[this is too long and I vaguely wish I could elllljaaaycut it here, but I dunno how, so whatever. tl;dr at will]
A lot of feminists like Joss Whedon. He's been honoured by Equality Now, which he calls his 'favourite charity'; he's spoken out against violence against women; and he really has done more to put women in the spotlight than any other male sci-fi filmmaker I could offhand name. He's a feminist in every way that matters. But I have this petty desire to explain where I feel his feminism is lacking. I don't think, in a storytelling sense, he's got his head around feminist sexuality.
Two initial caveats about this round of pettiness;
-I've not seen Buffy or anything else by him - this is going to be all about the Firefly.
-Yes, I'm going to spoiler stuff if I feel it will help me get my point across. OMR, for instance. If that bothers you, go watch it first and then come back to this. C'mon, it'll only take you twelve or so hours. Get going. Now.
-a brief note on names; while I think it's cute of Whedon to give one of his menfolk a generally female name (Jayne) and one of his womenfolk a generally male name (River), he still stuck fast to that quaint Anglo rule that, while men can roam about the alphabet as they please, all female names end in A, E, Y, I, N, L, H, R, S or T, with M and D as occasional bold outliers, or sometimes O or U in fantasy fiction. It does sound like a lot of letters, but common male names end just about anywhere except Q. Another respect in which he seems to be trying, but not hard enough for my tastes.
So let's take these women and their sexualities one at a time.
Zoe - the wife. Much of the criticism of female sexual stereotypes concerns the virgin/whore dichotomy; I feel that this analysis neglects a certain third category which happens to contain more women than either of the two aforementioned groups. Wives can fuck. They can have as much sex as they please, and can enjoy it as much as they like, so long as they do not stray from good, old-fashioned monogamy. Some people even think that wives are the only women who should be permitted to have sex for pleasure rather than for procreation.
Zoe is far more sexually assertive than any of the other female crewers - in fact, only one of the male cast (Jayne) has any edge over her in that regard. Her assertiveness isn't just about saying yes when she wants to say yes ("I need this man to tear all my clothes off."), but also about saying no when she wants to say no ("Remember that sex we were going to have, ever again?") When I was first whining about this whole Firefly-sex-is-crap thing to my darling Matthew, he pointed out that Zoe somewhat echoes the stereotype of the wife who uses sex to control her husband. (Furthermore - as far as I can recall - on every occasion in which they disagree the plot later proves Zoe to have been in the right.)
The lovely people at Feminist SF have hacked at another stereotype she embodies;
Zoe, as a kick-ass warrior woman, I adore. But I am not blind to the fact that a lot of white boys like to have a Black Warrior Woman in their work to demonstrate how cool they are with the race thing. The weird thing to me is that it’s so deeply problematic and emblematic of white boy issues, at the exact same time that it is hugely empowering and exciting. Typical of these difficult issues, maybe. Having a Black Warrior be a woman is less threatening to white people. Making the warrior woman Black further exoticizes her and taps into stereotypes of Blackness as wild, primitive, fierce, and stereotypes of Black women as butch. These are general issues with stereotyped exotic characters, and not necessarily appropriate to each instance of those characters, of course; Zoe is her own character, because Joss is actually really good with characterization in terms of personality (just not so much with figuring out characterization in terms of social aspects of race/class).
Her marriage does, for the most part, avoid traditional gender clichés; her husband, Wash (who is white), is a mild-mannered spaceship pilot whose physique and martial prowess is notably inferior to her; it's her who makes her way in the world with physical strength and he who gets by with cheerful chatter and 'nimble fingers'.
This is the bit where I ought to write something about War Stories but I don't know where to begin. It's a send-up of male jealousy, and of the idea that non-sexual bonding can't occur between a heterosexual woman and a male friend, but...it's like there's something getting at me about it that I can't even pin down. Maybe the simple fact that two men so intensely disputed the sexuality of a woman who didn't contribute a word - only actions - to their conversation. Maybe just because the plot allowed Wash to be a crazy jealous asshole who was trying to control his wife (sexually and in other ways) in the first place, even if he did get extreme comeuppance for it. Maybe it was the foul domesticity of the last few minutes - personal issues there I guess, but I found Wash's attitude in the 'wife soup' scene pretty disturbing and insulting. (See, personally I don't have much of a problem with keeping patriarchy out of the bedroom - it's the kitchen where I keep finding it crop up unexpectedly, hiding in the smelly crack behind the cooker. And I know it's not just me.) So if nothing else, War Stories portrays Zoe as a victim of misogyny in spite of her otherwise near-immunity to the most demeaning aspects of gender dynamics. It's not a comfy move - there's a bit of hopelessness about it. As there is to this whole general idea that the only woman who can have the sex she wants, when she wants it, is the wife.
Inara - the sex worker. Now here's a clusterfuck. Just as there's an abundance of variety among real-life sex workers, so there are in fantasy fiction. I've heard it said among geeks that Inara represents a challenge to the popular stereotype of prostitution; she's classy, educated, physically natural if overly adorned, comes from a higher social class than almost all of the other characters (and unlike the fugitives Simon and River she retains all the perks of her class status), and is one of only two outwardly religious major characters. She also has sex with both men and women, but I'll come back to that later. She's also part of a powerful organised group of prostitutes who all share these characteristics. (Organised groups of prostitutes are exceedingly common in male-authored fantasy; see Pratchett, Mieville, and ahahaha aahahaaa Frank Miller, among others. No offence to the sex workers, but I feel that these male fantasy writers are overdoing this, and not out of the goodness of their bleeding liberal hearts. But I will save Pratchett/gender & Mieville/gender for another day, and Miller/gender for the point-and-laughing it deserves. I'm working on Gibson/gender too, but my teenage brother stole my copy of Neuromancer, blah.)
My first problem with the praising of Inara is that people tend to assume Whedon made this situation up. I'd suggest that he didn't. She bears a remarkable resemblance to the historical shuyu - the high-status prostitutes of 19th-century Shanghai, who shared not only Inara's social status, silk outfits and provision of services that did not start or end simply with sex (Inara, like the shuyu, is in demand at social occasions as well as in the bedroom), but also minor details. Shuyu were examined every year (not for health reasons, as seems to be the case for Inara, but for their singing and storytelling skills); they also tended to live in small boats on the Huangpu River.
(I first read about this stuff in a book called Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai by Christian Henriot - I can't find anything snappy about the topic online, so I guess you'll just have to take my word for it.)
While there's nothing particularly wrong with being inspired by history, if Whedon really is writing about a futuristic shuya, he's taken out the genuinely ugly part of the shuyu culture and replaced it with more present concerns about sex work; firstly, that the prostitute's profession reduces her worth to her genitalia, in the eyes of her ever-misogynistic clients (see Shindig, also bits of Jaynestown). Whedon is clearly attempting to allay this concern. Secondly, that prostitutes lack sexual agency and can't have normal romantic/sexual relationships ("So what's the policy on dating?" "It's complicated.") - which Whedon explores in several ways, but ultimately doesn't debunk in the least. (Why does it have to be complicated? Do real sex workers find it complicated? From what I've read around the blogosphere, some do and some don't - those that do tending to be those who conceal their profession closely, which Inara does not.) Inara is the object of Mal's romantic desire, which she returns, but this leads only to angst and teariness rather than any actual cute scenes.
I'd like to wheel the bisexuality back in now; in War Stories, Inara entertains a powerful female politician. I'm going to quote here from the episode script, as hosted by FireflyWiki;
INT. INARA'S SHUTTLE - DAY
Inara massages oil onto the naked back of the Councilor, who's lying on her stomach on Inara's bed, eyes closed with pleasure. Filmy sheets cover what needs to be covered. Inara's in an off-the-shoulder silky dress, tied at the shoulder with a ribbon.
That feels amazing. Oh, right there.
I should've done this weeks ago.
I wouldn't have been here weeks ago.
And that would've been a shame.
For me as well... you have such
The Councilor turns on her side, looks at Inara.
There's no need for the show, Inara.
I just need to relax with someone
who's making no demands on me.
The Councilor starts to lay back down again. Inara stops her with a hand on her shoulder. The Councilor sits up, facing Inara, curious.
Most of my clientele is male, do you
If I choose a woman, she tends to be
extraordinary in some way. And the
fact is, I occasionally have the
exact same need you do. One cannot
always be one's self in the company
So no show. Let's just enjoy
While it never got to the screen, it's established fanon that there was originally intended to be a scene involving the Councillor's husband and family, so we can assume both these women are being portrayed as - in terms of behaviour if not identity - bisexual. Now. Apart from the general impression that this scene just exists to pander to the male audience, I have a huge problem with this portrayal of bisexual desire. See that word? Desire. These women are not talking about what they desire, what they lust for - they're talking about how wonderful it is to escape from teh evilz male gaze (by feeling each other up in front of a million zillion horny fanboys). They're talking about there being 'no demands' and 'being oneself'. Heaven forbid any woman would just want to fuck another woman because fucking women is good, hot fun. Of every Inara scene in the whole canon, it's here that I most keenly hear that Inara does not have any sexual, or romantic agency. She does not have sex out of a desire to have sex; it's a job, or a way to relax, or a semi-religious process. The only woman who gets to fuck for the sake of lust and enjoyment is the wife.
Kaylee - the girl next door. On the face of it, Kaylee looks like the most sexually assertive one of all. She pursues Simon while he remains very coy towards her. She waves Inara off by saying "Have good sex," which, as I've already demonstrated, is more consideration than Inara gives to the topic. She delivered that fanboy-slaying line "Goin' on a year now I ain't had nothin' twixt my nethers weren't run on batteries," which I think epitomises the Kaylee problem. She wants it. But she doesn't get it.
This really sticks out early on in Heart Of Gold; the crew are, for plot reasons, in a brothel, and Jayne and Kaylee are both enthusiastically eyeing up the prostitutes (mostly female, but some male). Jayne subsequently spends a lot of time with one of them. Does Kaylee? Hell no. In spite of her stated desire to have sex with a male prostitute, nothing of the sort is mentioned again.
So Jayne has casual, no-strings sex in Heart Of Gold, in Jaynestown, and he expresses a clear interest in the same in Our Mrs Reynolds. Kaylee never does. Unlike Jayne, Kaylee has a canonical romantic interest within the main cast; Simon, intelligent, bumbling, coy, shy, high-class, fugitive Simon, who has far more physical contact with his younger sister than he does with her. In spite of the lack of progress in their relationship, she only considers straying once, in The Message, and the plot makes sure that that's a bad idea. (Mal, by contrast, does sleep with someone else as well as attempting to romance Inara; of course that plot strand doesn't end well, but the fact remains that he did it and Kaylee didn't, in spite of Kaylee generally being more vocal about her sex drive than Mal is). In the entire canon, this vocally lustful woman has sex only twice; the second time is within a long-running, monogamous plotline. The first time is, hoorah, my least favourite Kaylee script extract, from Out Of Gas. It's a flashback scene that shows us how Kaylee got her job on Serenity;
INT. SERENITY - ENGINE ROOM
--Mal's looking for his mechanic (the handsome mechanic we saw earlier.)
What's this I been hearin' 'bout
yet another delay?
As Mal moves closer to the engine room, we can make out BESTER'S ARMY BOOTS sticking out from under the engine. Presumably doing his grease monkey thing.
You were supposed to have that engine
fixed and us up and...
(as he sees:)
What in the name of < all that's proper..? >
[suo-yo duh doh shr-dang]
Bester's shorts are... well, down around his army boots. He's having the sex with an unseen FEMALE. There is energetic humpage. Mal's a bit scandalized. Casts his glance away from the action. Might clear his throat.
Much with the dirty humping. Mal gives it a beat.
They seem to be, uh, finishing.
Bester climbs out, mostly still naked, yanking up his shorts.
Bester just looks to Mal. Innocently inquisitive. There is some dead pan staring on Mal's part. Oh, yes there is. Then:
You do realize we been parked on this
rock near a week longer'n we planned?
Yeah, but... there's stuff to do.
As for example that job we got waitin'
for us on Paquin. When we landed here you
said you just needed a few days before we were
space worthy again and is there somethin' wrong
with your bunk?
More impatient staring, then Bester gets it finally: right. The naked girl behind the engine. Bester laughs.
Oh! No. Cap!
(leans forward "confidentially")
She like engines. They make her hot.
Bester. Get your prairie harpy off my
boat and put us back in the air.
'kay. But... can't.
Whaddya mean "can't."
No can do, cap. Secondary grav boot's shot.
No it ain't.
Kaylee pops up, getting dressed. The men look at her.
Ain't nothing wrong with your grav boot.
Grav boot's just fine.
She drops down again, out of view. Mal glances at Bester. Bester's a bit flustered.
She don't... that's not...
No it ain't!
Sure it is. Grav boot ain't your trouble.
I seen the trouble plain as day when I's down
there on my back. Your reg couple's bad.
The... the what?
Reg couple. Right here. See?
(Bester is still of the blank expression)
I'm pointin' right at it.
She rolls her eyes, sighs, reaches in, breaks off a part of the engine.
She plunks the part in Bester's hand. She reaches back in, tinkers.
Don't really serve much of a purpose, anyway.
Just tends to gum up the works when it gets tacked.
(re: a nearby wrench)
Hand me that, will ya?
So I figure, why even have it? Better to just plug
your g-line straight into the port-pin-lock and that
She's done. WHIRRR the turbine starts to turn.
She shoves it in Bester's hand. Fiddles with the engine.
What'd you do?
She fixed it.
Well, it wasn't really broke.
Bester looks at the part in his hand.
Where'd you learn to do that, miss?
Just do it, that's all. My daddy says I got
a natural talent.
I'd say you do at that.
(re: the part)
We don't need this?
You work for your daddy, do you?
When he's got work. Which lately ain't
been too often.
And have you had much experience on a
vessel like this?
Never even been up in one before.
You never been... how'd you like to?
For how long?
Long as you like. Long as you can keep
her in the sky.
(getting it now)
You offering me a job?
Believe I just did.
Just gotta ask my folks!
She pulls her hastily assembled wardrobe about her, pushes past Mal and a stunned Bester.
Don't leave without me!
Mal watches Kaylee go, tickled. Bester just blinks, stunned.
Mal. Whaddya need two mechanics for?
I really don't. Pack your things.
She got a name?
Oh dear god, where to start? Kaylee is indeed having pretty casual sex, even apparently exhibiting a fetish, but it's not about the sex. "I seen the trouble plain as day when I's down there on my back." - she wasn't thinking about the sex while she was having sex, she was considering how to use her professional skills. Perhaps Whedon was trying to imply that Bester isn't sexually competent, but what he's given us is a girl who lies back and thinks of...Serenity. It's not the guy she's into, it's the landscape. Considering what a great career move this encounter was for her, you could even tag her to the 'office slut' stereotype - the girl who fucks for a promotion rather than for pleasure. For all she talks about simple sexual enjoyment, Kaylee never actually gets it.
River - the witch-child. She's lovely. She's the second character, after Inara, to be shown naked. But sexually, River doesn't do a lot, either for herself or anyone else. She has a mental disability caused by damage to the brain, and everyone knows that people with mental disabilities aren't sexual, or sexy. They can have relatives and make friends and do srs MacGuffin plot stuff, be intelligent, be dangerous, be artistic, but no sex pls. (The only other celibate main character, Book, is a priest. Jayne queries his celibacy in a bout of smalltalk at the start of the last episode, and he said he'd deliberately chosen to join an order that did not allow priests to marry. I don't know how much I can, or should, read into this difference between the only celibate woman and the only celibate man.)
I think I should leave that right there - River doesn't add anything more to the topic of this rant, namely sex, though she is worthy of many other gender-rants in her own right.
Saffron - the temptress. Not a crewer, but a recurring villain, and how did that happen? Sex, sort of. She's another on the long list of Characters That Appear Naked, in this case in the process of pretending she wanted to have sex with Mal, not having sex with Mal, pretending she wanted to have sex with Wash, then leading the poor heroes into an awful trap before running away, oh noez! But no one can bear to kill her, so she comes back later, with more naughty lies and vile scheming. The point here is that her sexuality, which she usually puts over as being a very earthy, natural thing (she's generally simply dressed and not made up, is pleasantly ample-bodied, more so than Inara and maybe a little more so than Kaylee, I'm not certain) - is a lie. She implies - "You're assuming the payoff is the point" - that she gets off on the sexual deceptions she employs, one way or another. She appears in only two episodes, and heavily comes on to five characters, all of them in deceptive situations; she is known by three different names, none of which is really hers; she has had many brief marriages.
In a way, she resembles Kaylee - making clear sexual overtures but with no follow-up. In Saffron's case, the lack of action is clearly intentional. Now, you could see this as a ratings issue - if Saffron was doing all the stuff she appears to want to do, the story would be a mite less primetime - it would also have a very different chemistry, as teasing the characters romantically but not delivering until very late on in the story, or not at all, is part of the allure. There are reasonable not-specifically-gender-related reasons for Saffron to be the sweet cocktease she is. But next to Kaylee and Inara, seeing another woman who doesn't really act on her sexual desire is a tad suspicious. She'll talk of it, maybe do it offscreen a time or two, but it's not about wanting sex, it's really all for the sake of something else. And it's not that way for Jayne, or for Mal, or for the married couple.
So, conclusion; Firefly women do sex if they're married, or sex if they have some non-sex goal in mind, or sex if one of the male leads wants to fuck them and we're not even going to remember the girl's name after the end of the episode. (Honourable exception for Nandi, who goes in category 2 rather than category 3). This is feminism in sci-fi. Enjoy it.