“Safe” is an interesting one. Ostensibly about different kinds of families (which I’ll get into more next time) I was always struck by the antagonist of the piece: the “hill-folk” or “hill people” of Jiangyin, a cultural group who live isolated lives in the rural, difficult to reach portions of the planet, and who have a tendency to snatch useful people up and force them to live in their ramshackle hamlet.
It’s not hard to see through the allusions being made here. Lots of places around the world have their variations of “hill people”, but these seemed like a very specific call-out to the hill people of America’s Appalachian region, from where society derives the derogatory term “hillbillies”.
A “hillbilly” is generally defined as an uneducated isolated member of this cultural sub-set, who live in small communities in hilly and wooded areas, away from larger towns, technology and amenities, the stereotype often extending to ignorance, deformity, illiteracy and inbreeding. It was while re-watching “Safe” that I got to thinking about a TV show like this, and any responsibility it had to its depiction of hill people. The hill people in “Safe” are not positively represented after all: they’re criminals, religious fundamentalists, murderers, backward living people who seem to be a sort of leech on the slightly more advanced culture leaving nearby.
But wait, I hear you say. Firefly is set 500 years in the future, and nobody drops the “hillbilly” slur at any point. Yes, but we must be honest with ourselves, and acknowledge the very likely inspiration for the Jiangyin hill people.
I must admit my own ignorance here, and my assumption, the first time I watched this episode nearly ten years ago, that the hill people were based off a culture that vanished centuries ago. It was not until I started watching Justified, a drama set in modern day Eastern Kentucky, that I was disabused of this simplistic notion, as “hill people” play a recurring role in that series, often as antagonists, but in a more developed sense than in Firefly (coincidently, Justified and “Safe” have a strong connection, through actress Erica Tazel: the nurse in “Safe” who is the first to condemn River as a witch, she was a series regular as US Marshal Rachel Brooks in Justified).
Seeing them pop up in Justified, and remembering “Safe”, prompted me to read up on them and see what there was to see. And what there was, was predictably downbeat. Looked down upon by wider society and shunned for generations, the Appalachian hill people, the unfortunate originators of the “hillbilly” slur, are a functioning culture that is dying out, their customs and traditions fading away as their numbers get smaller and smaller, through land reclamation, the intrusions of modern technology, and a simple desire of many newer members to leave their origins behind, if they have the chance to. Much like the Traveller population of Ireland, what is left of Appalachia’s hill-folk are outsiders in wider American society, whose presence is frequently ill-received and who find themselves the subject of rather bigoted urban legends.
I don’t think there has been a minority grouping in history who has not, at some point or another, been the victim of claims that they are out to subvert the established order like some kind of fifth column, often with accusations that they are guilty of kidnapping people into their society, usually children. Often, such claims are an evolution of more fantastical mythologies, like the idea of fairy creatures that live in the hills – call them leprechauns, selkies or goblins as you like – that snatch children away in the night. I recall reading a HP Lovecraft story recently, “The Whisperer in Darkness”, that attempted to craft such a tale, to “explain” disappearances at the hands of monsters from the hills.
Just fiction, but fiction can help stain real people. Relatively recently in my own country, members of an itinerant group went through a clumsy and ultimately fraudulent police investigation because of such claims. This is the kind of thing that hill people subsets have to put up with, tying back into the commonly held pictures of “hillbillies”. It’s been going on for a long time. But when you actually look into the hard facts, the idea of “hill people”, like those in Appalachia, kidnapping members of society like doctors, or children, to serve their own purposes, has zero basis, even in history.
Which brings us back to “Safe”, which is negative as it can really get. Do Joss Whedon, his screenwriters and his directors, have a responsibility that they are shirking in such a depiction? After all, we condemn the likes of The Next Generation’s “Angel One” or “Code of Honour” (though, in a more related sense to “Safe”, often ignored is horrible stuff like “Up The Long Ladder”). Why should “Safe” get a pass? It depicts a stereotype that has little basis in fact, historical or otherwise, and arguably reinforces a stereotype that is harmful to a cultural subset still active in the world today.
“Safe” doesn’t go the whole distance. The hill people of this episode aren’t absolute yokels, there is no suggestion of inbreeding, their society functions. But they also operate outside the law, seem overly-violent as a people, there are no positive characters and they quickly resort to archaic practices as a matter of course. Re-watching “Safe” now, with the greater knowledge I now have of the people it depicts and how their lives and fortunes pan out in reality, leaves me with a certain uncomfortableness.
Could it have been done better, more appropriately, while retaining the narrative structure? Perhaps. Maybe they never intend to keep them there, they just really need a doctor and didn’t know if Simon would come willingly. Maybe just the leadership of the town try to kill Simon and River without resort to “witch-burning” rhetoric, but because the things River knows are too damaging to an individual character, and not the societies beliefs as a whole. Maybe when Mal, Zoe and Jayne have their famed “big damn heroes” moment, it can be with a hint of sadness for the society they are disrupting, out of necessity, not marked difference. Maybe it’s because the hill person dynamic was introduced so late in the episode, past the half-way point really, that no time could be taken to fully flesh it out (an attempt is made, with the seemingly benign nature of the Doralee character, but she turns out to be as monstrous as the rest).
Cest la vie. What’s done is done, and “Safe” is beyond revisiting for the people that made it. But my appreciation of it has fallen a bit. I have faith enough to know that Whedon and co were not actively trying to demonise an existing community in America, and other communities around the globe, but intentions only go so far.