Friday, July 20, 2007

I'll Be In My Bunk

[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,'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;


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
beautiful skin...

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
know that?


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
of men.

Never, actually.

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;


--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.
(to Mal)

She drops down again, out of view. Mal glances at Bester. Bester's a bit flustered.

(to Mal)
She don't... that's not...
(to Kaylee)
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?
(he does)
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?

Not 'specially.

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?

(points skyward)
You mean...?


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.


Anonymous said...

who says feminism is all about sex? i always thought it was about gender equality in general, but maybe that's me. and who said that for a writer to be feminist and to put those attitudes in his writing that all the characters need to be feminist all the time? in the world, there is gender inequality, and in firefly there is also gender inequality. it happens. it wouldn't be a believable setting if there wasn't any of that going on. yes there's some fucked up gender shit going on, but have you taken a look outside recently?

one of my favorite (feminist) parts about firefly is that probably the most vocal character about male/female gender roles is Wash. on several occasions (altho i don't have the specific script quotes and i haven't rewatched the show recently enough to quote specific lines) he makes it clear that he a) does not see a difference in aptitude or capability of women vs. men, b) does not have a problem with women in positions of power, and c) men don't always have to wear the pants in a relationship. as i see it, Wash serves as Joss' way to say that male feminism exists, and, being a man myself, i appreciate that inclusion, and i think that his character is the most positive influence on feminism in the show. because the show isn't going to sell feminism or gender equality to women. the show *might* sell some of those ideas to men, though, and isn't that where it counts?

if all the characters were all feminism all the time, you'd have hothead paisan ( -- and that would alienate probably most of your audience, male and female. yes the characters are flawed, but *people* are flawed. maybe joss doesn't get female sexuality, but you know what, he's a guy, get over it. he does a fairly believable job of it. and for a blog that's written as an academic essay, it seems sophomoric to make a generalized statement about a writer based solely on a single work. i'm not saying joss is god, but i think you should go watch buffy and angel and *then* come back and bash his "feminism."

thene said...

[I didn't think I was writing an 'academic essay' here; I was thinking of it as a rant, a whinge, a bucket of froth, etc. Should I be flattered you took it that way? Or is it just showing in my writing that I have my head up my own ass over this kinda thing? I confess that I don't watch much TV - I'm just not used to getting my media fix off the little box, so I rarely work up the patience to actually enjoy TV shows; I've tried Buffy and I just didn't get into it. I couldn't believe in it, somehow. I decided that I could still rant on about how this feminist guy everyone talks about has written some pretty unfeminist stuff about sex, in any case.]

No, of course feminism isn't all about sex, but I think sex is highly relevant to feminism, especially when a writer is being feminist (by sci-fi standards) in most ways but distinctly not with regards to sex. Saying 'yey gender equality, but don't worry about sex' doesn't make a lot of sense to me, as sex, in both storytelling and the general media, is saddled with crazy double standards that I think it's important for feminists to question. Sci-fi is a great way to ask questions.

Yes, the real world has fucked-up shit in it. But I've not read that much sci-fi about global warming, house price spikes or binge-drinking lately, so why would it be beyond believable to ditch misogynistic attitudes to sex at the door as well?

Oddly enough I never got that impression about Wash. I'd be interested if you could point out a few specific quotes - hosts scripts for every episode (each Episode Guide page has a script link), if you do feel like describing how you came to see him that way. What I most keenly recall about Wash and gender is the bit in OMR where he's debating cultural relativism with Zoe;

ZOE (V.O.)
She's clearly out of her mind.

Well, she's led a sheltered life.

Did you see the way she grabbed that
glass from you?

Every planet's got its own weird
customs. 'Bout a year before we met,
I spent six weeks on a moon where the
principal form of recreation was
juggling geese. My hand to God.
Baby geese. Goslings. They were

Of course the man rushes in to defend

I'm talking about geese.

That gave me the impression he was pretty laissez-faire about feminism in general. What I did love about Wash was that he demonstrated how a traditional and very loving and intimate marriage could exist without either partner adhering to gender roles. But in terms of specific feminist statements, I wound up getting more of a buzz from Mal than from Wash. (Shindig and OMR especially - in both those episodes he was railing against girls-are-for-doing prejudices).

I think you're right to say that the inequalities are part of the story Whedon chose to tell - but one thing I love about sci-fi and fantasy is that we can use unreal worlds to reimagine society in any way we please - and even those reimaginings are highly reflective of the social norms of the times when they were created. (for instance, I'm not touching Tolkien/gender with a ten-foot pole). There are writers who use sci-fi to challenge the unequal assumptions we make about sex (Tricia Sullivan <3 - and no, her characters aren't perfect either, they just don't create the same conclusions about sex as Whedon's do) - it's certainly not impossible if you're trying. I just think that however many other aspects of misogyny he was keen to debunk, when it came to sex Whedon was mostly going with common assumptions rather than actually looking at what women are after in the bedroom.

Would it have been harder to sell Firefly to men if Inara hadn't claimed that women just do women to 'relax', or if Kaylee really had slept with a rentboy? I don't see those as fatal options, or even radical ones, personally.

Cassandra Says said...

" maybe joss doesn't get female sexuality, but you know what, he's a guy, get over it. he does a fairly believable job of it. "

Pissed off fanboy for the win!

But seriously, do you not see the logical inconsistency in what you just wrote? He doesn't get female sexuality, which was the point our hostess was making, and yet somehow he does a great job of portraying it, even though women who watch the show disagree? If some random dude thinks Whedon is doing a great job of portraying female sexuality then OBVIOUSLY it must be true, no matter how many women disagree?

Damn, that's some impressive detachtment from reality you have there.

Cassandra Says said...

Thene - Sorry about that, I'll stop picking on the other commenters now. I like poking fanboys and fangirls with sticks, do it in my own fandom all the time.

Whedon always stuck me as having a sort of superficial feminist gloss but some pretty traditional attitudes underneath. I'd say Pratchett's a lot more genuinely feminist-friendly, just less fond of ass-kicking girls in miniskirts.

And before any fanboys go off at me, I LIKE ass-kicking girls in miniskirts. It's just not feminism so much as it is vaguely fetishy.

Anonymous said...

"Would it have been harder to sell Firefly to men if Inara hadn't claimed that women just do women to 'relax', or if Kaylee really had slept with a rentboy? I don't see those as fatal options, or even radical ones, personally."

re: inara -- probably not. i think there's a lot of problems with her character in general. i think probably what he was going for was that there's a difference between sexual/intimate relationships with men and the same relationships with women but what he got was pretty stereotypical preconceptions of lesbians/bisexual women. he has the same problem in Buffy when he makes Willow a les and tries to show her relationships with other women -- it never quite comes off right.

re: Kaylee -- maybe. i won't deny her sexual desire with regards to the way the rest of her personality is at best incongruous. but we are talking about a show that was canceled before the end of the first season. which means that the studio believed there was something about it that the tv watching public wasn't ready or able to handle. i think sexing kaylee up more than they did already -- which as it stands, already seemed out of place -- might make her harder to digest to an audience that is largely male and NOT feminist.

the reason i come running to joss's defense has less to do with fanboy/girl-ism and is more because there are very few writers who even bring up these topics for debate at all on television, and joss seems to be able to slightly nudge at it in a subversive way that can be digested by a large tv-watching throng. honestly, what else is there, on tv, that's feminist? gilmore girls? please, give me a break. also, we're talking about the same person who has spoken out publicly about gender in/equality, recently with the dua kalil thing but before that there was a video of him at a conference circulating around in which he was talking about how he is always asked "why are you always writing about these strong, female characters?" (this was when he was still working on the wonder woman deal), and his response, ultimately , to them and to writers in general is "why aren't you? why is this news?"

there have been several reports recently about how women are the main characters of television shows that are currently running even *less* now than they were a couple years ago. i think that's a much bigger issue. personally, i never really saw his shows as being specifically feminist, per se, but i think on the whole, he's done much more *for* feminism than against it. i'll let him defend his own attitudes toward feminism himself, if he wants to call himself feminist.

as a white male (traits i share with joss whedon), i will never know what it's like to deliver a baby, have a period, or be objectified for my body simply by walking down the street. so maybe i'm unqualified to talk about what it means to be a woman. but i don't think i'm unqualified to talk about gender roles and equality; i've done a bit of research of my own on the subject and i'm married to a feminist (who proposed to *me*), which helps.

and i swear i'll get back to you on wash. we're re-watching BSG at the moment and i know i can find specific bits if i watch the show again...

Cassandra Says said...

Oh, I agree that Whedon is TRYING. There's no question about that. My point was that where he seems to have the most problems writing realistic female characters is in terms of sex, and that's interesting since he's quite good at writing female characters in general. Why can even a feminist-identified man not get past the idea that women are fundementally sort of asexual to the point where he has even the courtesan craving soft fuzzy cuddle-sex?

(I think our hostess will see what I'm getting at here. Hint - to a certain extend I Blame The Lesbian Separatists.)

Also, yeah, he seems to have picked up the common idea that all two women do in bed is play with each other's hair. That's the stereotype that refuses to die.

thene said...

-aahaha, yeah, I didn't miss the similarity between Joss and the radfem fauxles thing. There's no cock involved, so clearly there's no red-hot objectifying evil dirty fucking going on. Because we all care so much about the cock. It is the centre of everyone's sexual issues, totally.

Is Kaylee's sexuality incongruous? I think it's incongruous in that she's not nearly as sexually aggressive with Simon as she could've been, but then, Simon is ye shrinking violet (which I guess is another of Joss's attempts to play with gender roles). I think it's only incongruous because it never delivers.

I'm blithely unaware of what goes on in the mainstream; I only ever hear about TV sexism from the disaster reports. But I read a lot of sf/f books, and while I get narked at their gender baggage on a regular basis, there's a good crop of strong, and often sexually assertive, female characters. They're not hard to write and they tend to make stories better rather than worse. Joss might be a relatively lone voice on TV, but in the genre as a whole he's part of a throng. So while I like Joss's stuff, I think, as his "why aren't you?" comment implies, he's just doing what a normal audience wants and if he's after a pat on the back for it, he can damn well avoid peddling misogynistic sex.

Pratchett's feminist friendliness is something I should probably try to make a post about at some point, but it's so huge I wouldn't know where to start. He's got a world mired in gender roles, but his women as individuals are brilliant and genuinely empowering (and not sexually passive, though whether Esme is asexual would be a rant in itself); they just live in, for the most part, a more rigid patriarchy than we do. I heard that in the early 90s when Pratchett wasn't famous, Equal Rites was serialised on Woman's Hour and several feminists wrote to him about it addressing him as a woman. Kudos there.

Cassandra Says said...

See, that's why I like Pratchett. It's quite easy to write strong female characters in a fantasy/SF environment, because you can tweak the culture to make things easier for them. It's much harder to write strong female characters in a culture that looks recognizably like our own because they will inevitably keep bumping up against obstacles. Utopias are EASY to write (says the girl who used to write utopian SF), placing your female characters in a realistic environment and then showing how they cope is much harder.

Marie said...

I'm not very good at debate, and usually just a lurker, but I want to address your thoughts on Kaylee - specifically, your "least favourite scene." You saw her noticing the mechanical stuff as a distraction from the sex. I always saw it (the being in the engine room, perving at the engines in coitus) as adding to the sexual pleasure. Her surroundings, and her awareness of them, increase her sexual drive and enjoyment.

Not sure if that came out coherently (yay, a quarter past midnight) but those are my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Heh. Funny, Marie commented on the same scene I wanted to at almost the same time I wanted to comment on it; we're not each other's sock puppet, I promise.

I found this essay interesting and insightful, but your observations on Kaylee's engine-room nookie struck a very false chord with me. Apparently, either you've never dated a geek or have (wisely) restricted yourself to high-functioning geeks with enough social sense to not reveal all the details of what's going through our heads during sex.

Kaylee is essentially a self-taught mechanical engineering geek; she loves machinery on a level well beyond her ability to consciously control. And as a fellow geek, please believe me when I say that just because we're yelling at that portion of our brains to shut the hell up doesn't mean it's actually going to listen.

"Oh GOD that feels good, oh yes oh yes oh YES oh hey, that reg couple's broken! No, no, engine-time later, sex-time now, oh God...."

Yeah. I find that hypothetical thought process to be uncomfortably plausible. And given that I agree with Marie that Kaylee was intentionally cross-wiring her love of machinery with her libido, I don't doubt for a second that she was enjoying the hell out of herself.

thene said...

You're both right, up to a point (not dated a geek? Please, I've paused in the middle of sex to talk about Metal Gear before now). My problem's not with Kaylee's interest in engines, but with the lack of delivery vis a vis sex. I gathered, from her tone of voice when saying "...when I was lying on my back over there..." that Bester wasn't exactly garnering her attention, and that she hadn't been very active or enthusiastic wrt the sex part. That Whedon turned the scene into an explanation of how Kaylee became part of the Serenity crew smells extremely bad, especially in a world full of stereotypes about how women can only get promoted by sleeping with colleagues. It would've been nice to see Kaylee get some hot, zipless engine-room fucks with multiple orgasms and no financial or relationship gain involved, sex like the sort of sex Jayne gets - why was that too much to ask for?

Anonymous said...

First, a disclaimer: I have only watched a few episodes of Firefly, so I may well be getting things wrong. Also, I'm female and (consider myself to be) a feminist. (Normally, I wouldn't pigeonhole myself like that for a discussion, but it's probably relevant here.)

I personally have some gripes with the gender issues of Firefly, particularly Inara's "happy hooker" role. (Compare "Pretty Woman" which, for all its many flaws, depicted prostitution as a state of misery from which any self-respecting person would escape as soon as possible.) To sum up: I'm not bothered by the fact that she is a prostitute (all the rest of the cast are criminals and outcasts, too), or even the fact that it is a legitimate occupation in her culture, only by the fact that she seems happy in that function.

For the rest, with respect, I don't really see your point. Would it be more feminist to depict female characters as driven by their sexuality to the exclusion of everything else? Why so, when the male characters aren't? Zoe has a strong sex drive (strong enough to make me uncomfortable), but that doesn't count because she's married? All that is to say is that she is in a relationship. (Wash doesn't go off and have casual sex with other women either, after all.)

You're probably on stronger ground with Kaylee and River. I haven't seen any episodes where Kaylee has done anything sexual (other than swooning a bit over Simon), so I can't add anything there. You probably have a point about Inara's female client, but as I see it, the "relaxation" issue is about her status, not a gender thing.

As I see it, feminism isn't about sex, and I don't in general watch Firefly to see women running after men. I think, with this show, Whedon has done a lot more for than against feminism, with his depiction of quite a large cast of female characters (compare the likewise large-cast Heroes, with only two women), independent subjects in their own right, three of whom fulfil non-traditional roles for fictional females (the warrior, the geeky mechanic, the traumatised killing machine).

Anonymous said...

Coming late to this interesting discussion.

Here's a question: if we're only looking at the 14 episodes of Firefly, how does /male/ sexuality look?

Book is celibate by oath.

Simon is celibate by circumstance, along with a healthy dollop of social ineptitude. He also comes a across as rather undersexed. (As opposed to repressed. Mal is repressed. Simon is just not all that interested.)

Mal has sex once and it ends badly. Otherwise, celibate. ("No one has taken hold of my plow but me for a long, long time...") He, er, manfully resists Saffron, at least for a while. He boils with attraction to Inara but never does anything about it but snipe at her.

Jayne has casual sex several times but is clearly unable to form any sort of relationship.

Wash is the only one who's regularly having sex. He's monogamous and faithful (we see him tempted and resisting in "Our Mrs. Reynolds"). Still, even he has issues with jealousy -- although they're both clearly happy in the relationship, Zoe seems more comfortable and secure.

So, maybe it's not just the women? I mean, Whedon is trying to tell an interesting, engaging, character-driven stories. Giving his characters issues with sexuality is one good way to do that.

Two other thoughs. Re Inara: Inara is presented as (1) a private person (cf. the recurring "don't come in without permission" trope), (2) someone who's trained in manners, self-control, and polite flattery. I submit that Inara is, with the possible exception of River, the least reliable interlocutor on the show. So, when she's talking to the counselor, is she telling the truth? Expressing resentment at Mal (who's just been obnoxious about "meeting everyone who comes on the ship" -- IOW, insisting on the same prerogative he denies to Inara)? Or politely playing out her Companion's role? Any of these work. So I'd hesitate to jump to conclusions (at least based on the episodes we have).

Finally, River: maybe River isn't sexualized because she's mentally ill. Or maybe it's because she's too young. Her apparent age and behavior put her in the 16-18 range. While 16 year old girls can have and express sexuality (you'll be shocked to hear), Whedon may just not have wanted to open that particular can of worms. Also, she's been through a lot; she's not just mentally ill, she's a torture survivor who's clearly working through some sort of PTSD. So, having her sexuality suppressed seems plausible under the circumstances.

(Just got the series as a Christmas gift, BTW. Good gift.)

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I can see you put a lot of think and thought into this. Even though I'm a johnny-come-lately to the show, I'd like to put in a few cents.

You present sound reasoning, for the most part, and even though I may not agree with many of your conclusions, I can clearly understand your positions and why you hold those positions. (It is sad that is such a rare commodity these days)

First, since you are talking about "sexuality," it may be important to consider how tv dramas portray "sex." People on standard cable shows are only partially "sexed" (they are most certainly "gendered"). "Sex" is a set of biological characteristics. While characters from TV shows have many blatant, sexualized characteristics they rarely have genitalia (and even when "implied" it is rarely "shown"). This is dis-congruent with the reality in which we, as actual people, live in. Due to this limitation of televised, fictionalized worlds, storytellers may overcompensate with other aspects of characters in order to "sexualize" them. This is of course highly theoretical, and certainly few writers and produces of TV shows rarely think, "I can't show what's between the character's legs... so I've got to overcompensate for that." Not in the least, it's just a tacit assumption of the genre. (This is not meant to "trump" your position on "feminist sexuality" in Firefly, but I thought it was a fact worthy of consideration. Furthermore, I'm not certain that your positions are even incompatible with my above remarks, but I do think a brief genre-study acknowledgment might help you more fully articulate your position.)

Take that for what its worth.

There are a couple places where you draw problematic inferences from character interactions: one, is Inara and Mal. Specifically where you reason

"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."

This may be a valid criticism if it held true after a non-anemic season of the show. First, there is no conclusive evidence that Companions actually have a complicated policy on dating, or if Inara imposes on herself a complicated policy due to something in her past that would slowly be revealed as the show progressed.

Even though it is a minor point, I think it may be useful to consider how slowly character development typically takes in television shows (it's an inherent feature of the genre).

Wouldn't a more effective way of upsetting stereotypes involve a presentation that "appears" to confirm certain stereotypes and when more information is learned about the characters these stereotypes are turned on their heads?

I understand that this is a huge benefit-of-the-doubt that I'm extending to Whedon. But, I've seen most of his television shows, and, while, they don't exude a perfectly enlightened attitude about gender (as in cultural defined roles) and sex (as in biological sex) I think that his attitudes are well beyond the norm (in a good way).

I've been typing for longer than I liked; so, forgive me that I'm just going to end this here.

Thanks for writing a thought provoking "rant."

Anonymous said...

I always thought that Kaylee's "...when I was lying on my back..." was an expression both of her geekschaft and of her fundamental _innocence_; as such I found it sweet and positive.

It is in this context that I never for a moment, until it was brought up as a possibility, considered the possible implication that she was trying to "sleep" her way to a job....Kaylee is the most unreservedly good, or at least innocent, character in the show.

Speaking of which, I think the presentation of Jayne's sexual expression isn't in the same class as that of any of the other character for the simple reason that he's a shit. He has his good qualities, and is concerned enough about his ill or good fame that he limits his conduct in some ways, but the presentation of his behaviour can't be taken as normative.

As problematic as Zoe may be, she's a giant step-up within the African Warrior Woman rôle for Gina Torres when compared to her previous, similar, rôles in "Hercules: the Legendary Cleavages" and "Cleopatra 38-25-36". Note, for example, that her warrior is domesticated both by being a "wife" and by her being very devotedly a second-in-command, which takes from the stupidly popular "warrior" into the much more realistic "soldier" (the sort who actually fight wars).

I've long said that Whedon is one of the best writers working in television today, but that doesn't mean he's all that good; the same goes for his feminism.

Anonymous said...


Could do with some sharings!