The Self Corrupted (1)

The ‘Self,’ Corrupted: Joss Whedon and his Tropes of Loss By Coco Clements

Disclaimer: this article features spoilers for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, Firefly/Serenity, The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The loss of a character can hit home hard, even when it is only fiction. When a creative team decides to kill, maim or erase these familiars from memory within the fictional world, the non-fictional audience can feel quite shaken. One director who especially loves to “shake things up” in such a manner[1] is the creator of great cult classics such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Dollhouse and Firefly, but is perhaps generally mostly known for his recent collaboration with Marvel on the Avengers films; he is the elusive and well-spoken serial-heartbreaker, Joss Whedon. However disturbing these executions may be, they actually seem to have roots in philosophical theories, most notably the theories of the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This essay will therefore analyse the different tropes of loss in the various works by Joss Whedon and their functions within the Whedon-verse in relation to Rousseau’s theories of corruption and identity.


 The most recognisable trope of loss in Whedon’s repertoire is loss of life. This trope consists of sudden and inevitable death, often preceded by an emphasis on the emotional attachment of (a) character(s) or the audience to the doomed individual. The trope will be referred to in this piece as Whetality (Whedon-fatality). For instance, the death of Wash in Serenity is one of the most infamous instances of that particular trope. Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne, pilot of the spaceship ‘Serenity’ in the tv-series Firefly, is a minor but beloved character created by Joss Whedon. Not only is Wash always the happy-go-lucky one who is there to lighten the mood with a joke, he is also the significant other to robust and feisty Zoe, Captain Mal’s right-hand woman. Despite the two being an unlikely pair, they form one of the lasting and adoring married couples in television history. As this seemingly perfect coupling rings some warning bells in the heads of frequent Whedon-watchers, the Whetality arrives characteristically out of the blue. At the end of the sequential movie to Firefly, named Serenity, Wash is violently killed off right after successfully manoeuvring the spaceship through an epic fight sequence in space, saving everyone on board, and reminding us again of why he is a part of the team in the first place, Wash utters his last words: “I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how I…” as he is violently impaled on a piece of debris on landing. As it is a side-character who is killed, the show can move on to the grand finale, and this too allows the loss of Wash to resonate until the very last scene.

As Whedon himself confesses; “I realized, you do this one thing, that nobody’s sees coming, the rest of the movie has enormous resonance.”[2] Besides the emphasis on the fragility of life, Whedon shows his audience that being innocent or happy will not result in a free-pass from death. Most of the characters to which the Whetality applies, are of this same kind of purity. The unexpected death of the seemingly insignificant agent Coulson in The Avengers motivates the titular superhero team to finally come together and ultimately defeat the villain; in Buffy, the goodhearted and loving Joyce was always the stable factor to the crazy vampire-slaying life of her feisty daughter Buffy, and loses her life to the ironically unfightable aneurysm. Exactly because these characters are goodhearted(and in particular, reliable) their deaths will come more quickly and will figuratively knock the feet out of under the main characters’ understanding of the situation.

Whedon himself declares that his reasons for killing his characters so violently and unexpectedly is because he likes it that way: “My favourite thing is to shake things up, to bring as much that is different as I can…  to get people to a different place.”[3]However, if he had lived to know of it, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) would have disagreed with Whedon’s superficial analysis of his own work. As quoted in an essay by Shaun Reilley, Rousseau seems to believe that every human is in a ‘pristine, uncorrupted state at birth, gradually becomes corrupted through the assertion of society upon the individual.”[4] Of course, in Whedon’s case, we are not just talking about a slow corruption of his pure-of-heart minors through the assertion of societal pressure, but instead through terrible death. Yet, both these applications of corruption can be interpreted as part of the same idea:

Everything in the world is in constant flux. Nothing keeps the same, fixed shape, and our affections, which are attached to external things, like them necessarily pass away  and change. Always beyond or behind us, they remind us of the past which is no longer, or anticipate a future which is often not to be…[5]

Despite the seemingly minor role of each of Whedon’s minor characters, their ending makes them not only, suddenly, the main focus of attention, but solidifies the importance they have held throughout the show or film. Especially because Joss Whedon chooses to constantly victimise his minor characters instead of his major ones, the impact is not only unexpected but notably influences the major characters in an important decision. Both the audience and the characters who are left behind realise the impact of the past on the coming future. Despite only having a minor impact on the characters in the film, Wash’s death resonated with fans, and it is still considered one of the most shocking deaths in the Whedonverse.[6] When agent Phil Coulson, who is ever present in the Marvel Superhero universe, as is his secret organisation S.H.I.E.L.D, is stabbed by the Avengers’ villain Loki, the Avengers themselves are reminded of what he meant to them and what he stood for, but especially what that meant in the grand scheme of things. This realization helps them to finally defeat the alien invasion together as a team.The death of Coulson solidifies their bond and gives them a common goal in avenging him; Fury even notes that “[t]hey needed a push in the right direction.”[7]

Notably, Joss Whedon himself was quite dissatisfied when Coulson had literally been revived for the tv-series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. His reasons for disagreeing with the decision were mostly based on the desired effect his signature Whetality-move should have had, namely the ‘punch’ the death should have dealt the audience, which is now softened by the knowledge of Coulson’s eventual resurrection. He explains that because resurrectingor not killing a character at all can in itself become a trope that endangers “the franchise world – not just Marvel, but […] most big films – where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant.”[8] These characters then become symbolically immortal, which Whedon himself finds to be “disingenuous[;] to say we’re going to fight this great battle, but there’s not going to be any loss.”[9]Like Rousseau, Whedon believes that corruption of innocence or happiness is inevitable. He uses his trope of Whetality to indicate that indeed “all men must die” eventually, as fellow writer George R.R. Martin would say, and in particular that all men can die. Not only antagonists die, but the ‘heroes’ are not safe either. This type of memento mori through instant character death, indicates the inescapable corruption of the good-hearted and pure souls in the fictional and non-fictional world.


Death, however, is not the only trope of which Joss Whedon is fond to apply. Even though instant death is a shocking and effective way to affect the audience, Whedon’s use of a second trope of loss, Whedon-bereavement or whereavement is more complex and even more dramatically effective. This term means a certain loss of one’s ‘self’, which is most commonly indicated by, in the first degree, the loss of an ability or a character trait that defines the character’s personality or, in the second degree, the loss of an entire personality. Although not as easily discerned as whetality, this bereavement is applied quite frequently as well in the Whedonverse. Whereavement in the first degree, for example, we find in Agent Leopold Fitz, a young scientist out on his first few missions in the field, in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fitz suffers severe head-injury when he and his partner Jemma Simmons are left for dead on the bottom of the ocean in a traumatic season one finale. Although both survive, Fitz has lost his ability to express himself and with that, he has lost that which makes him him: his genius. Much like whetality, we lose Fitz to a sudden event that makes us and the characters in the show reminisce over the past and respond to the influence these seemingly minor characters hold over the future. For example, it is especially painful that his other half, Jemma Simmons, no longer seems to recognise him as her partner in science. Their duo, fondly nick-named Fitz-Simmons, ceases to exist because one half has lost its identity. At the start of season two, team member Sky even admits she feels that he sometimes isn’t Fitz anymore. Although he is still himself, his knowledge and ability were what gave him his personality, and the impact of this loss is felt throughout the show as many technical advancements can no longer be decoded.

Whereavement in the second degree is quite heavily experienced in the tv-show Angel. The loveable and innocent Fred joins Angel’s demon-slaying team and slowly learns to act more like a fighter than the original country goody-two-shoes she seems to be at first. But her true transformation takes place when she is rather violently torn from her body by an ancient god in the last season. Despite her body still being in place, her being or her ‘self’ has been completely dissolved by the new soul inhabiting her physical form. Despite not expressively dead, Fred’s body now still parades around as a constant reminder of the past for both the other characters as well as the audience.

Additionally, this second-degree of Whereavement not only applies to individuals, but can be found in groups as well. The Reavers in Firefly and the Dolls in Dollhouse are examples of a form of collective WhereavementFirefly is set in space, about five-hundred years from now. Throughout the show, the protagonists hear multiple rumours about so-called ‘Reavers’ and on their travels even encounter some of the havoc the creatures seem to have caused. When looking at the great vastness of space, the Reavers are said to have lost their minds and their aggression has taken over, and now they stampede through space to hunt, maim, rape and kill unexpected travellers for no reasonat all: (I hope you note well that Reavers are not called ‘reavers for nothing, and that they themselves ‘bereave’ in equal measure.) Essentially, they have lost their humanity. In the sequential film Serenity, we find out that their loss of humanity ironically stems from experiments to drain all aggression from them, which then backfired: they were trying to take away something that makes us human, and as a consequence it bereaved them of everything else humanity entails.

A similar adjustment of the natural order can be found in Dollhouse, which is set in an only slightly modernised version of our own reality. Here, the bereaved are the so-called Dolls, people with a fabricated “empty” mind, a tabula rasa.” [10] Their personality has been erased from their minds to be replaced by cerebral constructs that allows for other personalities and skills to be imprinted in their brains. This means that a Doll can become anyone; a perfect lover, a negotiator,“a cheerleader that shoots people! Or an assassin that does cheers!”[11] With this desired personality, he or she is hired out to rich people by the Dollhouse, a bordello dealing in mostly platonic affairs. After every episode, the imprint is removed, and the character returns to his or her doll state, seemingly oblivious to anything that has happened. Not only is the loss of identity quite literally applied here, another identity is imprinted onto the bereaved. The new identity is wiped after every assignment, which means the trope of loss is repeatedly applied in this show, every single episode. Horrifyingly whedonesque, the characters lose their identities frequently and repeatedly, even after the loss of the original one. Interestingly, the Dolls are blank slates, and do not remember anything about their original selves or any selves that were imprinted. They do not experience Whereavement, despite their being the manifestation of that exact thing.

Notably, in all of these cases, Rousseau’s theory of inevitable corruption of humanity is even more evidently present. As the trope of Whetality expresses an extreme form of ‘corruption’ of the good-hearted, the trope of Whereavement is actual mental corruption through external means. For instance, Fitz’s identity is compromised by his mental impairment which changes his position in the team, and Fred gets corrupted quite literally as she is exorcised from her own body by a foreign entity. However, the Dolls in Dollhouse are one of the best examples of Rousseau-ian corruption, as they are the prototype of what he calls the “pristine, uncorrupted state at birth.”[12] In the show, the “actives are as innocent and vulnerable as children. We call it the tabula rasa, the blank slate. Now imagine the imprint process filling it.”[13] They are corrupted through their new imprinted identities, as they are used for corrupted means. The Dollhouse that imprints them is in itself corrupt, as it advocates prostitution, modern slavery and the endangerment of basic human rights. The Reavers in Firefly and Serenity, though not necessarily pure from the start, are altered on a similar manner: society has even quite physically corrupted them, as they were turned into monsters through experimentation, all for the sake of societal peace-keeping. Whereavement is therefore a more clear execution of Rousseau’s theory, as the Self is corrupted by external forces that change the characters’very core identity.

Overall, Joss Whedon applies, be it unknowingly, the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, by using different forms of corruption of his characters by applying tropes such as the loss of life; whetality, and loss of ‘self;’ whereavement. Notably, Whedon applies these tropes of loss most commonly to the characters who are both minor characters in the story as well as the most innocent or kind-hearted ones. These characters symbolise the unspoilt state Rousseau describes to be the purest form of being, the state at birth. Their death or maiming therefore seems most unjustified, and can fuel the story of the main characters, reminding them of the past and the constant flux in life, as well as what is needed for the future.


  1. Ryan, Maureen. “Sex, Secrets and ‘Dollhouse’: Joss Whedon talks about the end of his Fox show.” Chicago Tribute.Chicago Tribute, 3 December 2009. Web. 5 September 2015.par. 23.
  2. Hinze, Scott. “Joss Whedon – ‘Fanboy Radio’ Radio show. recap.” 12 December 2006. Web. 5 September 2015. par. 12.
  3. Ryan, Maureen. “Sex, Secrets and ‘Dollhouse’: Joss Whedon talks about the end of his Fox show.” Chicago Tribute.Chicago Tribute, 3 December 2009. Web. 5 September 2015.par. 23.
  4. Reilley, Shaun. “Rousseau on the loss of Identity and the Origin of Human Corruption.” Web. 4 September 2015. p.3.
  5. Reilley, Shaun. “Rousseau on the loss of Identity and the Origin of Human Corruption.” Web. 4 September 2015. p.55.
  6. O’Brien, Emmet. “The Ten Cruellest Things Joss Whedon Has Done to His Characters.” CBR, Comic Book Resources. 21 May 2012. Web. 5 September 2015. par. 21.
  7. The Avengers; 01:33:50 – 01:34:06
  8. Schwartz. par. 32.
  9. Schwartz. par. 32.
  10. Nimbalkar, Namita. “John Locke on Personal Identity.” National library of Medicine, and National Institutes of Health.Mens Sana Monographs 9.1 (Jan-Dec 2011): 268 – 275. Web. 4 September 2015.
  11. Dollhouse 1.09; “Spy in the House of Love”
  12. Reilley, Shaun. “Rousseau on the loss of Identity and the Origin of Human Corruption.” Web. 4 September 2015. p.3.
  13. Dollhouse 1.02; “The Target”

Additional background: Franish, Darren. “How Dollhouse explains Joss Whedon and Avengers.” Weekly, 8 May 2015. Web. 5 September 2015.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Creat.Joss Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, and Jed Whedon. Perf. Clark Greg, Ming-Na Wen and Brett Dalton.ABC studies and Marvel Studios, 2013-2015.Television.

Angel. Creat.Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt.Perf. David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter and Alexis Denishof. Mutant Enemy, 1999 – 2004. Television.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer.Creat.Joss Whedon.Perf. Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan. Mutant Enemy. 1997 – 2003. Television.

Dollhouse.Creat. Joss Whedon.Perf.Eliza Dushku, Harry Lennix and Fran Kranz. 20th Century Fox, 2009 – 2010. Television.

Firefly.Creat. Joss Whedon.Perf.Gina Torres, Nathan Fillion, and Alan Tudyk. Mutant Enemy and 20th Century Fox, 2002-2003. Television.

Serenity.Creat. Joss Whedon.Perf.Gina Torres, Nathan Fillion and ChiwetelEjiofor. Universal Pictures, 2005. Film.

The Avengers. Dir.Joss Whedon.Perf. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johannson. Marvel Studios and Paramount Pictures, 2012. Film.

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