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Study Questions: Joss Whedon's "Serenity"

Serenity Study Guide (PDF)

I: The Serenity of Serenity
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

These lines begin the famous "Serenity Prayer" used notably by 12 Step programs helping individuals with recovery from addiction. To what degree does Joss Whedon's Serenity work as parable for the "Serenity Prayer"?

II: Defining "Conspiracy Theory"

Much of the plot of Serenity depends on the idea of conspiracy theory: a hypothesis that others are conspiring against the public in some purposeful way. In your opinion, is conspiracy theorizing an inherently conservative (reactionary) act? Or is conspiratorial thinking revolutionary and rebellious? When can you tell that conspiracists are "left wing" or "right wing"? How do you know that a conspiracy theory is motivated anarchism, heresy, sedition, or fundamentalism, rebellion? What's the difference between "reactionary" and "revolutionary" and how do these concepts relate to your favorite conspiracy theory? If you follow any one conspiracy theory, where do you fall in that continuum between a "left wing" and "right wing" conspiracy theorist?

III: Group Activities
Task 1: The Appeals of Serenity

Gather into groups of three. Discuss and collaborate on the following tasks.

  • acceptance of other
  • defining "good"
  • independence and free will
  • faith versus belief
  • media: "the news" versus "the truth"
  • the motive of anger (madness) versus the motive of love
  • the morality of torture
  • the role of government

By the end of the film, the character constellation of Serenity is changed: people have died, vacancies have been left, losses are in-felt. Some find renewed purpose and fill vacant positions. (River, for example, succeeds Wash as the ship's new pilot.) Using one of the themes in the list above (all of which are already found in Joss Whedon's film), construct a new character to join the Serenity crew. Develop the character as though others will be discussing it and using it to interpret the film's position or argument. Your one stipulation, however, is that your character be clearly motivated by one of the three rhetorical appeals: logos, ethos, or pathos. (And appeal will be assigned to your group; see "info | Logic & Reason" for more info.) Be prepared to present this character to the class.

Task 2: Whedon & Koerth-Baker
Using the text of Maggie Koerth-Baker's article and your notes from your viewing of the film, discuss the following.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, in "Why Rational People Buy into Conspiracy Theories," cites Viren Swami's findings (published in The Psychologist) that a conspiracy theory isn't a response to one single event, but, rather, springs from a person's overarching world-view: "believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular."  Belief is a dominant theme in Serenity.  Using quotes from the film, discuss several characters whose attitudes contribute to their willingness (or lack of it) to believe in the story's conspiracies. 


Viren Swami's research has identified a "correlation between conspiracy theorizing and strong support of democratic principles."  What do Swami and Koerth-Baker mean by "democratic principles"?  Do you agree with Swami and the author? What evidence, if any, can you single out from the film Serenity to illustrate your reply?

Task 3:  Your Précis
Remain in your groups, take out your Assignment 4 précis, and answer the following questions.  Record notes from your discussion, to use for the research and development of your essay. 

"Psychologists aren't sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa."  What does this statement mean, and how can it be applied to your own discussion of conspiratorial thinking, in the topic you've chosen for Assignment 4.


Confirmation bias is "the tendency to pay more attention to evidence that supports what you already believe."  Discuss the extent to which this explains the phenomenon of conspiratorial thinking among your selected topics for Assignment 4.


Brainstorm with the other members of your group about several outside topics (topics other than specific conspiracy theories, or about conspiratorial thinking) that relate to your Assignment 4 topic, and how you might go about finding research.



Last Updated: 05/16/2016


Karl J. Sherlock
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