Or, “Why I prefer the company of nerds”

I’m thinking that, in the spirit of the holiday season, I should offer what readers I have something less depressing regarding the world of feminism.  And I believe I have just the thing – learning about this certainly cheered me, so I hope it cheers you as well.

Disclaimer: if you ever thought of me as mature and pulled-together, I am about to undo all of that. 

If you are equal parts nerd and feminist like I am, you’ll have a field day with this one.

I just discovered something absolutely incredible regarding the amazing Joss Whedon and his cult phenomenon Firefly, which is one of my favorite television shows.  It also shows me that there is an entire subnetwork of feminists out there.  Let me just shed some light on the figure of Joss Whedon before I completely lose my cool…

Joss Whedon is the director and producer of several cult shows such as Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dollhouse.  He also directed Serenity, the film made to follow Firefly’s cancellation.  I found online a great deal of contradictory opinions regarding whether or not Joss Whedon upholds feminist ideals in his work.  I actually found one interesting article saying that Whedon is sexist and racist, because in the Firefly show and Serenity movie, the male main character has a black female subordinate who calls him “sir.”  They go on to mention about how Buffy in the Vampire series “falls apart” when her boyfriends leave her and other plot devices that undermine Joss Whedon’s feminism.  To them I say, you don’t get it.  I have studied literature and cinema extensively in college, and the traditional ways of upholding sexist ideals and undermining feminist progression in film and television typically is as follows:

1. A woman is shown as good at her job and unattached from the male main character

2. The woman is “neutralized” in order to prevent emasculating the male main character and threatening the comfort of male viewers by being attacked and becoming a victim in need of rescue

3. The male main character becomes better at his job or role than the woman

4. The two characters become romantically involved at some level, thus elevating the male main character to a more superior status than the woman.

Everything else is simply plot device (of course sexism can occur in other ways, but it hasn’t in this circumstance).  Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer being heartbroken about a breakup, or needing backup from a male character and the like is simply a mechanism for plot advancement – she is a teenage girl in a show being watched by teenage girls, and it is something that an audience can relate to.  Offering romance as a part of a plot does not undermine feminist ideals – it’s just something interesting for people to watch.  Neutralizing a female character as stated above is decidedly anti-feminist, and for all intensive purposes, I have not yet seen Joss Whedon do so.   Let’s take a ride…

  • Buffy from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I really should consult my friend Erin, a Buffy aficionado, before tackling this, but here goes): She is a slayer, which means a pre-destined figure whose role is to fight and kill vampires.  She winds up hanging out with her sister, her married friends, her lesbian friends, and together they fight bad guys.  She kicks some serious vampire and demon ass – the victims vary from women to men from episode to episode, not continually making victims out of women.
  • Caroline from Dollhouse: Caroline, or codename Echo, is a fiery and tough female main character who manages to lead a revolution in the Dollhouse in LA, which is essentially a facility that wipes minds clean and programs made-to-order people you can rent.  She is not diminished or neutralized by relationships with men.   Even though the plot threatens her with this reality, she continually overcomes it.

On to Firefly, my main focus:

  • River: River is in no way sexualized or decidedly feminine.  She is shown as a troubled but gifted young woman who had the Alliance tamper with her brain and run experiments on her.  It is shown in Serenity that she was made into a supersoldier, and her talents, fearlessness and love for her brother ends up saving everyone’s life.  She is an enigma, and adds mystery to the plot.
  • Zoe: Zoe was in the army with main character Malcolm Reynolds and they are the only ones to have made it out alive in their regiment.  While serving as first mate on board the spaceship Serenity, she still follows the captain’s orders and refers to him as sir, as he was her superior in the war.  However, she is never victimized, frequently rescues male and female characters, and is married to the ship’s pilot, who is definitely not the dominant figure in the marriage.  Pilot Wash and Zoe, which a heterosexual and interracial married couple, still defy the traditional marriage as Zoe is ranked higher than her husband and could easily beat him to a pulp.  Zoe is ranked higher than any other male crew member except for the captain.
  • Inara: Shown as a registered “companion,” she is essentially a high-priced prostitute who rents a shuttle on the ship.  Rather than act like a standard hooker, a “companion” in Whedon’s world is a respected profession, perfectly legal, and in fact a boon for the Serenity crew as she brings respectability on board.  She holds all of the power with her clients and uses her status to her and Malcolm’s advantage when the occasion calls for it.  I see her as an example of sexual revolution – she makes no apologies for her profession and takes pride in her identity.  She and Malcolm have an unresolved romance plot line, but it is obviously for plot advancement purposes as it is clear Malcolm will not be “saving her” from her life as a companion.
  • Kaylie: Kaylie is the ship mechanic.  She knows machinery and maintenance better than every male character presented to the viewers, but retains a whimsical and girlish quality.  She loves ribbons and bows, is constantly smiley, and is very idealistic.  She is never shown succeeding in combat, but simply because her character is supposed to represent innocence and youth, not because she is female.  I see Whedon, in the character of Kaylie, offering both masculine and feminine traits in a female character without making them mutually exclusive.

The entirety of Firefly is a Western in space and a “rebelling against the machine” sort of plot.  However, female empowerment is rife fromm episode to episode.  When Mal tries to fight to protect Inara’s honor, it is Inara who must show him how to fence.  When the crew goes to a remote planet to rescue brothel girls from their cruel clients, the brothel girls take up arms and fight back. The presence of the threat of rape in Firefly and Serenity, to me, is not a way of marginalizing the female characters – the sad truth is that the threat of molestation and rape is a reality in our society, and Whedon shows his female characters coming face to face with this threat and overcoming it.  Furthermore, the perpetrator of the rape or molestation is eliminated after the female overcomes her struggle, and she is usually the one who kills him.

Every female character represents a different facet of women’s culture.  Firefly is also an incredible cult phenomenon, and its early cancellation only adds to its likability.

This leads me to the most awesome things I’ve learned about in months: The Arizona Browncoats.  They are a group of Firefly fanatics who organize screenings, balls, and other events for fans from all over to attend.  However, they are so much more than just a bunch of sci-fi fans who enjoy nerding about their favorite television show.  Evidently they organize an annual screening of Serenity, an event known as “Can’t Stop the Serenity,” and this event is frequented by self-proclaimed Browncoats (which was the name of the resistance in Firefly), vendors selling Firefly paraphernalia, and they screen the film for an entry fee.  This is the best part – in honor of Whedon’s practice of championing strong female characters and promoting feminist-friendly ideas, and their profits go to promote global women’s equality efforts.

Their mission statement reads as such: Can’t Stop the Serenity (CSTS) is a unique opportunity to indulge your geeky side while doing some good! Since 2006, fans have organized screenings of Joss Whedon’s Serenity to raise funds and awareness to support Equality Now in their work for the protection and promotion of the human rights of women around the world. [Source: http://www.cantstoptheserenity.com/%5D

So, regardless of whatever anti-feminist propaganda that viewers can somehow glean from Whedon’s work, the reality is that Whedon fans recognize the need for equal rights support for women internationally.  I’d be willing to make the leap that some of this is due to Whedon’s appreciation for feminism and strong female figures.  How awesome is that?!

So, long story short, if you’re ever in Arizona and have the opportunity to attend Can’t Stop the Serenity, do it.  Joss Whedon’s work is officially on my list of Handmaid approved media.  And now you know that I am a closeted dork.

“The heart of Gilead, where the war cannot intrude, except on television.”

-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale