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