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Firefly: The Message

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All in all, The Message is a pretty unremarkable episode with some solid moments and fantastic music. But there were a few little things that bothered me. And by “bothered,” I mean “made me question Joss Whedon and the show and all that I hold dear.”

Pretty impressive for a few background characters and barely-heard lines, huh?

The return of exotic Asian influences!

Over the past few episodes, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Firefly is set in a world influenced both by the US and China. We’ve spent our time either in generic white-people-populated futuristic settlements or Western-style deserts and plains, and apart from crewmembers bursting out random “Chinese,” there’s been little to remind us of that whole other side to this universe. Thank god for the opening scene of this episode, where the crew visits a space station/market/bazaar, full of all the stereotypical background Asian people you could wish for! We’re talking long thin moustaches and men playing non-Western pipes and women with fans and side-show cons (although obviously anyone with a speaking role is white).

Have we had a single speaking role in the show so far played by an actor of Chinese heritage? Or any East Asian heritage? Or any Asian heritage? There are only two episode left. Not much time to give this whole “Chinese culture” thing more value than random exoticism and the chance to sneak swearing past the censors.

Speaking of…

It’s not misogynistic if it gets past the censors!

One word in this episode stuck out to me. When the evil-police-dude threatens the guy at the post office, he calls him a “quim.” A rather random archaic word choice… that allows the show to get calling someone a “c–t” past the censors. There’s really no need for that to happen — we get the message that this person is unpleasant when he nearly sets the man on fire. But isn’t it fun to slide misogynistic words in where most people won’t notice them?

But here’s what really pisses me off. This episode was written by Joss Whedon. Just as Joss Whedon wrote The Avengers, including a rather infamous line where Loki calls Black Widow “a mewling quim.” A line that Whedon called his “greatest achievement” in the movie. Wow. For someone who claims to be a hardcore feminist writer, Whedon certainly enjoys hiding archaic misogynistic slurs in his work. Having it happen once is one thing. Unpleasant, but possibly a sign of a writer too wrapped up in his own cleverness to see the implications of what he’s doing. Hiding the word repeatedly in different works is quite another.

Let’s all threaten Kaylee!

I initially wasn’t sure what I thought about the fact that Tracey uses Kaylee as a human shield. She does play quite a damsel in distress role here, when a guy she had a passing crush on grabs her while holding a gun, holds her between him and Mal, and tries to force her to fly a shuttle for him to allow him to escape. On the one hand, it’s one scene where someone gets the better of Kaylee, and she’s shown to be highly capable and independent and an all-round wonderful character in other episodes, and even in other scenes in this episode.

On the other hand, this is not a one-off state of affairs. Kaylee has been described as the “heart of the ship,” but Whedon also notes in the audio commentary that one of her narrative roles is the damsel. He tells us that threatening Kaylee is a formula for drama in the show, one he also used Willow for in early seasons of Buffy. I’m not sure that Kaylee’s safety being used as a “formula for drama” sits right with me. She gets shot in the first episode, and her survival is used as a bargaining chip — and, to be fair, it is a dramatic moment that gets the viewer truly invested in events in the show. But it’s also a moment that’s not about her. It’s about Mal’s care for her, about Simon’s desperation to protect his sister… but not about Kaylee. Here, she is kidnapped and her life potentially put at risk, but the drama is all about Tracey’s desperation and Mal and Zoe’s scheming and disappointment. In two episodes time, Jubal Early will casually threaten Kaylee with rape… and again, Kaylee will be victimized to pull at our heartstrings and add tension to the story. The pattern is disconcerting to say the least. Take the girliest, sweetest character on the crew. Shoot her, threaten her, tie her up, make her the damsel in distress. The perfect recipe for drama.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

4 thoughts on “Firefly: The Message

  1. So, a feminist writer cannot (should not?) write misogynistic characters? I think context is important, if the “hero” (whoever she or he may be) says it and it is played off as something funny or accepted – if we as the audience feel that we should root for her/him – then I agree it’s a problem. But, I don’t think that the characters that say these things are characters that we are meant to root for. Again, I feel like you can be a feminist and still write misogynist jerks (especially when you’re doing it on purpose).

    I completely agree with everything else you wrote – especially their use of the Chinese culture.

    1. I agree that context is important, and of course feminist writers can write misogynistic characters, especially if that misogyny and its impact is explored. What rubs me the wrong way about Whedon’s use of it is that he seems incredibly proud of his ability to slip the word into shows/movies, when it would definitely be censored if the censors actually knew what it was. It’s playing “look how clever I am with my slurs” rather than using them in a way that’s important in the narrative. But of course it’s a complex issue… is it problematic that the only female Avenger is faced with an incredibly gendered slur? It’s been a year and a half, and I still haven’t made up my mind. But Whedon’s glee with it definitely pushes it towards the “unacceptable” camp for me, especially after hearing it in Firefly as well.

      1. I think I see better what you mean – I mean I understand that from a language point of view, it is kind of cool to know/use archaic terms for slurs (I’m a huge language geek so I get excited about stuff like that) – and I can see why you would find it troubling, especially with the already problematic nature (that you’ve quite rightly pointed out) of the rest of Firefly and am inclined to agree with you. Also, I’ve had a whole ton of problems surrounding Black Widow in The Avengers: I want to believe that a lot of the problems came from the already established Universe that the movies have created, but I also believe that he is to blame for many of my issues with her.

  2. I’m going to have to disagree with your complaint about always targeting Kaylee because she’s a girl. During the course of the show, Simon gets kidnapped, beaten up, taken hostage, and held at gunpoint MANY times. It’s because he’s an easy target, same as Kaylee, and the bad guys know it. It would be totally unrealistic if they went after someone like Jayne for example, who can obviously hold his own in a fight, if someone weaker-looking like Kaylee or Simon happened to be there (unless Jayne did something to piss them off).

    It’s actually an established trope called “break the cutie,” and it happens in many shows and movies to people of both genders. On Stargate SG-1, for example, Michael Shanks bemoaned in an interview the fact that he never got to look cool. He said something along the lines of the other guys get to run around with gadgets and guns, while he just gets kidnapped and tortured all the time because he’s the civilian. Part of what makes all three of these characters great is their innocence, but that’s also what makes them the most likely targets in an action adventure show to be hurt.

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