Dave challenged us to debate which fandoms contribute the most, and least, to our spiritual well-being, as individuals and as a culture. His two examples were Star Wars and Star Trek, but I have to admit, despite being raised by a Trekkie, neither of those fandoms resonated with me the way the shows of Joss Whedon did, growing up. But did Whedon’s shows nurture my spiritual and intellectual growth? Or were they my form of “pop culture polytheism,” as Dave calls it, a form of escapism and adoration bordering on idolatry?
My adoration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly definitely gets intense. But I’d argue, Dave, that there are two ways to participate in the fandom of franchises like Star Wars and Firefly — the idolatrous, and the perceptive. A lot of fandom definitely turns into a form of worship; but alongside that tendency is another way to fangirl shows and movies, which combines admiration and enthusiasm with a dose of skepticism and spiritual seeking.
Worshipful fandom is the sort we’re used to talking about. But perceptive fandom is a good description of the behavior of fans who may (or may not!) participate in the worshipful aspects of fandom, but who also see their favorite TV shows and movies as texts that can be studied like literature. That includes a healthy dose of skepticism toward the creators of those texts, too. Some fandoms are better set up for perceptive fandom than others. Star Wars practically exists to be worshipped — its larger than life figures and the hyperbolic distinctions between the bad guys and the good guys sets us up easily to adore one, and revile the other, almost unquestioningly. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other Whedon creations are different because their good guys, and bad guys, are flawed and relatable without sliding the shows into moral relativism.
In Buffy, right and wrong are still pretty clearly demarked: right is protecting human life, dignity and autonomy. Wrong is destroying human life, enslaving people, or humiliating them. In this way the show avoids the moral relativism that so vexes Dave in shows like Game of Thrones. But in Buffy (and Firefly, and most of Whedon’s other works), who pursues right, and how they do it, and why, varies. The people who tend to be on the right side most of the time — Buffy, Willow, Xander — are painfully human and flawed. None of them rise to the level of becoming a figure worthy of worship. Instead, their struggles give us plenty of ways to look at how we handle crises, moral and otherwise. Unlike Luke Skywalker’s journey of learning and discovery, which was meant to launch him essentially into a higher plane of existence above the audience, the struggles of Buffy, Willow, and Xander are all about learning how to be regular old human beings, in ways directly applicable to non-slaying life.
Even if you worship the universe of the show — in the adoring hours you dedicate to it — it’s pretty hard to worship any of the characters.
In other words: You asked which is better, Star Wars or Star Trek, and my answer is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
One last thing — maybe a little brainless pop culture consumption is a good thing, like a pinch of salt. When it’s combined with perceptive fandom, it’s not totally degrading. And like dreams, I think it’s necessary for our sanity and clarity of mind — our TV shows and movies are dreams we can escape into when waking, and they’re certainly cheaper than Xanax.
I’m going to bounce this one back to the committee. Dave, Walter, other PJ Lifestyle and Liberty Island writers, — did Joss Whedon change your life, or simply stunt it?