This is a really long rant about Joss Whedon's Firefly. Why? Because I'm angry and I think it is really important that feminists don't leave popular culture out of the equation. Especially considering that popular culture is increasingly being influenced by pornography.
I have become increasingly interested in examining Joss Whedon’s work from a feminist perspective since I had a conversation with another lesbian feminist sister at the International Feminist Summit about whether Joss was a feminist. I am really quite shocked by how readily Joss is accepted as a feminist, and that his works are widely considered to be feminist. I decided to start re-watching Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and also to watch Firefly and the movie Serenity.
I have to say that now that I have subjected myself to the horror that is Firefly, I really am beyond worried about how much men hate us, given that this was written by a man who calls himself a feminist.
I find much of Joss Whedon’s work to be heavily influenced by pornography, and pornographic humour. While I would argue that there are some aspects of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer that are feminist and progressive, there is much that isn’t and I find it highly problematic that there are many very woman-hating messages contained within a show that purports itself as feminism. But Firefly takes misogyny to a new level of terrifying. I am really, really worried that women can call the man who made this show a feminist.
For myself, I’m not sure that I will recover from the shock of watching the malicious way in which Joss stripped his female characters of their integrity, the pleasure he seemed to take from showing potentially powerful women bashed, the way he gleefully demonized female power and selfhood and smashed women into little bits, male fists in women’s faces, male voices drowning out our words.
There is so much hatred towards women contained within the scripts and action of the series that I doubt very much that this post will even begin to cover it. I am going to try to focus on the episodes that were written by Joss Whedon but I will also refer to the series as a whole. As Joss Whedon was responsible for the concept development and was a producer, ultimately I hold him accountable for the depiction of women in the entire season. Only one episode was written by a woman. It was no better or worse in its depiction of women than the ones written by men.
The pilot episode, Serenity, was written and directed by Joss Whedon. The basic plot of the series is Malcolm Reynolds and his second in command Zoe, have made a new life for themselves after fighting a war against the Alliance, which they lost. They bought a Firefly, an old space ship, and Mal calls it Serenity, after the last battle they fought for the Independence. The pilot of the ship, Wash, is Zoe’s husband. Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic and Jayne, the final member of the crew, is the brainless brawn. This bunch of criminals go around stealing things and generally doing lots of violence.
They also take on board passengers. There is Inara, a Companion (Joss Whedon’s euphemism for women in prostitution). She rents one of the ship’s shuttles. Simon, a doctor and his sister River. And a Shepherd (which means preacher), a black male character.
The first scene opens in a war with Mal and Zoe. Zoe runs around calling Mal ‘sir’ and taking orders off him. I roll my eyes. Not a good start.
The next scene is set in the present. Mal, Jayne, and Zoe are floating about in space. They come into some danger. Mal gets all panicky.
Zoe says, “This ship's been derelict for months. Why would they –”
Mal replies, (in Chinese) “Shut up.”
So in the very second scene of the very first episode, an episode written and directed by the great feminist Joss, a white man tells a black woman to ‘shut up’ for no apparent reason. And she does shut up. And she continues to call him sir. And takes his orders, even when they are dumb orders, for the rest of the series.
The next scene we meet Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. <- Lookee, lookee, feminist empowerment. In this scene Mal and Jayne are stowing away the cargo they just stole. Kaylee is chatting to them, happily. Jayne asks Mal to get Kaylee to stop being so cheerful. Mal replies, “Sometimes you just wanna duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.” Yes, that is an exact quote, “Sometimes you just wanna DUCT TAPE HER MOUTH and DUMP HER IN THE HOLD FOR A MONTH.” Kaylee responds by grinning and giving Mal a kiss on the cheek and saying, “I love my Captain.”
What the fuck is this feminist man trying to say about women here? A black woman calling a white man ‘sir’. A white male captain who abuses and silences his female crew, with no consequences. The women are HAPPY to be abused. They enjoy it. What does this say about women, Joss? What does this say about you? Do you tell your wife to shut up? Do you threaten to duct tape her mouth? Lock her in the bedroom? Is this funny to you, Joss? Because it sure as fuck ain’t funny to me.
Our first introduction to Inara the ‘Companion’, Joss Whedon’s euphemism for prostituted women, is when she is being raped/fucked/used by a prostitutor. I find it really interesting to read the scripted directions for this particular scene:
We are close on INARA's face. She is being made love to by an eager, inexperienced but quite pleasingly shaped young man. She is beneath him, drawing him to his climax with languorous intensity. His face buried in her neck.
He tightens, relaxes, becomes still. She runs her hand through is hair and he pulls from her neck, looks at her with sweaty insecurity. She smiles, a worldly, almost motherly sweetness in her expression. He rests his head on her breast, still breathing hard.
So, Joss Whedon refers to rapist/fuckers who buy women as sex, as ‘eager, inexperienced but pleasingly shaped’ who ‘make love’ to women in prostitution. Obviously, ‘love’ to men like Joss Whedon, requires female powerlessness, force and coercion. Women in prostitution enjoy the experience of being bought for sex. They feel ‘motherly’ towards the men who have just treated them as property and bought them as sex.
In Joss Whedon’s future world prostituted women are powerful and respectable. They go to an Academy, to train in the arts of being a ‘Companion’. They belong to a Guild which regulates prostitution, forces women to endure yearly health tests and comes up with rules to make prostitution sound empowering for women. For example, one Guild rule is that the ‘Companion’ chooses her rapist, not the other way around.
But there is one really big question that does not get answered. The women who ‘choose’ to be ‘Companions’ are shown as being intelligent, accomplished, educated, well-respected and presumably from good families. If a woman had all of these qualities and opportunities then why the fuck would she ‘choose’ to be a man’s fuck toy? Would being a fuck toy for hundreds of men give a woman like Inara personal fulfillment? Job satisfaction? A sense of purpose? Fulfill her dreams? Ambitions?
Money doesn’t seem to be the motivation behind Inara’s ‘choice’ to be a ‘Companion’, presumably she just ‘enjoys’ swanning around in ridiculous outfits. And being used as a fuck toy by men is seemingly a small price to pay for the pleasure.
At any rate, Inara’s apparent ‘power’ is merely a figment of Joss Whedon’s very sick imagination. In a later episode, Inara is shown to have set down three very specific rules in relation to her arrangement to hiring one of Mal’s shuttles as her base of operations. 1) No crew member, including the Captain would be allowed entrance to the shuttle without Inara’s express invitation. 2) Inara refuses to service the Captain nor anyone under his employ. And 3) the Captain cannot refer to Inara as a whore.
Mal agrees to all of these rules but he breaks every single one of them. Blatantly and deliberately. The third thing that Mal says in the first interaction between Inara and Mal is, “She’s a whore…” Does Inara stop him from calling her a whore? Nope. She just goes on smiling and being gracious. So he calls her a whore again. Lovely man this Mal is, dontcha think?
And in regards to her first rule, Mal takes every opportunity he can to break it. In the first episode Mal barges into Inara’s shuttle. The interchange goes like this:
Inara: What are you doing on my shuttle?
Mal: It's my shuttle. You rent it.
Inara: Then when I'm behind on the rent, you can enter unasked.
Scenes like this continue to occur for the rest of the series. Mal never apologises for breaking the terms of his agreement with Inara. And although Inara gets a little annoyed, she does not get really angry at the Captain for consistently undermining her power and invading her space. She tells the Captain to get out but he rarely complies. The point is that a man should never invade a woman’s personal space to begin with. Especially when he has been told expressly that he is not invited. But Mal delights in pointing out Inara’s powerlessness, it makes him feel all manly.
In regards to her servicing the crew, she begins to service the Captain and the male passengers of the ship from day one. The following is an excerpt from the script of Serenity. Book is a black male character. He is a Preacher and disapproves of Inara’s ‘profession’.
BOOK Is this what life is, out here?
BOOK I've been out of the abbey two days, I've beaten a Lawman senseless, I've fallen in with criminals... I watched the captain shoot a man I swore to protect. And I'm not even sure if I think he was wrong.
He is shaking a bit, tearing up.
BOOK I believe I just... (a pained smile) I think I'm on the wrong ship.
INARA Maybe. Or maybe you're exactly where you ought to be.
He lowers his head. She puts her hand on it, a kind of benediction. We hold on them a second.
It is clear from the outset that a large part of Inara’s service involves addressing issues of male inadequacy and fulfilling many other emotional needs of her clients. The ability to do this IS a resource and it is therefore a service that Inara must perform. BUT Inara services all of the male passengers and the Captain in this way. She also services Kaylee but the relationship between them is a little more reciprocal. In any case, Mal makes it pretty obvious that he expects his emotional needs to be serviced by Inara and she willingly obliges. Mal also allows the male passengers to demand her emotional services and does not tell them to stop, despite the terms of his agreement with Inara. Inara is not paid by any of these men for her time, energy and emotional support.
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, Joss uses his own wife in this way. Expects her to clean up his emotional messes. Expects her to be there, eternally supportive, eternally subservient and grateful to him in all his manly glory. I hope the money is worth it, Mrs. Whedon. But somehow I doubt that it is. No amount of money can buy back wasted emotional resources.
Aside from women being fuck toys, property and punching bags for the men, the women have very little importance in the series. I counted the amount of times women talk in the episode Serenity compared to the amount of times men talk. The result was unsurprising. Men: 458 Women: 175. So throughout the first episode men talk more than two and a half times as much as women do. And women talk mainly in questions whereas men talk in statements. Basically, this means that men direct the action and are active participants whereas women are merely observers and facilitators.
Given the fact that women are largely absent from the action and the dialogue of the majority of scenes it is unsurprising that the action onscreen is highly homoerotic. Men jostle with each other for power. Pushing each others buttons, and getting into scuffles. This intense homoeroticism is present from the outset as Mal asserts his rights as alpha male on the ship.
Completely unnecessary and unprovoked violence is a spontaneous result of this hypermasculinised male character. In Serenity, Mal enjoys using a character called Simon as his personal punching bag. In one scene he walks up to him and smashes him in the face, without any provocation or logical reason. In another scene Simon asks Mal a question and Mal smashes him the face again. No reason, no explanation, just violence. Violence is a part of the landscape throughout the whole series and Mal is often the instigator. He is constantly rubbing himself up against other men, and punishing wayward women, proving and solidifying his manliness through bashing the shit out of anyone and everyone.
Zoe, the token black woman, acts as a legitimiser. Her role is to support Mal’s manly obsession with himself by encouraging him, calling him ‘sir’, and even starting the fights for him. Zoe is treated as a piece of meat by both her husband (Wash, another white male) and the Captain. Wash and Mal fight each other for Zoe’s attention and admiration, both relying on her submission to them to get them hard and manly. In fact there is a whole episode, War Stories, devoted to Wash and Mal’s ‘rivalry’. By the word rivalry, I mean violent, homoerotic male/male courtship conducted over the body of a woman.
Zoe is not shown to have a personality of her own. She has no outside interests, no ideas or beliefs, no conversation with anyone other than Wash or Mal. She has no female friends, in fact she tends to dislike women. For example, she is the first one to insult Saffron in the episode Our Mrs. Reynolds, calling her ‘trouble’.
Zoe, of course, is meant to be our empowered, ass-kicking sidechick. Like all sidechicks she is objectified from the get go. Her husband, Wash, talking about how he likes to watch her bathe. Let me just say now that I have never personally known of a healthy relationship between a white man and a woman of colour. I have known a black woman whose white husband would strangle and bash her while her young children watched. My white grandfather liked black women because they were ‘exotic’, and he did not, could not treat women, especially women of colour, like human beings. I grew up watching my great aunts, my aunty and my mother all treated like shit by their white husbands, the men they loved. So you will forgive me for believing that the character, Wash, is a rapist and an abuser, particularly considering that he treats Zoe like an object and possession.
Joss Whedon does not share my view, of course, and he paints the relationship between Zoe and Wash as a perfectly happy, healthy union. If anyone is interested in portrayals of relationships between white men and black women written from black women’s point of view, I would suggest watching Radiance, Rabbit-Proof Fence and Serenades, skip Joss Whedon’s shit.
Also if you are interested in the reality of women in prostitution/prostituted women rather than the candy floss version that Joss Whedon has produced, I highly recommend Rebecca’s story Lie Dead. Skip Joss Whedon’s women-hating bile.
I can assure you that this is just the beginning of my rant on Firefly. There is so much more disturbing stuff later in the series. In particular, an episode called Our Mrs. Reynolds, another episode written by Joss, which completely demonises women as well as pornifying male violence against us.
More ranting about Firefly here
Objects in Space: Black Masculinity through the paradigm of whitemale lust