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class and gender in Firefly/Serenity

Via my cousin-out-law Michael, an excellent blog post about class and gender in Firefly.


I don't know that I agree with the blogger that geisha-type careers would not exist in cultures where women can hold a variety of respectable jobs, but I do agree with the blogger's dislike of the Mal/Inara relationship.


( 19 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 1st, 2006 06:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this.
Feb. 1st, 2006 08:21 pm (UTC)
I disagree with several of her notions.

First, Inara has more to offer than her labor power; she has access to privileges because of her status and she uses that to her and the crew's benefit. Second, while Mal is a property owner, he has much more in common with the independent trucker than say a landed property holder.

I also wonder why she doesnt touch on the third romantic relationship, Zoe & Wash, as it examines boundaries being crossed between the military and civilians.
Feb. 1st, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
I agree Inara has more to offer than labor power.
Feb. 1st, 2006 08:34 pm (UTC)
It's interesting. I think that the analysis might be somewhat convoluted, or the perspective somewhat convoluted, by the author framing class as an issue of men having power over women. (And what about stories where a woman falls in love with her manservant, who is torn because he does feel some closeness to her but is still ultimately a slave?) Ultimately, that requires the analysis to prove along the way that Mal has power over Inara and that that's the basic dynamic of their relationship. I'm not convinced that that's the case, especially given that she stands her ground on issues of space and boundaries and he backs down a few times in the show, and ultimately, she leaves. It was also given on many occasions that they needed her more than she needed them.

I also think that reducing her role to pleasing men and then brushing aside the time she was shown entertaining a female client and the references they made to female clients in a, "That didn't count," hand wave is a bit simplistic.
Feb. 1st, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC)
Maybe I didn't read it carefully enough, but I did not see the author framing class as an issue of men having power over women, per se; she did say that in many stories class and men-over-women are conflated and suggested that this is the case in Firefly too, but to a lesser degree (partly because of the mechanic/doctor relationship).

As for Mal/Inara power issues, I don't think the power distribution is entirely unequal, as is shown when Inara saves their ass a few times with her high-class connections, etc. On the other hand, Mal's disregard for Inara's wishes that he (a) not enter her space without knocking and (b) not call her a whore are IMO classic examples of ways that men exercise power over women, and episodes like this occur more often than episodes of the former. I don't think that the ability to object to transgressions counts as power unless the transgressions stop. Inara's ability to leave does count as power, although it's kind of presented as her only choice, which limits how much power it involves.

I may be especially sensitized to the above because it's the primary way in which traditional gender issues play out in my day to day life. If someone barges into my room or takes my stuff, and I say "Hey, that's my space/my stuff, don't act like you have a right to it without asking," and they "apologize" and do it again tomorrow, I don't feel empowered, even if my "objection" wasn't punished or entirely ignored.

I agree that her role isn't meaningfully reduced to pleasing men. But the references to female clients occurred much less often so I don't think the poster was entirely out of line to discount them somewhat.
Feb. 1st, 2006 09:22 pm (UTC)
The quote I took as equating class with power of men over women in this context was this one:

"In the world of movies class is just another way of exploring the power men have over women."

I think that it's important that Inara's ability to leave was presented in a way that made it seem like a constant, viable and attractive option and one that would not hurt her at all and would hurt the crew a great deal. It came up multiple times that she had better options available to her and that she had control of her own destiny. In that context, I don't think that I really believe that Mal's actions were an exertion of power and that leaving being her only option was the classic power situation it's being made out to be. If anything, it felt more like Inara had the power in the situations and that her choosing to stand for his behaviour was part of her dysfunctional way of coping with her feelings for him (a theme that was played up on both their parts). In the conversation where he tried to assert that she would live by his rules while she was on his ship and she countered that as long as she was renting the space, the shuttle was her ship, not his, and she would make the rules, and he backed down, seemed like a clear situation of him saying, "I have the power here," and her saying, "No, you don't," and him agreeing.

I don't know if a a frequency approach to the references to her clients really holds *that* effectively in this case, since most of the references to her clients were included to set up jealousy and tension vis a vis her and Mal, and there is a strong idea in our society that men don't have a problem with women sleeping with other women, only other men.
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:31 pm (UTC)
OK, here is where I got my understanding of what the poster is saying about class and gender:
...a lot of culture (particularly television) ignores class entirely. At the movies, upper middle class America is the default - anything else is a concious choice - something that needs an explanation. Movies that show people from different classes relating to each other are even rarer.
I thought she was talking about something peculiar to TV and movies and not saying that class and gender power are the same in general.

I don't know if a a frequency approach to the references to her clients really holds *that* effectively in this case, since most of the references to her clients were included to set up jealousy and tension vis a vis her and Mal

It depends on how you're going about your analysis. I see three ways to analyze it:

1. Analyzing what you and others extrapolate in your minds about the fictional setting, based on seeing the show. In that case, people can imagine her having lots of female clients, and so exactly what gets shown and what doesn't isn't all that important; what's important is that certain possibilities are presented.

2. Analyzing the show against other shows of the same time period and medium. I'm not aware of any other early 21st century Tv/movie shows that include high-class companions with female clients, so in that analysis, the show is ahead in its treatment of such controversial subjects.

3. Analyzing what is actually shown in the episodes. If you focus on this, then the fact that most of her clients shown are men does send a message that her work is primarily pleasuring men; the reasons behind that choice aren't relevant. And the choice to show sexual jealousy frequently sends a message that sexual jealousy is culturally expected and appropriate.

The third kind of analysis is similar to feminist analysis of language in which we argue, for example, that using "man" to mean both male and female people is sexist because it makes women invisible. In this kind of analysis, what does not get shown or said is just as much a part of the sexism as what does. The theory behind it is that people's ideas of what's common, appropriate, and so on depend on what they see and don't see as much as or more than what they think about what they see and don't see.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 03:01 pm (UTC)
I see your point in this. I do think, though, that their effort in presenting a female client combined with the cultural expectation that all of her clients would be male was intended to and in most cases did create the a lasting impression that she did have both female and male clients.

There's also the question of statistical necessity -- if she sees, say, six male clients to one female client, does that mean that her function is to please men? At what point do we get to ignore the explicit female client?

If nothing else, I also think that it's at least as likely that the difference in gender frequency may have been a conceit to the widespread disbelief that women, as providers/gatekeepers in the provider/consumer model of sexuality that is very popular, would never need to use such a service.

As to the choice to show jealousy frequently sending a message that sxual jealousy is culturally expected and appropriate, I'm not sure that that's not exactly the message being sent. I mean, I don't know Joss Whedon as a person, but that seems to be a common perception in our culture and I didn't get any impression from the show that he didn't agree with it. Unfortunate as it may be, there's definitely a widespread idea taht jealousy is a part of love and a signifier of love.

(Deleted comment)
Feb. 2nd, 2006 04:34 pm (UTC)
That's also quite possible.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 05:22 pm (UTC)
Outside the realm of the 3d kind of analysis I mention in my comment, I agree with everything you say.

BTW, I am not claiming "Joss Whedon is a big sexist". He's clearly one of the more feminist writers in TV.

And I do think differently about prostitution/geisha work than the original poster, I believe.
Feb. 1st, 2006 09:30 pm (UTC)
I think the disparity in the visible number of female to male clients has more to do with the mores and standards of Fox and TV in general than it does with the world Joss created.
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)
I hated the whole idea of the Inara character - it really felt like very little thought had gone into it past 'hey, let's have an intergalactic high class whore! It'll be very!'
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:33 pm (UTC)
That was my emotional reaction too. The other part of said reaction was "and then this rigorously-trained-since-childhood-Companion had no training about how to deal with romantic feelings toward men, such that she can't make up her mind whether to fuck Mal or not? Yeah, riiiight."
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:57 pm (UTC)
In fairness, I suspect that the Mal-thing was far more about Inara being specifically and personally fucked-up, much more than sex.

My theory is that Inara, personally, has fucked-up intimacy issues. And when I say "intimacy", I am not talking about sex -- I'm talking about intimacy. I think that the reason she left Sinon to ship out to the Rim on a tramp freighter was that she was developing intimacy with the other people who were there that she grew up with -- and she couldn't deal with it. She couldn't deal with having a family, so ran away from it.

I base a lot of this on "Heart of Gold" -- I think that what ACTUALLY happened in Inara's head during that episode is that she discovered that Mal was sleeping with what's-her-face, discovered that she had feelings of jealousy about that fact, and dealt with them fine -- but THEN she realized that the REASON that she had feelings of jealousy was that she genuinely CARED about Mal in a way that implied intimacy and family, and THAT'S why she broke down crying -- because she felt that this meant that she had to leave. She realized that she'd created the sort of family, on Serenity, that she had run away from on Sinon, and therefore felt compelled to run away again.

WHY she feels like that, I've got no idea, however.
Feb. 1st, 2006 11:24 pm (UTC)
A friend of mine has a theory that everyone has that thing or person they can become addicted to, that slips past their defenses and just plays hell with their life. I don't have a problem with Mal being Inara's personal crack.

So to speak.
Feb. 1st, 2006 10:59 pm (UTC)
I think that, if there was genuine sexual equality in the 'Verse, then there would be male Companions. As it was, Companions were female only, and the one time we saw a male prostitute, it was unusual enough for Kaylee to comment on it. "Hey! They got boy whores! How considerate!"
Feb. 2nd, 2006 02:43 am (UTC)
Um, Kaylee's from the sticks. What does she know about Companions?
Feb. 2nd, 2006 02:49 am (UTC)
There are no male Companions. And the fellow she was talking about was a prostitute, not a companion. I suspect that, while Kaylee might not know anything about Companions, except what she might learn from the fact that one of them is one of her best friends and thinks of her as a little sister, Kaylee has a perfectly normal working knowlege of whores.
Feb. 2nd, 2006 03:51 am (UTC)
Hi this is Maia (the author of the article)

Thanks for linking to my post - you were right about what I had intended about the relationship between class and gender. I wasn't talking about how it is in the world, but how it is usually portrayed in fiction (oh and the point of making the truck driver comparison was simply to show that I did think that the class analysis of Mal/Inara was complicated, I'm not claiming a simple economic description of class is the only way to describe it).

I do think that both prostitution and companionship are primarily portrayed as a commodity women are and men buy. Not just because this is what is shown (and I think that's important), but because of the way people react to anything besides this. For example, it's a big deal for the crew when Inara takes a female client. Likewise when Kaylee (who is very inquisitive, and is shown asking Inara about Companions) sees male whores, her first question is "I wonder if they service girlfolk", rather than assuming they service girlfolk (as you would if both women and men bought sex in equal amounts).
( 19 comments — Leave a comment )

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