Is it really possible to separate the art from the artist?
No, this isn’t another piece about Woody Allen and a 20-year-old case of alleged sexual abuse. It’s about a question that rarely arises given the lack of quality art that’s traditionally come from a certain end of the political spectrum. That question: What do you do when someone who’s done work you happen to love is, in his every day life, a reactionary paleoconservative asshole? This normally isn’t an issue since I’m already not inclined to give much of a crap about country music, ventriloquism, or Chuck Norris movies, and most other conservative actors and artists are like actors and artists of other political persuasions — namely, they keep their views largely to themselves and don’t rant about them or antagonize their various cultural boogeymen on social media. But I’m faced with this problem now, and I’m betting that a lot of other Whedonites just like me are as well.
See, I’m a Browncoat — in other words, a Firefly fan. As almost anyone who counts him or herself among the Firefly faithful will tell you, loving Joss Whedon’s tragically short-lived sci-fi western series isn’t something that’s done half-assed; it’s an obsession that becomes one of the defining characteristics of your personality. True Firefly fans bleed brown. They know the exact date of Unification Day — September 20th — and insist on spending it getting drunk in a shitty (Alliance) bar. They know that the single best threat you can make against someone is, “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.” They are a leaf on the wind. A true Firefly fan loves the show so much he names his own daughter Inara. I am, in every way, a true Firefly fan.
It’s because of this that I’ve found myself faced with a serious dilemma over the past couple of years, a dilemma that reached a point of critical mass just this week. Whether you’re familiar with Firefly or not, if you follow political outrage you probably know that actor Adam Baldwin recently drew a really ridiculous comparison between the economic realities of same-sex marriage and a hypothetical in which a man engaged in what many would consider incest by marrying his son. He did this on Twitter, which is of course the primary platform for shooting mental Krokodil into the cultural bloodstream these days, and when he was challenged on it by LGBT activist Tim Peacock and comic book writer Kurtis Wiebe, he looped in Justified‘s Nick Searcy and together they ganged up on both of them, calling Peacock a “fat ass” and Wiebe “tubby” and “butthurt.” Baldwin insists he was never specifically alluding to incest in his initial tweets, merely marriage for financial gain, but let’s face it: Any staunch public stand against marriage equality — particularly hostile ones — should be considered painfully retrograde by now and worthy of ridicule.
And that’s where the problem lies. See, Adam Baldwin plays the lunkheaded but secretly soft-hearted Jayne Cobb on Firefly, the resident hired gun onboard Captain Malcolm Reynolds’s ship. Throughout the series, you’re meant to dislike him on occasion and certainly to distrust him, but it hardly matters — he’s still one of the crew of Serenity and by that metric alone you love the guy. Admittedly, the characters on Firefly are so beloved by Browncoats that it’s actually hard to see the actors playing them: Nathan Fillion is awesome but on Firefly he isn’t Nathan Fillion, he’s Mal; Gina Torres is Zoë; Alan Tudyk is Wash, and so on. So with that in mind it’s easier to separate Baldwin from his character than it would be if that character weren’t so iconic to fans of the show. But it’s still difficult to wrap your head around the fact that an actor who brought so much to his character, and who played such a major role in an ensemble so brimming with humor and humanity, is in reality a bullying homophobe.
I’ve always found it difficult to separate the art from the artist but I suppose it’s the kind of thing you’re more inclined to do when you really like the art. It’s the sort of rationalizing we all do to convince ourselves we’re decent people. I think I’d be wary of supporting a new project that Adam Baldwin was the primary focus of, but his role in Firefly is balanced out by eight other people. Another mitigating factor is that the show ran more than a decade ago, long before Twitter allowed Baldwin a forum to be an asshole publicly whenever the mood strikes him; maybe there’s an unspoken statute of limitations I can convince myself of that lets Firefly fans off the hook when it comes to his troglodytic rants. The internal debate would certainly be more difficult were Joss Whedon ever to try to resurrect the show or make a sequel to 2005’s Serenity, but since I haven’t attended one of the Comic-Con panels that feature most of the cast, I’ve never been face-to-face with the fact that Baldwin remains an integral part of the culture even now.
That’s a real question, though, and I know it’s one that some fans have been putting out there over the past few days: Should Whedon, who’s very liberal, distance himself from Adam Baldwin and work to diminish his role in future Firefly events? Put simply: no. I’ve written over and over again about the unfairness of trying to destroy someone’s life or take away their livelihood just because they say something in their capacity as a civilian that pisses people off. (To be fair, that’s what Tim Peacock was doing when he drew the Twitter wrath of Adam Baldwin: he was firing off a tweet to TNT asking if the network knew the kinds of things Baldwin believed, the implication being that it should reconsider airing his new show, The Last Ship.) If someone chooses not to watch a show or see a movie that Baldwin is a part of, that’s his or her personal decision, but I’d never try to enforce my political and cultural beliefs on someone through strong-arm tactics.
Personally, I wish Adam Baldwin thought differently than he does, mostly because I’m such a fan of the character that he immortalized for Firefly fans that it’s tough to reconcile reality with adoration. But his beliefs are his own and I can’t force him to change them any more than he can force me to change mine. All I can do is mentally and emotionally disassociate the Jayne I love from the antagonistic right-wing shithead who plays him. I have to, yes, separate the art from the artist.
I do wish, though, that when it came to spouting anti-gay rhetoric, somebody would play the role of Captain Mal in his life and tell him the obvious: “Your mouth is talking. You might wanna look to that.”