic refuge signifies for both himself and for Theo. We learn, for instance, that Theo lost a child, a son named Dylan, and became estranged from his wife in the early days of the epidemic and its social upheaval. These losses suggest some etiology to his current affect of despair, cynicism, and detachment, which are so much in the foreground in the film’s first section.

But Theo’s actual function becomes interestingly complex as Children of Men moves more fully into the mode of a Hollywood action film, and both Theo and audiences become involved in the central ‘daring rescue and escape’ plot that take up its final half. This action genre section of the film operates in an uneasy tension with the political critiques established in the first sections. One of those initial political critiques appears to be aimed at Theo himself, whose detachment and despair make him almost a spectral figure in the film’s early scenes, a kind of walking dead man. And taken with Jasper, these principle “men” of the title constitute a particularly ineffectual pair. In spite of their charm, past histories as activists, and ironically self-reflective awareness and humor, they are utterly without the ability or interest to stop the social horrors they witness all around them. And yet, Theo is played by the handsome (and tall) British actor, Clive Owen—and this virile body- and celebrity-styling is an early sign that the film might eventually undercut the suggested impotence and irrelevance of its male main characters.

That is, by positing Theo’s alienation and ineffectuality, Children of Men suggests it wants to emphasize his figuring of the allegorical “end” of white manhood. But that “ending” becomes more confusing and ambivalent as Theo’s character emerges as increasingly central to world historical events and the focus of the “human connections” of the plot. This plot tracks Theo’s reluctant involvement in the scheme to rescue Kee and deliver her to a, perhaps mythical, scientific group known as The Human Project, which is working on a cure for the fertility epidemic from the relative security of a ship at sea called The Tomorrow. In the process of this rescue plot, the film also underlines and celebrates Theo’s evolution from an alienated and cynical government functionary to the vigilant and nurturing caretaker of Kee and her baby, and ultimately the film’s self-sacrificing hero. This transformation is actually quite conventional and key to the formal structure of Hollywood narrative cinema: Theo is, after all, the main character who mediates the audience’s experience of the apocalyptic world that Cuarón presents. What is crucial and interesting about Theo’s (reluctant) hero’s journey, though, is all of the gendered and racialized plot and character baggage that accompanies his protagonist-hero role: Theo is, almost necessarily, the eyes through which the audience comes to experience the film—that is, he operates as critic, judge and arbitrator of this apocalyptic world by virtue of the audience experiencing it through his (somewhat outsider) perspective and identifying through the camera with his figure, his “gaze,” and his reactions.

Such structures of identification in cinema have long been a focus of feminist film theory, as discussed in the Introduction's summary of the pioneering work of Laura Mulvey and Teresa de Lauretis. Mulvey’s field-defining contentions clarified how cinema operates an “advanced representation system” that “poses questions of the unconscious (formed by the dominant order) structures ways of seeing and pleasure in looking” (834). While Mulvey and others would later retreat from the rigid and seemingly prescriptive structuralism of what “the dominant order” is said to produce within film audiences, especially female spectators, her foundational insight about cinematic identification remains crucial to understanding the dynamics of narrative cinema and the respective roles of protagonists (and actors) whose figures are projected so awesomely on the screen. Most important for this specific discussion, Mulvey’s work underlines how cinema as a medium encourages a scopophilic pleasure in the act of looking wedded to a narcissistic mechanism that enables a temporary loss, or suspension, of the viewer’s own ego within the fantasy of his/her identification with the human figures on screen. And this concerted and dialectical dynamic of desire (cohering, or suturing, the image/story to the audience/spectator) operates almost inescapably along lines of sexual difference as they are embedded both at the social, political level and at the level of language and other unconscious systems: that is to say, as a rule audiences identify most viscerally with a film’s active protagonist, or whichever character whose perspective is most palpable and dominant through both camerawork and storyline. In the history of cinema and popular culture, this “hero” and protagonist has almost invariably been a male figure, though there increasingly are exceptions –the impact of which I will discuss in detail below.

In Children of Men, that character is clearly Theo, even as interesting and sympathetic secondary characters are introduced. We know this, and cathect to Theo, largely thanks to the film’s reliance on shot-reaction shot pairings that feature a close-up of Clive Owen’s face as he registers varying degrees of ironic amusement, fear, apathy, and exhaustion in response to what is going on around him. The dialogue and scene sequences oscillate between close-ups of a warm and laughing Theo when he is with Jasper to various portrayals of him as exhausted, pathetic, ironic, and at times rather emasculated—showing him drinking heavily and responding flippantly to situations. Theo bemoans early on to Jasper that at least when he’s hung over, he feels something. This numbness and apathy are contrasted to the male Fishes and Theo’s ex-wife Julian, who are all active, decisive, and purposeful, if a bit strident in their political pronouncements. The scene when the Fishes first contact Theo in London (by kidnapping him) underscores how he is accustomed to, if not comfortable with, experiences of being weak, overpowered, and fearful and also how he uses his sardonic irony as a kind of mask and protection. Theo’s implied emotional and physical vulnerability remains ambiguous in the film: often he is quite endearing and the value of his “type” of masculinity is implicitly affirmed, although this impression is potentially undermined by the contempt expressed by the Fishes, who toss coins at his feat to mock Theo’s poverty, as well as his supposed lack of principles. In those interactions, it is made clear that the Fishes, including his ex-wife Julian, presume that Theo’s main motivation is a mercenary desire for the money he will get for helping them and Kee.

Mulvey, and de Lauretis, elaborate how the story being told, i.e. the plot of a film, plays into the workings of the production of desire and identification, particularly in conventional Hollywood drama and its generic iterations: suspense thriller, action movie, Western, war story, romantic comedy, etc. The commonsense understanding of these dynamics might lead us to conclude that the more “conventional” or generically predictable stories in mainstream cinema will most efficiently reproduce dominant patriarchal and white-supremacist norms; and generally that assumption plays out quite well. However, both standard “genre” tv and film products and seemingly “critical” or high art versions of those same products and stories have been shown by many astute critics to do all kinds of cultural work, much of it against our generic expectations. In this chapter, I am using the example of Children of Men, and then the more recent blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), to highlight both the critical contributions of science fiction and apocalypse genres as well as the need for attentive rereading and close analysis of popular culture and particularly its figuring of the male protagonist. Such analysis yields insightful critiques of political and social norms but it also helps track the ways these seemingly critical instances of popular culture might continue to perpetuate other aspects of given norms, even when not “intending” to do so.

Throughout this book, I turn to examples of apocalyptic popular culture that often can be read simultaneously as critiques of neoliberal political realities and ideologies, while yet surreptitiously reifying, that is upholding and confirming, ingrained political and affective hierarachies and ideas, particularly around racial and sexual differences. For instance, the plot or story of Children of Men evidently suggests that the best, new hope for humanity is an African woman who emerges from lowest rungs of globalization’s new World Order. Reflecting Western allegory’s own precise genealogy in Biblical traditions of prophecy and apocalyptic thinking, the film places extraordinary, redemptive power and centrality on the character of Kee, particularly her magical capacity for regeneration (literally, female reproductivity). This apparent inversion of who will lead “us” out of the hellscape of apocalyptic violence and chaos likewise reads as Biblical allegory, a generic genealogy that seems almost parodically emphasized in the film’s later scenes, as Kaplan astutely remarks (xx). At one point, a penultimate scene offers the vision of a wounded Theo supporting Kee, who now holds her newborn daughter, as they descend the bombed-out stairs of a building under attack. This vision of the holy couple and “their” miraculous child manages to stop all the gunfire as the awe-struck soldiers of both factions watch them reverently and ecclesiastical music soars over the soundtrack.

[Insert shot of the ecclesiastical couple in the bombed fugee building]

But as the protecting male in this chaste couple, as well as the entrepid midwife and baby coach to Kee, Theo remains arguably the central figure in the film narrative.32 The messianic plot features his actions and character transformations much more than Kee’s, highlighting Theo’s evolution from being a defeated, pathetic figure who defends his cynical disillusionment with ironic detachment and gallows humor to the decisive, self-sacrificing hero of the second half’s rescue and escape plot. This character development and transformation, perhaps the only one in the film, is heralded early on by Theo’s ability to rise to the challenges of the series of “crises” that unfold: he identifies dangers and makes decisions, while Kee’s main action is to trust Theo. Sayantani DasGupta suggests how in addition to the widespread white infertility anxiety implicit in the plot, Kee becomes a vehicle for overlapping colonial fantasies, such as the film’s deployment of her as a vulnerable and needy Third World Woman figure who is quite literally “rescued” by the white man (DasGupta 2009).33 And I would add that because anti-immigrant affect (mainly hysteria, but also hate and outrage) in both the U.S. and Western Europe is closely related to fears of being “outnumbered,” it seems all the more interesting that the film makes Kee a safe figure, a new (albeit dark) surrogate mother for the mainly European humanity featured in the film.34

In addition to the politics of the film’s reliance on reproductive futurity as embodied in Kee, Theo’s persistent authority and decision-making capacities further attest to the gender and race norms being upheld; norms derived from a long history of both Hollywood action films and colonial relations. The fact that both mother and child are female—and racialized as “African”—is simultaneously central and obscured in the film’s portrayal of Theo’s sacrificial and messianic masculinity. Cuarón, feeding into the readings of many admiring critics, has insisted that “The fact that this child will be the child of an African woman has to do with the fact that humanity started in Africa. We’re putting the future of humanity in the hands of the dispossessed and creating a new humanity to spring out of that.” However, Kee is not the only non-white central character in the film. Another is Luke, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the British actor probably most famous for his academy award-nominated role in 12 Years A Slave (2013). Luke is part of the Fishes group that abducts Theo in London and brings him to Julian, who explains she needs his help with the transport of Kee. It is not until later—after Julian’s apparently accidental death in a backroads ambush followed by a narrow escape to the Fishes safe house—that Theo learns that Luke was part of an inside plot that intentionally orchestrated Julian’s murder so that Luke could be elected the Fishes’ new leader. Here, the nagging questions about how the film’s critique of neoliberal governmentality relates to its political imaginaries of race and gender become even murkier, since Ejiofer is clearly of African descent and his character’s fanaticism operates as a synecdoche for a certain kind of revolutionary politics that rails against the authority of established orders “by any means necessary.”

Such revolutionary fervor is what ostensibly motivates the Fishes conspirators in their plan to use Kee and her pregnancy to rouse “the people” in a massive uprising against the British army and government. Because Luke is portrayed as both the mastermind and the leader of this faction, his adversarial relationship to Theo takes up a central function during the film’s action sequences. The contrast between the two men is immediately striking, in terms of racialized masculine styles: Theo is non-violent, almost passive throughout the film and dryly ironic in almost all of his statements, whereas Luke melodramatically “performs” both his grief over Julian’s death (later exposed as a lie) and his political outrage. For Luke and his comrades, rage and other exaggerated affects are a litmus tests of their commitment to “the cause,” as illustrated in scenes at the safe house that show the particularly violent men in the group--more loose cannons among the Fishes--expressing their murderous hatred of Theo. In this way, the film’s implied critique of 1960s style political activism embodied in the hapless, though honorable, Jasper is extended into a condemnation of all “radical” political action, as encompassed by the Fishes, both under Julian and then Luke. Their emotional imbalance and vocal protests and proclamations (with the possible exception of Julian, who is very cool, as well as the target of the more violent faction’s coup) combine with bombings and other acts of revolutionary violence the group has supported or enacted to present the Fishes’ pro-immigrant political program as part and parcel of a politics that would “use” Kee ruthlessly (as well as murder Julian) to promote a violent and probably futile uprising.35

In contrast to Luke, Theo’s passivity and skepticism camouflage his great potential for leadership and for human kindness, especially as they morph into an aura of calm and thoughtfulness and his purported weakness is recast as a radical ethic of non-violence. In the final scenes at the Bexhill refugee camp, where Kee and Theo are to meet the Tomorrow, Theo is about the only male person on screen not carrying a gun or military weapon: he is shown holding Kee and Marichka (a Romanian woman who helps them in the refugee camp, Oana Pellea) protectively around the shoulders and often reaches his hands out, in fear as well as an almost pleading gesture. Furthermore, we learn before they escape the safe house that that Julian had told Kee to “only trust Theo” and when Kee announces her reliance on him, and him alone, it is a turning point in the film’s action plot. The final message of this comparison being that Theo is trustworthy (and genuinely moral) and Luke is not—a symbolic use of character that receives its ultimate confirmation when Luke and the Fishes attack Theo and Kee as they make their way across the Bexhill nightmare of gunfire and violence. Theo calmly admonishes Luke, “Just let her go. You don’t know what you’re doing.” Luke responds with characteristic blindness, yelling exultantly: “No? Look around you. It’s the Uprising. And they haven’t even seen the baby.” Luke’s twisted logic is somewhat tempered by his ambitions to be seen as a mature “leader” and, possibly, by genuine human feeling. Once having taken Kee and brought her to another building under attack by the military, Luke is shown torn between that feeling and his politics: when Theo comes to rescue Kee, Luke is returning gunfire from a window. Luke sees Theo and Kee moving away and turns the gun on them, then confesses, “I was carrying the baby up the stairs. I forgot how they are. They’re so tiny,” before shouting, “Leave her, Theo. We need the baby. We need him.” Theo responds wryly, “It’s a girl, Luke.” Luke pauses, “Yeah. I had a sister.” But as Theo continues to lead Kee away, Luke shouts, “Theo Theo” and then shoots Theo—just before he himself is blown up by military mortar fire.

Theo proves his value and function through this rather blunt compare-and-contrast relationship to Luke, which necessarily racializes the politics of masculine leadership on offer in the film. By foregrounding Theo and establishing the superiority of his white male character as the deciding factor in a global apocalyptic crisis, Children of Men, narrativizes a specific, though most likely utterly unintentional, white supremacist position in relation to the political critiques developed in the film’s early sections. One might see this ‘return’ to dominant conventions of race and gender as a panacea to the comfort zones of Western viewers and their own presumed race and gender biases. However, the limits of allegoresis manifested in Cuarón’s film are confirmed by his many statements and suggest a more fundamental logics at work, something more profound and insidious that simply mainstream marketing. The effort to designate the “future of humanity” in the figure of Kee is clearly riven by ambivalence: an ambivalence regarding the “dispossessed” and their capacities that exposes the nihilistic, and rather conservative, core at the film’s necrofuturist heart. In the terminology of Neferti Tadiar’s incisive critique of neoliberal global divisions, we might say that although Kee proves herself to be in some ways quite risk capable, she remains fundamentally at risk, requiring the guidance of Theo to not only manage a harrowing and near-impossible escape, but even to give birth and learn to care for her child.36

Through his guardianship of Kee, Theo’s despairing perspective and political attitudes are transformed into an urgent emotional engagement that enables his ultimate function as a martyr: the one who must die so that others can live. Cuarón has made statements that indicate the film’s rather surprising adherence to Christian traditions of apocalyptic allegory is not accidental, in that he intended to wed the Catholic influences of his own formation, and perhaps that of PD James, into a prophecy for contemporary neoliberal global formations. However, Cuarón’s narrativization of apocalypse and revolutionary violence as linked phenomena falls into a number of pre-existing plots and narrative ruts. One is this distrust of energetic or “radical” political engagement wedded to a persistent, if surreptitious, faith in the possibility of a benevolent type of (white) male authority, both of which signal Children of Men’s reliance on the tropes and figures of a classically liberal imaginary. In her work on 1960s political and temporal imaginaries that I discuss in the Introduction, Jane Elliott traces the roots of dominant liberal distrust of revolutionary transformation to a “conflation of revolutionary and apocalyptic discourses” grounded in narratives of 1960s political radicalism: “As the positive experience of freedom gives way to its negative incarnation as narrative totalization, radicals likewise appear to be displacing a ‘free’, neutral and unorganized reality in favor of a univocal and universalizing ‘extreme’ and ‘militant’ discourse” (American Allegory, 35).37 Elliott’s explanation of the logic of totalization in political narratives (in both their historical and fictional incarnations) helps illuminate how the film pivots on the character of Luke, making him the racialized representative of a misguided and fundamentally oppressive and violent political program and a foil for the superior, non-violent and de-politicized leadership of Theo.

The impasse of Children of Men might be located in this precise equivocation between its condemnation of totalizing structures of oppression under late capitalism—figured as an ongoing apocalypse—and its refusal of revolutionary politics as a viable mechanism for ushering in what might come next, what might supercede the catastrophe of that present world. The needling impression that Cuarón doesn’t have an alternative vision for society nor a direction for his searing critiques becomes more legible in light of Elliot’s analysis of the history of liberal political discourse in the 1960s, precisely the moment that Cuarón chooses to foreground –as if it were the only available template for political thought and action available to him in 2006. In fact, one of the key points of Elliott’s book is that the narrative plots of liberal political thought remain caught in that same time warp, a loop, that can only anticipate radical, i.e. meaningful, social change as a totalizing political narrative--an allegory, as it were, of totalization. Children of Men illustrates that this narrative enclosure is all the more threatening since it is thus understood as a likewise total destruction of existing forms of social order (and authority), such as those embodied in white male agency and leadership. That is, revolution can only be forecast as either anarchy or fascism, or some dystopic combination of both, like that portrayed in Cuarón’s film.

So although Theo’s apparent death at the end of the film could be understood to herald the literal “death” of one form of masculinity (white, hegemonic, official) and the “beginning” of some new form of ascendant personhood (perhaps female and brown), the structure of the narrative attention and arc lead back to the white man and his role; and in fact, never really stray from it or him. Ironically, the ambivalence about political possibility that flows underneath Cuarón’s film emerges fullblown in the final scene, an ending that self-consciously invites contradictory interpretations. As Theo paddles them in search of The Tomorrow, he, Kee, and the only-slightly fussy newborn rock on the waves in their small rowboat (clearly not seaworthy, a temporary vehicle). Kee announces to the wincing Theo (who has been shot but keeps insisting he’s “fine” even though he mutters, “Oh, jesus” after he teaches Kee to burp her baby) that she will name her daughter Dylan, after the son that Theo and Julian lost. Theo smiles, then tips forward, unconscious and possibly dead, as Kee calls out his name. For a moment, Kee is shown holding her baby alone on the rowboat with a slumped-over Theo, but then the camera focuses on her face lighting up as she catches sight of “the boat, Theo, the boat.” The camera then shifts to an upward shot of the boat, really a small ship, with “Tomorrow” emblazoned on its hull, and quick glimpses of hearty men in coats high on the deck as it slides by. The last frame of the movie, though, moves back again to show to the viewer a tableau of Kee and the baby and a silent, slumped Theo on the left side, the Tomorrow and its lights approaching from a slight distance in the middle of the screen, and a large and well-lit buoy bobbing in the right side of the frame. All are set against a wide gray background of fog and a few ocean waves. Cuarón has asserted that he intentionally opened the possibility for hope, for a future for Kee and thus for “humanity,” in this ending, but also left it ambiguous enough that more pessimistic types would question what happens next. While the arrival of the Tomorrow suggests the possibility of some kind of future that Kee and the child will get to inhabit, both the position of the Tomorrow (floating in a fog, unattached to Kee and the baby, nor to the crises on shore) and the isolated, singular event of Kee’s pregnancy and birth put even that possible futurity into question.

[insert frame of final scene]

The film’s clearest storyline, then, largely tracks Theo proving himself as a leader and as a martyr; i.e. as a man. This recourse to tropes of conventional action film male heroism in its messianic mode (see The Poseiden Adventure, for instance) reifies other engrained imaginaries around white male leadership and collective futurity— and places the character of the male hero back in the driver’s seat, so to speak; even if he might expire there. That the message is mixed does not undo the narrative trajectory by which Theo assumes the position and capacities of the professional or managerial masculinity that Dana Nelson (and others) argue is at the center of capitalist and racist social forms of capitalist modernity. This managerial “national manhood” is a direct legacy of liberal democracy’s colonial history and its gender and race systems.38 Nelson traces explicit historical, as well as cultural, links between the establishment of the nation and the forms of masculinity available to its subjects at a given moment. And it turns out that those foundations, in the United States in any case, can be traced to the era of classical liberalism’s historical and philosophical zenith: the nineteenth century moment of nation-state consolidation and industrial capitalist expansion—as well as, not coincidentally, plantation slavery, westward expansion, and Native American genocide. This historical nexus is important in understanding how certain forms of managerial white masculinity are “consolidated [as] . . imagined affliation with other men who have power over groups of people—the power to objectify, to identify, to manage” (Nelson 3).

This reliance on “managerial” or authoritative masculinity, and the key role of race in creating it, re-emerges across a long cinematic history, especially in Hollywood. And even in a work like Children of Men, which stakes out such a critical position on both whiteness and the necropolitics of state and capital, the centralizing and organizing function of white masculinity is surreptitiously reinforced, rather than challenged. Movies are a particularly effective medium for this confluence of ideological and historical concerns, especially considering that the male hero figure has long been a cinematic preoccupation. Cuarón’s explicit foregrounding of both “men” and universalized social catastrophe in Children of Men underlines the current convergence of these simultaneous preoccupations with crises of masculinity and the imaginaries of futurity in popular culture. Scholarly critics of the film, particularly DasGupta and Heather Latimer, have thoroughly exposed how its critical perspectives remain delimited by a neocolonial and heteroreproductive logics that involves both “white men saving brown women from brown men” (in Spivak’s memorable phrasing) and the hegemony of reproductive biopower over the bodies of those brown women, even—or especially—when the “fate of humanity” is at stake.

However, affirming white supremacy and patriarchal dominance are pretty clearly not the goals of Children of Men, whose alarmed opposition to conventional social and political norms is evident in how it portrays key components of contemporary society as dystopic and dead-end.39 The film relies on a concomitant deployment of science fiction generic conventions to generate this dystopic imagined world. Like the apocalyptic, utopic and dystopic science fictions often, almost by definition, propose a sweeping away of a corrupt social order –one that is described in details meant to metaphorize, in the case of Children of Men, “the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping” the present (Cuarón 2006). In this interview and others, Cuarón explicitly and self-consciously articulates the film’s project as an aesthetic warning—a prophecy shaped for its maximum impact on audiences to convey a message of alarm and critique. And yet I have argued that the film evinces a profound ambivalence, even hostility, toward anything that veers too far away from established norms of both conventional liberal politics and race-gender hierarchies. What, then, is the status of “critique” in the context of these allegorical “world reductions” that nevertheless reproduce the colonial logics of race and sexual difference through the fundamental work of “story”? How are different stories going to be told or imagined? To a large extent, that is the question of this book as a whole, but it is useful here to turn to Mad Max, which also announces its critique of contemporary social orders through an allegory of science fiction futurity—an allegory that again centers on issues raised by sexual difference and sexual reproduction.

III. Mad Max: Fury Road: The Ends and Endings of the White Male Hero and the Question of Critique

If the final scenes of Children of Men reveal an almost nihilistic skepticism at the core of its necrofuturist vision of apocalypse, the ending of the recent blockbuster, Mad Max: Fury Road seems to stake a claim for hope and revolution in the apocalypse, not to mention “redemption”—a word that dominates the movie’s last half hour. Another contrast is that almost from the start of Fury Road, the main male character, Max (Tom Hardy), is explicitly de-centered and his hero function shared, or even handed over, to a female lead, Furiosa, played by a carefully stylized Charlize Theron. How the film goes from being the latest installment in the Mad Max franchise, which is all about the lone male hero in the apocalypse, to a blockbuster that has been lauded as a “feminist classic” makes an instructive comparison in understanding the pop culture uses and political fantasies driving narratives of apocalypse and gender in the early 21st century.

The importance of the ending to the ultimate meaning of any narrative plot, and most especially one about the apocalypse, is a truism of structural analysis in film and literature, particularly if we are looking for relations of concordance created in popular culture imaginaries; that is, of a futurity that aims to reflect back (positively or negatively) on how we understand the present and the past, collectively speaking.40 So a comparison of Children of Men and Mad Max: Fury Road can usefully begin with their final scenes: the lone couple on a boat in an impenetrable fog in Children vs. the collective, mass triumph of Furiosa being raised on a platform by the formerly-enslaved “war pups” to the roaring cheers of a grateful and adoring populace. Further, she is not alone on the platform but accompanied by the band of women warriors (or what’s left of them) who fought with her to bring down the rule of Immortan Joe (Hugh Heays-Byrne), the brutal despot who controls the water, and thus the people. Also with her are numerous members of the beaten masses who’ve been lifted onto the platform by smiling women warriors, forming a collective that physically manifests the new inclusivity and radical democracy this ending heralds. The male protagonist, and ostensible (because titular) “hero” of the movie, i.e. Max himself, is shown slinking away into the crowd, anonymously, after exchanging a significant nod with Furiosa. The inversions here are obvious and powerful: female instead of male, collective instead of individual, triumph instead of ambiguity.

The “road” that leads to this moment of incipient societal transformation begins, however, with Max—whose voice-over starts the movie, first against another black screen then aside a backdrop of dust, machinery, and manhood: “Once I was a cop, a road warrior searching for a righteous cause.” While both films commence with a voice-over set against a difficult-to-decipher image that is slowly revealed, Mad Max: Fury Road emphasizes and contains its opening focus to the figure and character of Max himself. A bit of historical context is let through, again using snippets of slightly ironized “media voices” in the opening that mentions vague references to oil disaster and water contamination and drought, indicating an environmental catastrophe that precipitated the social and political one. But the narrative voice of the film is Max’s, as he quasi-poetically (and demonstrating the film’s preference for the evocative, elliptical dialogue and often-indirect exposition of comics) explains his haunted character for the viewer: “I told myself they can’t touch me. They’re all dead. . . I am the one who runs from both the living and the dead. So I exist in this wasteland. A man reduced to a single instinct: survive.”41 The “I” of the film is clearly announced in this opening shot that foregrounds the lone figure of the male hero and Tom Hardy’s voice. And yet, we never get a good look Max’s face, just his back in silhouette against a blinding desert sun and then a side view of his whiskers and tangled long hair—showing how Fury Road simultaneously invites, then thwarts the viewer’s identification with Max by making him quite simply hard to see (and later, to understand, but that is true of much of the mumbled dialogue in this movie).

[Insert still from the shot of Max]

Oddly, in a film that begins with such a bald cinematic statement of his centrality, Max is quickly absorbed into the violent and brutal cacophony of Fury Road’s apocalyptic social landscape: he is captured and enslaved within two and a half minutes of the start of the movie and he and the audience are tossed into a sequence of brutal, half-decipherable images of tattoos, blood, medical procedures, caves and bloodied hulks and chalk-white shirtless men. This narrative emasculating, even disappearing, of Max on the screen signals a literal shift in focus in Fury Road and demonstrates its refashioning of the mainstream apocalypse action thriller, redefining the genre as well as the franchise in key elements. Director George Miller reportedly told his long-time cinematographer John Seale to keep the main character in the middle of the screen because the speed and chaos of the film’s framing would make it hard for audiences to keep track of where the hero is. Seale recalls Miller saying, “Keep the crosshairs on her nose.” The use of “her” is telling because within minutes in the opening sequences that introduce Immortan Joe and his post-apocalyptic kingdom, the Citadel, we get another clear shot of a heroic, dominating back: the graceful, near-bald head and neck tattoo of Furiosa.

The clarity with which Charlize Theron’s brooding face, blackened brow, and buzzcut head, as well as her black leather warrior ensemble and strong, erect body, are presented is a stark contrast to the rapid-fire glimpses of Max. First, as mentioned, we see him bearded and shaggy in a fleeting sideview, then he is shaven by his captors—briefly revealing a surprisingly soft, round face with full lips—and then this face is enclosed in a metal cage that effectively obscures any strong picture of what the man looks like. The visage of the film’s supposed, and as-yet-unnamed, main character will be locked in this face-cage for the next 45 minutes of the film. During the first scenes of the movie, Max makes one desperate dash to escape the stronghold of Immortan Joe, pursued by eerie hoards of the chalk-white war boys, who finally drag him back into the cave, where he is then hung from a chain inside a medieval-looking metal ball. Here, thanks to his blood type being designated as “universal donor,” Max can fulfill his function as a “blood bag,” as in “I’ve got a war boy running on empty. Hook up that full-life.”

While Max has become a thing to be harvested, the Imperator Furiosa takes her place of apparent honor and leadership behind the wheel of the largest vehicle in the movie, a fully loaded “war rig” that she is the sole driver of. The other men call her “boss,” but she does not speak. The introduction of Charlize Theron as Furiosa involves a narrative montage that informs the viewer about the post-apocalyptic micro-world of the Citadel and its social and political structures through our witnessing of an apparently oft-repeated ritual.42 The early attempted-escape shots of Max are interspersed with images of a thick, whitened and aging male torso riddled with boils and scars being sprayed by equally white half-naked boys with what appears to be talcum powder, then a clear, plastic chest and back guard is carefully locked in place—looking like medieval armor as well as protection for this grotesque male body. The chest and boils (and body armor and slaves) belong to Immortan Joe, who is escorted to a cave window by more young men, who are bigger and stronger-looking but still seem “off” --with odd details of tubing, dress, and prosthetics signaling their bodies’ deformations and adaptations. One man is presented as almost creature-like, sitting in a sort of wheelchair contraption that looks part throne, part life-support system. From the credits, one learns that this character is named Corpus Colossus (and it turns out that the actor, Quentin Kenihan, is a famous Australian television personality whose life with disability is well-chronicled on his own reality show). Immortan Joe and these men stand at the mouth of a cave high above an immense crowd of misshapen people in rags holding bent cups, the population of the Citadel known as The Wretched. After he announces “I salute my half-life war boys” and “I salute Imperator Furiosa,” he also invokes his sovereignty over the crowd using the language of ritual and religion, “I am your redeemer. It is from my hand you arise from the ashes of this world.” Immortan Joe then demonstrates for both the populace and the viewer the source of his power: he instructs his men to lift the large, metal gates and water rushes in a huge (and wasteful) waterfall to the people below. He allows the water to fall, though, only for a few seconds before signaling the gates to be closed, announcing ceremoniously, “Do not my friends become addicted to water. It will take hold of you and you will resent its absence.”

This sequence conveys a bundle of narrative information to the viewer, using dramatic visuals to push forward the direct linear chronology of the plot and offer succinct character disclosure, indicating the film’s fealty to both the action film and comic book genres that Mad Max: Fury Road draws from.43 We learn in particular that Furiosa is a powerful “warrior” for Immorten Joe who is leading an expedition to either “Gas Town” or “Bullet Farm” for a supply run. The quasi-religious language and war-culture rituals all signal the kind of political system or “governance” wielded by Immortan Joe and his men in the creation and maintenance of this particular “death-world.” We also soon learn how important it is that his minions are all men and what the role of sexual difference has become in this dystopic patriarchal kingdom. That the rule of Immortan Joe is profoundly and foundationally patriarchal is emphasized almost immediately. The information that Furiosa is veering from the main road and seems to be on some other, unannounced mission is presented by Corpus Colossus, who shouts out, “Hey pa, you know about this?” Then another of the strongmen asks plaintively, “Why would she do this, Dad?” The incongruous juxtapositions of the men’s childlike understanding and familial language underlines the sort of “kingdom” Joe has made for himself: sons who are supported and cherished, in spite of the physical, mental, and social effects of their sick environment. An environment that is grotesque both in terms of the ecological contamination and the crippling corruption of their “dad’s” despotic power.

Immortan Joe says nothing to his sons but runs out of the room and is shown rushing through hallways, past a garden hidden somewhere, to a huge vault door that he struggles mightily to open. Inside are chambers that appear to be empty, though reasonably luxurious and peaceful compared to what we’ve seen, except for the messages written in red on the cave walls: “Our sons will not be warlords” and “Who killed the world?” An old crone, Miss Giddy (Jennifer Hagan) is alone in the chambers and defiantly responds to Immortan Joe’s thundering demand, “Where is she taking them?” with “She’s not taking them. They begged her to go. You can’t own a person.” Although at this point in Mad Max: Fury Road, female figures have been shown only peripherally—other than Furiosa—the story’s plot and power dynamics in relation to gender are already pretty clear. This combination of critical perspectives and traditional genre stereotypes raises further interesting questions about how and why this movie, like Children of Men, focuses so centrally on questions of sexual difference and reproduction in its portrayal of a post-apocalyptic society? Nonetheless, Fury Road’s stark equation of brutal and violent despotism with an almost mythically reductive and hyperbolic version of patriarchy is forcefully underlined in ways that quickly made the movie a cult favorite among feminist audiences. And while his sons and his kingdom are shown to be blunt, brutal, and rather stupid, Immortan Joe embodies the canny awareness and strategizing vigilance of those who wield, and seek to retain, excessive power: he at least knows precisely why Furiosa might decide to go rogue.

Fury Road continues to hammer home the links between injustice and patriarchy—and toxic masculinity and bad governance—in scenes that push the plot forward while using parody and ironic humor to underline its critical points. For instance, the “war boys” are presented as an army of cancer-riddled, brainwashed youth who desperately believe all the ridiculous ritual and demagogary Immortan Joe espouses. As willing slaves (in a world with no options) and apparently doomed soldiers, “my half-life war boys” constitute a kamikaze army. The links to various forms of militaristic and fundamentalist magical thinking are underlined almost comically, as when Nux, a character we eventually come to know well (played by Nicholas Hoult), exclaims exhultantly to his lancer Spit, “He looked at me!!” The two argue over whether Immorten Joe had really meant to look at him (the camera suggests yes) or was just “scanning the horizon.” Nux persists, “I will die glorious on the Fury Road arrive victorious at Valhalla to walk among the immortals“. The rough comraderie and desperation of the “war boys” is presented in the rush to launch a war party that will chase down Furiosa because, as one yells to Nux, “She took a lot of stuff from Immortan Joe.” Nux yells back, “What stuff?” “Breeders. His prize breeders.” The dehumanization of women (and others) is shown to be both linguistically and materially instantiated in this hyper-masculine warrior society: with the dialogue signaling an ironic critique of Joe’s ownership of his “prize breeders,” as well as Nux’s more aspirational possession of Max as his “blood bag.” Max is literally mounted onto the front Nux’s car so that Nux, who on his own is too weak to join the war party, can continue the blood transfusion that keeps him going.

[shot of Max, in face cage, mounted on Nux’s car—shows both Max’s position and the car culture]

But Fury Road also indulges in precisely those stereotypical gender norms and the desires and values attached to hyper-masculinity and patriarchal control, including a likewise hyperbolic reproductive femininity that is presented in the form of the “wives” that Furiosa is helping to escape. The limited roles and functions available to this reproductive femininity are made clear from the first scenes of the film, with shots of obese bare-breasted women hooked up to milking machines while they sit in chairs that look like those in a hair salon, followed by the "old hag" Miss Giddy, who is a caretaker of the wives, then later to the ridiculous first glimpse the audience has of Immortan Joe’s harem of “prize breeders.” This tableau, criticized by many, occurs after the initial car chase battle scene that releases Max from Nux’s car and brings him into the orbit of Furiosa and her war rig. Max stumbles upon the rig, where the “wives” have emerged from their hiding spot in order to, conveniently—and rather incongruously amid the circumstances of a desperate car chase and escape—wash themselves, which they manage by hosing down their scantily-clad bodies. Each of the five women is wearing white muslin bandeau bikini tops and loin cloths and the picture of their glittering figures could easily be straight from a glossy fashion magazine shoot (or a neocolonial music video à la Taylor Swift), confirming the women’s normative function as eye candy. The five wives are played by women who are in fact models: Victoria’s Secret supermodel Rosie Huntington-Whitely is The Splendid Angharad, Immortan Joe’s “favorite” and the most visibly pregnant of the group. The others have names that are only briefly revealed, if at all, before the credits and include other models Abbey Lee (The Dag) and Courtney Eaton (Cheedo the Fragile), as well as actress-models (and famous daughters), Zoe Kravitz (Toast the Knowing) and Riley Keough (Capable). Among Furiosa’s goals is to locate her previous “tribe,” now a fugitive group of older women known as the Vuvalini (yes, indeed)—old women presented almost humorously as “hags” who are also cool biker chicks with skills and guns. When they are finally reunited with Furiosa and encounter the wives, the Vuvalini, ragged and sunbaked, grope at the young women in wonder, “Where did you find such creatures?” and “This one’s got all her teeth.” As film scholar and critic Eileen Jones complains, the incongruities of both youth and beauty and aged femininity are so reliant on rigid gender stereotypes that they can be played for laughs, albeit at times inadvertantly.44

[frame of the wives next to war rig with hoses]

The masculinity is what is foregrounded, though, from the opening shots that highlight the roar of engines and rushing sequences of various kinds of cool muscle cars and military tanks and other repurposed vehicles and machinery that are presented as central to this society and its survival, or at least its lifestyle. The focus on makeshift offroad vehicles, “rigs” and tanks, and cyborg warriors utilizes the genre power of such objects and visuals and their capacity to generate excitement, both in audiences and also within the Citadel society. However, the importance of cars and machines is foregrounded in a complex of images and scenes that suggests both parody and fetishization. The parody seems most obvious in the religious discourses attached to the vehicles and the culture of masculinist posturing and war-mongering that the warboys are inculcated into: for example, in the opening invocation before sending out his army, Immortan Joe solemnly promises his warboys that they “will ride eternal, shiny and chrome.” Nux dreams only of dying “in glory on the Fury Road”—largely because he is already a dead man, as are the other “half-life war boys,” thanks to the cancer that attacks their bodies from the inside.

From its opening montage sequences to the emerging focus on the humanity of the warboys, Fury Road suggests that the hypermasculinity of the Citadel society can be understood as part and parcel of the brutal environment and meager resources of the post-apocalypse, producing an underdeveloped, ritualistic, and anachronistically ‘pre-modern’ public culture that is easy to mock—with its mash-up of 1970s car culture and comic book pseudo-mysticism—but that also constitutes a critical commentary on exactly the late capitalist epoch referenced in the Mad Max series. The 1970s are increasingly understood as the inaugurating moment of neoliberal globalization—a period marked by the wasting away of the 19th and 20th centuries’ high capitalist industrial productivity and the concomitant explosion of financialization, all combining to create a new, immense underclass of disposable populations. The malaise of the 1970s and early 80s global economy and a countercultural pessimism about the “promises” of state-corporate capitalism generated a pop culture mode that Evan Calder Williams calls “salvagepunk”: an aesthetic and political ethos of re-use in a ruined world. Williams posits salvagepunk as an important and subversive subgenre of apocalyptic cultural production that draws from the punk and car cultures of the 1970s and 80. This genre category relies to a large extent on Williams’s readings of the earlier Mad Max films, especially Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981).

In underlining its own brand of masculinist “retro-nihilism,” Fury Road picks up the mantle of the Mad Max franchise and again portrays the post-apocalypse of late capitalist society as “train wreck in slow motion, a secret narrative: it has been about oil from the start” (Williams, 24). In Combined and Uneven Apocalypse (2011), Williams does not discuss the function of sexual difference in neither the “retro” nor the “nihilistic” aspects of salvagepunk, but Fury Road makes the gendering of the post-apocalypse central to its plot and its potential critique. For Williams, salvagepunk offers a commentary on capitalism’s inherent nihilism and bankruptcy, exposing the truth that “[t]here is no new construction, just the occupation of other architectures. . . the unwelcome remainder of what won’t go away” (15). Immortan Joe and the Citadel society can be understood as just such an “unwelcome remainder” of late capitalism, “in which the willfully primitive tribes are those who remain committed to the visions of the past: that is, to the advanced state of late capitalism” (26). Williams highlights how the original Mad Max series and its version of “gasolinepunk” was always preoccupied with showing the results of what he emphasizes is a false choice and a rut, a “standstill of post-history” which produces the ubiquitous illusion of post-apocalyptic necessity: “And all this is bound to the absurd self-consumptive core: one needs gasoline in order to drive around and kill others to steal their gasoline, but in doing so, one consumes the gasoline that one had, and so one needs gasoline in order to. . . “ (26, author’s ellipses).

The potential creativity of this salvagepunk vision, according to Williams, is in its gleeful adaptations to a more honest acknowledgement of the “real” predicaments of late capitalist society and what it will leave behind. Like the rest of this post-apocalyptic society, the war boys must make do with the materials for thought, identity, and life that they find, and are given, including the purpose of “dying in glory on the fury road.” Both Williams and the Mad Max franchise suggest that this “constructive” life-scavenging among the ruins of the world is a creative, adaptive act even if the society itself is built on the false premise of a necessary Hobbesian ‘war for survival’. As Williams comments, “It is patently false that only ‘those mobile enough to scavenge, brutal enough to pillage would survive’. . . It isn’t that they ‘have’ to live this way, but rather that they quite enjoy it” (25). In Mad Max: Fury Road both the nihilistic enjoyment and false necessity are exposed by the alternative that Furiosa, later joined by Max, decides to pursue in escaping the Citadel and making a break for somewhere else, “the Green Place.” This “new” goal, and shift in the mainstream action movie’s generically dominant gendered plotline, indicates that while the new Mad Max movie shares an atmosphere of retro-nihilism, it also offers a utopic potential for “revolution,” as A.O. Scott named it in his admiring review. Yet I have argued that this incipient revolution rests on the narrative inversions of gender roles and social norms performed by Furiosa and the wives and thus relies on familiar plot and gender stereotype combinations that boil down to feminine nurturing vs. masculine brutality. In this aspect, the “new” narrative of a gendered alternative threatens to deliver simply more of the same, at least in terms of sexual difference and its relation to both social organization and narrative plot development.

The elements of science fictional exaggeration underwritten by its apocalyptic plot allow Fury Road to elaborate the hyperbolic distortions of Immortan Joe’s governance, recalling similar logics in earlier movies in the Mad Max franchise, particularly Beyond Thunderdome (1986), and to link this survivalist rebellion fantasy to its critique of a tyranny that is now explicitly masculinist and patriarchal. Such pointed allegory is partly why Scott claims that while seeming to be an entertaining mash-up of science fiction action movies and classic Hollywood westerns, Fury Road actually “is about revolution.”45 I agree with Scott that this potential revolution rests primarily in the film’s debunking, or decentering, of the male hero figure. However, although Furiosa is shown to be quite likely the true “hero” and center of the film, at least throughout most of its main action sequences, her heroism and leadership are defined primarily by her character’s superior capacity to perform to exactly those hyper-masculine norms. These are the norms and stereotypes of “heroic” behavior that the film simultaneously insists upon but also throws into question, largely because of Max’s apparent inability to live up to them even as Furiosa excels in that gendered heroism.

That is, the film not only masculinizes its heroine, but it also feminizes Max, most particularly through a critical gap or weakness in his capacities to perform. The undermining of Max’s function as agential male protagonist begins with his admission that he “runs from both the living and the dead” and continues in the subsequent sequence in which he is captured. From the start of the movie, Max seems to be failing at this survival thing: first in his speedy enslavement, then by his inability to successfully escape the Citadel. This specter of failure is linked in the film’s exposition to Max’s earlier, prediegetic, “failure” to protect and save his wife and daughter in the early days of societal collapse (indicating the continuity with the first Mad Max film). Fury Road underlines this failure sporadically through the manifestations of the “Glory the Child” (Coco Jack Gillies), a ragged but beautiful little girl, clearly ghostly, who appears as a vision to berate Max at key moments—particularly when he needs to act. At first these visions suggest she is a harbinger of reprimand and guilt, whose appearances paralyze Max and prevent him from making crucial decisions or actions that might preserve his freedom, as in the initial escape and chase sequence, or help save others, which is partially what happens when Splendid is killed. In her ultra-feminine and child-like countenance and her apparently paralyzing function, Glory the Child seems to manifest what Bonnie Mann calls the “shame-to-power conversion” that Mann argues is foundational to sovereign masculinity.

Understanding this term, “sovereign masculinity,” as Mann uses it helps articulate a linguistic, psychic, and historical genealogy to the problems of sexual difference, agency, and violence that Fury Road puts into play. One early indication of the role played by these conflicts is in the presentation of Nux the war boy, whose ritualized relationship to the “conversion” promised by Immortan Joe and the Citadel culture illustrates the shame to power conversion with almost no deviation. In place of an anonymous and ugly suffering and death in the their diseased bodies, “dying in glory on the fury road and walking with the heroes” holds out to the war boys a fantasy of a social belonging and redemptive achievement. Two aspects of Mann’s long discussion are key to this film in particular. First, the social nature of selfhood (drawing from Charles Taylor) means that the self seeks an “imagined community” –a “fraternity” in the words of Benedict Anderson who famously coined the “imagined community” concept—that is made possible by being “seduced into a network of imaginary identifications that manufacture the personal sense of such public sacrifice” (Mann 106). Both Mann and Anderson understand the military and its relation to the nation to be a foundational illustration of the dynamics of the “fraternity” of imagined community and what it offers the individual subject. By emphasizing the implicit and central work of gender within the nationalist discourse analyzed by Anderson, Mann wants to clarify the compensatory, aspirational fantasy behind this fraternity and the gender norms generated through the processes of identification. This compensatory dynamic is the second crucial aspect to Mann’s theory: “Sovereign masculinity . . is characterized by a denial of both physical and intersubjective vulnerability. . . Shame always accompanies sovereign masculinity because it plays a central part in its production. This is why we see systematic, relentless, repetitious shaming, wherever sovereign masculinity is an aspirational ideal” (108-109).

So the memory of his past failures, as manifested in visions of Glory the Child, not surprisingly paralyze Max: as Gershen Kauffman asserts, “Shame is an impotence-making event.”46 In addition, psychology researchers agree that shame is experienced as “excruciating visibility” thus making the shamed body one that responds by hiding. Thus in its first half, Fury Road literalizes Max’s condition of shame through camera work and costuming that hide his face from view. Similarly, after he fails spectacularly to stop the war rig in a desperate scene involving all of Immortan Joe’s army, Nux is pictured cowering and sobbing in the back seat of compartment: “He saw me. He saw everything,” Nux wails.

The gendering of the actual acts of heroism in Fury Road remains, nonetheless, comfortably in the gender norms of action cinema convention, and probably causes the most problems for a feminist reading of Mad Max: Fury Road. Furiosa may exhibit gruff caretaking capacities or other “feminine” traits, but her overall demeanor and skillset adheres to the masculinist code of frontier manhood: laconic, decisive, non-emotive even under extreme duress—as well as brilliant with a gun and in a fistfight. And indeed, the competition for leadership between Max and Furiosa begins in a generically conventional fashion: they fight for it. When Max attempts to take the war rig, the two viciously but wordlessly struggle in the dirt. Max “wins” this round by taking control of the gun and thus the war rig, but his leadership is soon shown to be tenuous, and even mistaken. The film’s wavering on the question of whether Max is to be trusted (as a man, leader, fellow warrior, etc) is underlined in this situation in which Max appears to have regained his appropriate position and power, especially in relation to the female others: he is no longer enslaved and he ostensibly now is in charge. However, although Max has the gun, his dominance of the group of women is quickly shown to be illusory: the war rig has a kill switch controlled by Furiosa; without the rig, they all are going to be killed or taken by Immortan Joe and his army of warboys, who are fast approaching. As they set out across the barren landscape with Furiosa driving and Max holding a gun to them all, Furiosa instructs the wives to take inventory of their weapons situation. In this scene, the incongruencies and reversals of the genre norms of gender and skills are accentuated by the competence of at least some of the “wives” in this emergency situation.

This middle section of battling Immortan Joe on the “Fury Road” before Max and Furiosa come to truly trust and rely on one another thus simultaneously illustrates Furiosa’s superior abilities and Max’s compromised relationship to those necessary masculine capacities. As mentioned, he is at various times shown to be struggling to “save” women and children, and too often failing. In this same scene in the war rig, Toast the Knowing counts the guns and ammunition and announces that the ‘big boy” (an SKS rifle) only has 4 bullets so is “all but useless.” This information is quickly put to use when Immortan Joe’s vehicles and army begin to catch up to them. Seeming to fulfill his male leadership role, Max authoritatively grabs the powerful rifle and sets himself up to take aim at the approaching vehicles. But he misses. Three times, in fact; which means there is only one bullet left. In a now infamous scene, Furiosa calmly but firmly takes the gun from Max, sets the barrel on his shoulder, commands him “Don’t breathe;” then, in a very long shot, easily obliterates the driver of the closest war machine. This emasculation of Max, following various others, indicates the film’s interest in a radical inversion of action film genre conventions and their relation to male and female sex differences. And it brings up some interesting concerns with male heroism, abjection, and politics that will be discussed throughout this book. In the context of Fury Road, the scene illustrates the film’s foundational adherence to the equation of “heroism” and traditionally masculine skill sets and capacities, even if it is now Furiosa that most fully owns those capacities and that role.

Nonetheless, we are led by both generic expectations and the Mad Max franchise to understand Max as an icon, by definition masculine, of the allegory of survival; and Miller himself has insisted that Fury Road is “a very simple allegory.” The opening shots of Max’s hunched, muscular back and the two-headed gecko he stuffs into his mouth highlight both his “primitive masculinity” and the conditions of privation and necessity that govern the film’s apocalyptic environment. As I will argue in detail later, the template for this environment, and the genre of the post-apocalypse in general, is the frontier era of Western Expansion of the United States and thus the logics of settler colonialism. Scott and other film critics have noted the evident influence of the great Hollywood Western directors in Mad Max: Fury Road.47 This generic genealogy is made even more legible when focusing on the role of sexual difference and particular national myths of masculinity in popular Western genres. Historian Gail Bederman has underlined the foundational relationship between the ideals of masculinity that characterized the frontier era, and particularly its mythification in the early 20th century. Among the most influential of these was the era’s idealization of (and nostalgia for) the “natural man” who finds in the frontier an ideal environment for his more “violent and impulsive” temperament (Bederman, 73).

Like other cultural historians of the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries, Bederman emphasizes how concerns about a perceived crisis of masculinity at the turn of that century played a key role in the “frontier thesis” popularized by Frederick Jackson Turner (1893) and influentially supported by Theodore Roosevelt and others. In this analysis, “the West” offered a more hospitable context for expressions of “primal American masculinity,” a masculinity that was increasingly felt to be endangered by social and historical phantoms that worried at the popular imaginary: particularly the colonial preoccupation with black and indigenous men, who possibly had an edge when it comes to both masculinity and “the natural,” as well as linked anxieties about the emasculating impact of “the effeminizing tendencies of advanced civilization” (Bederman, 79).48 Teddy Roosevelt becomes a popular advocate and figure for this concern for the future of American manhood and the revalorizing of the “natural man” –a buried and authentic masculinity that lurks in all (white) men and can be revitalized through education and/or environment. Not only is this natural man or “primitive masculinity” notable for its upholding of concepts of masculinity grounded in expressions of aggression, power, and violence, the evolutionary thinking of the era wedded the figure of the “primitive” or “natural” man to a belief that “men of ‘superior races’ naturally wish to exterminate men of ‘inferior ‘races’” (Mann 63). Or, as early 20th century new manhood and education advocate G. Stanley Hall put it, “From the moment of man’s evolutionary origin, he had a passionate desire to eradicate all lower forms of life, whether animal or human” (cited in Bederman, 114). Roosevelt concurred, writing to Hall that “over-sentimentality, over-softness, in fact washiness and mushiness are the great dangers of this age and of this people. Unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail” (cited in Bederman, 100-101).

Bederman and Mann thus highlight the historical roots of the twinned preoccupations with masculine and national identities and their expression in the history of U.S. popular culture of certain anxieties and fantasies rooted in national (and thus racial) supremacy, anxieties that were particularly acute at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries:

At the turn of the century a wave of evolutionary thinking swept the nation, and concerns arose over the weakening of the white race, concerns that so much civilization, supposed self-restraint, and reason, was emasculating and impotence-making. The evolutionary contest was understood as a contest of masculinities, one that could be lost. The white social imaginary found itself beset with worry that black men and the indigenous men they called ‘savages’ might have an edge when it came to masculinity, and thus might gain the evolutionary edge if white manhood became less virile. In response to this anxiety, white men became enamored of a ‘new sense of primal manhood’ (Mann, 62).

This history of gender styling and fantasies of national and racial dominance help explain how a “very simple allegory of survival” can appear to revolutionarily transform the post-apocalyptic action film while still staying so conservatively close to hyper-traditional ideals of both masculinity and femininity, ideals grounded in a settler colonial history and imaginary. It also makes audible a relative silence in Fury Road on notions of race and racial hierarchies: the very lack of commentary on the pictured whiteness of the post-apocalypse (here set in the settler colonial landscape of the Australian outback) suggests that for this film, whiteness and its predominance are unquestioned and unmarked, i.e. assumed.

Eating the still-living lizard in the opening scene establishes that Max is indeed a ‘natural man’—and yet he is also quickly enslaved and, literally, emasculated and abjected as a “blood bag” whose body (and car!) are taken over for the use and benefit of others. To recover from this abjection, the film posits a two-part sequence that marks a turning point in Max’s role and character in the film. First, his tendency toward failure is underlined in two pivotal moments, both of which occur almost completely without dialogue (like much of the film, and the Mad Max series as a whole). The problem Max has performing to expectations when handling the SKS rifle is followed by the death of the favorite Splendid, right after she successfully manages to save the group herself in an impressive and courageous physical feat. In shot-reverse shot series that establishes the growing connection between Max and Splendid, he nods his appreciation of her skill and success. But just at that moment she slips and falls to be rolled over by enemy vehicle, driven by Immorten Joe’s driver. While no one in their group explicitly raises question of who was "responsible" for Splendid's death, Max as driver of the rig clearly feels some sense of responsibility and failure.

Splendid's death thus registers on Max/Tom Hardy’s face and through the immediate flashback images to Glory the Child as yet another failure and loss for Max, whose character has been trying mightily to “help” Furiosa and the girls. Soon after this scene, in subsequent emergency Max volunteers to stay back in order to thwart the attack of Immorten Joe’s battalion of junk cars, though the odds seem impossible. The focalization of these scenes is from the women’s war rig, so that the audience sees only what the wives see—which means that when Max returns dragging something and covered in blood, they are collectively solicitous and alarmed: “He’s bleeding” “Are you ok?” Furiosa, however, watches him silently and then announces bluntly, “That’s not his blood.” and walks off. Signaling Furiosa’s (and our) ambivalence toward the blood that covers Max and the violence it traces, this scene nevertheless marks a significant turn in the figuring of Max’s capacities to protect and fight for the women, as well as for himself. One might even suggest that what he’s dragging back to the rig (a piece of his old car ?) could be said to symbolize Max’s effort to drag back his manly self-respect, which is best won through bloody violence.

So while both Max and Furiosa are given the opportunity to prove themselves as leaders, the criteria by which each character and the criteria for “leadership” is evaluated remains rooted in these nostalgic and, now, seemingly archaic fantasies about masculine agency, power, and violence. As in the 19th century frontier era in U.S. popular culture—and as opposed to Theo, who figures a somewhat revised, 21st century version of white “managerial masculinity”—Max embodies the fantasy of “primitive masculinity” repurposed for a post-apocalypse social landscape, and arguably so does Furiosa. If Fury Road can be said to track how Max finally accomplishes his own ‘shame to power conversion’ and regains a measure of sovereign masculinity, it is on behalf of the collective, the new nation embodied in the wives and Furiosa and the Vuvalini. And like the Western heroes of yore (in Shane, The Searchers, and many others), Max remains necessarily outside the collective he “saves”—which might be read as a radical acknowledgment of his anachronistic status as a man in what is now a woman’s world.

But the fealty of the film to the conventions of frontier masculinity and the “fatal environment” of the West suggests that this speculative fiction is shot through with a structural nostalgia in terms of both sexual and racial difference. The immediate ambiguity in Fury Road resides in what sort of governance Furiosa, along with the wives and the Vuvalini, will install now that they are being raised up on the platform and given control of the Citadel? The film suggests a collective consent and embrace of a distinct and new “way,” a radical democracy now led by the women. And surely Furiosa has evinced little indication of a taste for despotism. However, the environmental conditions that gave rise to Immortan Joe are clearly not transformed; and it’s not evident that the foundational logics that enabled Immortan Joe’s rise have been dislodged in any meaningful way. If the ending encodes both the generic innovation and possibility, as well as fealty, that Mad Max: Fury Road offers to audiences, using the wedge of sexual difference and the imaginaries that cling to it, it also leaves open the likewise generic question of what the apocalypse narrative is doing here, again (or still) wedded to the Western?

The movies that preoccupy Masculinity and Apocalypse include the mainstream, generically conventional, versions of apocalypse explained in Chapter One, but as this chapter illustrates, I am even more centrally concerned with the popular culture that works to counter and contest the gender and race hierarchies of contemporary versions of liberal white male supremacy, or at least tries to. As in Pacific Rim (use to contrast to Captain America: Civil War) in Chapter One and Mad Max:Fury Road here, the reversals and inversions of these narrative templates can appear to re-envision social relations in important ways. Interestingly, the move to make the hero a girl—or, less often, a woman (as in Fury Road)—is becoming an almost mainstream maneuver in Hollywood cinema and cable television. The last installment of the Star Wars franchise illustrates both the ubiquity and banality of this move, highlighting its many possible limitations and dead-ends. In the next chapter, I explore the work of Joss Whedon, one of the most avowedly “feminist” producers of popular culture in the late 20th and early 21st century whose many productions speak to a brilliant, funny, and quite progressive sensibility. They also speak to the instransigence of particular sexual and racial hierarchies in even the best-meaning efforts to frame an apocalypse that will make possible real change, real transformation—of both our narrative pleasures and our societies.


Settler Colonialism, Gender, and Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity: The Limits of White Irony

I. The Joke of Gender in Firefly

Many would claim that no one in mainstream American popular culture uses irony with as much skill and pleasure-generating popularity as the television and film auteur Joss Whedon, the director of the beloved 1990s TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” as well as global blockbuster action films such as The Avengers movies. Whedon’s short-lived TV series firefly (2002-03, 11 episodes) and its Hollywood film sequel Serenity (2005) have achieved cult status with a wide audience and together Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity franchise offers an opportunity to consider the pleasures offered—as well as the questions raised—by a politics, and aesthetics, of irony. The opportunity is particularly rich when it comes to representations of gender and race—and empire and history—in U.S. popular culture. Firefly/Serenity proffers a critical lens through which to understand irony and its role in popular media and further explore these questions of politics and narrative representation. The suspension of judgment that irony generates, the pause as the satiric inflection sinks in, is the bedrock of Whedon’s television and film output and plays a particularly key role in Firefly/Serenity, often billed as a “post-apocalyptic space western” for its mash-up of the genres of science fiction, classic western, and bromance action flick. Because the whole series depends on both our knowing acceptance of certain stereotypes of gender (and, less explicitly, race) and our openness to the ironic critiques that Firefly sets loose, the question of how those stereotypes and generic tropes manage the tricky dance of ironic double meanings is crucial to understanding the political valences of popular culture media at work in this television series, and perhaps more generally.

How to weigh the balance between searing cultural criticism and troubling ideological complicity, particularly in relation to the intertwined structures of settler colonialism and white masculinity, is the main question this chapter explores. Like all of Whedon’s work, Firefly/Serenity is a blast to watch and I suggest that some, if not most, of that pleasure comes from the series’ expert use of irony as simultaneously camouflage and stealth weapon in its ongoing dialogue with both American history and contemporary popular culture genres.49 In this dialogue, the question of what can be “saved” for the white male hero of mainstream media narratives is managed by Whedon’s guiding intelligence and astute political sensibility, a sensibility in which many audiences, including skeptical feminist ones, are likely to trust and confide.50 However, this confidence constitutes a store of cultural capital that is easily misused, particularly when it comes to contemporary masculinity and its contours, and gender differences in general—a subject Whedon’s oeuvre approaches with a unique combination of ambivalence and insight, as well as disarming affection and commitment.

Presenting a futuristic science fiction fantasy of the year 2517, Firefly follows a group of nine characters who travel in the space ship known as “Serenity,” some of whom work together as part of a quasi-illegal smuggling operation while others travel in the ship for their own secretive reasons. It is soon revealed that all share a desire to avoid the controlling gaze and militaristic reach of “the Alliance”—the imperial government that controls this part of the galaxy. In the opening scene of the pilot episode, “Serenity,” we watch Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his 2nd in command Zoe Washburn (Gina Torres) engage in a heroic battle scene that concludes with their unexpected and crushing defeat at this, “The Battle of Serenity Valley.” In particular, we watch the intrepid leader and his trusted ‘right-hand man’ (pointedly, an African American woman) face impossible odds with ingenuity and fierce will, only to be abandoned precipitously by their Independence leaders and told to retreat.51 We learn later that this catastrophic loss of a key battle “took the heart out” of the rebellion and was the turning point in the war, leading to the ultimate defeat of the “browncoats,” as the Independence fighters were known. This nickname, along with other gestures to the Civil War history slyly referenced throughout the first episodes, establishes the “rebel” credentials of Mal and Zoe and shows how both their military bond and their current outlaw enterprise were forged in a shared experience of revolutionary idealism tempered by the catastrophic losses and betrayals by the ‘powers that be’ in the War against the Alliance six years earlier.

Serenity” then cuts to the present moment when the opening scene’s vaguely World War II war movie atmosphere is replaced by silent figures in space suits, working diligently in what appears to be a serious and dangerous situation. The viewer soon learns through dialogue and narrative exposition that Zoe and Mal now work with a wise-cracking pilot (off screen) and a tough guy named Jayne. The serious and dangerous-looking “work” on screen turns out to be illegal salvage: these days, the former war heroes are basically thieves who do quasi, or fully, illegal “jobs” for hire in the outskirts of the Alliance’s empire. The Serenity is a rather beat-up version of a space ship, a “transporter, Firefly class,” that enables their smuggling enterprise and helps in avoiding the officials and military police of The Alliance. Keeping to the edges of Alliance territories, the Serenity mainly travels between the frontier planet settlements that are most often neglected or ignored by the Alliance government that tightly governs the prosperous and technologically hyper-advanced “Core” planets. Along with a variety of visual and generic clues, the direct references to frontier settlements and outlaw protagonists that prefer to stay beyond the reach of government control and on the edge of legality underline how Firefly marries ideas about U.S. settler colonial history and “frontier capitalism” to the genre of the Sci-Fi Western.52

Initially, the reasons for this generic mash-up appear to purely entertainment-driven: Whedon famously declared at the 2012 ComicCon panel, “I wanted to tell an American immigrant story, a Western story, but I need spaceships or I get cranky” (ComicCon 2012). The pilot episode confirms the priority of pleasure and entertainment in the Whedon-verse (as fans like to call it, playing on the slang reference in the show to the “verse” of Firefly), but also suggests some of the more serious preoccupations upholding the show and its choice of genres. Introducing the Serenity’s “crew,” the early scenes in the spaceship work to bind their stories and the viewer’s interest into an origin story for the series and the collective group that it follows. Humor plays a key role in these initial scenes and establishes the tone of the series, even when that tone turns somewhat darker. We first see the wise-cracking pilot Wash (Alan Tudek) as he slouches next to the ship’s controls literally playing with toys, and meta-mocking the show’s own generic tropes as he enacts a battle scene with plastic dinosaurs: “Yes, yes, this is a fertile land and we will thrive” “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.”

There is also the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), who has a thick country accent and embodies full, lusty femininity while offering an early glimpse of the show’s ironic deployments of gender stereotypes, as well as generic tropes. Kaylee’s first action on screen is to manage the order “go to blackout” and we see her rushing through the ship to accomplish a difficult shut down of all power on the ship in order to elude an Alliance cruiser that has caught them mid-smuggling operation. But Kaylee’s mechanical know-how is always juxtaposed to her girlish charm and “kindheartedness.” The gruff (and violent, and quite possibly stupid) hired muscle Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin) further underlines the contrasts between femininity and masculinity that preoccupy so much of the show’s humor and character-driven plot lines; such as when Jayne complains to the Captain about Kaylee, “Can’t you stop her from being so goddamn cheerful?” Mal responds, “I don’t think there’s a power in the verse that can stop her from being cheerful. Sometimes you just want to duct tape her mouth. Drop her in the hole for a couple months.” Kaylee cheerfully responds, “I love my captain.”

So the Serenity works like “family” (or a workplace) with everyone comfortably, if wryly, embodying well-worn stereotypes of contemporary U.S. popular culture and its calcified gender roles. Whedon is a master of the ensemble dynamic and how to create lines of tension, alliance, and desire while working ironically and playfully on our generic attachments and expectations: manly stoicism and irony from the “leader” juxtaposed to the suggestion of gender norm subversion embodied by Kaylee and Zoe and exposed in Mal’s own lapses in masculine fortitude and other endearing quirks. For the most part, though, the role of “Captain” is one that Mal takes seriously and deploys with full confidence and entitlement, where as Kaylee’s authority as an expert mechanic is continuously juxtaposed to her feminine foibles: as we soon find her happily twirling a little Chinese umbrella as she flirtatiously recruits new passengers, “them that’s can pay,” as Mal puts it.

The new passengers, who become central characters, include “Shepherd Book” (Ron Glass), who appears to be a religious person, rather monk-like with his robes and long-ish white hair. Glass, a well-known African American actor, along with Gina Torres’s Zoe, helps announce the television show’s “post-racial” sensibility.53 This multiracial nonchalance joins with the emphatic exclamations and brief moments of dialogue in Chinese to convey the notion of liberal multicultural inclusion that govern this futuristic landscape of frontier settlements and spaceships. Such visual and narrative cues allow the show to gesture knowingly at the presence of non-whites in the historical U.S. frontier in which the presence and key roles of Asians, African Americans—not to mention Native Americans—was most often erased in the traditional Hollywood Western, as well as official historiography (a “critical” or historically revisionist move shared by another influential television series about the American frontier, HBO’s Deadwood). It is suggested in various ways that the characters in Firefly “don’t see race” (the quintessential 21st century liberal claim): such as when Kaylee flirts innocently with the older preacher, “You’re going to go with us,” she announces. The young mechanic explains that she’s been watching him ignore the people selling seats on their ships because he only looks at the ships themselves (thus revealing he is a gearhead like her), so naturally he’ll choose the Serenity because “ours is the best.” Kaylee also recruits a foppish, if handsome, young man (white) who she introduces as Simon--wearing a white suit and the dark round spectacles of a TV villain, looking impossibly out of place in the dusty outpost.

Overdressed and seemingly awkward, Simon (Sean Maher) appears as an obvious foil for the rugged, run-down masculinity of Jayne and Mal, as well as signaling the preoccupations with both class and gender differences that will dominate much of the show. Arriving from a difficult afternoon, Mal greets the effete Simon with barely disguised contempt, while Simon looks worried and rather untrustworthy as the camera lingers on his face. Some of these interpersonal dynamics prove to be narrative misdirection that enhance the tensions needed to launch the plot and character relationships. Yet they also demonstrate how almost all of the relationships and tensions of this episode, and the series as a whole, turn on such issues of gender conflicts and stereotypes: from the mystery of Simon’s true intentions to the introduction and first entrance of a new, glamorous female character, the mysterious Inara (Morena Baccarin). Viewers first see Inara in a long shot that focuses largely on the young man on top of her in the throes of sexual intercourse, as she strokes his back gently, if a bit absentmindedly. This framing shot and opening scene establishes her character in terms of her beauty and sexual availability as a professional, if very classy, courtesan, and remains crucial to Inara’s role throughout the series. Interestingly, Inara’s profession and sexuality are both fetishized and yet at times critically framed: post-coital, the young man is seen gazing adoringly at her and asking to see her again, though he responds peevishly when she later kindly avers that their time together “went too quickly”: “Well, your clocks are probably rigged to speed up and cheat us out of our fun.” This brief moment of casual, resentful misogyny exposes the core dynamics of status, patriarchy, and humiliation that govern Inara’s profession and life, even if she is ostensibly of superior class and education to almost everyone around her—aspects of her character that are consistently emphasized.54

If gender stereotypes are invoked in Firefly as an ironic punchline, the subtext of those jokes oscillates between upholding a given stereotype and working against it through cognitive estrangement.55 Like science fiction, irony can reframe conventional ideas about reality, politics, and people in ways that push viewers to pause and “see” a particular situation or figure differently.56 The fast-paced humorous dialogue and various moments of confrontation between different styles of masculinity as embodied in the male characters in Firefly often generates this sort of reflection: particularly when Mal and Wash, as well as Simon and Jayne, are each deployed against one another for various commentaries on versions of manhood and their presumed significance. What makes Mal “a mystery” (and thus “fascinating,” as Inara will say just a bit later) is his embodiment of a clear hegemonic masculinity juxtaposed to an almost humorous acknowledgement of his many failures to achieve that masculinity. Mal, as “Captain,” also illustrates the metonymic, and even ontological, equation of masculinity and leadership—a connection that the show’s foregrounding of irony calls into question from the opening scenes in the series.

However, the female characters of the “Serenity” episode and throughout the original run of Firefly are less explicitly complicated than the men, especially by ironic contradictions within their personas and functions on the ship: Inara remains both the primary sexual-love interest for “the Captain” and a character who almost always does only girly things: she looks concerned, brushes Kaylee’s hair, gives herself a candlelit sponge bath, and generally offers wise emotional support and commentary (not unlike the character of Deanna Troi in Star Trek Next Generation). Inara’s capacities are thus bound to class and gender stereotypes that combine femininity, refinement, and leisure—though with references to both an orientalist geisha stereotype and the enigmatic possibility of moral corruption entailed by prostitution. Likewise, the suggestions that Zoe and Kaylie might be complexly gendered -- i.e. they don’t embody normative femininity because they are, after all, a Lieutenant and a mechanic—are undermined by the way each character fulfills a largely cosmetic function in the narrative arc of each episode: Kaylee is “the heart” of the ship and crew, according to Whedon in various interviews.57 Zoe’s role as a “warrior woman” is more complexly situated between the bromance-inflected ironic repartee she shares with Mal and her husband Wash, as well as the camera’s rather awe-struck fetishization of her physical magnificence, made obvious in Gina Torres’s stature and figure and often commented upon by her “husband” Wash.58 But even with her superior intellect, experience, and physical capacities, Zoe is never taken seriously as a leader for the ship. This erasure is significant because the question of leadership preoccupies many of the narrative arcs of various episodes. And yet it is always the vulgar and violent Jayne—or later perhaps Simon—whose power and control over the ship and its purpose are posited as alternatives to Mal as Captain.

The criteria for that masculine position at the top of the ship’s hierarchy is dominated by the question of Jayne, whose common-sense brutality is presented as both refreshingly honest and possibly a problem. In a sense, Jayne acts as the hegemonically masculine counterpart to Inara’s embodiment of extreme normative femininity and a more pure embodiment of that masculinity than Malcolm Reynolds can, or wants to, be. Mal’s ironic distance from strict gender norms becomes the series’ vehicle for articulating its revision of gender hierarchies and models, as illustrated in the “value” of Mal’s (and Wash’s and Simon’s) “failures” to be heroic he-men and the problematic aspects of Jayne’s “success” at it. Furthermore, Jayne articulates the “free market”—in addition to male-centered—ethos that appears to drive the storyworld of Firefly/Serenity. Understanding any human exchange or relation as a contest to be won, Jayne complains often about Mal’s leadership being too soft or compromising; such as when they have just escaped the Alliance cruiser but are short on money and fuel: “You can’t get paid if you crawl away like a little bitty bug.”

Jayne’s mercenary role makes him the ideal spokesperson for an individualist (and capitalist) logic of pure self-interest and other “commonsense” realities. Sometimes just being voiced by Jayne might throw these truisms into question, such as when he announces in the episode “Ariel” (xxx) that “My pop always said if you can’t find work, you ain’t lookin’ hard enough.” On the one hand, the rote pronouncement and “source” of this knowledge are presented as objects of humor, if not ridicule. But on the other hand, this truism—like many of Jayne’s pronouncements—seems largely upheld by the series narrative, especially since the Serenity operates on precisely that ethos of “looking hard enough” for work and taking those jobs more or less gratefully, even when they are ‘beneath’ Mal and his crew, both morally and often in terms of the intelligence, skills, or planning they require. The question of whether the audience, and the show, ultimately will concede Jayne’s libertarian view of moral and economic realities and the necessity they claim (in particular, about what constitutes “winning” and “losing” for the Serenity) becomes one of the central concerns that will determine how one understands, or reads, the Firefly/Serenity narrative.

That is, the series’ welding of these quintessential “American” issues of masculinity and freedom opens an uneven ground for critical articulations of ideas about gender, race, or nation—even as the foregrounding of ironic detachment and sarcasm indicates that it is interested in launching just such a critique. Perhaps that is the real problem posed by Whedon’s creation in Firefly/Serenity: the veneer of a critical perspective suggests a wry and ironic sensibility, but the main direction of the narrative arc and development of key characters both operate along surprisingly conventional lines, and not just in terms of gender. For example, the discourse of “freedom” and how it is negotiated by Mal and Jayne, and possibly the other characters, seems to uphold the very settler colonial logics that are ostensibly criticized through the ironic framing of this “frontier” story. Gerry Canavan, in his crucial analysis of the series, claims that “the inevitable defeat of freedom experienced by both the Browncoats and their post-war criminal heirs on Serenity, and the ultimate triumph of the Alliance, seems nonetheless assured. . . authentic freedom is already a lost cause” (“Fighting a war you’ve already lost.” 184). But because it is the futurity that drives the series forward, the reaching toward this elusive “freedom” remains the central ethos and propulsion of both character and story. At best, one can say the film franchise (or finale) of Serenity (2006) manages to raise the question of what might take place of a pure masculine individualist pursuit of freedom and survival.

What this chapter asks, then, is to what extent does Whedon’s preoccupation with ironizing gender (and race) stereotypes and the show’s revamping of the classical male ‘hero’s quest’ mythic narrative open onto a new story? And if so, how will this story free itself of hegemonic ideologies of gender and race differences that are embedded in its American historical referents, particularly the race and gender of political authority and agency. As we saw in Chapter Two, just the inversion or critique of conventional gender norms does not necessarily change the dominance of those norms in a given narrative or cultural expression. Canavan, for instance, insists that the value of Firefly’s challenge to its western generic foundations is precisely in its nihilism, in acknowledging that a future of disruption and persistence are the best the crew of the Serenity can hope for in the face of a necropolitical regime that has “already” won. While its disruption and misdirection of hegemonic logics would indeed constitute a useful generic intervention, it’s not clear to what extent this reading is encouraged in the Firefly/Serenity franchise; particularly given the show’s overall acquiescence to much of the frontier myth, especially in its characterization of its “heroes.” While largely agreeing with Canavan’s key points, I suggest although the Firefly/Serenity franchise offers a compelling reframing of the frontier myth as a critique of histories of settler colonialism and late capitalist state control, ultimately this effort is hampered by the narrative’s surreptitious commitment to the underlying principles of those same settler colonial logics—primarily the necessity for white male intervention and leadership to complete the story. As in Chapter Two, in order to better understand and evaluate whether the narrative enacts this return to the traditional hero story, we must first explore the various oscillations Firefly makes between the functions of race and gender in the post-apocalyptic storyworld of the “verse.”

II. The Western as Generic Template for Ironic, and Iconic, Masculinity

In the pilot episode, “Serenity,” the narration of collective governance as a problem of masculinity moves to the center of the story when the episode’s crisis becomes clear: among the new passengers on board the Serenity, one is a mole who has exposed the ship to the Alliance. Mal immediately assumes that the traitor is Simon and swiftly punches him in the face (Mal punches Simon 3 times in a space of 5-10 minutes in this first episode). But Captain Reynolds is not alone in using violence as a marker of virtuous masculine outrage: Shepherd Book correctly identifies the innocuous-seeming young man who is the mole, who then shoots Kaylee in his panic. Book, of course, punches the mole and the others rush to Kaylee’s side. At this point, with the Alliance police demanding to board, Simon blackmails Mal with Kaylee’s life, saying that as a doctor he can save her but only if Mal makes a run for it, evading direct contact with the Alliance officials. Mal responds with disgust, “You rich kids, you think your lives are the only ones that matter. What’d you do, kill your folks?” Although enraged, Mal nevertheless complies with Simon’s demands and they manage a narrow escape. At which point Mal moves to the vaulted trunk that Simon has brought on board, one with an elaborate mechanical system, wondering aloud “what does a man like you kill for?” When Captain Reynolds dramatically opens the trunk, he reveals a naked, very pale and elegantly frail female body in a fetal position, eyes closed—possibly dead but clearly being preserved in the trunk. Simon rushes to her, “I need to check her vitals” and Mal sarcastically replies, “Oh, is that what you call it” which shows he assumes that the girl is some sort of sex slave that Simon is transporting illegally. That assumption, now relayed to the viewer, makes the girl’s sudden awakening, panicked babbling terror, and desperate clinging to Simon all the more dramatic, as he reassures her “They’re gone. They’re gone. We’re safe. We’re safe. I’m here” and announces to the others, “This is my sister.”

[Insert still of River in the cooler]

In the subsequent scene, Simon Tam tells the story of his precociously brilliant sister River (Summer Glau) who he “rescued” from a sinister Alliance-run special school after she had sent him a secret message that said, “They’re hurting us.” Describing his desperate efforts over two years to get her out, Simon proclaims, “River isn’t just gifted, she’s a gift.” Remaining a mystery (what are her gifts? What did the Alliance do to her? Why is she so valuable to them? What damage has she endured?), River’s role as the “problem” that will be resolved through debate between the two men is fully established. It also gives Captain Malcolm Reynolds a chance to expose his autocratic side. In his anger at Simon for putting the ship and its crew in danger, Mal announces he will eject the brother and sister when they get to Whitefall “If Kaylee makes it.” Simon responds worriedly, “What if she doesn’t?” “Well then you’ll be getting off a mite sooner.” Mal’s pronouncement instigates a flurry of protests from the other crew members, except Jayne who smirks happily, and Wash asks plaintively, “Can we maybe vote on the whole murdering people issue?” Mal responds “We don’t vote on my ship. It is not the town hall.”

While insisting, here and elsewhere, that his authority is unquestionable and necessarily sovereign in the strictest sense (more on that in a minute), Captain Malcolm Reynold’s leadership as a rule is not really that secure. Throughout the series, Mal is presented as a somewhat dubious incarnation of masculine leadership, a concern often expressed humorously in the raised eyebrows and ironic commentary of his crew—and here, when it’s suggested that Wash feels Mal’s potential judgment against Simon and River is morally wrong. These jokes signal more serious concerns, though, as Whedon’s show raises questions about Mal’s ethics and capacities, suggesting at times that his moral compass may be damaged—or nonexistent. This complex representation of masculinity and leadership indicates a critical estrangement from gender norms, in a way that is related to the ironic representation of western generic tropes and landscapes and resonates with other texts in this study, particularly The Walking Dead and Mad Max: Fury Road.59 But because the alternative to Mal is most often presented to be either Jayne or Simon, the narrative also forecloses its questioning of these masculine norms and surreptitiously maintains Mal’s authority and position, a position on which the entire storyworld of Firefly depends. Without the drama of Malcolm Reynolds—a drama of gender stereotypes and how people do and don’t live up to hegemonic masculinity (and the repercussions of those successes and failures)--Firefly actually has no narrative.60 This presumption that the center must be Mal, and not, for instance, the drama of River Tam—or of River and Simon—speaks to an ongoing question for this book regarding both popular culture and the narrative logics of representation (especially of gender and race) more generally: to what extent can irony undo, or even critique, the norms that its own necessary operation puts into play? That is, there is no irony without the knowledge and assumption of the norm, the stereotype that is now being tugged at, argued with, or joked about.61

Likewise, the easy assumption that Simon’s very education and obvious wealth make him suspect, in terms of both masculinity and integrity, is deployed throughout this scene and the series’ early episodes—though one could argue that this assumption is also undermined and exposed as fallacious in the pilot “Serenity” episode. Nonetheless, throughout its story arc, Firefly plays on the widely shared assumptions about honesty being a “working class” and/or underdog virtue and general suspicion of social privilege, as well as a late 19th century era understanding of what “too much civilization” does to a man, as discussed in Chapter Two. This trope of the effete and possibly corrupt “pansy” is tied, as Eve Sedgwick reminds us, to the logics of homosociality/homophobia that rose to pre-eminence at precisely the same period in the urban centers of London and New York City. And that homosocial/homophobic logic that mocks the upper class or educated version of masculinity as tainted with homosexuality and thus lesser than, and Other to, normative masculinity is, as Sedgwick likewise argues, foundationally grounded in misogyny. So Firefly’s exaggerated reliance on sexual difference for both its narrative propulsion and almost all of its ironic characterizations of both male and female figures in the show are based in dominant misogynist gender definitions and distinctions that uphold the stereotypes invoked.62

In addition to the wry self-deprecation of its dialogue and the eye-candy of its lead characters, Firefly/Serenity offers other relatively safe thrills provided by its ongoing references to familiar Western tropes, such as the iconically loaded image of a saloon window being crashed through during a bar fight (the window is a hologram, it soon becomes clear) in the second episode, “The Train Job.” Like “The Train Job” as a whole, this image punctuating its opening scene acts as a shorthand for all the viewer needs to understand about the world and characters of Firefly, or as Whedon has said, they wanted an image that would “tell you all you need to know in 3 seconds”.63 Among the ideas presented starkly in “The Train Job” is that the principle focus of the show will be on the “men” (a group that includes Zoe, as a fellow soldier and “warrior woman”) who drink in saloons and get in fights –albeit while also playing Chinese checkers, which adds a friendly ironic touch to the macho Western setting. Through this exposition, Mal and Zoe’s “browncoat” history is presented as the excuse for Mal to get into a fight with obnoxious and ignorant ‘hillbilly’ apologists for the Alliance on “Unification Day,” and for Jayne to present his own humorously self-interested ethics (“Don’t look at me, I didn’t fight in no damn war”). The opening scene’s finale, also quite funny, has Wash arriving xenith-like in the Serenity and announcing to the terrified bar patrons below the ship his threat to “stand down or I will blow a new crater in your tiny little moon.” In a later episode, “Safe,” Mal and Zoe enter a scene with guns drawn to rescue Simon and River from likewise ignorant townsfolk and Mal announces, “Well, ain’t we here in a nick of time? What does that make us, Zoe?” “Big damn heroes, sir.” “Ain’t we just?” The wry nonchalance of these pronouncements does not undermine the notion of an ethical core guiding these rescue scenes (even if the rescue in “Safe” is necessary because of actions Mal took earlier and his decision to abandon Simon and River). But the message is clearly that these wise-cracking ruffians adhere to a code of ethical consideration for one another and a desire to do what’s right— a team of players who always have each other’s back, even as they talk fast and witty rings around their opponents.

I argue that Firefly follows the traditional Hollywood Western generic model even, or especially, when it ironically interrogates its central male character, Malcom Reynolds, the ostensible “hero” of the narrative, in order to raise questions about the nature of heroism, leadership, and masculinity. To further signal its Western references and credentials, Mal wears a leather duster and speaks with a drawl. The series’ production decisions are likewise significant: Whedon and other producers intentionally chose a mix of visual references to the 19th century American frontier, Civil War history, and World War II machinery to create an early version (in 2002) of a “steampunk” aesthetic, which operates as a visual vocabulary for the themes and issues that the series wants to foreground: role of the state and governance, personal freedom, and the nature of a team or “family.” And in the course of elaborating these concerns, the show exposes the centrality of gender and sexual difference to each of these questions. The aesthetics of its settings and costumes reiterate some of these questions through the show’s mashing together (or catachresis) of these disparate historical and cultural referents.64 The imagery of “the good war” (World Wars I and II), for example, implied in Jayne’s vintage leather costumes follows through to the appearance of the ship: rusty metal, rounded edges, turn-of-the-century industrial—authentic and honest, in other words.

[insert the stampeding horses still]

Returning to comments Whedon made at the ComicCon of 2012 –“I wanted to make something that felt like a piece of history”—we find they take on added significance in view of these dynamics of genre and referent. The opening sequence of each episode of Firefly climaxes with a stirring, and rather ludicrous, shot of a herd of stampeding horses on a desert plain over which the spaceship Serenity suddenly rises up and flies at the viewer. This shot is accompanied by banjo and fiddle music especially written for the series by Greg Edmondson, a stirring bit of Americana that accompanies particular scenes and characters as a kind of signature.65 The musical themes and the precise “feel” of the series relies on such images and sounds--nostalgic musical codes and familiar pop culture narratives--and several critics have noted how the show uses music to be an important source of narrative affect. That particular mix of atmosphere and pathos signifies as both national and historical, and decidedly “white”—the ‘hillbilly’ aspect of many of the rim planets is motif that runs through the TV series. The Western as a genre likewise plays on both the West’s racialized history and presumptions about national identity, as well as the association of authenticity and honesty (often understood as lack of hypocrisy) with distance from the cosmopolitan centers of power.66

This association of hypocrisy and deception with more developed societies runs through Euro-American cultural history going back to, at least, Michel de Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” (15xx), following through Voltaire’s Candide, and into Rousseau’s coining of the Romantic trope of “the noble savage”—and Whedon clearly enjoys working both sides of that generic legacy. In this vein, Lorna Jewett has argued that the series articulates a valorization of “authenticity” and personal human embodiment in contrast to the dehumanizing surveillance and technological control of the Alliance. Jewett and other critic-fans tend to accept and appreciate the nostalgic ethos of what counts as authenticity, integrity, and freedom in the Firefly series (more on Serenity later in the chapter). Each of these terms has a loaded history that Firefly/Serenity somewhat predictably rehearses for its viewers, although with the caveat that the “long game” of this generic complicity is more interesting than simple imperialist nostalgia. In the episodes of Firefly, the contrast between the frontier of the rim planets and the civilization of the Core is most often narrativized through flashbacks to the hyper-privileged childhood Core home of Simon and River Tam. The presumed but subtle corruption of their family’s wealth is confirmed in these scenes, as well as in the dire circumstances that place the brother and sister on the Serenity—they have chosen not to belong to that upper-class society.

Likewise, the desert landscapes of the planets that the Serenity visits further underlines this “wild west” aesthetic and its function for the series’ narrative. In film and television, the visual vocabulary of science fiction has relied on images of desolate landscapes to invoke uninhabited, and/or barely habitable, lands where humans might be able to survive. The makers of Firefly latched onto this desert landscape trope for reasons that were both thematic and practical (they cost less). The barren desert landscapes that characterize the “on ground” action in the series also visually refer to the process of imperial expansion practiced by the Alliance in the backstory. That is, in addition to a resonance with iconic western films by John Ford and Sergio Leone, the arid landscapes of the rim planets the Serenity visits are a visual reminder of the Alliances’s state and technological practice of “terraforming” planets in order to make them quasi-habitable for new settler populations. As the voiceover (alternating between Mal and Book) at the start of each episode emphasizes, these are planets “at the edge” of the Alliance’s empire while wealthier cosmopolitan centers are located on the “core planets” and surrounded by an expanding circle of new, often under-supported colonies that exist in increasingly precarious conditions the further from the center of government and commerce they are located.

In the “Serenity” pilot, Zoe explains conditions on the “border moons” that populate the “outer rim” of Alliance territories: “All those moons—just like the central planets, they’re as close to Earth-That-Was as we could make ’em: atmosphere, gravity and such, but. . .” And Mal continues, “Once they’re terraformed, they’ll dump settlers on there with nothing but blankets and hatchets and maybe a herd. Some of the make it, some of them. . .” he trails off meaningfully. The distrust of “governments” in Firefly is thus fortified and justified narratively by the Alliance’s thoughtless and greedy colonial administration, the betrayals at the “Battle of Serenity,” and the vividly felt social and economic inequalities that punctuate so many relationships and scenes in the show—as Canavan notes, in Firefly, “the haves and the have-nots quite literally inhabit different worlds.”67

In the film Serenity, the critique of this settler colonial spatial and social logic is starkly revealed to be the foundation of the series’ ethos, even as questions persist regarding how Firefly/Serenity understands both the “freedom” that Mal prioritizes and the elite and sophisticated “society of control” represented by the Alliance.68 Each episode of Firefly makes it a point to illustrate Mal’s resistance to governmental control and his disidentification against the values and mores of what he and his crew view as a suspect cosmopolitan culture. At the start of “Ariel,” Zoe disdainfully rejects any idea of sampling the luxurious pleasures of “the Core”: “It’s a core planet. It’s spotless, there’s sensors everywhere, and where there ain’t sensors, there’s feds. All the central planets are the same” (Firefly Celebration 242). Mal chimes in, “No one’s setting foot on that fancy rock. I don’t want anyone leaving the ship. Come to think of it, I don’t want anyone looking out the windows. Or talking loud” (243). Mal’s arbitrary orders here indicate, albeit humorously, that his own attitude toward the Core and the show’s general presumption of his ethical superiority might both be based on questionable premises: as a leader, Mal can be dangerously autocratic, as well as occasionally inept, and his “values” are arguably grounded primarily in his own self-interest (i.e. not getting caught). Whether that self-interest coincides with the interests of his “crew” is one of many ongoing questions. Nonetheless, the general narrative arcs and characterizations of the episodes of Firefly consistently affirm and uphold both Mal’s notions of honor and heroism and the primacy of the “freedom” he espouses. And the associations of Mal and the Serenity’s crew with an “authenticity” and honesty that is lacking in the core likewise persist. Jewett understands the “retrofuture” presented in Firefly/Serenity as advocating for “particular sets of values relating to humanity, material authenticity, and physical embodiment” (102)—or as she elaborates, “the marginal/resistant space inhabited by Serenity’s crew is about intimacy, the natural or homemade, authenticity, and freedom” (103).

This discourse of freedom (and other “real” human values) is the thread that runs through the entire series, a centrality underlined in the opening sequence of each episode and the lyrics of the theme song “The Ballad of Serenity” (written by Whedon himself) that announce, “Take my love, take my land/Take me where I cannot stand./ I don’t care, I’m still free/You can’t take the sky from me./ Take me out, to the black/Tell ’em I ain’t coming back./ Burn the land and boil the sea/You can’t take the sky from me.” And yet, for all of its post-apocalyptic insouciance, the twangy theme song has a negative message—negative in the sense that it is grounded in an experience of deprivation and loss and a hope for nothing more than “to go my own way” as Mal will say later. Whedon has commented that he wrote the song “so that it could be sung as a Civil War lament. . . It’s basically a way of saying, ‘We’ve lost.’ Which is not usually what you come in humming in most of your shows” (Firefly: A Celebration, 213). So the frontier as a place of escape from the ills of civilization is also a place of defeat and mourning in which the crew of the Serenity is always ‘on the run.’ And Mal’s own goals are often expressed as frankly self-interested and cynical: not revolution or justice, but simply to keep going his own way, no matter what the costs or consequences to others. “We’re still flying,” he says at the end of the pilot “Serenity.” Book comments, “That’s not much,” and Mal replies, “It’s enough.”

Astute critics of Firefly/Serenity such as Jewett and particularly Canavan have noted the melancholy that permeates the show’s generic mash-up of futurist sci-fi with nostalgic Western, generating what Canavan calls a mood of “melancholic anticipation” (184). In contrast to this fatalism, Jewett approvingly describes the temporality and space of the show as a “space between wilderness and civilization, natural and technological, the space where the triumphs of community and physicality can occur” (112). However, Jewett’s affirmation of the “central redemptive values in the primitive,” reflected in this “retrofuture” version of the frontier myth, signals some troubling complicities in her reading with the histories and discourses of settler colonialism that the Firefly/Serenity franchise ostensibly is criticizing. One of the most obvious complicities that has attracted criticism is the “post-racialism” that permeates the show’s production and casting: in spite of the sprinkling of non-white actors’ bodies and Mandarin Chinese throughout the dialogue (which native speakers consistently complain is incomprehensible as Chinese) and other gestures to a “multicultural” frontier, the sensibility of the show often seems to be grounded in a mainstream, even aggressive, American exceptionalism—as indicated by all the production and narrative references to specifically “American” (i.e. white and settler colonial) histories and values.69

In fact, the surreptitious whiteness and U.S.-centrism of Firefly/Serenity has become known among fans as “orientalism without orientals” when accounting for the odd disconnect between the show’s liberal-minded production choices and its more conservative narrative arcs. That is, the post-racial sensibility expressed in the show’s casting and crowd scenes might work as a “cover” for the rather nostalgic and conventional value system articulated by the narrative. Jewett notes that much contemporary science fiction “valorizes racially marginalized groups because they preserve ‘authentic’ (ethnic) cultural values and thus stand in for real humanity” (106). Jewett appears to acknowledge that this problematic discourse of authenticity involves an “emptying out of cultural identity” in the service its valorizations of the body, the simple life, “real” relationships, and other idealizations of that “authenticity” to contrast it to the dehumanization of the Alliance Core. However, after giving some lip service to the problematic resonances with colonial discourse that this idealization of “authenticity” might lead to, Jewett’s reading of Firefly persistently invokes the West as a locale of freedom, implicitly celebrating Manifest Destiny itself as the history of national self-determination and an antidote for the alienation, consumerist servitude, and antiseptic wealth of life on the Core planets, i.e. cosmopolitan centers. In Jewett, “authenticity” is now yoked to the history of Western expansion, largely nullifying the show’s ostensibly critical reflection on the roles played by colonial conquest and Native American genocide.

So, in telling “an American story” about the frontier and immigration, about making a new life in difficult circumstances, Firefly tacks a tricky line among nostalgic celebrations of the national myths of settler colonialism, including their invocation of territorial and political expansion, the supreme tenets of personal and political freedom, and a national history and ideology of “American exceptionalism,” even as it suggests a possible critique of those very myths in the popular imaginary. In contrast to Jewett, some critics and fans have argued that the show manages to play on the pleasures of these generic conventions and their nostalgic associations while simultaneously exposing deep links between that history of Westward Expansion, U.S. imperial conquest and genocide, and the rise of a highly exploitive and unfree industrial (and postindustrial) capitalist state in a globalized era—now figured as the rise of the Alliance. Canavan, for instance, understands Whedon’s story as a zombie apocalypse narrative, a reading that relies on a critical interpretation of the relations between the historical referent of the frontier and speculative fiction enacted in the series and its film finale. The narratives of Firefly and Serenity, Canavan writes,

translate the cinematic zombie from its traditional context . . . in order to interrogate not the extrapolative perils of some imaginary future but rather the catalogue of horrors that are already all too real in the present. They offer us a narrative context in which theories of biopolitical statecraft meld with more traditionally Marxist analysis of capitalism and resistance, culminating in a dystopian nexus of biopower, biocapitalism and neoliberalism to which zombies allegorise an unexpectedly Utopian alternative (175).

While Canavan’s argument is powerful, it highlights the uneasy resonances that stalk the pleasures of the Firefly/Serenity franchise and its ironic reframing of U.S. history, which encourages audiences’ belated recognition of the roots of global inequality in the injustices of an ongoing settler colonial society. One of these roots would necessarily involve the racial history of the frontier and Whedon’s flirtations with a sort of “white guilt” that acknowledges how whiteness and its associations and privileges are the pregiven conditions for the particular “Western” genre of characters and plotlines that dominate the narrative and its preoccupations. Firefly/Serenity indicates some willingness to expose that historical guilt, but perhaps not to give up the pleasures of the myths of freedom, community, and leadership produced from it. One could even say that Firefly/Serenity draws on the Western genre’s own articulation of an ambivalence lodged in both historical and contemporary incarnations of questions of national identity, political ethics, notions of freedom, and especially the tenets of a “national manhood” that play an integral role in these imaginaries.70 In a sense, Whedon’s disingenuous joke at ComicCon about needing “space ships” for his own pleasure camouflages a specific and intentionally speculative, i.e. sci-fi, mode of interrogating the frontier myth through fictionalization. This speculative mode enables an ironic critique of the histories and present incarnations of the economic, gender, and racial systems signified by the Western genre.

But while the critical ironies attached to the show’s understanding of settler colonial history and the type of masculinity and masculine leadership it engenders are evident at many levels, Firefly/Serenity persistently demonstrates a visual and narrative nostalgia for those kinds of environments (western, dry, non-technological, “rough,” more human and connected) and the kinds of protagonists and stories associated with them (heists, saloons, country dances, codes of honor, etc). The role of genre and generic mash-ups are therefore central to how viewers will understand the show’s references to both the settler colonial frontier and the Western’s glorification of that imperialist enterprise—an enterprise associated in the traditional, and conservative, national imaginary with progress, freedom, human advancement, and “individualism,” i.e. an ethos grounded in the valorization of certain kinds of individuals exemplified by the leading (white) men who “conquered” the frontier and the women and men who love them.

Susana Loza’s work on steampunk demonstrates how such references to an imperial past and the deployment of specific generic markers should be read carefully. While steampunk retains the aura of a resistant and subversive generic intervention into the whiteness of both science fiction and imperial historical imaginings, these ostensibly subversive mash-ups of science fiction and Anglophile colonial paraphernalia can signify in ambiguous ways.71 Many adherents of the steampunk subculture have promoted its utopic aspects: “Steampunk is not about ‘history’ as we know it to be. It’s about history as we can imagine it, or perhaps what it should have been” (The Vixenne, in Loza). But as with Jewett’s idealization of the human “authenticity” of experiences and characters on the Serenity, these speculative narratives sometimes appear to release genre from the constraints of a white supremacist colonial history and thus could be seen as a denial, and erasure, of that history. That is, while anti-realist re-appropriations of a glorified but implicated colonial history—one that is known for its participation in racial genocide, greed, exploitation, slavery, land expropriation, etc.— can enable a utopic revisioning of the frontier as multiracial and liberatory (i.e. non-white), it also might offer that utopia as a cover for the U.S. hegemony and white supremacy that remain embedded in the “new” sci-fi narrative. This dangerous double-edge of genre and generic appropriation is precisely where Firefly spends much of its narrative time.

Two views have dominated academic and fan discussions of Firefly/Serenity: the show advocates for a “return” to the freedoms of the frontier-style, outlaw comraderie depicted in the series (although with such a “return” it promotes the race and gender hierarchies likewise embedded in that past) OR Firefly/Serenity offers a searing exposure of the unacknowledged horrors of western expansion and the genocidal racial logics that are its legacy; a legacy that, as Canavan argues, finds its most intense expression in the biopolitical present of state and economic “societies of control” which are figured in the show by the Alliance and its abuses. In a sense, the contested nature of “freedom” itself becomes an important crux for this question of what the mash-up of sci-fi and Western genre tv and film is doing in Firefly--raising the related question, for whom is freedom even an issue? The freedom that Mal pursues is contrasted most overtly to the complacency of those in the “core” planets who enjoy the luxuries of privilege and technology.

The wealth of the core is understood as a complicit product of the deprivations and exploitations that occur in the “rim” territories and of the social control exerted by the Alliance, which is displayed in the stiff and artificial interactions among the Tam family. And these interactions highlight how inauthentic even familial love can be, such as when when in a flashback, Simon’s proud father (played by xXXX) says when he is bestowing a fancy new gadget on his son, “Do you think I’d let you work with something that’s second rate?. . . You’re worth it.” (“Safe”). The message that in this world even children are assessed by their “worth” and the cost of the support and attention they get from their parents is further confirmed in this episode when Simon later confronts his parents with the truth of what is happening to River at the government-run school. Refusing to believe either of their children’s pleas for help, Mr. Tam informs Simon who is determined to sacrifice his position to rescue his sister that “you’re not taking us down with you.. . You’re on your own.” As it is for the communities in the rim planets, freedom for the characters on the Serenity is, to an extent, simply a function of previous experiences of abandonment.

III. Rethinking Gender, Race, and Governance in Firefly/Serenity

More often though, the freedom offered by the Serenity is presented as freedom from the interference and control of authorities, or at least that is the claim made by Mal and his crew. In this endeavor, Mal and the crew (and the audience, for that matter) assume that as the “captain,” Malcolm Reynolds is the indispensable leader whose sacrifice, fierce protectiveness, and superior skills will guarantee their survival.72 These links between strong leadership and the guarantee of freedom in liberal democratic theories of governance are foundational to the generic logics of both the western and science fiction—and these ideological and generic legacies render Mal’s white male leadership and its necessity a “natural” fact in both the fictional verse of the show and the implied referents in contemporary and historical U.S. society it gestures toward. By relying in particular on the tropes of the Western, Firefly is able to evasively presume certain associations: authenticity, care, and realness with the lower-class, outsider types that populate the “rim,” while corruption, dishonesty, and dehumanization are the hallmarks of the wealthy and advanced “core.” And these divisions in social geographies and values bring with them the various distinctions in styles of masculinity that are embodied in the continuum that locates Jayne, Mal and Simon as distinct kinds of men who figure distinct social echelons. The episode “Ariel” allows for some of these tensions to reach a combustion point and helps clarify how the show asks us to understand what is at stake in both Mal’s masculinity and the freedom he, and apparently the show itself, espouses.

Ariel” begins with an interesting twist, in that after some plot manipulations, it turns out Simon has both a profitable job for the crew and his own, heretofore untapped, potential for effective leadership. The episode shifts the series’ usual tone and atmosphere from a Hollywood Western to a Hollywood heist caper, à la Ocean’s Eleven. Several useful plot and character transformations are set up in the first half of this episode, most especially the elevation of Simon from object of contempt and ridicule to the mastermind of a difficult job and source of specialized knowledge: both about the hospital he wants to “break into” and the street value of the expensive medications the Serenity can steal and sell to Rim communities that need them desperately. As Wash says, “It’s all very heartwarming, stealing from the rich to sell to the poor, but. . .” (“Ariel”), showing how this flip in perspective is played for laughs in the first scenes of the episode. Now it is Simon who must show the others how to behave and what is important for survival, such as when he is patiently, but painfully trying to teach Mal, Zoe, and Jayne the medical jargon needed to impersonate skilled EMT professionals. Another reversal is that Simon’s comfort with the social codes of the Core and knowledge of its secrets (location of checkpoints, which ones actually count, etc) now convert from being causes for suspicion and contempt to great resources for the crew.

This new valorization of a cosmopolitan, expertise-based masculine leadership permeates the framing of Simon throughout the episode—visually and through montage sequences as well as in dialogue and plot. Simon’s remasculinization is particularly palpable once the team has successfully infiltrated the hospital and River (uncannily) points out a patient who “needs” his help, due to the incompetence of the attending physician. Risking their exposure, Simon rushes to the bed and quickly administers the correct procedure, saves the patient’s life, then berates the hapless doctor before moving on, back to their caper and the adoring eyes of River, who comments, “This is where you belong but you gave it up for me…” While ostensibly staged to illustrate both his high-level expertise as a doctor and the sacrifice he has made to “save” River, this heroic tableau is highlighted by the juxtaposition of Simon’s decisive actions with River as rapt audience. Her growing instability also underlines how the thick line of sexual difference is maintained as the principle engine for plots that turn on male heroism: men save lives; women (and various ‘others’) are saved.

Up until this Simon-based episode, that narrative need to “save” the woman or girl has been embodied by Mal, whose own attitude to the cosmopolitan values of the Core is, as previously explained, highly skeptical if not downright hostile. In the fourth episode, “Shindig,” the Serenity lands on a remote rim planet in order to deliver Inara to a wealthy and influential client. Because of a “job,” Mal and Kaylee end up at the same fancy ball that Inara is attending with her smooth and appreciative client-escort, Atherton [played by xxx]. This episode uses the setting of a formal, elite social occasion to at first ironize Mal’s rough and inept behavior and how out-of-place and even useless he is—particularly when it comes to helping the innocent but unschooled Kaylee negotiate upperclass codes of femininity and behavior, which she desperately wants to do, if only for a night. But Mal’s brutal honesty reveals itself as true moral superiority, especially once we see the cruelty of the elite women toward Kaylee and the nonchalant greed of Atherton, who expects to be able to “buy” Inara as his permanent mistress. Atherton’s very ease, courtesy, and sophistication become markers of his moral hollowness and his cowardice, both of which are fully revealed when Mal stupidly but bravely ends up challenging Atherton to a duel because of an insult to Inara (even though previously Mal has been the most openly callous about calling her a “whore”).

Even with the ironic inflection provided by Inara’s exasperated fencing instructions for a clumsy, inexpert Mal, he emerges as a clearly superior sort of man. Underlining this superiority, especially over Atherton and his privileged ilk, seems to be the primary goal of the narrative arc of the episode, while also offering a glimpse into the moral corruption and social cruelty that upholds the fine airs and luxuries of the core. It is not incidental that Atherton proves to be both the more deeply callous person and a coward who loses his duel with Malcolm Reynolds. The shading of humorous irony in “Shindig” (back on the ship, Jayne, Book, and Simon play poker by betting with domestic chores as the collateral) allows it to traffic in what are ultimately quite conventional notions of masculine and feminine difference. This narrative arc also signals that feminine innocence, honor, and beauty exist primarily to be “defended” and upheld or disparaged by the men.73 In this value scheme, Mal’s roughness remains a sign of his authenticity.

Mal’s contrast with Jayne plays a crucial role in the “Ariel” episode, even as the episode works to destabilize some of the show’s apparent hierarchies of frontier emotional and social authenticity vs. cosmopolitan pretensions and thoughtless greed. In “Ariel,” the increasing respect the viewer has for Simon is mirrored in Jayne’s face and his experience of both Simon and River at the hospital. Once Simon uses the hospital’s hi-tech imager to narrate the horror of what River has experienced (“they opened her skull,” he says pointing, “again and again..”), Jayne looking troubled, signals his change of heart and desire to abandon his plan to use the hospital heist to betray Simon and River, who he’d like off the ship, and turn them over to the Alliance. Here, Firefly deploys another kind of irony—dramatic irony, in that although the viewer understands what Jayne has done, Simon and River remain oblivious. In one scene, the group—now escaping for “real”— encounters the Alliance agents pursuing them and Jayne is able, barely, to manage the group’s escape by brutally and graphically twisting an agent’s neck, showing Jayne’s capacity for both horrific violence and impressive strength—hallmarks of the “primitive masculinity.”74 But it is precisely this capacity for violence and murder that make Jayne a “leader” in their escape from the hospital.

The “Ariel” episode shows Jayne to be simultaneously a necessity and a problem, and the episode’s finale hinges on the issue of his betrayal—and what that betrayal reflects about him as a male character, a member of the crew, and a potential leader. In discussing this episode, the writer Jose Molina expresses particular admiration for the final scene and what it shows about the characters of Mal and Jayne. This sequence begins on the ship after the hospital caper ends successfully and all the crew are safely on board, joking warmly. As the others walk to the dining area, Mal holds Jayne behind, suddenly slamming the side of his head with a wrench, and hurls him into the ship’s entry holding area where he throws open the ship’s doors. What had seemed to be a pleasant shifting of the balance of authority, if not power, among men in this episode, particularly opening new gender and leadership options beyond the militaristic paradigm, is now restored to a confrontation between Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne, as a “threat” to the crew of the Serenity—and thus to Mal’s authority and his ship.

Their dialogue emphasizes the stakes: when Jayne cajoles him, “Come on Mal, it’s not personal. It wasn’t like I betrayed you to the feds,” Mal responds: “You did it to me and that’s a fact.” This dramatic finale reveals the central dynamics that govern Mal’s understanding of his position and role in relation to the ship and its crew. As the “sovereign” of the Serenity, Mal’s authoritarian tendencies take on a double valence that I am not sure the show ever resolves. On the one hand, he is a benign, even self-deprecating paternal figure who leads with “love” –as he insists in the final moments of the film Serenity. On the other, Mal’s speedy decisions to dispose of Jayne, as well as the repeated expulsions of River and Simon Tam, seem much closer to a “necropolitical” understanding of sovereignty, as elaborated by thinkers including Michel Foucault and Georgio Agamben to describe the biopolitical, and imperial, state. Summarizing African philosopher Achille Mbembe on his theory of “necropolitics,” Canavan notes, “Sovereignty in this (post)colonial valence operates in accordance with a zombic logic of quarantine and extermination: ‘sovereignty means the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.’”75 (‘Necropolitics’ 21). Mal’s authority and power to act are normally presented as necessary and right, but at times the show suggests the resonances of his actions with authoritarian control and tyranny. Canavan asserts that the character Mal and director-writer Whedon are essentially cognizant of the doomed nature of Mal’s leadership and its complicity with the equally doomed totalitarian rule and post-apocalyptic society of the Alliance.76 But although firefly/Serenity raises questions about Mal and his leadership as a mirror to the rule of the Alliance, I argue that, as the central male figure and protagonist, Malcolm Reynolds ultimately emerges unscathed by—and perhaps even cleansed of—the sins of both sovereign leadership and masculinity.

Equally illuminating is Jayne’s seemingly final response to his imminent death: he pleads with Mal not for his life, but to help him hide the shame of his betrayal: “when they ask what happened, why, make something up. Don’t tell ‘em what I did.” The self-interest that characterizes Jayne has now converted into a preservation of his reputation/memory, a self-defense against posthumous shame: and by pleading with Mal to hide his crime from the others in “the crew,” Jayne reveals he cares about more than just his material skin. In fact, shame saves Jayne: in that Mal relents and lets Jayne back onto the ship and into the fold, without exposing him (and thus establishes a complicity between the two on questions of masculine power and violence –and betrayal?). As one of the defining moments that points toward how the Firefly/Serenity narrative intends to resolve the questions of masculinity and leadership that it sets in motion, this climatic confrontation between Jayne and Mal establishes how forms of masculinity and the problem of “shame” are the key elements driving the ship and the narrative.

The narrative avenue for Mal’s redemption is exactly the same as its potential unraveling: the nexus of leadership, shame, and masculinity and the relation of all these to the difference of the feminine. The show’s conception of femininity is most often presented in firefly/Serenity as both archetype and alternative, albeit sometimes with a hint of tongue-in-cheek irony. I’ve tried to show how in enacting a hyperbolic conflict of masculinities throughout its storylines—often to the point of parody-- Firefly nevertheless upholds the dominance of men and of masculine difference while simultaneously drawing attention to the variations and performances of hegemonic masculine norms across the array of the show’s male characters. This emphasis on that variety and the conflicts which emerge from it has the effect of underlining the performative, even arbitrary, nature of these masculine norms. In Serenity, the film further emphasizes the series’ seemingly ironic assertion that the very nature of “leadership” is a question, or function, of sexual difference. This insistence on gender is foregrounded in the film’s framing of River as both the problem and the savior for the Serenity and its crew: that is, River offers an ongoing opportunity for Mal, Simon, Jayne and others to rescue her, but she is also finally revealed to be the potential agent of their very survival—the difference that will save them. This complex but familiar narrative dynamic around difference (think of the ‘magic black man’ and romanticisations of Native American pre-modern connection to nature) further demonstrates River’s odd and paradoxical function as a catalyst for masculine redemption, especially Mal’s, while simultaneously threatening to usurp the agency of leadership from Mal and the lesser pretenders to his role, such as Jayne or even Simon.

The various ways that the television show Firefly introduced River would not initially suggest that her character will rise to this central leadership function, as I suggest she does in Serenity. Beginning in the pilot in a passive, lifeless, fetal position and then described by Kaylee as “exquisite,” River settles into her role as an enigma, a problem to be solved or a burden to be debated, in ways that other characters are clearly not. Stylized in hyper-feminine flowing skirts, whispery dresses, and camisoles, River most often can be found walking barefoot about the ship, highlighting her otherness to the ship’s purpose and mission—and more like a Shakespearean sprite than an SF-Western character. That is to say, River is pure “girl”, a term that Whedon and the other writers toss around gleefully in both the TV show episodes and the film Serenity. The frightening pursuit of the Operative in Serenity is encapsulated by his early question, “Where are you hiding, little girl?” and its irony for both his character and the viewer, all of whom know River is simultaneously a child, a scary female with intuitive powers, and a weapon developed by the Alliance. The TV series elaborates this gendering of River methodically over its many episodes, often to both dramatic and humorous effect. In the big rescue scene in “Safe” (when Mal and Zoe joke about being “big damn heroes”), Mal responds to the superstitious villagers who want to burn River at the stake because “She’s a witch” with the infamous quip, “Yeah, but she’s our witch.”

Presented almost allegorically, it is River’s femininity that makes her a witch and that constitutes a persistent threat to “the crew” (i.e. the civic community) of the Serenity. Like Inara, her gender difference is underlined in both the hyper-feminine clothing and in the styling of her body and actions: River walks lightly and elegantly—always barefoot, listens to and watches others a bit too intently, and seems to have uncanny insights to spare. In the TV series’ last episode, “Objects in Space,” several characters complain that River “knows things she shouldn’t.” This emphasis on her feminine intuition and unsettling capacities, especially psychic ones, becomes the justification for widespread suspicion and alarm among the crew, even those who claim to be her close friends. River wanders the ship, “hearing” what no one can say and watching Wash and Zoe in an embrace while the camera and her body movements make it clear she is experiencing their sexual desire directly. The information conveyed in these scenes is that River has no boundaries, psychic or otherwise. The arc of this episode makes it equally clear that these gendered powers make River more than just an outsider, they render her dangerous and expellable.

Throughout Firefly, the question of sexual difference is consistently posed in largely conventional terms and female characters, especially, cleave to a standard of femininity that confirms the ancillary and defining role of female sexual difference in narrative dynamics.77 But as a narrative totality, Firefly/Serenity goes further and I think adds an important metacommentary on what that such difference does to the story, and to the community—both in the narrative and in a categorical, and allegorical, sense. “Objects in Space” offers a provocative foreshadowing of where the show might have gone, and indicates some of the representational grammar that Whedon will bring back in the 2006 film Serenity.78 Not only does River take center stage in this episode, but another key difference—racial difference—is introduced in a weighted and, as I say above, allegorical manner. In the first part of this episode, River’s status on the Serenity is debated at length, and Kaylee informs the others of River’s uncanny and deadly skill with a gun in an earlier episode (“Frankly, she scared me” Kaylee concludes about the time River saved her life). Simon is both aghast at what he hears and stricken by the apparent consensus that his sister may be too dangerous to keep on board.

Kaylee plays a catalyst role in what ensues, but one whose valence is hard to decipher: the fear she expresses to the others about River is both genuine and a betrayal, a kind of hysterical misreading of River’s capacities and intentions that mediates for the more easily dismissed hostility of Jayne. Kaylee is again alarmed and terrified when a man appears in her quarters. The viewer has been watching this man, a bounty hunter whose name is revealed to be Jubal, or Abe, Early, as he has pursued the ship undetected; so the suspense for the viewer has been focused on this character and his intentions.79 The first dialogue between Early and Kaylee is starkly revealing of how these various plot functions and characters are going to be framed: Jubal Early immediately begins waxing poetic in a creepy vein, “I like this ship. Serenity. She’s good looking.” The fact that Early is both menacing and then seen sexualizing the ship has added significance since he is also African American, played by Richard Brooks. Thus his monologue’s quick segue to “You ever been raped?” is freighted with historical meaning as Early intensifies his terrorizing of the stunned Kaylee. “There’s nobody can help you. Say it!” “There’s nobody can help me,” Kaylee obliges, as tears fill her eyes. While the dialogue indicates a particular and interesting turn of mind in this villainous character, Firefly exposes the soft underbelly of its narrative direction in this overtly racist plot twist. Not only is the dangerous bounty hunter pictured as a Black man, but he arrives with sex, rape, and murderous violence on his mind—even as he protests he’s only after River.80

The history of racial representation in science fiction is an ambiguous one, perhaps even more so than the history of gender representations. As Adilifu Nama argues in his work, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film, the generic traditions of science fiction have relied on a stance of “neutrality” that has had the effect of erasing race in space: from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Star Trek to Star Wars (the last two franchises being important referents for Firefly/Serenity), space has been pictured traditionally as a race-free (i.e. all white) zone. Nama notes that the very signification of a black body, character, or actor “was too concentrated, too weighted down by history, geography, and social location, to aesthetically transcend and diffuse into the ethereal imaginative space” of canonical sci-fi films, making it difficult (or “impossible” many would say) for the audience to enter into the suspension of disbelief and “temporal speculation” that were considered fundamental pillars of the genre (11). But in several instances of firefly/Serenity, Whedon uses this hyper-significance of race in a persistently allegorical fashion. Setting aside the multiracial, or postracial, casting of the main crew, the figuring of black masculinity in two very central narratives-- this final episode of the TV series and the film Serenity—indicates a complicated mix of complicity and possible ironic critique in how Firefly/Serenity understands the interplay of racial and sexual difference and stereotypes within its main storylines.81

In “Objects in Space,” Jubal Early operates as both a quintessential black rapist and as a double figure for River (since they are both “outsiders” with River announcing in the episode’s opening scenes that “I don’t belong”). This metacommentary on their shared difference and problem status is mirrored in Brooks’ expert portrayal of Jubal’s intelligence and oddness; he clearly doesn’t “belong” either (not in a sci-fi story and not on the Serenity) and the irony of his presence is made explicit throughout the episode. But like the Operative in Serenity, played by Afro-British actor Chiwetal Ejiofor, Early is finally revealed to be more “truly” suspect and disposable than River. The question of who can, or should, be “let go” is thematically central to “Objects in Space”—in part because River soon disappears from view and is perceived by both the audience and other characters as a disembodied voice, adding substantially to her own creepiness factor. “I’m not on the ship,” she announces to Early and the others through the intercom system, “I am the ship.” As both River and Early speak in enigmatic aphorisms (“People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” Early tells Simon, “Objects in space. People miss out on what’s solid”), the doubling effect intensifies. But the episode affirms that Jubal Early is the actually dangerous presence and that his intentions and character are both rotten. Significantly, the key revelations come largely through his easy recourse to violence against women: he suddenly hits Inara across the face, saying “Man is stronger by far than woman. But only woman can bear children. Does that seem right to you?” The persistent misogyny and threat of rape and other masculine and sexualized violence that are used to encapsulate Early’s character carry with them a long cultural history of the characterization of black males as hyper-masculine and prone to unprovoked violence.

Both Early and the Operative are presented as dangerous hunters, pursuers of River on behalf of the Alliance, though Jubal does it in a more renegade fashion, which in the value system of the Verse, could render him more sympathetic. But ultimately, both of these agents of the Alliance are against River (and thus the crew) and the racializing of their characters underlines generic and historical lines of affiliation, difference, and disposability. The uncanny connection between River and the Operative and Early express is framed as one of affinity —explicitly sexualized in “Objects in Space” in Early’s statements, though more managerial (and dangerous) as embodied in the Operative in Serenity. The racialized element with Early is subtly ironized, but the narrative dynamics uphold the racist function of a black male threat to white femininity in a narrative schema that turns out to be about who really “belongs” on the Serenity and who is, quite literally, expelled. At the episode’s conclusion, Early is tricked by River into leaving the ship and Malcolm punches him off the ship and into outer space. If Jubal Early is a belated but powerful signal regarding what firefly/Serenity wants to do with both the history and the speculative retelling of the racial content of settler colonial logics, I argue it’s not a pretty picture.

But the ironic inflection that shadows all dialogue and representation in Whedon’s work in Firefly/Serenity offers ample opportunity for a more complicated, and potentially more benign, interpretation of this episode, and perhaps the series’ use of racialized masculinity overall. Both Early and River are inserted into the story as disruptions of the so-called ‘normal’ narrative progression of hero, danger, rescue: Mal is sidelined, trapped in his quarters by Early (as all the other crew members have been), while River and Early match wits and engage in apocryphal dialogues. Visually, however, the generically expected and satisfying progression of the hero is reaffirmed in the end. The conclusion of “Objects in Space” turns on River’s successful execution of her rescue plan for her friends in which she tricks Early into thinking she accepts, and the crew endorses, the idea that “she should go,” as Jayne puts it. But after Mal punches Early off the ship and into space, the penultimate scene shows a happily grinning River in a space suit floating down into Malcolm Reynolds’s arms in a picture that emphasizes her child-like qualities and dependence on Mal, who is once again the benign patriarch. Whedon’s DVD commentary announces that this is the episode in which River is finally accepted as one of the crew. And the visual and narrative return to Mal’s arms and sphere of authority will be repeated in Serenity so that both stories raise questions about how disruptive River’s feminine difference is ultimately allowed to be, even when she has clearly “saved” everyone and no longer requires any protection at all.

[still of River floating down to Mal]

IV Freedom and Difference in Serenity: A Progress (ive) Narrative?

Like its containment of River, the interjection of racialized masculinity is largely, though not completely, held to generically ideological norms in both the tv series and the film. The very final scene of “Objects in Space” offers an unexpected coda in which Early is shown spinning through space and speaking (though no one who is listening other than the viewer), “Well, here I am.” The dryly self-aware statement underlines how Early is an oddly sympathetic villain, one who blurs the usual generic lines between a protagonist figure and a villainous obstacle. Beginning inside a framed narrative that is also a trick of cinematic visual and narrative layering, the 2006 film Serenity further underlines the doubling of River and new character of the Alliance Operative, the other significant Black villain in the franchise. The film opens with a voiceover, a female voice that explains how the Alliance saved “the savage outer planets” from their own barbarism. This voice and the teacher who is then shown telling the story to River’s younger self in an idyllic outdoor school both turn out to be part of a nightmare River is having while being operated upon and turned into “a weapon” in the Alliance’s laboratory. Here, the Alliance project director is explaining River’s amazing capabilities, her “extraordinary grace,” and the unfortunate “instability” that is due to “the neural stripping” involved in their experiments on her. For those familiar with the show, the fact that this scientist is explaining these facets of River’s treatment to an official-looking Simon signals that we are witnessing a flashback to his original rescue of River, which took years of planning and organizing. In its turn, this escape sequence is revealed to be a hologram recording of that rescue, which the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) reviewing.

As gorgeously and astutely embodied by Ejiofor, the Operative is both officious and terrifying –with a confident sense, apparently justified, of his own superiority. He condescendingly admonishes the director that no, it was not “madness” that impelled Simon to plan his rescue, but rather “love, in point of fact, something a good deal more dangerous.” And then continues, “Do you know what your sin is doctor? It’s pride”—before replaying a tape recording of the director’s insistence that “key members of Parliament” had observed River, which turns out to be a bad idea since she is “a psychic.” While this scene is clearly meant to demonstrate both how dangerous and omniscient the Operative is in his understanding of the situation involving River, it also exposes the logic of how he, and perhaps the movie, understands questions of leadership, masculinity, and honor. As he “helps” the director to literally fall on a sword, the Operative says soothingly, “This is a good death. There’s no shame in this. A man’s death, a man who has done fine works. We’re making a better world. All of them, better worlds.” This emphasis, somewhat pompously announced, on what constitutes “a good death. . . A man’s death” is made all the more menacing coming from the Operative.82 Serenity underlines how the officious condescension of the Operative –like that of River’s old teacher—are both a function and a reflection of the paternalistic logics that dominate the governance of the Alliance and feed, for instance, the Operative’s assurances that he can offer verdicts on what sort of death he is dishing out. The all-knowing, all-seeing control of the Alliance is shown to be simultaneously inescapable and rotten to its core. In the film, Whedon doubles down on these links between an underlying corruption and even horror that permeates the Alliance’s biopolitical “better world” –one that threatens the Serenity and its fiercely independent crew even more than we may have understood.

This threat and horror are most clearly embodied in the Reavers, a group that is spoken of from the first episode of Firefly, though only very seldom and intermittently pictured in the series. The specter of the Reavers work as the correlate for what is dangerous and terrifying about the frontier realm of “the rim planets”— a threat embodied in shadowy but horrifying figures capable of unthinkable violence and cannibalistic attacks and enslavement—a sort of counterweight to the Alliance’s evil doings in “the Core.” Usually in the tv series, the Reavers remain an unseen terror, as when the usually bold Jayne insists, “I aint goin anywhere near Reaver territory” in the first episode. The Reavers indicate the show’s combined critical framing of settler colonial racial logics (since they are the savage Other, i.e. Native American monsters) and the biopolitical governance of an inhuman galactic mega-state of the Alliance.83 Reavers are presented as the zombies of this post-apocalyptic biopolitical state while simultaneously figuring the savagery of “men who went to the edge of space” and were “too long in the black” –the series’ name for the frontier threshold beyond the inhabited Rim planets. As discussed earlier, this “black” space carries a double significance as the potential utopia where freedom is possible (“take me out to the black, tell them I ain’t comin back”) and the threat of an apocalyptic destruction of men and society (“burn the land, boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me”).

The logics of “race war,” explained by both U.S. Western historian and genre scholar Richard Slotkin and French philosopher Michel Foucault as foundational to the modern nation-state, underpin the depiction of the Reavers with valences heading simultaneously in several directions. Throughout the series, the Reavers explicitly reference the frontier myth of “savage war” or “race war” and its narrative depictions of of Native American violence, which (as in John Ford’s iconic western, The Searchers) is generically and ideologically figured as a violence of unimaginable barbarity—it cannot be shown or narrated. In terms of the Western genre and the double-edge problem of both race war and the genocide of Native Americans in the historical Western expansion, the Reavers represent this idea of the unspeakable savagery of the “other”/Indian whose racialized associations with violence, barbarity, cannibalism were used to justify their genocide. It is interesting that the Reavers themselves are seldom actually seen or encountered, so they exist primarily as a terrifying story that can paralyze even the violent, hyper-masculine Jayne. Likewise, the Reavers are also a bald statement of what happens to “men” in the frontier’s “fatal environment,” as Slotkin characterizes the ambivalence toward historical American frontier and the literal and figurative “outlaws” that cleared the way for cosmopolitan civilization to expand. Slotkin and others have illustrated how these “Indian Killer” figures necessarily flirt with the danger of becoming a “savage” if they stay too long or g too deep into the frontier’s bleak, lonely landscape, expressing the ambivalence toward the violence and extra-legal activities necessary for Western Expansion.84 Similar language is used to describe the Reavers throughout the Firefly series, “They aren’t men. Or they forgot how to be. They spent too long in looking at the black."

River’s special feminine capacities are particularly important in relation to the Reavers, who haunt the narrative of Serenity alongside the problem of masculine/feminine difference. When the Operative opens the film with his terrifying interrogation of the research facility, he closes by addressing her hologram figure directing, “where are you hiding, little girl?” River is simultaneously a “little girl” in need of protection, from the Operative and also perhaps from herself, but she is also a threat to the safety of the crew as well as a potentially useful psychic—a fundamentally ironic and paradoxical figure. Joss Whedon lightly asserted at the famous 2012 Comic Con panel that River’s character can be summed up as, “If you want to live, follow her.” This paradoxical position becomes the main focus of the film Serenity, once the title sequence and the central narrative begin and we see Malcolm and Simon arguing over whether River will go on a dangerous (and obviously illegal) bank heist job to steal payroll money from a privately contracted security company hired by the Alliance to police a remote rim planet. So with lots of banjo music, witty dialogue, and posturing with weapons, the film opens by establishing the crew of the Serenity as newly ambiguous figures, more outlaws than soldiers. As Jayne says smugly, “Let’s go be bad guys.”

Although this irreverent and sly tone dominates the opening scenes that introduce the characters from Firefly and their mission to the movie audiences of Serenity, River’s femininity and difference are underlined insistently and without irony. Once on the frontier planet for their bank heist, River’s psychic abilities are linked to the Reavers in a way that reveals the central preoccupations and plotlines and the logics that have been at work in the larger narrative arc of Firefly/Serenity.85 While Mal is below in the vaults, River is shown suddenly overtaken by a vision of horrific scenes of violence that literally throw her to the ground, twitching as her eyes fly open and she whispers in terror, “Reavers!” This quick interjection of horror film generic markers and responses creates a jarring shift in tone and narrative but conveys the otherwise unspeakable and key role the Reavers have. The following sequence dramatizes the violent, unstoppable threat of these cannibal attackers: the terror invoked by their obscured faces, dark bodies in ripped rags as they rampage, covered in blood, flayed skin, and monstrous teeth is further intensified by the unintelligible zombie-attack sound effects and scraping metal sounds that accompany shots of their dropping down on this outpost community—a depiction that emphasizes the relevance of horror film genre conventions. The terror with which every single main character responds to that single word, “Reavers,” is somewhat explained by River’s quiet, terrified observation that “they want us alive when they eat us.”

[Side-by-side stills of River’s terrified eyes and the Reavers’ attack]

The group’s narrow escape from these Reavers also throws into relief questions surrounding Mal’s leadership as a mix of self-interest, protectiveness, and growing nihilism—as when Zoe worries about a local they didn’t allow onto their shuttle: “in a time of war, we’d never have left a man behind,” she notes. Mal responds, “Maybe that’s why we lost.” Canavan points out that xxxx , but most viewers are likely to accede to Mal’s view that his response is a harsh but pragmatic necessity required to ensure the survival of himself and “his own.”

And yet, the film seems to have been largely turned over to River, in a bit of generic revisionist irony and a dramatic illustration of Whedon’s overall preoccupations with her character and what her feminine difference suggests about this new iteration of the “post-apocalyptic sci-fi western.” Although with the caveats surrounding her sanity (a highly gendered question, as I’ve emphasized), River’s increasingly central role involves her growing superhuman characteristics.86 Particularly, in her first big fight scene, which occurs after the bank heist in a seedy Rim planet bar where Mal is collecting his pay and River and Simon look for a new ride. Unfortunately for River, the Operative has used the resources of the Alliance to embed subliminal triggers into media shown across the galaxy. An odd commercial clearly ‘strikes” her, as audiences watch River’s eyes go blank as she whispers, “Miranda” and then proceeds to ballet kick everyone in the bar, creating a huge Hong Kong action movie-style ruckus at which point one of the bad guys asks Mal, “Do you know her?” and Mal responds dryly, “I really don’t.” The carnage escalates until Mal manages to get a weapon and he and River hold, each pointing a gun at the head of the other; at this moment, Simon enters the scene and yells a phrase in Chinese that induces River to fall to the floor, unconscious. Silently exchanging a look with Simon, Mal then descends and picks up River’s sagging body—apparently she is now a child to be rescued—and stepping over the men she has knocked unconscious and/or killed (it isn’t clear), the group exits the bar.

This scene helpfully encapsulates the logics that I suggest dominate the apparent conflicts of gender and racial difference throughout Serenity. River has the capacity for wielding power, particularly through her body, but it is presented as both a chaotic and vulnerable power. The scenes that follow River’s bar fight involve parallel vignettes: one of the Operative watching, apparently in real time, as Mal carries River out of the bar and information about his military past flashes alongside on the screen and the second of Mal infuriated by the idea that he has been harboring “a ticking time bomb” who poses a threat to “my ship, my crew.” When Mal confronts Simon about River’s dangerous capacities, he asks apocryphally, “What am I going to find when I go in there, the girl or the weapon?” This dehumanization of River intersects in interesting ways with both her childlike qualities and her feminine difference. The innocence—and especially the vulnerability that gave others the power to make her a weapon—are both linked to a gendered lack of self-control. Whether or not it is her fault or will, River is dangerous to others; she carries both information and capacities that are a threat. And both these capacities and her vulnerability to control are underlined when she is “triggered” intentionally by the Alliance; she’s been penetrated, breached--her psyche used and manipulated without her consent. These infringements make River simultaneously an object of sympathy and of horror—raising persistent questions about her humanity and trustworthiness.

As a vessel and a weapon, this problem with her self-possessive agency, her selfhood, makes River unique among the crew of the Serenity. Simon goes to her after the bar scene and finds that she is terrified of going to sleep because of the visions that torture her and which have been made worse by the subliminal message that reached her and provoked the whispered word, “Miranda.” River mutters in agony as she pleads with Simon, “It isn’t mine. It isn’t mine and I shouldn’t have to carry it. Don’t make me sleep again,” as tears run down her face. The slippage from “girl” to “weapon” –a tool to be used by others—is underlined in River’s complaint that her body and mind are not her own, they have been penetrated by things “I shouldn’t have to carry.” This question about who or what River has become is reiterated by Mr. Universe (David Grumholz), a sort of cyber-guru for the Serenity, living at the edges of the Rim planets and out of reach of the Alliance where he can monitor and hack the Verse’s media-information network. Explaining how the particular code that subliminally reached River had been “popping up all over the place,” Mr. Universe comments, “Someone has gone to enormous trouble to find your little friend. And found her they have. Do you know what you’re carrying?”

The other “weapon” developed by the Alliance is, of course, the Operative, whose pairing against Mal in masculine competition is announced repeatedly, as when Inara desperately pleas with Mal to not enter into that competition, “Mal, you cannot handle this man.” But as in Firefly, the seemingly overmatched Captain Reynolds ultimately does prove his ability to “handle” the Operative, a plotline that I argue is central to the overall denouement of the film and that undermines the message of its more radical storyline concerning River and the Reavers. The Operative announces their masculine rivalry upon finally meeting Mal, who has come to rescue Inara even though he knows her call for help is “a trap.” The Operative unctuously purrs, “I’ve read your war record. I know how you must feel about the Alliance. . . But you must know you can’t beat us.” Mal responds “I got no need to beat you. I just want to go my way,” in what appears to be a statement of his guiding ethical principle, at least at this point in the film. For his part, the Operative responds that he prefers to avoid violence, insisting that “I want to resolve this like civilized men” –a loaded word choice, given both the racial signifying of the two actors’ bodies and the characterization of the Operative.

Furthermore, the Operative’s claim to being “civilized” (and so by implication, “honorable”) is quickly undermined by the cosmopolitan ease with which he twists words and meanings (essentially, lies). In the fight that ensues, Mal is brutally beaten while trying to give a good as good as he gets, though he is gasping and writhing even as the Operative barely breaks a sweat. Also, in this fighting scene, the Operative strikes Inara multiple times, brutally and without compunction kicking her in the stomach and across the floor. As with Jubal Early, the Operative’s easy recourse to violence against women juxtaposed to his claim to being counted among “civilized men” implies a revealing bit of characterization. In one of his most-quoted speeches, the Operative then looms over the gasping, prostrate couple, “Nothing here is what it seems. He is not the plucky hero. The Alliance is not the evil empire. This is not the grand arena.” Inara gets her revenge when she replies, “And that is not incense” as a “flash bomb” explodes, allowing Inara and Mal to make their escape. This humiliating, if temporary, defeat of the Operative illustrates once again the superiority of both Mal’s frankly self-interested ethics and his “primitive” masculinity.

Mal is tested, however, by the Operative’s apparently even more ruthless will: the crew of the Serenity returns to Shepherd Book’s remote mining camp refuge to find that it has been mercilessly attacked, killing everyone including the now-dying Book. Book has earlier warned Mal that he would encounter “an Operative, which means trouble you’ve not known. . . Sorta man they’re like to send believes hard. Kills and never asks why.” This question of belief—the Operative’s powerful one and Mal’s lack of one—sets up the comparison between the two men even more emphatically. Later, Mal will say to Inara, with a mixture of accusation and anger, “I got no answers for you, Inara. I got no rudder. The wind blows northerly, I go north. That’s who I am. Maybe that ain’t a man to lead but they have to follow.” Later, at the scene of the massacre of Book and his peaceful mining camp, Mal again speaks to the Operative via remote video communication. The Operative mocks Mal, “You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?” To which Mal responds, “I don’t murder children.” “I do. If I have to,” the Operative replies. “I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.” The crux of this contest between the Operative’s belief and Mal’s “resistance” is now laid bare, and then further explained when Mal responds, “So me and mine got to lay down and die so you can live in your better world?” “Oh, I won’t live there Mal. There’s no place for me, any more than there is for you. I’m a monster, Mal.” This exchange intertwines the two motifs of a) having, or not having, a “cause” and b) the priority of personal freedom over collective good, which together have shaped the narrative arc of Firefly/Serenity as they wind around a visual and affective trunk of masculine identity.

Which belief and which man will ultimately prevail is one question that is raised by this framing in the film Serenity. Another is what sort of leader, and man, will Malcolm Reynolds ultimately prove to be? The rest of the film works to convert the apparent narrative about Mal’s nihilistic emphasis on his own personal freedom to one about his fight for an explicitly principled freedom from control, a fight that Mal ultimately takes back to the Operative and the Alliance. The film establishes how the Alliance figures a tyrannical and overly-controlling governance, broadcast for example in River Tam’s nightmares and Zoe’s repugnance at all things associated with the Core. Whedon may not have intended to deploy racial histories within this narrative critique of authoritarian biopolical control, but undeniably the significance of the Operative’s Afro-British accented black body is registered in the show’s largely U.S. (and European) audiences. Although the “storyworld” of the Verse and the Alliance may purport to be emphatically “postracial,” the narrative of Firefly/Serenity makes too many references to contemporary dynamics and their relation to imperial and colonial histories to be ignored. This ambivalence about what race does, then and now, may account for the oscillating responses of fans: an impassioned mix of critique and adoration that tends to hold the characters and especially their creator above the fray of real history and sociological conflict.

That ambiguity would hold up more convincingly if the optics and the archetypal story didn’t work together so smoothly and in such well-worn ways. The historical correlate of the Alliance’s colonial empire and its uneasy settlement of the rim planets establish the Operative as an ironic character—a coolie (or even Uncle Tom) who is being used by the Alliance and who has “bought into” its expert-knowledge paradigm of good governance. This irony does not work in the Operative’s favor, and viewers are easily conscripted into an allegory featuring him as an oblivious functionary of the state—an errand boy or “assassin” for power, who then learns important lessons in honor and masculinity from the outlaw rebel Malcolm Reynolds. Interestingly, in this video exchange with Mal, the Operative himself invokes the frontier myth and the role of “the fatal environment” that produces a necessary generation of “gunfighters” or “Indian killers’ who can clear the way for the civilization that will follow their violent extra-legal crusade.87 Acknowledging that he, like Mal, is already unfit for the “better world” he wants to help usher in, the Operative echoes the logic that dominated 19th century cosmopolitan ideas about the frontier and what its necessary violence and vigilantism did to the psyches and characters of the men who conquered it—sooner or later, everyone involved becomes a savage. Or in this case, a Reaver.

When the Operative says with a mixture of condescension and commiseration that Mal does indeed “care” if more people die because “You’re not a Reaver, Mal. You’re a human man,” Mal returns to the crew with a plan, but one that exemplifies his nihilistic drive for survival. His plan to, in fact, become a Reaver because “I mean to live. I mean for us to live. And the Alliance won’t have that” is greeted with horror by the crew. Zoe accuses Mal of turning “our home into an abomination” when he orders them to cover the ship in red paint and the bodies of the dead from Book’s mining camp massacre. In confronting “his” crew, Mal reaches a new low point as Captain of the Serenity: he even pulls a gun on his own crew, declaring this “This is how it is.” Mal adds, “I hear a word out of any of you that ain’t helping me out or taking your leave, I will shoot you down. Get to work.” The following scene indicates the cost of this manly authoritarian performance to Mal’s sense of self, as he broods alone, shaking and despairing, on the ship. No one really expects to make it alive to the remote rim planet Miranda, which River has located on a map, on the other side of Reaver territory. While the suicidal nature of Mal’s mission accentuates his own nihilism, the hyperbole in this scene is used largely to frame the dramatic conversion that is imminent and that occurs on the rim planet Miranda: where Mal transforms from being a dangerous and desperate leader focused only on trying “to live” no matter what the cost, to one with a purpose, and most importantly, a cause.

After a tense but successful crossing of the Reaver territory, the Serenity lands on Miranda, an abandoned planet that has been erased from official records and that very oddly appears to be a fully developed and even intact settlement: the Serenity flies over a vast cityscape of buildings and infrastructure and no apparent problems in the atmosphere. The camera follows the perplexed and uneasy crew as they walk together on the empty futuristic sidewalks and corridors between looming buildings until it becomes clear that the place is littered with decayed bodies. The horror of these quiet dead is revealed in the odd absence of signs of violence anywhere: in buildings, at desks, in cars, where it seems “They just lay down,” as Inara observes. River is pictured as she becomes increasingly agitated, until the camera swirls around her as she keens, dropping to her knees, crying out in Chinese and English, “make them stop, they’re everywhere, every city every house every room. They’re all inside me. I can hear them all and they’re saying nothing. . . please God make me a stone. . .” Jayne lurches toward River threateningly, “She’s right! Everybody’s dead! This whole world is dead for no reason.” The passivity of these deaths turns out to be their true horror, as the hologram report of the Alliance investigator Dr. Caron (Sarah Paulson) will confirm,

It’s the Pax, the G-32 Paxilon Hydroclorate that we added to the air processors. . .well, it works… it was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Make it peaceful. . . it worked. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, stopped breeding. . . talking. . . eating…There’s thirty million people here and they all just let themselves die. . . They didn’t even kill themselves. . .they just. . . most starved.”

Dr. Caron then explains she too is about to die because for “about a tenth a percent of the population,” the Pax had the opposite effect: “their aggressor response increased. . . beyond madness.” As she desperately tries to finish her report, “’they’ve killed most of us. .not just killed, they’ve done . . . things,” the gang realizes what the government scientist is telling them: “Reavers. . . they made them,” as Wash puts it. The crew then helplessly watches Dr. Caron die her obviously horrible and painful death when the Reavers break in, a death that is recorded in the hologram report but unseen by the film audience who can only hear her screams. So, the frontier horror of a “fatal environment” and “savage war” both turn out to be a direct result of the colonial power of the Alliance and their horrific biopolitical, and necropolitical, governance. This neat reconciliation of the frontier myth with the film’s critique of the state’s paternalistic and arrogant regime of control draws a logical circle that puts Mal and his “freedom” clearly on the side of all that is good and defensible: simultaneously against the genocide of the settler colonial state but with the independent frontier heroes (of settler colonialism).

In the following scene, Mal is again speaking as the crew’s captain and leader, but this time with a deep, clear and clarifying belief and cause: the world has to see the report that they just saw and know the extent of the Alliance’s genocidal abuse of power. Malcolm Reynolds is no longer enraged or desperate, but grimly determined as he explains that he has come to a decision and that “I am asking more of you than I have. Maybe all. I aim to misbehave.” Having found his cause, Mal now leads a crew equally determined to follow him.

The captain is not the only person who is transformed by what they see on Miranda: River’s desperate outburst at both the sight of all the dead and, it is implied, her psychic experience of vicariously having to live through their deaths, or at least the narrative of them, signal how profoundly Miranda has figured in what was “done” to River at the Alliance’s special school. As the whole crew watches Dr. Caron’s grisly death, Jayne mutters “Turn it off” and all turn away, clearly shaken. River, though, lurches a few steps and then falls to her knees and explosively vomits onto the floor. Her brother rushes to her side and she reassures him, “I’m all right.” Then, she pauses and looks up at him meaningfully, “I’m all right,” River says with confidence and relief, suggesting that the experience of actually “seeing” what had been haunting her dreams has cathartically expurged the damage to her psyche. The conversion narrative that shapes Mal’s trajectory as male hero has a parallel course for River’s character, though it also has a shaky start and unclear trajectory.

From Mal’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in the mess room of the Serenity until the end of the movie, the narrative largely splits between the two trajectories of “leadership,” of Mal and River, with a tangential focus on how the Operative is handling this final showdown. These three figures reflect the options for futurity in the movie, and the overall narrative, which makes the narrative juggling of focus and characterization particularly significant. The mess hall/kitchen scene visually conveys the affective resonances of how Whedon has organized these questions of collectivity and leadership: the crew of the Serenity is gathered around a kitchen table, listening to Mal exhortations to fight to the death for a good cause—a mix of domestic and military registers, showing again how the crew are simultaneously a family and an army unit.88 As he speaks and the others listen, Mal is backlit at the front of the room, by the sunlight from Miranda’s horror-show version of the Alliances biopolitical welfare state governance. But along with Mal in this tableau, we see River, pictured from the side as she rests in a seated lotus position, apparently on the kitchen table, facing ahead and not looking at Mal, but conveying her full attention—her figure next to, and even a little in front of, his. In this moment, her presence carries its own weight, but that hint of special framing takes another turn as Mal comes to the end of his statement that “As sure as I know anything. I know this: they will try again . . . to make people. Better” In the pause between the two last words, Mal looks at River, whose head turns now to look up at Mal, returning his gaze before shifting her own away, with a worried expression. Mal’s suggestion that she herself is a product of the Alliance’s propensity for experiment and overreach to change humanity (into something else) seems clear.

[two stills of the scene: still of River on the table, Mal speaking and now turning to her as he finishes, “better” 1:21:57]

Whether River is beside Mal or looking up at him has significant repercussions on how the viewer understands the place that Whedon has mapped for his adolescent girl hero. River’s emergence in the film’s penultimate sequence is ambiguously caught between that of leader and messianic savior, leaning toward the latter. The magical connotations of “savior” resonate with how River’s position and capacities have wavered between being an asset and a threat to the crew, thus neatly allegorizing how the feminine operates as a necessary but destabilizing and ambivalent supplement to patriarchal life for both men and women. There is a sort of hope or expectation invested in her though, as the crew lands on Mr. Universe’s outpost but is faced with a marauding pursuit of Reavers in a situation that appears hopeless. Unfortunately, River is apparently losing her grip, yet again—possibly due to the psychic impact of the Reavers proximity or possibly because she is simply not reliable. As Jayne complains, “She picked a great time to go coo-coo on us.” While Mal goes off to find Mr. Universe, the rest of the crew tries to fortify a stand against the Reavers, with Zoe and Jayne organizing their efforts. Outgunned and outmanned, as they say, the crew’s mix of non-normative gender styles does not seem to bode well for their chances at surviving this terrible test, their desperate situation expressed in the blood curdling screams of the Reavers heard in the background.89 This scene gains its emotional force, though, when Simon is shot and he and River exchange probably the most affecting dialogue of the film. Every crew member is injured and prone and Simon has a grave wound in his abdomen. He calls out, “River,” and says “I’m sorry. I hate to say good-bye”; she smiles bravely through her tears, “You won’t,” and continues, “You take care of me. You’ve always taken care of me.” River stands and the lights come back on, illuminating a halo around her bare white shoulders, as she says with finality, “My turn.”

In a breathtaking sequence that is infamous among fans and movie critics, River turns and is tracked running with immense speed and grace through the steel doors that must be closed to save her friends—a suicide mission, as Zoe has just pointed out because “No one’s coming back from there.” Hurling headfirst into the antechamber filled with marauding Reavers, River flips into the room, retrieves and throws Simon his medical bag, secures the door, and is last seen being dragged back into the antechamber by bloody Reaver arms, an emblematic image of her own sacrifice, for her brother and the crew. In underlining both her distress and her courage when facing the Reavers, and then her superhuman capacity to “save” everyone, this scene highlights what the series also indicated, that River Tam might be the central figure in the film, in terms of the hope for futurity. And by positing that the ultimate expression of heroic action is embodied in an adolescent (white) girl conquering her own mortal terror, Whedon returns to one of his longstanding tropes (familiar to fans of his iconic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer). These resonances with a general pop culture motif underlines the question, what is the mythical function that is being ascribed to these girls, to River, in the film’s apparent re-envisioning of gender differences and functions? And to what extent does that revision transform the narrative arc and foundational gendering of the “hero’s journey” as illuminated by Mulvey and de Lauretis? Significantly, at this point the film veers back to the drama of Mal and the Operative

While there is no pre-given “logic” that explains River or the fact that she is necessary, the Operative is clearly a foil for Mal’s superiority-- a contest and comparison signaled early on. As they lead into the final battle, the Operative is shown to be even more of a complacent and arrogant jerk, whose misplaced sense of his imminent victory and the innate superiority of his position is underlined visually and in the smirk on his face as he pronounces condescendingly: “You should have let me seen her, Captain. We should have done this as men. Not with fire.” Interestingly, the Operative’s dominant desire proves to be this repeated motif of doing things “as [civilized] men” who don’t resort to violence. The thinness, even lie, of these fine sentiments has already been exposed and plays a role in the final battle between the two and we see again how the Operative is fond of dirty tricks, exposing his desire to believe in those “civilized” ideals offered by the Alliance as a consistent marker of his pathetic false consciousness. I suggest that the Operative’s acquiescence to a misguided system of belief and the role of Malcolm Reynolds in forcing him to finally “see” the real truth constitutes the true ending of the movie. That the Operative must learn this lesson and is “sent” by the Alliance (thus a lackey and not a man who is “free” like Mal, who has no master, is a renegade, etc) has undeniable racial connotations grounded in the very history of settler colonialism, and plantation slavery, that has been a correlate for the entire series.

Mal’s ethical superiority over the Operative, who implicitly becomes his docile pupil by the film’s ending, is fully established in their last fight scene. The Operative smugly sticks to his standard script as he prepares to run his sword through Mal’s supposedly paralyzed body: “You should know there’s no shame in this. You’ve done remarkable things. But you’re fighting a war you’ve already lost.” Mal however is not as defeated as he appears, thanks to a war injury that protected him from the Operative’s ninja move on his back, which was intended to paralyze him. This resilience allows Mal to again, and finally, turn the tables on the Operative, and to “school” the other man in his false consciousness. Here, the irony of the terms “belief” and “cause” is given a succinct twist, as Mal informs the brutally beaten (and quite nearly hogtied) Operative: “I’m not going to kill you. Hell, I’m going to grant you your greatest wish. I’m gonna show you a world without sin.”90 At this moment, the narrative returns to River, cutting from the Operative as he watches Dr.Caron’s report with shattered open eyes to River who is surprisingly winning her own fight against the Reavers--shown punching Reavers (somewhat ridiculously but effectively) just before she acquires a sword. Again, with more gorgeous cinematography and choreography, we see River’s grace as a newly super-powered killer. When Mal dramatically re-enters the agreed-upon safe enclosure, all lay injured, helpless, and hopeless—unaware of River’s victorious battle. Mal announces, “It’s done,” and looks around at the fallen crew. “Report, he instructs. “River?” Blank looks and a shaking of heads. Then the doors slide open, the ones she shut to save her friends, and River is standing in the door between the crew in the Inner Hall and the Black Room, again dramatically backlit, this time with bodies on the ground all around her and two medieval-looking weapons in her hand—she’s morphed fully into a superhero, both a Reaver and a Reaver-Avenger.

[Shot of River’s fighting and/or her figure in the door, at 1:46:57]

Because the racialization of both male characters is so unavoidably explicit, the superiority of whiteness is affirmed in the regenerated capacities of Mal’s masculine leadership.91 The Operative’s defeat and the lessons he learns are underlined twice in the film’s final scenes. First, just as River is revealed, the Alliance troops break in and point dozens of weapons at her and the crew. One asks for “a kill order” and after a suspenseful pause, in which River’s hands are shown tightening their grip on her weapons, still dripping blood of the dead Reavers around her, we hear the Operative say with resignation. “Stand down. It’s finished. We’re finished.” This open admission of defeat and realization illustrates that the Operative understands and acquiesces to the wisdom of Mal’s chosen path. To underline this defeat, the manly pair are shown together one last time, during the sequence that affirms the peace the Serenity has found for itself and its crew. The Operative emerges as Mal is cleaning up after a hard day of repairing the ship, to warn that “it’s not over” and that while Mal’s actions have “weakened the regime,” he should watch out because “they are not forgiving.” Mal concedes that the Operative helped him and the crew, saved them by ordering their release and “helping our hurt.” In the script, the Operative asks Mal for advice on how to go one, after one has “lost everything” and Mal responds with a dismissive shrug, saying to himself “What a whiner. . .” However, that patronizing exchange is cut from the final film, which only has Mal saying he won’t “shed tears” if he learns that the Alliance catches up with the Operative and he is “like to kill you myself, I see you again.” The Operative responds, “You won’t,” and adds, with a catch in his voice, “There is nothing left to see.”

So with the defeat of the Operative at every level established, the film turns to its last scene which fully restores Mal’s position as Captain and unquestioned leader of the Serenity, though with the addendum that now River will be at his side, literally and figuratively as his co-pilot. This information is conveyed as part of the domestic tableau of the whole post-battle coda that ends the film: everyone is happily in their place. In some ways, the sweetness of Serenity’s affirmation of the benefits of benevolent patriarchal care allows for hints of River’s larger, even disruptive capacities: indicating she “already knows” (both how to fly the ship and what Mal is about to say). But as River tucks her bare legs under her ubiquitous thin shift dress and smiles up—as well as over—at her captain, she avows sweetly, “Yes, but I like to hear you say it.” This addendum of River’s feminine difference as a subordinate helpmate to the Captain paradoxically affirms gender stereotypes and hierarchies while possibly opening toward another future shift in positions. Until recently, this benign but always deferred and potential futurity was lauded, as well as accepted, in the dominant interpretations of Firefly/Serenity of both fans and critics.

But any such generous reading has to acknowledge the otherwise unchanged role for white masculinity in Serenity, which recuperates and even rehabilitates Malcolm Reynolds for his superior appreciation of River’s capacities. Furthermore, Whedon’s carerer-long insistence that the futurity of feminine power be located in adolescent girls with astounding, inhuman and magical, capacities—thus avoiding a confrontation of equals or adults, of full self-possessive human agents—suggests an ambivalence and reluctance to entertain any significant transformation of gender imaginaries. Both the storyline and significance of Whedon’s subsequent television project Dollhouse (also short-lived) and the growing controversy over his avowed feminism vs. his personal behavior indicate that both Whedon and his fan base are continuing to confront and deal with the masculinist and possibly misogynist imaginary permeating his work.92 of whom Zoe seems to be the only female example. 93 However, as Whedon’s ComicCon observation, “If you want to live, follow her” expresses, it’s also possible to argue that River’s presence and function in Serenity surreptitiously exposes the lack, the inadequacy behind Mal’s pretensions to leadership. In that case, River dwells in that gap between impossible gender norms and the ongoing desire to inhabit and take pleasure from those ironically embodied stereotypes, now acknowledged with a wry knowing smile to be always, already failed performances.

Likewise, it is possible to see the alliance of the Operative and Malcolm Reynolds against the Alliance as also a recognition of potential transformations in both racial imaginaries and relations to the state. “I think they know I am no longer their man,” says the Operative wryly. In both the gender and racial aspects, though, these readings underline the partial and half-hearted move toward any clearly legible revision of white patriarchal logics, and capitalist ones too: the ethos of a family unit working independently and without asking for “help” or even inclusion in the larger collective remains the apparent guiding principle of the Firefly/Serenity franchise. Mal and the crew were willing to risk “all” for “the people” who “have a right to know” and thus perhaps form a foundation for future revolutionary action, but Mal isn’t holding his breath and neither, it is suggested, should we. In the best article written about Firefly/Serenity—from which I’ve quoted extensively—Gerry Canavan takes this foreclosure of expectation and a revolutionary program as an indication of the show’s critical imagination of resistance to the necropolitical neoliberal state, a nihilistic but admirable position and strategy.

In a sense, the problem irony poses to an ethic of representation is the problem of distinguishing when this line between verbal irony and existential irony is crossed, when irony becomes a permanent attitude that remains caught within capitalist realism. While Whedon gives many cues over the course of the series and film to indicate the targets of the show’s ironic uses of generic markers and expectations, the affective registers of authenticity (indicated by the nostalgia in the music, setting, character development and narrative arc) camouflage that target for audiences less inclined to note or accept the implications of its cognitive dissonances. The ideological weight of this human authenticity is figured through figures (“leather pouches” , western slang, family units, and white male leadership) that ultimately overwhelm the ironic dissonance that the narrative indicates it intends to critique. That is, Firefly/Serenity most often seems to embrace a liberatory, self-conscious mode of irony as a “negative freedom” of self-consciousness and skepticism toward various versions of social order and control. But in its attempt to make the “leap” (a term from Kierkegaard) from irony to the “new,” to a positive choice, the film relies on a matrix of referents that remain caught in the racial and gender logics of the imperial history and futurity it proposes to critique:

As in other recent speculative or science fiction television (some discussed in the next chapter), Firefly foregrounds a liberal political fantasy of community-building under the legitimating rubrics of patriarchal community and what conservatives call “natural law.” While it remains debatable, I contend that neither Firefly nor Serenity significantly undermines or throws into real doubt—especially not for the majority of its audience— the solid ethical and “moral” foundation that Mal’s leadership relies upon, which is a normalized understanding of race and gender generated in a long civilizational history and logics that I am naming as “settler colonial.” Whedon has said his work is always about “building family” and like other frontier/apocalyptic fictions, Firefly takes advantage of the relative isolation and mutual dependence that make community formation such a necessity when the supports of consumer culture (and everyday, complacent and “secure” existence) are taken away. In this apocalyptic survivalist landscape, meaningful community remains, as it ever was, a family affair in terms of the rhetoric and imagined relations among people—because how else does one imagine a relation to others that can constitute something or someone worth dying for? In Serenity—though with its suggestive gesture towards River Tam-- the specifically liberal foundations of white masculine agency are upheld in spite of the seemingly progressive gender and race stereotypes and relations the franchise puts into play.


Crises of Masculine and Neoliberal Subjection in The Walking Dead

A post-apocalyptic genre can’t exist without the possibility of hope.”

---Colson Whitehead94

I realized how easy it is to make a slave”

----Octavia Butler, Kindred

I. Masculinity and Neoliberal Crisis: Genre and Governance in The Walking Dead

When Mal worriedly asks River at the end of the movie
Serenity whether she already knows what he is about to tell her (since she’s psychic), she responds with a smile: “Yes, but I like to hear you say it.” This sweetly compliant reply signals the ways that women too uphold the presumption that only men can, or should, lead. Like most television, the Firefly/Serenity franchise is a predominantly white male-produced piece of popular culture, but the questions it raises permeate contemporary U.S. society’s political and gender imaginary across all sorts of lines. No television show of recent memory has placed these questions of who can lead and what is presumed by the idea of leadership more centrally than the spectacularly successful zombie apocalypse survival tale The Walking Dead. The imagined requirements of leadership in The Walking Dead are already familiar to readers of this book: drawing from the Hollywood Western (as well as classical liberal democratic theory), the leader is a man [sic] who “does what has to be done” and thus has the fortitude, bravery, and integrity to make unpopular or even harsh decisions in the interest of the greater good, or—sometimes conversely-- of what is “right.” The role of violence as a measure of this fortitude and bravery likewise remains central and takes on particular importance in the carnage of the zombie apocalypse. One result is that whether the figure in question is considered male or female, the virtues of leadership are hyperbolically masculine. But what is interesting about The Walking Dead is the extent to which it raises doubts and confirms suspicions about this specific mode of survivalist kill-or-be-killed leadership, which is clearly favored by the main protagonist Rick Grimes (and most everyone else in the show). The Walking Dead ultimately underlines the human “blowback,” –ethically, but also even in terms of survival—that results from Rick and his group’s relentless understanding of their condition as one of “fighting the fight,” of permanent war.95 In later seasons, the show’s Hobbesian allegory of survival becomes almost Kafkaesque in its circularity and futility, suggesting perhaps that this mode of human agency, and particularly its reliance on a hegemonically masculine conception of leadership as a problem of “war,” is not all that effective, for survival nor other stated goals, such as “order.” Which means that it persists for other reasons.

In the episode “18 Miles Out” during Season Two of The Walking Dead, we find the ostensible hero of the series, a haggard Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln), agonizing that his best friend Shane thinks he is “too soft” and that because he wants to be “the good guy,” Rick won’t be able to do what is necessary to keep their group alive amid the horrors of the zombie apocalypse. By this point, viewers are familiar with Rick and his group’s plight, their struggle to find ways to survive while also avoiding being bitten and infected by “the walking dead.” About five months before this episode, in narrative time, the “walkers” appeared in all their ambling glory and caused a total breakdown of society, including the apparent destruction of any government or technology infrastructure. Apart from Shane, Rick’s group includes his 10 year-old son Carl and wife Lori. Through flashbacks, viewers learn that before the zombie apocalypse, in addition to being close friends, Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal) were partners as deputy sheriffs in a small town in rural Georgia. Ostensibly, his ‘natural’ authority and previous career as a cop explain why so many characters, including Lori in this episode, insist, “We need Rick.” The narrative begins with Rick waking from a coma and locating, rather miraculously, his wife and son, and Shane, who have joined a small group of survivors in the very early days of the zombie event. From the first episodes, Rick’s fitness to lead this group is both a foregone conclusion and an ongoing question.

That persistent question of who should lead suggests the show’s specific assumptions about the requirements of collective survival, as well as its preoccupation with problems of governance. Familiar from a long history of disaster and end-of-the world movies, these assumptions depend on conventional and deeply embedded notions about what enables a “society” to function, what makes a “strong” leader, and why that leader is needed. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) established the concept of the “sovereign” in modern political philosophy as the prerequisite for a collective’s ability to rise out of a relentless, violent, and barbaric “state of nature,” famously defined by Hobbes:

In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan, Chapter XIII. 1651)

In order to form a “government” that can guarantee a political community and lift individuals out of this “war of all against all,” Hobbes holds that a collectivity must concede all of its power and “interest” as a group to a leader who will make the decisions on their behalf and through this “covenant” the new collectivity can move away from humanity’s innate motivations of personal power and prestige (Leviathan, 1651).

In addition to this key function in creating a collective (and narrative) path for the main characters that gets them through the zombie apocalypse, the focus on Rick as the “natural” leader of the group also reflects The Walking Dead’s regressive conceptualization of gender roles and characteristics: Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) expresses her nurturing and protective nature while Rick is shown to be level-headed, quick acting, and good at perceiving and planning for dangers. How the group naturally turns to Rick for guidance and decision-making is the main focus of the first episodes. The show’s stereotyping extends to its racial coding as well: in the first three seasons, non-white characters largely play supporting, and usually disposable, roles. A plethora of memes using images from The Walking Dead mockingly observe that “Whether the Civil War or a zombie apocalypse, Mammy gonna take care of Miss Scarlett” and “Black guy living in a world with no police or government… Still dies in prison.”

Such regressive discourses undergirding The Walking Dead, particularly in its initial seasons, indicates how—in a move familiar from other post-apocalypse movies, tv shows, and video games—the plot provides a narrative return to what are described as “basic” conditions of existence as indicated by social life, technological resources, and skills needed. These are conditions that not-coincidentally seem to require a parallel return to social norms of gender and racial difference that are foundational to the dominance of white men in collective life. These norms are grounded in classical liberal conceptions of individual agency and responsibility as well as the histories of conquest, settlement, and dominance known as “settler colonialism.”96 Or put another way, the show’s survival plot and its nostalgic return to pre-modern conditions offers settings and plot elements that are central to both the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead and one of its key generic forbearers, the Hollywood Western. This allusive resonance highlights how the show participates in the perpetuation of what Susana Loza—drawing from Joe Feagin and others--calls the “sincere fictions” of white supremacy.97 However, The Walking Dead’s preoccupation with nostalgic regressions also raises the question of what this connection between zombie horror and frontier myth might tell us about a genealogy of “public feelings” regarding this intersection of gender and racial differences, violence, and leadership and their relations to economic and social conditions as captured in popular culture.

In contrast to the backward-looking settings and plots of classic Westerns—or even the science fiction retrofuture frontier of FireflyThe Walking Dead takes place in a contemporary near-future that clearly mirrors the actual present, albeit with the radical transformation of the social and material landscape caused by the zombie virus. Underlined in episode titles such as “Triggerfinger,” “Nebraska,” and “Cherokee Rose,” this transformation is presented through a series of explicit Western tropes and plotlines. That is, the clean slate of the show’s post-apocalypse renders vividly, and with explicit visual and narrative clues, a frontier setting in which individuals and groups must learn to make their own rules as well as act to defend and preserve a fledgling and isolated community located in a hostile landscape. The group moves from its initial precarity toward increasingly “protected” spaces that seem to assure their safety: from the campsites along abandoned country roads to Hershel Green’s farm, to the prison, then into the retrofitted suburban enclave of Alexandria, from which they make their stands in seasons 6-8. But while things at times do seem to get better for Rick and his group, this progression toward “security” proves to convey multiple, perhaps contradictory, messages about where they are going and how they got there.

This double valence in the show’s re-presentation of contemporary reality has at least two significant aspects. The first is that this mimesis underlines the relevance of a settler colonial history to the drama of near-future problems of governance that unfold in the show, and thus in contemporary life and the viewers’ own reality and experience. In political theory, that contemporary reality is most often described as “neoliberal” or “late capitalist” which means that referencing a frontier past underlines (sometimes explicitly) the economic and social histories that have led to contemporary experiences of neoliberalism and biopolitics.98 The second significance is that by centering its story on Rick Grimes, the show hyperbolically announces its foregrounding of white masculinity in both the television show and, implicitly, in that liberal legacy. Anna McCarthy helpfully defines neoliberalism as an economic and political regime “in which state policies synchronize with cultural practices to apply market-based individualism as a governmental rationale across the institutions and practices of everyday life.” 99 Likewise, Eva Cherniavksy emphasizes the impact of neoliberalism on understandings of the responsibilities of citizens and the state, in which the neoliberal state “abdicates” its collective function in favor of the expanding imperative to “secure private property.”100

Both definitions indicate the rise of what sociologist Nikolas Rose calls “responsibilization,” marking the neoliberal shift of both public life and subjective states to individual control and responsibility.101 That is, framed in relation to contemporary debates about political economy and the neoliberal shift in personal and collective ethics of the 21st century, the conditions depicted in The Walking Dead can be understood as a fantasy template for social and individual action after neoliberalism’s destruction of the welfare state— presented here as the work of the zombie virus. Although the Western’s “frontier” conditions (in which the mettle of individual men is tested by the crucible of wilderness environments and hostile “savages”) predate this neoliberal abandonment of the public sphere, the resonance between the two scenarios indicates how discourses of individual agency and responsibility in both eras emerge from a shared cultural history and its conception of moral and political values and particularly the social functions of individual agency.

But while emphasizing the success (and superiority) of entrepreneurial, self-managing individuals, the present 21st century moment is also one in which the traditional dominance of men is increasingly in question—or crisis, depending on the political leanings of the commentator. The historical confluence of feminist and multicultural challenges to white male supremacy and neoliberal transformations of everyday practices of governance, labor, identity, and citizenship have undermined the privileges and economic assumptions associated with normative white masculinity. As implied in media terms such as “mancession” and “he-cession,” the economic decline of 2008 has been widely characterized by its particular hardship for men, who held more than 80% of the jobs lost in the U.S. between 2008 and 2010.102 What others have called the “proletarianization” of the U.S. middle class, and of society as a whole, to describe wide-scale demotion of relatively autonomous professionals to underpaid and over-supervised wage labor, points to a general experience of impotence whose logics may be economic but that is experienced as affective malaise and psychic pain.103 Such humiliations and losses confirm the sense that, subject to increasingly powerful apparatuses of dehumanizing control, individuals and identities don’t “matter” like they used to. Or at least that is a conclusion shared by both right-wing media commentators and leftist political and cultural theorists of late capitalism, together echoing a long-standing fear in U.S. popular culture that Timothy Melley encapsulates in the term, “agency panic.”

Tracing popular expressions of anxiety about liberal subjectivity and individual sovereignty (i.e., the “self-directed individual”) from World War II to the present, Melley defines agency panic as “an attempt to conserve the integrity of the liberal, rational self”—often in the face of “new ideas about subjectivity,” including theories from consumer research, social psychology, science fiction, cybernetics, and poststructural theory.104 The literary narratives (and sociological studies and policy discourses) that Melley analyzes mark a longstanding “crisis” of liberal individualism and indicate a key socio-cultural genealogy for the narrative preoccupations of The Walking Dead and the fantasies it feeds, particularly when it presents a world transformed by the zombies into a place with “no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable tv.”105 These challenging conditions offer a dramatic antidote to the passivity and alienation of the everyday life that is familiar to viewers, especially men like those who populate the work of masculinities researcher Michael Kimmel. Kimmel describes one of his representative informants as a man who “considered himself a victim of the impersonal forces that wreak havoc with the lives and the futures of America’s middle and working classesthe labyrinthine impersonal governmental bureaucracies and the impenetrable corporations whose CEOs and shareholders were lavishly compensated.”106 Echoing numerous other sociological studies, Kimmel’s work emphasizes the specific impact on men and traditional notions of masculinity created by 21st century economic decline. This emphasis surreptitiously reflects, and participates in, widespread presumptions and public discourses that privilege the destabilization of certain kinds of male hegemony as a key marker of what is being “lost” and/or transformed in the neoliberal present.

The emasculation and crisis of white masculinity becomes emblematic of the tenuousness and doubt also surrounding other forms of agency in collective life, which helps explain why that masculinity (and the general belief in effective individual agency it symbolizes) are both “problems” that The Walking Dead places at the center of the drama of Rick and “his” group and the conditions they face. The show initially presents audiences with a scenario in which this endangered individual agency is re-invigorated by the zombie apocalypse: or as the back cover of each issue of The Walking Dead comics series admonishes the reader,

How many hours are in a day when you don’t spend half of them watching television? When is the last time any of us REALLY worked to get something we wanted? The world we knew is gone. The world of commerce and frivolous necessity has been replaced by a world of survival and responsibility. . . In a matter of months society has crumbled, no government, no grocery stores, no mail delivery, no cable tv. In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.107

Opposing a world of “frivolous necessity” in “our” consumerist society to its replacement by a “world of survival and responsibility” underlines the promise of these “new” conditions: they can give “you” a life worth living. How this worth is ascertained relies on a gesture that pairs individual responsibility with modes of necessity that are assumed to be more rewarding, even if “forced.” Choices now matter and actions have consequences. Commerce and its “frivolous” activities and a nanny state that exists to promote more consumption are coded as a kind of living death which is transformed by apocalypse into a (compulsory) opportunity to “finally start living.”

This survivalist scenario confirms the axiom of neoliberal governmentality, as described by McCarthy, “that individuals are sovereign beings best ruled under circumstances in which they are encouraged to self-manage, taking on responsibilities for their welfare, growth, and security that might otherwise be assumed by the state.”108 And thus, the ostensible opportunity for liberal subjects offered by The Walking Dead involves a stark ideological complicity with the dictates of neoliberal capitalism. Both the backcover’s “promise” and the show’s premise seem to affirm a strong version of liberal sovereign individuality that in a sense “teaches” the benefits of responsibilization. Likewise, the development of its agential, self-reliant survivor characters further demonstrates how television genres can provide “templates” and an arena for the development of subjectivities that “complement the privatization of public life.”109 And yet, the forcing of these conditions indexes a less celebratory affective response and a more critical understanding of what it means to have to “REALLY” work to get something you want (or, in the case of this show, actually need to survive). This undercurrent of despair and negation reveals itself fully in the later seasons, especially Season 7 when Rick’s leadership is fully subsumed and humiliated by that of the vicious rival leader, Negan.

The first seasons of The Walking Dead oscillate between two versions of what this new life means for Rick Grimes and his family and friends. On the one hand, every single day and action are now loaded with significance and import. But on the other hand, these experiences are often horrific in every sense and the “life or death” decisions and their repercussions are usually brutal, grotesque, and deadly. The exhilaration that Rick exhibits in the midst of some new zombie attack or violent struggle with another human group conveys, both physically and emotionally, his embrace of this agential role and intensified existence. In both the television show and the comic series, though, Rick’s face and character are also visually marked by the extreme suffering that comes with these limit experiences.

This uncanny intensity, familiar to battle stories and war testimony, renders the zombie crisis both awful and awesome for Rick and many of the other characters. For instance, the central and popular character of Daryl Dixon, played by Norman Reedus, is a telling example of a particular kind of man finding the “world” he is meant for. In the zombie apocalypse, Daryl’s mute watchfulness, violent temperament, and rural life experience and skills (i.e. hillbilly background) are transformed into powerful assets for anyone on his side. Daryl’s promotion in stature and leadership (albeit as a surreptitious right-hand man to Rick) indicates that he now “thrives” in ways that weren’t possible before the apocalypse—in that managerial meritocracy that privileges certain kinds of education and expertise, and cultural capital and affluence, Daryl was largely ignored. Likewise, Glenn (Steven Yeun)—an original member of the group and the longest-running non-white (and only Asian American) central character until his death in Season 6—had been a pizza delivery boy before the zombie outbreak but becomes both a leader and a moral compass in the drama of post-apocalypse existence. In distinct ways that underline the racial coding of their characters, Glenn and Daryl underline the populism encoded in the “opportunity” described on the comic book cover.110

But as with the suffering that inflects Rick’s leadership and preeminence in the zombie apocalypse, these opportunities come at a cost. The special intensity of the survivalist plot has been explored by Jane Elliott, who coins the term “suffering agency” to articulate the shift in subjectivity generated by the work of “self-preservation” under neoliberalism. Elliott analyzes the significance of storylines in which the imperative of self-interest leads characters in popular narratives to take increasingly drastic, often abhorrent, action in order to survive under conditions that are imposed by distant, unseen forces: a plot scenario that describes both horror film franchises such as the Saw movies and survivalist memoirs including Alive and 127 Hours. By their very nature, Elliott suggests, survivalist narratives conscript characters into situations that register the real problem, and the real horror, of individual responsibility and agency under neoliberalism: “As we witness the frenzied, desperate, and at times appalling actions humans undertake to preserve themselves in survival tales, we see behavior so driven that it seems on the boundary of the voluntary and involuntary.” For Elliott, the question raised by survival narratives indexes a large-scale perception that might also be usefully applied to The Walking Dead and its popularity: viewers’ compelling if unpleasant fascination with the show’s horrific no-win situations reflects “something of the inescapable, obligatory cast of interest under neoliberalism.” 111

So to recap, wiping out large scale markers of contemporary modernity in The Walking Dead does two things: first, it recreates scenarios that mimic largescale (or macro) experiences of neoliberal governmentality –presented in the show as a series of “crises” that force subjects, i.e. the characters, into self-directed, highly consequential action. Secondly, the destruction of “civilization” in the zombie apocalypse enables the show to dramatize actual processes of community formation and to highlight aspects of individual psychic and physical adaptation that have to take place under these conditions of survival. The tasks of forming human groups into functioning defensive communities—and living rather than dying—compel a recourse to “pre-modern” ways of life and skills that include scavenging, living off the land, and defending oneself against aggressors, both the hordes of the undead and other humans. Confirming its deployment of the Hobbesian trope of collectivity-formation as a “war of all against all,” the most dangerous threat in this difficult environment often proves to come from living humans, who, like the zombies, attack the strongholds won by Rick and his group at regular intervals. The problem of predatory individuals and groups plays an increasingly important role in later seasons of the television show (as they do in the main narrative arc of the comic book series by Robert Kirkland that the show is based upon).

The Walking Dead thus appears to present audiences with an explicitly white masculinist survival narrative whose goal seems to be upholding the mythologies of liberal ideology and individualism. In the first seasons, Rick and the others function “best” (i.e. they win against their enemies) when they appropriate military language and tactics and maintain a soldierly affective ethos of stoicism and capacity for violence. However, what also become clear are the foreboding implications of both the classical and neoliberal logics of collective and individual agency that are elaborated in The Walking Dead: there is no end to the zombie virus and life in the post-apocalypse is remarkably unpleasant. In its nihilistic set pieces and doomed, serial narrative arc, the thwarted options available to the main characters and the horrors of its “post-frontier” setting problematize The Walking Dead’s surface narrative of nostalgic recreation of settler colonial and patriarchal social norms of race and gender, as well as a central role and significance for individual agency and responsibility. These contradictions and the ambivalences they reflect constitute a useful pop culture index of responses and expectations regarding liberal capitalism and neoliberal governance that are more complex and critical than they might first appear.

II. Hero Problems: Agency and the Narrative Arc of Apocalypse

As a “crisis,” then, the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead is an odd narrative vehicle for working through problems of agency, governance, and collectivity: for one thing, it is never-ending—and, it turns out, hopeless. By the end of Season One, viewers learn that “everyone” is infected and, regardless of whether they are bitten by a “walker” or not, will re-animate upon death unless their brains are smashed, shot, or otherwise destroyed. Furthermore, each episode and season has continued to emphasize how the zombies always return to the scene to bite, maim, or dismember someone, often a main character.112 Indeed, up to the current moment in its dual narration113 every newly-formed, functioning human collective and safe haven that is established (or joined) by Rick and his friends is subsequently destroyed –at first by the “roamers,” but increasingly in the “All Out War” (as the title of the comic, volume # XX, puts it) which characterizes the core group’s relations with other human collectives. This perpetual war with other human groups in a struggle for dominance that, even more than the “savage war” against the zombies, shapes and determines the forces that doom the various strongholds established by Rick and his friends: Hershel Green’s farm (season 2, dates) , the prison and the group’s conflicts with Woodbury and its leader The Governor in Season 3 (dates), Terminus in Season 4 (dates), defeating the Terminus cannibals and being welcomed into Alexandria in Season 5 (dates), defeating the Wolves as they grow in power at Alexandria, but then falling to Negan and the Saviors in Season 6, 7, and 8 (dates).

Among the many things that Hobbes explains about collective governance and its origins is that the sort of leadership required to supercede the hegemony of a “state of nature” is itself necessarily brutal and quite likely to be amoral: "the wickedness of bad men also compels good men to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud" (De Cive, Epistle Dedicatory). That is, Hobbes anticipates that in these survivalist – i.e., liberal contractual capitalist--conditions, the short term use of violence and vicious behavior is both directly beneficial—even to “good men”—and also serves the purpose of making others fear rising up against those men, working effectively as a deterrent, as it were. And in its careful, and seemingly sympathetic, elaboration of exactly what kind of enemies Rick and his group encounter and what acts they commit in order to prevail, The Walking Dead offers a detailed portrait of the origin story of liberal governance—one that is exacting in its verisimilitude regarding the conditions and repercussions of the fight to survive. In that process of representation, the narrative and its use of specific generic conventions, visual cues, and twists on all of the above exposes the true costs of this conception of governance, agency, and masculine leadership.

The first five seasons position Rick and his group as the top “badasses” of the zombie apocalypse (per fan descriptions) but also as the key players in the defeat and destruction of any enclave or refuge they join. Many viewers have complained about the monotony and repetition of the “All Out War” plot concerning the Saviors and their brutal psychopathic leader Negan, which shapes Seasons 7 and 8—and which many fans as well as professional critics have blamed for a dramatic drop in TV ratings and audience share that starts in Season 6 and persists into Season 8.114 However, I argue that this looping narrative trajectory is not a commercial miscalculation but a core element in the vision for The Walking Dead that is elaborated in both Kirkman’s comic book series and the TV show. This endless cycle of painful effort followed by the destruction and loss of all that the characters have “worked for” creates a serial narrative in the shape of a static holding pattern. The seriality ensures a cyclical return to the same place and condition, bringing, in effect, no change and no movement forward: a pattern that literalizes what Lauren Berlant describes as the stasis and “exhaustion” of political, social, and psychic—as well as economic—expectations in neoliberalism’s current “time of dithering” and “wandering.”115 Coinciding with the zombie apocalypse’s narrative temporality of “crisis” (of apocalypse, emergency, etc) that registers contemporary worries about the end of capitalism, “our” way of life, and the collapse of faith in any path forward, The Walking Dead installs a temporality of “impasse” in which the impotence and stasis of late neoliberal capitalist subjectivity is built into its narrative structure.

This temporality of wandering and impasses works in a tense coordination with the show’s surface plots that feature particular characters and seem to appeal to viewers’ conventional forms of affect and attention, especially identification with, and loyalty toward, its ostensible protagonists. Daryl’s popularity among viewers, for example, illustrates The Walking Dead’s astute use of a vicarious mode of narrative development and spectatorship, which the show both mobilizes and then pushes against as the narrative unfurls in unexpected directions. [insert a Daryl example—or some related one]

Through various plot and filming devices—or perhaps just the “pull” of the archetypal narratives and characters at play—viewers participate in the surfeit of intensity and meaningful experience brought into play by the show’s plot and the “problem” of the zombie apocalypse. The various fan sites and venues, the popular “Talking Dead” interview spin-off for example, all illustrate the extent to which the enterprise of The Walking Dead consciously invites and courts the emotional involvement and identification of its viewers, an identification both feeding and responding to its hyperbolic popularity. However, these viewers also share in the disgust, gore, and terror that dominate the show, particularly in its early seasons—these “haptic” elements from the horror genre operate in a tension with the conventional realist modes of characterization and plot development. The resulting oscillations of affect consist of both an identification with the story represented in the plots and characterization of “heroic” main figures but also a participation in the storyworld of the apocalypse that is performatively experienced by viewers. The audience is thus interpellated through the show’s use of horror’s immersive genre conventions such as sound and visual effects that mimetically produce a specific, compelling experience—albeit one that is often intensely unpleasant.

In his influential reading of the iconic zombie films of George Romero, Steven Shaviro emphasizes that identification with the films’ ostensible protagonists is often interrupted by the zombies themselves, whose “peculiar fascination” and charisma come to dominate audiences’ affective responses to what happens on screen.116 I suggest that the narrative temporality of wandering and failure likewise can be understood as an element that undermines our nominal involvement with the films’ active protagonists” and thwarts audiences’ complacent internalization of the characters as “templates” for responsibilization or self-directed agency. Nonetheless, in The Walking Dead’s updating of the zombie narrative, the character-driven plots and development of specific storylines are what critics and audiences most emphasize when accounting for the show’s immense audience share. Notwithstanding the growing contradiction between its nostalgic, even regressive, characterizations and plotlines within an overarching narrative structure that refuses progress, resolution, or heroism, it is Rick and his “family” along with other key individual (mostly male) characters that are the main focus of discussion.117 And these audiences persist as The Walking Dead’s drama of embattled white masculinity is relentlessly twisted back on itself, particularly in Season Four when Rick abdicates his role as an increasingly dictatorial (and brutal) leader and attempts to live peacefully and democratically among his fellow survivors; that is, as an equal member of the community, not its leader.

But it is Rick who continues to occupy the narrative’s central position, along with the sometimes unpopular character of his son Carl (Chandler Riggs).118 Lori is done away with—dying in childbirth no less—toward the end of Season Three of the television show. Considering the deaths of both Lori and her baby daughter in the comic book series, Gerry Canavan observes that this “is the moment that basically all hope is lost in The Walking Dead.” Canavan criticizes The Walking Dead’s “uncriticial relationship” to its apparently “pre-feminist” view of women’s role (and thus sexual and gender differences), which is “to code the ending as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ based on their continued availability to bear the male protagonist’s children.” What is also remarkable, though, is how explicit the function of sexual difference becomes in this moment of losing hope and killing off a key female character. As Canavan notes, the loss of reproductive futurity signifies the loss of what the other characters and the readers of the comic series understand to be “hope” for any kind of meaningful futurity. I suggest this sex-gender coding is also quite intentional and strategic in the show’s elaboration of neoliberal agency and suffering. 119

And yet, even without “hope,” readers and television audiences stay with Rick and his son Carl, following their increasingly grim and painful track through the show’s post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled landscape. Although the Katana sword-wielding warrior Michonne (Danai Gurira) becomes a possible exception, most female characters in The Walking Dead’s first five seasons adhere to this gendered division of narrative grammar in which identification and agency are investments in male characters and female characters are there to expand, comment, or inform on the success or failure of the men. And in fact, the role of Michonne goes through its own ambiguous development—from fiercely independent warrior woman to becoming, in Season 7, the ‘apocalypse spouse’ of Rick himself (and creating the couple narrative fans have named “Richonne”). Through this romance, Michonne’s amazing capacities as a sword-wielding killer—and originally one of the few non-aligned individual survivors—are now harnessed to Rick’s story, and pulled back into the plot of “family.” Folding Michonne into the persistent motif of family and heterosexual romantic relations underlines the function of those human relations as the engines of in-group formation and reinforces her gendered functions as nurturing support to Rick and Carl. Here, the heteropatriarchal logics of both capitalism and liberal governance are re-enacted as foundational to the group’s cohesion and loyalty, which seems to affirm the show’s focus on—and implicit approval of—Rick as the narrative center of the post-apocalypse.

But this reinvigoration of the family as the core unit of a collectivity and the building block of civilization also exposes its complicity in the war of all against all that undergirds the narrative. Critics of rational choice theory have pointed out the bankruptcy of what Dierdre McClosky calls the “Hobbes paradigm” in which human beings are purported to operate solely on the basis of “calculations of competitive positioning and survival” (Brown, loc. 1472). By precluding any motive or goal that isn’t geared toward individual self-interest (understood as survival, but also advantage), this view of human life—individual and collective—denies the possibility of any sort of collective cohering, of a coming together as a larger society.120

And yet even within that Hobbesian logic, the men are placed in an increasingly untenable narrative position, both because the world of the zombie apocalypse is a quintessential “no-win” situation and because Rick and Carl, and other main male characters such as Daryl, are so often shown to be questionable, if not awful, people who make horrific, if not stupid, decisions. Given the stasis and despair of the plot and the often-repellant nature of its main characters, the popularity of the show actually contravenes traditional dynamics of narrative identification—which may be a key point for understanding both its popularity and its power. While audiences claim, or believe, that their identification with particular protagonists and main characters is what accounts for their attachment and involvement in the series, these same characters (most often male) prove to be ambivalent objects of audience identification or desire. In this way, the figure of the male leader that purports to embody the audience’s nostalgic and persistent investment in liberal individualism’s myths of agency, authority, and authenticity is revealed to be a problematic, ambivalent figure: Rick’s leadership repeatedly becomes a serious community liability, too often bringing the destruction of all that it is supposed to “save.”

What The Walking Dead does do, though, is offer a television template for the “suffering agency” described by Elliott in which neoliberal models of agency (distilled in mircroeconomic and choice theory into the elements of interest, choice, agential action) are taken to their logical conclusion, with the result that “the usually invisible suffering that accompanies the unfolding of this logic” is exposed and dramatized.121 In addition, the tensions undermining narrative identification demonstrate that although some sort of “nominal investment” in specific characters remains key to the progression of the television and comic book narratives of The Walking Dead, something else is also going on, something that emerges from the very ambivalence of the audience’s identification with the show’s protagonists. Rick’s character, for example, articulates the closed logical circle of liberal individualism: the male hero, whose leadership is ostensibly necessary to any collectivity reveals that the promises of agency, authority, and authenticity supposedly guaranteed in that collective covenant with “the sovereign” have a predetermined shelf life. The sovereign will necessarily, and inevitably, destroy the collectivity he brings into existence.

Interestingly, a similar thwarting of identification and undermining of the male hero are important elements in the generic history of the Hollywood Western, particularly during its more “critical” phase in the 1950s and 60s and exemplified in the films of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, and John Sturges, among others. The long history of the “problem” of male heroism in classic Westerns suggests that the narrative structure of The Walking Dead draws on more than just nostalgia when it references the genre of the Western and the history of settler colonialism. Richard Slotkin’s three-volume study of the Western (1973,1985, 1992) traces the specific economic and social shifts and crises that gave rise to the U.S. myth of the frontier from its inception in the 17th century to the late 20th century.122 And Canavan’s penetrating essays on zombie narratives further argue that the genre’s persistent references to Western tropes articulate a vivid critique of settler colonial histories of genocide and conquest. Such tropes are manifested in the brutality and violence of Rick Grimes and the others in their struggle for survival in the post-apocalypse.

Binding the Western’s liberal individualist drama of white male leadership to the zombie apocalypse was never an accident. The show has morphed since its first two seasons into one that emphasizes (visually and plotwise) this precise line from settler colonial violence to the contemporary political regimes of the prison, the concentration camp, the detention center, and endless war (Achille Mbembe). The Walking Dead’s critical interrogation of “white male” leadership echoes the dramas of masculinity that predominate Hollywood Westerns and that genre’s preoccupation with questions of both masculinity and governance. Film scholar Patrick McGee has suggested that the Western’s conservative reputation rests on two key pillars: its stress on “extreme versions of masculinity and individualism” and its status as “one of the principle narratives in the discourse of mass culture on the right to wealth and the legitimacy of class.”123 Interestingly, both of these pillars are what are at stake in the show, though in the zombie apocalypse’s state of nature, the “right to wealth” is translated into the right of the more powerful to dominate, destroy, or exploit the less powerful.

As viewers and fellow survivors alike witness the futility of the group’s actions and efforts to create a safe haven, this frontier myth framing of Rick’s role underlines links between his very mode of leadership and the horrific consequences of the group’s “savage war” against both the undead and other humans. While other communities they encounter might seem to be exploring alternative, more pacifist and less violent, rules for community coherence and defense, Rick and his group presume a logics of “race war” –that is, an ongoing operation of expulsion and “necessary” violence, which justifies their savage war of “all against all.” In earlier seasons, those other, more pacifist modes of collective governance are repeatedly proven misguided and foolish (whether adopted sincerely –as, for a while, on Hershel Green’s farm or in Alexandria—or only by dangerous leaders for appearances and political appeal, as in Woodbury). However, the self-fulfilling ethos of “kill or be killed” is also exposed in the unravelling of this race war logic (“you’re either the wolf or the prey” as the cannibals from Terminus put it). Rick and his group persist in seeing themselves as the true ‘saviors’ of the zombie apocalypse—such as when they regard the foolish complacency and peaceful existence of the community in Alexandria and Rick observes, “they’re lucky we’re here”—though the devastating destruction that inevitably follows their arrival might seem to put that “luck” into question.

That Rick and his group know that the reality of this post-apocalypse is a savage war and are confident that any other conceptualization of how to survive is a delusional weakness of will indicates how the Hobbesian foundations of liberal governance as a “covenant” against the state of nature shares with the zombie apocalypse a rigorous adherence to the survivalist mode of “capitalist realism.” The either-or understanding of a contest between “us” and “them” necessarily entails perpetual war, which is precisely how the zombie apocalypse plays out.124 Richard Slotkin explicates the special historical function of the rhetoric of “savage war” and “race war” in the economic enterprise of 18th and 19th century Western expansion in the U.S. . This enterprise was widely justified in the media and writings of the time by depicting Native Americans as non-human others whose behaviors and interior subjectivities were understood as “simply the rage of a wild beast against the cage: visceral, unreasoning, an expression of a nature innately incapable of civilization.”125 The inhuman other as horrific and thus as justifiably “killable” is reiterated in The Walking Dead’s portrayal of Rick’s common sense approach to the zombies: he assumes a mandate to kill or be killed and expresses a total lack of concern for the former humanity of the now-undead. However as Canavan notes, the series contrasts Rick’s attitude to other characters’ more humane (though often feminized as ‘weak’) attitudes towards the zombies. In addition to Carl’s friend Sophia in Season X and X, there are several alternative options to Rick’s savage war, but those alternatives are all ultimately dismissed and disproven--at least until Season 7, which I discuss below.

But even historically and in the genre of the Western, there is a precedence for understanding that these “states of emergency” are dangerous and ultimately unsustainable—and self-imploding—in terms of both human life and community political norms. Not only was the rhetoric of “savage war” in the nineteenth century utilized as a justification for settler colonial expansion and violence, it was also sounded as an alarm: generating a parallel discourse of the frontier as a “fatal environment” that produces “dangerous classes” (or a “peculiar race” of people known as frontiersmen). Slotkin details how the extreme acts of violence and the suspension of “civilized” norms of ethical and legal behaviors that were ostensibly required for survival in the frontier (and success in the Western expansion) were often regarded with concern, alarm, and outrage in the cosmopolitan centers of the nineteenth century US. This ambivalence expressed itself in cautionary tales detailing how the savagery of the frontier experience made “frontiersmen”—the first wave of adventurers and explorers (and mercenaries and outlaws) who were responsible for the elimination of the Indians—unfit to function in civilized society. In many great Westerns, including The Searchers and Shane, the ambivalence regarding the male hero culminates with his departure at the story’s end, when he is thrust back into the wilderness from which he came. In these classic films, the iconic frontier anti-hero (also known as the gunfighter or “Indian killer” figure) illustrates how the masculine subjectivities produced by classical liberalism have always been a problem.

As in the zombie apocalypse, the environment of the frontier and the violence that is apparently necessary to survive there combine in classic narratives that both assert the value of the protagonist’s leadership, skills, and capacity for horrific acts and then question those acts, and the sort of person who commits them. In John Ford’s The Searchers, the discourse of race war against Native Americans unravels in the character of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) to expose the ambivalent trajectories of savagery and dangerous classes. On the one hand, the film shows Ethan to be a man who has the capacity to do what would cause others to shrink away in horror and impotence: such as in the famous scene in which Ethan alone can confront the unspeakable violence the Commanche have wrought on their women but then insists, ”Don’t ever ask me. Long as you live, don’t you ever ask me.” Such scenes that establish Native Americans as enemies capable of inhuman barbarity, of acts that can neither be shown nor spoken (see the Chapter Three discussion of the Reavers in Firefly/Serenity). Though sometimes considered a racist apology for settler colonialism’s genocidal war on Native Americans, McGee and others have argued that the real resolution offered in The Searchers occurs near the end of the film, when in an act of vicious and gratuitous violence, Ethan scalps his enemy, the already-dead Comanche chief Scar. By showing Ethan “becoming the savage,” the film justifies Ethan’s exclusion from the domestic and civil society that he has helped restore—showing how he is now one of the “dangerous classes,” having sacrificed himself to the “fatal environment” of the frontier in order that others may come to live in relative peace and prosperity.126

Particularly in its first seasons, The Walking Dead’s own rhetorics of survival, savage war, and white male leadership pointedly recreates Western generic scenarios: saloon shoot-outs, armed confrontations on deserted roads, sheriffs, savages, and mercenary gunfighters. In the television show’s second episode, Rick literally rides a horse, wearing his sheriff’s uniform and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, into a crowd of zombies, shooting his rifle indiscriminately (and futilely) at the hoard of rotting bodies enclosing him on the deserted city streets. Such iconic images of male heroism as a thing associated with “the West” are presented in a double-voiced narration that both emphasizes their echo of the “remembered” history of the West—including the figure of the lone, heroic sheriff—and yet also indicates an irony that undercuts those associations and their meaning.127 Rick’s horse is quickly overcome by zombies and then eaten—on screen and with emphatic sound effects of gnawing, tearing, and chewing flesh—while Rick barely escapes. So, even in its earliest episodes, The Walking Dead undermines the very capacities that its survivalist story would seem to promote: the main characters’ actions sometimes do “save” the lives of their companions but just as often those actions are pointless or even counterproductive. And in this sense, the violent acts and dubious motivations of the ostensible hero call into question the ethics and values of masculinity and leadership seemingly espoused and help uncover a history of imagining hegemonic white masculinity that is much more ambivalent and potentially “horrific” than is usually appreciated.

III. The Horror: Abjection, Slavery, and Agency in The Walking Dead

Tracking this shift in The Walking Dead from frontier myth to horror story highlights the generic weight, and freight, of each of those genres. As Canavan has noted, the comic series narrativizes the bankruptcy and catastrophe of the explicitly colonial logics that govern the group’s race war with the zombies.128 Both the comic series and the television show illustrate how these colonial logics are embedded in the conception of free collectivities as a “war of all against all,” so that the “freedom” pursued in Whedon’s Firefly and analyzed in Chapter 3 here takes a more clearly sinister turn, becoming a closed loop of violence and death. In order to elude this inevitable death, the collective group led by Rick, like other groups in the series, concedes to further and further steps toward authoritarian dictatorship. This narrative arc towards unfreedom forces questions about contemporary—and historical—understandings of both settler colonialism and classical, or contractual, liberal capitalist government. Which is why this chapter has been tracking the trajectory of the frontier myth narrative of survival and collectivity as it reveals within itself another trajectory of apocalypse and disaster. Not only does this generic coincidence indicate a haunting within liberal capitalist imaginaries, it underlines a foundational question that asks us to look back and acknowledge what these two trajectories—a disastrous and hopeless zombie futurity and a genocidal settler colonial history—articulate when brought together. In so doing, one of the things The Walking Dead asks us to consider is whether the racial and patriarchal logics of capitalist national expansion have in fact always contained within themselves the specter of this very horror and abjection, a hopeless futurity of wandering and endless violence.

Following the comic book series, the television show uses the story of the rival community of The Saviors, led by the humorously homicidal Negan, to hammer home these questions and their answers. While fans have complained about the monotony of the Negan episodes and its overly elongated narrative thread, Kirkman and the producers of The Walking Dead have stuck with that storyline.129 Among the allegorical arguments loudly broadcast in the portrayal of Negan is a) he is not that different from Rick in his understanding of how “the world is now”(as Rick proclaims in Season 6) and what that means to collective governance and order and b) Negan’s leadership of the Saviors fully realizes the internal logics of dominance and permanent war that undergird classical liberal governance as a “choice.” It might be considered comical the extent to which the Negan storyline becomes a heavy-handed allegory of politics and “democracy” in both the comic series and the TV show. After the brutal, gory deaths of Glenn and Abraham at the end of Season 6, the television series begins Season 7 first by revealing, and picturing, the horrible details of those deaths and showing how this traumatic violence leads to Negan gaining complete control over Rick and everyone else. Relying on the Savior’s superior numbers, their cohesion and loyalty to Negan, and their collective willingness to commit horrific acts of violence, Negan struts and gloats mockingly in his power and in Rick’s humiliation.

Season 7 spends much of its time illustrating the precise rhetoric that Negan uses to justify the “covenant" with his people, albeit often with a heavy dose of campy irony. There is no irony, however, in the absoluteness of this covenant: “I am everywhere” Negan likes to repeat and to demonstrate to Rick just what he means, he asks one of his henchman, “Who is Negan?” and the reply here, as always, is that “We are all Negan.” The farce of contractual “choice” among the governed is further highlighted in the season’s shift in focus to the Saviors and various key characters among Negan’s henchmen. Episode 1, “”” opens with a graphic visual depiction of Negan beating to death first Abraham, then Glenn—though Glenn’s death is in effect “caused” by Daryl, who foolishly—and against their implicitly contractual “deal”—charges Negan after watching him beat his friend Abraham to death with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, a weapon that Negan affectionately, and seemingly with dripping irony, calls “Lucille.” Daryl’s juridically “unwarranted” act of aggression breaks the pact between the Saviors and Rick’s group, which was that in recompense for the Saviors that Rick and his people had recently killed in an “unprovoked” attack on a Savior outpost, Negan would take one life, chosen randomly and thus fairly. So Glenn’s gruesome death—provoking horrified outrage among fans for its depiction of Glenn’s head being brutally crushed by the bat and an eyeball popping out—is arguably a fair and necessary response to Daryll’s breach of contract.130

Not coincidentally, various episodes in Season 6 emphatically depict the self-righteous arrogance and disregard for human life that characterizes the lead-up to Rick and his group’s pre-emptive strike on Negan—one that is part of their “deal” with Hilltop and its cowardly leader, XXX: in exchange for cooperation and supplies, they will “take care of Negan.” The show thus highlights the repercussions of its longstanding logics and rhetoric of collective self-preservation as a competitive and contractual enterprise in which the ends of group self-preservation justify the means of unprovoked violence against strangers, while adding the implicit inflections generated in Rick and Daryl’s grandiose boasting: “This is how we eat” and “Those who rape and beat and kill, we kill them” (Season 6, Episode 12, “No Tomorrow Yet”).

But the Season 7 emphasis on Rick’s humiliation and abjection to Negan’s rule has grated on viewers and critics alike for its nagging portrayal of defeat and the loss or absence of the characteristics that have made Rick and his group most popular and “badass.” This loss of standing in the world of the show is cited repeatedly as the factor that threatens to stall and derail the entire enterprise, especially for its previously loyal viewers.

[Also the settler colonial logics that undergird both genocide and slavery have been a key focus of more recent political and cultural theory work (Fred Moten, Jared Sexton) that illustrates how this dehumanizing of the Other serves the interests and purposes of both territorial and economic expansion by the “community”—the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead traces that trajectory by illustrating how the models for governance move from Rick to Negan, whose whole enterprise is basically that of ‘making slaves’ through the capitalist realist joke of “It’s your choice,” which is Negan’s refrain. And this trajectory seems to explain why the series spends so much time recounting the detail’s of Negan’s seemingly horrific form of governance, a form that The Walking Dead insists is surreptitiously shared by every group that adheres to the liberal logics of collective formation, a Hobbesian logics in their view.

From the series’ inception, the intensity of the pressure to make hard decisions has been both a problem and an opportunity for Rick Grimes. And as discussed above, although he appears to be a figure for masculine (and thus liberal individualist) resistance to experiences of impotence and irrelevance within neoliberal systems of corporate and state control, Rick arguably comes to embody a critique of that same liberal individual agency and masculine leadership. This agency and its notions of “leadership” are surreptitiously presented as a trap and an illusion for both Rick and his followers. From the earliest episodes, Rick establishes his leadership by anticipating and preparing for violent attacks by the zombies and other human groups and responding fiercely with equal violence: as when he cuts off the leg of a young man impaled on a fence rather than leave him for the walkers to get. In some sense, his ruthless capacity for such acts serves as the clearest sign of Rick’s natural capacity for leadership—even though we also see how that capacity is often in question, undermined by his desire to preserve community norms of justice, ethics, and sentimental attachments. For instance, although Rick did not want to abandon him to the zombies, the young man, Randall (Michael Zegen), had just attacked Rick and his friends. The rescued Randall, now lame, becomes a prisoner who is kept blindfolded and later tortured for information and ultimately killed by Shane. Later in the series, after viewers and fellow survivors alike witness how the group is wiped out again and again, Rick’s leadership reveals itself to be increasingly “costly” and ambiguous in the overarching narratives of both the television and comic book series. Centering each season on this plot of community and survival, the series highlights connections between Rick’s style of leadership and the group’s perception of the ethical problems presented by other human survivors and groups.131

These questions arise clearly by Season 4 and 5 in the television show, when Rick retreats from his leadership role and tries to “go it alone” with his son Carl. Their harrowing experiences and a few dramatic rescues from Michonne teach Rick that in the zombie apocalypse, one quickly loses the hope and even the will to live—as well as too many limbs—when “outside” the community. However, that option of retreating from the group and its covenant remains in play through Seasons 7 and 8, particularly in the character arc of Carol.132 Carol, along with Glenn’s wife Maggie, embodies a potential expansion of narrative options for the female characters, and political options for the group.. Carol and King Ezekial in Season 7

The futurity of the frontier, where the simultaneous triumph and expulsion of the Indian killer/frontiersman is a price paid by society in order to clear the way (literally) for that society’s future differs from the “futurity” of the zombie apocalypse, though. The foundational violence at the core of modern liberal democracy has been explored in recent years by political philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben and Achille Mbembe as a genealogy of power and capital that moves, necessarily, through colonial conquest, settlement, and slavery—and which is likewise foundational to the modes of government that administer the concentration camp, the occupied territories, the detention center, the prison, etc. While transposed to the fantasy of the zombie apocalypse, The Walking Dead emphasizes its links to those historical foundations by underlining of the generic concordance between the zombie apocalypse and the Western. However, the television show also deploys another key genre of capitalism, horror, to introduce a specifically neoliberal twist on its fantasy of the frontier and futurity.

In his excellent chapter on zombie cinema, Evan Calder Williams describes the central affect of zombie horror films as one of “anxiety.” Echoing Berlant, Williams notes that “anxiety is never about the radically new but rather about the horrible possibility of the same persisting.”133 Resonating with the critiques of Shaviro and Canavan, Williams insists that the double edge of the zombie narrative is located in the zombies themselves, who figure the condition (and threat) of labor in capitalism, particularly given the zombie myth’s generic and genealogical origins in Haitian plantation slave society. For Williams, the “horror” of the best zombie films begins with their stripping of “everyday relations” to expose “the brutality beneath.” But this horror is shadowed by impotent rage in Williams’s view: “the seething anger at the prospect of not having a choice. The true underbelly of ‘freely selling one’s labor,’ the realization that it has been a non-choice from the start.”134 This characterization offers a pathway that connects the established critical understanding of zombies as “uncanny” and as figures of a compelling, even “ecstatic,” abjection and resistance to the questions of agency and white masculinity that begin this essay.135

The Walking Dead is known for its spectacularly grotesque special effects and the use of visual and aural technology to convey the disgust and horror, the “gore,” that punctuate the experiences in this transformed landscape. The show consistently uses intense sound effects, as well as visuals, to make the bodily experiences of being bitten, chewed, and ripped apart inescapable and visceral for audiences. After the first three seasons, the horror of the zombie chronotope becomes familiar in ways that the show thematizes as a version of late capitalist horror, a horror grounded in banality and routine—not unlike the consumerist numbness the zombie apocalypse appeared to disrupt. The premier episode of Season Four opens with various characters doing their perimeter “patrol” along the chain link fence that encloses the community (in a former prison) in which they use knives to loudly and grotesquely, but quite easily, “re-kill” the “roamers” that push and huddle against the enclosure. This management of the hoards of the undead is rendered in explicit camera close-ups and accompanied by sound effects that emphasize the experience of blade going through the skin, bone, soft organs, etc. of the zombie faces. After this initial scene, one of the newer male characters asks to go out on a supply search mission in order to avoid this job of routine maintenance violence (saying he “doesn’t like it much”). His understatement ironically emphasizes that his character is “choosing” to risk his life in a direct and exposed situation rather than participate in the management of the walkers (and yes, he dies horrifically). Although Rick and the others maintain the rhetoric of “savage war” to justify and explain their violence, the actual “war” with the undead is shown here to be a relentlessly awful form of labor.

Problems of choice and hard decisions in The Walking Dead are presented so insistently as to feel almost like a parody of survivalist rhetoric, but this insistence also makes clear how the show’s preoccupation with “non-choice” is foregrounded from the start. The awful necessities imposed by the zombie apocalypse are dramatized as early as the second episode, when Rick and Glenn must escape from a building in downtown Atlanta that is being overrun by zombies. Glenn’s own occasional crises of masculinity in the first two seasons are presented as a counterpoint to Rick’s capacities for action and self-sacrifice. From the opening shots, the viewpoint of the camera alternates between panoptic images of zombie hordes and close-ups of the frantic efforts of Rick and Glenn to devise some sort of escape. In this scene, the porous line between living survivors and zombies is made material when Rick and Glenn smear themselves with zombie body gore, taken off of bodies they’ve recently “killed,” in order to camouflage their humanity by trying to smell and look like zombies. A generic set piece of zombie films, this “passing” in order to escape the zombie threat literalizes the ambivalence of survival and the precarity of being “human,” while foregrounding experiences of disgust and abjection (the suffering of both characters is evident on their faces). The requirement to overcome disgust in order to survive is shown here to involve overcoming the self’s natural responses to the threat of defilement, rupturing self-defenses against any boundary-protecting “line not to be crossed.” The scene also signals the new extremes of doing what must be done: the self-inflicted horror involved in their camouflage will expand into the world they now inhabit, where characters must become more and more like the undead – and the savage other. Even if that transformation is in a sense against their will, compelled by the conditions of survival.

To a large extent, the belabored allegory of Negan and the Saviors appears to be a calculated narrative unraveling of the question of leadership and governance as shaped by Hobbesian presumptions about both collectivity and humanity. Negan’s rising importance during Season 7 is detailed through minute presentations of how the logic of “no choice” dovetails neatly with the logic of “free choice.” Negan and many of the saviors, such as the central character of Dwight, argue that the Saviors is a community that “works” so well (operates and thrives) because it operates on the basis of each member’s calculated and rational risk-benefit analysis. As Dwight explains to one of Negan’s other lieutenants who is trying to escape the Saviors,

In The Walking Dead, even actions that appear autonomous or “chosen” are “forced” by this logics of survival and self-interest, to the extent that the horrific and otherwise indefensible act of cutting off your new girlfriend’s arm and leaving her to die is a reasonable thing to do—and is what Rick does in the comic book series in order to save Carl from the approaching zombies. Rick’s agency, like that of the Indian killer Ethan Edwards, is thus constrained and locked within the field of relations, affective modes, and political imagination produced in the conditions of his experience, i.e. through his subjection as a neoliberal survivor (and a protagonist in a zombie apocalypse genre narrative). The role of white male hero is shown to be a trap within a logics that the protagonist cannot escape. Tortured and isolated by those logics, the “hero” is always in the process of “becoming a savage,” of collapsing the distance between the self and the expelled, inhuman other. Psychoanalytic theory insists on the pivotal function of sexual difference in the logic of abjection: the ecstatic collapsing of boundaries between self and other is theoretically gendered exclusively as female, or feminine. 136 In a sense, the loss of self that is threatened by abjection is precisely a loss of perceived agency, of the capacity to act separately and autonomously which is lodged in longstanding conceptions of both agency and masculinity. So while the survivalist narrative of The Walking Dead recuperates familiar notions of agency in dramas of individual capacity and responsibility, that narrative is often interrupted and at times derailed by the show’s relentless spectacles of suffering that undercut nostalgia for liberal individualism and neoliberal responsibilization. This double movement is one of the elements that helps explain how The Walking Dead can dramatize “both sides” of neoliberal agency as manifested in the divide between the zombies as threat and the survivors as unwilling avatars for the futurity of “our” modernity—so that The Walking Dead encompasses simultaneously both the myth and the affective experience of the neoliberal subject.

In this sense, abjection reveals itself to be the ground, the mundane “real” of subjectivity and activity in a world not so much “transformed” as stripped by the apocalypse. Agency is no longer what it was –or, more precisely, agency is revealed to have never worked as promised. Thus, the narrative temporality of impasse and trajectory of futility articulate a long genealogy of a specific mode of “capitalist abjection” is figured in the anguish and ambivalence of the (putatively white) masculinity that is portrayed in The Walking Dead. Anna McCarthy asserts that, “suffering is essentially an instructive public affect — it demarcates the limits of liberal and neoliberal rationality and exposes the forms of socioeconomic inequality and disenfranchisement that reside within the democratic experience.” 137 Confronting, through fantasy, liberalism’s impossible demands for agency, The Walking Dead could be said to impose a critical form of suffering on viewers who are propelled into the story by their “interest” in either the characters or the thought experiment of the apocalypse/survivalist situation and then find themselves entrapped much as the characters are. Viewers’ relation to the deterioration of the protagonists, and especially the “hero” and the seemingly “necessary” atrocities and horrors he commits, reflects the ambivalence installed in the character of Rick Grimes, and elaborated in the show’s paradoxical temporality of “impasse.”

The ambivalence manifested in the circular or stalled narrative trajectory of the television series is further embodied by both Rick and other key characters in the series—some female, some non-white, some both. However, Rick’s relationship to his sovereign leadership remains for the most part utterly complacent. . . and profoundly self-serving. With growing intensity, Rick persists in the most recent episodes to insist that “they are lucky we are here” each time he and his core group arrives to “save” another community. And then that community is violently destroyed and large numbers of people die and are tortured in the process. And in both the tv show and the comic series, Negan’s position is reversed as he becomes Rick’s own perpetual prisoner, kept in an underground jail in the basement of their compound until an irate young man bent on mutiny against Rick decides to release Negan. But now, Negan apparently wants nothing from the world except to make Rick happy, in a humorous and somewhat startling turning of the tables—he serves Rick by choice. The humor and startling argument of Negan’s new “freedom” is that he seems to want only to please and impress Rick—killing and reversal into Rick’s prisoner, kept

Are there characters who articulate or embody alternative understandings? Carol? Gabriel, the Reverend? –the ways in which Season 8 is criticized for stalling and being stuck in an impasse that is tiresome for how it shows any ethical consideration as weakness but cannot narrate a way out of this circle of violence manifests the impasse that both narrative and the logics of governance and collective survival have installed. Why not allow Gabriel or Carol or Morgan to lead a “new” way out (and why call whole volumes “No Way Out”—my question becomes is this dead-end an intentional commentary and critique of the apocalypse narrative and its generic underpinnings as slowly and inexorably unraveled in the tv series? Or does it reflect a failure of imagination and will on the part of Kirkman, the producers, and/or the writers—as so many of the show’s fans have been saying since Season 6 and the murder of Glenn? –Which is why the following chapter tracks speculative works that dare, to an extent at least, to imagine a different story.

Perhaps, though, what looks like futility, an endless circling around the edges of previous towns and suburban enclaves, is also an instructive form of suffering? In its distinct narrativity, one that is abject and vicarious but also forceful in the intensity of its anxiety, disgust, and boredom, The Walking Dead confronts the viewer with his, and her, “anxiety of the same” as well as a “seething anger”-- the dual affective remainders of a growing proletarianization under neoliberal economic governance.138 Even further, The Walking Dead underlines the affective genealogies of liberal capitalism by revealing what happens in the afterward of the frontier, after the wandering and the genocides of The Searchers. The settler colonial logic that had seemed to promise and provide for “civilization” is exposed as leading—à la Agamben and Foucault—to a state of endless war. In this speculative fiction, the survival narrative has fully turned on the characters, exposing a suffering that is self-perpetuating and zombified: a serial cycle that cannot be interrupted, even without hope or choice. In the source comic, it is Andrea who says to Rick in Volume 19, “We don’t die. You and me. That’s the rule. We don’t die” –what seems to be expressed as a cause for hope, or at least exhilaration, can easily turn into a curse: for Rick and the others who follow him, their undead state persists no matter what atrocities they commit, what horrors they experience.139 The Walking Dead presents the frontier’s foundational war of all against all as the permanent landscape of late capitalism, and it will never end.


Critical Futurities and Speculative Fictions in Sci-Fi Cinema in Sleep Dealer and Snowpiercer

A veces tu controla a la maquina y a veces, la maquina controla a tí.”

--Sleep Dealer

  1. The Politics of Necrofuturism: Dystopic Allegory in Sci-Fi Cinema

In the 2013 post-apocalyptic sci-fi action thriller, Snowpiercer (directed by South Korean action film auteur Bong Joon-ho), the lead character, Curtis (played by Captain America star, Chris Evans) asks despairingly of his mentor the bent, horribly crippled rebel leader Gilliam (John Hurt), “But how can I lead if I have two good arms?” This question occurs near the precise middle of the film and remains cryptically unanswered until Curtis finally, in a key analepsis toward the end, tells the ‘whole’ story of the early days on the Snowpiercer, a train that blasts through a frozen catastrophically destroyed earth, carrying the last humans alive. The train blatantly allegorizes both a man-made environmental apocalypse that destroys the earth in a single act of desperate hubris and a vivid picture of social inequality which is hyperbolized in the hermetically sealed world of the Snowpiercer—as the train travels, implausibly and symbolically, on a track that circles a destroyed and frozen planet earth.140

This late climatic moment of confession in Snowpiercer unexpectedly transforms the post-apocalypse survival genre by reversing its conventional logics. Until this moment, the film has seemed to constitute a blunt, if entertaining, Marxist allegory of survival and revolution against the “owners” and oppressors of postapocalyptic late capital. Among the transformations wrought by this crux scene, is the revelation that the preceding narrative—appearances to the contrary—is not a heroic leader and survival-of-the-fittest story. Curtis’s tale of radical self-sacrifice makes it clear that the so-called “fittest” and strongest are in fact those who, in both the front and back of the train, are simply the most vicious and murderous. The willingness to commit horrifying violent acts that has characterized both leadership and the discourses of “primitive masculinity” in many of this book’s case studies are here fully exposed as the traits and elements most likely to wreak total destruction. As the ostensible “hero” of the film posing his earlier question, “How can I lead?” Curtis seems to be expressing a stoic, ‘natural leader’ sort of reticence familiar from all kinds of popular political fictions; including mainstream electoral politics, Westerns and disaster action movies. But in this later retelling, we realize that lurking behind Curtis’s stoic reticence is not heroic, iconic masculinity but shame and horror at acts he himself has committed.

Curtis relates how in the beginning of the apocalyptic crisis and when all the survivors are put on the Snowpiercer, things degenerated quickly into a kill the weak situation. In this period of crisis, Curtis quickly established himself as a dominant member of the stronger group, which he implies essentially meant rampaging through the back end of the train—terrorizing, killing, and even eating the weak to survive. This hyperbolic scenario of a Hobbesian breakdown of all society promises to end in a brutal and ugly implosion, which as we know from The Walking Dead is what happens when these logics are installed and pursued to their inevitable end. Until one day when Curtis is about to murder an infant for food, “an old man, no relation to the baby” intervenes: the old man, who turns out to be his beloved mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), grabs the machete from Curtis and shockingly cuts off his own arm just below the elbow; he then holds out the limb to Curtis, proclaiming, “If you must eat, eat this. But let the baby live.” So, yes, how can a man [sic] lead with both his arms when that intact body tells the story of his cowardice and greed, not his superiority.

As with The Walking Dead, Snowpiercer’s apocalyptic survival plot puts into play key figures of capitalist liberal individualism and the idea of a Darwinian struggle for dominance (i.e. “survival”) that have together long upheld liberal democratic concepts of a free collectivity bound by a Hobbesian social contract. One thing I have been tracking in this book is the role of popular cinema and television in perpetuating and/or challenging such conventional assumptions and plotlines. By pushing the presumptions of “tooth and claw” individualism to their logical extreme and then leaping out of that inexorable plot of self-interest and self-preservation, Snowpiercer introduces another logic and an alternative vision of both individual psychic subjection and collective survival. Echoing a well-known Buddhist parable, Curtis relates how Gilliam’s near-unimaginable sacrifice transformed “the tail” end of the Snowpiercer: everyone had a shocking revelation and this abandoned group began to organize and collaborate for the collective good.141 Gilliam’s sacrificial act, which predates the film’s beginning, and then its retelling toward the end of the movie indicate its utopic leap out of the survival plot and confirms the film’s intention to open, or transform, its generic storyworld toward a distinct generic and narrative mode—one that is explicitly political and philosophical, though not at all “realistic.”

The political valence that adheres to genre and mode in both cinematic and literary representation is conventionally divided between realism’s complicities with existing models of understanding and categories, and thus systems, which are contrasted with the alternative, often utopic imaginings of science fiction and other speculative genres. For Frederic Jameson, the enclosures of realism as a genre and form of representation are best countered by what he calls the Utopian form, which “insists that its radical difference is possible and that a break is necessary. The Utopian form itself is the answer to the universal ideological conviction that no alternative is possible, that there is no alternative to the system. But it asserts this by forcing us to think the break itself, and not by offering a more traditional picture of what things will be like after the break” (Archaeologies 232). Other theorists are less sanguine about the apocalypse plot’s evasion of “what things will be like after the break,” such as Peter Paik who argues that the “academic Left has proven incapable of providing a credible or compelling alternative to liberal capitalist status quo, as its vision of justice and reform are largely variations on the socio-political order that currently exists” (75). For Paik, and many political philosophers, utopia and dystopia constitute a misleading opposition as both remain equally constrained linguistically, generically, and politically by the subjectivities generated within their geohistorical context, and thus self-perpetuating language and thought systems.

Similarly, Gerry Canavan has argued that Snowpiercer can be linked to a longer history of apocalyptic cinema that he names “necrofuturism” for its use of the apocalypse allegory to articulate the dead-end of both political and imaginative options generated in late capitalist regimes.142 Tracking the debates that have swirled around this popular cult film, especially among leftist theorists and commentators, Canavan highlights Snowpiercer’s debt to a previous generation of political sci-fi films from the 1970s, exemplified by the dystopian classic Soylent Green (Flesicher 1973). In this genealogy, the political valence of necrofuturist media is critical, but largely nihilistic—the catastrophes of global capitalism (overpopulation in Soylent Green, global warming, social inequality, and a disastrous geotechnological fix that froze the planet in Snowpiercer) are shown to be rooted in contemporary political and economic realities, and are portrayed as inescapable even if catastrophic. Canavan defines the category of necrofuturism as encompassing narratives that “anticipate the future as a devastated world of death, and yet simultaneously insist that this world of death is the only possible future” (8).143

What is the impact of such a “necrofuturist” narrative on the speculative imagination? Using the example of Soylent Green, Canavan argues that we experience the closing off of any alterative imagined futurity, producing an apocalypse-as-futility subgenre that can be understood as a variant of capitalist realism. Also discussed in previous chapters, Mark Fisher’s groundbreaking Capitalist Realism (2012) presents an influential analysis of the impasse and failure of contemporary aesthetic culture and its political imagination in relation to the persistence of capitalist logics. As Fisher puts it, “Poverty, famine, and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated is easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that it is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.” (pg). Fisher’s conception of capitalist realism explains that it works “like realism itself” in that both capitalism and realism claim to present a stark and harsh, but “real” version of reality: i.e. “what is left when beliefs have collapsed.” The ultimate implication of this claim is that in a world shorn of delusions, fanaticism, or other forms of unrealistic hope: “lowering our expectations, we are told, is a small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism” (4,5). But this “depressive position” of both capitalist realism and its offshoot necrofuturism demands, as Canavan notes, a foreclosing of potential futurity: “The world that it projects seems more like an extrapolation or exacerbation of ours than an alternative to it,” says Fisher—speaking of Children of Men (2). For its part, Snowpiercer clearly exposes, and rather gleefully elaborates, the crucial and deadly link between the manufactured crises of disaster capitalism and an already-accomplished destruction of both the planet and of peoples’ lived humanity.144

And yet, Snowpiercer shares a distinctly utopian register with the other film I discuss in this chapter, 2008’s low-budget sci-fi drama Sleep Dealer, and both ultimately promise, or at least suggest, a possible leap out of this necrofuture. Sleep Dealer is another cult or ‘underground’ favorite, and likewise was produced as an independent and transnational effort.145 In the case of Sleep Dealer, director Alex Rivera credits “the pirates and the professors” with keeping his film alive via bootlegs and illegal screenings that made it accessible to audiences after the film’s distributor went out of business.146 In both of these films, the wedding of capitalist realism’s necrofuturist tone and argument to an overtly revolutionary and utopic message accounts for much of their popularity and recent positive critical reception. Political commentator Van Jones enthuses, “‘Sleep Dealer’ blew me away. I thought this movie could seed a whole new category of film — social justice sci-fi” (Montgomery). Both Snowpiercer and Sleep Dealer, along with a slew of other popular dystopic sci-fi (and horror) films of the early 21st century, indicate that this hoped-for explosion of overtly political sci-fi allegory has in fact happened. And compared to the mainstream apocalypse blockbusters of the 1990s and early 2000s discussed in Chapter One, these are films that penetrate critically into the fabric of the social, economic, and political structures of contemporary societies, underlining how those structures will inexorably generate, and lead to, these imagined dystopias that hover just beyond the horizon. Nevertheless, these films also reveal the mix of critique and complicity that might encumber even energetic and inspired efforts to undo the imaginary constraints of capitalist realism.

  1. Sleep Dealer: Allegories of Global Capital and Romance at the Border

Near the beginning of Sleep Dealer, viewers are treated to a powerful sequence that resonates with any number of popular sci-fi dystopic action films of recent years. We see the satirically-presented future TV show “Drones,” a sci-fi militarized version of “Cops” that is broadcasting the real-life, and real-time, targeting of suspected “aqua terrorists” who attack the “Southern Sector water supply,” which is “constantly in crisis,” as the action-style TV voice-over informs us (while ironically revealing the notions of “crisis” invoked here to be a media ploy upholding militaristic domination). As the film’s viewers, we are watching this fictional TV show along with the protagonist Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) and his brother as they take a break from a backyard family gathering in rural Mexico. So we share their shock and horror when they casually switch to a TV broadcast of “Drones” that is detailing how a drone controlled by Rodolfo “Rudy” Ramirez (Jacob Vargas), a pilot sitting in a corporate-run military installation in San Diego, sets loose a series of missiles that cameras show destroying Memo’s family’s tiny casita and the audience watches aghast with Memo and his brother David (Tenoch Huerta) as Rudy shoots down their aging farmer father on live television.

Within this early sequence, which is presented as a flashback from Memo’s point of view, Sleep Dealer offers what is in some ways a familiar picture of the dystopic future: a bleak, dry, environmentally destroyed landscape, a satirical portrait of militarized corporate power, and the sad lives of the helpless individuals trapped under the thumb of said powers. From Soylent Green to Wall-E to Minority Report, the picture of the future of “our” society has often tended toward an understanding of the nefarious impacts of global corporate power on both natural and human life. The most apparent innovation in Sleep Dealer involves the setting and situation: a near-empty rural homestead in the pueblo of “Santa Ana del Rio, Oaxaca, Mexico,” which sits near a large hydro dam and lake—a dam that is incongruously and heavily guarded by soldiers, drone-operated military artillery and weaponized surveillance cameras (“the talking gun,” as Memo calls it) that shake down the peasants who must go to there to buy water that once belonged to them and is now “owned” by a distant U.S.-based corporation and defended by the cameras, the drones, and the military guards.147 Sleep Dealer’s emphasis on Mexico and the inequality and exploitation that shape U.S.-Mexico relations signals its participation in a distinct strain of contemporary speculative fictions and popular culture coming out of U.S. Latinx cultural production and perspectives. The interrogation of global economic and environmental dynamics in Sleep Dealer occurs through the trope of the U.S.-Mexico border and the understanding of that region as a microcosm of global late capitalist relations and dynamics. This signification of the U.S.-Mexico border emerges from its “real” racial and national histories of inequality and conflict, of labor and capital, of settler colonial versions of the rule of law and a “frontier” relation to the centers of the nation-state and government, and of a generally very long history of war and violence—all of which play key roles in much recent popular culture and media representing the border.

These works—in film and TV, but also literature—indicate how the critical regionalism of the Mexico-U.S. border has expanded its significance beyond the U.S., or even just the Americas, to work as a metonymy for processes of globalization and the anxieties and critiques that the current sense of “transition” has generated.148 As some have noted, for example, the drug trade (narcotrafficking) itself is increasingly understood as an encapsulation of the operations of late global capitalism: a selective application of rule of law, the banalization of horrific and systemic violence, bodies of workers and other geographically and economically unfortunate bystanders as disposable and replaceable parts, extra-national operations involving more money than most single nation-state GDPs, and so on. Furthermore, the narrative tropes of drug cartels and drug smuggling often cohere with images and plotlines that join established ideas and previous images about Mexico and its relation to the U.S. (the outsourcing of cheap labor to maquiladoras, a relative weakening of the “rule of law,” a chaotic, poverty-riddled social fabric, and a concomitant violence and underlying disregard for human life) to constitute iconic elements that are simultaneously representative of “the border” and of late capitalist globalization. The long-held “image-repertoire” of Mexico as a place of violence and chaos finds its convenient, and plausible, expression in drug cartel dramas and other smuggling stories.149

Such notions are particularly explicit in the growth industry of what we might call “dystopic border sci-fi,” which includes Sleep Dealer and speculative literary fiction such as The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (2015) and Summer of Hate by Chris Krauss (2012). Along with more realist TV dramas such as Breaking Bad and The Bridge, these are works that illustrate the large-scale role occupied by Mexico and the border in popular political and aesthetic imaginaries in the U.S. This looming image of a dystopic borderlands has obvious antecedents in notions of Mexico as a “cauldron of chaos” and in racialized U.S.-dominated histories of the New World going back to the nineteenth century and beyond.150 And yet these works also often reflect alternative, critical understandings of those stereotypes and those histories. Both Sleep Dealer and Almanac of the Dead (by Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko), for instance, share a powerful critique of the brutality of neocolonial regimes in contemporary late capitalism and their roots in histories of settler colonialism, U.S. expansionism, and corporate global divisions of labor and wealth.

Rivera further underlines the links between these histories and the questions of migration and labor that continue to shape Mexico-U.S. relations—both Sleep Dealer and his earlier satirical mockumentary “Why Cybraceros?” focus on his sci-fi notion of “coyoteks” and “cybraceros.” Rivera plays on the transnational histories and labor regimes that create exploitation and risk, as well as salaries and opportunities, for Mexican workers willing to endure the conditions of migration to find substinence-level wages, though sometimes better, by crossing illegally into the United States as cheap labor. The terms “cybracero” invokes the Bracero Program that shaped national policy and Mexican migration to the U.S. in the mid-20th century, indicating what is both futuristic and yet also very old about the film’s satirical presentation of its updated version of the American Dream: “We give the United States what they always wanted: all the work without the workers,” as Memo’s foreman and boss at the infomaquila says dryly. Offering a dystopic extension of the Bracero Program for the neoliberal era—an era that explicitly eschews domestic policy regimes, labor laws, and environmental or other regulation—the cybraceros are workers employed as virtual labor in these neo-maquiladoras. Maquiladoras refer to the factories built and operated, staring in the 1970s, in transnational juridically-designated “export processing zones” around border cities such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana where U.S. (or Mexican, for that matter) national tax, environmental, and labor laws do not apply.

Before Memo’s home is blown up and his father killed in the drone strike, Sleep Dealer underscores its science fictionality in an opening credit sequence that uses blue and green-lit images showing human workers hooked up with tubes and performing ‘virtual’ work in a large, scary laboratory-like room that we later learn is the ‘factory floor’of the infomaquila (aka “sleep dealer”) where Memo works. This sequence is actually an analepsis, a jumping forward in narrative time and features a close-up of Memo’s own wide open eyes, shot in an alarming disembodied crop. [use image] The dystopic technological and economic esclavitud in the infomaquilas of Tijuana is presented as part of Memo’s memory and an introduction to the world of the film. Then that memory shifts to warmer-toned flashback images of his past, visually invoking a recognizable, and explicitly nostalgic, tradition of “lo Mexicano.” The audience literally sees Memo’s memories of his patriarchal family dinners with fresh tortillas being cooked and served by his mother and grandmother to the father and two sons in a dusty and bare, open air kitchen/dining area. These scenes and the juxtaposition of visual tones and vocabularies (cryptic blue-lit science fiction horror and the bleached pastoral poverty and loving family life of his past) encapsulates much about the central tension and argument of Sleep Dealer. Melding classical, and fairly conventional, narrative tropes with a science fiction atmosphere conveys the traditional individualist plot of a young man from the provinces who sets off to find his fortune, but in a speculative context that promises something new, something else. Memo says early on, in voice over and to his father, that sees himself as “trapped” in family farm that offers no outlets for his youthful energy, ambition, or talents: a place that is “dry, dusty, disconnected” as he puts it.

Other critical aspects of the movie’s argument are established in these early scenes, such as when Memo goes reluctantly with his father to the dam to get the water for the family. In voice over, Memo explains how his father had been a modestly successful farmer with many employees and how he was happy as ‘el patrón del pueblo.” But all that had “changed”—and was destroyed—when “they” built the dam. The film’s overarching satire as well as critique of this legal but unjust expropriation of natural resources and livelihood from rural Mexicans is conveyed in the scene when the older man speaks to the “talking gun” which mechanically translates its demands from American-accented English into computer-generated Spanish (a la google translator) and arbitrarily announces the cost of 35 liters of water will be “85 dollars. Pause. The price went up.” “Since when?” Memo’s father asks. “Since today.” Memo shakes his head in disgust and complains as they collect water from the lake into their skin sacks, “This is nuts.” The fight between tradition and change is conventionally framed in the father and son generational tension and mutual incomprehension, but this conventional dynamic gets a particular twist when the father asks Memo, “Is our future a thing of the past?” The father’s seemingly illogical question underlines the film’s interest in the price of global capitalist modernity and its destruction of other possible futures, entire ways of life, here figured as a dehumanizing monetization and expropriation of their local water supply. The temporalities of past and future within its science fiction narration are likewise shown to be primarily aimed at our own present in the U.S. and Mexico. Or as one reviewer puts it, this dystopia could be taking place “40 years or 40 days in the future.”151

The sci-fi opening sequence of Memo as a cybracero, hooked up with tubes to the machines that transport his labor cybernetically, i.e. immaterially, to the U.S., also gestures toward the other main science fiction element significant to the story, the market and new cybertechnologies working together as an exploitive force and dominating mediator of lived experiences and psyches. Picturing Memo’s own memories of his family in Santa Ana del Rio in a distinct yellow lighting and antiqued edging (suggesting a warm Instagram filter), the film injects visual markers of pathos and poignancy that rely on shared codes about family, rural tradition, and photography. But the antiqued edging also encodes the more cynical, or perhaps just low-budget, sensibility at work here because Sleep Dealer uses this edging to signal when we are watching various characters’ memories through the filter of a social media platform known as “TruNode.” Both from the romance that finds Memo later in the film and the TV commercials he and his brother watch from the village, we learn that this ubiquitous media platform is the “world’s number one memory market” that promotes itself with ads claiming “your memories are too precious to waste. Sell them at TruNode.”

At once satirical parody and plausible near-future scenario (especially after the scandals and concerns following Facebook, Google, and the inescapable reach of “big data”), TruNode’s business model requires content providers to upload their memories into a database where they are put up for sale to anonymous online bidders. The commodification of an individual’s “life” is now manifested in this market of dreams, or “memories,” in which Luz Martinez (Leonor Varela, as the love interest that Memo first encounters on the bus to Tijuana) identifies herself as a “writer” but actually what she does is sell her own, computer-authenticated memories to make a living. And it turns out that she’s been failing at this enterprise of hyperbolic self-branding and commodification: Luz’s memories aren’t selling, possibly because they are rather boring. Luz enters the film as a woman of the world, that is to say, of Tijuana, appearing to be independent and savvy, smiling warmly at Memo on the bus as she takes the seat beside him. However, Luz’s bohemian and street-smart persona is both an attractive asset and an obfuscation of her own subjugation within cyber-networks that structure this dystopic future, a subjugation the viewer glimpses when she is shown at home in her apartment, drinking tea as her computer relays a skype call from a student debt collector. Luz then decides to upload a new “story” about Memo, “Un migrante del Santa Ana del Rio” (A migrant from Santa Ana del Rio). As the audience watches, Luz relates her meeting Memo by starting (after a correction), “Al prinicio no me impresionó mucho. Se veía como todos los demás” (“At first I didn’t think much of him. He looked. . . like all of the others”).

Critic Michael Martinez-Raguso has remarked on the tension in Sleep Dealer between a “horizontal” level of meaning of assemblage and affective alliance--which is evinced in both its transnational themes and general underworld/outskirts setting and plotline—and the “vertical” relations of subsumption and hierarchy that reflect both science fiction conventions and capitalist logics of exploitation (12). TruNode is an apt illustration of the ambiguity lodged in Sleep Dealer’s representation of the worker as occupying the “border between the configurations of the factory-based age of the industrial revolution and the increasingly immaterial postmodern world of images and cybernetic networks” (Martinez-Raguso 11). While some critics have praised the gesture toward individual agency suggested by TruNode’s reliance on, and archiving of, human memory and thus a valorizing of the individual, I agree with Martinez-Raguso that the commodification that structures this relation between network and individual speaks more ambivalently to the displacement of the human body in the service of “fusion without hybridity,” as well as the logic of commodification of all human capacities within an unregulated private market. 152

Memo’s disgraced and melancholy departure from Santa Ana del Río after his father’s death (for which his family blames him) bluntly invokes a “hero’s journey” mythic plotline, and underlines Sleep Dealer’s generic mash-up of heroic monomyth, sci-fi dystopia, and classic romance plots. The film’s reliance on a fairly conventional quest plotline within its satirical sci-fi critiques indicate its collage of standard-issue generic markers and storylines. However, Debra Castillo, and Rivera himself, describe this collage method as part of a “rasquache aesthetics,” after the Chicano art movement grounded in the nahuatl word rasquache that began as a pejorative but was inverted and revalorized by Chicano activists and artists starting in the 1970s and then made popular in Chicano art and cultural studies in the 1990s. With roots in “low-rider” car culture and in activist art at the height of the Chicano movement’s cultural influence, rasquachismo has been theorized and promoted by both artists and intellectuals for decades.153 Rivera links his use of rasquache to other minority aesthetic practices such as sampling in hip-hop and recycling imagery in poster art: “somebody fixing up an old car with pieces of three other cars; a collage aesthetic of the street. . . It’s ingrained in our spirit of survival, resistance, and innovation” (interview with Guillen). Castillo adds that for Rivera and the others, rasquachismo “becomes a conscious and contientious cultural practice”—one that she further links to the web-based political activism that Rivera also draws on for key elements in both Sleep Dealer and projects such as “Why Cybraceros?” (9).

The satirical thrust of both Tru-Node and the cybraceros projects reflect longstanding elements in Rivera’s work, which, Castillo explains, has a primary concern with “how to think together issues related to morality, globalization, and the invisibilized peoples of the global south, who bear the brunt of globalization’s noxious effects.” (10). In addition to the geopolitical problems of the U.S.-Mexico border and drawing from rasquachismo as a political aesthetic, Rivera has been greatly influenced by artists advocating for web-based political activism.154 Rivera and other web-based artists working across new media raise questions that link the impact of new technologies on our forms of selfhood and community (down to the level of the body and its experiences and capacities) as well as to these technologies’ perpetuation of—or opposition to—problems of social injustice and persistent ideologies such as race, ethnicity, and global inequality. Here we begin to see how the material realities of art-making and culture and the philosophical preoccupations with new subjectivities become entwined at this intersection of traditional popular form and new media in Sleep Dealer.

Martinez-Raguso and Castillo, along with several film critics, have pointed out that the low-budget effects and cinematic technologies used in Sleep Dealer reflect its own marginal funding and transnational production history, illustrating how Rivera uses these constraints productively as part of a rasquache political aesthetics of “making the most out of the minimum” (Ramirez-Raguso). Likewise, Castillo notes that Rivera’s web-based documentaries and other projects on his “Invisible Cinema” website participate in larger-scale new media concerns about what sort of people are being generated by the powerful combination of new technologies and late capitalism. N.Katherine Hayles famously coined the term “posthuman” to signal this “new kind of subjectivity characterized by distributed cognition, networked agency that includes human and non-human actors, and fluid boundaries dispersed over actual and virtual locations.” 155 The intersection of the emergent discourse of the posthuman and the speculative satires of Sleep Dealer bring my discussion back to the film’s organization, a pastiche of genre conventions.

Memo’s hero’s quest trajectory (on his way to the big city and the riskier opportunities of Tijuana) signals a shift to a more conventional story arc within the film. Critics and reviewers have remarked on the, at best, “serviceable” plot of Sleep Dealer in contrast to its sophisticated critique and satire of U.S., Mexican, and global economic realities and media cultures. This mix of modes and tones is underlined in the film’s appropriation of the familiar boy-from-the-provinces story that is at the heart of the classic bourgeois novel and many science fiction franchises, including Star Wars. In both Rivera’s film and the stalwarts of the sci-fi genre, the emphasis is on the masculine hero at the story’s center and his journey. Noting that gender is not listed among the preoccupations that Rivera claims in Castillo’s summary of his work’s ongoing concerns, the erasure of sexual difference as a pertinent concern for the critique of economic and cultural regimes again becomes salient. This elision of gender as key to social transformations and our analyses of structures of domination resonates with my discussion of Children of Men in Chapter Two. Here again, the recourse to a “hero’s journey” plot template suggests the film’s surreptitious recuperation of logics and hierarchies that are “serviceable”—or dare I say, convenient? This pragmatic genre compromise speaks to the imaginative impasse when it comes to the role of sexual difference in the liberal critique of social and political systems and our persistent conceptions of agency, individual and collective. In Sleep Dealer, the work of the heterosexual romance remains too crucial (and too easy) to eschew within its larger critique and call for widescale transformation of social systems. This recourse to romance raises a key question: what does this “need for narrative” produce in the viewer and how does it serve—or undermine—the analysis that critically speculative allegories, like that in Sleep Dealer, clearly intend?

In many ways, Memo’s situation reflects the double nature of Rivera’s narrative project: to represent the migrant worker as hero, because involved in a traditional hero’s quest, but within a project of visibilization, of making visible Mexican migrant workers and the conditions that shape their experience. Sleep Dealer exposes the social and economic regimes that have created this individual and these workers as “migrant” and seemingly “abject.” When Luz says about Memo that “He was just like all the others,” she signals both the stereotype—the nameless, endless wave of migrants, now coming to find work in the sleep dealers—and the film’s project of recasting that migrant as protagonist and person of interest. Once a buyer (who turns out to be Rudy Ramirez, the drone pilot) promises to purchase “all” the memories she can produce about Memo, Luz pursues Memo through the alleys of Tijuana and offers him crucial help in finding his way, even though Memo is clearly “beneath” her interest, socially and thus romantically. In these scenes, Luz is established as simultaneously an untrustworthy femme fatale with her own ulterior agenda and the proof of Memo’s specialness. Her interest in, and attention to, Memo—along with their emerging romantic relationship—are what make his journey into the world of the “sleep dealers” a success. Luz arguably fulfills several mythic narrative functions from the standard heroic monomyth: hero’s mentor, the female temptress, and the goddess who bestows the secret.156 For instance, while she is solidifying a trust relationship with Memo, Luz helps him gets his nodes—by doing the procedure herself—and finds him work in the sleep dealers. Luz’s attention, and eventually desire, confirm that Memo is unique and worthy of our attention, though the film itself has already shaped our identification with him through the structures of close-up and reverse shots and voiceover narration. But it is the romance that fully pulls Memo’s existence out of the incipient mass anonymity of ‘impoverished Mexican villager’ into singularity of the plot’s drama.157

Deploying a collage of generic tropes and narrative conventions allows Sleep Dealer to both render Memo as a central object of narrative focus and identification (and therefore sympathy and interest) and to use his predicament allegorically in order to stage a critique of particular sets of circumstances and discourses that would otherwise erase him as a subject and his story as one of note. Recalling Castillo’s summary of Rivera’s overall preoccupation with the “invisibilized peoples of the global south,” this ‘making visible’ work of narrative representation and plot in contemporary speculative fiction of the border works to center and foreground experiences of persons otherwise dismissed or erased. In his seminal work, “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe calls these populations “living dead,” nameless masses of populations designated for death or bare life.

This generic pairing of romance and dystopia also indicates the knot of representational challenges engaged in the film and, I think, in speculative popular culture more generally. If Van Jones is correct that Sleep Dealer could be seen as the harbinger of a cool new subgenre of “social justice sci-fi”—which of course it is—the film also raises thorny questions about how to make this “new” genre appealing and productive. That is, how to depict and account accurately for the sort of personhood and human capacities that are produced by the machine of late capital’s transnational abjected labor and migration depicted in the film—and do so without alienating audiences? Rivera launches a tricky dance with necrofuturist futility and the possibility of hope and change—perhaps because if the film does not signal that hope and potential agency for Memo, it risks peddling a variety of “poverty porn” that participates in that familiar fetishizing of the suffering of various Third World “others” and bemoaning their inevitable lack of options. This well-worn trope leans toward depicting labor as the already-living-dead, in terms of narrative position and political inclusion (use Jameson??). The images of Memo searching the streets for someone to help him “conseguir los nodos” (get some nodes) emphasizes his being “lost” in the city among crowds of equally desperate and poor fellow-Mexicans until Luz finds him again: “qué milagro” she says a bit ironically, acknowledging she had been looking for him, though not saying why. For his part, Memo has to admit he’d been tricked and robbed by a would-be coyotek the night before, an experience of humiliation and failure.

While sympathetic, the narrativization of the suffering of others who remain anonymous and inevitably beaten threatens to reenacts their erasure and a fetishitic invocation of anonymous "living dead" for whom nothing can change--casualties of global capitalist realism. And yet, to become a protagonist, a hero even, affirms the humanist and familiar logic of agency and personhood—especially masculine agency and leadership—that promises large scale transformation and change through the actions of a single, special actor. Sleep Dealer oscillates between showing how Memo belongs among these people and in these streets, but also that he quickly, very quickly, rises above and is “picked” by Luz and later “found” by Rudy Ramirez.

Recalling the ending of Chapter Three and the status of Rick Grimes in particular, my larger argument is interested in the productive uses of abjection and how it disrupts conventional ideas about both masculinity and individual agency (which, in the Western tradition, are essentially the same thing). Here, though, I am particularly focused on what the “serviceable” romance plot of Sleep Dealer is doing within its project of articulating a difficult referent?158 Overall, the film signals that its main argument is aimed primarily at global regimes of capital and state-sponsored violence that maintain geographic and cultural domination of the “South” by the “North.” Interestingly, Memo indicates he feels he has made a “choice” to participate in this regime and sees himself as a having agency in pursuing the opportunity provided by the sleep dealers, or “infomaquilas,” to make money to send to his family. When Luz “gives” him his nodes in a special room behind a seedy bar (depicted as a kind of high-tech, filthy tattoo parlour/border brothel), Memo’s voice-over commentary is telling: “Por fin, podría conectar mi sistema nervioso al otro sistema, la economia globale” (Finally, I could connect my nervous system to the other system, the global economy). In the next scene, the foreman at Memo’s new workplace, a multiservice “infomaquila” on the outskirts of the city, makes the apocryphal American Dream comment about “all of the work with none of the workers” and impatiently tells Memo to get to work: “Tu future empeza hoy” (Your future begins today).

But this future is incredibly grim. The wide panning shots that show a smog-clogged cityscape in San Diego—on the supposedly “better” side of the border—highlight how dystopic and gray and relentlessly inhuman this potential future world is. And the work Memo does as a sleep dealer laborer, in his as a remote construction worker on a skyscaper in San Diego, is both deadly and alienating, as illustrated when another node worker is electrocuted by what seems to be a blown fuse that sends the power of the network streaming directly into his body. The “power” that symbolically courses through the sleep dealer factory and the bodies of its workers becomes a metaphor for what this form of labor “really” is and does. As Memo muses after sending more money to his grateful mother, “¿Cómo la iba a decir la verdad? (How can I tell her the truth?). . . “Me estaba robando la energia, mandándola lejos.” (They were stealing my energy, sending it far away.)

[insert image (possibly a real one) of the enormous pipes across the desert, 52:54]

In the unregulated world of the infomaquilas, as in real-life maquiladoras, factories are run on the cheap and workers are left (free) to survive as they can, or not. Memo gets no instruction on how to do the skilled job of welding steel beams thousands of feet in the air and through shot-reverse shots from these eerie worksites to his clouded blue eyes, wide-open with a combination of terror and concentration, we see how precarious his position, literal and figural, actually is. Memo realizes that along with the hours of his days and nights and the exhausting labor demanded of him, the sleep dealers were literally robbing him of his body’s own, proper energy and life force—a sale that he did not sign on for.

Up to this point, the main thrust of Sleep Dealer remains predominantly “necrofuturist” and the options for Memo, and even his comprehension of there being a problem with his options, are both clearly limited. But two things happen in the denouement of these various threads: first, Rudy comes to Tijuana: crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from the north, disappearing into its nameless hordes, and (naturally) locates Memo with little trouble. Meanwhile, the love story between Memo and Luz has hit its generically required obstacle when Memo discovers her TruNode account and realizes that she has been selling her memories of him. But Luz’s technical knowledge, useful to Memo throughout the film, brings them back together for the final plot sequence. The issue of what Luz does in the story underlines some of the problems presented by the romance element and its regressive implications—her function as support and witness highlights the gender logics of traditional cinematic narrative.159 Luz’s role is one of exposition, ancillary support, and elaboration of the drama of Memo--she can herself give Memo his nodes and during the procedure, she offers both Memo and the audience helpful information on the process, and she is the means through which Rudy can find him as well as tech support for their plan. While these are key actions, they illustrate that patriarchal gender logics and their requisite centering of the male protagonist are not part of the critiques launched in the film—which raises a knot of problems about the form of agency, the generic version of personhood, and the place of sexual difference envisioned in this “speculative” fiction that promises to illuminate problems of abjection, power, and global forces.

In the end of the film, with Luz’s help, Memo and Rudy break back into Memo’s factory, use Rudy’s military and pilot credentials, steal a drone, and blow up the dam. The collaboration between Rudy and Memo, and a reluctant Luz, belabors one of the film’s many controlling metaphors, that of “crossing to the other side.” Luz had used this phrase to describe her own experience of going to rural Mexico with a new friend and her desire to write about it. Now, it is Rudy who crosses into Tijuana and offers to “help” Memo, though the audience is not told of the plan until it unfolds in the penultimate sequence. With Luz’s technical knowledge and Memo’s access to the infomaquila, Rudy hacks into his own employer, the military arm of Del Rio Water Company, where he commandeers a weaponized drone and uses it to blow up the dam Del Rio built near Memo's family home in Santa Ana Del Rio. In the film’s clever twist, Rudy himself is now an “aqua terrorist.” This collective and cross-border “revolution from below” realizes the film’s larger allegorical project and demonstrates its utopic “leap”: perhaps significant transformation of the ‘means of production’ and creating a futurity for its disposable leftovers is in fact possible after all. With his missiles and the support of locals (local people, local knowledge, a rasquache revolution), Rudy destroys at least one small piece of the machinery of control, expropriation, and economic and military violence aimed at Memo’s family and village, and at Mexico and the global south. This act also bestows on Memo full heroic status, as illustrated in the vibrant coloring and ecstatic face of his mother on their next video call, when she and her brother show him the immense water flow cascading through the broken dam. Close-ups of a time lapse image of emerging seedlings symbolize the rebirth of Memo’s home and that the village, family, and region are saved—for the moment at least—having been rescued by Memo and Rudy from their consignment to living dead status.

Memo’s heroism is both political and narrative, i.e. mythic, in character: the destruction of the dam with Rudy marks his emergence as the hero who has full “mastery of two worlds” in the phrasing of Campbell. The allegorical significance of the collaboration between Rudy and Memo is given further ironic emphasis when Rudy disappears into the depths of rural Mexico because he can never return to the U.S. and must go on the run, moving further “South” on the bus he boards at the end. This crossing over again underlines the revolutionary porosity and mobility that Rivera’s film posits as key to the futurity of the border—a downward, south-facing mobility, emphasized through Luz and Rudy, as well as the more conventional “upward” or “north” directions embodied in Memo’s journey. For his part, Memo ends in limbo—or potentiality: neither he or Rudy can ever go “home” again, but Memo asks, “Tal vez hay un futuro para mí aquí? Al lado de todo” (Maybe there is a future for me here. At the edge of everything). The penultimate shot, done in a special effect palimpsest that suggests both their presence and their shadowy status, shows Memo walking with Luz off into a literal sunset, shining off the water of an irrigation canal. With Luz by his side, Memo’s final voice-over contemplates the possibility of his, and their, future, “si yo connecto. . . y lucho” (If I can connect. And fight.)

[image of Memo and Luz on the canal 1:23]

+ [final shot of the film: the border fence, as it is today, 1:24]

Sleep Dealer upholds the heterosexual romance, and the implications of that genre’s concept of a progressive plot of reconciliation and reproductive futurity, as a sort of ballast to its generic collage of speculative fiction, critique, and utopic leap. The question of what will come if Memo continues to “connect and fight” is left open at the end. But while its utopic leap is provisional, voiced as a conditional “if,” the film affirms its potentiality in both narrative thrust and images that tie Memo’s personal trajectory to the final shot of the border wall, pictured as it is in the present moment in the early 21st century. To what extent the romance and science fiction genres that dominate Sleep Dealer work together toward a familiar allegory of romantic love (and thus traditional humanist conceptions of a heteronormative subjectivity and agency)? Or if each genre constitutes a distinct narrative vehicle within the film, does that generic bricolage, its rasquache aesthetic, enable to film to articulate a genuinely new and critical vision for both the dystopic present and an imagined future for the border and its populations, as well as its heroes?

  1. Snowpiercer: Revisioning Utopia, Heroism, and the Work of Abjection

In the dramatic finale of Snowpiercer, audiences are shown another picture what this “something else” might look like, largely, I argue, because of how it treats its heroic male protagonist and the position it puts him in. Unlike Sleep Dealer, Snowpiercer insists on a speculative, fully science fiction and largely non-realist, storyworld, so its particular allegory works almost completely at the level of political and cinematic imagination. As in Mad Max, the apocalypse has in fact happened: in a concerted and international effort in 2014 to reverse global warming, a grand geoengineering fix was attempted. A chemical called “C47” was dispersed into to the atmosphere on a huge scale to “cool the earth,” but the result was catastrophic: “the world froze and all life became extinct,” the opening screen narrative informs viewers.

Here the cautionary view of what revolution might entail and actually change—that is, what will the “something else” offered by utopia end up looking like—is also invoked as a question from the very start of the film. In the first spoken dialogue, Edgar (Jamie Bell), a younger man who shadows Curtis’s every move with eager energy, complains to Curtis about social stratification and oppression of their situation as they wait for their “protein bars.” This topic apparently occupies most of their conversations: Edgar: “Those bastards in the front think they own us. Eating steak and listening to string quartets.” Curtis: “We’ll be different when we get there.” Edgar: “I want steak.” That’s always the trouble, as Paik and philosophers like Nietschze have agreed for centuries: the oppressed often want most simply to take the place of their oppressors, to enjoy their luxuries, which inevitably installs the same unjust system with different actors and new victims.

Yet Snowpieercer offers a narrative that ultimately operates against the political evacuation and defeat offered by the pessimistic and culturally dominant futurism of necrofuturist apocalypse cinema, and at the same time is also resistant to the sentimental liberal recuperations of contemporary mainstream apocalypse films such as 2012 (and the whole Emmerich oeuvre—see Chapter One). For one thing, there is no romance in this story; and though there are children, the mechanisms of reproductive futurity are presented in a distinct and odd fashion. In terms of the necrofuturist trend of speculative popular film, some critics (such as Canavan) argue that the satire of Snowpiercer ‘s preposterous scenarios and its overt allegorical plotting and symbolism push it toward politically productive critique, particularly its climatic final scene. I agree with Canavan on the work done by these hyperbolic allegorical incitements—which include the vulgar Marxism of the train’s hierarchies and spatial organization, the cycles of failed revolution and return to hegemony indicated in the plot, as well as the film’s explosive ending. In addition, though, I suggest that a close reading of this ending reveals a crucial role for Snowpiercer’s engagement with questions of sexual and racial difference, an engagement that launches the plot out of a closed capitalist realism, and even necrofuturism, as well as hyperbolically announcing the end of classical liberal narratives of individual agency and collective survival.

Snowpiercer opens with an overtly allegorical, and even melodramatic, invocation of the dominant visual and narrative figuration of the male protagonist-as-hero. This invocation indicates the film’s critical use of cinematic identification by focusing the camera, and the audience, almost solely on Curtis, the hero played by Chris Evans. Curtis is pictured as a classical reluctant hero: first, through a series of close-up shots of his face, emphasizing the play of emotion across his handsome visage, as well as his being practically the only human figure decipherable for much of the first half of the film. His character is developed through the opening sequences that highlight his leadership role as well as his ambivalence about occupying that role. Regarding Edgar, Curtis says with irritation to Gilliam, “He shouldn’t worship me the way he does. I’m not who he thinks I am.” As Curtis tours purposefully through the back end of the train, checking on the people crammed into their bunks, the only available living spaces, he is greeted with deference and respect, and some affection—especially by Tanya (Octavia Spencer) whose 5 year old son Timmy has the protein bar carrying an important secret message regarding the planned “revolution.” Much of Curtis’s leadership appears to be grounded on his physical magnificence and dominance and the status he clearly holds among the others in the “tail” of the train. He seems to be in charge of both the haphazard community and the rebellion: “We must act,” insists Edgar. “Not now,” replies Curtis. “When?” “Soon.”

But once the generic conventions are satisfied and we have cathected to the handsome, caring, and touchingly humble but determined man Curtis is presented as being, the film shifts into another sequence, the uprising itself, in scenes and narrative twists that ultimately suggest some of the problems with those conventions, and the plots and political logics that adhere to them. Curtis and Gilliam are planning to fight their way to rescue Namgoong Minsu (Sang Kang-ho, a well-known Korean action film star) who is a security expert imprisoned in the “prison section” for reasons we don’t yet know (nor ever learn). The figure of Nam raises questions from the start, as Edgar gripes, “If he’s a security expert, why didn’t he break himself out?” Gilliam, though, avers his importance: “Our fate depends on this man.” And Curtis agrees, “If we can get him out, he can take us all the way to the front of the train.” Gilliam pauses, “The very front section?” “Yeah.” This brief dialogue, like the discussion of who will lead mentioned at the start of the chapter, together convey surreptitious foreshadowing whose significance is not revealed much later: in this case, it is Gilliam’s thoughtful pause that indicates, he too may not be who his adoring sidekick thinks he is. Curtis’s plan is simple and totalizing, “We control the engine, we control the world. Without that we have nothing. All past revolutions have failed because they couldn’t take the engine.”

The brutality that is wielded with impersonal violence to control “the tail section” of the train and guarantee the misery of its inhabitants is made clear in several scenes that highlight the military policing and ruthless bureaucratic control of the population. In a key early moment before the planned uprising, the military guards invade the bunk section, calling for a midnight assembly and demand “all the children” to come forward. The terror on everyone’s faces is juxtaposed to Curtis’s watchful attention as a clean, plump, red-haired lady in a bright yellow 1980s style power suit enters the room silently and imperiously. Claude, as she is called (Emma Levie) wordlessly proceeds to measure the height and arm lengths of several children and then notices, with uncanny attention, a small sound: Tanya stands silent, miserably looking down as the woman lifts Tanya’s skirt with the tape measure. An imperceptible crisis seems to have passed, but then Tanya yells, “Run Timmy. Run” as her small boy streaks away. Nevertheless, Timmy is captured by the guards, Claude measures him and indicates that the guards should take Timmy and another boy away with her, as their parents scream. The father of the other boy, Andrew (Ewen Bremner) rushes at the guards in agonized fury and throws his shoe at Claude, causing her to bleed (she then creepily and without expression, tastes the blood on her fingers—as if it were a novelty in her experience to bleed). The next scene has more guards, with a coterie of new faces, military and bureaucratic officials, performing an elaborate juridical ritual, as the camera focuses on antique-looking surgical tools, in which they apply a mechanical device to the abjectly filthy, grunting, and desolate father of the other boy and announce, “At this altitude, seven minutes are all that’s needed.” As an awkwardly large antique stopwatch is hung around his neck and his arm is put in a hole to hang in the frozen air, and the man commences to scream in agony as his arm is frozen, then shattered in a baroque and grotesquely "official" amputation.160

While Andrew's arm is hanging outside the train, another immaculately dressed woman, this time in bright purple, enters. A higher ranking military official informs her, “Seven minutes allotted for your speech, sir.” The woman (Tilda Swinton with false teeth to make her remarkably ugly, as well as ludicrously officious), holds up the shoe and begins her speech:

Passengers. This is not a shoe. This is disorder. This. . . is size 10 chaos. This. See this? This is death. In this locomotive we call home, there is one thing between our warm hearts and the bitter cold: water, xxx, shields? No. Order. Order is the xxx that holds back the throes of death. We must all of us, on this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our pre-ordained, particular position. . . In the beginning you were each issued a ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you. Eternal order is prescribed by the sacred engine. All things flow from the sacred engine. All things in their place, all passengers in their section. All water flowing, all heat rising pays homage to the sacred engine. [pause]. Now, as in the beginning. I belong to the front. You belong to the tail.”

Minister Mason, as Swinton’s character is called, baldly and with an utter lack of ironic awareness or compunction names and explains both the hierarchies of the Snowpiercer and the discourses that have developed to justify and perpetuate them. The grotesque and uncanny resonances with contemporary justifications for power, oppression, and the interests of the privileged are clearly being presented with a knowing ironic salute to our capitalist social order and the role of policing, while also throwing in chewy bits of mystical obfuscations about the “sacred engine” along with the bureaucratic farce. The “sacred” adjective likewise does double duty in the scene’s unholy melding of the operations of a brutal new sovereignty with archaic interpellations of religious and state apparatuses, long after anyone even pretends to believe in them.

With Gilliam continuing to advise “patience” and to find alternatives for going to the front, the uprising begins and starts successfully. The rebels get to the prison section and meet Nam, the security expert who designed all the locks in the door. He agrees to go with them, if his daughter Yona (Ah-sung Ko) also comes—and to do it for the 2 blocks of “uncut Kronole” that Curtis offers in exchange for his help. Kronole is industrial waste valuable for its use as an addictive narcotic, one that is also “highly flammable” Gilliam explains. Yona is 17 and, recalling River in Firefly, quickly is revealed to have clairvoyant abilities to see or sense what is on the other side of each door. After getting through 2 sections, the rebel group learns that the protein bars that are their only food, fed to them daily as we’ve seen, are in fact made from cockroaches. In this car, they see a demented man doing the “cooking,” who they call Paul (Paul Lazar) and who has apparently been left alone in this horrifying industrial “kitchen” for years after being taken from the tail section. The real trouble arrives at the next car: while Nam struggles with a lock, Yona approaches the closed door in time to warn in terror, though just as it’s too late, “Lock the gate!” That opened door reveals a car full of enormous medieval-looking soldiers in full face black stocking masks and wielding axes and hatches and chains; clearly deadly violence is in store. The strongest men push back Tanya and the old, while Curtis leads the rebels directly into car. With full awareness of what’s in store, the men begin to fight the soldiers as the splattering blood and sounds of ripping flesh vividly represent the cost of the rebellion. The scene also involves a gorgeous, slow motion tracking shot that features Curtis, back-lit, as he elegantly and efficiently slaughters others—revealing here his physical strength, bravery, and capacity for horrific violence to a back drop of mournful chamber music.

[shot of Curtis 44:15]

This battle is interrupted however, by “the sacred engine” and its rituals of control. When another odd official enters the car to announce that the train is passing through the Ketarina Bridge, all the combatants stop their deadly swinging of hatches and swords, many in mid-swing, and are silent before yelling “Happy New Year.” Even Edgar mutters, “I hate getting older” as if that were the hardest thing on his mind. The interplay of the “order” of the governance of the train with the chaos of the “revolution” reaches absurd intensity in this sequence. After the Ketarina Bridge and the pause for a two-second New Year celebration, the fighting continues only to be interrupted again. Both the beefy soldiers and the filthy rebels from the “tail” again pause to listen to Mason, who now lectures furiously at “you people” who are “ingrates” “sucking on the titties of Wilford” then she announces, reading from a paper, “Precisely 74% of you will die.” The impassive faces of the rebels are mirrored by the soldiers, who seem to be as bovinely hostile to Mason as the rebels are—and we realize in the following scenes that all of this slaughter, which kills many of the soldiers too, is being managed and controlled by an unseen authority in the “front” of the train. In this way, the film slyly indicates how the soldiers have much in common with the rebels, even as they are locked in the necessary task of fighting and killing them. After her harangue, Mason puts up odd binoculars and says with glee, “This is going to be good.” It turns out they are headed into a long tunnel, and the soldiers don night vision goggles while the rebels realize they are, as Nam puts, “fucked.”

[49—Mason looking with hungry sadistic glee at the carnage]

The battle reveals the no-win logic of the train as both rebels and soldiers die bloody deaths that are pictured relentlessly, though now it seems to be purely a massacre of the blinded rebels. The soldiers lose their technological advantage, however, when Curtis remembers a match in the hands of a small child and calls for fire—now Mason is terrified and the fighting reignites with new stakes. In the crux of this long violent sequence in the darkened train, we also see the logic of hegemonic leadership. Curtis has been dramatically saved by Edgar during the fight and Edgar proves willing to do anything for him, but Curtis abandons him to be butchered when faced with the decision to pursue an advantage. He sees that Mason is seriously injured by a knife thrown by Grey (Luke Pasqualino)—who is featured throughout the uprising as balletic human weapon, a beautiful silent assistant (and possible lover) to Gilliam, who also seems to be a son figure to him.161 A slow motion sequence features Curtis’s agonized grimace to shows us the difficulty of this “hard choice” to betray his friend before running toward Mason at the next door, where the “sacred water car” is located, and taking her hostage.

{53:44 –Edgar’s despairing disappointment when Curtis decides to abandon him]

Mason calls for the fighting to “STOP” even as one of the largest, clearly most important henchmen is murdered by Yona. Mason proves that she is the logic of the train incarnate: once captured, she blabbers that “Wilford” will help them (“Wilford is kind. Wilford is merciful”) then promises to take them to the front section which Wilford does not leave--but once there, they have to kill Wilford ("I will help you"). Curtis asks, “Why the fuck would we trust you?” and Mason responds, “Because I want to live.”

At this midway point in the film, the scene between Gilliam and Curtis fully articulates the question of Curtis’s role and reveals other information about Gilliam and the history of the train, even though some of its significance does not become clear until the final sequence. As they rest, Gilliam questions why there is a need to push to the front of the train. He has also indicated that taking the water section might be “enough” and “farther than any other revolution had gone.” But Mason has exposed that the water flows from the front section backward, so they would actually control nothing. Curtis suggests he will go forward while Gilliam guards the injured and then when he succeeds in taking the front section, “I will call for you to lead us.” Here is when Gilliam sighs and says “Stop it, Curtis. Why are you doing that? You know very well that you are already our leader. You have to accept that now.” And Curtis makes his reply, “How can I lead when I have two good arms?” Gilliam nods in understanding and says something vaguely encouraging about how much better two arms are for “holding a woman” and the exchange ends. In a previous quiet pause with Yona, Curtis and Yona discuss their ages, since she is a “train baby,” that is, born on the train and after the C47 event. Curtis reveals he was 17 when the apocalypse happened (“Seventeen years on earth. Seventeen on the train”) but when she asks about life on earth before he replies, “I don’t want to remember anything before I met Gilliam.”

Curtis’s character references a long cinematic history and generic conventions of characterization that are also, and not coincidentally, foundational to the imagining of the liberal democratic capitalist society and subjectivity that the film both invokes and then, slowly, brutally satirizes. The centrality of dominant masculinity to both the hero and the leader functions in popular culture recall previous discussions of both apocalypse narrative and in the frontier myth. Unlike Memo, for example, Curtis embodies notions about masculine power, strength, and self-control, i.e. the primitive hegemonic masculinity of both the frontier and the action hero. As in previous examples, the film invokes the key legacy of this myth of masculine power and agency, part of which includes a foundational ambivalence on the question of violence: when is it for “good” and when is it destructive? As historian Gail Bederman explains, and discussed in Chapter Two, a modern shift in gender ideologies was ushered in during the late 19th and early 20th century crises of racial dominance inside the U.S. and across the colonized world. Bederman notes, these “Modern gender ideologies . . . depicted the capacity for rape and violence as an admirable and definitive part of masculine identity” (227). Curtis’s reactions in the midst of the first scenes of the uprising signal the film’s participation in this American history of gender conceptualization and ideology, even given Curtis’s ambivalence, and ours, regarding his “capacity” for murderous violence as a prerequisite for leadership. The film oscillates between scenes that depict Curtis’s emotional and caring connections to the people in the “tail” of the train, his doubts and anxieties about his capacity to lead, and then his power and physical capacity for murderous violence and cruel but necessary decision-making. This progression structurally foregrounds the foundational ambivalence towards the physical dominance that both sovereign manhood and hero status require and which Curtis clearly embodies throughout the film—where he is shown to be taller, stronger, thicker (seeming even better-fed), and, yes, for the most part whiter than the other downtrodden and half-starving characters who occupy and scrape a living out of the back of the train. The use of dirty and maimed bodies and ragged vs. stylized clothing further intensifies the class, and largely though not fully, racial coding of the train—the occupants of the front cars are shown to be likewise cleaner, elegantly—even ludicrously—clothed, and largely whiter.

In her 2014 social and political philosophy work, Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror, Bonnie Mann explicates what she calls the “I Can” body and its function in the system of sexual difference and gendered experience. Following Judith Butler, among others, Mann emphasizes how the sovereign self, and its basis in sovereign masculinity, is foundationally both defensive and aspirational, and grounded in a material performance or embodiment of that compensatory fantasy of self-mastery, dominance, and body integrity—the very capacities that Curtis embodies too. This imagined or fantasized sovereign self is traditionally produced cinematically through images and scenes that disavow the physical injurability of the self. The impervious male body acts as a token or talisman that defends against violation, prostration, and humiliation as signaled by any loss of self-control or breaking of the body’s boundaries—i.e. any injury to the image of individual self-directed agency as that which will logically “win” or dominate every scene or circumstance. Curtis’s oscillations from painful questioning to silent self-control to violent and powerful attack and leadership (though leadership into a massacre, for the most part) narrativize Snowpiercer’s participation in the narrative of gendered conceptions of power and authority, but they also foreshadow an ambivalence that plays a key role in the film’s controversial and dramatically allegorical ending.

That is, by the end of the film, questions are raised about what the true function, and cultural work, of leadership is, and what Curtis is and really does: does he uphold not just dominant masculinity but the fantasy of both individual subjection and collective survival that his “hero” function would indicate? Or does something else happen? After a series of narrow escapes and the awful massacres of a large majority of his followers and all of his friends, Curtis and the seemingly drug-addled Nam and Yona are the last of their group to reach the front of the train. Nam has quietly been talking in Korean to his daughter Yona, showing her things about earth, and ice and snow—as well as describing previous attempts to escape Wilford’s train. Watchful and grim, Nam proves himself Curtis’s equal in his ability to survive and superior in his knowledge of the train, knowledge that has been crucial to the uprising. And yet he and Yona are treated with disdain by Curtis and others for their apparent addiction to Kronole, watching with irritated contempt as they grab handfuls of it while these last three make the final march through the most decadent cars of the front section. Both Namgoong and Yona express an ironic distance from the earnest and violent revolution that Curtis and Gilliam are engineering and enacting during the film’s middle portion, even as they willingly attach themselves to the uprising and its cause.

When they get to the door of Wilford’s car, the home of “the sacred engine,” Curtis is crazed with rage, yelling at Nam to “open the goddamn door” as he kicks it violently, and uselessly. After scuffling with Curtis, Nam gives him the last of his two cigarettes, saying through the handy voice box interpreter he’s carried, “Shouldn’t you be grateful? Smoking the world’s last cigarette, you tail section pig.” Now, Curtis tells Nam the story of the tail section in the first days of the train: “10,000 people in an iron box with no food, no water.” [pause, as Curtis looks haunted and about to cry] “We didn’t have time to be thankful. After a month, we ate the weak. You know what I hate about myself? I know what people taste like. I know that babies taste best.” Curtis then relates the story of “men with knives” who killed a woman with a baby and “the old man. No relation, just an old man” who cuts off his arm so they will leave the baby. “I had never seen anything like that,” Curtis says with a catch. Then reveals, “That baby was Edgar. And I was the man with the knife.” After pausing through his gasping tears, Curtis continues that after Gilliam’s revelatory act, “Men and women in the tail section came forward and cut off their arms and legs. It was like a miracle.” He also reveals that while he “wanted to” he could not do it, hence his two arms. With a plea for how long he’s hated Wilford and waited for this moment, Curtis finally says, “Open the gate. Please.”

After shaking his head subtly during the ending, Nam thanks Curtis “for your story,” in Korean as he has throughout, “But I don’t want to open the gate. You know what I really want? I want to open gates. But not this gate. That one.” pointing to the door of the train. It turns out that Nam collects Kronole for the express purpose of blowing up the train (remember it is “highly flammable”). Explaining to Curtis his plan to use the Kronole to break through the train door, Nam calls it “The gate to the outside world. It’s been frozen shut for 18 years. You might as well call it a wall. But it’s a fucking gate. Let’s open it and just get the hell out.” Curtis cannot take seriously this call to imagine an alternative to life on the train, insisting it’s “fucking crazy.” Nam details his close observation of signs of melting in the landscape, and thus possible survival “outside,” but Curtis dismisses him –as an addict, as unreasonable, and in the process reveals his own limited view of what constitutes “revolution.” At this moment, Claude, the woman who took Timmy and the other boy, opens Wilford’s door, calmly shoots Nam, and announces, “Curtis Everett, Wilford extends you a formal invitation to join him for dinner.”

Wilford, the train’s “supreme leader” and, apparently, its inventor and a former corporate magnate (played with relish by Ed Harris), is dressed in a bathrobe and cooking over a small stove when he invites Curtis into his compact but glittering quarters and begins a long, horrifying, and yet hilariously satirical disinquisition on the logic of the Snowpiercer’s social stratification. From Wilford, we learn with Curtis that the vulgar Marxism of these social divisions turns out to be entirely by design--a design Wilford claims is both his and Gilliam’s, a revelation that shocks Curtis to his core. Interestingly, Wilford uses the language of ecosystems to justify his governance, which, it turns out, extrapolates the Darwinian logics of liberal individualism into an elaborate “scientific” regime of control, a hyperbolic allegory of both capitalism and biopolitics. To maintain “balance in the ecosystem,” Wilford explains, there has to be a way to eliminate excess human baggage/weight/burden on the fragile and limited supplies of the train. Wilford continues, “The best solution is to have individual units kill other individual units”. And then he asks Curtis, “Medium rare?” as he finishes pan frying their steaks.

Explaining the rationale for the uprisings, which he recounts as an official history—including “the great Curtis revolution, an exciting blockbuster production with an ironic twist”—Wilford embodies the jovial brutality of necropolitical leadership and the train’s systemic inequalities. His easy switch from the casual and deadly exercise of his sovereign power to “let die and make live” to mundane matters of sensual pleasure (food, sex with a woman, intelligent conversation ) further underscores the rhetorical uses of dehumanizing capitalist realist logic, particularly overt when Wilford casually interrupts his explanations, and their dinner, to say, “all that’s left now is to tally up the numbers.” Then Willard uses his black mid-century phone to call the creepy functionary who identifies himself as “me. I’m at Gilliam’s place” and is shown with soldiers holding guns on dozens of tail people pictured huddled on the floor. Checking that the number “is still 74%,” Willard holds the phone for Curtis (and us) to listen to the bullets and sounds of their screams.

Wilford also easily, and possibly inadvertently, confirms the truth of his close relationship to Gilliam when he starts teasing the increasingly agitated Curtis, seething across the table: “calm down. I can see what Gilliam meant. He told me you were brilliant and clever, but always so tense. When was the last time you got laid? Like Gilliam always said, holding a woman is better with two arms.” Wilford explains that their working together was a part of a larger strategy for ensuring “order” in both the front and the back of the train: “We need to maintain a certain level of anxiety and fear, chaos and horror in order to keep life going. And if we don’t have that, we have to invent it.” Wilford then ushers Curtis into the engine room, where “the sacred engine” is awesome and alone in its work. In this room, as if at an altar, Curtis falls to his knees. Sobbing into his hands, Curtis’s body now communicates his abjection—his undoing as the “leader” and his incipient submission to the apparently unassailable logic of Wilford’s justification for the regime of “shock and awe” perpetrated against the people in the back of the train. At this point, audience members might recall Gilliam’s final warning to Curtis in their midnight conversation that “Wilford will talk. Don’t listen. Cut out his tongue.”

But Curtis does listen and the shot (visual and aural) of our hero sobbing in despair and his body bent and collapsed in defeat on the floor undoes the physical and narrative styling of Curtis as hero, at least in relation to the sovereign subject’s conventional characteristics of strength and self-control and dominance. Mann’s analysis of the ontological weight of gender foregrounds the question of the so-called “I can” body and its stylization as agential and masculine. In this scene, that moment of extreme vulnerability, grief, and loss of self appears to decisively hand control of the situation and Curtis’s very being over to Wilford, who looms behind Curtis, then over him, then helping him up. He hands Curtis a final “secret” message, “I just wrote it,” on which Curtis reads “Train.” Now Wilford reveals that he wants Curtis to “take my station. It’s what you’ve always wanted. It’s what Gilliam wanted too.”162 The goal of this elaborate display of capitalist realist logic and Wilford’s sovereign control of all aspects of life on the train has been to convince Curtis to accept his fate as the next engineer of the train: “Look, Curtis. Section after section, each where they have always been and will always be. The train . . . Each in their proper place, humanity. The train is the world. We, the humanity.” The doubling of Willard and Curtis is pushed to its logical endpoint when Willard makes his final appeal to the younger man, “You’ve seen what people do without leadership. They devour one another. You can save them from that.” Now, Curtis’s actual position and role become clear: he has been groomed all along for leadership, though not of the people’s revolution. Curtis is to become the very thing he hates.

Early in their conversation, Willard notes to Curtis that “you are the only man who has walked the entire length of the train, tip to tail,” underlining and foreshadowing Curtis’s specialness, his inside and outside position—and thus embodying precisely the excess of knowledge and power required for a true sovereign, as well as a mythic hero: both inside and “of” the train and yet also the exception to its regime of governance and laws of order. But Curtis’s body turns out to be vulnerable, and more radically outside Willard’s control, in ways that transform Willard’s plan and the system of the train, as well as the story being told. Curtis has stood up by this point and to show that the awful but seductive logic of Wilford’s arguments has succeeded, Yona rushes into the room. Curtis holds a hand up to figuratively, and literally, push her away—a rejection of his alliance with her and the tail section. Yona’s eyes widen in understanding and she retreats, but only to run into Willard’s quarters and desperately (soon with Curtis’s help) work to pull up a secret compartment door in the floor to reveal the young boy Timmy, who was taken by Claude and who is now crammed inside a morass of gears as he swiftly and efficiently, and with a horrible unresponsive automatic motion, works within the wheels of steel that keep the train moving. Wilford exclaims in self-defense, “The train is eternal. Alas, some of its parts are not. That piece went extinct a few years ago. Luckily the tail section produces an endless supply of children.”

While Wilford has been talking to Curtis, like the Biblical serpent of Satan, Namgoong and Yona have been fighting an enraged but drug-addled front section mob, though Nam is gravely injured by Claude’s bullet and Yona is having difficulty with the elaborate wiring. Nam already had the Kronole bomb stuck to the outside door and just needs a match, which is why Yona runs to Curtis for help when he is in Wilford’s car. Then, the fact of Timmy and his place in the train—another regrettable necessity, according to Wilford—wakes Curtis to the deal he is about to make. In this final action sequence, Curtis makes two crucial decisions: to give Yona the matches so that Nam can fulfill his plan and to risk his own body, his arm, by reaching into the gears to pull Timmy out of the train’s machinery. The sequence involves both Nam and Curtis engaged in heroic actions that are intended to save others. However, this conventional action hero narrative is, literally, blown up--along with the train. Running out of time, Nam cannot devise protection for Yona and runs to where she is standing with Curtis and the now-rescued Timmy. In a shot-reverse shot that features the exchanged gazes of the two men, Nam and Curtis together enfold Yona and Timmy in a tight shared embrace just as the bomb explodes. When the train is fully derailed and destroyed, the film shows Yona waking alone in a burnt out shell, finding Timmy, and climbing up to the door (the train has overturned, struck by an avalanche set off by the explosion); there are no signs of any other living souls. Curtis and Nam have been bombed out of the film all together, leaving no trace.

[Nam and Curtis enfolding Yona and Timmy, 1:55:19]

In both Wilford’s “undoing” of Curtis as the heroic figure who decides and controls what happens in the uprising and then the death of these last two potential leaders, I see a radical undermining of the heroic leader story the movie has seemed to pursue. Even before the explosion, Curtis has been radically decentered from the main causal action of the film: he does not make the decision that blows up the train and he does not conventionally “save” anyone—other than Timmy--except in the sacrifice of his physical body as a shield. Yona and Timmy emerge out of the train, clothed in heavy animal skins and boots stolen from the front section, as two small, non-white and utterly ‘outsider’ figures: young, unschooled, helpless and feminized, these are humanity’s future. This dramatic and controversial ending indicates that Curtis’s heroic function is radically displaced, even when the film might seem to support it on some surface level. Curtis’s death, as well as Nam’s, can be read as a messianic masculine self-sacrifice (a la Children of Men) that still maintains his heroic masculinity (which is largely Canavan’s reading).163 But the visual representation of how Curtis dies—in a collaborative, shared effort and sacrifice, one that involves an action of nurturing and protection rather than fighting and success—becomes part of a tableau that reveals the film ultimately has little interest in Curtis and his struggles. With his arms wrapped around the other man, their bodies become fodder in the trainwreck of the Snowpiercer and the destruction of all its logics. Instead, the girl and the tiny boy emerge from the wreckage, to face the ambiguous figure of the polar bear in the distance.

Ultimately, Curtis’s death and its representation in the final scenes make an argument for a particular kind of masculine failure—one that is bound in the logics of sexual difference as well as the political liberal logics of “leadership.” This cinematic twist on the conventions of the popular action apocalypse movie genre exposes a discourse of sexual difference and political organization that the film ultimately deconstructs and even shatters, revealing alternative ways that the narrative logics of disaster and apocalypse genre films can be reworked toward political ends. Canavan argues that the wrecking of the train –the literal embodiment of the necrocapitalist regime – offers the most significant allegory of the possibility non-white, non-European, non-capitalist futurity: Snowpiercer’s vivid, explosive confrontation insists is absolutely unthinkable—the upending of the system, the derailing of the train—and its demonstration of continued life beyond that maximum catastrophe interrupts capitalist realism to show that the necrocapitalist regime is the barrier to a living future rather than the guarantor of it. “ (Canavan 21). However, I suggest this ending contains an even more (or equally) significant allegory through its careful orchestration and visual portrayal of the deaths of Curtis and Namgoong. This penultimate scenario depicting the destruction of the train offers a silent, pictoral (emblematic) allegory of the destruction of the totality of liberal individualist logic, i.e. the fantasized agency of the enlightenment self that upholds the ruses of capitalist democracy and its relation to individual agency. That is to say, to destroy the train, you have to destroy the hero, and with it Wilford’s assertion that ““You’ve seen what people do without leadership. They devour one another.” In fact, all of the charismatic leaders in the film are shown to be corrupt or destructive, and usually both. In their place, Snowpiercer offers an utterly femininized, even abject, as well as a non-white, possibility of human survival and life, one that requires the total destruction of the logics of sexual difference and agency and shows that in the loss of boundaries and in the opening of gates and the piercing of walls, other possibilities can emerge.

Coda: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and the Allegory of Apocalypse Undone

(rough outline; to be about 2000-3000 words)

"Who misses what they have never, ever even imagined? That would not be human nature. How fortunate, then, that there are more people in this world than just humankind"

-N.K. Jemisen. The Fifth Season

Melancholia and allegory of apocalypse as site of radical performativity in cinema

Outline: White Abjection and Apocalypse

I. The harshly neoliberal framing of the key characters: their awfulness=market rhetorics and examples of the shaping of the late liberal individual. Role of sexual difference, especially in focalisation through Justine (Kirsten Dunst) but also John (Keifer Sutherland).

II. Move from depression, melancholia (Fisher, Berlant) to ecstasy and loss of self (Kristeva, Shaviro, issues of sexual difference, whiteness, and abjection)

Moving beyond the paradoxical logic of being “always already too late” to change the course of capitalist history and the oncoming apocalypse, the ending of Snowpiercer indicates alternative futurity in at least two ways. One is the overt allegorical move of derailing the train, which as Canavan notes has been criticized by detractors of the film for the “obvious” logical impossibility of the remaining two characters’ actually surviving much longer out in the frozen landscape. But realism is not the mode of Snowpiercer and I agree with Canavan that the significance of this final scene and its suggestion of a “nonwhite futurity” should be read in a non-realist mode. In fact, I would go one step further and argue that Snowpiercer demonstrates how allegory is a political mode that is especially pertinent and effective in 21st century speculative cinema.

Lars Von Trier's Melancholia (2011), shifts from the utopian register, at least initially, to indicate a more art-film realism, including the unique (in the archive of this study) focus on a storyworld that is relentlessly and self-reflexively affluent and white. Von Trier is sometimes credited with going where no other apocalypse film has gone--working to represent the actuality of an apocalypse event with no opening toward futurity. In Williams's parlance, this is then, a catastrophe--end without revelation. In that view, this is an apocalypse allegory that breaks all the rules of the genre, or mode; particularly if we look to Benjamin's work on the "apocalyptic leap" that defines the mode. Of course, Jameson counters Benjamin by saying the utility of the apocalypse is to "think the break," which could be exactly what Melancholia does, both throughout the narrative, such as it is, and in the final destruction of the world the film has established. In a sense, Von Trier fulfills both visions of the apocalyptic, with or without irony--it's hard to say. The film elaborates the contemporary horror of late capitalist personhood but refuses any narrative opening to redepemption or utopia, shutting down even the window-dressing of survival. However, in the late images of Justine's personal "revelation" and response to apocalyptic futurity, Von Trier raises some useful ideas and questions about sexual difference and abjection--as well as the notions of "agency" discussed throughout this book.

Christopher Peterson, "Magical Cave of Allegory" on issues of positionality, etc. as raised in introduction:

We are all that remains, we as spectators, “survivors who have been granted a temporary reprieve.” The world is gone, yet as long we survive, which is to say as long we say “yes” to life, we must carry this world into a future that survives the total destruction to which we can never bear witness. “ (Peterson, 419).


Bonnie Honig. “The Trump Doctrine and the Gender Politics of Power.” Boston Review. July 17, 2018. Accessed 7/23/18.

2See Michael Kimmel, Tom Digby, Bonnie Mann, Dana Nelson, Hamilton Carroll, among others.

3 I first encountered this term, "epochal transformation," in the work of Latin American scholar and literary theorist Idelbar Avelar, The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning. Duke University Press, 1999.

4 Brown’s essay “The Dark Wood of Allegory” (PMLA 2000) traces that elusive target in the work of Frederic Jameson, Dante, and Benjamin in order to argue for the ongoing deep work of allegory in contemporary theory.

5 Wikipedia entry for “Independence Day (1996 film).” Accessed July 24. 2018.

6 Burrett critiques Kermode’s conflation of apocalyptic with other eschatological narrative forms, but the concurrent function and narrative structure of apocalyptic allegory and prophecy is also a key feature in Micheal Murrin’s The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

7 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Oxford University Press, 1967.

8 Jane Elliott. Popular Feminist Fiction as American Allegory: Representing National Time. Palgrave 2008.

9Quoted and discussed in Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Zero Books, 2009.2.

10"The End of History?" The National Interest. No. 16 (Summer 1989) 3-18. Fisher comments that Fukuyama's thesis "may have been widely derided, but it is accepted, even assumed, at the level of the cultural unconscious" (6).

11 Critiques of both secularization and capitalism have long, since the 18th century at least, worried this point on the “death” of collective religious or other ethical/spiritual values in the face of the dominance of the rationalism and commodification of market logics over all aspects of human life and existence: i.e. almost all of the European Romantics of the 19th century as well as Marx, and later early 20th century cultural critics and scholars such as Walter Benjamin, Theodore Adorno, and on into the present.

12Alison Shonkwiler and Leigh Claire La Berge. Reading Capitalist Realism. University of Iowa Press, 2014. Kindle version quoted.

13These terms will be clarified and discussed in later chapters. For the most accessible summary from Foucault, see Society Must Be Defended

14Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean. "We Can't Afford to Be Realists: A Conversation." Reading Capitalist Realism. loc 529-30.

15 "28 Weeks Later: Zombie film with a taste for satire". New York TImes. May 11, 2007. See also E. Ann Kaplan, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction (Rutgers University Press, 2015) for her readings of dystopic film and the envisioning of environmental apocalypses.

16 For a fuller discussion of the connections between allegory, apocalypse, and genre in Benjamin and Murrin, see my book. Katherine Sugg, Gender and Allegory in Transamerican Fiction and Performance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press, 2008), Ch 1 and Ch 3.

17 Dean comments, "In Lacanian terms we could say that this subject cedes its desire" (loc 566); however both come to agree with Fisher's assertion that "I don't think the dreariness and the little nuggets of pleasure are opposed to one another--rather I think they are the same thing seen from different angles" (loc. 578)

18The ambivalence within utopic, as well as dystopic, imaginaries that Paik tracks illuminates a useful insight that recurs in many of the chapters that follow, and is particularly relevant in my linking of the liberal legacies of settler colonialism to science fictional post-apocalypse narratives in popular culture. Key examples for reference in this introduction include the Emmerich films but also television series such as The 100, Revolution, Falling Skies, Jericho, Dominion, etc.

19Penley. Quoted by Thomas Byers. 13.

20 I need to clarify some of the complexities of social positioning and “popular culture” to be careful not to project or assume various structures of identification and idealization on part of non-whites, and women, etc. How to address while preserving the insight that we often desire against ourselves?

21Also, the film introduces the Black Panther /T'Challa (Boseman) who in 2018 becomes an international phenomena in the blockbuster film Black Panther, challenging particularly the racial logics of superhero action films and offering a very useful counter-example to some dynamics discussed throughout this book, though the gendering of agency and the function of sexual difference in that film arguable remains generically conventional.

22Revisions of this introduction will include more preview of the role of irony in specific examples of contestatory popular culture (Pacific Rim, for example) and a detailed summary of the chapters. I also hope to get suggestions on what to add, cut, or expand--here and elsewhere.


Cuarón has acknowledged that many of these virtuosic feats of cinematography, particularly the use of long shots, were woven together using computer-assisted editing techniques that create a precise and carefully orchestrated impression of a single take, but are actually the result of multiple takes. Source from interview (Wikipedia pg)

24Note: Need to clarify the purpose of genre and “science fictionality” as a thread in the argument and how that relates to allegory (unless I do that in Ch 1).

25Indicate here a general sense of how this term combines the “technologies of selfhood” as explained by Foucault with Fisher’s “capitalist realism,” and that both of these terms and their relevance to the question of neoliberalism, as discussed in Chapter One.

26See in particular Williams, Fisher, and Lauren Berlant. Berlant characterizes the contemporary moment as one of “cruel optimism” marked by a neurotic, or at least hopeless, subjective “relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility” (Cruel Optimism. Duke University Press. 24).

27Cuarón and set designers discuss these aspects of the film’s production in the DVD extras, entitled, “

28(Kermode; also see Intro). “Performative allegory” is a term that Amy Sara Carroll borrows from film and tv critic Bill Nichols, who uses it to discuss documentary aesthetics and the ability of “performative allegory” to xxxx

29List some of these referents, with Cuarón’s statements about them.

30As discussed in the Introduction, , Kermode argues that fictions of apocalypse provide a means for “temporal integration,” offering a “mental structure” that allow us to make sense of time. He notes, “all such plotting presupposes and requires that an end [i.e. a proposed futurity] will bestow upon the whole duration meaning” (46). This work of making a perception of contemporary historicity “concordant” with remembered versions of collective historical past results in “modifying the past and allowing for the future” while accounting for “our own present moment of crisis”(59).

31Patricia Clough explains this Foucauldian concept of a shift in late modernity from “discipline societies” to “control societies” as a shift from a “regime of representation” that operates through the ideological apparatuses of identity (family, nation, etc) to a biopolitics that operates through the confluent power of the state and of capital to modulate and control populations, manifested as “bodies of data and information (including the human body as information and data)” (2007, The Affective Turn 19).

32There is an actual midwife character, Miriam (Pam Ferris), who accompanies Kee and Theo in their escape but she is killed before the final section of the film that takes place in the Bexhill--On-Sea Refugee Camp. This plot turn allows Theo and Kee to become more fully a couple, albeit non-sexual, and makes even more room for Theo to take on important roles and proves his capabilities. This move also uncannily echoes the history of childbirth assistance and medicine in which male “physicians” become a profession through their appropriation of the functions and privileges of midwives in the 17th-19 centuries in Europe and the U.S., a process that involved numerous medical experiments on enslaved African-American women in the U.S. South, as well as the witch burnings of early modern Europe.

33Ftnote quote and explanation of the influential Spivak analysis of ‘white men saving brown women’

34See Heather Latimer on Kee as surrogate mother.

35Cite scholarship that talks about racialization of emotionality and strong, especially angry, affect as irrational (vs. logical, etc) and proof of social and intellectual inferiority. Alex Vargas, José Muñoz, others.

36Neferti X.M. Tadiar, "Life-Times of Disposability in Global Neoliberalism." Genres of Neoliberalism. Special Issue of Social Text.. 31.2 Issue 115. Edited by Jane Elliott and Gillian Harkin. (Summer 2013):

37As discussed in the Introduction, in American Allegory Elliot draws on the tradition of apocalypse criticism in the 1960s, exemplified by Frank Kermode and Norman Cohn, to expose their presumption of a necessary opposition between “freedom” and narrative totality, a presumption that dominated Cold War critical imaginaries and is itself a symptom of historical narrative imaginaries.

38In her seminal work, National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (Duke University Press, 1998), Nelson situates the figure and ideological trope of “national manhood” in a U.S. cultural and political history, one that she traces to a nineteenth century experience of a “republican” subjectivity, by which Nelson means xxxx. Bonnie Mann’s work Sovereign Masculinity: Gender Lessons from the War on Terror, discussed below, will pick up the term “national manhood” to discuss more recent iterations and styles of dominant masculinity in the 21st century,

39In general, science fiction remains central to discussions of how best to “re-imagine” the world, drawing from theorists such as Frederic Jameson, who touts the capacity of SF and other speculative fictions to enact “’world reduction’, in which certain elements or ideas are distilled. . . and thought through” (Davidson 2007).

40See “Ends and Endings” from Reading for the Plot. Peter Brooks.

41See McCloud on comics and narrative strategies; the marriage of image with language, using minimal language. Chuck Jones and “Roadrunner” TV comics as another main influence on Fury Road, according to A.O. Scott. Also, this voice-over is the film’s single, though significant, break with the conceit that Max barely ever speaks, as established in the series’ first three films with Mel Gibson as Max.

42Interesting use of name, given the role of the Citadel as Henri-Christophe, leader of Haiti’s slave rebellion, who built the iconic fortress in the early years of post-revolutionary Haiti and which he occupied briefly during his leadership after the Haitian Revolution. Something about how Immortan Joe came to be this despotic dictator in the post-apocalypse?? An implied social and political history of despotism in desperate times?

43Mention the collaboration with iconic comics creator Brendan McCarthy and their infamous storyboard, containing as many boards as the film has frames. Issue of comic books as key medium and genre in narrative exposition of these “allegories”. Brought up later in this discussion too.

44In her commentary on the film’s ostensibly “feminist” quest plot, Jones sardonically quips, “I dreaded getting to the ‘Green Place.’ Would everyone be doing yoga when we got there? And communicating softly and understandingly with each other? Or perhaps tending gardens all day, then doing fertility dances by the light of the moon?” (“Actually, Mad Max: Fury Road Isn’t That Feminist; And It Isn’t That Good, Either.” In These Times, May 18, 2015. Online access: ).

45A.O. Scott. "Review: Mad Max: Fury Road,’ Still Angry After All These Years" The New York Times. May 14, 1015.

46Gershen Kauffman. The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromesl Springer Publishing. 2nd Edition. 2004. XX

47Scott notes John Ford and other Hollywood directors of the 50s and 60s, including Chuck Jones, creator of the Road Runner comic series, as influences in the film’s homage to the western as both generic template and iconic environment.

48Both late Victorian educational and social reformers shared this preoccupation with the problematic domestication of manhood in both the home and the office—highlighting the role of shifting notions of “work” and success that destabilized gender identities and hierarchies.


The notion that irony is a contemporary mode particularly suited to the “meta” awareness of postmodern popular culture—always in on the joke it is telling and the cultural histories behind that joke—is a well-known characterization of much contemporary culture and Whedon has mined it notoriously

50Whedon has done various PSAs, most memorably for the Democratic campaign of 2016 and Planned Parenthood, the former highlighted his use of humor to underline a left liberal sensibility (urls). Interestingly, these political spots have been criticized for disseminating a foundationally “white liberal” pov.

51This pilot episode was the last to be aired on FX (on Feb. xx, 2003) when the show was broadcast in 2002-2003—one of many network decisions that fans believe to have hampered the show and contributed to its lack of traction with audiences, though it later became known as a “cult” blockbuster.

52Anna Tsing’s searing scholarship in Friction highlights the late capitalist incarnation of what she names “frontier capitalism” in ways that resonate usefully with the outlaw enterprise of the Serenity and its relation to the controls of the Alliance, i.e. the Law. Tsing traces the hidden motivations and costs involved in the mix, historically and in contemporary economies, of legal and illegal activities and enterprises that define “frontier” zones, thus highlighting the deep genealogical links between the mayhem of the “frontier” during classical periods of settler colonialism and the dynamics of contemporary global capitalism and its practices of resource extraction, labor exploitation, etc.

53Define post-racial with references to clarify parameters of the discussion

54In Firefly Celebration, Whedon comments that Inara’s

55Darko Suvin’s definition of “cognitive estrangement” in science fiction

56Insert citation on irony, possibly me and Linda Hutcheon

57ftnote Firefly Complete Companion; and/or Comic Con statements

58Torres in fact has played a diety, a goddess whose beauty stunned humans into xxx, in another Whedon vehicle, Angel (200-200x)

59Among Hollywood Western film characters that Firefly echoes in this characterization are the James Stewart character in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence" or the father played by Van Heflin in "Shane"—or Shane himself for that matter.

60But isn’t all narrative a drama of sexual difference and its fate or impact? What happens when we become “knowing” about the constructedness of sexual norms and the differences that create hierarchies, even as we still, as Bonnie Mann demonstrates, live those norms and gender ideologies as life or death realities?

61Cite Gender and Allegory argument from intro on Beau Sia

62ftnt Sedgwick’s argument from into to Epistemology of the Closet

63Notoriously among fans, the Fox network refused to use the pilot “Serenity” saying it was too grim and complicated, so Whedon and his team had to produce a substitute opening for the series under tremendous time constraints, which was “The Train Job.”

64Quick explanation of the steampunk sub-genre. See Loza.

65Greg Edmundson and his role in “creating” the feel of the show

66Would be fun to comment briefly on the link between this white nostalgia and the narrative presented in Hillbilly Elegy, to great political and media fanfare

67“Fighting a war you’ve already lost: Zombies and zombis in Firefly/Serenity and Dolhouse.” Science Fiction Film and Television 4.2 (2011). 181.

68Explain briefly Foucault on shift from disciplinary societies to “societies of control” as tracking development of rise of capitalism and its entrenchment in technological state power from 19th to late 20th centuries.

69Brief definition, with source, of “American exceptionalism

70Both Dana Nelson and Lauren Berlant, among many others, have interrogated the historical foundations of masculine authority as a marker and emblem of national identity and success, as I discuss in some detail in Chapter One and throughout.

71Ftnote Loza, “Steampunk Style and the After-Life of Empire” in whatever form it’s in now. For example, Loza distinguishes between “nostalgic steampunk” and “melancholic steampunk”

72The episode “Out of Gas” uses flashbacks to detail the history of the crew and how Mal comes to bring each character on board the Serenity. These mini-narratives each turns on their relationship to Mal and demonstrates why he is now heroically sacrificing himself in order to possibly save the others.

73It is true that the episodes featuring Christina Kendrick (“Our Mrs. Reynolds” and xxxx) show a willingness to play this gender line against Mal, whose efforts to save and rescue the damsel leads to him being tricked by the wily and deceitful character played by Kendrick. However, although she is shown to be intelligent and often with surprising skills, this character remains a femme fatale and thus only twists the gender division, exposing it perhaps but underlining Mal’s decency and female perfidy, another generic and gender commonplace.

74that is the ambivalent discourse undergirding much popular culture notions of male heroism See Beiderman as discussed in chapter two, and also a key concern in Chapter Four.

75Mbembe, “Necropolitics” 27. In Canavan, “Fighting a War You’ve Already Lost” 176.

76Serenity makes inescapable the perils of ‘mutual zombification.’” (Canavan. “Fighting A War You’ve Already Lost.” 188). Canavan also quotes Mbembe again on the problem of colonial administration and how it destroys morally and psychically, both the colonizer and the colonized, as elaborated famously by anticolonial thinkers such as Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Albert Memmi, who would concur with Mbembe on “’the mutual ‘zombification’ of both the dominant and the apparently dominated’ (Mbembe, “The Aesthetics of Vulgarity.” 104).

77DeLauretis and Mulvey.

78whether we understand that film as a “finale” as I’ve described it or, as Canavan claims, a hoped-for “jumpstart” or “spinoff” to a film series based on these characters and settings.

79The racial and cultural connotations of moving from calling himself “Abe” (apparently a nickname) to becoming “Jubal” with its Muslim ring are also worth some consideration.

80Neil Lerner analyzes the “rather old—and traditionally racist—musical codes” that are inscribed onto Early’s character in Greg Edmondson’s “ominous and frightening” musical theme that accompanies the character (“Music, Race, and Paradoxes of Representation.” 184-85)

81Rey Chow on stereotypes. The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Columbia University Press.2002.

82Ejiofor’s black body, familiar from Chapter One, is paired with his lovely, British diction in a world of flat American accents—a performance that emphasizes the character’s superior education, vocabulary, and intelligence while relying on the cognitive estrangement of precisely that black body. One might venture that Ejiofor’s entire career can be articulated as a function of this cognitive estrangement in U.S.-dominated global cinema, including Children of Men, where the expectations and significance generated by a black actor on screen are juxtaposed in explicitly, if sometimes deceptively, “liberal” narratives to highlight certain ironies of history and speculation that are at work in both films.

83Canavan writes, that the “zombie fantasy should be primarily read as a hyperbolic reenactment of the imaginary racial demarcation into life and anti-life that is crucial to the construction of the contemporary biopolitical state.”

84 Brief summary of Slotkin’s “fatal environment” argument, referencing info from Ch 1, etc.

85Whedon has explained in commentary to the film that if the show Firefly had not been canceled, the revelations of the origin of the Reavers would have concluded Season Two.

86 Brief summary of how the 2006 film was the product of fan campaigns to bring back the show, highlighting some of the audience and cult dynamics at work in Whedon’s development of the movie.

87Slotkin quote that exemplifies this logic of necessary violence and the “monsters” required to accomplish the task of conquest and genocide

88Earlier in the film, this family unit figuration is underlined when Kaylee complains that Mal is kicking River and Tam off the ship (letting them disembark after the failed bank job at the movie’s start) and Mal says, “It’s not like they’re part of the crew.” And Kaylee responds, “They could’ve been, if you’d let them. Could’ve been family.”

89A fair amount of attention is given in the Official Serenity guide and digital film commentary to discrepancies and concerns about the sort of weapon Inara should carry. She is clearly barely expected to “fight” and likewise, Kaylee and Simon share some heartwarming final words about their feelings that undermines any impression of battle-readiness.

90The ironic resonances of this question of “sin” recalls the Operative’s earlier question during their fight, in which the Operative always seems to have the upper hand, “Do you know what your sin is, Mal?” Mal responds with a burst of violence and taunts, “Oh hell, I’m a fan of all of them. But for now I’ll go with vengeance”

91Recent controversies over non-white casting in the Star Wars enterprise highlights the presumptions of popular culture generally and sci-fi in particular. As one author wryly notes, it seems likely, and is apparently preferred by fans, that Lando Carissian (Billy Dee Williams) might be the only black man alive in the future.

92Citations for Dollhouse (Canavan) and media noise about Whedon’s sexism and personal life

93Here or earlier, need to acknowledge that Zoe’s character is an earnest gender revision of the faithful lieutenant,usually in a homosocial power-sharing agreement (Kirk and Spock). So might be the more radically unsettling relationship in the show, though Zoe’s feminine difference is seldom used—except in “War Stories”—nice resonances with most recent Captian America vs. Iron Man film (2016). Like Scarlett Johansen’s character–upholder of masculine authority, no matter what.?


Nick Romeo. “Colson Whitehead: I had zombie anxiety dreams for years.” 31 May, 2014.


This motto of “fighting the fight” emerges in the shift in Season 7 which begins with Rick thoroughly defeated by the brutal rival leader Negan and his Saviors community. As Rick rediscovers his rebellious and independent spirit to survive by “winning,” he and Michonne use this phrase repeatedly.


fint or parenthetical reference to ch 2 and 3

97Susana Loza, Speculative Imperialisms (2018). Joe R. Feagin, Hernan Vera, and Pinar Bature. White Racism: The Basics. New York: Routledge, 2001.

98Define biopolitics from Foucault—as designating a legacy of liberal and neoliberal economic structuring of social formations and subjective experience.

99Anna McCarthy explains governmentality as a key concept in Foucault’s understanding of “the technique of dispersed government” which “provides a powerful model for understanding the cultural and political manifestations of neoliberalism.” McCarthy. “Reality Television: A Neoliberal Theatre of Suffering.” Social Text 93, Volume 25, No 4, (Winter 2007), 20-21.

100Eva Cherniavsky, “Neocitizenship and Critique.” Social Text 99, Volume 27, No 2 (Summer 2009), 4. In her 2017 work, Neocitizenship: Political Culture After Demoncracy Cherniavsky expands this discussion of what neoliberal shifts in capitalism and governmentality have meant for the “citizen” and other subjects of collective political identities.

101Nikolas Rose, Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

102Diane Negra.

103Jodi Dean cites Zizek’s call for an expansion of Marx’s definition of proletarianization to include modes of existence and subjectivity beyond the purely economic and labor sectors to better account for the psychic and social impacts of neoliberalism. Indicating the gendered aspect of proletarianization, Dean also refers to economists David Autor and David Dorn on employment trends over the past 30 years: decreasing numbers of jobs in mining, assembling, operating, and transporting and substantially increasing (53% between 1980 and 2005) jobs in child care, hair-dressing, food service, home health care, cleaning and gardening. Jodi Dean, “Sovereignty of the People,” The Communist Horizon. (New York: Verso, 2012), 106, 108.

104Timothy Melley, Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000), 37.

105Robert Kirkman (writer), Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, and Rus Wooton. The Walking Dead: Compendium One. (Berkeley, CA: Image Comics, 2010). Backcover (also of each issue of the comic series).

106 Michael Kimmel. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era. Nation Books, 2013. Kimmel’s assertion that men feel particularly victimized by neoliberal, or global, capitalism echoes an emphasis on the gendering of economic crisis in analyses by Melley, Susan Faludi in Stiffed and Hamilton Carroll, Affirmative Reaction: New Formations of White Masculinity. Duke University Press, 2011. Carroll specifically notes how the transformation of economic conditions into gendered and racialized narratives is a recuperative move on behalf of hegemonic white masculinity.

107Kirkman, Backcover.

108McCarthy, “Reality Television…,” 25.

109Laurie Ouellette, “Take Responsibility for Yourself: Judge Judy and the Neoliberal Citizen.” Reality TV: Remaking TV Culture, ed. Laurie Ouellette and Susan Murray (New York: New York University Press, 2004), 231.

110However, the issue of Glenn’s violent death, while following the comic series, did generate a large outcry among fans and cultural critics, such as Nina Sharma, who meditates on the resonances between the gory beating of Glenn and the death of Vincent Chin by a gang of white men, angry that “It’s because of you little motherfuckers we are out of work.” (from “Not Dead.” The Margins. Asian American Writer’s Workshop blog. Published July 20, 2017. Accessed 2.24.18)

111Jane Elliott, “Suffering Agency: Imagining Neoliberal Personhood in North America and Britain.” Social Text 115. Volume 32. No 1 (Summer 2013), 92.

112This is known as the “Anyone Can Die” trope in online fan publications: Steven Shaviro’s influential work on zombie film narratives emphasizes the wish-fulfillment aspect of such scenes depicting the brutal, grotesque deaths of loved ones and neighbors. Steven Shaviro, The Cinematic Body. (Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press, 1993).

113The television series continues with the second half of Season Eight in February 2018 and the comic book series continues to be published with Volume 29 released in March 2018.

114though the show remains a huge audience winner in its time slot—get statistics from reviews, wiki, etc.

115Lauren Berlant. Cruel Optimism, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.

116Shaviro explains that this fascination pushes viewers toward an “affective ambivalence by displacing, exceeding, and intensifying the conventional mechanisms of spectatorial identification, inflecting them in the direction of a dangerous, tactile, mimetic participation” (Shaviro, The Cinematic Body 96.6).

117The premiere episode of The Walking Dead broke records for AMC viewership (over 5 million), while that of Season 2 had 11 million views and the seasons 3 and 4 premiers each had more than 15 million. Glowing reviews across the web include those from the entertainment site Rotten Tomatoes, which wrote, "The second season of The Walking Dead fleshes out the characters while maintaining the grueling tension and gore that made the show a hit," indicating here and elsewhere that the combination of “gore” and a “deeper sense of the people” constitutes the show’s winning formula.

118In a controversial move in late 2017, the TV series producers indicated that the show was about to kill off Carl, though an online effort protested this move—citing in particular that many fans (and including the actor Chandler Riggs) have been “assuming” that "The entire show has been a lead up to showing Carl become the leader that his father is, maybe one day taking on the mantle himself," –interesting example of white supremacist, heteropatriarchal popular culture.

119Gerry Canavan, “’We Are the Walking Dead’: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative, Extrapolation 51, Vol. 3 (2010), 444. Canavan criticizes The Walking Dead’s “uncriticial relationship” to its apparently “pre-feminist” view of women’s role, which is “to code the ending as ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ based on their continued availability to bear the male protagonist’s children.” I suggest this sex-gender coding may be quite intentional and strategic in the show’s elaboration of neoliberal agency and suffering.

120See Wendy Brown on the evacuation of any non-economic subjectivity, except for “family”—discuss in terms of gender norms. [ Clarify the logic of this sub-argument about family, gender, and liberal collectivity (the paucity of its conception of collectivity, perhaps?]

121Elliott. “Suffering Agency,” 94.

122Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1890 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973). The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (New York: Antheneum, 1985). Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Antheneum, 1992).

123McGee notes that the social tensions and logical contradictions that uphold the Western’s mythical bundle of liberal individualism and masculine agency are often the very target of its later, more critical cinematic elaborations. Patrick McGee, From Shane to Kill Bill: Rethinking the Western (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), xiv, xvii.

124Carl Schmidt and Agamben as forecasting part III

125Slotkin. The Fatal Environment, 128.

126McGee, From Shane to Kill Bill, 99.

127See Mikail Bakhtin on double-voiced narration as key narrative technique for indicated a temporal or ideological shifts and also on the uses of irony in speech utterances that convey the co-existence of generic discourses in a parodic or dialogic relationship. M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. Edited by Michael Holquist. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas, 1981), 279, 284.

128Canavan. “We Are the Walking Dead: Race, Time, and Survival in Zombie Narrative.” Extrapolation. 51.30 (2010). 431-453.

129(fnote Wall Street Journal piece (?) on Why ratings have plummeted)

130See also the discussion of the racial resonances of Glenn’s death in the think piece, “Not Dead” by Nina Sharma who finds anguished echoes between the depiction of Glenn and the real-life 1982 race-baiting murder of Vincent Chin.

131Ex of Sophia’s pity (early and later)—as ftnote to Canavan

132Recalling the apocryphal Ursula LeGuin short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”—

133Evan Calder Williams. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse. (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011), 101.

134Ibid. 115.

135Cite Lauro and Embry, “Zombie Manifesto”

136Julia Kristeva cautions that abjection is the source of jouissance (passion, pleasure, art, beauty, etc) but is also “psychotic” and threatening to all subjective experience of oneself as a “bounded” subject. Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

137McCarthy, 37-38.

138One of the more interesting fan phenomena is how many devoted viewers of the show insist that Rick and the others are “stupid” and use the show to contrast their ineffectual or disastrous decisions to the ones they, the viewers, would make in their place—a kind of antagonistic narrative identification??

139The Walking Dead. Vol. 19: March to War, (Berkeley, California: Image Comics, 2013).

140Gerry Canavan in “If the train ever stops,” comments on how the train and its circular track are presented in the comic serial that provides the basis for the film: “The train gives the illusion of forward movement while actually being limited to prebuilt rails, the illusion of progress while actually simply circling the same dead loop forever, the illusion of participation and “choice” whereas in fact all outcomes have already been chosen in advance. And, as in the film, we come to experience this necrofuture not as a curse or a doom handed down by nature but as a built and constructed thing, a horror that has been deliberately designed for us and which is actively being managed by the powerful” (23).

141Brief citation/summary of the parable.

142Canavan argues, this “is a capitalist realism that turns into a post-capitalist realism: even though capitalism ultimately destroys the conditions for its own existence (as we knew it would, as we all saw it doing), the structural deprivations it produces nonetheless survive in the future to be reproduced in an unhappy post-capitalist context, human misery taking on the force of a law of nature. “ (14). “'If the Train Ever Stops, We’d All Die’: Snowpiercer and Necrofuturism.” Paradoxa 26 (2014).

143E. Ann Kaplan’s likewise discusses Soylent Green in elaborating her concept of environmental “pretrauma” in ways that resonate Canavan’s inclusion of Grusin’s concept of “premediation”. Climate Trauma.

144 Explain the term “disaster capitalism” from Naomi Klein, etc.

145The transnational production histories of each: Snowpiercer based on a French comic series, Korean director, American and British actors, etc. Sleep Dealer used a Mexico-based production team and Mexican actors, with the U.S.-based Rivera and much of his capital coming from the U.S.

146David Montgomery, “Alex Rivera’s lost cult hit ‘Sleep Dealer’ about immigration and drones is back” Washington Post. July 7, 2014. URL: Accessed April 13, 2018.

147Michael Martinez-Raguso notes that “This extreme neoliberal environment of privatization. . . directly evokes the Cochabamba Water War that took place in Bolivia in 2000” and is documented in Iclíar Bollain’s También la lluvia [Even the Rain]. “’All of the work, with none of the workers: The Technology of Consumption in Sleep Dealer.” XXXXX, 2018.

148For a statistical and social science articulation of this emblematic function, see HyperBorder, among others.

149Trinh T. Minh-ha coined the term “image-repertoire” in Woman, Native, Other to articulate the reifying effects of such “stock” images that confirm and reproduce stereoptypes of difference.

150 Important critical work by Amy Sara Carroll, Jason Ruiz, and Maria Josephina Saldaña de Portillo, among others speaks to these dynamics and their reverberations in history, art, and popular culture.

151 Cite review.

152Martinez-Raguso uses work by Tiziana Terranova on “horizontal addition: and “vertical subsumption” as the two paradigms for how digital networks operate and expand to suggest that “Although the configuration of node networks in Sleep Dealer allows for extensive possibilities,” their reliance on and placement within “vertical, power-based relations with corporations such as Cybracero or U.S. military/security forces” limits that “additive potential” (11).

153Performance artists such as Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Coco Fusco made rasquache a key term for their influential work and feminist critic and theorists Laura Pérez highlights both the term and its art in her critical work,.

154Castillo notes, “’hacktivist’ is a mashup of ‘hacker’ and ‘activist’ and refers to individuals who promote political and social change through internet activity, including cyberterrorism” (ftnt.4, 9). She cites as influences on Rivera projects such as Ricardo Dominguez’s Hactivist projects the Electronic Disturbance Theater and the Zapatista Floodnet (10).


Hayles. Electronic Literature 37. Quoted in Castillo, 10.


Reference Joseph Campbell’s work on the monomyth and hero’s journey template, unless done in Ch 1.


Francisco Goldman does this in The Ordinary Seaman, also about the transnational abjection of latinx migrant labor. The capacity for romantic love is one of modernity’s most dominant markers for human depth, and thus individual worth—a precept grounded in the Romantic era’s movement toward interiority and feeling as the true hallmark’s of humanity and of “specialness”. –So the love story has done work to ‘humanize” the abject other particularly since the early 19th century and the dawn of colonial encounters and logics (Chateaubriand’s Aula, and especially 19th century anti-racist and pro-abolitionist novel writing by authors such as Helen Hunt Jackson and Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda)


In her seminal work on science fiction as a particular form of generic knowledge, Seo Young Chu argues that what science fiction does best is to communicate a “difficult referent,” make it legible.


See de Lauretis on the hero’s journey and Lottman and female figure as the “threshold”.


The insertion of “antique” looking technology highlights the film’s production attention to the histories of colonial and industrial capitalism that plays a decidedly anti-nostalgic function in Snowpierce . As in Firefly, aspects of the setting suggests a World War II context, but in this case it’s more the Nazi version, rather than the “good war” version.


Director Boon Joon-ho has added subsequent commentary through interviews etc to indicate that in his backstory for the film, both Gilliam and Wilford and many other characters are bisexual. When Gilliam sends Grey to help Curtis, the implication is thus apparently doubled.


[aside: this scene also seems to be a visual and plot invocation of the recurring climatic Star Wars scenes with Darth Vader-types and their efforts to acquire protogés in evil-doings].


Canavan suggests that Curtis’s “shame” is nothing more than an element of his “hero’s journey” narrative and is therefore a fairly conventional mechanism that allows Curtis to prove his worth as the leader precisely because he is able to overcome his own guilt and self-doubt.