Monday, 29 April 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Outrage

This week’s Miscellaneous Mondays post is a guest contribution from my sister, Erin.

I have been working my way through Arnaldur IndriĆ°ason's Icelandic murder procedural series, albeit slowly and out of order. The books that I have read, however, are fantastic. The stories are gripping and realistic and practically glue the book to my hand until it's over, at which point I both mope because it's over (a feeling I'm sure you all know too well) and become incredibly paranoid about crime.

They typically focus on a male protagonist, Erlender, who works without a partner and lives a solitary life, and the only women mentioned are supporting characters with little page-time in his narrative. While women are not always positively depicted through his eyes, they are, at the very least, authentic.

You may be wondering why such a series would be recommended on Strong Female Character. When Erlender takes a leave of absence for personal reasons, the series shifts to follow his female co-worker, Elinborg, in at least one novel, entitled Outrage. It gives us a glimpse into the personal life and complex personality of an otherwise minor character. She is a grounded and composed woman and mother who more than holds her own in a male-dominated career field while balancing the trials of her family life and her work. Persuasive and methodical, with outstanding detective skills and a need to get to the bottom of the case, Elinborg is an authentic portrayal of a modern woman in an increasingly demanding world.

I suggest reading through the entire series because each case is enthralling, and every character is well thought-out and, even when only making brief appearances, portrayed with their own foibles, struggles and motives. However, Outrage is a particularly interesting representation of an Actual Strong Female Character, Detective Elinborg.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Also, I Can Kill You With My Brain

With the tremendous success of The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s name will be forever associated with superheroes. In many ways, however, it already was. Whedon tackled super-powered protagonists in his work on Astonishing X-Men, Runaways, and, of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So it makes sense that he would include one such character in Firefly (and I’m not talking about the self-proclaimed “big damn heroes”).

River Tam is very different from the characters in those three aforementioned series, whose powers are generally inherited or inborn. Instead, she resembles Captain America and the Hulk, two experiments gone right and wrong, respectively. She is a Super Soldier, a weapon designed and crafted by a violent government during wartime. She is also a ticking time bomb, her emotional control literally stripped away. In many ways, River’s life can be seen as a superhero story with all of the fun fantasy elements removed. In her life before the Academy, she was human perfection: a prodigy with a staggering intellect, excelling at everything she tried. This attracted the Alliance, who made her superhuman and, in the process, made her unable to function in society. Through River, the show explores the idea that becoming superhuman can destroy one’s humanity.

Before we get too far into these heavy philosophical themes, however, let’s talk about River as a person. As a child, River was an extraordinarily bright girl who could do anything; as Simon states, “everything she did -- music, math, theoretical physics, even dance -- there was nothing that didn’t come as naturally to her as breathing does to us.” She had an active imagination and loved engaging in complex play-acting games. Aware of her superiority, she was somewhat arrogant about her abilities.

When she was fourteen, she decided to enrol in a government-sponsored academy because it offered the most exciting and challenging program available. While under their control, she underwent a series of procedures to increase her psychic ability and turn her into the perfect weapon, “ideal for defense deployment, even with the side effects.” These procedures involved opening up her skull on multiple occasions so scientists could scrape off bits of her amygdala, which Simon describes as the filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check. As he observes, “She feels everything. She can’t not.”

So it makes sense that she would have outbursts of the sort we see throughout the series. When Jayne insults Simon, she gets retribution by slashing him with a knife, which suggests that the constant emotional onslaught may have damaged her ability to determine an appropriate response. When she reads Book’s Bible, she can’t help but “fix” it, resolving contradictions and false logistics while making evolution theory work with the Christian worldview. Her inability to resist fixing the Bible is probably a consequence of her loss of filters -- what with it being considered bad form to suggest that the son of God was an evolved ape instead of a divine being -- but it could also be seen as a way of exercising control. Book tells her that “You don’t fix faith... it fixes you”; however, River finds no solace in a methodology that she finds inherently flawed. Maybe once it’s fixed, she can have faith in it. Maybe fixing it will lead her to have some faith that she too can be fixed.

It’s difficult to tell precisely why River does the things she does. This is partially because River rarely gets the chance to tell her own story. Although River has the powers of a superhero, her brother, Simon, is usually portrayed as the hero (and narrator) of her story. While she is the one who encodes a distress signal, it is Simon who saves her from the Academy. He gets the screen time, and it is his point of view that filters our perception of his sister. This is supported by the fact that, when River asks, “What am I?”, Simon’s responds, “You are my beautiful sister.” The line is clearly intended to suggest that she is a person with people who love her, but it also defines her identity in relation to Simon.

What is particularly frustrating about the show’s insistence upon making River’s trauma an excuse to focus on Simon’s suffering is the fact that River herself does it. In one of the very few moments during which River is simultaneously lucid, introspective, and chatty, she gives us some insight into her psyche. She tells Simon, “I remember everything. I remember too much. And some of it’s made up, and some of it can’t be quantified, and there’s secrets... But I understand.” This should be an opportunity for the audience to learn something about River’s mental processes, but what it becomes is something quite different. River continues: “You gave up everything you had to find me; you found me broken. It’s hard for you. You gave up everything you have.” What we end up learning about River is that she, like the narrative, feels that Simon is a victim.

Yes, Simon has suffered tremendously for his decision to save River. He’s lost his parents, his friends, and his promising medical career. However, River has lost all of those things, as well as her mind and her sense of self. The fact that the show seems to care so much more about Simon’s suffering is problematic, at the very least.

In 1999, Gail Simone coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” to describe a trend in comics in which female characters are raped, killed, or depowered, often to allow for character development in the men who love them. River’s storyline is a pretty cut and dry example of fridging, and the writers (knowingly or not) literalize this by introducing her as a cryogenically frozen girl stuffed in a box. Arguably, by the end of Serenity, she has been defrosted, having discovered both her superpowers and a kind of relief in the revelation of the secrets she once kept.

The symbolism of the girl in a box appears to extend beyond a probably unintentional reference to a sexist trope. In terms of superheroes, it’s Kal-El in his spaceship, arriving on a planet whose inhabitants will consider him a superman. In terms of Whedon’s later work, it’s a Doll in her box, waiting to be programmed with a new personality. Like the Dolls, River responds to triggers and commands. This loss of control is one of the major issues I had with Serenity when I re-watched it for this analysis.

While the series seems to depict River’s “thawing,” if you will, from a person ruled by her trauma to a person with agency, the film regresses her. In Serenity, we learn that she can be prompted by subliminal messages to take out entire bars full of patrons, and that the only thing that can stop her is a verbal cue that causes her to fall asleep. We also learn that the reason why the Alliance was searching for her over the course of the series was to protect a secret that she accidentally and subconsciously discovered. The filmic version of River generally lacks agency.

When she does get to make a decision, it is to repay Simon for taking care of her. She walks into a hoard of Reavers and kills them all, one Alliance experiment destroying another. This is the moment that River became an epic badass, but I would argue that it’s not the moment that gives the most payoff for her character arc.

That occurs in the final episode of Firefly, “Objects in Space,” in which we finally see the world from River’s point of view. The girl who has been an object in her own story becomes its subject, and we get to experience the world as she does. We hear the thoughts of the other crew members, including Simon’s resentful observation that he would be back with his friends at home if it weren’t for her. We see River see Zoe and Wash in an intimate moment, and we witness what appears to be her feeling some of their arousal. Finally, we enter the world as River perceives it, where stepping on a twig causes the floor of the deck to fill with branches and leaves, before we come to realize that the twig was actually a gun all along. “It’s just an object,” River assures us, “It doesn’t mean what you think.”

Over the course of the episode, River continues to disrupt any kind of easy conceptualization of objects. She does this, primarily, by melting away as a girl and becoming Serenity. As she says, “I’m not on the ship; I’m in the ship. I am the ship. River’s gone.” She becomes a disembodied voice and gets into Jubal Early’s head, using her psychic abilities to talk to him about his childhood and put him off balance. While she’s doing this, she also wrangles the crew into carrying out a plan to get rid of Early. Part of that plan involves revealing that she has been on Early’s ship the whole time, just at the point when he has accepted that she has actually become Serenity. She manages to trick him because she lures him (and us) into believing in the mutable quality of objects. In short, River uses the powers that have tormented her to save herself and the crew, transforming her trauma into something positive.

Although Simon does take this opportunity to take Early down, we see that, at last, he is not the hero. River saves herself and it is Simon who gets in the way and almost ruins her plan. Introduced as a vulnerable child who has to be saved by her brother, River has developed into the protector, telling Mal that Simon “takes so much looking after.” While the variation on this line that she uses in Serenity is effective, I find this one far more compelling. It’s an expression not of gratitude from a traumatized girl to her devoted older brother, but of fond exasperation from a mature young woman to the boy whose spelling she’s been correcting since she was three. It’s a glimpse of River as she might have been.

We do, however, have to return to River as she is: proof of what happens when you try to turn a person into a thing. One of the major questions that arises from River’s storyline is whether or not she is actually human. The scientists who experimented on her wanted her to become “a living weapon.” They may have been successful, as evidenced by River’s takedown of the Reavers and the sharp shooting she employed to save Kaylee. Kaylee herself describes the mechanical exactitude required in the latter situation as proof that River can’t be human: “Nobody can shoot like that that’s a person.” Her superhuman abilities drive normal people to view her as an Other.

What proves River’s humanity is her repeated wish to be an object, an Other, a something else. She hates her lucid moments, when she “functions like a girl,” because the chaos created by her emotional instability will return. When the crew sets foot on Miranda and finds the peaceful corpses left by the Pax, River laments her sensitivity, saying, “Please, God, make me a stone.” The problem isn’t that River is an object, but that she isn’t; she couldn’t lose her humanity, and that seems to be what torments her. She is Bruce Banner, always waiting for the return of the other guy, Steve Rogers, irrevocably separated from everyone he once knew, and Kal-El, forever listening to the ills of the world and unable to cure even a fraction of them.

Verdict: Actual strong female character (almost despite the narrative)

Monday, 22 April 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Happy 75th, Lois!

 As a fan of strong female characters, there are some women you know you should know. Just as an English major knows that they’re going to have to have a working knowledge of every book that Wishbone covered, the fan of awesome ladies knows that they must familiarize themselves with people like Princess Leia, Sarah Connor, and Ellen Ripley. It’s about respecting the classics, and no one is more classic than the characters who come to us from the Golden Age of comics.

So it’s with great trepidation that I admit to you that I don’t really know much about Lois Lane. I’ve seen the atrocious Superman Returns and read the fantastic New Frontier, but, as a fan of the Gotham side of the DCU, I’m woefully unversed in the history of a woman primarily known for being Superman’s girlfriend.

In my defense, seventy-five years is an awful lot of history to get through. Seventy-five years ago last week, Lois Lane made her first appearance alongside the Man of Steel in Action Comics #1 and, while the majority of the comics-loving corner of the Internet is celebrating his anniversary, blogs like DC Women Kicking Ass are paying tribute to the intrepid reporter who’s been with him through it all (setting aside those brief periods when she was dead).

This week’s recommended reading is one such tribute. Sue of DCWKA conducted a series of interviews with several creators and a historian who have written about Lois, and they serve as a perfect introduction to the character and her place within comics culture. If, like me, you’re using the release of the upcoming Man of Steel as an excuse to learn all about Lois, this may be the perfect place to start.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Ambassador

There is something inherently cool about intergalactic Westerns. This is partially because, just like that thing where you improve fortune cookie fortunes by adding “in bed” at the end, there is nothing that cannot be made cooler by adding “IN SPACE!” Accountants... IN SPACE! Fast food franchisees... IN SPACE! Farm boys who used to bull’s-eye womp rats in their T-16... IN SPACE! It’s really no surprise then that a show with the premise “Cowboy smugglers... IN SPACE!” would catch on.

Sadly, it’s also no surprise that the show never really delved into the issues that arise from melding nineteenth century scenarios with a futuristic setting. It revelled in nostalgia while simultaneously asserting its progressiveness. Nowhere is this clearer -- or more problematic -- than in the characterization and treatment of Inara Serra.

Intelligent, self-confident, and assertive, Inara is a fascinating character. Eight months before we meet her, she left everything she knew behind on the planet of Sihnon, where she spent her life training and working as a Companion. Companions are one of Whedon’s innovations, and they work well in concept. Replacing the ubiquitous prostitutes of the classic Western, Companions are highly trained women who hire themselves out as sexual partners and social accompaniment. Their work is both legal and respectable, and their status allows the vessels they travel on access to higher class planets. Their training covers music, art, combat, and psychology, and they are expected to cultivate these skills with practice. They choose their own clients and, when a client misbehaves, they possess the ability to blacklist them and prevent them from ever hiring another Companion.

Because its foundation is female sexual agency, the concept of the Companion is fairly progressive; however, the execution in the show is incredibly dubious.

The first and most obvious problem with the Companion model is representative of a problem with the show in general: its egregious displays of Orientalism. While the world of Firefly is clearly inspired by Asian culture, it’s mainly used to spice up the otherwise traditional Western feel of the show. Some people -- mostly extras -- wear Asian clothing, do Asian dances, or, you know, are even sometimes Asian themselves. A street vendor’s sign advertises snacks made of dog meat. The main cast -- none of whom are Asian -- curse in poorly pronounced Mandarin. The Companions are based on oiran, Japanese courtesans somewhat similar to the more well-known geisha. As if it weren’t enough that the only principal characters with an Asian surname are a doctor and a martial artist, the most visible piece of Asian culture feeds into the Western conception of the East as a land of sexual pleasure.

Another problem that I have with the Companion lies in the show’s treatment of what could have been a legitimately progressive part of their practice. In “War Stories,” the B plot consists of Inara entertaining a client onboard the ship. Although she explicitly asks for privacy, several of the other crew members look on as the client boards and they all react with shock when, wonder of wonders, the client is a woman. Jayne immediately takes the situation as masturbation fodder and states, “I’ll be in my bunk.” He repeats the phrase (and the lecherous look) later when he sees the councillor and Inara share a quick peck as the councilor departs.

Identifying Jayne with the male gaze may have allowed the writers a great opportunity to explore the difference between the fetishistic fantasy of lesbian sex and the reality of physical love between women and, on the surface, that’s precisely what they did. In the privacy of her shuttle, Inara gives the councillor a massage and commiserates with her about her need to “relax with someone who’s making no demands on me.” Inara informs her that, while the majority of her clients are men, she sometimes feels the same way; as she observes, “One cannot always be oneself in the company of men.”

Unfortunately, the larger context for this scene undermines its value, in the sense that there is no larger context. Whereas other episodes tend to make use of Inara’s clients in the plot, the councillor plays almost no role at all, providing only the equipment to reattach Mal’s ear after his tormentor removes it. This lack of relevance, in combination with the long, lingering shots of the councillor’s naked back in the scene from which the male gaze was ostensibly banished, suggests that the introduction of a female client was all about “the show.” The dialogue makes it out to be Inara and the councillor’s escape from male eyes, but the way it’s shot and the way it simply doesn’t matter to anything else makes it gratuitous. By this time, we are also well aware that Inara’s actual love interest is a man, so the scene also perpetuates the idea that bisexual women prefer men. Finally, it’s tough to shake the feeling that this otherwise useless subplot was only included to get Whedon points for LGBTQ representation in a show where everyone else reads as straight.

I’m not saying it’s enough to ruin “I’ll be in my bunk”; I’m just saying that it should be.

Now we come to the point in this post where every Firefly fan gets the sudden urge to cause me bodily harm. Why? Because I’m going to bash Captain Tightpants.

Most of Inara’s screen time is spent with Mal, and they spend the vast majority of this time arguing in the way that tells every television viewer that they’re besotted with each other. We know that Inara is in love with Mal as early as the pilot, in which she tells Shepherd Book, who’s trying to figure out the mystery that is the captain, that it is his unpredictable quality that attracts her. Among all the men she’s known, Mal is the only one she considers a mystery.

To me, the greater mystery is why she puts up with him. Existing as it does to glorify the flawed perfection that is Malcolm Reynolds, the show can’t help but bring Inara along for the ride. To this end, we get the “whore” problem. While a Companion’s work is established to be about spiritual connection, artistic cultivation, and women’s sexual agency, Mal reduces it to sex and money. Despite the fact that Inara explicitly tells him on their first meeting never to call her “whore,” he turns it into a kind of term of endearment, as if it could be endearing to be constantly degraded. Also apparently endearing is his violation of her personal space. One of the conditions of their rental agreement is that no one enters her shuttle without her permission; despite Mal’s initial agreement, he constantly shows up unannounced. He disrespects her just about every time they talk.

This is why I find one of their arguments particularly disturbing. In “Trash,” Inara confronts Mal about the fact that he has been avoiding taking jobs on planets where she can work. The argument builds until Inara calls Mal a “petty thief,” at which point the conversation screeches to a halt. He takes offense, she scrambles to lessen the blow, and I pause the episode in outrage. In previous episodes, Inara often calls Mal out for calling her a “whore” (which he does earlier in this argument) and, although it still seems that we are supposed to be firmly Team Mal in all of this, it’s still possible that the show wants us to see his slut-shaming as a character flaw. And then this happens. Somehow, in the world of Firefly, calling a man a “petty thief” is more insulting than calling a woman a “whore.” For some reason, a woman who has every right to object to this disrespect is made to be the bad guy.

This is part of a troubling pattern that emerges in the show’s treatment of Mal’s slut-shaming of Inara. In “Shindig,” Inara gets work with a wealthy client, Atherton Wing, who offers her a position as his personal Companion and a place in the upper echelons of his planet’s society. Basically, he seeks to own her. As the episode goes on, we see him become increasingly possessive, holding Inara’s arm and observing that he “know[s] what’s mine.” There’s no question that he is a Bad Guy.

There is also no question that Mal is then set up as the Good Guy. While Inara is blind to Atherton’s true intentions, Mal sees him for what he is. He tells Atherton that Inara doesn’t belong to anyone and punches him just before he can finish saying that Inara is “still just a whore.” It turns out that the punch signalled Mal’s desire to duel Atherton for Inara, and we are suddenly left with a situation in which a woman’s agency is completely lost. It doesn’t matter what Inara wants, because she’s not the one making the decisions. In fact, the show gives her a champion to fight for her right to make her own choices.

Again, because he is fighting for Inara’s agency, Mal is the hero. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t want him to defend her honour, and that, by starting this fight in the first place, he ignored her wishes. Indeed, she even thanks him for doing it at the end of the episode. Still, Inara is willing to question this sudden concern for her honour. As she says, “You have a strange sense of nobility, captain. You’ll lay a man out for implying I’m a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face.” He replies, “I might not show respect to your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference.” While the show tells us that Mal respects Inara, there is ample evidence to the contrary. In this episode alone, he defies her wishes and messes with her job. He shows no respect for the boundaries that she has established as part of their legal agreement. In a later episode, he belittles her value to others when, after a distress call comes in asking for Inara’s help, he asks, “This distress wouldn’t happen to be taking place in someone’s pants, would it?”

In short, he’s the good guy because he’s not the worst. He’s better than Atherton who, after losing the duel, tells Inara that he should have “uglied [her] up so no one else would want [her].” That suggests that the bar is set pretty low, and Mal making it over doesn’t mean that he should be seen as a good partner for Inara, or even a particularly positive influence in her life.

This brings us to one of Inara’s defining moments: the decision to leave Serenity. The decision appears to be influenced by two things: the death of her old friend, Nandi, and Inara’s realization that she is too invested in her non-relationship with Mal. She identifies a similar strength in both Nandi and Mal, and she states that, “when you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it, you can’t break away, and you never want to.” By resisting the pull of that strength and walking away from a situation that is clearly causing her pain, she displays her own strength. In Serenity, we see a similar display in her willingness to risk her own life by preventing Mal from saving her from the Operative. When he saves her despite this, he puts his crew in danger, which is precisely what she was trying to prevent. She is able to see beyond her own desires to do what’s best. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop her from ending up in exactly the same boat at the end of the film, back on Serenity with nothing resolved.

Maybe that’s for the best. I know it’s practically blasphemous in some circles to say that you’re glad Firefly was cancelled, but I honestly feel that way. A large part of the reason is the planned gang rape of Inara by Reavers. Because it was never actually written or filmed, I’m inclined not to include it in this analysis, but I encourage you to read about it here. A word of warning: what they were planning to do is horrific on a number of levels.

This is just further evidence of a major problem I have with the show. “Cowboy smugglers... IN SPACE!” sounds like a cool idea for a show, but giving the human society of 2517 (a period later than the entirety of the Star Trek canon) the same issues as late nineteenth and twentieth century Earth is messed up. Compulsory heterosexuality and fetishization of queer women? Still a thing. The stigmatization of sex work, even in a society that has changed the perception of said work to make it a respectable profession where women have power and agency? Alive and well. The ongoing use of Orientalist stereotypes in a system where China apparently defined much of the culture (even if everything else is based on nineteenth century America)? Always. As if the aforementioned issues weren’t enough, what we see of the Firefly universe has a fully functioning patriarchy. The combination of nostalgia and progress would be awesome if either aspect had been properly interrogated, or if the show didn’t explicitly come down on the side of nostalgia just about every time. It is almost as if the creators were saying, “Take that, equality movements! Our fantasy world posits your inevitable failure!” And there’s nothing cool about that.

Verdict: Somewhere between actual strong female character and Strong Female Character TM

Monday, 15 April 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: (Don't) Just Shut Up

“As an educated consumer, as a self-described fervent feminist, as someone who makes it a point to look for and see these things about the media I engage with, I still want to watch this happen. I still want what the narrative tells me to want. I do it despite myself, but I do it all the same.”

So says Gyzym in
this stunning takedown of rape culture in popular media. In this post, she talks about the necessary acquisition of that most difficult life skill: being able to identify and condemn the harmful, problematic aspects of the media you love.

We touched a bit on this in our Disney Princess posts, when we included disclaimers to the effect that we would endeavour to be objective about certain characters, but could make no guarantee of success. Before I discovered Batgirl and the Pink Ranger, Belle was my idol, and I thought that our shared hair colour and love of reading bound us together with ties stronger than kinship (and the unfortunate reality of her being a fictional character). This, combined with a tight focus in those early posts on the characters and little exploration of the social environments of their worlds, led to an unnecessarily superficial reading of Beauty and the Beast. While we stand by our assessment of Belle as the first princess with real agency, we also acknowledge that other characters -- Gaston and the Beast -- spend most of their time trying (with a fair amount of success) to curtail it. Our original analysis had some holes; luckily, people like Gyzym exist to fill in the gaps and remind us to dig a little deeper.

Her goal isn’t merely to identify issues with beloved cultural works, but to tell us why we all have to learn to think more critically about the media we consume. Speaking about the dearth of mainstream discussion about enjoying problematic media while acknowledging its issues, she reminds us that it is our responsibility to teach ourselves and others to cultivate this critical faculty. As she says, “nobody told me because nobody knew to tell me. Nobody told me because nobody told them.”
Harmful attitudes that we refuse to speak about just go on to be silently excused and perpetuated.

Friday, 12 April 2013


There are some cosplays that you’ll see at every comic convention. There’s always a Chewbacca, a Stormtrooper or two, and a contingent from the Justice League and the Avengers. There’s usually a Link, a Mario, a Princess Peach, or a Zelda. In recent years, they’ve been joined by Power Rangers, bass-playing vampires, anthropomorphic ponies, and whatever those Homestuck characters are supposed to be. Still, the one character I always look for -- and the one I never fail to see -- is Kaylee Frye.

Kaylee’s a fan favourite, and it’s not hard to see why. As Mal observes in the pilot, he doesn’t believe “there’s a power in the ‘Verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.” She’s optimistic almost to a fault, seeing the best in people and the silver lining in any situation. One memorable example involves a visit to see so-called evidence of alien life. The alien turns out to be a mutated cow fetus, and Kaylee, rather than feeling cheated out of her admission, cheerily observes that the “poor thing never even saw the light of day and now it’s in show business.” She looks up to Mal, verbally expresses her faith in the crew, and befriends the ostracized River. Her catchphrase, “Shiny,” sums up her tendency to look on the bright side of life.

Kaylee’s darkest moments tend to occur when she feels that she has let the rest of the crew down. In “Out of Gas,” she blames herself for Serenity’s mechanical failure, saying, “Usually she lets me know when there’s something wrong. Maybe she did, I just wasn’t paying attention.” This is a particularly harsh assessment because her mechanical prowess is one of Kaylee’s defining traits. In the same episode, we see how Kaylee earned her job on the ship, and it basically boils down to being an engineering genius of almost magical skill. To her, fixing ships seems as natural as breathing; although she has years of experience working alongside her father, her talent is innate. We get to see this talent at work on several occasions, all of which involve Kaylee saving the ship, making up for her failure in this one situation.

Whenever Hollywood takes on the task of portraying a woman doing a traditionally masculine job, it’s interesting to see how the creators will confront the issue of stereotypical gender roles. In Kaylee’s case, the most explicit treatment occurs in the “Shindig” episode. Her plot begins when she spots a pink dress being modelled in a shop window and expresses her desire to own the physical embodiment of traditional femininity. Mal informs her that her wearing the dress would be “like a sheep walking on its hind legs.” Still, the shady dealings of the episode necessitate Mal’s attendance at a high society party, and he needs a date in a fancy dress. Enter Kaylee, now garbed in her flouncy fantasy frock.

While Kaylee is enjoying the glamour of the occasion, she is approached by the planet’s mean girls. They poke fun at her outfit and enthusiasm, and it seems like Kaylee’s night will be ruined until, lo and behold, a man steps in to save her using the magical weapon of slut-shaming. The next time we see her, Kaylee is wowing a large group of men with her vast knowledge of engines, and the evening is saved. At the end of the episode, we see that she keeps the dress at the end of her bed, where she can admire it.

This is the episode’s major triumph. It shows Kaylee to be something of a “girly girl” at heart, someone who unashamedly loves to dress up and walk among the beautiful people. It also suggests that this trait isn’t incommensurable with her traditionally masculine job; in fact, Kaylee’s mechanical know-how makes her the belle of the ball. She doesn’t have to hide who she is or what she knows to be considered acceptable.

However, while there is a positive message in Kaylee’s story about performing gender however you like and being who you are, there is still that looming spectre of the mean girls and their treatment. Kaylee doesn’t defend herself against their attacks, arguing on behalf of her right to wear whatever she wants. Instead, a man shows up and turns the clothing discussion into a condemnation of one of the women, as he accuses her of being much easier to get out of her dress than into it. This is treated by the narrative as a triumph, and it shows that you can be a woman any way you like, except of course, in a way that involves having a fair amount of presumably consensual sex. It is particularly interesting that Kaylee lets these accusations stand without comment considering her close friendship with Inara, the show’s number one target for slut-shaming. (More on that next week.)

Kaylee and Inara’s friendship is a high point of the show. In a media climate with a dearth of female friendships, it is refreshing to see that Firefly made a point of dedicating screentime and dialogue to establishing just such a bond. Kaylee visits Inara’s shuttle to enjoy what are basically spa days. Inara refers to Kaylee by an affectionate pet name. We have ample evidence to show us that they’re close. Unfortunately, unless my ears and eyes deceive me, they don’t pass the Bechdel test. Although their conversations often begin with comments about Inara’s job or the terrible aesthetic value of locally made art for tourists, they all end with the two women chatting about men. So, unless I missed something, this show that features four women in principal roles fails to pass the Bechdel test in fourteen episodes and a movie. That’s a pretty egregious oversight when the creator of the show is known for his apparent feminism.

One of Kaylee’s other important relationships is her blossoming romance with Simon. It begins as a one-sided crush, with Kaylee pining after the doctor while he remains largely unaffected. Over time, however, it becomes more mutual and Kaylee comes to wield much more power than one might expect from such an initially unbalanced relationship. When Simon is insensitive, she makes it clear that she will not accept it, often explicitly calling him out on his behaviour. She demands that he become more emotionally available and, as shown by her interest in Tracey Smith, she is more than willing to move on to another man who can more readily attend to her emotional needs. She knows what she wants, and she’s not going to settle for less.

Part of this facet of Kaylee’s character comes through in her focus on sex. Kaylee is a highly sexual character. The first time she sets foot on Serenity, it is to have sex with the mechanic. Even when she’s going through a dry spell, she has no problem vocalizing her desire, asking about the “boy-whores” in “Heart of Gold” and uttering the infamous “Goin’ on a year now I ain’t had nothin’ ‘twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries” line in the film. The last time we see her, she’s having sex with Simon, having gotten the guy.

This makes the slut-shaming incident in “Shindig” particularly bizarre. If Kaylee enjoys sex and seems to engage in it pretty willingly, why is the mean girl’s promiscuity held against her? Why couldn’t she have just been called out for being unpleasant and insulting? And, again, why did a man have to step in to save her?

The problem appears to be that, while Kaylee can exercise a certain amount of agency and display a great deal of competence, she is Firefly’s version of the silent cinematic woman tied to the train tracks. She’s often used as a hostage and has to be saved by her fellow crew members on multiple occasions. She’s sweet little Kaylee, and that means that she is the one who most often has to be put in danger to make us care.

The most disturbing instance of this occurs in the final episode of the series. Jubal Early, a bounty hunter who boards Serenity in order to find River Tam, threatens to rape Kaylee, saying, “You throw a monkey wrench into my plans in any way, your body is forfeit. It ain’t nothing but a body to me, and I can find all unseemly manner of use for it.” Later, Early brings up the subject of rape once again, this time to Simon. Lest you think that men and women are treated equally on this show, I’d like to point out that Early does not, in fact, threaten to rape Simon, but instead gets him to do what Early wants by threatening once again to rape Kaylee. At no point is there a threat of sexual violence made against any of the men. Early’s “You ever been raped?” question frames the act -- as perpetrated against women -- as commonplace. It’s like a woman being raped is simply to be expected.

Ultimately, I’m conflicted about Kaylee. On the one hand, she’s a compelling character with tremendous skill and a fair amount of personal agency whose story arc was cut short before it could really go anywhere. On the other, she’s a bit player in a narrative that delights in constantly putting her in danger and having other people save her. She is a very likeable character, but I can’t help but dislike the way she is treated by the narrative.

Verdict: Somewhere between actual strong female character and Strong Female Character TM

Monday, 8 April 2013

Miscellaneous Mondays: Gender-Reversed Fairy Tales and Classics

Yudi Chen

This post is going to be very short, because, while a picture is usually worth a thousand words, these ones could be entire novels.

Gender-reversed versions of iconic fairy tales? Yes, please. I have waited my whole life for this version of Beauty and the Beast.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Big Damn Hero

We all have that show. You know the one: the show you watch for the first time and proclaim its brilliance throughout the land, secure in the knowledge that you’ll love it forever. Then you watch it again a couple of years later and notice some flaws, but nostalgia prevents you from questioning your love. After all, nothing and nobody is perfect. Finally, two or three years on, you brush off the cobwebs on the DVD case and pop it into the player, only to be confronted with a harsh reality: far from being perfect, your one true show is actually kind of a mess. The honeymoon is over.

I don’t want to hyperextend this metaphor into tales of the show’s devoted spouses, who still have a spark in their eye after eleven years of marriage to a series that could only ever provide them with fourteen episodes and a movie, or bitter exes who gather on the Internet to commiserate about heroic slut-shaming and unnecessary deaths in the name of creating serious art. What I want to do is begin what promises to be a lengthy foray (comprised of several expeditions -- let’s be real here, we’re not doing them all in one go) into the work of Joss Whedon, the acclaimed writer renowned for his strong female characters.

To that end, let’s delve into the universe of Firefly. The show, which aired in 2002, tells the story of a space cowboy, Malcolm Reynolds, and his crew of smugglers, who travel the galaxy doing mostly illegal jobs under the nose of the all-powerful Alliance. The first member of the crew and second in command is Zoe Washburne, a woman who fought alongside Mal six years earlier in the war against the Alliance.

According to her husband, Zoe is a “warrior woman,” a gifted military tactician who can take out soldiers with complete stealth and lead a successful attack on a space station with a force of eight. She is shown on several occasions to put herself in the line of danger to save someone; the most impressive instance occurring in “Out of Gas,” where she literally jumps in front of a fireball to save Kaylee. She is stoic, self-assured, and courageous, and she manages to stay calm and cool even in the most emotionally trying circumstances. She is, as she states in an observation about both herself and Mal, a “big damn hero.”

While Zoe is pretty clearly the “strongest” female character on the show, it’s difficult to deny that her life revolves around two men. The first, Mal, is her former superior officer whom she still calls “sir.” Theirs is the bond of soldiers, strengthened by the shared experience of horrific circumstances. In many ways, Zoe serves as Mal’s opposite; his chattiness contrasts with her reservation, and his recklessness is the counterpoint to her caution. She often becomes the voice of reason, telling him when the situation is too dangerous. Because of her well-established bravery and competence, these warnings never come across as cowardly; instead, the fact that we implicitly trust Zoe’s judgment means that we know things are about to get ugly. In their comedy duo, she’s the straight man who sets up many of Mal’s best lines.

She is also, as has been mentioned in many other discussions of the show, a Black woman who fought for an army coded as the American Civil War South who calls her white captain “sir” years after leaving the army. While most of her character seems carefully constructed to subvert tropes, I can’t help but think that that little issue slipped through unnoticed.

One such subversion lies in her happy marriage. In many stories, a woman who possesses as many stereotypically masculine traits as Zoe would have to relinquish them when she entered into a heterosexual union. It’s fine for a man to be attracted to a warrior woman, but when they settle down, the subtext is often that she had better settle down as well. That’s not the case in Firefly, where Zoe goes out on missions while Wash stays with the ship.

They are shown at all times to be completely in love. We see that they have an active sex life and a sincere desire for each other, subverting the television stereotype of the sexless marriage. Their arguments generally revolve around the hectic lives they lead, as Wash struggles to secure some one-on-one time with Zoe off-ship. At times, they struggle with communication, at least in part because the one person with whom Zoe is not always honest is Wash. When he proposes a plan to cut out the middlemen in some of their dealings, she hides behind Mal’s disapproval of the plan to avoid having to tell her husband that she agrees that it’s a bad idea. She wants to spare his feelings, but he accuses her of not having her own opinions.

Zoe and Wash’s conflict comes to a head in “War Stories,” in which a jealous Wash takes Zoe’s place on a mission only for both him and Mal to get abducted by a vengeful ex-client. Much of the episode revolves around Wash’s perception of Zoe and Mal’s relationship; he sees Mal as the second husband to whom Zoe vowed her obedience. Mal assures him that Zoe disobeys him quite regularly, most egregiously by marrying him. Soon Mal is playing off of Wash’s jealousy to keep him alive, feeding his fury to help him weather horrible torture. When Zoe arrives with an insufficient ransom, she doesn’t even have to think about which man she will save, choosing Wash before the evil Niska has even finished speaking.

Although there are some dubious aspects of this set-up -- the most obvious being the fact that most of the conflict between Wash and Zoe is actually worked out between Wash and Mal -- there is a fascinating point being made in the conversation between two men about an absent woman. It would be easy to reduce Zoe to an object at this moment, but that’s not what happens. Instead, Wash turns to his wife as a source of strength, framing his own survival as a game of “What Would Zoe Do?” Meanwhile, we see Zoe deducing who has the men and working out a plan to get them back. Although it is ultimately Wash who decides to return for Mal, Zoe leads the assault. The episode ends with a confirmation of the platonic status of Zoe and Mal’s relationship.

I actually consider Zoe and Wash’s marriage to be one of the best parts of Firefly and Serenity. They have realistic issues, but they resolve them and move on. Those issues that remain, such as their disagreement over when they should have a child, are addressed as they arise, but not dramatically blown out of proportion. They are both truly supportive of each other, and it’s clear that their love is partially based on an admiration for their partner’s abilities. While Zoe is hyper-competent and Wash is a bit goofy, they never fall into the stereotypical roles of the sitcom couple. They do, however, fall victim to one of Joss Whedon’s favourite tropes.

I am, of course, referring to character death. In the follow-up movie to Firefly, the crew of the eponymous good ship Serenity must find their way to the home of Mr. Universe, a man whose computer equipment is capable of sending information across the galaxy. Wash does the best flying of his life, landing the ship with minimal damage and no casualties... or so it seems, before Wash is impaled on a Reaver harpoon. His death causes Zoe to descend for the first time into a frantic, emotional panic. However, by the next scene, she has regained her usual stoic demeanour, responding to Kaylee asking about Wash’s whereabouts with “He ain’t comin’.” She has shifted her focus away from her grief to the task at hand. Her determination is largely the result of her giving up all hope; she is certain that they’re making their last stand, so she commits to completing one final mission.

When they manage to make it out alive, the crew holds a funeral for Mr. Universe and their lost crew members. The last time we see Zoe, she is repairing Serenity, symbolically looking forward to the next mission.

I’d like to conclude this post with something of a departure from our typical analyses by positing a “what if” scenario. Basically, what if Mal weren’t the main character? Or, more pointedly, what if, in creating a show about Western adventures in space, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear had passed over the obvious white, male lead for a Black, female one? Both Mal and Zoe fought as Independents in the Battle of Serenity Valley. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to see why Zoe joined up, especially given the Civil War symbolism? Wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see a woman of colour fighting against the oppressive, largely white hegemony? Wouldn’t it at least have made sense, considering the obvious Asian influence on the Firefly universe, to make the protagonist Chinese, if it was too difficult in 2002 to conceive of a Black woman as a damn hero big enough to warrant top billing?

Verdict: Actual strong female character