Monday, April 21, 2008

Radical Feminism Meets Firefly

The SciFi community has been buzzing for the past few weeks over reviews of the TV series Firefly posted by a radical feminist going by the username Allecto. Its title is A Rapist's View of the World: Joss Whedon and Firefly, so you can probably guess that its generated some backlash from Firefly fans.

I know that not everyone likes Firefly, and Joss Whedon certainly isn’t immune to criticism, even on feminist grounds, but it would be nice if Allecto would criticize based on what actually happens in the show, rather than a bizarre distortion of it. I would say so in the comments of her blog, but she has already expressed that she will unhesitatingly delete critical comments, so I’ll just do it here. I’m sure that my opinion is irrelevant to her anyway, since I’m just another misogynist male.

I’m going to assume that you have some familiarity with Firefly if you’re reading this, so I won’t be explaining characters or plots in any detail (which doesn't mean there will be no spoilers -- you are warned). There is plenty of information available on the internet, and it’s easy enough to rent the series on DVD or even watch it online at if you want to do your own evaluation.

Her first review deals with the Firely pilot, “Serenity” (not to be confused with the movie), which introduces the major characters and the setting. The opening scene shows a couple of the key characters participating in the final battle of a war, and Allecto goes negative instantly.

The first scene opens in a war with Mal and Zoe. Zoe runs around calling Mal ‘sir’ and taking orders off him. I roll my eyes. Not a good start.
Now, you might want to quibble over whether Mal or Zoe is better qualified to be in command of their squad, but it is entirely appropriate for a soldier to call the squad sergeant “sir”; that’s just standard military protocol. This is just the first example of Allecto either getting upset over the wrong thing or being completely unable to express herself.

Update: I've been informed in the comments that it might actually be more technically correct for Zoe to address Mal as "sergeant" at this point; apparently non-commissioned officers don't normally rate a "sir" in some services.

The scene shifts to the crew of Serenity stealing some cargo from a derelict Alliance ship. Wash detects an Alliance warship approaching, and Allecto immediately finds fault with Mal’s reaction.
Zoe says, “This ship's been derelict for months. Why would they –”

Mal replies, (in Chinese) “Shut up.”

So in the very second scene of the very first episode, an episode written and directed by the great feminist Joss, a white man tells a black woman to ‘shut up’ for no apparent reason.
I suppose there’s no reason if you’re a radical feminist, but if you’re the captain of a ship engaged in criminal activity and you need to think of how to react, you might want quiet so you can think and so people can hear orders if you issue them. There’s also the additional worry that, since they’re in space suits, they’re talking by radio, which the Alliance ship might pick up, so any unnecessary talk is also an unnecessary risk. Context is apparently irrelevant to Allecto, though, as we’ll see repeatedly in her reviews.

EDIT: It may be worth noting that Jayne is also chattering in this scene, so Mal's comment is directed at least as much toward him as toward Zoe. Here's the full exchange (according to

WASH Captain, we got incoming! Alliance cruiser, bearing right down on us!
MAL (in Chinese)Oh s4@+! (in English) Have they spotted us?
WASH I can't tell if --
MAL Have they hailed us?
JAYNE If they're here for the salvage, we're humped.
ZOE If they find us at all, we're humped. Thievin' ain't exactly --
JAYNE I don't like this.
MAL (in Chinese) Shut up.

After avoiding the Alliance ship, they go to hide the stolen goods in their cargo hold, where we get to meet another crew member: Kaylee, the engineer. Sure enough, Allecto finds fault with the scene.

In this scene Mal and Jayne are stowing away the cargo they just stole. Kaylee is chatting to them, happily. Jayne asks Mal to get Kaylee to stop being so cheerful. Mal replies, “Sometimes you just wanna duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.” Yes, that is an exact quote, “Sometimes you just wanna DUCT TAPE HER MOUTH and DUMP HER IN THE HOLD FOR A MONTH.” Kaylee responds by grinning and giving Mal a kiss on the cheek and saying, “I love my Captain.”

What the **** is this feminist man trying to say about women here? A black woman calling a white man ‘sir’. A white male captain who abuses and silences his female crew, with no consequences. The women are HAPPY to be abused. They enjoy it. What does this say about women, Joss? What does this say about you? Do you tell your wife to shut up? Do you threaten to duct tape her mouth? Lock her in the bedroom? Is this funny to you, Joss? Because it sure as **** ain’t funny to me.
Apparently one of the first things you lose when you become a radical feminist is the ability to detect sarcasm, because I would really like to meet a rational person who can watch this scene and conclude that Mal actually wants to duct-tape Kaylee and leave her in the hold. (That’s right, Allecto, I did call you irrational. I’m sure that won’t bother you though, since I’m just a man, and my opinion doesn’t matter to you.)

Moving on, we still have some main characters to meet.

Our first introduction to Inara the ‘Companion’, Joss Whedon’s euphemism for prostituted women, is when she is being raped/******/used by a prostitutor.
Honestly, there’s a lot of room for feminist complaint about Inara’s profession. A lot of people try to defend her job as a Companion, talking about how she’s highly respected in the society, she's wealthy, and she makes her own choices about clients. When you get to the bottom line, though, she is a prostitute. If she accepts a client, she does so with the understanding that there will be sex involved. Calling it rape, though, is excessive, since Inara has obviously chosen this lifestyle knowing full well what it means. She arranges these meetings herself. Of course, Allecto has a pretty unusual definition of rape, which you can find easily enough by reading her blog.

There’s a sex scene here (FOX network-safe, of course), and Allecto’s all over the script’s description of that, too, somehow concluding that Inara’s behavior shows how Joss Whedon likes to depict women enjoying being raped. Leaving aside the question of whether rape is actually occurring, I’d like to meet the person who thinks Inara is being shown enjoying this sexual encounter, because I don’t see it. I don’t think Joss Whedon is glamorizing prostitution, here. I think that in context, Inara’s pleased expression is obviously a show for the client (note that she only smiles when he's looking at her face), and as the series continues, I think it’s also obvious that despite the wealth and “respectability” that Inara receives as a Companion, she is actually deeply dissatisfied with her profession.

The women who ‘choose’ to be ‘Companions’ are shown as being intelligent, accomplished, educated, well-respected and presumably from good families. If a woman had all of these qualities and opportunities then why the **** would she ‘choose’ to be a man’s **** toy?
Good question, Allecto. It was clear to me that finding the answer to this question would be a long-term plot of the show; a long-term plot that would never have a chance to reach resolution, unfortunately, since the show was canceled even before the last episode of the first season aired (but my complaints about how FOX handled the show are a whole other can of worms).

At any rate, Inara’s apparent ‘power’ is merely a figment of Joss Whedon’s very sick imagination. In a later episode, Inara is shown to have set down three very specific rules in relation to her arrangement to hiring one of Mal’s shuttles as her base of operations. 1) No crew member, including the Captain would be allowed entrance to the shuttle without Inara’s express invitation. 2) Inara refuses to service the Captain nor anyone under his employ. And 3) the Captain cannot refer to Inara as a whore.
Mal agrees to all of these rules but he breaks every single one of them. Blatantly and deliberately.

I’d really rather not get to deeply into these “points” since they deal with later episodes that might actually get reviewed, but since she brought them up, I’ll try to make a brief observation. Mal definitely ignores the “no entry without invitation” rule on multiple occasions. On the other hand, neither he nor any other member of his crew receives Inara’s “services” (more on that later). Finally, he does call her a “whore” more than once.

The thing is, Mal obviously likes Inara. In fact, he loves her. At the same time, though, he hates her profession, and he communicates that distaste through his behavior. He wants her to give up being a Companion, but he has no authority to tell her how to live her life, so he expresses himself in other ways. I’m sure all that’s lost on Allecto, though; the possibility that Inara will have an epiphany and turn away from a lucrative and prestigious career in prostitution over the course of a long-term “character arc” is meaningless to her. She wants every character trait and plot point to be radically feminist now, damn it.

Regarding Inara “servicing” the crew…

It is clear from the outset that a large part of Inara’s service involves addressing issues of male inadequacy and fulfilling many other emotional needs of her clients. The ability to do this IS a resource and it is therefore a service that Inara must perform. BUT Inara services all of the male passengers and the Captain in this way. She also services Kaylee but the relationship between them is a little more reciprocal. In any case, Mal makes it pretty obvious that he expects his emotional needs to be serviced by Inara and she willingly obliges. Mal also allows the male passengers to demand her emotional services and does not tell them to stop, despite the terms of his agreement with Inara. Inara is not paid by any of these men for her time, energy and emotional support.
Wasn’t she pointing out just a few paragraphs ago that the defining characteristic of Inara’s profession is that when she agrees to “service” a client, she is agreeing to sex? Why, then, is she going off on this tangent about how Inara’s job is to fulfill emotional needs? She certainly may, but that’s not the real reason someone hires a Companion, and it’s obvious what she was talking about when she said she would not provide “services” for the captain or the crew, and she does not provide that service for anyone on the ship in the entire course of the series. She obviously has a cordial relationship with Kaylee by choice, although there’s no implication of sex. Shepherd Book makes a point of befriending her, and she returns kindness for kindness (not to mention, Book is a passenger, not a crew member, so whether she “serviced” him or not would be none of Mal’s business). She obviously has an attraction to Mal that she tries to deny, which results in their constant butting of heads. Beyond these relationships, she doesn’t “address issues of male inadequacy” or “fulfill emotional needs” for anyone on the ship. By my estimate, she’s not providing “services” for any crew member or passenger (but I'm not a radical feminist, so my estimate is meaningless, of course).

Allecto then makes some defamatory claims about Joss Whedon’s relationship with his wife based on her distorted view of how Inara “services” everyone on Serenity. I’m sure Mrs. Whedon appreciates you calling her a submissive little whore, Allecto.

In the obsessive-compulsive department, Allecto counted the number of lines spoken by the characters so she could get a ratio of male lines to female lines (458 to 175, by her count). Yes, male characters have about twice as many lines as female characters. Coincidentally, there are actually more male characters than female characters in the cast: whether you count just regulars or include guests and extras. River doesn’t even show up until well into the show, and when she appears, she’s too traumatized by past abuse to say much. Kaylee also spends a fair amount of the show unconscious after getting shot. You might find good cause to complain that female characters are being depicted as victims in this show, but Allecto is apparently more interested in the word count.

Then we have this observation…

Men jostle with each other for power. Pushing each others buttons, and getting into scuffles. This intense homoeroticism is present from the outset as Mal asserts his rights as alpha male on the ship.
This just puzzles me to no end. Even granting that there is some significant rivalry between Mal and Jayne, how is that “homoerotic”? There is no indication whatsoever that these guys are closet homosexuals.

In Serenity, Mal enjoys using a character called Simon as his personal punching bag. In one scene he walks up to him and smashes him in the face, without any provocation or logical reason. In another scene Simon asks Mal a question and Mal smashes him the face again. No reason, no explanation, just violence. Violence is a part of the landscape throughout the whole series and Mal is often the instigator. He is constantly rubbing himself up against other men, and punishing wayward women, proving and solidifying his manliness through bashing the **** out of anyone and everyone.
I recall Mal decking Simon a couple of times in this episode. In the first instance, Mal had discovered he had a spy on board (an outgoing message to the Feds had been detected), and he found Simon lurking about in the cargo hold without permission, so he assumed it to be Simon and started to “beat the truth out of him” without preamble. I believe the “question” that resulted in a second punch was Simon’s insinuation that Mal was an agent or spy for the Alliance, a bad suggestion given Mal’s history. Consequently, I wouldn’t regard either of these punches as “unprovoked”, although they were certainly undeserved. So is Mal a rather violent guy who’s likely to throw a punch with little provocation? Yes. It’s called a character flaw: characters who are more than cardboard cutouts tend to have them.

And finally, we have Allecto’s distaste for Zoe, which started when Zoe had the audacity to address her senior officer as “sir” and actually carry out his orders.

Zoe, the token black woman, acts as a legitimiser. Her role is to support Mal’s manly obsession with himself by encouraging him, calling him ‘sir’, and even starting the fights for him. Zoe is treated as a piece of meat by both her husband (Wash, another white male) and the Captain. Wash and Mal fight each other for Zoe’s attention and admiration, both relying on her submission to them to get them hard and manly. In fact there is a whole episode, War Stories, devoted to Wash and Mal’s ‘rivalry’. By the word rivalry, I mean violent, homoerotic male/male courtship conducted over the body of a woman.
OK, Zoe did throw the first punch in a fight in one episode (“The Train Job” -- not “Serenity”), but she was every bit as insulted as Mal. Zoe continues to call Mal “sir” because he’s the captain of the ship, having bought it himself. Does he treat her as a piece of meat? Having a Y chromosome presumably invalidates my judgment, but he did make her second-in-command (with authority over testosterone-laden males like Jayne and Wash), and their relationship appears to be entirely professional. Wash does get jealous because Zoe consistently obeys Mal's orders with little dissent and because their shared military history gives them a lot in common, but there's never been any suggestion that Mal and Zoe ever had a sexual relationship (indeed, they seem to find the very idea disturbing).

And then there’s her insistence that Wash abuses Zoe. This one truly amazes me. Allecto confesses to a family history of bad relationships between black women and white men, so her opinion is understandably prejudiced, but how can we really believe that Wash abuses Zoe when he openly admits (in "Our Mrs. Reynolds") that she could “kill (him) with her pinky”? If there is a personification of male violence in television, Wash is probably one of the characters that is farthest from it.

And in all of this, she barely even touches on the character of Jayne, who really is a violent, crude, misogynistic jackass. I guess she left him out of it because he’s really not a very sympathetic character, particularly in the early episodes.

So, the summary of Allecto’s complaints for “Serenity”:

  • A soldier addressing a squad leader as “sir” is bad if the soldier is female and the squad leader is male.
  • The captain of the ship told everyone to shut up during a crisis to cut off unnecessary radio chatter, and one of the people trying to talk was a woman.
  • The captain made a sarcastic remark about the excessive cheerfulness of his mechanic, and the mechanic recognized it as sarcasm.
  • Consensual sex between a man and a woman occurred; there’s no such thing, of course, and Inara did not look suitably tormented during this horrific rape.
  • A male character finds prostitution distasteful, in spite of how lucrative and prestigious it is shown to be in the depicted society.
  • Inara doesn’t charge her full rate for any social time she spends with crewmembers or other passengers she likes.
  • Female characters don’t talk enough.
  • Mal hits people with little reason.
  • Zoe actually follows the orders of the captain of the ship.
  • Zoe married a white guy and seems to be happy in the relationship.
All-in-all, I'd say it's a classic case of approaching the show with the intent to find offense anywhere and everywhere, taking statements and events out of context whenever needed to make the most outrageous claims possible.

Why do I even bother to read Allecto’s reviews? Why waste time with a response? I don’t know. I guess it’s kind of like watching a train wreck; you know it’s going to be tragic and horrific, but you just can’t turn away.

We’ll return for another look into Allecto’s perspective on Firefly with her review of “Our Mrs. Reynolds”.

Unlike Allecto, I will publish critical comments, assuming that the language is moderated (I like to keep the blog "work safe") and the message is coherent (random "die and go to hell" comments aren't worth the trouble).

Allecto also reviews "Our Mrs. Reynolds".

EDIT: Road Does Not End also has a very coherent response to Allecto's take on this episode.


Anonymous said...

I'm here via User Friendly. I read the original review. I suppose I'm also a submissive whore by allecto's standards, since I spent most of reading her rant going "WTF?"

I think she is of the group of feminists that think all heterosexual sex is rape. It's pointless to argue with fundamentalists of any flavor, because their minds are made up and closed, locked and bolted shut.

Sonja Newcombe said...

Well said.

As a woman and a fan of firefly, I could immediately see that "allecto" has NO grasp of the truth of the show and only used it as an example to push her horribly extreme feminist views.

Anonymous said...

I find it interesting how she refuses to discuss anything that's in disagreement with the party line. Either you agree with her, or your not even worth insulting, or your somebody who must be listened to, being female, but you don't agree with the views, and thus will not be discussed at this time.

(has a blogger id, but feels not like being lambasted)

Anonymous said...

To be technical, it was inappropriate for Zoe to address Mal as "sir" in the first scene. NCOs are never addressed as sir.

Lord Runolfr said...

If that technicality were the basis for her complaint, it wouldn't be worth mentioning here. I have heard words to that effect in movies before, though (Stripes comes to mind, of all things).

Unknown said...

That varies from service to service, for instance while it's true that in the US army it would be inappropriate to address an NCO as 'sir', in the USMC it is expected for them to address anyony who outranks them as 'sir' regardless of whether they are address an NCO or commisioned officer.

Anonymous said...

Actually, in the USAF there is nothing that says you cannot address a NCO as a "Sir" or "Ma'am".

In fact NCOs are addressed as "sir" or "ma'am" on a regular basis.

Marian Perera said...

I'm a woman of color, a feminist and a Firefly fan, so after reading Allecto's rants, your posts were a breath of fresh air. I also mentioned Allecto's LJ entries to a friend of mine (a friend of the XY persuasion, and white, though he has not got around to oppressing me yet). He wrote a lovely critique of it called Joss Whedon's Firefly: A Rapestravaganza of Biblical Proportions.

Anonymous said...

I am female and a huge fan of Firefly, I am currently using it as a case study for Uni in an essay about feminism in Science Fiction. Allecto seems to have a very warped view on life and by the sounds of it, Firefly. In no way is Inara being raped, consensual sex is consensual, meaning both people involved are very aware of what it entales and have agreed upon it. Zoe calls Mal Sir because she is his subordinant, she was in the war agaist the Alliance and she is on the ship as his second in command. Surely anyone with common sense can see the fact that in both these instances she is second in command when there are men who could have filled this position, she was chosen because she is the best for the job, not because Mal wants to take advantage of her. I strongly disagree, as is obvious, with allecto's views and wonder how many times she has watched the show?! I have seen it more times than i'd like to admit and find nothing wrong with the treatment of the female characters, if anything they are shown to be empowering women who can be sexy but smart, sensitive but still kick ass.

Natalie said...

Thank you SO MUCH for writing this. I feel like such a nerd getting all pissed off about this, but I find it absolutely infuriating that this woman can even call herself a feminist after writing this tripe. I can't imagine her having an intellect of much more than a thirteen-year-old with the way that she argues (and deletes comments). And once again, as a TRUE feminist AND Joss fan, thank you for being a rational human being.

Bookgal said...

I read Allecto's overview of firefly. I was pretty sure what I was going find after she compared a male feminist to a unicorn. Still, I figured that I'd see what she had to say.

Firefly is a complicated show. I love it, but I have some problems with some of the character developments. I think some of the more well thought out feminist critiques of the show are interesting and make good points. I agree with some of them, and am by no means someone who defends the program as flawless.

But you can't read that blog and not see a huge agenda as single minded and sexist as the worst Misogyny tripe I have ever read. Allecto’s reviewing the show through the lens of Misandry, hardly makes for compelling arguments.

And I think the fact she refuses to allow any comments that disagree with that view speaks volumes.

Thank you for this very well thought out response. I found myself thinking much of the very same points reading the original spew.

Sim F said...

Never heard of Firefly-can't even remember how I sturfed (stumbled/surfed-yes just that up) across here
Drawn in by what I took to be a pic of Matt Passmore (fellow Aussie/tall blonde/gorgeous/genuine nice guy-I used to work with him) then realised it wasn't him-after I read all the stuff here-SO-I’m purely commenting on that
You both seem a bit extreme
My definition of a true feminist-& I think the general populace would agree-is simply someone who believes that all females must be afforded exactly the same level of respect, opportunity & benefits (including wages) as males in all parallel situations & that ALL PEOPLE-when being judged for anything other than as a potential mate-be judged upon their RELEVANT MERITS-& NOT gender/looks/sexual potential.
Nor should they be judged upon race/religion/orientation/anything that doesn't actually do any harm-but that of course goes beyond feminism. So many men are feminists-but not generally referred to as such-why?
OK I judged Matt Passmore as gorgeous etc–that’s because he’s on TV & I’m not working with him/interviewing him for a job.
If I was I'd have to get past his hotness & judge him on his acting ability/ratings pulling power-& I’m quite sure that I'd say he has “it”-because he’s hot!
Does this make me sexist?
(I’m sure when I worked with him I treated him the same as anyone-but maybe that’s because we were both hitched at the time?)
Soo-back to my definitions-Active Feminists are those who work toward achieving these things
(IMO PEOPLE always need others who work toward fair & just treatment of those who are disadvantaged in any way)
Radical/Extreme Feminists-well they’re radical/extreme
But just because someone may be leaning/firmly entrenched that way doesn't mean there’s no truth or reason to what they say
Again-just my thoughts.
Personally I find some of the scenes described disturbing & offensive-because I think it’s never OK to treat others disrespectfully-even less so when a person holds any kind of "power" over another-ie a work "superior".
Outside work-OK no-one’s perfect-but-if a person is disrespectful they can apologise-genuinely-ie imply that they’ll make every effort not to let it reoccur.
The Mal character sounds quite nasty-ie-& this is the mildest example-why tell another person to "shut up"?
ONLY if warranted-"Quiet!" or even "Shh!" is less abusive/more effective-most people react negatively when treated disrespectfully-if you told me to shut up I would most likely not!
OK-this is different-it’s a tense life-threatening situation-so time is of the essence-true? & "Shut up" has 2 syllables-go figure
The female characters seem quite demeaned (as do the males-getting smashed in the face–wt?) I’ve never been in the forces-probably cos I wouldn’t accept poor treatment!
I like to think that if I were an actor I’d haughtily reject roles that required my character to be demeaned/demeaning-or at least try to have the script modified-but I know most tv/filmies must take what’s on offer-no matter their views on it-or risk being jobless
If I’d watched this-unless there were many other redeeming features-Mal would’ve put me off ever watching again. Just my taste-it’s “not my cuppa tea”-& my prerogative.
I’ve better things to do than watch silly/offensive shows-unless it’s quality comedy
The problem for feminists is that-unfortunately-you can’t control what other people make as “entertainment”-& you can’t control who watches or is influenced/impacted by it.
But good on you for keeping the issues alive-lest humankind sink into a bog of complacency-accepting that others be treated unfairly due to traits beyond their control/choosing
Good on you all too for responding-in any form-it gets people thinking-& alerts us to the views out there
I can’t believe that you have time to write this stuff-don’t you have lives?
OMG I’ve just used my precious time to respond-putting off doing my tax return-hope it's not for nothing!