Was Firefly Hashtag Problematic?

Fans of the Firefly Now, Serenity Later podcast know that Matt and I have discussed a number of moments in the show that have raised questions about the show’s positioning and presentation of women and people of color. With that in mind, I’ve scoured the interwebs for some thoughtful discussion of these very issues. What follows is a spotlight on some of the most thought-provoking takes.

From Feminist Fiction

In short, Joss Whedon is amazing at creating varied, believable and wonderful female characters. But he’s not so good at creating stories for them. And he doesn’t seem to think through the implications of his work…

…River ends up sidelined throughout most of the show, always presented through other’s eyes, left to mumble nonsense, make the occasional joke, and be rescued or fought over…

…Inara presents a similar problem … in episode after episode, she’s a side character, used for sensual soft-lens scenes or as a way to bring a male (or, once, female) character into the story for him to step up and save the day. And considering that the writers will proudly talk about their planned storyline for Inara, involving Mal developing respect for her after Reaver gang rape, her plots weren’t going to get better any time soon…

…Kaylee is the female character who receives the most attention and development, and again, she’s a wonderfully three-dimensional character in theory…But again and again, her cuteness is used as a way to punch the viewer in the heart… and eventually, it becomes a bit cheap and predictable. Oh no, Kaylee has been shot! Oh no, a character is holding her hostage and threatening to shoot her! Oh no, someone has broken into Serenity and is threatening to rape her…it creates a pattern that is lazy writing at best, and makes Kaylee into an object in the story at worst…

…Zoe seems pretty perfectly executed as a character. But she’s only one of four female crew members, and the result is frustrating to say the least.

Mike Thomas: This is a great rundown of the major issues surrounding River, Kaylee and Inara. It basically circles around the issue that just SO much of the show revolves around Mal and his reactions to everything. For such an awesome ensemble, a lot of the characters were poorly serviced and seemingly sacrificed for the ever-present development of Mal’s characters in order to deepen our understanding of what makes Mal tick. (Also, it was surprising to see the author seem to be okay with Zoe since she arguably gets less to do than at least Inara.)


From Lady Geek Girl

Firefly became known as a show with a Sino-American background, as evidenced by its Asian/Western aesthetic and the phrases of Mandarin Chinese used right alongside the English in the dialogue. However, one major question remains: why were there never any Asian characters of note in all the episodes or the movie…

…it’s stated that China and the U.S. were the two superpowers who took the human race to the stars, and so, by the time the series starts, these two cultures have merged into the default “human” culture. However, if the two cultures really merged, one would expect them to, well, merge…

…Which brings us to our main cast. There were only a couple of extras who were Asian, which is a shame in and of itself, but none of our main cast—Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Shepard Book, or Simon and River Tam—were Asian. So we’re left with a bunch of mainly white characters who all speak some amount of Mandarin Chinese, use chopsticks, and dress up in Asian-inspired clothes and hairstyles. Without an Asian character in the cast and without Asian values reflected in the storytelling, this little bit of otherwise creative worldbuilding smacks of cultural appropriation…

Mike Thomas: This article captures the broad issues of the show’s complete and utter failure in regards to Asian representation in a story about America and China essentially combining to form one culture in the future. The article also links to another great article about someone questioning Joss Whedon about this at a Comic-Con.


From Feministing

What’s messed up about Inara, the Oriental with an E(x/r)otic religion and an Oriental name, is that she really does seem like she’s based on a composite stereotype (albeit a rather sophisticated one) of the feminine East: the bejeweled woman in veils, who is trained in all the arts of civilization, including blowjobs. Even the pentatonic music that accompanies her plays into this. Her “Eastern” feminine persona meshes quite nicely with prostitution and naughty sex in the imaginarium of American cultural tropes. She is most strongly reminiscent of the 19th century Japanese Oiran (kind of like a geisha, only with sex actually included.) Leaving aside that this is supposed to be the future, not the past, and that China is not Japan, I wonder how Joss’s ostensible cultural sensitivity could possibly be expressing itself here. Now, Inara isn’t just a composite stereotype. She is her own person, a complex and well-written character, and her actions are not wholly beholden to orient-fetishism. In fact, her presence on a sci-fi show is in many ways to be welcomed. It’s nice, for example, to see a sex-worker on TV who isn’t scarred-for-life, actually likes her job and doesn’t take kindly to people who disrespect her on account of the fact that she workfucks for a living.

In terms of cultural representation, though, she is nonetheless clearly inspired not by the realities of Chinese, or even East Asian, cultures and histories, but by popular American fantasies about “The East.”Even those cultural aspects of the show’s universe that aren’t mere occidentalisms telescoped into the distant future do not actually employ non-western cultural phenomena, but rather American re-imaginings thereof. And Whedon didn’t put the least amount of thought into any of this, of how even a slightly clued-in non-expert such as yours truly might respond to what he’s doing. It’s shallow.

Mike Thomas: This author essentially combines two of the major issues with the show and unpacks how they feed into each other. It’s a unique take that is worth reading in full.


From The Hathor Legacy

I’m not comfortable seeing yet another femme fatale using the realities of victimization in order to gain power. It feels, to me, far too much like yet another “women abuse men by lying about rape in order to gain power or money” storyline. Granted, Saffron didn’t invent a rape story, per se, but she did present herself as a victim, and I don’t like the “crying wolf” style implications.

It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with any story in which a woman ends up being not a victim, or even a story that suggests that some women use stereotypical “feminine wiles” to exploit others. I think this episode bothers me specifically because I’m not confident it could have played at all otherwise, or that we’ve got enough evidence from the rest of the series that it wasn’t ridiculously overtrusting, bleeding heart liberal naiveté on the part of Mal and his crew that made them believe this obvious, blatant lie. I’m sort of insecure about how much countermessage we got about legitimately believing the stories of abuse, control and objectification that women tell, in order to contrast the all-too-common (on TV) but much more interesting story of a lying, manipulative, sexually aggressive threat. I get the impression that the writers on this episode never questioned that of course everyone would believe this “victim” narrative that Saffron sells – because doesn’t everyone always feel sorry for these poor, abused young women? – and that’s why she uses it so frequently. In my experience, of course, the opposite is true.

I can’t quite get over the wish that a feminist-focused show (or a show that remained more consistently sexism-conscious) would just have skipped this storyline entirely rather than add any fuel at all to the fires of those who believe that most rape, domestic violence and assault claims are trumped up.

Mike Thomas: This article was one of the few found that discussed the fan-favorite character, Saffron. Characters like her can be tricky because it’s great fun to see dynamic women exploiting patriarchal and paternalistic values for her own gain, their stories can also simultaneously feed some of the very myths the patriarchy promotes to hold down women.


From Honest Gamers

This is a show about the perfect male (the captain) and how, if you’re perfect enough, women will put up with your abuse and acknowledge how right you are in any situation… even if they have the free will to be cutely spunky…

…There’s an instance in every episode, but this particular bout of ire was set off by a conversation between Mal and Inara, in which she takes offense at him calling her a whore but quickly lets it slide. Shortly after, she calls him a petty thief and everything gets real serious. Mal looks hurt and Inara gets very apologetic. Though she cracks a joke at the whole thing, she acts like a child caught doing something wrong.

Mike Thomas: That scene discussed here is pretty much the perfect scene to analyze how misguided the show was at times in regards to how it portrays Inara, sex work, and Mal. Mal gets to play the wounded puppy who can dish it but can’t take it, and the show treats it as a perfectly valid response.


From The Mary Sue

In Whedon’s future reality, prostitution is the a woman’s highest form of good…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.

Mike Thomas: Once again, this was another a major issue with the show. While I think we can all agree that no one should sit in judgment of sex workers and that everyone should adopt a more sex positive mentality, there is something troubling about the setup of Firefly. The highest social position available for women in this world (as presented by the show) is to service men sexually. The Mary Sue article also explores Zoe and brings a unique perspective/interpretation of how she is portrayed in the “War Stories” episode. It’s well worth reading.


From A Rapist’s View of the World: Joss Whedon and Firefly

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 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?…

…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.

Mike Thomas: While it’s easy to envision many readers getting turned off by this particular author’s extreme distaste for the show, it still is well worth reading regardless to the degree in which you agree with the author. If nothing else, it shines a light on the issues with the dynamics between male and female characters in the show and the general lack of questioning any of it on the show.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s