The recent bout of feminist critique of Firefly has finally roused me from my prolonged inability to write anything at all about television, which will hopefully translate not only into some posts on that show that I’ve been mulling for a while, but also into some more regular content from me. Consider yourselves warned.
As is covered in the linked post, although Joss Whedon’s work is beloved by many feminists and is definitely leaps and bounds beyond the bulk of television, none of it is beyond reproach for its treatment of gender issues, and there has always been something about the Firefly episode “Our
Mrs. Reynolds” in particular that’s bothered me.
I fully believe the horror and confusion that Mal expresses at the ownership-based model of marriage Saffron presents to him. I also think that the overprotective, paternalistic attitude taken toward her by several of the male crew members, and the mockery leveled at the situation by everyone around (which takes a tone of assuming that she can’t actually understand what’s going on) is not strictly or primarily due to misogyny, but to their own intense discomfort and inability to deal with someone who as fragile, naive and unfamiliar with real, adult interactions as Saffron appears. I’m not sure how they would have overcome this tendency to infantalize an adult woman, but that point is rendered moot rather quickly when she is revealed as a manipulative con artist.
And therein lies my main issue with the episode and character – the brainwashed, limited, servile young woman trained to think of herself only as a wife is a very real type of person in the more misogynistic/conservative corners of our society. While I’m happy to see the show suggesting that women are intelligent enough to break that mold and are not “naturally” as meek or weak as Saffron would appear (and I love a quality villainess more than just about anything else), I’m not comfortable seeing yet another femme fatale using the realities of victimization in order to gain power. It feels, to me, far too much like yet another “women abuse men by lying about rape in order to gain power or money” storyline. Granted, Saffron didn’t invent a rape story, per se, but she did present herself as a victim, and I don’t like the “crying wolf” style implications.
It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with any story in which a woman ends up being not a victim, or even a story that suggests that some women use stereotypical “feminine wiles” to exploit others. I think this episode bothers me specifically because I’m not confident it could have played at all otherwise, or that we’ve got enough evidence from the rest of the series that it wasn’t ridiculously overtrusting, bleeding heart liberal naiveté on the part of Mal and his crew that made them believe this obvious, blatant lie. I’m sort of insecure about how much countermessage we got about legitimately believing the stories of abuse, control and objectification that women tell, in order to contrast the all-too-common (on TV) but much more interesting story of a lying, manipulative, sexually aggressive threat. I get the impression that the writers on this episode never questioned that of course everyone would believe this “victim” narrative that Saffron sells – because doesn’t everyone always feel sorry for these poor, abused young women? – and that’s why she uses it so frequently. In my experience, of course, the opposite is true.
I can’t quite get over the wish that a feminist-focussed show (or a show that remained more consistently sexism-conscious) would just have skipped this storyline entirely rather than add any fuel at all to the fires of those who believe that most rape, domestic violence and assault claims are trumped up.