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Firefly Masculinities


If you want a boxer
I will step into the ring for you
And if you want a doctor
I’ll examine every inch of you
If you want a driver
Climb inside
Or if you want to take me for a ride
You know you can
I’m your man.
(Leonard Cohen, “I’m Your Man”)

My second-favorite Jossverse show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, although I have to acknowledge that Angel the Series does a much more nuanced job in representing demons, Evil, and the unreliability of the connection between the two. My favorite Jossverse show, by a factor of millions, is Firely. I feel that way partly because Firefly’s restless spirit—it was dispatched when it had far more unfinished business than Hamlet, Sr.—needs the Browncoat Legions to survive.

Mostly, though, I feel that way because Firefly deals with masculinity (a subject that I find of interest as a slasher and as a feminist) with a good deal of complexity, and more than a hint that Mal(e) is Bad, in the Latin. I see Firefly/Serenity as centrally about what Mal is going to be when he grows up. He’s the character with the most potential for change, but also the most need of change; because in some ways, 20th-21st Century US-ian stereotypes of "man" and "adult" are different. Sometimes they're even contradictory: in some readings, to be masculine is to be eternally Huck Finn, and only tol'able slim old maids attempt the work of sivilization.

Despite occasional feints by Jayne, I think it’s pretty clear that Mal is the alpha male of the Serenity pack—albeit something of a lone wolf, given the exquisite care with which he and Inara avoid having a relationship. And despite being noticeably younger than Book or Jayne, Mal is also Serenity’s patriarch. When he wants to annoy Simon, he calls him “Son,” and River is undisturbed by the prospect of being grilled because “Daddy’s coming.” In effect, the game of “Que es mas macho?” stays within non-fatal bounds because neither Mal nor Jayne is willing to compete, in light of the likelihood that Zoe might scoop the pool.

One way to look at the regular cast of a TV show is that they are a family, biological or of choice. But another way to look at it is that they are splintered parts of the protagonist, or alternative visions of the protagonist, who have the potential to join together like the Uber-Buffy to repair the gaps in the protagonist’s soul.

As a chronic smart-ass, my first thought was that Simon, Mal, and Jayne are the mirror-versions of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. More seriously, Book is available as a Magus figure, although Mal is not receptive to any specifically Christian message. I also think of Simon and Jayne as the opposing angels perched on Mal’s shoulders. Mal’s first encounter with Simon involves a certain amount of punching, and Mal’s first encounter with Jayne revolves around Mal’s efforts for it *not* to include shooting. One of the first things that Simon ever says in "Serenity-the-Pilot" (StP) is that he doesn't kill people, and one of the first things we figure out about Jayne is that he *does.*

As we soon see, Mal also kills people, whether under orders or as an independent contractor. Being a soldier is an important part of Mal’s identity. He’s proudly un-Reconstructed, but his idea of an appropriate U-Day activity isn’t commemoration of his fallen comrades, or even hanging out with his few surviving comrades—he goes out and starts a riot. When he does this in “The Train Job,” his accomplices are Jayne, who “didn’t fight in no war,” –and Zoe, who shares this critical part of Mal’s identity. In RL, until recently one of the primary gender divides was between the role of man as warrior and woman as the object to be protected by warriors, the recreation of warriors, or the victim of warriors.

In some ways, Zoe is gendered masculine: not only do we have glimpses of her martial past, but she's clearly a Made Person in this mob, not just the consigliere. And it's hard to imagine a greater icon of unflappability than Zoe tucking Mal's leftover ear into her bra. Zoe rescues Wash, and not vice versa; the entire crew, including its least martially competent members (including Wash and The 'Verse's Smallest Gun) rescue Mal.

We know that Zoe likes “a dress with a little slink,” (although the one time we get to see her in one, we all wish she didn’t have to), and her space!hair extensions must take a certain amount of upkeep, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in fripperies. In StP, I got an early glimpse that Zoe wasn’t going to be anybody’s Little Woman when she was whooping it up with Mal, Jayne, and Wash over “Kaylee’s dead.”

It’s probably significant (as well as gift to shippers of all kinds) that the crew is constituted as four potentially pair-able men, four potentially pair-able women, and a celibate (which avoids squicks about golden-ager sex). As far as we know, Mal has never deliberately married anyone (Saffron counts as sort of an accident), and he sounded sincere when he told her that it had been a long damn time since anyone else’s hand was on his plough.

I’ve always wondered about that. Clearly he has Issues about Companions and whores (and when he goes to bed with Nandi, it isn’t because she’s a whore, but because he admires her—and, really, in spite of her being a whore), but I would have thought that there would be a lady friend or several on various planets who would be glad to offer him an occasional night’s lodging and friendly fornication.

The shipper’s answer would be that he loves Inara too devotedly to become One Flesh with anybody else. The psychoanalytic critic’s answer might be that he and Inara fetishize one another precisely because they prevent one another from having a real relationship with each other, and this therefore defends them against having another, potentially workable but also potentially risky, with anybody else. The slasher's answer would be that Mal also has Issues with his sexual attraction to other men, possibly part of his former religious training.

As we can see from canon, Wash and Zoe have a lot of highly mutually satisfactory sex; Jayne and Kaylee are upfront about wanting to have more sex than they ever get (in a way that is conventionally gendered masculine). I don't know how Inara feels about busman's holidays, but I suspect she's rather negative about them.

One definition of the masculine role is marriage and fatherhood. By this measure, Wash is the most masculine, although he’s reluctant to become a parent, albeit with good practical reservations to offer. Depending on the state of contraception, there may be gun-loving wild oats scattered around the ‘Verse, although their moms had better not expect child support. We have pretty clear ideas of what's meant by calling someone "A man's man": someone who hunts, fishes, likes tractor pulls or space!tractor pulls, drinks, swears, and is not over-fastidious about personal grooming. By this measure, Jayne certainly qualifies, Mal probably does—and Wash does not. It's less clear what is meant by a "woman's man" but Wash's devotion to Zoe is absolute—and he's the only person who seems seriously bothered by how awful Mudder's Milk is, everyone else is goal-oriented about getting trashed as fast as possible.

Book also serves as the swing vote on this peculiar Supreme Court in another way: four Violent people (Mal, Jayne, Zoe, River), four Non-Violent (Inara, Wash, Simon, Kaylee)—two men and two women on each team--and a Violent Emeritus. As "War Stories" and "Serenity-the-Movie" show, they’ll all pick up a gun when they have to. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne deliberately adopted careers involving violence and River was assigned one; Book resigned from one. However, in “Shindig” Inara has to teach Mal how to fence. (I suspect that, even before the Academy, River was probably a damn fine fencer—and anyway, in the Jossverse, completely orgiastic violence is not only gendered feminine but assigned to particularly small women—Buffy and Illyria too.) In a lot of media projects, courage is often assigned to masculine males, and non-masculine males are also tarred with cowardice. With the arguable exception of Kaylee, sometimes, the entire Firefly crew displays extreme physical courage at all times.

Except that sexists always plump for whichever one they think represents men, it’s hard to tell whether Men = Nature, Women = Culture or vice versa. In Firefly, it’s quite evident that the Rim = Nature, Core = Culture. So on this axis, Inara, Simon, River, and perhaps Book are the Core-dwellers, the rest are hicks from the sticks, the players without civilized rules. In fact, in “Ariel” Kaylee says she’s never even been to a Core planet, although her fondness for useful salvage items serves as some consolation for the limited scope of her visit.

I've had a good deal to say on the subject of Simon, e.g., my idol_reflection essay, "Simon Tam: The Dork Knight Returns," You know how sometimes people say that slash is OOC because it distorts canon by making straight characters gay? Oddly enough you don't hear that a lot in connection with Simon. Especially after the gaze of utter melting hero-worship he turns on Jayne in "Ariel." Before "StM", it sure looked like he was coming up with an increasingly desperate series of expedients for not sleeping with Kaylee. (It's not good news for the relationship that, after Book disrupts Simon's attempt to kiss Kaylee in "Objects in Space," Simon wipes his hand on his sweater; and "I would never—not with Kaylee" in "Jaynestown" sounds pretty heartfelt even apart from the In Hangover Veritas aspect.) My favorite Firefly ship is Mal/Simon—I think they'd be good for each other-- and my favorite Firefly hetships are Simon/Inara and Mal/Kaylee—I think they could be reasonably happy without having to change too much.

Until fairly recently, career success was considered entirely a masculine matter. I was going to say that everyone in the crew is extremely competent and good at his or her job. Wash is a superb pilot; Inara is a terrific Companion; Zoe is the right-hand-person of any executive's dreams; Simon is an excellent surgeon; Kaylee can fix anything; and you wouldn't want Jayne to relate publicly to you. We don't really want River to be good at being a psychic assassin. I'm not sure how good Book is at his vocation in the series; the heathens are about as heathen when he leaves as when he arrived. (His precepts are more pivotal in StM.) Actually, in a lot of ways, Mal *sucks* at his job, because he's not just a petty criminal but one whose jobs usually go south on him. However, on one axis of his job, and one vision of masculinity, he succeeds superbly: he could get his crew to follow him into a burning building. Simon probably couldn't get anyone to follow him *out* of one.

In a lot of media projects, we would be encouraged to look down on male characters who are deficient in conventional masculinity, and on female characters who are deficient in conventional femininity (especially because aspiring to masculine gender behavior might be seen as social climbing). Firefly makes the whole question of what it means to be a good man, and the subsidiary question of what it means to be a man, far more complex and productive of discussion.

Oh, by the way, in "The Master at Play" DVD, where Joss talks about screenwriting, he says that movies are masculine, all “go in there, get it done, and get out” and series are feminine, focusing on development of character. Can you guess whether I like Firefly-the-Series or Serenity-the-Movie better?

Note: The upcoming Wilcox/Cochran Firefly entry in the I.B. Tauris Investigating Cult Television series is projected to include David Magill’s “I Aim to Misbehave: Masculinities in the ‘Verse.” I’m waiting eagerly for the book but needless to say haven’t read it yet. See for book info.
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