Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity

Part one in an ongoing, and probably protracted, series.

I ask this question because I am legitimately looking for an answer: is Joss Whedon’s work feminist? He calls himself a feminist, and many other people do, but others have raised some very valid critiques of the way in which Joss handles female characters, and whether or not he could really appropriately be called a feminist. I would argue that his shows have shown a lot of facets of human experience, but that the overall treatment of women is problematic at times, and it bears some exploration.

Firefly/Serenity take place in the 26th century, after humans have effectively destroyed Earth and set out across the universe in search of new homes. Using terraforming technology, they create an array of planets to settle, and ultimately a civil war develops as people struggle for control. The victor is the Alliance, a fused Federal government made from the remains of the American and Chinese governments which settles the core of the ‘verse, and the losers are the Browncoats, rebels who struggle to eke out a living on the fringes, usually through smuggling, piracy, and other unsavory means. The show follows the crew and passengers of Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship which travels the ‘verse looking for work.

The show and movie are often described as “a Western in space,” which aptly describes the style and feel. Firefly/Serenity are about rebels who are trying to find a way to live under a government they despise, and the gradual exposure of the serious problems and issues with the Alliance. While the characters are criminals, they are also heroes, triumphing against sometimes extraordinary odds and the monolithic Alliance.

In the world of Firefly, continued in Serenity, we are introduced to four main characters who are female: Zoe Washburne, Inara Serra, Kaylee Frye, and River Tam. Two other women, Saffron/Mrs. Reynolds/Bridget/Yolanda and Nandy, play minor but important roles in the series. Overall, the male/female balance is fairly even, but there is a glaring omission: in a futuristic world in which America and China have supposedly risen to equal power, there is not a single main character of Asian descent. Despite the rampant fetishistic chinoiserie which fills the sets with rich visual textures, Asians themselves are few and far between, let alone Asian women.

We see an array of personality types represented by the women of Firefly and Serenity, but there also a number of familiar and tiresome tropes. One of the most problematic issues in Firefly is the discussion surrounding Companions. Other authors have written excellent discussions about the role of prostitution in the ‘verse,  including Amy Chinn’s “”Tis a Pity She’s a Whore” (.pdf) and “starletharlot’s” essay “More Than Just a Whore: Sex Work, Firefly, and Audience Engagement.” As starletharlot points out, prostitutes in the ‘verse are divided into good (Inara) and bad (Nandy) whores: Companions, who are heavily controlled by a government agency and allowed to operate legally, and true whores, who work on the fringes of the ‘verse and lack regulation. While “Heart of Gold” would have us viewing illegal prostitutes as admirable rebels from within the framework of a show which glorifies piracy and other illegal activities, we are shown at the same time that their life is grim and dangerous because they reject the draconian regulations used to control Companions.

Inara herself seems to struggle with her life as a Companion, along with her unresolved feelings for Mal. This is presented as an either/or dichotomy, and it’s possible that we would have seen that sexual tension explored in more interesting ways and eventually resolved had the series been allowed to continue. As it is, we are left with the feeling that Inara can’t establish a relationship with Mal because she works as a Companion, which demonstrates a rather closed-minded view of how sex workers deal with relationships in the real world.

Nandy, the “bad” whore, is punished for her choices to start an independent house and enter a relationship with Mal. She may be a good businesswoman, a clever strategist, and an independent thinker, but from the moment she and Mal sleep together, viewers understand that she is doomed. Her death is a sobering warning to viewers: you can break outside the system, but only so far.

The two female crew members, Kaylee and Zoe, are presented as strong, powerful women, but they also have some serious flaws. Kaylee is shown to be generally frivolous, often not very bright, and obsessed with Simon Tam. She may be a genius with engines who is capable of showing up lesser male mechanics, but she’s also moody, sensitive, and pouty, demonstrating classic traits which are stereotypically ascribed to women. Zoe, while being a war veteran, independent thinker, and all-around bad ass, is also almost depressingly subservient to the Captain at times. While this is meant to be a reflection of their time together in military service, and the structure of military command, and she is just as apt to sass the Captain or call him “sir” with deep sarcasm, it’s still a classic division of sex roles in which the man’s in charge, and the woman follows. While Mal does make a natural leader, it would also have been nice to see examples of female Captains in the ‘verse.

“Shindig” shows us what I think is supposed to be the “feminine” side of Kaylee as she lusts after a frilly dress, and is mocked by women dressed in custom-made gowns at a party. Ultimately, she captivates male attention not with her feminine wiles, but with her knowledge of mechanics and engines, and she turns out to be a big hit. I think that the episode is supposed to show us that she struggles as a woman in a traditionally masculine field, and that she wants to be recognized as both a woman and a skilled mechanic, but instead the episode strikes a wrong note, and leaves a sour taste. After all, Kaylee does not prove herself by being a woman, she triumphs by being a mechanic, and at the same time, her character is used to quietly put down women who are obsessed with beauty, fashion, and belongings.

She longs for the ability to occasionally just be a girl, yet her character is used to show us that stereotypically feminine women should be scorned and disdained, which strikes me as a very anti-feminist attitude. Likewise, when Zoe attempts to do something classically feminine, such as cooking, she becomes the butt of jokes and amusement as viewers see that she is incapable and bumbling. In a way, she’s glorified and praised for being as ungirly as it is possible to imagine, which could be a repudiation of gender stereotypes, or a mockery of women who do choose to pursue activities which are traditionally feminine. Why can’t Zoe be a good XO and a good cook?

River Tam is also a deeply problematic character. She shares a lot of similarities with the Actives in Dollhouse, of course, which would suggest that Joss may be working through some unresolved issues of his own. She’s the idealized woman in many ways: graceful, fragile, classically Hollywood beautiful. But she’s also unpredictable and extremely dangerous, a metaphor for the violent mood swings women are supposedly subject to, and she feels almost like an object in many of the episodes, not a person.

A number of men find the character of River Tam very appealing. She’s conventionally sexy, with that hard edge of danger and violence which creates a whiff of mystique, but she’s also entirely controllable with the use of keywords which trigger unconsciousness. She’s preternatural and creepy and also somewhat childlike, and she’s a fundamentally broken person. River is the classic female character destroyed by forces beyond her control who is heavily dependent on a man to save and protect her, even though she is fully capable of doing so herself. How would we view the characters of Simon and River if their roles were reversed, and River was the capable (if somewhat spoiled) doctor, while Simon was the subject of mysterious government experiments which turned him into a fragile and emotionally unstable killing machine?

Saffron/Mrs. Reynolds/Yolanda/Bridget is also a very problematic character in many ways: the typical scheming woman who manipulates everyone around her, using them to achieve her own end goals and double crossing them once their usefulness is outlived. She is portrayed as someone who may have a form of mental illness, and in “Trash,” she is literally thrown away, with the characters suggesting that as a duplicitous woman, she met an appropriate end. Oddly enough, it’s another woman, Inara, who traps her in a trash bin and leaves her for collection by law enforcement so that she can learn a lesson and get her comeuppance for finding creative approaches to living in a masculine-dominated world.

One could look at the women of Firefly/Serenity as a wide array of characters with diverse experiences, and like many great characters in television, many of them are flawed and struggling with internal issues which viewers are not made privy to. But too many of them fall into classic stereotypes: the sidekick, the whore, the con artist. While few of the characters could be considered outright anti-feminist, overall, there are some distinctly questionable portrayals of women.

The systems within the ‘verse are also anti-female in many ways, which could be viewed as a commentary on the Alliance, and another reason for the merry band on board Serenity to buck the system. Companionship, for example, while theoretically open to men and women, is shown to viewers primarily in the form of female Companions, and it is a very oppressive system which exemplifies attitudes about whores vs courtesans, and the idea that there are “good” and “bad” prostitutes. Likewise, very few women are seen in power in the Alliance, or even in environments like the hospital. On these grounds, one could argue that life aboard ships like Serenity is very egalitarian, with women having more opportunities for advancement.

The distinction here is clear: the Alliance is oppressive, outdated, and hopelessly bureaucratic, while the Browncoats live a life which is difficult, but more free and open. This depiction is strongly reminiscent of the idealization of poverty in many books, in which poor and disenfranchised characters are glamorized and portrayed as superior to those with money and power. This attitude belies the fact that poverty and disenfranchisement can be extremely difficult, and that women are far more prone to finding themselves in such situations than men.

Like Dollhouse, the show also suffers from a seriously fetishistic view of Asian cultures which is endemic to many upper and middle class white people, in which idealized views of Asian society are promoted while Asians themselves are absent. The perpetuation of tired stereotypes about Asian cultures may not be immediately read as anti-feminist, except that the Companionship system is blatantly stolen from the complex and very controlling system used to promote and supervise geiko/geisha in Japan, and the rejection of the very female history behind this system is yet another example of the erasure of Asian women from Western dialogue. Cultural appropriation hurts women and men, but the Western world has a particular fascination with Asian women which is evoked and very pragmatically used in Firefly/Serenity.

Has Whedon created a world in which very problematic and sometimes shortsighted depictions of women can be used as a starting point to talk about feminist isssues, thereby bringing women’s issues to the attention of people who might otherwise ignore them? Or are the gaping knowledge and cultural gaps in Firefly/Serenity just another example of antifeminist norms on television? Or did Joss just genuinely not think about some of the very serious issues which might come up as people watched the series?

7 Replies to “Is Joss Whedon a Feminist? The Women of Firefly/Serenity”

  1. I may have less trouble with Whedon calling himself a feminist than you do and for a number of reasons, few of which have to do with the very real problems with the shows that you address.

    First, I am significantly older than you which, realistically, means that I consider any portrayal of a strong woman character an improvement over my childhood TV viewing. If the women are flawed, even better; we are beginning to allow them to be people. If someone wishes to be popular by being pretty and finds that she is popular through being good at something (mechanics in Firefly), then welcome to my life in medical school. While Whedon is not portraying life as it should be (and may be for women of the oughties), he is certainly portraying it as many of us have lived it.

    Are many of Whedon’s character archtypes? Of course. But I think the reason for that is that he is (unconsciously to a large extent) writing myth and myth is necessarily concerned with archtype, with how we tell ourselves stories about the world and the universe that allow us to understand ourselves. And, unfortunately, even the unflattering archtypes (scheming hussy) are archtypes because they resonate with consensual reality.

    Secondly, I welcome any man who is willing to call himself a feminist wholeheartedly. By that, I mean really trying to understand what it means to be a woman and not just calling himself a feminist for whatever it gets him. Feminism is a term that has been used perjoratively, that has been taken over by the enemy, so to speak. I am happy for any effort to reclaim that term. I believe that any man who calls himself a feminist and appears to attempt to live within that definition does have a claim to that designation. That does not mean that the man does not need on-going exposure to the realities of women’s lives and issues. It does not mean that they do not need further education. It does not mean that they should not be apprised of their errors and misunderstanding. But I am willing to consider Whedon a feminist based on the above.

  2. Feminist is a funny term. It means that you are becoming more open, more egalitarian. So it is a maturity issue, too. The best feminists, especially among writers, are able to be very clear about the issues.

    (Sadly, my husband may be more feminist than I. I still have openness issues.)

  3. I don’t necessarily have a problem with him calling himself a feminist, I should make clear. I’m just exploring the idea of whether or not he is one, and how his portrayals of female characters play into that, because it’s a question that’s coming up a lot right now.

    As the series unfolds, I’ll get into much more of this, but basically, I do think it’s important to recognize that Joss is doing very important things in television, including exploring feminist issues, and his treatment of female characters is far superior to that you find in a lot of shows. (See my constant rants about the women of Lost, for example, who are one dimensional and totally ludicrous, in contrast with Whedon’s very dynamic, interesting, complex, and engaging characters.)

    I also think that there is no one right way to be a feminist, and I’m not a big fan of taking people’s self-claimed titles away. And that anyone in any activist movement can always stand to be more educated, whether we’re talking about a feminist, a disabled rights activist, or anything else. This is especially important when someone is involved in a movement to achieve rights for a group they are not a member of.

    Should straights be fighting for gay rights? Hell yeah, and I welcome anyone who says that he or she is an advocate for gay rights regardless of sexual orientation, just like I love male feminists and abled disability rights activists. But I think that when you put yourself out there on a very public platform as a feminist, which Joss does, you need to be prepared for criticism and exploration of the creative work you’re putting out.

    I also want to make a distinction between flawed characters and flawed portrayals of women. Writing flawed characters doesn’t mean that you’re not a feminist. Buffy is deeply flawed, and she’s a feminist icon, for Pete’s sake! Portraying women in ways which are deeply flawed and problematic, however, is troubling, and that’s what I am trying to explore in this series.

    Sheesh, this comment practically turned into a whole new post.

  4. Just one objection: Saffron et al. wasn’t just “finding creative approaches to living in a masculine-dominated world”, she was deceiving and often killing people. If it was a man doing the same thing, would he be viewed in any better light?

  5. Well, men who do that are often treated as laudable heroes in narratives which involve rebels trying to eke out a living on the frontier, so, yeah, he would be viewed in much the same light. Mal, after all, was willing to kill when/if he needed to.

  6. “When/if he needed to” being the key. Her setup involved killing from the very beginning — any crew on the ship would be destroyed in the energy net thing as their ship was pulled apart. From the series we see that Mal and most of his crew are not averse to killing in self-defense and so forth; Mal considers this to be a right, in fact, as I’m sure Zoe and Jayne do as well.

    Speaking of Jayne — there’s a male counterexample, perhaps? At least in regards to the killing part. His unscrupulousness and mercenary attitude are always treated as definitely bad things; it’s his shame and desire to be better that save him from being shoved out of an airlock. (Hm, I think Mal’s save-a-ho attitude doesn’t just extend to women.)

  7. That’s an interesting point, about Saffron’s willingness to cheerfully condemn the crew to death, but I still think that my argument that Saffron was trying to make her way in a man’s world stands. There are a lot of different ways to try and pull yourself to equality, and I’m not necessarily totally supportive of the route that Saffron chose, but I can see why she did it. She wanted to prove that she was ruthless and every bit as willing to kill as the men, because she would have been at a disadvantage if she hadn’t, at least in the group she was working with. And yes, at the heart of it she was a con woman who treated human life as something without value, but I also think that our read of her depends on how the story is framed. I can definitely think of male characters like Saffron who are indeed treated as heroes, because we’re only seeing the story from their perspective.

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