Whedon Wednesday :: are you asking me to dance? [an analysis of Kaylee Frye]

18 Jul

So yesterday, the fuckyeahfirefly tumblr reblogged a graphic set that someone had made superimposing lyrics from 30 Seconds to Mars’s song “This is War” over pictures of the cast of Firefly.  I immediately jumped to twitchiness and wrote 621 words about it, 353 of which were about my largest disagreement: labeling Kaylee (Jewel Staite) the victim.  Of 463 notes on the post, exactly one other had a comment about that being problematic added to it; some of the other reblogs may have had it in the tags or something, but I’m not going to go through all of them.  (Interestingly, seven other reblogs added commentary about the spelling errors in the graphics.)  Here are those 621 words, some of which I am very likely about to repeat.  But this is going to be slightly more organized, probably, and since I talked about why she’s not a victim there, this will largely be other things, and I’m long overdue for this.

This being a giant essay on why I love Kaylee.

I will be the first to admit my huge Kaylee-related bias; she’s one of those characters I latched onto almost immediately and adopted as my own.  But I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that my relating to and loving Kaylee is as much in the positive aspects of her as the flaws.  Because guess what?  Everyone has both!  That isn’t a bad thing.  It’s a human thing.  People without flaws are dull, and the same goes for fictional characters; people need flaws to balance their positive qualities.

And I think it’s the balance that makes Kaylee so damn excellent.  Yes, she is chipper.  She is cheerful as all get-out.

Kaylee: We’re taking on passengers at Persephone?
Mal: Yeah, that’s the notion. Could use a little respectability on the way to Boros. Not to mention the money.
Jayne: Pain in the ass.
Kaylee: No, it’s shiny! I like to meet new people, they’ve all got stories…
Jayne: Captain, can you stop her from bein’ cheerful, please?
Mal: I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘verse can stop Kaylee from bein’ cheerful. Sometimes you just wanna duct-tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.
Kaylee: [kisses Mal’s cheek] I love my captain.

She’s enthusiastic about meeting these new people, because her first instinct is to assume that they will be good and interesting.  She is an optimist and that is not bad.  It’s not naïve or silly; the attitude sometimes that I’ve seen is for people to roll their eyes at characters who aren’t at least a little bit street-smart and/or world-weary.  Haven’t they learned anything? can be the question.  She may tend to believe the best possible about people at least until proven otherwise; when people truly hurt her and her own, well, she won’t be quite so trusting, but she gives them a chance.  She doesn’t think twice about affording someone that courtesy.

But see, it doesn’t take us long to realize that Kaylee is street-smart in her way.  Look, balance!  The second episode, “The Train Job,” has Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres) and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) are prepping for that big heist of theirs.  They’re the ones who do that.  Wash (Alan Tudyk) flies the ship and Kaylee fixes her, Inara (Morena Baccarin) rents the shuttle, they have passengers, and that’s just how it goes, right?

Wrong.  Wash flies the ship cleverly and during the crime too, and not just as a “getaway driver” type.  And Kaylee, sweet, floral shirt wearing, strawberry eating Kaylee, she’s there rigging up mechanical assists for the crime.  So cheerfully, so matter-of-factly.

Simon: So what are we doing?
Kaylee: Oh, crime.

Kaylee is a nice person who behaves respectfully and in a friendly manner toward others.  Kaylee, it’s clear from the above-above dialogue with her and Jayne and Mal, is the whole crew’s mèimei.  But it’s never for once in the season five Dawn kind of way, where in the interest of protecting her innocence everyone keeps her out of things for her own good.  Kaylee is the mechanic of the ship, and it’s not as if Mal said “hey, come be our mechanic, and also we do crime” when he offered her the job.  That wasn’t by any stretch part of why she agreed to the job, but she’s never seen shirking from it, either, and nobody keeps secrets from her out of her alleged best interest.

Sure, she doesn’t do a lot of the hands-on, actual crime parts of it; her role is more background, but it’s still a very key role.  (Because everyone in the crew has very key roles, more than one usually, and you need them all and they all work together.)  She helps with the train heist, she gets them detached from the explosive on the Reaver ship in “Bushwhacked,” she and Wash salvage and completely renovate that medical transport in “Ariel,” she sorts through all of Saffron’s (Christina Hendricks) gō se and comes up with the plans about the trash chute in “Trash” and carries her part of it out.  She is very, very good at doing her part in the crime in general.

Is this willingness to take part in crime because of loyalty to her captain and her crew?  Yes.  Kaylee is very loyal, and this is no secret; the others are loyal to her, too.  Because they’re a crew and a crew’s a family.  Because she is everyone’s mèimei (well, excepting River, to whom she plays jiějie instead).  Is this willingness to take part in crime because, well, gosh, she might not actually be so much of a goody-goody as it would be easy to try and two-dimensionalize her as at first?  Probably.

Kaylee is one of the most politically and philosophically neutral members of the crew, actually.  It’s never really said what kind of family she comes from or what beliefs she was raised with (she worked previously for her daddy, “when he got work, which ain’t been too often lately,” and between that and her decidedly less fancy grammar and sense of propriety, I’ve always figured she grew up on a Border or Rim planet, out a ways and none too grand, probably at least had some relatives who fought for Independence, and was probably a daddy’s girl of sorts) and her personal beliefs are actually pretty largely untouched.  She doesn’t ever wear a brown coat or do anything explicitly because of political reasons, though I’d expect that’s her leaning if she had to lean, and her religion, if there is one, is completely undiscussed.  She doesn’t have issues with Book’s (Ron Glass) preaching like Mal does, but she doesn’t seem to have a specific faith like Book or like Inara with her Buddhism either.  She’s just, again, neutral.  Her faith seems to be in people: the people around her, people in general.  Not all people, it’s not blind faith, but she believes that people are inherently good and it’s good to try to be good, and good is not necessarily synonymous with legal or even moral concepts.

And this is beautiful.  This is, in its way, meliorism: “the belief that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment.”  It’s not creepy Alliancey, Miranda and the Operative (Chwietel Ejiofor) betterment, it’s not “we must make it perfect and easy and better,” it’s “hey, if we try to do what we know to be the right thing, then maybe we’ll improve our lives and the lives of those around us.”  It’s not “let’s pump a planet full of drugs to make them docile,” it’s “let’s tell the world about a planet that died because of docility drugs so they learn the lesson that trying to do that is bad.”  Kaylee is a hard worker.  Kaylee doesn’t just sit there and wait for things to happen to her.  Why should doing what’s right be any different?

Kaylee may be an optimist and/or meliorist, she may want to do what she feels is right and be loyal to them she counts as her own, she may be cheerful and sweet even while she does crime, but she’s not just a smiley faced cutout woman.  She has her moody moments, some of which can manifest as pretty obvious sarcasm toward folk, some of which manifest as gloom and vulnerability, some of which manifests as just straightforward honesty.    And the contexts of these things are fascinating.

Her sarcasm is really only aimed at those on the crew, usually Mal or Simon, occasionally Jayne.  It’s aimed at them she loves as family or other ways.  In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” while she’s trying to fix what Saffron messed up at the helm, to Mal: “It was your big makeout session that got us into this, sir.”  Or most interactions with Simon when he gets socially awkward, from the playful teasing about swearing in “Jaynestown” to the snapping and telling off after his proclamation that he’d never sleep with her in the same episode, from off-hand comments like “well, it’s not like anyone else is lining up to, you know, examine me” in “Heart of Gold” to her storming off after telling him exactly what’s on her mind at the beginning of “The Message.”  She may be the “nice one” on the crew, and her niceness is a lot of what people seem to remember her for, but she isn’t afraid to say what’s on her mind.  Nice does not automatically equal opinionless.

As to gloom, there are two big instances I always call on: one in “Out of Gas,” one in “The Message.”  The “Out of Gas” one I talked about in that particular essay a couple weeks ago, but I’ll bring it up again in reference to that “victim” label the graphic slapped on her and why it’s so wrong.  Even then, even seeing that the part won’t go and having to admit that, even being alone with that realization and being sad about it, it is by no means victim-y.  Kaylee is an extrovert, but when Kaylee is really good and sad, she likes to be alone.  She doesn’t like to put her sadness on others.  She is sad because this engine part isn’t working anymore, and she’s tried, she’s tried her damnedest, but it just ain’t going.  And so she is alone with this until Mal finds her, and Mal tries to help her through the feeling bad about this, but even when he’s trying to help her fix the part, he’s not patronizing, really.  He’s just trying to help how he can.

And the moment in “The Message” is really such a tiny one, but I think it just goes to further the thing of her liking to be alone with her sadness.  She knows that she is the cheerful one around.  She knows that optimism is just one of the things she does for the crew, and it’s not that she thinks they’d disregard her feelings or try to placate or anything like that, and it’s not that she thinks she has to pretend for them, I don’t think, it’s just that she prefers to deal with her sadness alone.  The others have their own worries to worry on, they don’t need hers on top of it.  Which isn’t pretending or diminishing her own feelings, it’s just a thing that people do sometimes.  Some people, even extroverted people, process better alone sometimes.  And I think it’s really telling that she goes to her engine room both times; it’s obvious why she’s there with “Out of Gas,” of course, that’s because of an engine problem, but in “The Message” she’s just there because it’s a peaceful place for her to be and she feels comfortable there.

Oh, and let’s talk about vulnerability during “Serenity” and “Objects in Space” for a minute, because those are also possible victim situations I mentioned.  She gets shot by Dobson (Carlos Jacott) in the first episode, but she’s not blaming Simon or River for it.  Dobson was there because they were, but she tries to understand the situation and look on the bright side and she still manages to instruct the guys in how to do what the situation requires in the engine room with a (pained, but really, she’s been shot) smile.  She’s tied up by Early in the last episode, and she’s really upset.  She’s crying, she’s scared, and sure, she doesn’t think to try and get out of the ties until River talks to her on the intercom, but you know what?  Sometimes when people are scared, they don’t think about things like that.  I don’t think it’s her being the damsel in distress and River saving her; I think it’s just River reminding her that she’s capable of saving herself a little and offering comfort while she does so, because sometimes people need comfort and that’s not shameful.

And yes.  Kaylee is honest.  Kaylee is really damn honest.  Kaylee’s not blunt, exactly, at least beyond the realm of self-deprecation and the aforementioned sarcasm, but she also doesn’t see why she shouldn’t say what’s on her mind if it’s not gonna hurt anyone.  I casually allude to the vibrator line in Serenity.  That wasn’t gonna hurt anyone, but it’s still not a thing everyone would have said.  And that’s okay, too, privacy is a person’s own business.  But Kaylee said it and not in a way that would show she’s ashamed, just in a way that’s frank.  She’s just one to wear not everything, but a lot of things on her sleeve.

She’s frank about what she’s feeling and about what she does and doesn’t like.  She likes fixing machines, she likes playing with new parts for machines, she likes pretty things like twinkly lights around her door and flowers painted on every damn thing and teddy bears sewn on her coveralls and big pouffy pink dresses, she likes being sociable, she likes sex, she likes having techie fixing nerdy time with Wash and she likes having girly hair-fixing time with Inara and she likes playing weird outer space hoop-ball with everyone and she likes playing jacks with River.  She doesn’t like when perceived manners stand in the way of feelings, she doesn’t really like fighting or guns or anything, but she does like looking out for her own, and if that means she has to try to fight and use guns, well, then she’ll do it for them.  Which, you know.  Doesn’t sound like a victim so much to me.

Hey, oh yeah, and there’s Kaylee’s general frankness about sex always.  That too.  I think this frankness she’s got a tendency toward is part of why Simon frustrates her at times; she’s used to being forthcoming about such things, about attraction and intimacy, and he so clearly is not.  He learns to be, you know, somewhat better about it, and they eventually resolve their issues and get to it, but this is how relationships sometimes work.  There is a crap ton of awkwardness and there are misfired signals and failures and almost-kisses, and sometimes it takes goin’ on a year to get into the actual intimate part of the relationship, but that’s because relationships ain’t perfect.  I fully believe that Kaylee and Simon could very well be together forever, and I believe that they will love each other a lot (if they didn’t already a little at the end of Serenity), but do I think it’s all sunshine and roses?  Hell no.  They’re gonna fight about some things, they’re gonna be tense about some things.  That’s what couples do sometimes, particularly when Simon tends to say the wrong things and Kaylee gets offended maybe a little too easy about some of them, but they’re capable of working through, I’d think.

So to sum it up: I personally love Kaylee because she is sweet, because she has strength even if it’s not the ass-kicking kind, because she’s honest, because she’s flawed, because she’s loyal, because she’s unashamed of who she is, because she’s so many different things all at once.

–your fangirl heroine.

4 Responses to “Whedon Wednesday :: are you asking me to dance? [an analysis of Kaylee Frye]”

  1. Marie Erving July 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Kaylee’s definitely one of my favorite characters on the show. I mean, practically all of the main cast are amongst my favorite characters on the show, because they’re all awesome in very different ways. But Kaylee’s cheerfulness and optimism just makes me smile.

    I’m a little surprised at hearing that she’s getting labeled as the victim of the group, though. Usually, when people meet extroverts who are friendly and good at talking to people in real life, they don’t think ‘victim’.

    • partlydrawn July 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      I’m not entirely sure what that poster’s logic was, though they were song lyrics, so probably somebody just needed to fit each thing; I imagine it was more supposed to be victim in terms of fighting, since she’s very openly not a fighter type, but it’s still a label I’m no comfortable with.

      • Marie Erving July 2012 at 5:13 pm #

        Well, there are plenty of other non-fighter types: Wash, Simon, and Inara, definitely.

        But now that I took a look at the tumblr with the labels, only 2 or 3 of them actually make any sense as labels at all. The trouble with fitting too many elements to song lyrics, I guess.

      • partlydrawn July 2012 at 12:02 am #

        All of that is true. I think there’s something to be said for trying, but it doesn’t always work, and that leaves a lot of characters flattened, which is a bummer.

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