Warning: Spoilers ahead, potentially offensive language, and mention of sexual violence.
Let me be upfront about this: I think the space western Firefly might be the greatest television show to ever be axed before its time, and its sequel Serenity is a damn fine movie. Yes, I’m willing to die for these beliefs, though that ain’t exactly Plan A.
However, as much as I love Firefly, I’m often left with a not-so-shiny and unsettling disquiet in regards to the roles of women in the ‘verse and the roles available to women in Firefly.
When a bounty hunter sneaks onto the ship, he beats Mal senseless, and threatens to shoot Simon. But what does he do when he encounters Kaylee? He ties her up, and says that if she screams for help or alerts the others, he will rape her.
The threat of rape is pervasive in this show, and often comes up in relation to the Reavers, insane cannibal pirates who roam the edges of known space. As if it’s not enough of a threat that the Reavers will kill and eat those that they capture, it’s stated repeatedly that they also rape their victims. There was a disturbing proposed episode that wasn’t made, in which Inara is captured by Reavers, but I’m going to refrain from critiquing what we know of episodes that never got made. Instead, I’m sticking to what we have.
Interestingly, the criticism I’m about to make is (mostly) unapparent by just looking at the crew of Serenity itself. Zoey is the second-in-command, a gun-toting veteran and decision-making badass, who isn’t emotionally removed or cold, and her marriage with pilot, dinosaur play expert, and “leaf,” Wash, is a playful dynamic of equals. Zoe is an African American woman in a position of power, who gained that position through skill, and because she is truly the best person for the job.
Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic. She’s sweet and clever and capable, and she manages to have the ‘verse’s most adorable crush on the fugitive Dr. Simon Tam without it diminishing her character at all. Kaylee is great. If I had to be any character on the show, I’d be Kaylee.
I do sometimes have a problem with the treatment of River Tam. She plays into the damaged little doll trope—more of an object to be looked after than a character. She is literally disguised as an object in cargo in the show’s pilot episode, where Simon describes her as “more than gifted, she was a gift.”
However, even in her case, River is slowly developed as her mental state improves and as it becomes clear that she is actually displaying psychic powers. Still, River never gets to be quite as fully fleshed a person as she should be, and she is far more often a catalyst for the plot than a character.
Now we get to Inara, and I’m not going to make the criticism you think I am. In truth, her role as a Companion feels more akin to a paid spiritual advisor than a sex-worker. Inara is strong and respected, she picks her clients, and her occupation is honorable as opposed to degrading—in fact, more so than anyone else on the ship. But apart from her character, Inara is the motivation for the lead-in to my criticism.
Firefly lasted only fourteen glorious episodes, and in every single gorram one, somebody gets called a whore. When Mal calls Inara a whore, or some random guest character calls any given female character a whore, it is always playful, but never apologetic.
This might be easier to swallow if it was a conflict set between only Mal and Inara, but it’s not. All the female characters the crew meet tend to be well-rounded, fantastically three-dimensional characters, more so than in almost any other show I’ve seen. However, nearly all of them also happen to be prostitutes.
Please don’t misunderstand my criticism. These are all characters acting with their own agency and by their own choice. They have often found their way to good status, and none have pimps or are controlled by a male figure. But that so many of these characters are prostitutes stands out.
In the episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Mal accidently gets married to a girl named Saffron. The episode spends its first half promoting the notion that a woman isn’t something to be owned or bartered or possessed by men. It’s actually a fairly on-the-nose feminist message. But there is something strange about its delivery, as it’s a man explaining feminism to a woman.
There is also a great scene halfway through, where Shepherd Book informs Mal, “If you take sexual advantage of that girl, you will be sent to the special level of hell, the one reserved for child molesters and folks who talk at the theatre.”
It’s a hilarious scene, especially Mal’s affronted reaction, but it also serves as a reminder to the audience that sleeping with someone under any term of false pretense is wrong. Now this shouldn’t be shocking, but please remember that we live in a world of TV where sleeping with a woman under false pretenses is often played as a source for comedy.
So later when it turns out Saffron is a former Companion like Inara, it’s a little jarring. Yes, she was trying to trick everyone and steal Serenity, but it is indicative of a larger problem.
Other than Zoey and River, every female character in Firefly gets ahead by using their “feminine wiles.” Even in a scene of backstory, we learn Kaylee got the job as ships mechanic because she was sleeping with the original mechanic, and then fixed the ship when he couldn’t. While this doesn’t diminish or demean her, why is it that Kaylee gaining her position had to do with sex?
It’s strange when the crew goes in to defend a whorehouse on a Western planet from rabid misogynists. There’s no problem with the women themselves, the rabid misogynist men are clearly the villains, but this continued subtext that women can only forward their independence through their sexuality is problematic.
Now, the common defence of this is that Firefly is an American Western set in space. There is a great twisted Civil War metaphor, where Mal and the Browncoat independents actually represent the Confederate South. The show’s creator Joss Whedon has even admitted this to The New York Times. So the thing is, it is clear that the show’s creators could pick and choose what elements of Westerns they wanted to keep.
But the problems with gender remain. It is worth noting that all of the derogative language or negative actions against women in the show are almost always answered with enormous cosmic justice, whether the offending characters are shot, stabbed, kicked into an engine, or thrown into space. It is made clear: misogyny is not welcome.
The one real exception to this terminal punishment is Jayne. But it’s interesting that when Jayne says something piggish, everyone gets mad at him for it. He is representative of traditional masculinity, and nobody puts up with it. Actual gender on the crew of the ship is no boundary at all. Everyone is treated equally, and everyone is equally capable.
But what does all this mean? Did Firefly have a more concrete plan or message it would have developed later? If we’d been given more time, would we have started to see female guest characters with more diverse careers?
I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws or if this is a real problem. I’m not sure if this argument is heading anywhere either or if I took it far enough. And if I did, would it just devolve into vague hand gestures and a shrug? It’s confusing for me to argue this while also arguing that Firefly has one of the most dynamic casts of fully developed female characters I’ve ever seen in a TV show. It’s so confusing it’s almost dizzying, and I’m not quite sure how to reconcile these things. There really is only one certain conclusion I can draw from all this:
Jayne is a girl’s name.
I think the only solution is for me to go binge watch Firefly and then Serenity again on Netflix, and no power in the ‘verse can stop me.
-Contributed by Ben Ghan