Posts Tagged ‘feminism’

Firefly and Gender Politics

July 27, 2011

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.