Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Allecto Returns to “Objects in Space”

I wasn't sure if I really expected her to come back to “Objects in Space”. I was starting to think she had lost interest, but I underestimate her dedication and persistence. She has mounted her soapbox again however to preach the misogyny of Joss Whedon and introduce us to her new buzzword: “whitemale”. Here's her premise for this episode:

I am going to look specifically at the construction of lust in the episode and the way in which Whedon characterises 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.
Before we get into the discussion, you can take the opportunity to view the episode yourself. I discovered that the entire series can be watched online and even embedded in other web pages, so here's the subject of the discussion.

I should probably note that Allecto's premise rests on a pretty large assumption. She assumes that Joss Whedon wrote this episode knowing that the character of Jubal Early would be played by a black man. If Joss wrote the script without a man of any particular race in mind, only to have Richard Brooks cast in the role later, then her basic claim of racial bias falls to the ground. I've done a web search for interviews that might answer the question, but I haven't turned up anything. If you're reading this and you think you've got the answer, please leave a comment.

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.
Perhaps this is a good time to bring up the subject of executive meddling again. Networks are constantly trying to target their shows at particular demographics, and the group they target most are young males, because they seem to think that young males are the most likely people to go out and spend money in response to a television commercial. Call it misogyny if you like, but I think pandering to a young male audience is probably a requirement for getting his script approved, resulting in some rather gratuitous sexiness. Reportedly, Joss didn't even have the character of Inara in his original proposal, but the network execs insisted that he include a “space hooker”.

Anyway, Allecto is obviously bothered by the way that Joss's scripts, by original intent or by executive order, pander to the young male demographic. Quite frankly, I think the problem is less with Joss Whedon than with that demographic and the social standards of what's considered sexy. As I've said in previous responses to Allecto, she has a tendency to aim at the wrong target with her criticisms.

Anyway, on to what she really wants to talk about.

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.
Mal is undeniably the central character, but there’s a huge range of sexual behavior present in Firefly. Besides Mal, who seems to be pretty middle-of-the-road, you’ve got Inara, who gets paid for it; Kaylee, who is very sex-positive and wishes she could get it from Simon; Simon, who is seriously repressed; Wash and Zoe, the happily married monogamous couple (which means – in Whedonland – that the relationship is surely doomed); Book, who is a celibate preacher; River, who’s too young for anyone to consider; and Jayne, who’s a pig. The closest one to being a “great guy” is probably Simon, or maybe Wash. People who have not had serious issues with abusive men in their past probably figure that Mal is “alright”. Your mileage may vary.

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.
Unfortunately, I’m not getting the Nigel allusion; it must be a European or Australian thing. I’m not at all sure what point she’s trying to make, either, since in one sentence she says that Mal never crosses the “invisible line” of rape, yet in the very next sentence she says “of course” he does. It’s particularly odd that she uses "Heart of Gold" as the example, since in the only episode in the entire series in which Mal actually has sex, Nandi has come on to him. There’s certainly an argument that the girls of the brothel might feel some obligation to the hired guns who have come to defend them, and Jayne definitely takes advantage of that, but Mal is quite clearly doing this job as a favor for Inara; he was not expecting any sexual favors from the brothel girls in exchange.

Having defined Mal as a rapist with good PR, she goes on to again describe Wash and Zoe’s marriage as an abusive relationship. This claim is so old and unjustified that I don’t want to go into it again. Suffice to say that she doesn’t believe a healthy relationship between a man and woman (let alone a white man and a black woman) is even remotely possible.

But lo and behold, she finally decides to address the character of Jayne in one of her posts. She touched on the subject before when addressing Mal’s concern for Saffron’s well-being when she suggested that Mal should shove Jayne out an airlock before he gets a chance to rape anyone, but this is the first time she’s spoken of Jayne Cobb directly.

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.
There can certainly be no question that Jayne is a foil for Mal, but wow… just wow. Allecto can take a commonplace literary convention and run a marathon with it.

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.
Silly me, I thought the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were all about vengeance for 9/11, security of oil resources, and maybe settling old scores with Saddam Hussein, when it was really all about control of women’s sex lives. How could I have been so wrong?

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.
Simon is almost certainly the most androgynous person on the ship. I suppose I should ask my female readers where he lies on their masculinity scale. Quite frankly, despite coming from a very privileged family, he’s surprisingly capable of standing up for himself in the rough-and-tumble environment of Serenity, and he absolutely owns the other guys on the ship when it comes to intelligence. I think Allecto is missing an important point about Simon, though; as a character, he’s secondary to River, and his backstory exists mostly to explain and extend hers. Following the events of the Serenity movie – in which River managed to become reasonably stable and self-sufficient – he must have a huge bull’s eye on his head.

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.
If there were anything really “magical” about Shepherd Book, I might see where she’s coming from. He certainly has a mysterious background, but River is the only character who has anything “magical” going on.

EDIT: I took the liberty of looking up the term on TV Tropes, and I can see that. Of course, the TV Tropes article also argues that Book is actually a subversion of the trope.

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.
Book is undeniably a sympathetic character, and I don’t suppose it hurts that he’s a Christian, which is so widely seen as a positive in Western society (and I’m certainly not going to deny the misogynism inherent in the Bible), but feminized and unthreatening? This is the guy who casually points out that while the Bible forbids killing, it is non-specific on the subject of kneecaps. Watching this series, I quickly understood that there was a very dangerous man hiding behind the preacher façade.

Anyway, the summary is that she has decided that Joss Whedon uses Mal as a role-model for white male sexual behavior and defines him as the arbiter of other characters’ sexual activites. This is bad, of course, because Mal is a rapist (if you want to accept her definition of rape, which is essentially any intercourse between a man and a woman).

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.
I find this an odd premise, since Jubal Early’s behavior is just so asexual that I find it hard to see him as an exemplar of lust. Even his sexual assault threats – which are quite real and scary – have nothing to do with lust.

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.
Early is the villain of this piece; scariness is to be expected. As I’ve said, villainy should be just as equal-opportunity as heroism, so there should be characters of every race on both sides of the fence. He’s certainly no more despicable than the “rich white guy” villains Rance Burgess (“Heart of Gold”) and Adelai Niska (“The Train Job” and “War Stories”). There are two things I would like to see her prove, though, in order to make her point. 1) Early would not be as scary if he were not black, and 2) Joss Whedon wrote this role specifically to be played by a black man (as opposed to it being written without regard for who might be cast in the role).

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.
Why is it so bizarre that he should end up in the engine room? It’s an open room fairly close to where he entered the ship, the lights are on, and there are sounds of someone working. He is working both to eliminate interference and to gain information.

Now, when he gets there and finds Kaylee alone, she’s absolutely right about what he does. He threatens to rape her if she doesn’t cooperate by telling him where River sleeps and then keeping quiet afterwards. It’s an absolutely evil scene. Stereotypical? Maybe. I don’t think it would be one whit less evil and scary if the villain were a white guy, though.

There’s nothing lustful about Early’s demeanor, either – just cold, calculated cruelty intended to force her submission. All he wants from Kaylee is information and non-interference, and his threat is just a means of coercion. It’s pretty horrific that he knows just how to threaten her to get her to cooperate, but how far is that from reality?

Of course, I’m neither female nor black, so I’m obviously not the most qualified person on Earth to decide if there’s cause for offense, here, but to me it's clear that Jubal is a character motivated by power, not lust. Power over women, men, or even animals (according to River's deductions about his childhood): what he controls doesn't matter to him, as long as he is in control.

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.
I don’t know that Joss is “getting off” on Kaylee’s pain. He’s describing a scene that is very effectively evoking the desired reaction from the audience, which is to despise the villain. He describes River picking up a tree branch in the same terms. The entire point of this scene is to show what a ruthless and evil villain Early is.

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.
When that scene arrives, however, Early makes no threat of sexual violence towards her, presumably because he knows it will not be very effective against Inara, who doesn’t have the same fears. His blow is a direct response to her trying to "psychoanalyze" him, an attempt to gain power over him that he will not allow. It's impossible to know, of course, but I would not be surprised to see him react the same way if a man had tried to "visit his intentions".

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?
While the misogyny is unmistakable, I think this is the only misogynistic thing said by a black man in the series. For my explanation of how she completely misinterprets Book’s statement in “Our Mrs. Reynolds”, please see my previous article on the subject.

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.
Since I have trouble seeing Jubal Early as a sexual character, I naturally have trouble with this claim from Allecto. I think she has far more to fear from being returned to the Blue Sun Institute than from sexual attacks by Early.

A short description of Early’s defeat follows, after which Allecto pulls the following claim from somewhere.

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.
Uhm… no. River, the teenage girl, is the one who planned and orchestrated the defeat of Jubal Early. Mal had a role in her plan, but so did Kaylee, so it’s actually 2-to-1 in favor of girl power, if you ask me. Mal is welcoming her back to the ship and showing both acceptance and gratitude.

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.
How can one reviewer be so wrong? There’s usually a thread of credibility in Allecto’s Firefly reviews. Her complaints are, in my opinion, exaggerated, but there is usually underlying cause. Somewhere along the way, though, she goes completely delusional, and this is that place.

First, the "whitemale" did not put down the threat, the teenage girl did. How on Earth can anyone miss that? Please, I'd like to know.

Second, this closing scene is not about the crew celebrating the defeat of the “scary black man”; it’s a celebration of the acceptance of River. Before, she was an outcast who caused nothing but trouble, but now she has become a welcome and valued member of the crew. That’s the point that Joss Whedon is driving home with this scene.

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.
It’s funny that she makes so little of this particular problem with Firefly. Given that the Alliance government that causes so much trouble for the crew is supposedly an alliance of America and China and that Mandarin Chinese phrases (usually expletives) are sprinkled through the show, there’s a conspicuous shortage of characters of Chinese descent.
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!)

And thank you, Allecto, for once again giving me blog subject matter. I suppose it’s time for the end-of-rant summary of her points:

  • Joss Whedon obviously wrote the role of Jubal Early with a black actor in mind.
  • Joss Whedon targets the audience demographic most desired by TV executives.
  • In modern society, any behavior short of indisputable rape qualifies a guy as “really great”.
  • Early went out of his way to find a young white girl to scare.
  • Early is motivated by lust (despite not actually acting on that lust, even when he has the opportunity).
  • Come to think of it, this whole episode is about lust.
  • River needs Mal to protect her from Early, even though Early had totally WTF?PWN!ED Mal earlier in the episode, and River planned and orchestrated both Mal’s rescue and Early’s defeat.
  • The upbeat ending celebrates Early’s defeat, not River’s acceptance into the crew.

In retrospect, Early actually seems to be a considerably less evil character than the show’s white villains. As frightening as he is to Kaylee, he actually goes to considerable trouble to avoid causing more harm than is really necessary to capture River and collect his bounty. He could have easily killed everyone in his way in his search for River, but chose not to. What a horrible monster that makes him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing down the thoughts of any intelligent person who read Allectos blog.