This is a slightly edited version of an essay I originally posted in 2009. My sister ptolemaeus and I had already watched the complete series, though we had not and still have not seen the movie Serenity.
I have a love/hate relationship with Firefly. In some places it’s good, in some it’s really good. In some places it’s bad, and in some it’s really, really godawful.
If the preceding two sentences weren’t sufficient warning, die-hard fans of the show should take note that the following analysis contains some pretty harsh criticism of Firefly. If you’re one of those fans who can’t stand other people voicing their dislike for certain aspects of the series, you might want to reconsider reading this essay. People who have not finished the series and don’t like having the plot given away are advised to do likewise. In short: criticism and spoiler warning (including one or two movie spoilers). Additionally: Trigger warning for discussion of rape and misogyny.
Right then, now that’s out of the way, we begin with a breakdown of the main cast, for, as I will soon demonstrate, the characterization in Firefly is integral to the bad and the good of the show.
Mal – Captain Malcolm Reynolds. Firefly fans the world over will swear bloody vengeance on me for saying this, but it has to be said: Mal is an unrepentant, insufferable, murderous asshole. He’s an authoritarian dictator who demands respect from others at all times while returning it only as he sees fit, frequently violating their personal space (in one case, over the other’s repeated objections), insulting them, and generally making it clear in no uncertain terms who’s boss around his ship. Anyone who violates his dictatorial authority can expect swift justice—and by “justice,” I mean they get punched out, thrown in the airlock, and threatened with decompression (we can argue about whether or not he really would’ve flushed Jayne, but it’s a largely moot point). And this is how he treats his friends. He threatens other people, too, and takes obvious delight in inflicting mental (telling Simon “Kaylee’s dead” before he joins the crew, when he’d previously threatened to space both Simon and River if Kaylee didn’t pull through) and physical (repeatedly “poking” Atherton Wing with a sword) pain in others. Oh, and he kicks helpless prisoners into engine intakes given half an excuse, and with no little amusement.
I think the original idea with Mal was to make him heroic but “edgy”: a bit of an asshole, but at heart a decent human being (he was apparently based off of Han Solo, after all). However, two problems arose in the execution phase. First of all, the writers took the concept “edgy” and pushed it way, way too far. Kicking helpless prisoners—even if they did just threaten you—into engine intakes isn’t “morally questionable”; it’s downright sadistic, as are many of Mal’s other actions (though to a lesser degree).
And secondly, the story implicitly supports Mal’s sadism. It lightly censures his blatant disrespect for Inara and other minor manifestations of jackassery, but the tone of the show is clearly “oh Mal, you scamp, tut-tut young master, that’s not the proper way to behave.” And when it comes to the really big stuff, like tormenting Simon and Wing, or knocking out Jayne and threatening him with the airlock, or shooting the Alliance agent in the pilot, or murdering the Russian mook in “The Train Job,” the expected mood is clearly “hey, Mal just did something incredibly cool/funny/both” not “hey, Mal just did something incredibly awful.” It’s obvious that in all of Mal’s vilest actions, the writers are 100% on his side.
Sure, Mal has a conscience, and he has his standards—he’s not a total villain. He’s supposed to be a complex character, and I suppose he is, but I can’t get past the fact that he routinely does things which are clearly villainous and which the writers just as clearly want the viewer to regard as noble (and often hysterical) simply because it’s Mal doing them.
He also has the misfortune of fulfilling the role of blunt instrument with which Whedon occasionally beats some “feminist” message over his viewers’ heads.
This tactic not only has all the grace and subtlety of a poorly lobbed half-brick, but it makes no sense from a characterization perspective. I should think even viewers who don’t see Mal’s actions as morally unconscionable can agree that Mal is not an idealist. Ever since the Battle of Serenity Valley, he hasn’t cared about grand ideals or overarching systems any more. He does everything at the personal level—the political dimension of his character his something which he constantly represses.
He has his principles (some of which, as I pointed out, are extremely messed-up) by they are purely his own code of conduct, with no connection to some greater moral framework.
So it’s all the more incongruous when he gets up on his high horse to spout Anvilicious speeches about female empowerment and women’s rights—all of which come down to either a) “you will be empowered because I say so, got that?” or b) “she’s a woman and you will respect her because it’s important to respect women, got that? Nobody gets away with disrespecting women on my watch … except me.”
Malcolm Reynolds, everybody, greatest gorram sci-fi hero of all time.
(After publishing this essay, I learned of the infamous “women are ruining science fiction with their decadent feminist agenda” article from a few years ago. I actually read the article itself on the reactionary misogynist blog where it was first published—and was completely unsurprised to find that the site’s regulars, while expressing a low regard for Whedon in general, praised Mal as an example of manliness in sci-fi.)
Zoe Alleyne Washburne. In discussing Zoe’s character, ptolemaeus once described her as basically a stereotypical male character, pretty much devoid of feminine—or even androgynous—traits. Others have since questioned this reading of Zoe’s character, though, and perhaps it’s unfair. Unfortunately, it’s been a couple years since I’ve watched the show now, so I can’t really give Zoe’s character the reassessment she deserves.
I can point out, though, that at least some people have seen her as cleaving a bit too closely to the Black Warrior Woman archetype. She certainly makes a nice black female sidekick to Mal’s white male *a-hem* “hero.”
She also occasionally shoots fleeing enemies in the back which is … a good thing?
Wash – Hoban Washburne. Wash is the Serenity‘s pilot, Zoe’s husband, and would normally be the comedy relief, too. On Joss Whedon’s shows (except Dollhouse) pretty much everyone is the comic relief, though, so Wash is more the lighthearted relief, always there to brighten the mood when things start to get too depressing (ironic considering his eventual fate).
Wash is this goofy guy who also happens to be an exceptional pilot. His marriage to Zoe is sweet but not flawlessly so. Fortunately, the series didn’t last long enough for the writers to break up their relationship, then put it back together, then break it up and put it back again ad nauseam.
Inara Serra. From what I’ve heard, back when Joss Whedon was outlining the original concept of Firefly, his wife thought it would be a great idea to include a “Hooker With a Heart of Gold” character, and thus Inara was born. She’s also supposed to be an “empowered” sex worker. Sex work is, of course, a highly controversial topic, including among feminists. Personally, I’ve grown over the years more and more towards the standpoint of being in solidarity with women (and men, and intersex adults) who choose to go into sex work. Heck, I can believe that for at least some of them, going into the business can be empowering by taking ownership of their sexuality or the like. But I have to wonder if the glamorized “Companionship” of the Firefly ‘Verse really has anything meaningful to say about sex work or sexuality or empowerment (or, for that matter, work) in the real world.
I also have a hard time regarding her as “empowered” through her sex work when Whedon makes sure every third client of Inara’s treats her like crap so that someone (usually Mal) can lay the smackdown on misogyny. (The implicit sex work stigma in said clients’ mistreatment of Inara also sits uncomfortably with the glorification of the institution of Companionship which Whedon insists on.)
And then, of course, there’s the fact that her “love interest” Mal also routinely treats her like crap—even worse than he treats his other friends and acquaintances. Their relationship is borderline abusive, and it would undoubtedly grow more so if it ever developed into a romance.
Apparently, an episode which was planned but mercifully never produced due to the series’ cancellation would have featured a group of Reavers gang-raping Inara, and would have been about how this affected Mal’s relationship with her. Blecch.
In short, Inara is hardly a great feminist role model.
Other than that, I’m ambivalent about her character; ptolemaeus found her annoyingly melodramatic, and I think I was beginning to pick up some of that the last time I watched the show.
Jayne Cobb. Jayne is something like what you’d get if you took a character like Malcolm Reynolds and wrote him honestly. Like Mal, Jayne is an utter bastard; unlike Mal, the writers point out his bastardry and make a fun spectacle of it, instead of trying to make out that it’s somehow noble, or at least no big deal. Which is probably why Jayne, as a character, kicks ass, whereas Mal sucks same.
Kaylee – Kaywinnit (according to Wikipedia, I’m not making that up) Lee Frye. Kaylee is the Serenity‘s mechanic and all-around fixit-woman, with a pleasant, spunky, almost happy-go-lucky disposition. She’s also—and I can’t help but find this significant—the only member of the Serenity‘s crew who’s an absolute coward when it comes to physical violence.
Kaylee is a very, very adorable and very, very fragile young woman. Naturally, this makes her the ideal target for every second villain the crew encounters.
In the introduction to the Women in Refrigerators website, creator Gail Simone specifically does not offer an explanation for why female characters in comics (and other media) tend to be subject to a disproportionate amount of abuse. This is a phenomenon I’d independently noticed, and formed my own conclusions on before learning about the site.
Part of it is probably that in our misogynist culture there are few things scarier than a truly empowered woman. We have this subconscious gynophobic need to depict powerful women a evil, or to subject them to some horrible trauma (often sexual) to reassert their subordinate position, or both.
But in many cases, the woman in question is not particularly empowered to begin with. Often she is particularly fragile in relation to the other characters (Lady Magadaria from the third season of the Rurouni Kenshin anime is one such character who has always stuck in my mind). In such cases, I think, a slightly different logic is at work.
In misogynist Western culture, the empowered female is perverse and unnatural. But then, we may ask, what is “natural?” Why, of course, the fragile female.
The patriarchal assumption is men = strong; women = weak. This makes women more pitiful, and so when a woman is hurt or killed, it’s considered more tragic than when the same happens to a man. (By the same logic which states that harm to a baby or child is more tragic than harm to an adult.) This is a theme explored in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and—as many of the female characters in that series point out, though not in so many words—it’s a deeply sexist one*.
*I don’t mean to make out that Wheel of Time is a particularly feminist series, but I have found this specific theme helpful in reaching a better understanding of feminist issues.
This narrative that women are more helpless and pitiful than men (and therefore that harm to them is more tragic than harm to men) continues the myth of women as Other, and also as lacking in power and agency. But it’s also strongly ingrained in Western culture. Personally, I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that female suffering, real or fictional, tends to hit me harder than male suffering, and when I hear about a male (real or fictional) suffering or dying, I’ll be somewhat relieved that at least they weren’t female.
In constantly making Kaylee the villains’ target-of-choice, Joss Whedon is playing to a strongly and deeply held cultural narrative which states that a fragile young woman in danger and/or in pain is especially tragic.
Questionable feminist credentials aside, this is a cheap-shot. When writers can’t be bothered to work at getting their viewers’ sympathy, they just throw in something which viewers are culturally encoded to sympathize with, such as a young child or a fragile young woman, and then put them into danger and/or pain. It works, but it’s a cheap trick and doesn’t say anything positive about said writer’s talent.
Don’t get me wrong, Kaylee is probably my second-favorite character on the show. She’s sweet and funny and upbeat and intelligent and a very nice person. I just wish Whedon and co. didn’t make such a point of making Kaylee the weakest, most vulnerable member of the crew.
In fourteen episodes, I can list at least one (generally more than one) incredible thing (I would say awesome, but that implies a moral judgment) each of the other eight characters did, off the top of my head. The most incredible thing Kaylee ever did occurred in a flashback, and even that wasn’t too impressive when compared with her shipmates’ accomplishments.
The budding romance between Kaylee and Simon is sweet and touching. It would’ve been even sweeter if the writers didn’t have Kaylee flip her shit every time he makes a thoughtlessly rude comment—which happens with surprising frequency. He’ll say something thoughtless and insensitive and instead of taking the moral high ground about it (or just acting more mature than a ten-year-old), Kaylee flares up and chews him out as if he’d just spat in her face. He ends up an insensitive and perpetually clueless dunce (seriously, how can this guy not noticed she’s attracted to him without sustaining some kind of cranial injury?), and she like just a jerk. Even if Simon can’t recognize he’s being insensitive, she must have enough space-savvy to realize he doesn’t mean anything nasty by all those unfortunate comments, and yet she takes them as such because … um … um …
Seriously, can someone for the love of Earth-that-was tell me what the point of this scene is, and why the writers feel obligated to repeat it a dozen times in as many episodes? It isn’t funny, or clever, isn’t particularly in-character, isn’t by any stretch of the imagination necessary, so why do they keep doing it?
I’ve come up with two possibilities, and I don’t put any particular faith in either of them.
Possibility #1: they wanted sexual tension between the characters, and this was the only way they could think of to keep “tension” from blooming into full-blown romance. (We all know, of course, that any romance between main characters which springs up in the first few episodes and wasn’t intended to fail will inevitably drag the series into a creative and fiscal black hole.)
Possibility #2: it’s a lazy device the writers employ whenever they’re stuck for a way to move the plot forward. (The one thing these scenes inarguably accomplish is to put the participants in the right place physically and emotionally for the next plot point to turn up.) In other words, the plot of an episode—one vital thread of it, at least—often depends on Simon being insensitive and Kaylee being a jerk to him about it. In the technical (and slightly ableist) terminology of the industry, this is known as an “Idiot Plot.”
Shepherd Derrial Book. Book is basically the Magical Negro, a wise and mysterious older black man who (according to one of the DVD extras) often acts as the crew’s conscience, especially Mal’s. (A priest as conscience; gentle people, I give you one of the most innovative television shows of the 21st century!) He must’ve been off the clock in the pilot though, because, as he tells Inara: “I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. And I’m not even sure if I think he was wrong.”
Book is a pretty fun character—even if he is something of a racial stereotype—and it’s a shame he didn’t get more development before the series ended.
Simon Tam. Simon is the resident medic, an upper-class doctor who sacrificed his career and his lifestyle to save his sister. He’s one of the most caring people aboard the Serenity—although like the rest of the ship’s crew, he’s prone to spectacular lapses in judgment at times.
When I first saw the pilot in college, I didn’t know exactly who comprised the main cast, and I was convinced Simon was going to get himself killed in the climactic scene. When I later watched it again with ptolemaeus, she anxiously asked me if Simon was going to die. He’s the type of character writers kill off.
I think this is partially because he doesn’t have an obvious point. Oh, there’s his medical skills obviously, but character-wise and situation-wise he doesn’t seem to fit. He’s not abrasive and mean or violent and funny or kind and melodramatic or wise and mysterious or mysterious, female, and special. He doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes we’ve been set up to expect, and he doesn’t have an obvious niche in the plot line beyond introducing River. In Hollywood parlance, a character in that situation would be classified as coffin-bait. Fortunately for Simon and for the show, Whedon is occasionally capable of seeing the blindingly obvious when most writers would look right through it.
So Simon survives, and joins up with the crew. And he is awesome. Granted, you’d have to have some sort of certifiable mental condition not to figure out that you’re insulting Kaylee every other episode, but unlike Kaylee, Simon has more to do in the show than play out a 6th grader’s idea of a romance and act as damsel in distress.
After Simon survived the pilot, I expected him to fade into the background so the writers could focus on River, the more “special” (and thus less interesting) of the two. I’m still convinced that had the series continued for another six-and-a-half seasons as Whedon apparently intended, this is exactly what would have happened somewhere down the line. You can just tell River was Whedon’s and everybody else’s Golden Girl, and would eventually become a bigger focus than anyone except maybe Mal.
However, since Whedon and the rest of the creative staff wanted to drag out the River-as-Mentally-Damaged-Woman plotline—a problematic choice, but understandable given the amount of buildup they give her condition—they didn’t get around to shoving Simon out of the spotlight in favor of River before the show was canceled.
Which is kind of a good thing, because it means Simon got to be awesome all through the show. He’s clueless at times and can be a bit of a jerk, but he’s also sweet and funny and intelligent and has this fish-out-of-water complex which is quite cute.
And he’s got two more things going for him. First in that he’s heroic, but not in the way the other characters are (supposed to be). One of the greatest moments of the show is in episode 11 “Trash.” In that scene, Simon is treating jackass Jayne for injuries, and in the process reveals that he knows Jayne tried to turn Simon and River over to the Alliance authorities in a previous episode, “Ariel.” This is what he says:
No matter what you do, or say or plot, no matter how you come down on us … I will never, ever harm you. You’re on this table, you’re safe. ‘Cause I’m your medic, and however little we may like or trust each other, we’re on the same crew. Got the same troubles, same enemies, and more than enough of both. Now, we could circle each other and growl, sleep with one eye open, but that thought wearies me. I don’t care what you’ve done, I don’t know what you’re planning on doing, but I’m trusting you. I think you should do the same. ‘Cause I don’t see this working any other way.
Now wasn’t that cool? And a marked difference from Mal’s knock-Jayne-out-throw-him-in-the-airlock-and-threaten-to-space-him strategy. Of course, after he leaves, River has to spoil the moment by saying “Also … I can kill you with my brain.” And we’re back to using threats and violence to solve all our problems. This setting up a really good and original situation and then subverting it to make it dreary and unoriginal is a Firefly staple, by the way. In this case, the writers don’t manage to ruin the perfectly good situation they’ve set up quite as thoroughly as other times, because even if they do leave it on a threat, we can assume Simon was being sincere.
None of which is to say that Simon doesn’t also resort to violence on occasion. Probably his next two greatest moments are tackling Dobson in “Serenity” and tackling bounty hunter Jubal Early in the final episode “Objects in Space.”
What makes him all the more heroic in these scenes is that there’s no way he’d ever be able to win. It’s easy for Mal or Zoe or Jayne to jump into a fight; that’s practically the entirety of their job description. Mal in particular is safe, because he’s the main character. But Simon isn’t the main character, isn’t a good fighter, and in fact hasn’t got a snowball’s chance against any half-way decent adversary—which only makes him the more awesome charging into a hopeless battle anyway.
River Tam. In Firefly, River starts out as a straightforward damsel-in-distress, like Kaylee, only without all the characterization that makes Kaylee so likable. By the end of the show, she’s cycling between damsel-and-distress and girl-on-a-pedestal, with, unfortunately, no stopping for some actual character development in between.
… And that’s River. When she’s not crazy, damaged, and helpless, she’s an omnicompetent Mary-Sue, both of which are caricatures, not character.
So much for the cast. As you see, by going through an analysis of the main characters, we’ve identified many of the important themes in Firefly. There are still a couple, though, that I either have not addressed yet, or about which I have more to say. Kindly bear with me a little longer.
I admit the first thing which turned me off Mal wasn’t really the fault of the character. In the climactic scene of the pilot, the villainous Alliance agent Dobson has River held at gunpoint. He’s in the middle of going through the standard villain threat “Any sudden moves and I’ll-” when Mal casually walks into the hold and pulls a Dick Cheney on him.
The idea is, of course, to fake out the viewer: set up a standard situation and then subvert expectations by doing something different with it. It’s a move the Firefly team often like to pull. Unfortunately, in cases such as this one, it also has the tendency to backfire horribly.
In order for the sequence to work, Mal not only has to shoot Dobson, but the whole mood of the shot has to be casual, offhand. It has to look like they’re building up to something big and then whoops, no, all over, situation back under control.
The problem is that this makes shooting Dobson, well, casual and offhand. Admittedly, he was an asshole (they even threw in a scene of him beating on an unconscious Book, just so the audience would be more comfortable with Mal shooting him), and given the situation and the show’s implicit assumptions about the efficacy of violence, Mal’s actions were probably justified. But the casual nature of the scene sends the message that shooting Dobson isn’t just necessary, at best, it’s kinda funny; at worst, it’s no big deal. And that’s a very disturbing message.
(I suppose I should point out that although Dobson appears to be dead, and is left for such by the crew, in the series canon he isn’t actually killed off until much later. I don’t see that this detracts from my point, though.)
Sometimes the series does get a fake-out right. The episode “War Stories” had the highly dubious moral that Wash isn’t cool enough as is, and the only way for him to “make it” is to become as violent as Mal. Nevertheless, “War Stories” provided two good subversions all in one episode. In the climactic scene, Mal is duking it out with mob boss Niska’s head minion when Zoe, Wash, and Jayne arrive on the scene. When her companions are about to jump in to help their captain, Zoe tells them to stop, and invokes verbatim the old “He has do to this himself” line. To which Mal immediately responds “No he doesn’t!” So Zoe, Jayne and Wash go ahead and shoot the other guy.
The second one is even better, which is why I left it to second, even though it takes place first chronologically. It’s when Zoe picks Wash to be freed over Mal before Niska can even finish his “which of them will you choose?” speech.
In “War Stories,” it works. In “Serenity” it fails because what Mal does is horrible. Also earlier in the pilot, when he tells Simon that Kaylee’s dead. It’s a good joke on the audience—but on Simon the character, it’s downright cruel.
The all-time flop, though, would have to be the climax to “The Train Job.” Yes, it sets up Niska’s chief minion as a recurring enemy, only to remove him as a threat a moment later, but only by having the main character murder him. And as we all know, abuse and murder of helpless prisoners is the epitome of comedy.
A related Firefly staple—this one making even less sense—is to employ an inverse of this switcheroo: set up a fresh and original situation, and then subvert it and go ahead with the cliché resolution after all.
This effect is most notable in episode 13, “Heart of Gold,” in which the Serenity‘s crew comes to the aid of a brothel under attack from a cartoonishly misogynistic rancher. During the defense of the establishment, Mal hooks up with the madam, Nandi, an old friend and colleague of Inara’s. The next morning, Inara catches Mal exiting Nandi’s room, having obviously had a pleasurable night.
Whedon and his Merry Gender Neutrals are still playing coy about whether Mal knows Inara has the hots for him, but Inara clearly thinks he doesn’t, and wants to keep it that way because … something—whatever the reason, it isn’t because he treats her like [insert appropriate Chinese obscenity here].
So of course, she plays it casual, putting on a convincing performance of indifference, “It’s none of my business who you sleep with.” For a moment, they actually had me convinced. Then we cut to Inara in her own room, sobbing her eyes out.
Yes, even Space Hookers in the Future adhere to all the mainstream 21st century attitudes and foibles regarding sex and relationships. Apparently, Whedon’s aphorism that “nothing will change in the future” applies to dominant cultural mores as well as politics.
One of the great potentials of speculative fiction (one which is already woefully under-explored) is to imagine wildly different cultures from our own. Unfortunately, most of the “alien” or “futuristic” cultures in mainstream Western speculative fiction are not only less alien than most non-Western cultures, they’re less alien than most non-mainstream Western subcultures. A few Chinese curses and window-dressing not withstanding, the human culture of Firefly definitely fits this category.
This was a golden opportunity to depict something unfamiliar, something interesting, something imaginative. And something totally understandable, given the character in question’s cultural background is one of having sex with many people who are not the person she loves (i.e. Ethical Slut). But then they had to go and shoot themselves in the foot by revealing, surprise! Inara is just an overgrown and lovesick 21st century teenage girl in a futuristic setting.
Gentlebeings of all genders, I give you the greatest science fiction television series of all time.
Oh yeah, and then there’s the feminism angle or, as I like to call it, the “attempted feminism.” As we’ve already seen from our character portraits, none of the main characters in Firefly is exactly Grade A feminist material. That leaves us with Malcolm Reynolds and his ravings about how “you will be empowered or else” which never seem quite to jive with his own sexist mistreatment-bordering-on-harassment of Inara.
Whedon rounds out the feminism angle by confronting his main characters with a small army of the most laughable straw misogynists this reviewer has ever encountered. Imagine Snidely Whiplash turned flesh-and-blood and with a particular emphasis on the whole tying-women-(and women specifically)-to-the-train-tracks thing. Now imagine all that played in utter seriousness.
Atherton Wing and the rancher in “Heart of Gold” are two of the most hilariously over-the-top villains ever conceived. I’ll never understand why Whedon and his team didn’t just go the whole hog and give them ridiculously long mustaches to twirl—or at least goatees.
But not to worry; Wing gets the shit beaten out of him by Mal for treating Inara with approximately the same amount of regard for her humanity as Mal himself shows her. (According to Mal, he disrespects Inara’s job, while Wing disrespects her. In a characteristically insightful article, Dan Hemmens of ferretbrain points out exactly why this argument is utter bollocks.)
And the rancher in “Heart of Gold”? He gets righteously shot in the head by one of the brothel’s employees when he’s tied up and helpless. No, Mal is not the only person in Firefly guilty of this. The only difference I can detect is that kicking the minion into the engine was played for comedy, whereas shooting the Straw-Misogynist-of-the-Week was played for satisfaction. Since he had previously killed Nandi—have I mentioned that this show, for all its purported “innovation” contains its own share of clichés? Well, it does—since he’d killed such a sympathetic character, murdering him when he’s defenseless is considered just comeuppance. To test the validity of this idea, how do you think the writers and viewers would feel if the friends or family of one of Mal’s many victims—such as the prisoner he kicked into the engine—were to tie him up and kill him? Or any of the rest of the Serenity‘s crew, for that matter?
… Sorry, got a bit sidetracked, there. With Firefly there’s so many rants involved they tend to bleed over onto each other. Where was I again? Oh yes, strong female characters who fit at most two out of the three descriptives, random rants about female empowerment by the highly sexist protagonist, and to top it off, ludicrously characterized misogynist villains who get the stuffing beat out of them by one of the female characters or a suitable Nice Guy. This, in Whedon’s ‘Verse (and sadly, many of his viewers’) counts as cutting edge feminism.
And it only gets worse in Dollhouse (review forthcoming).
I’m not saying there aren’t people out there like the bottomless supply of Misogynists-of-the-Week Whedon has somehow tapped into. There are, although in real life their characterization is more well-rounded; there’s a lot more to their personalities than just hating women and beating up anything that gets in their way.
But more importantly, such people are a) extremely rare and b) only a symptom of a larger disease. Whether you want to call that disease patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, or something else, we’re talking about a system which runs through all manifestations of our culture, from politics to religion to family life to work to art/entertainment to language and everything else—a system which perpetuates the domination of females as a group by males as a group.
It’s a disease whose numerous symptoms have been documented on hundreds if not thousands of books, documentaries, and feminist blogs. And these everyday manifestations of sexism aren’t restricted to Cardboard Misogynists a la Wing. We all, to a certain extent, have internalized and act from this cultural narrative, this meta-myth. To a certain extent, we can’t help it. I recall reading of a study where two groups of people were shown a person holding a machine up to a young baby—a machine which promptly gave off a loud noise. The testers asked the participants to interpret the baby’s reaction. The group which had been told the baby was female thought “she” was scared; the group which had been told the baby was male concluded “he” was angry.
The lesson to draw from this is that in a sexist society, everyone is sexist to some degree, and everyone is complicit in perpetuating sexism. We all make assumptions based on sex that we can only sometimes recognize consciously, and we all act upon those subconscious assumptions.
Most Western males and many Western females don’t see it that way, though. They think of sexism as something confined to individuals, and not something deeply embedded into the cultural systems which make up out society.
White anti-racist Tim Wise has said of the 2005 movie Crash: “By presenting racism as an individual malady, rather than a social issue of great import, Crash allows white viewers to default to our preexisting understanding of the issue, rather than having to deal with the way in which every structure of American society continues to treat people of color as inferiors, be it in housing, employment, education, or criminal justice” (and the list goes on, and on, and on …)
Anyway, my point is that by presenting sexism as more-or-less the sole domain of a bottomless supply of Straw Misogynists, Whedon likewise diverts his audience’s attention from the systemic violence of patriarchy. While decrying misogyny is a step above going “Oppression? What oppression?” the Whedon Formula is hardly a shining example of feminist discourse, and in many ways—by shifting the responsibility for sexism off the mainstream population and onto those evil, evil misogynists—is even counter-productive.
Notice that I’m not accusing Whedon of being a misogynist himself, or of raping his wife, or anything melodramatic like that. No, I’m making the infinitely more blasphemous accusation that Joss Whedon is a human being, and therefore capable of making mistakes, of not saying what he intends to say, or even of having a flawed understanding of some of these issues.
I have less to say about the depiction of race on the show, beyond what I already have. However, if the backstory is really that the dominant culture of humanity is a mix of American and Chinese, why are seven out of the nine main characters white, along with 90%+ of the people with whom they interact? (And the other two main characters black?)
Multiple people have also pointed out that if Firefly is a Western, that would mean the murderous, people-eating Reavers are American Indian-analogues, and the war between the independence-minded outer worlds and the imperialist Alliance is analogous to the American civil war between the Southern slaveholding states and the Northern non-slaveholding states. Couple Unfortunate Implications there.
Bottom line: Firefly is a fairly good show, but it doesn’t live up to the hype in terms of feminism or basic storytelling, and its views on morality are often disturbing, as exemplified by its murderous, sadistic, despotic, all-around jackass of a main character. As I once remarked to ptolemaeus, I’d give a lot for a science fiction series with Joss Whedon’s talent, but with Gene Roddenberry’s heart.
That is all.