The Psychology of Joss Whedon

In a recent movie post over at Deadspin, Tim Grierson and Will Leitch posted about Joss Whedon‘s history in Hollywood and and how he’s always been more of a cult phenomenon that couldn’t quite break out into the mainstream. With the runaway success and critical acclaim surrounding last weekend’s release of The Avengers, Whedon is now (as he always has been to his followers) royalty. I’m excited to be co-editing a book on religion in the works of Joss Whedon. In researching the extant literature on the writer/director/producer, I’ve come across several books. Here is a review of one from 2007, a collection of essays edited by Joy Davidson entitled The Psychology of Joss Whedon: An Unauthorized Exploration. Though working in a different field, nearly all of the contributors’ essays wrestle with the big issues that religious students and practicioners must address.

The Psychology of Joss Whedon is packed with 15 essays, each around 3,000-5,000 words in length. As such, it is a relatively quick read. Though the writing is inconsistent and sometimes distractingly conversational, the essays are suitable for congregational or classroom use, whether leading/teaching a course, section, or discussion group on religion and popular culture or multiple or single “Whedonverses.” The topics here range from neuropsychology, existential psychology, the understanding of the self, the importance of relationships in personal growth, the nature of meaning making in the human experience, and many more. The contributors are working exclusively in the Buffy, Angel, and Firefly/Serenity universes, but not their accompanying comics. This limitation is, of course, due to the book’s date of publication. Other books do consider more of Whedon’s worlds. Read on for a brief discussion of some of the highlights of The Psychology of Joss Whedon.

From a religious/theological perspective, I think a few of the essays here really stand out. In “Mal’s Morals: Evolutionary Pornography,” Robert Kurzban makes a claim for evolutionary moral pornography. That is, we “like to watch” good characters succeed and “baddies” get what’s coming to them. Through this enjoyment we learn moral behavior, and, in the process, we learn that “honor, loyalty, and morality are expensive. They cause you to make important–even life-threatening–sacrifices.” Kurzban engages Firefly and particularly the ways in which Mal acts out of loyalty, honor, and morality, and how this behavior (re)defines each.

In “Free Will in a Deterministic Whedonverse,” Thomas Flamson argues that our popular notions of free will are illusions, but important and even necessary ones for healthy development and functioning. Flamson believes that Whedon’s characters force us to ask, “Can we ever be said to be truly free? and, Do people need to be free?” He gives evidence of studies which show that “people only consciously experience choosing to do something after the neurological processes of doing so have already begun.” This is a truly important essay because of how consistently questions of free will and determinism shape our theological understandings. On the other hand, I would have liked Flamson to say a bit more about how context functions in limiting and increasing the choices we do or can make. While we might have the right to be wrong, a right that the Alliance wanted to take away in Firefly and Serenity, we still are responsible for the choices we make and the actions we take.

“An Analysis of Slayer Longevity: Relationships on the Hellmouth,” by Tracy R. Gleason and Nancy S. Weinfield, argues, essentially, that Buffy is so successful because she relies on a support groups of friends and family to make it through life, rather than following the solo slayer route that has traditionally characterized the job description. This chapter speaks volumes to the importance of community, and their references to healthy psychological development and the events in Buffy could be extended to conversations about faith communities as well. Gleason and Weinfeld argue, “Emotional distance from others creates vulnerability.” It seems to me that this essay has implications for individuals who pursue their faith and spirituality outside community. The whole “spiritual but not religious” mindset seems suddenly empty and lacking. Yet it is important that these communities (especially those of faith) be spaces in which members can express doubts and fears. In Buffy as in The Avengers, Whedon seems to assert that “the rule that someone with superhuman powers must function outside of a social context appears to be an outdated, and even dangerous, requirement.”

“More Than Entertainment: Notes on a Spiritual Recovery and What Jossverse Gave Me That Religion and Therapy Didn’t,” by Stephanie R. Deluse, is the most personal of all the essays. Deluse grew up in a violently strict religious environment that left both emotional, physical, and psychological scars. For her, the world of Buffy helped her more fully heal those wounds, even after she had fled that abusive situation. She talks about her experiences of “empathic viewing” and argues for more explicit viewing practices like that. As such, Deluse’s essay is the most specifically practical contribution to the collection. Here, she encourages viewers to take notes “on the fly” and to spend time reflecting on them after the credits roll to better understand why a particular line of dialogue or plot point grabbed their attention. Deluse points out that Whedon’s worlds contradict religious conservatism because they are often egalitarian and gray where the former are patriarchal and clearly defined. Or, as she writes, “Mal and his crew [in Firefly] offered many opportunities to reflect on shifting meanings of ethics, selfishness, and compassion. […] Every gray area I encountered in Firefly/Serenity reminded me of the black-and-white clarity I’d left behind, and made me question which way of being is better–if there is such a thing as ‘better.'”

It’s interesting to me that the themes of the essays in The Psychology of Joss Whedon find further expression in The Avengers, Whedon’s latest creation/adaptation. This shows, once again, how important Whedon’s voice is for discussions of psychology (or religion and theology) in our pop culture(s).