Standing With or Standing By

Standing With or Standing By

“DON’T FORGET your cape,” my brother gibed on the phone. “Will the workshops be at night?” a colleague chortled. “Is this like a Star Trek convention?” asked a bewildered friend as I prepared to leave for the biannual conference devoted to the work of Joss Whedon, best known as creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

No, no, and no, I bridled. This was a delightful alternate universe in which pop culture academics welcomed just plain fans to revel in almost all things Whedon. Buffy and its spinoff about a vampire with a soul, Angel, have been off the air for years. In addition, he’s written two not-so-successful television series (Firefly—a space Western—and Dollhouse), a movie, and an “indie” film.

Whedon, as the program for the conference commented, is “the most investigated popular culture author of our time.” But why do we (and the people who keep writing books about his work) still care?

Yes, there’s the wonderful writing, the satisfying plot line of a band of misfits fighting the machine, and the very pleasing-to-the-eye actors. But, for me, at least, it’s about a vision of all-too-human, everyday heroes who fight against the evil ignored by most of their fellow citizens. The key words that define Whedon’s work for so many fans are community and choice. His characters exist in communities, are loyal to their comrades but aware of the needs of the larger community, and their moral choices affect others.

In real life, Whedon identifies as a strong feminist and in 2008 produced an original musical during the writers’ strike with volunteer labor. He distributed it on the Web, won an Emmy, and was able to pay everyone involved. His open letter to fans described the situation: “Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage.” He pointed out that the industry is called “Show Business—not Show Friends.” But he wanted “To show the world there is another way.”

Barack Obama could learn from Whedon and his characters.

The Obama administration’s shameful handling of what has become known as the Shirley Sherrod Affair, in which Sherrod, an administrator with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was bullied into resigning on the basis of a doctored tape, illustrates the problem in the administration. Unlike Bully in Chief G.W. Bush, who stood by his friends (“Heck’uv a job, Brownie”), this administration, like Bill Clinton’s, cuts its friends loose at the first sign of what might be trouble. Unless, of course, the friends have powerful friends. And that’s where we, and Obama, can learn from Whedon’s characters. It really is about your choices—both of comrades and cause.

In Whedon’s shows, every character is bullied or threatened, usually by truly murderous forces, other times by the head cheerleader at the school. They suffer ...