The Sexism I Experienced During STEM Undergrad as Represented by the Women of Firefly
When I was a college student, Firefly had already been aired and canceled. I had a high-speed internet connection for the first time, and Netflix had recently introduced streaming video. I made quick work of catching up on a lot of media recommended to me by nerd friends and classmates, many of which I enjoyed – The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and to some degree, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The heartiest of recommendations, however, fell very flat. Men in my classes, some tattooed with the Serenity itself, extolled the virtues of the show (mostly starting and ending with how cool it is) and threw hands in the air at how it had been canceled. Undeserved, unfair; somehow, this was an act of violence against viewers in support of a media conglomerate agenda (specific theories for what this could be were never suggested).
I never finished Firefly, which I realize is a pat invitation for a subset of people who may read this to send me hatemail about how I shouldn’t be critiquing something I haven’t seen to completion. I don’t care, and you’re welcome to share the blame with Rite Gud podcast for giving me the idea that I can be a critical lens of one on my own corner of the internet. At any rate, it’s possible that I did finish all of Firefly, because I do think I remember seeing Serenity. It’s also possible that it was just put on a screen in a dorm room or basement while I was in attendance.
I’ve received plenty of media recommendations that I didn’t end up enjoying, and pretty much every other time this happens I shrug my shoulders and maybe move that person down in the rankings on my “Ask for New Movie Reviews” list. Over and over again, Firefly stuck in my craw. I eventually started reflexively saying that it deserved to be canceled so that we could all skip to the arm-waving and paper-tossing phase of the conversation about it, in hopes that it would expedite the process to a man dismissing me as uninteresting, thus releasing me from the conversation. A recent conversation (with people I like this time) about the show made me realize that at least one part of this disdain is due to the way Firefly succinctly revealed to me the variety of daily transgressions that its proselytizers either enacted on me or served as audience to. I stopped watching in large part because I could no longer handle viewing the faces, bodies, and stories of four women who on the surface were purported to be a diverse cast of characters, but boiled down to shadow puppets cast by Joss Whedon’s interpretive light onto the limited list of services that women are allowed by society to perform. The recommendation incensed me anew every time because the men making them were engaging in a cyclical viewing of that puppet show; watching, internalizing, then playing out a mimicry of the shapes with their hands by the fluorescent light of our shared classroom.
Kaylee Frye: The Greasemonkey Full of Childlike Wonder
Starting with Kaylee is starting with the simplest set of coveralls to button my collegiate self into. When I walked into my first computers class, I was sixteen years old and chose my outfit based on the new lack of restrictions on my clothing – there are no fingertip-length limits on shorts in college, and therefore no rules about wearing them with rainbow knee socks. It is not an exaggeration to say that every head turned toward me when I walked through the doorway for the first time. I thought I was late, but was informed that I was not, it’s just that everyone else was earlier than me, and the class was overbooked so I would not be able to actually sit at a desk and work on a computer. The professor had brought in a personally donated loveseat at the front of the room instead, where I would sit for the rest of the semester.
Kaylee Frye is treated in turns as a greasy, rugged, mechanic: the Heart of Serenity, the one who delights in the hum of motors to the point of what may be sexual arousal…and as a rosy-cheeked face of innocence, who pitches her voice up at the end of sentences and shares a desire for a pretty dress the moment she is given an opportunity to see one. We are led to believe that this dichotomy is unique and that it is deeply special that a woman possesses both a penchant for dirty men’s work and for frilly attire. Her interest in her work runs so deep that it’s purported to be a natural talent, gained from working with her father (naturally). Her sexuality is a joke, for no one would surely be actually attracted to a machine; for much of the show she is in a state of untouchability. It wouldn’t be proper to view your guileless garage rat as an adult with adult interests.
It is important for me to note that when I walked into that class, I was also in the beginning stages of anonymizing my accent and regulating my speech pattern. I methodically stripped out all of the “I reckon”s and “yonder”s that are peppered into Kaylee’s lines to complete the impression of a down-home country gal, wise to the workings of machines and critters but naive to the ways of people. We were both small in stature, particularly when compared to men, and we both possessed a rough-around-the-edges inability to smoothly integrate with society. This shortcoming was completely fine; any transgressions were laughed off and brushed aside by the men who chucked us gently on the chin, our soft bodies and bright eyes saying that it would be foolish to perceive us as a threat.
Kaylee eventually pairs up with a man who in an earlier conversation calls her “the only girl in the world” – other women of the show being discarded for being too mature, married, blood-related, and/or scary. There was, actually, another girl in my classes – but she was deeply religious in the way that is visible in long denim skirts and hair never touched by scissors. I was a visible aberration; a child talented enough to walk into the classroom two years early, but bewilderingly feminine in patterned socks and short shorts below a head of dyed hair. The marveling never seemed to cease as each new wave of freshmen met me through cross-year classes and seminars. I was special, and I was unique, and I was incapable of harming anyone by virtue of being too round-faced and smiling. I was a doll on a loveseat at the front of the class.
Inara Serra: Silkily Cloaked Danger, Except When Friends Trample Boundaries
Considerable time is spent in Firefly establishing that Inara isn’t a whore, except in the ways that she is, save for the ways that she is actually strong and dangerous (not whorelike traits), although in sum she really is. Eventually, I think in my sophomore year, I started dating someone who lived two states away: an indicator that I was potentially unavailable for intimacy, but with enough space between myself, my classmates, and the interloping man that there was room for would-be suitors to decide he was not any real threat. In this way, when I said no to a drunken Facebook message or knock on my dorm room door, I was turning them down and I wasn’t; I was declining due to other engagements, except that he wasn’t there so he didn’t really matter, so neither did my stated lack of interest; except that it did, because some men didn’t want to override a “no” and would restrain themselves to only overriding the “I don’t think so”s and the “why don’t you go back to your room” and the “I don’t think your girlfriend would appreciate that”s of my speech.
Inara is presented as, fundamentally, a space geisha except that they call them Companions in space Western land and they’re trained with swords, bows and arrows, and emotional and physical companionship techniques for ostensibly all genders (but on-screen pretty much only men). In particular, we see Inara as a rock for the captain of Serenity, from whom Inara rents her berth and endures countless jabs of varying seriousness about her chosen profession and how distasteful Mal (the captain) finds it, even though he thinks she’s really pretty and that’s why he can’t help barging into her quarters without permission. The arc of their relationship is presented to us as one of playful “disagreements” and “fights” that culminate in what is presumably a monogamous romantic/sexual relationship and Inara’s retiring of her definitely-a-fringed-wrap-not-a-kimono for a suit of crew coveralls.
I have yet to receive a fervent suggestion of watching Firefly as an act of critical review or narrative of some sort of negative behavior that can be picked apart. If we are supposed to watch Firefly and favorably project ourselves into the main character, the men recommending this show to me were finding Mal in themselves – and finding this to be a rewarding plotline and Mal’s treatment of Inara to be acceptable, likely even idealized. In this way, having Microsoft Sam read out “(my name) is a whoooooreeee” in the classroom during free lab time was in line with pulling pigtails or barging onto someone’s rented shuttle; a gentle ribbing between people destined to get along and maybe even share a bunk if the series had just been renewed. After all, we see Inara in combat; if she were truly bothered, why wouldn’t she take care of things herself?
River Tam: Incredibly Gifted, But Also Bonkers Yonkers
River is first revealed to us as cargo, her frail naked body smuggled in what appears to be an Igloo foam cooler by her brother onto Serenity without the knowledge of the rest of its occupants. She emerges, screaming, long dark hair everywhere and eventually we learn that she was a child prodigy drafted into a government facility trying to make perfect assassins, except something something the amygdala-removing surgery left her unable to control her emotions. It is unclear how this would benefit assassination plans, so the viewer must presume this was an accidental side effect, perhaps brought on by her being naturally unstable or perhaps from the tampering. More sensibly, she also knows kung fu and has psychic powers that may or may not have manifested (unexplained) prior to her time at Assassin Academy.
River is simultaneously delicate and defenseless enough to need rescuing and careful handling while on the ship, but also serves as a significant threat. As far as I can tell, every instance of threatening violence is predicated on either her Academy programming being triggered, or perceived insult to herself or her brother Simon. Despite this, little differentiation is made between “River is crazed and dangerous” and “River is deeply ill, has been a victim of sustained manipulation, and will accordingly sometimes do harm unto others as she works to heal”.
We’ve already trodden the ground of my arrival and my time in school as a curiosity prompting classmates to ask if I was there as some sort of extended dual credit high school program, even at 8am labs, so let’s agree that part is covered.
My mental instability was also set off largely by my environment and the ways it acted upon me. Whenever I became too inconvenient and drifted out of my Childlike Wonder or Elusive Recipient of Sexual Overtures roles, I found myself prodded into “crazy, annoying, don’t know why she’s acting like that”. It was a position that took me an embarrassingly long time to recognize, and even longer to begin tying together the threads that led me there: boyfriends who relentlessly argued with me into the wee hours of the morning before I had class, interrogating me about my friends or my schedule or the messages they read on my phone while I was in the bathroom, then painting me as impulsive and nasty when I lost my temper. (Did you know sleep deprivation has been repeatedly ruled as torture when it’s perpetuated against prisoners of war?) Classmates who engaged in still-yet-opaque patterns of acting friendly, of acting interested in a date, of acting only interested in talking if it’s about classwork, then of acting like my slide into not answering their casual messages due to total confusion was an act of aggression against them. My naivety and lack of ability to understand social cues was cute as long as it was cute, and then without warning it became a deep-set flaw of my personality. People were better off leaving me to my own devices and working with everyone else in the class, because continuing to engage with me would require care and collaboration.
Epilogue: After Graduation
Zoe Washburne: Highly Competent Warrior Woman Somehow Not in Charge
Maybe it’s arrogant to align myself with the above encapsulation of Zoe, but I really don’t care. Throughout my undergraduate experience I felt othered and less-than; some of this was surely my own brain acting against me, but a lot of it was due to the trope-informed way that other people treated me. Having terms repeated to me with a sardonic tone of voice and an eye roll, because I was never going to get them, because I didn’t have a dad who brought home spare parts from his job in IT to tinker around with in the basement with me. My dad didn’t work in an office; much like Kaylee I did learn how to do some shadetree mechanic work from him, but much like Kaylee this only meant something as long as it was directly useful to the plotline as it impacted the main character (whichever classmate was talking to me). I was moved from irritating girl-child, to ice queen inexplicably rebuffing conversation, to the ultimate discard pile of crazed woman.
This cycle wasn’t changed immediately after graduation, but eventually in the workplace I was shuffled sideways into badass warrior, where I was allowed to remain as long as I was a badass warrior who received orders with a “yes, sir” and made the overtures of fitting in with the expectation of working tirelessly for the company while maybe also getting married, bearing children, and keeping a house while keeping a full time job,
Zoe is shown to us as relentlessly competent in combat, in planning, and in conversational barbs, but rarely is she shown to us in command. Rarely is she shown to us receiving praise that isn’t shared from one man to another – her husband relaying a review of her body before asking “have you ever been with a warrior woman?” – an attitude she plays along with, her dialogue announcing to others that she wants her husband to tear her clothes off in exaltation following an evasive maneuver.
Zoe is powerful, as long as she can be given that power as something adjacent to sex or to comedy. It is funny that Mal famously makes bad plans and Zoe saves him and the crew, and it is sexy that Zoe is tough from carrying the weight of this work. And in that way, I spent my early twenties claiming power where I could get it. I may not have finished watching Firefly, but I could not fully escape the fate of my classmates whose notions of control and agency were drawn from it or from similar media.
For years, I would take the compliments that men on bar dates dealt me and wrap them around myself, threading them in with the shining praise I received for my work – praise that only ever came in verbal reviews, and not in fair compensation or meaningful support in my workplace. This archetype is an improvement, right? There are four types of women, and compared to Child, Courtesan, and Crazy, that surely leaves Competent as the endgame.
And there is the headfake of the entire show, the rock that I felt in my gut when I tried to watch it on a laptop screen but could not yet name: there are not four types of women in the world and presenting women as powerful on their own but surrounded by a pack of “friends” who constantly undercut them doesn’t make them empowered. There are not only four types of pretty much anything, but so frequently “women” is the group that we view as distillable into bottles of a specific summary vintage. There are more than four ways that I felt unfairly placed into a box by my classmates and coworkers, but most of them can be coalesced into the same four ways we are given women to relate to in Firefly. Perhaps there are only four ways that Joss Whedon can write a woman, and that a man simmered in the same pool of media will naturally use to interact with women in real life.