Firefly and Gender Politics

Recently, I read a lovely book called ‘Whedonistas’, by Mad Norwegian Press. (Full disclaimer: The publishers are really nice people and I recommend the book both because it has a lot of merit and is immensely, entertainingly readable, and because you should support small press publishers run by extremely nice people.) This book is in the same basic vein as ‘Chicks Dig Time Lords’, essays on the series from women giving their perspective, but–and I say this with the sincerest hope that you will understand that I still enjoyed the book greatly–it suffers a little in comparison with ‘Chicks’ because it’s a little easier to be critical of Doctor Who than Joss Whedon.

This isn’t anything to do with my lifelong attachment to Doctor Who, I should clarify. (Oh, while I’m clarifying things, there’s a reason this is on my sexy sexy sex blog and not on one of my many vanilla blogs.) This is to do mainly with the fact that Doctor Who has been around for decades, and while people have a great attachment to the series in general, there are lots of specific eras that they feel very comfortable saying they don’t care for. When someone says, “Wow, making up a white guy in ‘yellowface’ for ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ is amazingly racist,” there are enough people who didn’t grow up in the Fourth Doctor era that the opinion isn’t shouted down. Whereas with Joss Whedon…

Joss’ series are still very close in the memory of the fans. Very close and very powerful–for most of the people now talking about the series on the Internet, these memories form a big chunk of the backbone of their memories of transitioning to adulthood. Someone who’s thirty now was graduating from high school at the same time as Buffy, going through their life’s journey along with her. They discovered Angel and Firefly just at the point where they were emotionally ready for it, and they accepted it almost uncritically. It’s hard for someone like that to say something’s wrong with Whedon, and it’s just as hard for someone else like that to hear it.

Which is a big part of the explanation for one of the truly unforgivable omissions to the book: an analysis of the gender politics between Mal and Inara. For some reason, this is always seen as one of the great whacky mismatched romances of science-fiction, as the two of them comically bicker and argue to cover their true feelings for each other. And I’ll admit, when I first watched the series, I felt the same way…until I watched ‘Out of Gas’.

When I watched the first meeting between Mal and Inara, it made me deeply uncomfortable. Inara sets a few very clear ground rules. No entering her quarters without permission. No taking advantage of her sexually. And no calling her a whore. These are entirely sensible ground rules, set by a woman who is in a somewhat hazardous position; she has no legal structure backing her up, nobody she can turn to except herself, and she doesn’t know if she can trust any of this crew. It is entirely fair of her to set these rules, and entirely understandable that she is forceful and direct in doing so.

And we know that Mal consistently ignores two of these three rules for their entire time together.

It’s hard not to see that as anything but bad. He is continually violating her personal boundaries, he is constantly demeaning to her profession and her person, and in doing so, he is indirectly threatening her with sexual violence. If he has never given her any reason to trust his word when he agreed not to demean her or enter her private spaces, how can she feel safe around him sexually?

But this is always played as “charming frankness and roguishness” on Mal’s part, and fandom seems to agree. Part of it is, I think, because Whedon is a skilled wordsmith and because Morena Baccarin and Nathan Fillion have great chemistry together. But part of it, I think, is that even among female fans, even among self-identified feminist fans, there is a sense that Mal is right and Inara is wrong. Inara is just a whore, and Mal is terming her correctly. Inara is trying to pretend she’s something better than she is, and she should stop. (Either stop pretending or stop being a prostitute, depending on which species of sex-negative “feminist” you are.)

This is, of course, bullshit. Inara has a right to claim whatever power she feels entitled to, and she has the right to feel safe on an emotional, physical and sexual level. Mal is wrong to deny her that right, he always will be, and Inara’s strongest moment in the series is when she decides to tell him to fuck off and she leaves the damn ship. Because Mal always talks about how Serenity’s crew is a family…but when it comes to Inara, he doesn’t practice it because she enjoys sex and makes a living at it. And that’s not right.

And I wish someone had written an essay saying so.

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7 Responses to “Firefly and Gender Politics”

  1. Kyrie Says:

    Normally, I just read and enjoy your blog but this one has spurred me to comment. While I truly don’t disagree with what you are saying about Inara, I think I understand what Mal’s character thinks he is doing. First, the ship is Mal’s and even though she has a room (s?) on the ship, it’s his territory and violating her rule about this is his way of saying this is my ship and I have a right to be in any place on it. And yes it is WRONG on so many levels (this is a power struggle issue for sure). Second, I think Joss is using Mal to reflect American society’s problem with the concept of companion for hire. But he fails to convince us that this is an okay thing because I think that possibly, Joss himself isn’t convinced. This actually could have been explored more (given more than one short season) and that might have been Joss’ intent but as it is, we only have the one season to analyze.

    And thanks for writing this. The relationship always bothered me on a level I hadn’t thought about before and I think this is what it was.

  2. Percy Merryweather Says:

    I think you have to see Mal in the light of classic movie western anti-heroes rather than as someone whose behavior should be admired or tolerated. It doesn’t involve sexual politics and it’s not a violation, but the way he shuts Shepherd Book down when he wants to say a prayer is similarly disrespectful and a show of power. I always got the impression he employed Jayne because he would stoop lower than Mal was willing to when need be.

    Whedon played back and forth on the line between “charming and roguish” and “jerk.” I would have been more comfortable if he pushed him more towards the latter, but that reflects my preferences. It means something more in the movie, where he seems more morally compromised, for him to take the actions he did at the end. It gives more weight and complicates it. One of my favorite films, The Wild Bunch, which influenced Whedon a lot, had the outlaws repeatedly not live up to their own moral code and when they finally act, its more out of a sense of self-disgust and realization that they’ve played out their string than heroism.

  3. Sam Says:

    I mean, the character was intended to be much darker. You can tell that even from the trailer that was filmed well after Fox’s refusal of the original Mal. The suits thought it took away from the fun, thought we’d all hate it if our hero crossed the line into “jerk” a little too often. So we got a compromise.

    Side-note, Inara DOES have a legal structure backing her up. She’s welcome on the Alliance worlds.

    • jukeboxemcsa Says:

      Yes, she is welcome on Alliance worlds, but that doesn’t mean a whole lot to her on Mal’s ship. If I went out to New Mexico in 1867, I’d still be a US citizen…but if I got into a confrontation with an angry ex-Confederate who wanted to punch me for what Sherman did to Atlanta, you couldn’t really say I had a legal structure “backing me up.”

      Inara is out in the black. If Mal decided to break into her shuttle and rape her, the fact that she is welcome on Alliance worlds would mean jack and squat to anyone involved.

      • Kyrie Says:

        And we already know that Mal is probably on the wrong side of the Alliance law with his willingness to smuggle cargo for income. So the question is, why does Inara throw her lot in with Mal? I mean, she could have picked a “safer” ship to be on legally. I think it’s this sort of question that Joss used to build our interest in the relationship.

  4. Percy Merryweather Says:

    >The suits thought it took away from the fun, thought we’d all hate it if our hero crossed the line into “jerk” a little too often. So we got a compromise.

    That’s one of the reasons I’m frustrated that Whedon has, since the beginning of his career, stayed with the broadcast networks (and for The Avengers, a heavily protected franchise.) Whedon and Fillion did a good job of stitching together a consistent character under the network pressure, but I’ve seen enough lovable rogues, and it would have been interesting if Mal didn’t always come around the right side by the end of the episode.

    I just re-watched the scene in question, Jukebox, and you’re right, not only does she set up those ground rules, but Mal agrees to them, with a minimum of sarcasm. So my comparison to how he treats Shepherd isn’t really valid- Mal shows his contempt of the preacher from the very beginning. Inara could legitimately claim to be deceived in their business arrangement. But his treatment of her is much more lightly touched upon than it should be.

    Also, Tim Minear just got better and better at flashback structure. Whenever the hell it comes out on DVD, check out Terriers (or rent it from iTunes or Amazon), which for my money was the best series in 2010. Minear co-produced the show and wrote the tenth episode, which tells how Donal Logue’s character got kicked off the police force, and it comes together perfectly.

  5. Kyrie Says:

    As long as Joss doesn’t rewrite history ala Lucas and Han Solo. But that’s not Joss’ style.

    Take a look at Dr. Horrible’s Sing A Long blog. I think this is where Joss really let loose. Online video series are where we are going to see ground-breaking characterization and concepts that break loose from network suits.

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