In an article I recently found on the internet, the author complains that in the cult TV series Firefly, the relationship between Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his second-in-command, Zoe Washburn, is “yucky” because of an unfortunate connotation of some of the show's Civil War references.
The problem with using the Civil War as a subtext is that Joss Whedon’s ancestors weren’t slaves. So he seriously thinks that in Zoe, Mal’s second-in-command and only surviving member of his unit, he’s done a subversive little trick. She’s black! She’s a she! She can fight so good! She’s a soldier just like Mal, etc, etc.The problem with this whole line of reasoning is that it assumes that the Independent faction in Firefly’s civil war corresponds to the Confederacy in the American Civil War, while the Firefly Alliance corresponds to the Union.
Mr. Whedon must have fallen asleep during the part in class where they discussed how some slaves stayed with their masters even after emancipation.
At a glance, that’s not much of a stretch. Both the Union and the Alliance consist of older “states” with greater wealth and more firmly established industrial bases, while both the Confederacy and the Independents are relatively new “states” with more agricultural economies. Furthermore, the Independents' primary complaint seems to be onerous control by a central authority, which was at least the public reason for the defection of the Confederate states.
The author uses this reasoning to conclude that Zoe is a former slave of Mal’s, now free, but still following him out of some sense of misguided loyalty.
The problem with this reasoning is what we know about the actual institution of slavery in Firefly, which is still legal and practiced on the core worlds of the Alliance, but not so much on the marginally pacified border worlds that used to be Independents. In Firefly, the victorious “Union” is the defender of slavery, not the defeated “Confederacy”.
It’s impossible to cast Zoe in the role of freed slave still following “massa” (as the author puts it) when there’s really no indication that Zoe was ever anyone’s slave. It’s not even clear that there’s racial selection involved in the Alliance’s designation of slaves: we hear slaves discussed a few times, but we never actually saw any to see if they have any physical characteristics in common.
Update: In "Jaynestown", we see a colony where a population of "mudders" are described as indentured servants (a tiny step above outright slavery) working for the Alliance governor, and they were mostly (if not entirely, I wasn't paying that much attention) white.
This doesn’t mean race and racism aren’t factors in Firefly. Most of the wealthy aristocrats we see on the core worlds of the Alliance are lily white, with the major exceptions being government agents hired to do the Alliance’s dirty work. The lower class “Independents”, on the other hand, have more of a racial mix. A major flaw in the show, as I’ve noted before, is the conspicuous shortage of characters of Asian descent, particularly in a setting where Chinese phrases are frequently bandied about.
So, once again, we have a social criticism of Firefly that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.