April 07, 2008

Firefly and Serenity

In previous reviews, I've let you in on my late-blossoming love for Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel). This week, I finished up my viewing of his trio of shows with the one and only fourteen-episode season of Firefly. Previously, I'd also watched the film version of the Firefly story, Serenity, which was made after Firefly was taken off the air. Since Serenity is basically a continuation of Firefly, with nearly identical characters and actors, this review is for both the series and the film.

Like Buffy (and more or less unlike Angel), Firefly/Serenity has strong, central female characters. Firefly/Serenity's feminism is much different than Buffy's, though, as the entire premise of the show isn't a reversal of horror movie victimhood. Instead, Firefly/Serenity is a new take on the western frontier adventure story, which is certainly another area of traditional film misogyny. Though the main character, Mal (Nathan Fillion, who is amazing here as compared to his incredibly misogynist role as Caleb in Buffy) is male, he is surrounded by super competent women. First, there is his lieutenant, Zoe, played by Gina Torres. Zoe is confident, deadpan, and deadly. If Firefly/Serenity is a new take on westerns, Zoe is a new take on Clint Eastwood. She's a woman of color, and neither her femaleness nor her color is at all the point. She's just as likely to save Mal (or her husband, the ship's pilot, Wash, played by Alan Tudyk) as he is to save her. She's unabashedly stronger and cooler-headed than her husband, who mostly admires, rather than resents, it. In my book, Zoe is up there with Sarah Connor and Ripley in the canon of badass action heroines.

Next, there is the ship's mechanic, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). We see her take her job from a man (with whom she is having sex in the engine room of the ship), and she's a mechanical genius. She's also a very realistic, funny, self-effacing character. The actress reportedly gained 20 pounds to play Kaylee, putting her at a larger-than-usual size for television (though still by no means fat). Given the unfortunate tendency for women in the Whedonverse to be waifs, this was nice to see as well.

The third major female character is Inara, played by Brazilian actress Morena Baccarin. Inara is a "companion," which translates, in the world of Firefly, to a very respectable, expensive, high-class prostitute who has complete control over who she chooses as clients. She is also the only person on the ship who doesn't answer to Mal--she rents a shuttle from him and runs her own business from it, she's not part of the crew, and she makes it clear that she doesn't take orders.

Finally, there's River (Summer Glau, who is now starring in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Unlike the rest of the cast, River's character is quite a bit different in Firefly than it is in Serenity. In both, she's a young, brilliant woman who was imprisoned, tortured, and experimented on by the Firefly/Serenity government baddie, The Alliance. In the film version, she's not only slightly crazy, but a killing machine and the action hero of the film. The television show treats her differently, focusing on her empathic (and telepathic) powers, rather than her physical prowess. She's much more of a victim on Firefly than in Serenity, which is too bad, but was probably planned to change had their been further episodes of the show (and it's foreshadowed a bit at the end of the series). She also has some great moments in the series, like when she tells backstabbing crewmember Jayne (Adam Baldwin) that she could kill him with her brain.

It isn't just the strength of the female members of the crew that makes them stand out, it's also the relative "weakness" of their male counterparts. Simon (Sean Maher), the ship's medic and River's brother, is constantly portrayed as weak, effeminate, and even foppish. Pilot Wash is good at what he does, but takes a backseat to Zoe if any actual danger comes along. And even Jayne, who was hired for his muscle, is in short supply of both class and brains. The only really heroic male character is Mal, and even he falls to the deviousness of repeating villains. The villain who gets the best of him most often is a woman, Saffron (Christina Hendricks). Even though the women on the ship include a "professional" and a "crazy," it's Mal, not any of the female characters, who ends one episode in the buff (with his hip tattoo showing, even).

In Buffy, feminist action is defined within the narrow parameters allowed by white, middle-class high schoolers/young adults--Buffy can kick ass, Willow can do magic, but they still behave within the confines of normal white teen girlhood, never becoming sexually aggressive, overly angry, or independent of male guidance. Though the feminist potential grows over time, it remains constrained up until the show's end. In Angel, the female characters are rarely treated with respect at all. In Firefly/Serenity, though, a more mature and unconstrained idea of feminism begins to be explored. Women play the roles of warrior/gunslinger (Zoe), innocent/mechanical genius (Kaylee), psychic/assassin (River), wise independent professional and prostitute (Inara) and various supporting villains and heroes (Patience, Saffron, Mandy). There doesn't seem to be a role in the Firefly/Serenity universe that a woman can't play. To my mind, that is absolutely progress. (Please note that other reviewers disagree very strongly. For example, Katherine at Whereof One Can Speak says that all of the female characters are stereotypes.)

Race is also treated more maturely and completely on Firefly/Serenity than on Buffy. Three of the major characters (Zoe, Shepard Book, and Inara) are non-white, as is one of the major villains (Early in the show, The Operative in the movie). The world in which the Serenity crew operates seems to be one in which race and gender are no longer major markers of anything. There is never a mention of race in reference to any of the characters. It is only in the case of Inara, who often dresses in Persian-inspired costumes, where it even seems to come into play. We are clearly meant to read Inara as exotic, though this is just as much a trope of her class and profession as her non-whiteness. For Zoe and Book (Ron Glass), race seems to be a complete non-issue.

Though Firefly/Serenity do better with characters of color than Joss' previous work, they aren't perfect. As several bloggers have pointed out (including Claire at Hyphen, Katherine at Whereof One Can Speak, and Rob at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk), it is very troublesome that the future imagined for Firefly/Serenity includes an English-Chinese hybrid language and eating with chopsticks, but no actual Asian characters. I can think of no rational reason for the decision not to include Asian actors as both major and minor characters in Firefly/Serenity. Other Magazine's Liz writes that she "would have liked Firefly and Serenity even more if the history were deeper, and the "multiculturalism" well thought out." That criticism is valid.

Some of the other claims of racism in Firefly/Serenity just don't work for me. Helpy Chalk's Rob writes that Firefly is "a fictional world where the most troublesome parts of the myth of the West are actually true. The surrogates for Native Americans really are savages. The surrogate for the Confederacy really was justified in its cause." He goes on to explain that the Reavers are the "savages" and the outer planet resistance is the Confederacy. I find this reading of Firefly/Serenity as a Western to be too literal.

Claire at Hyphen wrote to Joss, "Maybe you'll find yourself a little more relevant to non-geeks if you bother to really look at the people who already populate and are going to populate the spaces you exploit for your fictions." I don't buy this as a reason for Firefly's cancellation. While she is right about the stupidity of not including Asian characters, Firefly is still one of the most racially balanced action movies or television shows I've seen. I think that had Whedon as much time to develop the Firefly/Serenity story as he did Buffy and Angel, it would have ended up being better than either of them, at least in terms of feminist and anti-racist action. The world created for Firefly/Serenity bases worth as a person on actions, morality, taking care of your friends, doing what needs to be done. There is no room for judgment based on sex or race. And that may well be something the viewing public wasn't ready to see.

I am giving both Firefly and Serenity four stars, under the assumption that the direction taken in Serenity is what would have happened in Firefly if it had been allowed to continue (especially with regards to the changes in River). Even though they are flawed, both the film and the series are among the most feminist and anti-racist action media I've ever seen. They also represent a positive progression in anti-racism and even feminism for Mutant Enemy's work. I think Joss should be proud.

More commentary:


I'm posting this in 2 parts so it doesn't scare anyone - but that's probably too late! :)


I read online somewhere that you either get Firefly or you don’t. Really, they're wrong because I'm quite on the fence on some things. And I’m afraid I have to say I don’t – and that really makes me sad, since I really, really wanted to just go ape over this! I liked the movie a lot, and actually didn’t watch the show because I was afraid that my enjoyment of it would decline, but when you guys gave it 4 stars, then I had to finish it up! And I don’t think it’s a bad show, actually I think it’s pretty great, and does a lot of things very well. But instead of absolutely loving it, I can only really like it, and appreciate it for what it tried to do.

The show and movie reminded me of a shoe that almost fits perfectly. It pinches just ever so slightly as to become noticeable – a gap that makes you more aware of the chill in the air, a heel that slopes just enough to make you pay attention to your gait. That’s what Firefly/Serenity feels to me.

The movie was really good. The only flaw to me, and it was a big one, was Zoe. She seemed less of a new Clint and more of a stepford soldier. I was telling a bud who enjoys whedonverse in general, that since you don’t have the time in the movie as you do in the series, everything has to come quicker. And in ensemble casts, I am looking for the great, defining 1 scene. And everyone had one – the only exception was Zo. And just little tweaks would have been helpful. Like when she battles the reavers. If they had extended that just a few moments more, it would have defined her, and not taken away from River. Instead, she just looks foolish to me, and unreliable in a fight. And by the end of the film, it seemed like the one thing that saved her from the warrior woman stereotype came true.

Inara was weird, but I had attributed that to her being a companion. I felt like execs were nervous about that whole storyline, and in order to cut it out, they essentially cut her out.

My friends swore Zoe was much cooler in the show, and when I watched it she was indeed! One episode of her playing a part was far better than a whole two hours (1.5??) oh her in the movie! So that was great! :) And Inara’s character became much better and fleshed out as well.

But I still don’t feel like I can really embrace this thing like others have. Joss made this big spiel about wanting to show a truly multicultural (I think he may have said multi-racial) environment, and there were so many things all along the series that just kind of bugged me, and felt like it detracted from his goals. What I couldn’t tell was whether it was intentional or purely accidental.

When it comes to female hc, very few people have it over him. Watching Zoe, Kaylee, Inara, and River on screen was pure delight. I mean they actually talked to each other. Did you guys notice in Serenity that it barely passed that test (I don’t know the name)? I looked, and every woman seems to talk only to men, or to the group in general, except in 2 cases: one where Zoe tells Kaylee that the Cap’n didn’t make them fugitives, and Kaylee replies they could have made them family, and the other is when River points to the guy about to pull his gun, and Zoe looks skeptical. Those may not even count because Kaylee was talking about a guy, and they didn’t even use words in the latter. But in the show they all have robust conversations, and I thought the relationship between Inara and Kaylee was great. Oh, there is that very small talk in the video Mal looks at, but that is also quite tiny.

So it’s not female empowerment that’s off – I think Joss gets that. I think his ethnic content is all messed up, and not nearly as good as he gets credit for to me.

p-2 (almost done! :))

I agree with many others that the large and obvious omission he made was to not include any noticeable Asian characters (I say noticeable because I did read the argument that said they were all more or less multi-ethnic, but some characters, while they could look quite ambiguous, many look just plain old white American. So how about some plain old Asian-whatever? I was fine with it in the movie – a bit troubled, but you are pressed for time. And I could even see it in the main cast, because it’s tough getting an ensemble of 9 to both be great in their roles and have great chemistry –which they had. But as I watched each successive show, I was dumbfounded by the lack of noticeable Asian characters not just in the minor speaking role parts, but they even seemed to be missing from the background! The only one with a real speaking part, which wasn’t even particularly memorable, was a female prostitute.

I surfed to see what fans had to say, and I read theories like Asians aren’t marketable, he would have done it in time, had the show continued, even how it might have been hard to find English speaking actors – all of which, I frankly find inexcusable. It reminds me of those dance films in an “urban” setting where the main protagonist is a white suburban kid, or a white kid who grew up in the urban environment. And frankly, I just can’t see how Joss could make such a statement about inclusion, and not have any…I mean not even a substantial token.

I kind of agree with Rob about the troubling parts of the myth, in a sense. In the extra portion of Serenity, Joss talks about how the idea for the show came from his great interest in the Civil War and in the south, how does it feel to be on the losing side, and what does that mean when you’re living in the culture. Ok. But in the first (really 2nd) epi, where the pro-alliance guy says something like ‘maybe we should put you down’ (ie kill!) and Mal says something to the effect of ‘and we will rise again’. Now ok, I understand you can get inspiration from anywhere, and technically that referred to the rising of Serenity (the ship), but that was almost verbatim of what many southerners said after the Civil War, and I could see that being a bit too spot-on for some.

Later there was the, what I call, the bad hair epi! :p But in it River runs away from Book after she sees him with his hair out, after I’m assuming he washed it. Now there seemed nothing inherently scary about his hair other than it wasn’t long, and the grade wasn’t straight, but she’s supposed to be loopy, so that could sense. But then when Zoe comes by to see what all the ruckus is about, she jumps when seeing him. But what’s worse is she agrees with River. Even if it’s a joke, instead of saying “I know, but what are you gonna do?” She says something to the effect of “of course it’s scary!” and comforts River that the shepherd will “put it away”. And the only thing that seemed wrong with it was that it wasn’t the ideal that society holds up. This is also contrasted against one of the women who kidnap Simon, who is not only portrayed as being backward, and ok with kidnapping, but, for lack of a better word, also looks like a mammy in attire, with her hair carefully scarfed out of sight.

And then there’s Early, who I actually found kind of horrid, even thought evidently some think he’s quite cool. It’s funny, since he almost undid all the stuff I love about the operative. They are almost like polar opposites – maybe that’s what Joss was going for? But I did not appreciate the rape threat, the first of its kind in the whole series, coming from him – even if he was supposed to be playing mind games with Kaylee. And then when he hits Inara…there’s just something that didn’t sit right with me. It seems like whenever there is a threat of female violation (be it sexual or physical), it comes from a black guy. Ok that’s waay too general, but I see the portrayal more than I’d like. Just plays a bit to that whole myth too much for me, which bleeds into the whole theme, since that is often what southerners accused black men of.

Now maybe I’m nitpicking, and I would totally entertain the thought if you guys overwhelmingly thought so. But I thought this had to chance to almost be a 5-star, off the chart series/film. So it’s kind of sad that it falls short in my mind. It’s subtle, but it happens a little too frequently for me to just blow off.

I just hope the Doll House is an improvement over this in ethnic content as Firefly was for female content from the Buffy/Angel verse.

OMG woman, get a blog already! ;)

I can understand where the comments about the Civil war come into play. It definitely does have that overtone to it. I think that he does his best to counter that by having a mulit-racial cast. No it's not perfect, but you'd be hard pressed to find better that didn't feel like tokenism in some way.

As to one of my favorite scenes in the entire series, the shepherds hair. I think the message is that his hair and image were very slick 99.9% of the time, and they had never see his hair loose like that, much less in an (Aaaaawwweesome) doo like that. It would have startled me too if I walked around the corner to someone who's appearance was that different from what the normally looked like.

I just wanted to throw out that I was a little bit troubled by your use of the term "effeminate" to describe Simon's shortcomings. While he is certainly a pampered rich character unaccustomed to violence, poverty, and dirt, the word "effeminate" means, according to Websters: having feminine qualities untypical of a man; not manly in appearance or manner. To use the term to describe a man's weakness (whether of stomach, street smarts, or whatever) is to agree with the patriarchal notion that women are the "weaker" sex, and any person displaying traditionally feminine qualities is thus necessarily displaying qualities which are less desirable than their "male" counterparts. Just thought it was a weird word choice, given the focus of your blog; feminism isn't about valuing traditionally masculine qualities (physical strength, rational thinking, etc.) when they're displayed by women, it's about celebrating both the "male" and the "female" in balance, without ridiculing or devaluing "feminine" qualities such as softness and sensitivity.

I don't disagree. I do think, however, that the Simon character is intended to be read as "effeminate," particularly as compared to Mal and Jayne, who are hyper-masculine.

First of all, it is to my great relief that this is a quiet space for thoughtful discussion rather than invectives. Thank you to the moderator for providing such a blog.

I happen to be Asian American. The lack of an Asian presence in Firefly and Serenity does not prevent me from enjoying the show and the film. Granted, I'm not Chinese or Chinese American, so I can't speak with any authority for or against the use of the Chinese language in Firefly. But, as far as I know, on the internet there are a bunch of white people condemning Firefly and Serenity for not having enough Asians, so I think it's time for another voice to weigh in.

I love Firefly and Serenity: the story is compelling, the visuals breathtaking, the characters unforgettable. That the lead and supporting actors are all black or white, that's not surprising but nor is it necessarily bad: maybe the Asian Americans or Asians who auditioned for lead or supporting roles gave a different performance than Whedon had in mind. Then it becomes, not an issue of race, but an issue of the needs of the production.

And addressing the issue of why the bulk of the Asian or Asian American are only seen dancing at the party in "Shindig", maybe it's because a lot of the Chinese people in Firefly are economically stable. And Firefly doesn't focus on the well-off, but the struggling--who, except for the one prostitute in "Heart of Gold", are black and white. So it's a matter of emphasis on which socioeconomic class that determines which racial group gets the most screen time, if that makes sense, rather than inherent racial bias against Asians.

But--if my theory is off and Whedon does have a racial bias against casting Asians, then it is certainly not new, an unfortunate and persistent fact. And if Whedon does have that bias, then I'm just happy to see Asians cast at all in this series.

Finally, I give credit to Whedon in another way: there is no use of yellowface or the dreaded ultra-thick eyeliner to make white actors look more 'Asian', or at least it wasn't obvious. Simon and Inara looked quite natural.

So yes, this is an apology for Whedon---from an Asian American.

@ smalldogbites, thank you so much for adding your comments!



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