Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bushwhacked by the Nightmare Native: The Western Roots of Firefly's Reavers

In Finding Serenity, Lawrence Watt-Evans likens Firefly's Reavers to the legendary sixteenth-century cannibal, Sawney Beane, thus linking Joss Whedon's space-roaming savages to a rich tradition of bogeymen and monsters who symbolize the dangers of the uncontrolled id. At the conclusion of his essay, Watt-Evans asks the question, "and just who are the Reavers, then? ...Androids, perhaps? Madmen? Criminals offered amnesty if they survive?... Who's out there?" (28) In the context of Firefly as Western, the answer to Watt-Evans' question is obvious: on the edge of the frontier, where settlers stake their claims and outlaws ply their trade, there are always the Indians. With their ritualistic self-mutilation, pack behavior and barbaric practices, the Reavers embody the most paranoid images of the native Other that colonizing whites could devise. The image of the Indian as predatory savage stretches back far into the roots of the Western's development, beyond the first actual films and novels of the genre to the original tales of the blood-stained American frontier, the popular and often propagandist Indian captivity narratives that appeared from the seventeenth century until the end of Western expansion. Thus, the Western roots of Firefly's Reavers can also be traced back to these early texts, and we can see in them the images and ideologies that have developed over the centuries to give the Reavers their unnervingly familiar and deeply disturbing presence on the series, in the film, and in our collective imagination.
            The Firefly episode "Bushwhacked" brings these connections into focus particularly well because it features many of the same conventional elements of the early captivity narratives, and it also parallels later Western films that share the continuing obsession with the idea of Indian captivity and its effects. To illustrate the connections between the Reavers and Indians as whites imagined them, I will look at "Bushwhacked" in conjunction with two specific texts, Mary Rowlandson's 1682  account, A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, and John Ford's 1956 film, The Searchers. In their representation of the Reavers, particularly in “Bushwhacked,” Joss Whedon and the Firefly writers borrow heavily from the conventions of these works to create a nightmare version of the native, but they also alter the image in order to make the Reavers an appropriately modern symbol of an expanding civilization's deepest fears.
            In order to understand the relationship between "Bushwhacked" and the Western, we have to look back at the history of the particular genre that it adapts. Much of the episode's language and imagery parallel those of traditional Indian captivity narratives, which depict settlers viciously attacked by varying tribes, depending on the location and historical moment of the narrative's setting. The Indian captivity narrative, as the first popular literature about experience on the American frontier, is the direct ancestor of the more modern genre of the Western. Captivity narratives often feature women as the primary victims or heroines because Native American captors were more likely to take women alive and because women made for more symbolically charged imagery within a text. Among the better known and more interesting captivity narratives are the stories of white women settlers like Mary Rowlandson, Hannah Dustan, Elizabeth Hanson, Jemima Howe, Mary Kinnan, Mary Jemison, Mary Godfrey, Sarah Wakefield, and Cynthia Ann Parker. Most of these women escaped or were eventually released from captivity and returned to life in white communities, although Mary Jemison and Cynthia Ann Parker both identified themselves as members of their adopted tribes and resisted return to their original families and communities.
            One of the earliest and best known captivity narratives is Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, first published in 1682. In her narrative, Rowlandson describes the Indian attack on her community in terms that clearly identify the attackers as inhuman monsters, and she particularly dwells on the killing of children and injured settlers. She concludes her account of the attack with the following comments:
When we are in prosperity, Oh the Little that we think of such dreadful Sights, and to see our dear Friends and Relations lie bleeding out their Heart-Blood upon the Ground! There was one who was chopp'd into the Head with a Hatchet, and stripp'd naked, and yet was crawling up and down. It is a solemn Sight to see so many Christians lying in their Blood, some here, and some there, like a company of Sheep torn by Wolves. All of them stript naked by a company of hell-hounds, roaring, singing, ranting and insulting, as if they would have torn our very hearts out..."  (14).
This kind of language appears throughout Rowlandson's text. She refers to the Indians as "inhuman creatures" (15), she describes one Indian who "was so wicked and cruel, as to wear a string about his neck, strung with Christian fingers" (38), and she compares the Indians to "Bears bereft of their whelps, or so many ravenous Wolves, rending us and our Lambs to death" (43). Rowlandson steadfastly refuses to regard her captors as human beings; even when they appear to be kind to her, she gives the credit to God and not to the generosity of the Indians. Eventually Rowlandson is ransomed and released from her captivity, after which she returns to her husband and white community to write her account and become something of a seventeenth-century celebrity.
            Although Rowlandson's captivity ends very differently from that of the Firefly settler, many parallels are immediately obvious. We don't see the Reaver attack on the settlers' ship, but we can certainly imagine that it would have been similar to the attack Rowlandson describes in many ways. Before the Serenity crew discovers the truth about the derelict ship, River's psychic talents pick up on the echoes of the violence that has taken place. "I can't sleep," she says, "There's too much screaming." Simon replies that "there is no screaming," and River eerily whispers, "There was." Rowlandson describes in her account of the attack the crying out of the women and children, the pleading cries of dying settlers, the shouting and hallowing of the attackers, the echoes of which can all be heard in River's evocative comment. Of course, we do see a similar attack at the beginning of the film, Serenity, and there the parallels between Rowlandson's Indians and the Reavers also stand out. Of the attack on her village, Rowlandson says, "Thus were we butchered by those merciless Heathen, standing amazed, with the Blood running down to our Heels" (13). Of the attack on the settlers' ship, the "Bushwhacked" survivor says, "Cattle for the slaughter... No mercy. No resistance..." Rowlandson and the settler use strikingly similar language: the victims are "lambs" and "cattle"; they are "butchered" and "slaughtered" like livestock by the attackers. In both cases, the attack is depicted as sudden, brutal, without mercy, and the victims are too overwhelmed to mount any real defense. Rowlandson says that they stood "amazed" as they were killed, while the settler mutters that there was "no resistance" to the Reaver attack. Like Rowlandson's narrative, the episode draws special attention to the killing of children; in "Bushwhacked" the camera repeatedly lingers on toys and children's things left on the ship. As Colin Ramsey argues in his essay, "Cannibalism and Infant Killing: A System of 'Demonizing' Motifs in Indian Captivity Narratives," representing Indians as baby-killing cannibals was an especially powerful and pervasive element of traditional captivity narratives, and one that we see employed to great effect on Firefly and in Serenity. On Firefly, the Reavers fit this demonized image perfectly; we all know that they will "rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing, and if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order" (Firefly, "Serenity"). This horrific summary of Reaver behavior draws upon the white perceptions of the Indian created by early accounts like that of Rowlandson, which also influenced the developing Western genre as it emerged and then reached its cultural apex in the mid-twentieth century.
            As the captivity narrative became an important cornerstone of the evolving Western, the fascination with figures like Jemison and Parker proved to be greater than any interest in women who, like Rowlandson, were captured but remained firmly rooted in their own white identities. Transculturation, the idea that a person might become a member of another culture through contact with it, appears as a particular concern in many kinds of colonialist literature, where we often see such a transformation referred to as "going native." Both Jemison and Parker "went native" as a result of their captivity, and the Western genre focused on this aspect of the captivity narrative in particular. In earlier Western films, this transculturation is threatening and dangerous because the Indians are generally depicted as backward, sub-human savages. As R. Philip Loy observes in Westerns in a Changing America: 1955-2000, "The dominant image of Indians [in these films] is one of savage opposition to whites. Indians (increasingly Apaches) kill whites simply because they are there to be killed. And Indians kidnapping white women and children is a theme that appears with some regularity in Westerns between 1955 and the mid-1960s" (243). Earlier films that depict Indian captivity and transculturation include The Savage (1952), The Searchers (1956), Pawnee (1957), The Unforgiven (1960), Comanche Station (1960), Two Rode Together (1961) and The Stalking Moon (1968). The beginning of the 1970s saw the Western continue its fascination with the topic, but the tone changed dramatically, so that transculturation became a way for white people to learn to appreciate and respect Native American culture. Both Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse appeared in 1970, and the appearance of Dances with Wolves in 1990 solidified the new attitude toward transculturation, with the idea of actual Indian captivity suppressed because of its negative connotations.
            Of the many earlier Westerns that deal with Indian captivity and the problems of transculturation, John Ford's The Searchers is both the most famous and the most involved with the imagery and plot of "Bushwhacked." Noted for its dark tone, the film stars Ford's regular hero, John Wayne, as the cynical former Confederate soldier, Ethan Edwards, who sets out for revenge and ostensibly a rescue when his brother's family is attacked by a Comanche raiding party. The Indians kill the brother, his wife, and their son, but take the two daughters, Lucy and Debbie, as captives. Lucy is soon killed by the Indians, as well, leaving Debbie as the sole survivor of the family. Ethan and his young companion, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), spend five years searching for Debbie (played by Lana Wood as a child and by Natalie Wood as a young woman), during which time she grows up and becomes a member of the Comanche tribe, even rejecting rescue when Ethan and Martin finally discover her. Ethan wants to kill the girl because she has "gone native," but Martin prevents him, and Ethan eventually relents in time for Debbie to be rescued during a Cavalry attack on the tribe and then returned to her original white community.
            Many elements of The Searchers have direct parallels in "Bushwhacked." As Ethan Edwards, Wayne is exactly the kind of Western character Whedon had in mind when he created Malcolm Reynolds, a champion of lost causes whose jaded exterior conceals passionate commitment to his own people. Martin Pawley's unwavering devotion to his surrogate sister and his determination to save her prefigure Simon's relationship with River, herself a very obvious sort of captivity survivor. Throughout the film, the images and language used to address the Comanche and the fear of transculturation highlight its ideological ground-laying for "Bushwhacked." Like the Reaver attack on the settlers' ship, the attack on the Edwards family at the beginning of the film is not seen, although the brutality and horror of the event are strongly implied. The kidnapping of Debbie, the innocent child, is especially underscored, as the menacing Comanche chief Scar stares down at the little girl hiding among the family graves and clutching her favorite doll. Only Ethan sees the bodies of the rest of the family; their fates are apparently so gruesome that he refuses to allow anyone else to look at them. When questioned about the fate of Lucy, Ethan only says, "What do you want me to do? Draw you a picture? Spell it out? Don't ever ask me! Long as you live, don't ever ask me more." Rape, torture and mutilation are all implied, the same fates ostensibly met by the settlers in "Bushwhacked." These implied horrors are more awful than anything that could be shown, and the same technique is employed in the Firefly episode, where the attack is not shown at all and the settlers' corpses are seen only in quick glimpses.
            Like the Indians in Rowlandson's narrative, the Comanche in The Searchers are barbaric, terrifying savages, very much like Firefly's Reavers. Of the film's representation of the Comanche, R. Philip Loy writes,
Henry Brandon's (Scar) marauding Comanches raid, murder, burn, rape and kidnap because they are savages sworn to destroy all white people. John Wayne may have played an Indian-hating psychopath in the film, but his behavior is not totally irrational. How could one defend murder, rape and kidnapping? If the image of Indians in The Searchers is valid, the complete destruction of Indians is the only course for white people to choose. When Ward Bond and his band of rangers swoop down on Brandon's camp at the climax of The Searchers, the killing of Indians elicits little objection from white viewers. It is the appropriate response to Indian behavior in the film. (243)
No Firefly viewer would object to the killing of Reavers; even in Serenity, where the Reavers are explained as victims of a misguided experiment, the only way to deal with them is to kill them. They exist solely to destroy, and their total eradication is necessary to make the frontier space safe for settlers and civilization.
            The threat of transculturation proves to be the greatest danger posed by both the Comanche and the Reavers, as that process transforms victims into enemies and makes strangers even of the closest relatives and friends. In The Searchers, the scene in which Ethan and Martin search an Army outpost for Debbie among other white female captives makes clear the consequences and dangers of transculturation. We see that these women have been transformed by their captivity; they have "gone native" in the worst possible way, and Ethan clearly expects that the same fate has befallen Debbie. With their wild eyes and their crazed, incoherent behavior, the women are strikingly similar to the "Bushwhacked" settler. When Mal says, "You call him a survivor. He's not," his position on the settler's status parallels Ethan's conviction that his niece, the person who was Debbie, has not survived, either, and needs to be destroyed. "Living with Comanches ain't being alive," Ethan asserts, and other characters in the film agree that nothing of the original person can be left after five years in captivity. As Martin's love interest, Laurie Jorgensen, argues, "Fetch what home? The leavings a Comanche buck sold time and again to the highest bidder, with savage brats of her own?  Do you know what Ethan will do if he has a chance? He'll put a bullet in her brain. I tell you, Martha would want him to." All of these statements foreshadow Mal's contention that the settler's survival of the Reaver attack is a misfortune best remedied by "a bullet in his brain pan." In The Searchers, Ethan's cynicism is eventually overcome by Martin's devotion and his own love for Debbie, who appears to have survived as a person after all; in "Bushwhacked," of course, the cynical view turns out to be the right one, as the settler's concentrated transculturation proves utterly destructive of his original identity.
            The irony of Mal's cynicism being validated in "Bushwhacked" is just one of the ways in which the television episode revises the material of texts like the captivity narratives and The Searchers in order to make it speak to a modern audience. The Reavers borrow their ideological trappings from the negative images of Indians that these texts depict, but the Reavers are not, of course, actually Indians. The captivity narratives and Westerns of yesteryear have to be read by a modern audience with a troubling awareness that the images presented are biased, racist stereotypes that demonize the unfamiliar Other in order to justify colonialist invasion and usurpation. Nobody would make a Western today that depicted Native Americans in this way; our cultural climate forbids such representation even to the point of banning sports teams from using certain names and images that might be seen as derogatory. By relocating the Western into space,  Whedon was able to harness the most powerful and visceral elements of the genre freely and without reserve. The revelation in Serenity that the Reavers are not really an Other at all, but merely our worst possible selves let loose, confirms the familiar argument that colonialism projects its darkest fears about itself onto the alien Other. On Firefly and in Serenity, the Reavers can be everything that earlier propagandist texts claimed that Indians were - brutal, savage, cannibalistic baby-killers without mercy or restraint - precisely because they are not, in fact, a separate group or race of any kind. This revision liberates the imagery from its racist foundation and allows Firefly to exploit it in ways that would be absolutely unthinkable in a conventional modern Western. The Reavers can be nightmare natives, truly monsters of the id, and in "Bushwhacked" we as a modern audience can experience all the terrors and horrific thrills of the captivity narrative and the classic Western without self-recrimination.
            Ultimately, "Bushwhacked" functions as an example of Firefly's complex relationship with the Western and with frontier literature like the captivity narrative. By looking at texts like A True History and The Searchers in conjunction with the episode, we can see how deeply engaged with its generic heritage Firefly really is, and we can appreciate the program's efforts to recast the conventions of these earlier genres for a new audience. Understanding the Western roots of the Reavers and "Bushwhacked" allows us to make better sense of the Firefly universe and how its inhabitants act and think, but it also reveals the ways in which something as obscure as a prematurely cancelled, ostensibly "sci-fi" television show can tap into the same powerful images and emotions that have driven human beings for centuries, conjuring up the at once familiar and utterly alien threat of the insidious nightmare native, the baby-killing cannibal who bushwhacks us all in the black of our own subconscious.

NB: This paper was originally presented at the Slayage Conference in 2006. I have left out the Works Cited Page just to make it more difficult for someone to plagiarize the essay, but I'm happy to email the full list of references to anyone who wants them for a legitimate reason. Please note that this material is the academic property of the author, who reserves the right to enact Reaver vengeance on anybody who steals her stuff.