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Objects in Space: Black masculinity through the paradigm of whitemale lust

October 15, 2008

Objects in Space was the last episode of the television series Firefly before the series was cancelled. This episode was revealing in a number of ways. I am going to look specifically at the construction of lust in the episode and the way in which Whedon charactrises lust, the differences in his treatment of lust between his whitemale characters and his Black male characters. The way that Whedon positions the Black man as a violent, sexual monster and the relationship this construction has to the characterisation of whitemales as protectors/owners of white women.

The straight whitemale is the default audience for Firefly and Whedon immediately sets up a paradigm of objectification of the female characters. In the first episode Serenity we have a deliberately provocative shot of Kaylee eating a strawberry. Soon after there is a shot of Inara half-naked, bathing in her shuttle. Both scenes cater for the whitemale sexualised gaze, setting up whitemale lust as a central and necessary part of audience engagement with the show.

The centring of whitemale lust continues throughout the series as female characters are consistently observed through the eyes of the white male characters. We have Wash objectifying Zoe, with his comments about how he wants to watch her bathe. In a separate occasion in the Bushwhacked episode, he reduces Zoe to body parts. I find this to be a very telling scene and the contrast between Zoe’s reluctance to part with the sacred details of her love for Wash, and Wash’s disgusting objectifying comments could not be more stark.

Wash: The legs. [laughter] Oh yeah, I definitely have to say it was her legs. You can put that down. Her legs and right where her legs meet her back that actually that whole area that and above it. Have you seen what she wears? Forget about it. Have you ever been with a warrior woman?

Also in the commentary for the episode Shindig they talked about how Zoe wore her necklace thingie as a symbol of her slavery (love) to Wash. Wash does not wear any ‘love’ token.

In later episodes we see vulnerability as ‘sexy’ through Mal and Jayne’s eyes in their objectification of Saffron. Obviously the more vulnerable, submissive and pliable the woman, the ‘sexier’ she is. Yet another viewpoint worth mentioning is Jayne’s objectification of Inara when she is with her female client. Don’t even get me started on the ickiness of that scenario.

Joss Whedon’s depiction of lesbianism as hot pornography for his whitemale audience is beyond excusable. This is not the first time he has depicted lesbianism as pornographic fodder for whitemale lust. He did it a few times in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer also. At the end of the fourth season there is an episode where the character Xander fantasises about Tara and Willow together for his (and the whitemale audiences’) sexual gratification. What makes this even worse is the fact that Willow is supposed to be Xander’s best friend. Later, in the seventh season Xander again fantasises about the potential slayers (15-16 year old girls) having erotic pillow fights in his bed. Really sick stuff.

Hmm. Well I really could go on forever about the many ways in which Whedon centres whitemale lust as the primary carrier for his phallosophical televisions shows but I did really want to talk specifically about the othering of Black men and women of all colours within the framework of whitemale lust as default, normal, natural.

In Firefly we see lust being constructed in different ways. I would argue that Whedon has constructed Mal’s lust as the baseline and we use his lust as a measure of normality. Mal is a rough and ready kinda guy. He lusts but his lust is tempered by his inner moral code. This inner moral code seems to justify most male behaviour. You can be a scumbag, but as long as you don’t cross that invisible line, you’re really a great guy. This is the same moral code as the one in wider society where men are congratulated for not being rapists. Also known as the Nigel phenomenon.

But the stupid men do not realise that it is only in a society where the majority of men are rapists that Nigels are congratulated for not being rapists. Stupid men. Anyway, Mal is a ‘safe’ man, because he never crosses that invisible line. Of course he rapes women. That is shown quite clearly in the episode Heart of Gold. Of course he treats women like possessions, that shines through clearly in his treatment of Inara, see episodes Shindig and War Stories. But that invisible stretchy moral line, he never crosses it. That makes him a good little Nigel.

So we have the bottom line of whitemale lusty Nigelism set by the dear Mr. Reynolds. Next up we have Wash another whitemale Nigel who likes to objectify his wife, and cut her up into little fetishised pieces. His lust is neatly contained within the bounds of holy, male supremacist matrimony, the bonds of which he never breaks (unless he knows he will get away with it). He too likes submissive women (see attraction to Saffron in the episode Our Mrs. Reynolds) but he also fetishises Zoe’s independence and strength in his pornographic fantasies of her as a dominatrix (‘warrior woman’). Most importantly his lust is not threatening to Mal’s leadership within the chain of command on the ship. Wash is tempered by Zoe as an outlet for his lust and object for ownership. Men need to own what they lust and lust what they own, therefore Wash’s possession of Zoe, within the male paradigm of imperialism, renders Wash unthreatening to Mal.

We then come to Jayne. In the comments of my last post I analysed Jayne as Whedon’s ‘fall guy’ for feminism. I think Whedon deliberately exaggerates Jayne’s whitemale lustiness in order to define ‘proper’, egalitarian lust. So Jayne’s lust is caricatured and made fun of. His overt masculinity is contrasted with Mal’s kinder, gentler, more feminist desires. The whitemale audience is supposed to distance themselves from Jayne’s unsophisticated masculinity and are invited to position themselves within Mal’s paradigm. Not only this, but Jayne is subject to Mal’s rule. He is not the Alpha male on the ship, Mal is. Jayne’s unsophisticated lust is tempered by Mal’s leadership. Jayne, in his natural state, is a dangerous man, but Mal’s control of Jayne and his rapacious nature, renders him ‘safe’. This clearly positions Alpha whitemale’s as protectors of women and children and as regulators of other men’s sexuality.

As an aside, this is why white men invade countries like Afganistan and Iraq and try to justify it by saying that their actions will spell women’s liberation. Whitemale think deplore the actions of other men, refusing to acknowledge the slaughter, terrorism and violence done in their own countries against women and children, by their own hands. Here we are talking again of the ‘good’ man Mal and the ‘bad’ man Jayne. In reality both commit violence against women, but each refuse to acknowledge their own violence.

Whedon explores a different kind of masculinity with the character of Simon. Simon’s masculinity is based on his intellectual achievements and social position. He acts as his sister River’s owner and protector, which also feeds into his sense of self. Simon’s intellect and compassion are mocked and punished by the ‘real men’: Mal and Jayne, who do their best to undermine Simon’s less valid claim to manhood. But Simon still wields his lesser manhood to some effect; his opinions matter more to Mal than the female characters opinions do. More air time is dedicated to dealing with Simon’s backstory than is given to the female characters. Simon still has male privilege, despite being a ‘lesser’ man.

Book’s character has already been commented on by a few other feminists and anti-racists, as being a stereotypical ‘magical negro’. I would agree with this assessment of his character. Book is a kind of ‘Uncle Tom’ character, the opposite of Early who is Whedon’s whitemale pornographic fantasy of the Black man as a hypersexualised, aggressive monster. Whedon neutralises this threat in his Book character by making him subject to his religious principles. It goes without saying that what regulates Book’s sexuality is a whitemale belief system. His Bible is modeled on the Judeo-Christian tradition; which is inherently whitemale supremacist. So the threat of the Black man’s lust is shown to be regulated and neutralized by the white man. Book becomes feminised, neutered, unthreatening.

In this way Whedon sets up and defines whitemale lust as characterized by Mal, as healthy, normal and natural. He also centralizes whitemale lust as essential to the audiences’ engagement in the text. (This was very much true of Buffy the Vampire Slayer also.) He defines ‘normal’ whitemale lust against an exaggerated version in order to set up whitemales as regulators of other men’s sexualities. I find it really fascinating how blatant Whedon is able to be with his misogynist masculinising. Anyway. In the episode, Objects in Space, Whedon takes this regulation of desire another step and shows the whitemale defeating the monstrous manifestation of unleashed Black male desire. Again, I find it really fascinating how blatant Joss Whedon is able to be with his pornographic race-hating depiction of Black male lust.

Gail Dines, the awesome feminist anti-pornography activist, in her essay King Kong and the white woman: Hustler magazine and the demonization of Black masculinity (read it in Not For Sale), talks about the characterization of Black men as sexual monsters. She makes many points that are pertinent to this discussion.

From the box office success of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 to the national obsession with O.J Simpson, the image of the Black male as the spoiler of white womanhood has been a staple of media representation in this country (US). The demonization of Black men as rapists and murderers has been well documented by scholars interested in film, news and rap music. While this image stands in sharp contrast to the feminized ‘Uncle Tom’ which was popular in early Hollywood films, both images serve to define Black men as outside the ‘normal’ realm of (white) masculinity by constructing them as ‘other’ .Although both the ‘Uncle Tom’ and the sexual monster continue to define the limits of Black male representation in mainstream media, it is the latter that dominates, and, according to Mercer, serves to legitimise racist practices such as mass incarceration of Black men, police brutality and right-wing government policy.

I would argue that Whedon is very definitely working within the Black man as sexual monster: Early; or neutered ‘Uncle Tom’: Book dichotomy, with his construction of Black male characters.

Early is played by a Black actor who is darker skinned and younger than the actor that plays Book. He is virile, uninhibited and very dangerous. He is depicted as cruel, depraved and not mentally balanced. His costume is a dark space suit, painted a burnished red, the colour of dried blood. The clarinet theme for the character is eerie and melancholic. Everything about the character screams malevolence.

When Early first boards the ship he immediately takes out Mal in a short and violent scene. He then locks most of the crew in their cabins while they are still asleep. Then suddenly he is in the engine room with Kaylee. Now this makes no sense to me in the scheme of the plot. Early’s supposed objective is to find River and take her to the Alliance. What the hell is he doing in the engine room? Oh, that’s right. We have to have a scene where The Black Man threatens The White Woman with rape.

James Snead, in the book White Screen, Black Images: Hollywood From the Dark Side, asserts that ‘in all Hollywood film portrayals of Blacks… the political is never far from the sexual.’ I think that this point is made very clearly in the scene where Early threatens Kaylee with rape. In this scene, Whedon is playing on all of the whitemale fears of the terrifying lust of Black men.

KAYLEE: River…?

She stands, looks. Nothing. She turns back to the toolbox, squats down to toss in a part, comes back up and Early is RIGHT behind her, she spins to see his face staring impassively inches from hers. She gasps, stumbles back. She’s up against the wall here.

EARLY: I like this ship.

She says nothing. Looks frantically around.

EARLY: (cont’d) Serenity. She’s good-looking. I mean she looks good.
KAYLEE: How did you get on…?
EARLY: It strains the mind a bit, don’t it? You think you’re all alone… Maybe I come down the chimney, Kaylee, bring presents to the good girls and boys. Maybe not, though.

He comes closer to her. She shrinks closer to the wall.

EARLY (cont’d): Maybe I’ve always been here.
KAYLEE: What do you want?

He looks at the turning engine, mesmerized.

EARLY: That’s her beating heart, isn’t it? You pull off any one of a thousand parts, she’ll just die. Such a slender thread… (still looking at the engine) Have you ever been raped?

A small beat –

KAYLEE: The captain’s right by –
EARLY: The captain’s locked in his quarters. They all are. There’s nobody can help you. Say it.
KAYLEE: There’s… there’s nobody can help me.
EARLY: I’m gonna tie you up now. And you know what I’m gonna do then? (she can’t answer) I’m gonna give you a present. Get rid of a problem you’ve got. And I won’t touch you in any wrong fashion, nor hurt you at all, unless you make some kind of ruckus. You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit. Ain’t nothing but a body to me, and I can find all unseemly manner of use for it. Do you understand.
KAYLEE (tiny voice): Yes.
EARLY: Turn around and put your hands behind your back.

She slowly does, terror on her face, as he pulls out a thin roll of tape. Pulls a strip out, says:

EARLY (cont’d): Now tell me, Kaylee… where does River sleep?

Kaylee’s fear is absolutely central to this scene. Whedon emphasizes this in his commentary, excitedly describing Kaylee’s terror as ‘so achingly perfect and beautiful’. No big surprise there, white men like Joss have always gotten off on women’s pain. But the extent of the white woman’s fear is the measure of Early’s maliciousness. The more fear he inspires in her the more monstrous he becomes.

Early visits Inara too. Again, inflicting pain on a woman by hitting her. Not because he has to. Neither Inara or Kaylee are a physical threat to him in the same way that Mal and Book are portrayed.

Inara is sitting up in bed. Simon stands near the entrance of the room, looking tense. Inara, vulnerable and more than a little confused, looks from him to Early, who is peeking in the back room, gun trained steadily on Inara.

INARA: You can still walk away from this. I know you’re tired.

He violently pistol-whips her, pointing the gun back at Simon as she feels the blood on her lip.

EARLY: Don’t go visiting in my intentions. Don’t ever.

He moves to the entrance. Before he shuts the door:

EARLY (cont’d, to Inara): Man is stronger by far than woman. But only woman can create a child. That seem right to you?

Joss just loves putting pointed misogyny into the mouths of Black men, doesn’t he? In this scene Inara’s vulnerability is highlighted in the script, in sharp contrast to Early’s contempt. So Joss creates this Black male character who is a violent, malicious sexual monster. He is a bounty hunter and his bounty is River, a 16 year old white girl. Given the treatment we have seen him give Kaylee and Inara, the threat he poses to River isn’t really left up to our imagination. So whitemale lust and misogyny is the default ‘normal’ lust whereas lust and misogyny in a Black man is monstrous and must be contained and controlled by the whitemale.

We eventually find out that River has escaped the Firefly and is on board Early’s own ship. She pretends to go along with Early’s plan to steal her and give her to the Alliance but secretly she is in contact with Kaylee (after convincing the terrified white girl that the big, bad Black monster isn’t going to get her) and Mal, putting into place a plan to trick Early and escape. She tells Early to come back to his ship and she will go with him. Early believes her and steps out onto the outer hull of the Firefly in order to return. But Mal is there waiting. He pushes Early hard and Early goes spinning off into space. Then River comes floating down from Early’s ship, an ecstatic look on her face as she is gathered up in her white saviour’s arms. The whitemale role as protector could not be made any clearer than it is in this scene.

The final scene shows River playing a game with Kaylee while the defeated Black monster is floating alone in space, becoming the final object in Joss Whedon’s phallosophising wankfest. The Black monster no longer poses a threat and the whitemale has emerged victorious having put down the threat to the (whitemale) social order. To quote Dines “King Kong’s death at the end of the movie remasculinises the white man, not only by his conquering of the black menace, but also by regaining the woman.” In Objects in Space Mal is able to reassert his ownership/protection of all three of the women threatened by Early: Kaylee, Inara and River.

Well, that concludes my analysis of Objects in Space. It would be remiss of me to talk about racism in Firefly without mentioning the appropriation of Asian culture within the series. Go here and here to read critiques of the series from that perspective. Thanks to all the Whedonites who have been following my posts, I couldn’t have done this without you. (Scarily enough I actually mean that!)

First Firefly post, second, and third.

46 comments

  1. [...] Objects in Space: Black masculinity through the paradigm of whitemale lust. [...]


  2. Just a stylistic question: why do you use differing forms when discussing a “whitemale” and a “Black male?”


  3. It is not a stylistic choice; it is a political one. See the difference?


  4. No, I’m afraid I don’t understand the political choice you are trying to make by using the terms “whitemale” and “Black male.”


  5. I meant that you were asking the wrong question.


  6. If you don’t understand that it was a politically motivated decision then I doubt that any explanation could help you understand.


  7. I understand you are making a politically motivated decision when you use the terms “whitemale” and “Black male,” I just don’t understand what that politically motivated decision is intended to convey.


  8. Well the whitemale is a way of referencing privilege. It is also how our society is structured. The whitemale is the default human. All other peoples are ‘other’. You will see ‘whitemale’ appearing in a few other blogs and books.

    Most people of colour capitalise Black. It is like Asian, or Australian. It is a political and social identity.

    I don’t capitalised Black in opposition to whitemale. They are two different concepts. And they are not really correlational.


  9. I like your passage on Jayne. It’s probably one of the best examples of the “hegemonic [boogeyman] masculinity” I’ve seen, and you made it sound so understandable. Pro-pro-feminists (michael kimmel and his ilk) are obsessed with masculinities, plural, and they do their own bit of creating Jaynes (hegemonic masculinity) to cover their own asses. You know, just so there can be a new baseline masculinity that is reformed and feminist, because masculinity has to exist as an essential human attribute.

    I think Whedon’s comics are interesting in that the only thing, evidently, that kept him from being more sexist on Buffy was the budget requirements of the real world, if the comic Buffy represents his “true vision” of the Buffyverse.


  10. Amazing, isn’t it? You’ve got shows like firefly, written by Joss Whedon, who alot of the hype says is all wonderful, working against gender roles and such (as in Buffy, I guess, though I always thought a demon slaying warrior type would probably be less of a valley girl)….and traditional gender roles.

    There’s Kaylee, for instance, the pretty girl who’s also a tech wizard…she could be a strong, independent female character….and yet in this episode, she fills the role of woman-as-victim. I’ve never been comfortable with that. I really don’t think it was necessary….certainly, it shows us that Jubal Early is a scary, bad person, but quite frankly, he’s portrayed as hunting down a teenage girl *in space*….that pretty much gives us all the bad and scary we need.


  11. Rich, you are one of the very few males whose writing I deeply appreciate and am incredibly envious of! So your compliment on my writing means a lot. Thanks.

    Re. the Jayne thing. Have you read or heard of a man called Robert Connell? He wrote a book about Masculinites, where he basically argued against Stoltenberg’s ‘exit politics’, saying that this type of feminism ‘had nothing to offer men’. Robert Connell is now Raewyn Connell. I guess he figures that if he can’t be Jayne he’ll go with being Kaylee!

    I haven’t read Whedon’s comics. I went and looked up the synopsis of his Buffy comics online when you mentioned them over at Polly’s. They look pretty scary. I read X-Men comics when I was younger. It is pretty much necessary for them to be misogynist. There is no other point to them really. I don’t doubt that Whedon felt more able to give vent to his misogyny in comic form than on screen.

    fop, I disliked Kaylee’s character before this episode. She was consistently depicted as weak and scared etc. Her mechnichal skills were just a ‘knack’, it wasn’t something she had worked hard for and earnt. I don’t like it when men have talent and skill but women just have knacks.


  12. That’s very kind of you, hearing that means a lot to me too.

    “Robert Connell is now Raewyn Connell.”

    It’s always a Lord of the Rings style name, isn’t it? Yeah, I’ve heard about that. Refusing to be a man is now refusing to admit to being a man.

    It’s pretty complicated for me to critique though because these white guys think they’re doing men of color a favor by treating other “masculinities” as other, and thus safe, transgressive, etc., so things like “black masculinity” become real even when they’re white corporate products.

    An example of that is how the canadian white ribbon campaign dropped their “exit strategy” works a few years ago that asked males to question their assumptions about gender for an American campaign based on chivalry: the American version they copied was basically designed to target African American males with the message that they’re inherently powerful and women are inherently weak, and “if you ever think about hurting a woman, remember you’re using your strength incorrectly.”

    So white pro-feminists decided that [chivalry] is the best or only non-violence message that the Black community could ever accept, which is condescending as all hell, but then they turn around a year later and serve it up to themselves, too, lowering the bar for white males even more.


  13. Refusing to be a man is now refusing to admit to being a man.

    Ha! So true.

    Hmm. Interesting. I remember seeing pictures of Black heterosexual couples on the White Ribbon website with the words, “My strength is not for hurting.” I agree that this definitely essentialises masculine ‘strength’. Doing nothing to actually examine the concept of the male gender itself.

    It makes sense that white men would use race as a way of lowering the bar for themselves. And yes it is incredibly condescending when white men decide for Black communities, how best to address the issue of male violence. Especially when being ‘culturally sensitive’ basically means ‘treat as inferior’.


  14. Excellent analysis, Allecto! (Sorry I’ve not been around lately; been busy; just got back to the blogosphere)

    Malestream media is so sexist and racist; it reinforces pornified culture. I can’t even turn on the TV anymore. I’m so sick of this culture that celebrates rape and gender roles (masculinity/femininity).

    I had read the article you’re talking about and I agree with Gail Dines: white men in malestream media do project their misogyny onto black men. The porn magazine Hustler is so filled with racist jokes and themes.

    white men like Joss have always gotten off on women’s pain.

    And Joss probably uses porn too, I would bet.

    Goddess, lines such as “I won’t touch you in any wrong fashion, nor hurt you at all, unless you make some kind of ruckus. You throw a monkey wrench into my dealings in any way, your body is forfeit” are truly creepy. Ugh… masculinity (i.e. gender construct) gives me the creeps I hate it. It reminds me of so many bad things. I hate it so much; this is what causes rape, pornography, etc. And this is also what is protected and reinforced by this culture. :(

    Rich, you are one of the very few males whose writing I deeply appreciate

    Same here, Rich! There are very few males I regard as being genuinely pro-feminist…

    Allecto- there are very few men I can trust. Most men are so sexist.


  15. Oooo, I like the new blog header!


  16. I am almost certain that Joss is a porn user, Maggie. I agree that television shows are universally woman-hating and racist. But most women just can’t see it. They think Joss is some great feminist hero.

    Yes, I think that these tv shows help to justify the use of pornography and women in prostitution. Most malestream media does. The difference with Firefly is the fact that Whedon calls himself a feminist. I would argue that this should be unacceptable. Why are feminist women all besotted with this wanker who writes rapefest tv shows?

    I agree with you about trusting men. It is always safer to err on the side of caution, methinks.

    Thanks Dissenter. I don’t like it as much but the other theme kept stuffing up on me. So I switched it to this one. But I liked the design of the other one more. I don’t like the brown links. :(


  17. You do first-class analysis, allecto. It is wise to question the widely accepted.


  18. The difference with Firefly is the fact that Whedon calls himself a feminist. I would argue that this should be unacceptable. Why are feminist women all besotted with this wanker who writes rapefest tv shows?

    I agree. I’m really shocked he calls himself a feminist. It’s a shame these women can’t notice his misogyny. :(

    I agree with you about trusting men. It is always safer to err on the side of caution, methinks.

    Yup.


  19. It’s funny to me Allecto, because I *am* a huge fan of Firefly, but I most emphatically DON’T hate what you’ve written. But after seeing what a lot of Firefly fans had to say to you I think I see a sort of difference between me and them – well infact I think of the friends I have who love the show and the abuse I’ve seen heaped on you I see a difference that’s hugely obvious.
    See, most of my friends who love Firefly are women. They like the show because there’s actually more than one female character in the main cast, and different ones of them identify with different cast members. It may go against common wisdom, but most of them do NOT sympathize most strongly with Inara, the “Companion”, but with Kaylee, the chipper mechanic. She is my second favorite personally – I’ll go into that in a minute – but I definitely see the appeal of Kaylee to the average American woman. She has a job, was hired because she’s good at her job, she’s very much “one of the boys” in that way that women are tokenized out of being radicalized as women. She also is free and open in her sexuality in a way that Inara is NOT, although it seems she is supposed to be the hawt hawt character of the show. Kaylee’s approach to sex is not dissimilar to the average twenty-something “liberated” American woman. She likes it, she wants it on her own terms. She doesn’t seem to feel guilty about wanting it and seeking it out. But she won’t put out for disgusting pigs like Jayne, or anyone she doesn’t like in “that way”. Also, Kaylee is a bit rebellious. She ran away from the farm and a father whom, it is mentioned at least once, gets mad at her for being as free in her ways as she is. This appeals to a lot of women I know.
    Personally, I fell in love with the show because of River. She’s the ultimate uncontrollable. Just as they are starting to dismiss her in their minds as just a daffy little crazy girl who is sick and needs help, she turns out to be ten times more dangerous than any of them possibly could have imagined. I know there’s a large number of feminists who are opposed to violent solutions to problems – I am not one of them, although that’s a long discussion I won’t clutter your blog with here. River is not sexualized, at least not explicitly – she drives the path the crew is taking in a subtle way, even though she doesn’t mean to. She says things which are inevitably true, but are dismissed because no one is taking her seriously enough.
    Anyway I guess my point is, when I see guys talking about the show they talk about how awesome and cool Mal is. I never was impressed with Mal, Jayne is an asshole, Simon is pompous and patronizing. (Why Kaylee wants him is a mystery to me.) Wash is stuck emotionally at 11 years old, and I wish they would have developed Shepherd’s story better because he was by far the most interesting male character on the ship. I liked the women in this show, ten times better than any of the male characters. The male fans essentially deify Malcolm and anything bad you say about him they internalize, because they want to be like him, the epitome of the “good man”. Ironic, because early on in the series he even states, outright, that he is NOT a good man.
    The upshot of the entire thing, as far as why women like the show, is just a sign of how totally barren the television/movie landscape is of female characters who do ANYTHING AT ALL, besides be someone’s wife/mommy/horror movie victim. In comparison to the average woman in a television series, Joss Whedon’s work can look feminist – just as Mal appears to be a good man when put next to Jayne.


  20. I don’t think that Kaylee represents a liberated female sexuality at all. The idea that she has sex ‘on her own terms’ is completely wrong in my opinion. The one sex scene she is in she is being fucked up against the wall by some dero loser brainless fuckwit.

    She is in no way shown as strong and liberated. She goes around pining after Simon like some sort of puppy. Wandering around whining about how much she wants to be fucked. Yeah, that’s some sexual liberation there.

    I don’t see Kaylee as being rebellious either. She totally conforms to what the men of the show expect from her. Always happy, always stroking men’s egos, always sexy, always available.

    And sexual objectification is not in any way a secondary feminist concern. Once a woman is positioned as a sex object, she ceases to be human. I think that this is very true in the case of Kaylee. She ceases to be constructed as human from the beginning. She becomes men’s perfect fantasy female. Subservient, subordinate, sexy, likes opening her legs for men.

    As for River, I think there are some pretty major flaws with her character also. Like Buffy, her power was given to her by men. Her capacity for violence was conditioned into her by men, It becomes something she cannot control.

    I really, really hate how Joss uses mad women as tokens in his tv shows. Faith, Fred, River… little, dark-haired, mad women who need big, strong manly men to protect them from other bad men, to protect them from themselves, to take control of their powers, to shape and take the mad women’s power for themselves.

    River’s destructive power is not used in her own interests, she uses it to protect a whole bunch of violent men. If she really was an empowered feminist heroine, she should have slaughtered all the fucktard men on the show and taken the ship for herself and the other women. Struck out at the Alliance with the help of the women. What I read from the whole River thing was that she traded one bunch of asshole male slavers for another ‘kinder’ bunch of slavers.

    In comparison to the average woman in a television series, Joss Whedon’s work can look feminist – just as Mal appears to be a good man when put next to Jayne.

    I agree with this. But what I get a bit annoyed about is the fact that there are some brilliant movies made: written and directed by women, that show women as strong, complex human beings, that show friendship, love and sisterhood between women, that show male violence as it is: stark, unrelenting, vicious, horrific. Women constantly moan about the lack of strong female characters in movies. It just isn’t true. They are out there. You just have to look, very hard.

    Also, I get enjoyment out of watching woman-hating, racist trash. That doesn’t mean that I stop seeing the racism and the woman-hating. I still see that, but I watch and enjoy the show despite it. I couldn’t do that with Firefly. That show was really boring to me. But I did used to do it with Buffy. I could watch that show and enjoy it: but still see that there were major flaws with the depiction of race and gender. What I don’t understand is women who watch this shit and think that it is feminist because they like it. That makes no sense to me. I like a lot of shit that is racist and misogynist, but I don’t try to fool myself into believing that it isn’t.


  21. Actually I’ve been thinking a bit more about this and I don’t think that Joss does a better job than most in portraying female characters. I think there have been quite a few shows that are no where near as woman-hating and race hating as Firefly.

    Characters like Roxy on Dead Like Me; Kathryn Janeway and B’Ellanna Torres from Star Trek: Voyager; Max and Original Cindi from Dark Angel; Xena and Gabrielle from Xena: Tha Warrior Princess. There are many better role models to relate to on tv than the ones in Firefly. Though I have problems with the shows I have listed above I think they are much less racist and far more ‘feminist’ than Firefly. And all of then are very malestream, American and easily accessible. So no, I don’t really get why women are so keen to cling to Joss. His shows are really shit for many different reasons and they are more shit than many other shows.


  22. Hello again,

    Looking at your list of other, ‘better’ SF shows, I would be interested to know what, if anything, you thought of Farscape. There’s a lot to be critical of of course (eg that the show was entirely centered around the one main male character), but if memory serves (I haven’t watched it in a good few years), there were always as many, if not more female characters than male, and a range (I won’t risk saying a wide range!) of characters also.

    I particularly loved the characters of Zhaan, and Aeryn Sun. What sticks in my mind is one year the SFX (a UK SF magazine) pole of ‘sexist women’ was topped by Cladia Black – a woman in her 40’s with (by mainstream television standards) a big nose and crow’s feet beat the Barbie-Vulcan character from Enterprise!

    I know being considered ‘sexy’ isn’t a standard to aim for etc. but it gave me hope that in the mainstream of SF fandom, a non-steriotypically beautiful woman, who played a very strong woman character, could win a popularity contest.

    Sarah


  23. I did watch a few episodes of Farscape but I don’t remember much about it. I remember I liked one of the female characters a lot but it was so long ago that I don’t remember why. Sorry, not much of an answer. I’ll have to check it out and see what I think.

    but it gave me hope that in the mainstream of SF fandom, a non-steriotypically beautiful woman, who played a very strong woman character, could win a popularity contest.

    Yeah, that is pretty cool.


  24. I do like Xena – I haven’t seen those other shows you mention, I really don’t watch much television. But with the Xena show I had trouble getting past the seeming requirement for her to be half dressed. Still at least she was the main character.


  25. Hello again, Allecto. I want to thank you for giving such a great analysis and for helping me develop more of an interest in feminism. I am still not all that well-versed in radical feminism, but I visit more moderate feminist sites such as Feministe, Feministing, and Racialicious almost every day. But I do share your anti-porn and anti-prostitution views. I hope you don’t mind me posting here. If so, I won’t be upset if you delete this comment.

    All I will say for now is that while I still disagree with a lot of your viewpoints on Firefly and Buffy, I would like to see you talk about Angel. Now that was a Joss-penned show that really reveled in misogyny. Every powerful female on that show was evil: Lilah, Darla, Drusilla. Illyria started to come around towards the end, but it was only because she was “tamed” by a man. Same with Faith, though at least I like her arc if I ignore the sexism there. The way women’s bodies were used on that show was despicable: Darla gets a mystical pregnancy that she can’t get rid of, and it’s only in dying to save her child that that she finds “redemption;” Cordelia has TWO mystical pregnancies, the second one lasting a season and taking away her free will and eventually her life, not to mention the uncontrollable, painful visions she gets; and Illyria kills Fred and takes over her body. Angel is constantly threatening Lilah, and while she may deserve it, it is still (at the least) uncomfortable for the same reasons I found the Saffron/Mal fight uncomfortable. Cordelia started out with a pretty awesome personality, but years of victimization turned her into a Mary Sue. It’s almost as if Joss was saying that to be a “good girl,” you will endure all the pain that men have to offer you. In comparison to all this, Firefly and Buffy are paragons of feminism (though I know in your opinion, that’s not saying much).

    I also think the last two seasons of Buffy are pretty shockingly anti-feminist. The girls end up having to be saved by a man, Spike, in one of the most show-destroying finales I’ve ever seen in my life. But the first five seasons do a fairly good job, IMO.

    I’ll have more on this specific analysis later. It’s given me a lot to think about and I need to sort it all out.


  26. Hi again Chris, it is good to see you back again. :)

    I totally agree with everything you have to say about Angel. I haven’t seen very much of it but what I have seen I have been very, very disturbed by.

    I think it would be very difficult to write a comprehensive feminist and anti-racist criticism of Angel though. The show is very long and it was written by many different authors. What was great about Firefly was the fact that it was short and most of it was written by Joss so I could manage an indepth criticism of the content.

    If I were to do the same to Angel, I would need to write a PhD. And I don’t really want to devote much more of my life to the project of questioning Whedon’s feminist credentials.

    But you seem to have a very clear idea of what you would say about the show. Why don’t you write your thoughts up? Do you have a blog? If you don’t I’m sure that you could get your thoughts published over at the Feminist SF blog. If you do, let me know. I’d be interested to read it.

    Yes, the whole story with Spike was pretty terrifying. Even more moderate feminists are pretty annoyed about the ‘Spike tries to rape Buffy because he ‘loves’her’ thing. And then he turns ‘good’ for her, and she accepts him back. What I really disliked about that particular arc was the fact that rapists are shown as monsters (vampires), not normal everyday men. And when Spike gets rid of his demon he is a good man again. That just ain’t what it is like in the real world, talk to any woman who works in the area of rape crisis etc… men who rape are average Joes, not ‘monsters’.

    And the ending of Buffy had so much potential too. I admit to getting a real kick out of the sisterhood of the last series. All those women fighting ‘evil’ alongside one another.


  27. No, I don’t have a blog. I’ve thought about getting one, but I just don’t have the time right now. I have a few blogs on my MySpace about feminism, religion, and gay rights, but they aren’t anything special; they’re just for my friends who aren’t as into such things.

    I still overall like Angel, and most of Joss’s work. But with Angel lately, I have to completely ignore the misogyny to get through it (and I realize I am in a very privileged position to be able to do that).

    Yeah, Buffy’s last season did have potential. The Potential Slayer storyline could have been inspirational, if they didn’t end up getting saved by a male vampire. Oh, and if Buffy had bothered to learn any of their names. Seriously, what was the point of having Buffy work as a guidance counselor for the first half of the season if she wasn’t going to form a kinship with any of these young girls? There was no sisterhood to be found, IMO. Even her friendship with Willow was gone, only showing up in brief glimpses. Add in Willow’s poorly thought out relationship with Kennedy, when all they had in common was their lesbianness and nothing else, and you have a pretty disastrous attempt at feminism. Not to mention all the continuity errors and poor characterizations that made the last two seasons bad even from a non-feminist perspective.

    I’m still thinking over your Firefly analysis. I agree the rape threat scene is completely unnecessary and gratuitous. I have always hated that scene. And Joss’s commentary on the whole episode is downright embarrassing to listen to. But I disagree with this:

    “Then River comes floating down from Early’s ship, an ecstatic look on her face as she is gathered up in her white saviour’s arms. The whitemale role as protector could not be made any clearer than it is in this scene.”

    IMO, River was the hero of this piece. She orchestrated the plan and got Early off the ship, saving everyone, including Mal. That’s what I remembered from the episode; Mal pushing Early off into space was something I didn’t even recall until I read your analysis. So I didn’t see her ecstatic look as being grateful for Mal saving her, but as her being happy with her own work.

    Also, in the episode before, “Heart of Gold,” we get a very misogynistic white male as the villain. His whole point of existence is to be misogynistic. So I don’t know if I would say Joss is intentionally constructing a negative portrayal of black male lust to make whitemale lust look more positive or neutral. Just my two cents, and you’ll probably respond with something brilliant that makes me rethink this entirely. :)


  28. “Yes, the whole story with Spike was pretty terrifying. Even more moderate feminists are pretty annoyed about the ‘Spike tries to rape Buffy because he ‘loves’her’ thing. And then he turns ‘good’ for her, and she accepts him back. What I really disliked about that particular arc was the fact that rapists are shown as monsters (vampires), not normal everyday men. And when Spike gets rid of his demon he is a good man again. That just ain’t what it is like in the real world, talk to any woman who works in the area of rape crisis etc… men who rape are average Joes, not ‘monsters’. ”

    While I agree this was a crappy arc, I should point out that there actually was a normal everyday rapist that season in the form of Warren, and he turned out to be far more dangerous than any monster the gang faced that season. Also, Spike technically didn’t “get rid of his demon,” the demon was still there, he just gained a human soul in addition to it.

    But I think the writers should have just gone with your idea and made him an asshole even with the soul. I mean, they did, kind of–witness Spike gloating about killing Wood’s mother and threatening Wood’s life in “Lies My Parents Told Me”–the problem was that by that point the moral compass of the show was pointing so far south that I’m not even sure we were supposed to see this as a BAD thing. Spike still acted mostly like his old self once he got over his temporary insanity, he just wasn’t going around killing people. It would have been better if the writers had just chosen to have him stay evil instead of woobifying him. The entire Spike/Buffy love affair just completely diminished Buffy as a character and a feminist icon.


  29. “Also, Spike technically didn’t “get rid of his demon,” the demon was still there, he just gained a human soul in addition to it.”

    Whedon has repeatedly said that there was no cosmology written for Buffy going into it. They conjured up whatever they needed for plot reasons. Need and melodrama, not rhyme nor reason (nor even budget: giant plastic snakes are a good idea when?), led to the soul/vampire thing. Fans have had years to retcon stuff, but it’s all bullshit and it’s especially dangerous bullshit when it comes to the Spike the Rapist plotline.

    So Whedon is to blame for not having his ducks in a row early on when it comes to that soul nonsense (really, explanations of why Spike and Angel are the way they are resemble “who’s on first” jokes) and then going *there*, pretty much allowing his fans to step in and save his ass from a very bad decision which isn’t so very bad now because now even feminists have lept to his rescue and come up with “what he really meant.”

    And all good patriarchs have a crew like that following in their wake. Hell, even Whedon’s don’t have anything on Obama’s.


  30. Sorry I’ve been sick and haven’t had my head together enough to respond before now.

    Chris: Seriously, what was the point of having Buffy work as a guidance counselor for the first half of the season if she wasn’t going to form a kinship with any of these young girls? There was no sisterhood to be found, IMO. Even her friendship with Willow was gone, only showing up in brief glimpses. Add in Willow’s poorly thought out relationship with Kennedy, when all they had in common was their lesbianness and nothing else, and you have a pretty disastrous attempt at feminism.

    So, so true. I totally agree with you. The Kennedy Willow thing was just so wrong. And the lack of any feeling between the potential slayers and Buffy was quite annoying.

    I don’t think the fact that the Heart of Gold episode had a whitemale misogynist in it, justifies Whedon’s portrayal of Early. As I discussed at length in this blog post Every Single whitemale on the show was horrifically misogynist. We have Mal callin the woman he ‘loves’ a ‘whore’. We have Jayne wanting to trade a gun for ownership of a woman (which is a blatant rape threat to the woman he is trying to buy), we have Wash who treats his wife like an object and a possession. None of these things are justifiable, in my opinion. Men who treat women like this are woman-haters through and through and yet Whedon does not treat these characters with the same contempt that he treats Early. Why not?

    The Heart of Gold episode was the most disgusting episode in the series, in my opinion, in what it had to say about women. And the way it showed that women enjoy being bought as sex by woman-hating assholes. Throughout the whole series we saw women being abused and humiliated by white men who are lauded as anti-heroes in the show. Then we see a Black guy and a white guy taken to town for their misogyny, by men who are misogynists themselves. I personally don’t think that this makes any kind of sense.

    In regards to River, I do not deny that she was shown as saving herself from Early. My analysis did not rely on denying that. My problem with the whole ending was the fact that after saving herself she puts herself and her life back into the hands of a dangerous, woman-hating white man who has treated her with contempt. Now, why didn’t she take Early’s ship and set herself completely free? She is smart enough, and powerful enough to take care of herself. Why does she put up with Mal’s shit? Why are Mal’s arms shown as a safe space? She has seen him smash his fist into her brother’s face. She has seen the way he treats and talks to the women on board. If she was smart, she would have seen sense and gotten the fuck away from Mal and Jayne and Wash. She wouldn’t have saved herself only to be folded back under another another dangerous patriach’s arms. Makes no sense, except within a racist and misogynist paradigm of ‘protection’.

    Also, I didn’t say that Whedon was being intentionally racist. I reckon he is like all the other ‘anti-racist’ white morons out there who don’t bother to critically analyse and attempt to overcome their internalised racism and yet spilling out their racism in their ‘creative’ work. I would argue that Whedon is no more racist or misogynist than the majority of tv writers out there (including the female ones) and of course he doesn’t even know that he is racist or misogynist.

    Warren was a rapist? I don’t remember that. I remember that he made those sex robots which was just really disgusting. Is that what you meant?

    But see, I found the Buffy/Angel relationship very problematic as well. I mean, Angel is like 240 or something and Buffy is 16 when they meet. And we get all this back story on Angel and it turns out he has been stalking Buffy since before he meets her. So she is like 15 when he meets her and ‘falls in love’. Which is seriously gross, and from a feminist perspective, very troubling.

    And Angel is fucking huge physically, next to Buffy. In some of the earlier episodes he kinda grabs her arm and jostles her, which I think is just so wrong. Giles does this to her too, backs her into a corner and towers over her. I don’t think that the early seasons are without serious problems as well as the later ones.

    Rich: …allowing his fans to step in and save his ass from a very bad decision which isn’t so very bad now because now even feminists have lept to his rescue and come up with “what he really meant.”

    YES! Why do they do this? I mean it is so not difficult to see the serious race and gender problems with his work. Why do women insist on coming up with ‘what he really meant’… when what he really meant is/was so fucking OBVIOUS. It is really annoying.


  31. I believe Chris is referring to the episode where Warren hypnotises his ex-girlfriend (can’t remember how, some kind of magic device I think) and puts her in a skimpy waitress outfit, with the intention of turning her into his sex slave. Before he really gets underway, though, she wakes up from the trance, and says something like, “this isn’t some sick little fantasy, this is rape.” Then she tries to escape, and Warren kills her.


  32. This is just to tell you (and perhaps you have been informed. Who knows?) that apparently you’re fucking famous

    http://www.cracked.com/article_16587_hollywoods-5-saddest-attempts-at-feminism.html

    they quote you in the bit about River tam at the bottom. Like I said, maybe you’ve heard this already, but maybe you haven’t.

    You’re CLEARLY famous.


  33. SQUEEEE!!! I’m famous. Or perhaps infamous is a better way of putting it!!! Thanks for the link fop. It is always nice to see that there are *some* women out there who have their eyes open.


  34. No prob allecto. It amused me to no end.


  35. I’ve been reading your posts about firefly/serenity, and they make me glad that I’m in a good relationship. Unfortunately, I see many people who are in bad relationships all around me, and I believe that it is due to this oversexual culture that we live in. Honestly, it’s like a regression to a couple centuries ago.


  36. That was an interesting perspective, and I would wonder if Joss would have done the same exact thing with a white man as Early, or if he played merely on sterotypes to enhance the show.

    I’m mostly confused with the part you talk about here: “INARA: You can still walk away from this. I know you’re tired.” In the episode, the watcher can tell that Inara is attempting to use a more subtle ploy, which she probably learned in The Academy, that would get Early to back off. He hits her because he realizes that he could very well be lured into this subtle mindgame. I think it shows the weakness of men that they can be lured, and it shows that Early knows this is a man’s weakness.


  37. Alice, the reason I deleted your comment was because you weren’t responding to anything I had actually written. Did you even read this post before you commented? Where did I say that the part had been written for a Black actor? Where did I say that a whitemale couldn’t have played this character? I didn’t say either of these things. Read and respond to something I have actually written and I will publish your comment.

    Oh, but if it is more apologies for the racism of white men then I wouldn’t bother. There are plenty of places on the internet where you can justify Joss Whedon’s racism and vilify me. I don’t allow that on my blog.


  38. I really liked your articles, im ashamed to admit that i never thought about these things that way, it was an eyeopener for me!
    You should take a look on this forum, it’s disgusting, it’s about this law is being passed in Afghanistan that allows wife rape, the majority of male posters seem to think it’s funny.

    http://www.sociocide.com/forums/showthread.php?p=1405492#post1405492


  39. Thanks Brenda. I’m glad it made you look at the series in a different way.

    Urgh! I couldn’t read through the conversation that you linked to. That much woman-hatred makes me want to throw up.


  40. I just finished watching Firefly today and now I’ve read your post and really I couldn’t agree more. With everything.

    The Saffron thing is still fresh in my mind and that was it what made me notice how,for lack of a better word;weird that show is.
    I know different people are attracted to different things but when she came aboard she didn’t even fit the western standard for attractiveness. Aside from the fact that her submissiveness is attractive to Mal,Jayne and even Wash the thing that really sickened me was that her behaviour was that of a scared child. She may had the body of an adult but when you are attracted to someone with the mind-set of a child that’s just as sick as when you’re attracted to an actual child.

    A little of topic:
    I’d really like to know if you watched Charmed and if so what you thought of it (I’m asking here because on this site I can’t see whether or not you have a tag for it.)’Cause I always thought that for a women-centric show it was extremely misogynistic.


  41. Wow. Just… wow.
    I really enjoyed reading your whole series of articles! I am a feminist as well, and agree with you on some of your points. A few, however, I think are a little unjustified.
    1) Not all whitemales are terrible. I know quite a few who would never, ever do what was mentioned in this article. Now, I know that that probably wasn’t what you were trying to say, but I’d still like to say this.
    2) To clear up an earlier Zoe/Wash thing: not all black female/whitemale marriages are doomed. It’s a lot like my point above: I know quite a few that have worked out very well.
    I really love your writing style, though. It really brought me in and made me think. I hope to read more of your things soon.
    BTW, have you ever read “When Everything Changed” by Gail Collins? It’s basically a history on feminism in America. It’s an interesting perspective and I think you might enjoy it.


  42. I’m a white male and I’m terrible.

    BTW, Whedon’s newest creation, the sexy sex traficking show Dollhouse, featured a Black man as the series villain. I guess Joss was just transgressing the stereotype of the Magical Negro (the guy you’d never suspect to be bad!) and playing with taboo. Yup yup.


  43. Lol @ Rich.

    Yes, every time Joss has a Black male as the series villian he is being ultra subversive. You know… ’cause that makes SO much sense. *rolls eyes at stupid people*


  44. My friends and I read this article and are all very confused. What, pray tell, is the Nigel Phenomenon?


  45. Feminist slang for men who are considered (usually by women) to be ‘good’ and not participants in male supremacy… ie. “not my Nigel (or Tom, Dick or Harry)”, “not my dad, hubby, brother, son” etc.


  46. I am a white male, but autistic, so I guess Not Default Whitey is in order. I have little established credibility in calling myself a male feminist versus a guy who makes things in his bedroom, but I do note that I have never seen Joss Whedon’s shows so until I read this I had little context as to why people were so divided about this guy.

    I have little gender studies cred, but I find it interesting that local Australian fans are much less able to pick up on the anti African sentiments here as they would the anti Asian stuff in Firefly due to geographical location.

    Local racists, such as the One Nation party often said stuff like “we’re being swamped by Asians” instead of “swamped by Africans” because it is easier to convince Australian racists that Asia is a bigger “threat” than Africa due to geography. As a result Australian rap fans are far less shocked by the N word in rap songs due to there being no local context with our local media about how African men are portrayed. It’s our media that gives us our biggest idea of what black men are like, and that’s sad but it reflects population realities to an extent for Australia. America on the other hand, I totally get why black men and women want better representation in their own local media.

    I’m a white male, but the autism does make me notice things a lot of people don’t think about why local trends occur. I’d also remark that women and men being written as characters rather than straw men/women is an easier way to avoid writing even unintentional racist/sexist subtext in character driven media.



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