CliqueClack TV

Firefly, feminism, and you – Clacking with Julia

What is it about 'Firefly' that draws in such a diverse fan base? In three words: kick-ass ladies.

I am a feminist, but I will say this — I can understand why people don’t always like feminists. We are a generally argumentative lot of buzzkills who take everything you love, point out the inherent misogyny in it, and then ruin it for you forever. I have actually lost count of the number of entertainment phenomena I have ruined for my friends and family (sorry, anyone around me who likes Twilight), but suffice to say, it is a lot. Though, in my defense, if entertainment wasn’t so damn sexist, I wouldn’t be complaining in the first place.

There are, however, shows that feminists don’t object to, where women on them are portrayed positively and equally to men. Often topping off the list of those shows are ones created by Joss Whedon who, for a dude, tends to know what’s up. And while Joss has given us ladies characters like Buffy to one day aspire to kick as much ass as, probably the show of his that has the clearest feminist thesis is Firefly. Perhaps this is due to its aborted 14-episode run, but unlike Buffy, Firefly has one strong, central, lady-positive message: do not attempt to control women. It will end poorly for you.

All the women, to some extent, have storylines where this is a central message, but River is probably the most explicit example of this — her brain is literally cut up as part of an experiment performed by the Alliance in order to mold her into what is implied to be some sort of super-soldier or assassin. Not only does River break free, but the abilities she gained as part of the experimentation seem to ironically make it impossible for the Alliance to get their hands on her again.

This theme comes up again and again as  the moral message behind entire episodes, like “War Stories,” where Wash attempts to take over Zoe’s job as Mal’s second-in-command because he feels jealous and emasculated by both her bond with Mal and far superior ass-kicking abilities, only to wind up kidnapped and tortured. And then it appears again in “Trash,” where we learn that femme fatale Saffron was once the wife of the man she and Mal are trying to steal from, and that she genuinely loved him once, but left him for a life of crime when he tried to sequester her from the world. And then there’s “Heart of Gold,” where the Serenity crew helps defend a brothel against a corrupt official who has knocked up one of the prostitutes and is trying to take his newborn child by force, only to ultimately be killed by the woman he impregnated.

To be honest, the theme of female empowerment in Firefly is mostly subliminal. I certainly didn’t notice that there was such a strong message until I re-watched the show with the feminism specifically in mind. But the thing about watching Firefly, even if you’re not a staunch feminist, is that it’s a show that women can relate to, even if they don’t stop and spend time to think about why. The female characters are strong, just as important as their male counterparts, and perhaps most satisfyingly, they’re not punished for being that way. There’s no tiptoeing around the Madonna/Whore complex. The women are not there solely as foils or romantic interests for their male counterparts, and they’re much more than any one trope or type of stock character. They’re allowed to be strong and competent, to express their sexuality, and to fail without looking weak. And that’s something almost all women (or at least the ones I know and have met) all want in a show, because it gives them a personal investment. It gives them something to relate to and believe in.

When Firefly first came out, it was a lot rarer to see three-dimensional female characters on television than it is today. That’s not to say they’re common today or that there aren’t still major issues with the portrayal of women on TV, but it has significantly improved. But there’s one genre in which Firefly is still revolutionary in in terms of women characters — science fiction (and to a lesser extent, fantasy).

Now I should say, I’m not science fiction’s greatest fan and I never have been. And this isn’t just because of its tendency towards sexism, it’s more to do with the fact that I’ve always found the ongoing themes of the destruction of the universe/humanity to be far more terrifying than entertaining. But it certainly doesn’t help that as a genre, science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fantasy, has major problems not just with sexism, but with racism, homophobia, and basically any type of storyline that isn’t a bunch of white dudes with kickass guns and spaceships having white dude problems in space.  (If you do not believe me, there are about a billion articles by people far more intelligent and genre-experienced than I am. I’d start with this one, this one, and this one.) And yes,exceptions happen, but they happen rarely.

The thing about the sci-fi/fantasy genre is it is, in general, marginalized. It doesn’t have the universal sway other niche genres do, and I’d posit that’s because it’s hard to gain a diverse, widespread audience unless you get a show like Firefly that’s willing to write in characters that more people can relate to. Because that’s what’s so great about Firefly, it has a cult appeal that goes to groups that would normally never be touched by a sci-fi show. The fact that I am a fan of this show, in and of itself, speaks to that.

I often like to pretend that people come to me and go, “Julia, how can we solve every problem television has?” and I am in charge of implementing the answers. I am pretty sure this is a fantasy most people who are nerdy about things have. But were a sci-fi television higher-up to come to me asking what to do, I would hand him a DVD box set of Firefly, and I would go, “See how women are portrayed in this show? Start with that.” It might not fix every problem, and it doesn’t mean I’m automatically going to like the show, but it will mean one thing — whoever is unlucky enough to share the couch with me will, for once, not have to hear me rant about women who are not allowed to be in charge of their destiny or sexuality.

And I’m pretty sure that, at least, is a cause most people can get behind.

Photo Credit: FOX

3 Responses to “Firefly, feminism, and you – Clacking with Julia”

June 13, 2011 at 6:24 PM

I may rarely agree with my CliqueClack counterpart, but this I will certainly give her … Julia, you a much better writer than I can hope to be.

That being said, I will share a couple of disagreements:
– People who don’t like feminists will never let you “ruin” something for them. If one doesn’t grant the premise of the argument, one will never let their feelings be changed by it.

– Minor point, but I never thought Wash was trying to replace Zoe has Mal’s second in command, but more to try to understand their bond, and to, for once, share something with Mal that Zoe wasn’t a part of, a situation Wash was always on the other side of.

June 15, 2011 at 3:35 AM

I couldn’t agree more. What also makes them equals is the humour. In most comedies women aren’t actually funny themselves, but the situations they encounter are funny. Firefly is one of those rare shows where the women get to make jokes too.

I always laugh when they are robbing the hospital in Ariel and they are almost caught by a doctor. Zoe then shocks the doctor with paddles and very driely says ‘clear’. Now in most shows a guy would be doing that.

June 15, 2011 at 12:42 PM

I think Joss’s views on strong women can be summed up with the words of Hoban Washburne… “Have you ever BEEN with a warrior woman?”

Powered By OneLink