Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Screed of Anti-Firefly Feminist Criticism

(See also the video version)

The second part of Natasha Simons’ article “Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon” focuses on Firefly, the space-western he developed along with Tim Minear, which depicts a civilization in the future based off of the American past but is supposed to be a whole new culture based around America and China conquering everyone before merging into a single entity.

She starts off by talking about the things she likes about the show with regard to Zoe, moving into what she doesn’t like about the character.

Which is why the episode “War Stories” is such a travesty. Placing Zoe firmly back in the category of “woman” rather than “warrior,”

What? She can’t be both?

“War Stories” forces Zoe to choose between her captain and her husband.

That’s an interesting way to summarize “War Stories”. While technically accurate, it misrepresents the episode because of what it chooses to focus on. It’s like that humorous list of misleading movie summaries that describes Back to the Future as “A bewildered teenage boy fends off his mother's disturbing and unnatural attraction to him.” Technically true, but it misses the ever-important context, like Mal and Wash being captured by a psychopath who forces Zoe to choose which of them to take back to the ship while he tortures the other.

Captain Mal and Wash have a thoroughly embarrassing fight over which of them Zoe will listen to most, making a mockery of the intense trust she places in both of them.

Hmm. The author must have just been listening to the dialog while exercising or something, or else she would have noticed that both of them are being tortured at the time. Mal plays on his subordinate’s insecurities to keep him angry so he doesn’t break. He doesn’t really mean any of it.

Though the fight is portrayed as childish,

…And completely irrational, just to provoke feelings of anger to keep from breaking…

it nevertheless elucidates a thread that shoots through the show at several points that wonders quietly and insidiously how Zoe can be a soldier before she can be a woman.


The conclusion to this thread comes in the film Serenity, where Wash is killed and Zoe permits herself not the slightest time to mourn, going into full battle mode – nor do we get any reaction, verbal or non-verbal, from her for the rest of the film.

No. I mean, just no. That proves that either she’s deliberately lying or just read some summary of the movie without actually watching it. To perform an analysis of a show, whether through a feminist lens or otherwise, necessitates actually watching the show.

Immediately after Wash dies—I mean right after he exhales a groan—Zoe starts begging him to get up, sounding like she’ll burst into tears. Mal has to drag her away from his corpse to keep the Reavers from killing her too. After that point, the crew of Serenity needs to get in the TV complex to broadcast the signal to inform the public about the travesties their government is trying to cover up. They’re being threatened by both said government and the savage Reavers, the latter being right there and obviously deadly. As Zoe loved Wash so much, she has two options: sob hysterically and be a burden, or reign in her feelings for as long as she can and get the job done. She takes the realistic soldier option that just happens to also be the feminist one too. She still doesn’t just get over it, and at one point starts killing Reavers just for revenge and in doing so endangers the rest of them, just like you’d expect from a human being coping with extreme emotional strain.

Once the danger’s over, they have a funeral for the three casualties of their adventure. Zoe comes out in this beautiful white dress—white being the traditional Chinese funeral color—and it’s clear to me that she’s mourning more than any of them. At the very end, Mal and Zoe have a conversation about the ship that is really their way of discussing Zoe’s state of mind without getting too touchy-feely about it.

Mal: Will she hold?
Zoe: She’s tore a-plenty but she’ll fly true.
Mal: (…) Could be bumpy.
Zoe: Always is.

I am autistic. I have difficulty reading the subtleties of human expression, and even I got what they’re talking about. So, yeah, Zoe reacts fully to the death of her husband as is expected of any normal human being.

And on that note, what’s up with the author being inconsistent in her expectations of female warriors. She talks about Buffy’s visible sadness when men betray her as evidence Joss thinks poorly of women, and then says that Zoe’s supposed lack of sadness when people hurt her husband is evidence Joss thinks poorly of women. Seems like Joss is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.

This places her decision to rescue Wash instead of Mal from torture in “War Stories” firmly in the strategy department of choices, creating a much harder and walled-off character than we’ve been prone to envision Zoe prior to this event

Well, I always read it as strategic—Mal as a soldier can handle the torture better than Wash, so it makes sense to rescue Wash—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t loving. Zoe knows Mal can handle it, so she’s free to save her husband.

which also falls in line more easily in Whedon’s usual depiction of women of color: oblique, tough, and voiceless in the face of deep change.

I think his problem with depicting women of color is that they tend to just be bit characters there to stand for an idea to affect the white or male characters. Kendra stands for the flawed conservative Watcher’s Council, the First Slayer stands for the demonic killing instinct inside Buffy, and Gunn’s sister and Robin’s mother are just women in refrigerators to motivate their male relatives into becoming warriors against the vampire menace. Zoe is way more developed than all of them because she is a main character, and given that the author’s premises are flawed, I disagree that Zoe’s at all “voiceless”.

At this point, the author links to another article of hers: “The Top Ten Geek Girls from Television” to talk about Kaylee, so I’ll address that article’s Firefly criticism too.

Her nigh obsession with the ship Serenity and its mechanical health would border on the crazy side if she weren’t just so damn adorable.

Kaylee has a childish way of viewing the ship, but that anthropomorphism is shared by Mal, Inara, and Jayne. It’s part of the show’s charm that some of the characters view their ship as though it were another character. Mal can be seen giving the ship comforting pats and tells Wash to “ask Serenity” to do things instead of just to control the instrument, Inara says the ship’s name like it’s the name of a person, and Jayne responds to an automated alarm with “don’t say that”. This meme of treating a ship like a woman may stem from the English language deriving from German, which genders its nouns, and the ship noun is one of the few English nouns considered female. I’d be interested to know if this meme shows up in Eastern cultures at all—at least before American movies started influencing art. Farscape takes that kind of real world anthropomorphism to the extreme of literally making the ship alive, but Firefly plays with the idea in an existentialist way to symbolically represent the family-like bonds shared by the crew.

And the adorable factor is what places her further down on the list: sometimes, Kaylee has a little of the “girl in a boys’ club” syndrome.

While Zoe fully embraces the masculine culture of her crewmates, Kaylee is a blend of traditional femininity and masculinity that is unusual and brings a more feminist aspect to the character than the comparable Whedonverse character Xander, also the emotional heart of his respective group and possessing masculine practical skills. While the extent of Xander’s femininity is his empathy, Kaylee is more overtly feminine with her decorating and love of that frilly dress. More than any other character, Kaylee represents a positive transgression of gender roles without kicking the traditional role to the wayside entirely.

She sometimes feels like a man's version of what the best girl possible might be – hot, into sex, and able to fix a car. It's a testament to the show Whedon didn't put her in tiny, grease-marred cut-offs.

I don’t think Kaylee is supposed to be hot. I think the actress, Jewel Staite, is really hot, but so is Simon actor Sean Maher. Is Simon supposed to be hot? I don’t think so. I think they just cast hot people in Hollywood and the characters are supposed to be average. I know Inara, Yo-Saff-Bridge, and the prostitutes of the Heart of Gold are supposed to be hot so for their in-universe jobs, and I think that those are the only ones that are supposed to be especially attractive in-universe. I think Kaylee and Simon are supposed to just be cute but average.

Isn’t it a good thing that she’s into sex? Wasn’t the big complaint about Buffy that all female characters into sex are shamed for it or evil? I mean, Anya’s into sex and nothing bad happens to her for that reason specifically, but I’ve seen people annoyed that she’s also pretty weird. Now here’s the well-adjusted Kaylee into sex and she’s automatically a male fantasy and to be dismissed for it? Joss didn’t put her in skimpy outfits, and that right there is evidence that she’s not supposed to be a sex object.

Kaylee doesn’t present herself in a very sexual way, the camera doesn’t objectify her with its framing, and her skin is almost never saturated in post-production (as might be done to draw attention to her body). The only time characters are objectified with the saturation is when there is actual sex going on, and then it’s both parties (don’t tell me Simon’s not being shown off in the Simon/Kaylee sex scene). She’s just an appealing character that likes sex. Compare her to whatserface from the Transformers movies, always in a sexy pose, framed sexily, vibrant as can be, and doesn’t have much of a character beyond being the sexy love interest.

Anyway, back to the first article.

Nevertheless, neither she nor Zoe are the biggest problems I have with Firefly.
Can you guess? Why, it’s Inara. In Whedon’s future reality, prostitution is a woman’s highest form of good.

Whedon’s future reality is not a future utopia. It is, in fact, a different culture with new ideas thrown in about how different people are to be valued in order to make us consider the possibilities through identifying with the universalities of human existence, as is typical of world-building science-fiction. He actually depicts prostitution in a complex way, with there being a clear class divide between the Companion Guild and the independent businesses. Also, trivia: it was Joss’ wife, Kai Cole’s idea to make Inara a respected courtesan instead of a prostitute degraded by the Firefly culture. Given that Joss put it all together, though, I’ll accept such criticism directed at him.

There’s no shortage of mentions in Firefly’s 14 episodes of how noble and prestigious Inara’s profession is. It’s a card the scavengers often play to get out of scrapes, in fact. In Serenity, the companions’ home is a glowing and sanctified temple. So, then: the most celebrated job a woman can have in the ‘verse is one that caters (almost) exclusively to pleasing a man in the most sumptuous and zealous way possible.

I see it as a commentary on class, of which there is a lot in Firefly. In our society, we view servants as lesser than managers. People who perform services are looked down upon as people degraded by their work. We see plumbers as gross, greasy, lower-class men, but might think of the owner of a plumbing business as a respectable person because he doesn’t get his hands dirty. Firefly turns this kind of meme on its head by having prostitutes, the lowest servants possible in our society, be highly respected in theirs specifically for their devotion to service. Joss himself has said that he believes prostitution to not be inherently problematic, just the way in which it currently exists, and I have to agree with him.

And note that Serenity shows a male Companion, so it’s not just women who aspire to sexually please men and women in the ‘verse.

I say almost, of course, in acknowledgement of Inara’s female client – a storyline that is presented wholly for male consumption. Take Jayne’s reaction – “I’ll be in my bunk” – and you get the winking point of Inara’s Sapphic diversion.

Jayne is a gross brute. While he’s sometimes appreciated as a noble guy who loves his mother, for most of his presence, he’s representative of the worse sides of humanity. The episode “Jaynestown” plays with the character by having him start to want to be good when he’s hero-worshiped by a bunch of villagers due to a misunderstanding, and the reason that works is because the character is built up as thoroughly immoral.

When Jayne perves over Inara, he doesn’t act as an attractive figure with whom the male viewers can identify like Tony Stark in Iron Man. He’s just the gross man who Inara finds repellent. The viewers are more likely to identify with Mal, who reacts with stunned embarrassment, or with Kaylee, who finds the whole thing romantic. Book seems like he might be homophobic, but he maintains politeness and doesn’t make it his business, which is a good message to the homophobes in the audience.

Once in Inara’s shuttle, she and the Councilor are saturated to emphasize their beauty but not especially more so than Inara and her male clients. The scene is mostly there to explore Inara’s bisexuality, her somewhat deceptive professional nature, and the way Companions are viewed by Ezra politicians.

No matter how it's dressed up in expensive clothes, no matter the nod to companions choosing their customers, what the positioning of this profession as noble suggests is that women's highest role in the new order – and any new order –  is that of concubine.

But it’s not the same as a concubine. Though based on it, the Companion profession is something new and different. It may not be perfect, and Inara does express some displeasure with the Guild. It’s been shown to be pretentious, and if the show was able to continue, it may well have been made into an antagonistic force like the Watcher’s Council. But the role of Companion or whore in this universe is different from in our universe, so you run into the same kind of issues as cultural imperialism when you try to dismiss it based on our universe—especially considering how it’s based on roles from two non-American cultures from Earth: Italian courtesans and Japanese geisha, the latter of which often receiving extreme distaste from the Christian-influenced American culture. With the Alliance, Joss offers a cultural blend. An Alliance Companion is not an American prostitute, and applying Christian American distaste to the role is an error depicted in the show through the right-leaning libertarian cowboy character Mal.

As Joss has said, “The fact of the matter is the idea of a Companion is not the same as the idea of a prostitute, and I think it’s very reactionary and a very Mal point of view to just assume that is.”

What the hell is with that “any new order” business? Some people write about the future to describe their own utopian ideas, but there is no indication Joss Whedon or Tim Minear feel that way about the Firefly ‘verse. It’s just a new idea for how human culture could work, similar to the polyandry in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the values of hard labor in The Sky So Big and Black, and the voluntary surveillance society in The Neanderthal Parallax. It’s an exploration of different cultural ideas and how they could work practically in a realistic society.

It's also worth it to note that the entity determining this apparent dignity is the Alliance, the new government. In the show, the Alliance is portrayed mostly as a bumbling authority; in the film, as an evil and pointed menace. Either way, the Alliance's control and regulation of women is problematic. If we don't sympathize with the Alliance, then we don't sympathize with their regulation of prostitution – but the show makes it clear in its depiction of Inara and the other companions that they are to be regarded highly.

The Alliance is not an evil government. As the Operative indicates in Serenity, it isn’t some evil empire a la Star Wars. Star Wars is much more morally black-and-white than Firefly. Star Wars is pro-American drivel about the hard-working religious young man and the cowboy defeating the British Empire as represented by Nazis. Firefly, though somewhat inspired by Star Wars, is a deconstruction of the Western genre and favors moral shades of grey.

Mal and Zoe are essentially Confederate soldiers with all of the spirit of fighting for freedom, which makes them interesting characters, but not necessarily people we’re supposed to agree with all the time. Mal seems anti-government all around rather than in favor of reform. Joss has said that he would hate to have dinner with Mal because they’d get into a big argument.

The Alliance is like the Union in terms of the civil war parallels. It’s bad to the Independents, but it’s great to mostly everyone else. It was specifically designed as a deconstruction of the Federation of Star Trek, bringing to light its fascist qualities and using its wealth to illustrate class differences. The Dortmunder is a lot like the Enterprise from TNG, with a lot of high-quality technology used make a floating city as much as a military craft, but with none of the heart of the lower-class Serenity. I see the Alliance as similar to our modern American government with some corruption and intimidating military but also doing a great job bringing peace and prosperity overall. The movie didn’t portray it as evil so much as it showed how damaging an unchecked bureaucracy and military could be. After all, they had the best of intentions when they violated the rights of the Miranda people. I could see America doing that kind of thing without actually being evil.

Natasha Simons has it as a binary choice. If Alliance = good, therefore Companion Guild = good, and if Alliance = evil, therefore Companion Guild = evil, but it’s not so straightforward. Unlike in Star Wars, where the Jedi are presented as absolutely good and the Sith absolutely evil and therefore we can criticize the Jedi keeping slaves, the cultures seen in Firefly are much more realistically complex. The Alliance does a lot of good as well as bad as we would expect from a democratic nation with a parliamentary system. Even if it were evil, that doesn’t mean nothing good can occur under its rule. It’s like criticizing Guantanamo Bay, saying that it’s proof that America is evil, and then using it to justify a ban on interracial marriage because the evil nation allows it. You know, it doesn’t make sense.

In fact, the only time Inara’s profession is degraded is when a man – Mal – wants a more lasting claim put to her, his own, and asserts his arbitrary requirements and ownership over her. Think about it: every time Mal has a problem with Inara, he brings up their monetary arrangement for her leased shuttle – that’s Mal reasserting his dominance over her. Which is presented as romance.

Mal is a jerk. Remember Joss not wanting to have dinner with him? He’s more entertaining to watch than a perfect role model. Just because he’s the main character doesn’t mean his personality is to be respected.

So, because Mal is a jerk from a particularly conservative planet, he degrades Inara’s profession. He’s ignorant and reactionary, and he sees being a Companion as the same as being a prostitute, and so degrades her profession by calling her a whore. He does make a distinction between disrespecting her job and disrespecting her, seeing it fit to defend her honor to a dehumanizing client, but even then he’s cast as jerk-like in his disrespectful comments.

As for Mal “reasserting his dominance”, he’s just being a butt. He thinks as the captain he can go anywhere he wants on his ship, including in Inara’s shuttle. She reminds him it’s hers; he says it’s his ship; she says she has the right to the shuttle; he often ignores her. We know she’s in the right and that he’s just being obnoxious. And that kind of conflict is fun to watch in the same sort of way as Castle and Beckett bickering on Castle. It’s a playful back-and-forth, and romance can occur with these characters, but the conflict is not romantic in and of itself.

This concludes the Firefly section. The next part is on Dollhouse, and even though I think I’ve already covered its issues in my “Dollhouse Is Feminist” series, I’ll make a response to keep the arguments in the same set.

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