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)