Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Extremist's View of the 'Verse (Firefly)

Lately, I’ve written a lot of articles in which I speak favorably of feminism. I think feminism in general is a good set of philosophies that will help human society reach gender equality, and that the image in most persons’ heads of man-hating extremists is for the most part mistaken and only applicable to a loud minority. Cinders’ article here gives a good overview of modern feminism. This time, however, I’d like to address a particular Firefly analysis that was passed around the net a while ago, which takes an extreme radical feminist stance that I really feel the need to tear apart. So, much as I earlier took apart a claim that Microsoft made Halo to encourage violence against Christians, now I will harshly criticize user _allecto_’s “A Rapist’s View of the World: Joss Whedon and Firefly”.
Okay, let’s get on with this…
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.
First of all, not all feminists are anti-pornography. Some just want to redo the way porn is structured so there’s a focus on the women getting satisfied as much as the men, etc. While there are a fair amount of sex-based jokes in Buffy, which I personally don’t like (so, you know, I take note of them), I wouldn’t say there’re very much more than the average show and there are definitely shows that are far worse. Without examples of  these “woman-hating messages”, I can’t really address them, but I suspect she’s describing misogynistic villains like Warren or Caleb, who do a lot of misogynistic things before their defeats at the hands of women. In these cases, the misogyny is not the message of the show, but rather that women defeat them. I can’t say for certain, though, so let’s continue.
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.
Fair enough. He’s the creator, etc.
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.
I wouldn’t say Companion is exactly a euphemism for women in prostitution. Not in the way being sly is a new slangy way of saying being gay, anyway. The Companion Guild is a different institution from the kind of prostitution in the modern world, and is more of a geisha/oiran institution held in high regard. Not that that isn’t necessarily worth criticizing, but it’s important to get the facts straight on exactly what is being depicted.
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.
Okay, yeah, Mal is Zoe’s superior. If there’s a war scene where someone calls someone else “sir”, I would assume there’s a military hierarchal relationship here.
I don’t think the female characters have to be the highest ranking people in the show for it to promote feminism. It kind of depends how the characters turn out, how they’re depicted, to determine that.
I think that _allecto_ forgot to mention that Zoe is black, as that’s important for this next part:
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.
I’ll note that this dialog isn’t in the show. It’s in the shooting script, but not in the actual episode. _allecto_ says later on that she got the companion books to find out the Chinese translations, but the problem is that those shooting scripts are not the same as the final product, which has Mal interrupting Jayne, the (other) white man character. Also, the context is removed from the quoted portion.
Both in the shooting script and the aired episode, Zoe and Jayne are talking, throwing in comments about the Alliance ship nearby. Mal, the captain, needs to think clearly, so he orders them (both of them) to shut up. Both fall silent, and Mal addresses Wash.
Mal is the captain, still in a superior position to Zoe, but he’s also superior to Jayne, Wash, and the male passengers, in addition to the other female characters. As the captain, he needs to quickly assess the situation and give orders to deal with the impending threat. That is a very apparent reason as far as I’m concerned.
Zoe is loyal to Mal after their shared experiences in the war. There is a hierarchal relationship that continues past the war to when Mal decides to captain a ship. She’s used to obeying him and calling him sir for real legitimate reasons. A hierarchy exists, that can’t just be ignored. And it’s not like Zoe never questions Mal’s judgment. As for Mal’s “dumb orders”, I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but Mal isn’t portrayed as a perfect guy. He’s got flaws, and there’re times when we hate him. That just makes him an interesting character.
I guess supposedly Mal ordered Zoe not to marry Wash, but… Yeah, they’re married, so if that actually happened it was a dumb order that Zoe didn’t listen to.
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.
I’m autistic. I have difficulty understanding context of tone of voice, facial expressions, etc. Sometimes people joke to me, and I take them seriously because I don’t get dry humor as easily. Something like this makes me wonder if _allecto_ is also autistic or if the feminist ideology she subscribes to is so absolute that the ability to recognize sarcasm erodes away, because even I can look at that scene and think that it is just so obviously sarcasm.
Mal enjoys Kaylee’s chatter. He frequently treats her like a little sister or perhaps daughter. Jayne, the brute, is already complaining about taking on passengers for some extra money, so when Kaylee interjects that it’s shiny, he gets annoyed and asks Mal if there’s a way to stop Kaylee from being cheerful. Mal smilingly responds, “I don't believe there is a power in the 'verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.” He then dryly tacks on the duct tape part. This is sarcasm. He is pretending to take Jayne’s viewpoint to an extreme to jibe Kaylee.
Kaylee smiles, says “I love my captain”, and kisses him. That’s because she recognizes it as sarcasm, like from an older family member. It’s just a cute little exchange not meant to be taken seriously. The manner in which she acts is not submissive in the least. She is able to smile and kiss him because she knows he’s not serious in the least.
A black woman calls a white man “sir” because he’s her commanding officer. It’s not because she’s black and he’s white, or she’s female and he’s male. They just happen to be in a naval hierarchy.
Mal doesn’t abuse his female crew, or at least not based on cited evidence. The duct tape thing was just a facetious comment with no bearing on reality. The only time he “silences” them is when there is disorderly conversation coming from more than just the female crewmembers.
And even if Mal were abusive, racist, etc. it would not necessarily reflect on Joss. Joss could have just wanted a dark antihero protagonist. Mal is certainly far more libertarian than Joss seems to be, so we know the political beliefs Mal constantly spouts do not reflect on Joss, who just wanted to write a space cowboy. It is a wild leap to look at characters’ actions and claim that the writer necessarily endorses them.

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.
Again, Companionhood is not the same as modern day prostitution. Companions select their own clients, and the experience is portrayed as almost holy. One can’t criticize the depiction in the same way as a depiction of modern day prostitution. The Heart of Gold might warrant the same look, but the Companion occupation is distinctly different. Inara is not supposed to be coerced in the slightest, but a couple Heart of Gold prostitutes are. The Companion trade is not supposed to be a depiction of “women in prostitution” as _allecto_ means.
I’m tempted to criticize _allecto_’s views of the modern day sort of prostitution, but I do realize that it is a widely held radical feminist idea, that she posted it for other radical feminists, and that she didn’t intend for the link to get passed around the interwebs so much. I’ll just say that not all feminists are against prostitution, so it should be easy to speculate that other types of feminist than _allecto_ think that Firefly has feminist values.
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?
Inara doesn’t perceive it as necessarily demeaning. Presumably, she likes being able to please people. Why shouldn’t she want grand compensation for her efforts? The men who are disrespectful toward Companions are put on a blacklist, ensuring no Companion ever deals with them again.
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?
Mal is belligerent and not the most likable character at times. The “whore” thing gets to a point where it’s this ongoing sass. The characters don’t get along, and it’s amusing to watch.
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.
Okay, that’s actually a good point. Still, he is portrayed as being kind of a jerk at these times, and on one time he’s there because he’s hiding from Saffron. His being a jerk is, again, a conflict that is entertaining to watch. At one point Mal suggests that his barging in is “manly and impulsive”, but I again suspect this to be sarcasm and not meant to be taken seriously.
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.
I think that Inara is not actually servicing the crew, but rather being a friend. A large part of Firefly involves the empathy of the crew and how they treat each other like a family, some of them even anthropomorphizing the ship. I think a great example of this empathy is in “Objects in Space” when Simon is shot in the leg, but his breath is stolen away, and River screams in his place. Inara is good at reading people and helping them with their emotional issues, so she helps out her fellow crewmembers in this fashion. Although technically Inara and Mal are in a professional agreement, there is this love that each of the Serenity crew has for each other that goes past a strict business agreement. Technically there are certain reasons everyone joins the crew of Serenity, but they all become a family in a way that transcends these basic agreements.
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.
I think it’s healthy for both people in a relationship to be there for each other. Certainly it would be an issue if it’s so one-sided, but I don’t think there’s anything to indicate that. That speculation about how supposedly patriarchal he is seems way off the mark. In Joss’ Equality Now speech, he describes his wife as “extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny” and “not only smarter and stronger than I am, but occasionally taller too.” He continues on in the speech to rage against misogyny.
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.
That’s actually some good evidence to support her point. I think a way it might be misleading is because it ignores nonverbal communication. People can have a strong presence without speaking that often. Assuming her interpretation of the data is accurate, it is a good point. I’d like to see more, like a ratio of men to women, notes of which characters said how many lines, and whether the characters’ line counts are related to sexist roles, though.
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.
Uh… I kind of take issue with that. Male social interaction, which may be violent, does not equal homoeroticism. It’s offensive to gay men to say so.
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.
This would be one of the times where Mal is not portrayed in a good light. He is violent without perfect justification. It should be noted, though, that Joss’ original concept had Mal only resorting to violence when he had to, and that Fox made him tinker with the character.
It also must be noted that those examples are not thoroughly described. The first one was a result of Mal jumping to the conclusion that Simon was the Alliance mole after seeing Simon in a place the passengers were told not to go. In the other scene, Simon deliberately antagonizes Mal by suggesting Mal’s getting paid by the Alliance. None of that is proper justification for punching Simon, but the way _allecto_ describes it, Mal’s just a brute hitting people for no reason. There is reason. It may not be good enough reason, but there’s something there.
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.
Once more, Zoe is inferior to Mal in the naval hierarchy! Gorram it! Zoe is the first to strike a blow in the Alliance-friendly bar in “The Train Job”, but it’s likely that because they’re both Browncoats both of them went to the bar to start a fight together. Mal certainly didn’t have to drag her into it. In “War Stories”, Wash has jealousy issues, but Mal isn’t fighting for her attention or getting off on her submission. He does, however, poke at Wash’s issues as a method for keeping him angry throughout a torture session, and therefore keeping him from breaking. I guess Wash does enjoy the submission thing as a bit of bedroom play, but he is fine with Zoe being more powerful than him in normal life.
Again, male social interaction does not equal homoeroticism! Neither of them are sly, got it? They just have issues.
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’.
She’s stoic and enjoys activities considered masculine. I would say that would be Joss playing with gender roles. As for Saffron, she found the whole marriage-as-payment concept disturbing, and took it out on Saffron, Mal, and Wash. She angrily asks Mal how he’s enjoying his “nubile slave girl”, for instance. It’s also worth noting that Firefly was cancelled halfway through a season, and we probably would have gotten a Zoe-centric episode at some point had the show continued.
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.
Okay, I’m not a big fan of that line, but it’s really meant as just a playful innuendo in response to Zoe talking about wanting a bath.
Let me just say now that I have never personally known of a healthy relationship between a white man and a woman of colour.
That’s too bad.
I have known a black woman whose white husband would strangle and bash her while her young children watched.
That white man is horrible. That one.
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.
This is a troubling social phenomenon. It’s bad that these men were abusive, yes. It seems that they were racist. It also seems that suggesting that all white men who would consider marrying black women are necessarily abusive is also racist. It may be true a lot, but not every time.
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.
I will not. I don’t think there is enough evidence to say Wash “treats Zoe like an object and possession.” And calling him a rapist? Really? Wash freely admits Zoe could kill him with her pinky, so he couldn’t reasonably force himself on her, and it’s not like authority (Mal) pressures Zoe into sleeping with him.
Joss Whedon does not share my view, of course, and he paints the relationship between Zoe and Wash as a perfectly happy, healthy union.
Curse the man! He dares to challenge racism through depicting a healthy interracial marriage? Burn him! Duct tape his mouth and dump him in the hold for a month!
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.
Yeah, I expect I’ll get to that eventually. Let me suggest that _allecto_’s experiences with sexism, racism, and abusive behavior in her family have blinded her to the possibility that men and women, whites and blacks, can get along without these major conflicts. I don’t mean this to be hurtful or demeaning, nor am I saying that Firefly is without flaws. Firefly has major flaws. There are racist elements. I just think that _allecto_ is mostly seeing problems where none exist.

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