This is a guest post by Silver Longjohns.
The one time I have dressed up for the opening of a movie was for Serenity in 2005. I went with a dozen costumed friends. I was Christina Hendricks’ ambiguously-named character. My favorite was my “two by two” friends in white lab coats who had swiped blue latex gloves from chem lab and thumb-wrestled for our cameras. We also had Kaylee with a parasol; two Inara’s in various finery, and someone had even knitted the Jayne hat. The one black guy in our group of majority white friends is a devout Christian and went as Shepherd Book. Our Zoe was a white lady and wore that signature disconcerting string of leather as a necklace.
Full disclosure: I was embarrassed to be out in public dressed up and I would never have done it alone. However, the time was right – as a stalwart Joss Whedon fan, I was delighted he’d done a movie, and the feeling of belonging in that group of fellow fans was very powerful for me. Even as I fretted about how our costumes set us apart from other folks in the theater I relished the opportunity to publicly fly a shared nerdiness flag.
So I’ve had a longstanding loyalty to Joss Whedon’s work, and I’ve been glad to see him gain more recognition. But my latent feminist tendencies have developed quite a bit over time and there’s a lot I wish Joss would do differently. In a fit of Netflix-enabled nostalgia I did re-watch Firefly recently, and because there’s been so much discussion recently about Joss Whedon and feminism, I’m sending out here some of my current reactions to Firefly. They’re somewhat popcorn style, focused on the lady characters, gender, sexuality, and romantic relationships. I should also acknowledge that it is particularly egregious that Firefly takes place in a future where everyone speaks Mandarin Chinese but not a single actor appears to be of Asian descent. Joss’ characters generally are not very ethnically diverse; it is a problem, y’all. Others have written on that before, though, so I won’t unpack it here. (Also, I only took two years of Mandarin but in Firefly their Chinese is terrible.)
Firefly disappointingly barely passes the Bechdel test, but I’m relieved that in the limited conversation among Kaylee, Zoe and Inara, they are unequivocally supportive of each other (River I’ll get to later). The sex positivity allowed to their characters is also simply delightful (Zoe and Wash get all sweaty and adorable together! Kaylee hooks up with a guy in the machine room because engines turn her on!) However, I wish Kaylee and Inara presented better models of communication about romantic needs.
When I first watched Firefly in 2005, my gentleman friend at the time enthusiastically adored Kaylee, which clouded my ability to tell what I thought then. I do like that there is a female and feminine mechanic-savant in the show (although: no formal training? bare-hand repairs? no experience with spaceships? Plot holes!) But she keeps turning to strong-man-character Mal for comfort when things go south, and it’s disappointing that her insecurities about her looks and sexual desirability recur as plot points. It implies that Firefly didn’t have the guts to fully empower her. Competent mechanical abilities aside, she’s squarely in the “you don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful” realm. Le sigh.
Kaylee frustratingly keeps after Simon. He’s going through a tough time – he lost his job, left his world, and can’t make progress in helping his sick and volatile sister. He doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of brain space for Kaylee. However, it seems like she really just wants to bang, which might be a good self-care escape for Simon if only the writers would let them. But their poor communication keeps getting in the way: she drops hints at him and he makes classist gaffes and no one gets anywhere. Grr. Argh.
Mal and Inara’s banter is no better. As a highly trained sex worker, I want Inara to demonstrate emotional sensitivity and acumen. Disappointingly, she won’t face her feelings about Mal and be honest with him. Then, to the extent Mal is ever honest with himself about his feelings it is not when he is with Inara.
I really appreciate that Firefly tried to show Inara’s sex work as respectable, but since the main characters don’t generally exhibit that respect, in rings a little sour to me. I also wasn’t thrilled that Inara congenially shames Mal for wearing a dress during a heist; again, as a sex-positive companion, I want her to not shame people for their gender expression. If it were my story, a futuristic sex work academy graduate would be accepting of the whole gender spectrum.
The one purportedly healthy romantic relationship in the show, Zoe and Wash, we barely get to explore. They’re unusual for television. She’s a strong and quiet fighter; he’s talkative, nerdy, and anxious. Seeing their backstory – why they got together, what they see in each other, how they make it work – could have been some new and interesting material. Of all the stories left untold by Firefly‘s truncation, this is the one that I’m most curious about. A (possibly apocryphal) quote from Whedon is that “happy people make for boring television.” Either way, he frequently snatches happiness away from his characters, and fans mourn. While Joss’ methods are extreme (for spoiler purposes I won’t list all the characters he’s axed) the reluctance to show happy and healthy couples on television feels widespread, and is unfortunate.
I want to make a pitch here that, for every rom-com that has two people bantering as they spiral inexorably towards each other, we also get to see a fleshed out couple who stick together through good communication and mutual respect. I get emotionally invested in fictional characters, I think it would be good for my soul and for society at large to have more models of what taking care of each other in a romantic relationships looks like. I mean the full package, with honesty, respect, trust, flexibility, compassion, selflessness, forgiveness. Unfortunately, with Firefly cut short, and Zoe and Wash’s tantalizing backstory unexplored, their relationship at times seems contrived.
A few more reactions – River’s bad-assery is a lot of fun, and one of my favorite parts of the show is Simon’s devotion to her (d’aww siblings). When I watched Firefly originally, I held out hope that she would work through her trauma and grow to be a healthy badass. Now, though, I’m glad they don’t diminish mental illness by sugarcoating her struggles and magic-ing them away.
Finally, Saffron. Having chosen to dress up as her eight years ago mainly because Inara was taken, I was surprised by how much I relate to Saffron now. She doesn’t advertise her full abilities, she avoids vulnerability, and she’s comfortable working alone. (I’m new here, so some reassurances: I draw the line at narcotic lipstick, hijacking spaceships, and betraying trust. I’m also working on the vulnerability thing.) But Saffron’s “mastery in the art of seduction” doesn’t sit well with me. It perpetuates the stereotype that in heterosexual encounters men must guard themselves against women’s seductive wiles. Healthy seduction requires consent, not manipulation, I say.
I’ll leave it there for now. Until the next installment of the Feminist Peanut Gallery!