Teen Trauma
Marianna Martin on Serenity

A teenage girl, earlier described as “mentally traumatized,” has slipped loose of the vigilant care of her older brother, and descends the stairs of a crowded bar. The ambient sound of dozens of conversations—only a few words legible here and there—recedes as the girl’s attention fixates on a giant screen on the wall. The screen is playing a commercial advertising “Oaty Bar”, whose jaunty tune crescendos in pastiche J-pop style, accompanied by strange anime-styled images of an octopus and other oddities. The girl stares, transfixed, and a rushing sound starts to drown out the commercial jingle. Rapid cuts flash barely legible shots of what appear to be her memories, intercut with the visual of the ad and extreme close-ups of her face, and the ad jingle is rapidly mixed down in the soundtrack, dominated by the encroaching silence and a male voice utters “scary monsters.” Now all is silent, deafeningly so. The girl whispers a word, “Miranda,” and then in an aural vacuum, save for the sound of her own hits landing, starts an epic brawl. The transformation of River Tam (Summer Glau) from lost little girl to killing machine has taken less than thirty seconds and is signaled almost entirely by sound.

Combining iconic generic elements of science fiction and the western, but committing to neither as its primary mode, Serenity, Joss Whedon’s 2005 feature film debut as director, gives an auteur known primarily for his television work an opportunity to take his vision to the medium he studied as an undergraduate. The visual aesthetic of Whedon’s television work has long been declared “cinematic” by academics and popular critics alike, but this was an actual feature film, intended for theatrical distribution, and Whedon did not fail to seize this opportunity to raise the stakes to match the increase in screen size. An adaptation of Whedon’s ill-fated Fox series Firefly (2003), Serenity brings the narrative focus onto series character River Tam. River is young, traumatized, and mentally ill, and she has been robbed of her agency and sanity by a sinister government project trying to turn her into some sort of human weapon. This experimentation on her person is a direct assault on her identity and humanity, and it leaves River to vacillate between complete dependency on her brother Simon (Sean Maher) and terrifying ability, but she remains at the mercy of what she can and can’t remember of her experiences as a prisoner in a lab. River’s powers are not supernatural, instead manifesting in the form of formidable martial arts skills that are of the ‘sleeper’ variety and can be triggered by a subliminal cue by those seeking to use her. The “Oaty Bar” ad seems to contain that subliminal trigger.

River was of course, the latest iteration of Whedon’s most iconic auteurial archetype: the “traumatized teenage girl with powers.” The scene described above places River in the lineage of Buffy Sommers (of Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), by confirming the presence of powers to go with River’s mental illness depicted in both Firefly and Serenity, just as Buffy Sommers possessed supernatural strength, if also the burden of enormous responsibility and loss at a young age. The closing down of the aural perspective to River’s interiority isolates her in the crowded and noisy bar, and emphasizes the intensity of her experience in the moment. Does the audible phrase “scary monsters” (sampling an earlier line of dialogue from the film) describe what she is remembering, what she might be hallucinating, or what she is seeing on the video screen: an advertisement that simultaneously hides a subliminal message intended for her and reveals a fanged octopus bursting from a woman’s décolletage? The music blaring from the ad is surreal: excessively cheerful and insistent to a degree that seems almost threatening even without hiding a subliminal message, and the way it recedes as River focuses upon it suggests the revelation of something repressed and sinister lurking beneath the surface of the sound. The ensuing silence allows the articulation of a single word in River’s memory and upon her lips: “Miranda.” This enigma immediately carries a narrative weight in this film equal to Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud”: in order for the past to be put to rest, River must recall what this word means and the horror it signifies.

However, River cannot solve the mystery until she can gain agency over the powers she has been given for use by someone else. Until then, River literally retains no control over her own body or person, at the mercy of Oaty Bar ads with hidden messages or the “safe word” that will shut her down. “Miranda,” uttered in a stark silence, is a moment of mastery over memory and trauma, but is followed by a complete loss of agency as her imposed skills activate. River is powerful in battle, but it is someone else’s power, not her own, and she is notably silenced and entranced after this brief interval of lucidity. She will continue to fight effectively and robotically until someone else cues her to stop, and that cue causes her to lose consciousness: a complete retreat to interiority and silence on her part. In a few seconds, we have traveled from a moment of amusement—the strangeness of the Oaty Bar advertisement, and its kawaii yet sinister pastiche winking knowingly at the genre fan’s plausible familiarity with elements of Japanese pop culture—to a moment of isolation and horror as River recalls a repressed trauma and loses control of her body.

This abrupt affective or tonal shift is emblematic of Whedon’s genre narrative strategy, not only for Serenity but also for all of his films, television series, and graphic novels. Whedon doesn’t merely combine humor and horror elements but juxtaposes them in a way that leaves the spectator off-guard in a relaxed moment of amusement or pleasure for an unpleasant surprise: the monster will appear, someone will die, things will be revealed to be their opposite. Whedon’s long-term fans have learned to beware the laugh, even as they indulge in it: in the next moment, the coming shock may be the death of a fan favorite (as indeed occurs later in the film). The delight for the audience in the incongruity of tiny, lithe River being able to take down burly male opponents such as her shipmate Jayne (Adam Baldwin) unexpectedly in a fight, is tempered by the realization of the danger River poses to everyone around her, and how she may qualify as a “scary monster” herself. Everything has changed. Those around her are endangered, and she must continue to endanger them to come into control of her own power. Just as the sound has become isolated and focused to her interiority, so has River, and she can hear the voice in her head at last. Where it will lead her, and her shipmates, drives the rest of Serenity’s narrative forward.