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.
- Firefly: The Trouble with Saffron by Purtek at The Hathor Legacy