One of my very favorite things about Joss Whedon is that his works deal with human relationships in a way that a lot of media doesn’t. I’m not saying this necessarily to criticize other media, but he’s way the hell more daring than a lot of, for example, network TV shows are when it comes to issues of interpersonal things. Unsurprisingly, one of the most obvious interpersonal things he handles so damn well is sexuality. It’s not really the (I hate to use the term cookie cutter, but cookie cutter) kind of sexuality you see on a lot of television. The relationships have more depth than that, and the handling of sexuality as an abstract concept is refreshing.
So tonight, I dissect Firefly and sexuality. Point by point, ish.
The idea of a Companion owes a great deal to the old tradition of geishas in Japanese society and other such things. The notion that it’s as much about culture and refinement as it is about sex. But the idea that a Companion chooses her own clients, well, that’s… kinda revolutionary. In most media and probably in real life, you have the notion that a whore (which a Companion is not, but) just sort of screws anyone who’s paying. Whether the person paying is good, bad, abusive, cruel, creepy, kinky, whatever, the idea that well, they’re paying, so she’ll have to go with them, is prevalent. As is the notion that if they’re getting paid, the whore doesn’t have much a right to complain. Well. The existence of Companions pretty much slaps that in the face. Sure, they’re being paid for sex, but if someone’s sketchy or mean or crass or just not to their liking, they don’t have to set up the appointment. They still get to make their own choices, and they aren’t run by a pimp figure or some such. Sure, the Companion’s Guild can gēn hóu zǐ bi diushi, but not because of the way that it abuses its power over the women.
Inara (Morena Baccarin) and sex philosophy.
As a Companion, Inara does in fact get paid for sex. But as she makes abundantly clear on many fronts, she does choose the clients, and the point she makes in “Jaynestown” about how she came for Fess (Zachary Kranzler) but if his father the magistrate (Gregory Itzin) had asked her to come for himself, she’d have turned it down, is interesting. She may be getting paid for sex, but she’s still looking for some sort of spiritual… well, perhaps not compatibility, but tolerability, I suppose, in the people she has sex with. Though the points she makes about sexuality throughout the series and film are fascinating, I actually think “Jaynestown” is one of the most telling episodes in regards to the wisdom she brings to the metaphorical table. I almost shrieked with relieved happiness the first time I watched the episode and she said to Fess, “It’s not embarrassing to be a virgin. It’s simply one state of being.” I’m not saying we should all be virgins. I’m not passing judgment on sexuality. But at the same time, I feel like in the media, you get two very polar opinions about virginity: either I AM BEING PURE AND HOLY (which is plenty good for you, but) or I AM SO ASHAMED I AM GOING TO LIE ABOUT MY VIRGINITY AND TRY TO LOSE IT ASAP. And that one bothers me. I think it’s sort of amazing that Inara, of all people, is the one to point out that sex, while very nice at times, is not the end-all be-all.
Oh bi the way.
Inara also does something that is honestly exceptionally rare for television. Though she primarily takes male clients, she does take female clients as well, as seen in “War Stories” with the Councillor (Katherine Kendall). This is not an I kissed a girl kind of thing. This is clearly something that Inara has chosen to do not for shock value but for that sense of kindred-spirit-ness, and she is very open about it. “If I choose a woman, she tends to be extraordinary in some way. And, the fact is, I occasionally have the exact same need you do. One cannot always be oneself in the company of men,” she states. Her attitude towards bisexuality is remarkably healthy. Very often in television or film or really any media, if a character is gay there has to be the Big Discussion About Gayness. And seeing a character who is legitimately not at one end of the Kinsey scale or the other, not just getting with their own gender to be shocking or getting with the opposite to hide things, is even rarer than a lack of that Big Discussion. As can be said for her attitude towards virginity, Inara’s attitude towards bisexuality is refreshing.
Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torres). The discussions with/about Mal (Nathan Fillion).
I did my big happy rant on Wash and Zoe’s marriage already, but I’m going to take this time to discuss the interesting not-quite-triangle, also during “War Stories.” This is not the only time we see Wash’s discomfort with Zoe’s role on the ship, or Zoe’s discomfort with Wash’s perception of her femininity, but it is the most significant; Wash’s apparent jealous feelings regarding Zoe and Mal’s relationship and the nature thereof come to the forefront, and in this, the characters all deal with this situation. Wash feels Zoe is too loyal to Mal (“no, what this marriage needs is one less husband”) and speculates about whether or not they had a sexual relationship during the War. When Wash acts out and insists on taking Zoe’s role on their mission and he and Mal are kidnapped, we see, too, the conversation between Wash and Mal on the subject. Wash idly says that he almost wishes Mal had slept with Zoe, to get it out of both of their systems (an interesting notion, though not necessarily based in fact — torture can make people say funny things). But later, when Mal (jokingly) declares his intention to act on Wash’s torture-induced suggestion, he and Zoe are just so damn awkward with each other about it, which proves that, yes, a man and a woman can have a close, loyal friendship that goes back many years without there being an ounce of sexuality to it (a rare concept of itself). And then Wash pulls Zoe off, because they’ll be in their bunk.
Actually, Zoe and Wash just have a healthy sex life, period.
I mentioned this last week, but it deserves to be said again. They’re not sex-crazed, they’re not I AM ONLY HAVING SEX BECAUSE I HAVE TO, they’re just… in love. They’re very much in love, and aside from the instances in “War Stories” their marriage is stable, and that’s rare enough in media as well. And it’s nice.
You know who else has a healthy attitude about sex? Kaylee (Jewel Staite).
Her introduction to the ship, as seen in flashback in “Out of Gas,” was sexing the original mechanic Bester (Dax Griffin). But even when they’re caught by Mal, her reaction isn’t shame. Maybe a little well, this is kinda awkward, and she turns around to pull her dress back on, but she’s perfectly open about what they’ve been doing (“I seen the trouble plain as day when I was down there on my back before,” she says cheerily, in regards to the engine). She’s not too bothered by it. Sex is just a part of life, after all. (Also notable is Mal’s willingness to look past her sexual behavior and to the brilliance she has towards machines; not entirely unusual, but it’s certainly refreshing that he didn’t just go okay, out, now, too.) And let’s just take a moment to talk about one of the single funniest lines in Serenity, shall we? Lamenting her lack of sexual experience with Simon (Sean Maher), Kaylee sighs, “Goin’ on a year now, I ain’t had nothin’ ‘twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries!” Now, references to female masturbation aren’t unheard of in fiction, but they’re certainly rare. And more often than not, it’s something the woman does but isn’t about to talk about, especially in the company of men. But Kaylee, Kaylee’s just going to put it all out there. She doesn’t need to lie about it or be coy, it’s just a fact of life. It’s just the way it is. Later yet in the film, when Simon confesses mid-pre-battle that he’s “always regretted… not being with you” to Kaylee, she’s quick to exclaim, “With me? You mean to say… as in sex?” While some women might be, again, coy about it, Kaylee’s straightforward. And there’s no shame or hesitance when, upon confirmation of this, she declares, “Hell with this. I’m gonna live.” This, too, allows them to be just about one of the only Whedon couples with a happy ending, when we see them at the film’s end, and they’re, yes, having sex in the engine room. There’s no pretense, just refreshing honesty.
Speaking of that sex in the engine room, let’s talk about River (Summer Glau) and voyeurism a minute.
I’m not advocating voyeurism by any means. But during two separate instances (“Objects in Space,” with Wash and Zoe, and the end of Serenity during the engine room sex) do we see River spying on trysts amongst the crew. Yes, it’s a little bit of a crazy creeper thing to do, especially the engine room bit; during “Objects in Space,” we get the feeling she’s stumbled on it and isn’t entirely comfortable, but her observing Simon and Kaylee is very clearly intentional. But it’s good for a giggle, and it brings up an interesting point. While River may not be having any sex herself, she’s gonna be curious. She’s a seventeen year old girl, she has a right to be. And it’s not exactly appropriate to be curious in such a fashion, but when you can read minds, there has to be a little leeway, doesn’t there? Babygirl’s just trying to figure it out. While she could definitely find a better way to do so, curiosity is healthy, too.
Jayne (Adam Baldwin) screws whores. A lot. Whoo.
Well, he does. But despite the fact that he’s crass and not really that nice of a fellow, he’s not a bastard to the whores he’s screwing, at least?
YoSaffBridge (Christina Hendricks) uses sex as a weapon. A lot. Whoo.
Also worthy of noting. It’s not like this is particularly rare or unseen in fiction, but it’s still interesting to observe. Especially regarding Durran Haymer (Dwier Brown) and the possible regret she may have towards weaponizing her sexuality with him.
The Heart of Gold.
Inara’s old friend Nandi (Melinda Clarke) left the Companion’s Guild years ago. And again, this was not because of it being a bad situation in that way, but she just didn’t care for the lifestyle. Of course, she didn’t much care for the life out on the border, either. Upon reaching the moon (of Deadwood, I note with a giggle) she learned that the Heart of Gold, the available whorehouse, “was a dungheap. Run by a pig who had half the girls strung out on drops. There’s no Guild out here; they let the men run the houses, and they don’t ask for references. We didn’t get along.” So even though she left the Guild, she still wasn’t about to let her girls (or boys, as Kaylee observes; “isn’t that thoughtful?”) get bossed around and abused, by pimps or by clients. It’s interesting to observe the one interaction in the series that is so completely Standard Fictional Whore Lore, between Rance Burgess (Fredric Lehne) and Chari (Kimberly McCullough) — though he’s planning on taking the child that’s thanks to his sperm from Petaline (Tracy Ryan), another of the whores, he still insists that Chari, who has been spying for him, give him oral sex in front of his angry mob because “Chari here, she understands a whore’s place, don’t she?” and because he wants to “remember, right here and now, what a woman is to a man.” The only Standard Fictional Whore Lore instance in the series is perpetrated by an obvious villain, and clearly shown as Not Good Behavior. And that Nandi is willing to insist that the baby is Petaline’s and stand by that conviction, not allowing Burgess to go all male-dominance? Well, it’s not entirely surprising. But it’s still pretty awesome.
Finally, let’s talk about Mal and Inara and sex.
They never actually have sex. As much as everyone may want them to. I mean, we can all hope that when Mal asks her if she’s going to leave at the end of Serenity and she says “I… don’t know,” that’s really code for and then a respectable amount of time passed, and they finally had sex, but we’ll never know that for sure. (GORRAM YOU TO HELL FOX ET AL.) What can be finitely observed, though, is Mal’s attitude towards Inara’s profession. It’s a recurring theme, and presumably one of the things keeping them apart. But (though Mal is clearly a bit prudish about it, and Inara does make fun of him for it in her polite way) the most telling thing is the dialogue they exchange during “Shindig.”
Inara: “You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You’ll lay a man out for implying I’m a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face.”
Mal: “I might not show respect to your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference. Inara, he doesn’t even see you.”
Mal doesn’t feel there’s anything wrong with calling Inara a whore all the gorram time, but at the end of the day, it’s her and not her profession that he’s concerned with. In his eyes, Atherton Wing (Edward Atterton) wasn’t treating Inara like a person, he was treating her like an object or some such, and that’s where he has difficulties. Mal’s the type to treat things he’s not entirely comfortable with flippantly, but when he cares about someone, he cares about someone, and he clearly cares for Inara. Even though this (sadly) is never manifested in an actual confirmed relationship, this is evidenced in the way he defends her to others. And that’s sort of beautiful, in a sad angst-inducing unfulfilled fantasies kind of way.
–your fangirl heroine.