Objects in Space: Black masculinity through the paradigm of whitemale lustOctober 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.
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!)