Firefly: The Trouble With Saffron

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.

Firefly – The Complete Series


  1. Deoridhe says

    Wow, that is a REALLY good point I hadn’t considered before. I’m going to have to think a lot about this. Thanks for posting!

  2. thisisendless says

    I love Firefly. It is most definitely my favorite sci fi show ever outside of BSG. (They are pretty much tied in my mind). None of the things you mentioned occurred to me. I suppose I am too busy being caught up in how brilliant the show is to notice.

    If I remember correctly, it did not take long for the women on the ship to figure her out. I thought the women were suspicious of her first…no? (maybe I’m thinking of the second episode with her in it).

  3. says

    thisisendless, first of all, I, too, *adore* Firefly (also BSG), which is why I’m much harder on it than I am on the crap that is just transparently crap. That said, even this stuff I’m noticing (and that, on reread, I wrote really badly, damn my tired brain) isn’t so much about *Firefly* as it is about the fact that this is a near-constant TV convention. I’m judging the episode from far outside the vacuum that is the show itself, but I’m *so* seriously bothered by the repetition of the “lying bitches” trope that I can’t help but feel like there are few exceptions to the “just don’t do it” rule.

    Inara, I think, was the very first to be suspicious of her, but I don’t know that I see that as really redeeming in this case, since it’s less about the women being clever and more about them being constantly suspicious of one another. It also adds to the “the poor men just can’t think clearly when you start flashing girl parts at them” kind of theme.

  4. thisisendless says

    These are all good points. I totally see what you mean. :) Yes, that is indeed tiresome. This was not my favorite episode in any event. Maybe this is in part why.

    (I think “Out of Gas” is my favorite, where you get all the backstory, fwiw).

  5. Scarlett says

    In all fairness, I think Inara being the first to be suspicious of her was that Inara and Saffron had had the same training/education as companions. I saw it more as l;ike understanding like rather than the women distrusting each other ‘cos (insert sarcasm here) all women are lying bitches (end sarcasm).

    My issue is the way conwomen are usually portrayed as using seductive tactics (there’s a movie with Jen Love Hewitt and Sigorney Weaver I’m thinking of). They can use cool gadgets like they did on Ocean’s 11, but no, lets just have them just seduce and distract the men instead 😛

    The way Jayne behaved over it was creepy. I don’t know if it was meant to be funny that he was prepared to trade his favorite weapon for her but it came across as plain old prostitution. Worse than that, trading ownershipp of a woman as if she were cattle (at least with prostitution, theoretiacally it’s a knowledgable consent thing.)

  6. says

    First, Purtek, THANK YOU FOR WRITING THIS. I’ve been wanting to write a “what bothers me about Saffron” post, but couldn’t wrap my head around precisely what it was.

    ThisIsEndless, Inara gets suspicious first, but unfortunately that’s so wrapped up in her “I’m not jealous!” jealousy over Mal that it can’t really be credited.

    I think it’s important also to note that this episode was actually written by Whedon himself.

    In addition to everything you mentioned, I’m bothered by a few other minor details. (1) She’s the only particularly big-breasted woman I recall from the series, thus reinforcing the stereotype that merely possessing big breasts makes you morally degenerate. (2) She’s the only redhead I recall from the whole series, thus reinforcing the redhead/witch/Eve/temptress stereotype.

    It’s important to remember Saffron isn’t just a criminal – she’s also a sociopath, or something close to it. They’ve given her a carefully constructed, highly sensual appearance that invokes thoughts of sex… and they’ve given her an imbalanced mind. I’m reminded of Nicole Wallace on Criminal Intent and a ton of other psychopathic women characters using sex to get their way, and the suggestion I get from this is hardly new: that raw sexuality is unnatural for women, and it makes them insane.

    My inner devil’s advocate asks “what about Inara?” Inara is constructed as beautiful rather than sensuous. She can even seem prudish at times. Saffron seems innocent (at first), but that’s just sensuality that’s yet to be awakened. Inara could put off a sensual vibe if she wanted, but consciously chooses to put off beauty and dignity instead.

    But I think the point you make is the most important one by far.

  7. says

    Betacandy – first, thanks for clarifying that Joss wrote this one. I went ahead and wrote the post without bothering to research that point. And I, at least, was nodding along with all your expanding points, because even after I got that down, I knew there was still *something extra* I wasn’t quite getting at…the sociopathic, voluptuous sexuality pretty much nails it, I think.

    And yeah, I think Inara’s relationship with Mal goes a great distance toward discrediting any pretense that there’s no jealous friction at all going on there (think about how her behaviour would appear if she had been wrong).

    thisisendless–definitely one of my favourite episodes as well, though I must admit a certain fondness for “Jaynestown”.

  8. Patrick says

    Given that it was Jayne, I’m quite certain that it was meant to be creepy. He’s always the one to act as the cheerfully immoral foil.

    I definitely agree that Saffron is problematic mainly in the context of mass popular culture. I wonder how many procedural shows like the Law & Order franchise feature actual abused, submissive women, compared to the “lying bitches?” It’s part of the same deal as the grotesque overrepresentation of false rape accusations. The justification from a narrative standpoint, of course, is that you have to have plot twists or any episode would end in ten minutes, but the fact that so many producers keep using related plot twists, and almost never the opposite, puts the lie to this claim.

    Going over some of the discussions that prompted this article, I’m going to go off on a tangent about something that bugs me about so much analysis of speculative fiction: why do so many critics assume that any future/fantasy setting must represent an ideal culture for the author? That if something exists in a fantasy universe, the author must approve of it and think it good and grand? This idea is just… absurd.

    Let me give an extreme example: I love, love, love the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It is not a happy vision of the future. It is not even a “darker and edgier” vision of the future. To paraphrase, “it paints itself black and throws itself screaming into the abyss.” This is a setting where the xenocidal theocratic Empire thinks killing an entire planet full of people due to a minor heresy in one city is justified… and these are the good guys, because at least they don’t eat souls. But I’m sure that if some of these critics discovered this setting they would lambast it as promoting intolerance, authoritarinism, and racism, utterly failing to understand that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is a bad place.

  9. says

    Patrick – I think I’ve written more Hathor posts about this theme more than any other single topic, possibly more than the bulk of the others combined. I’ve definitely done a post or two on its use on L&O: SVU, I think also on CSI, and, much to my dismay, on Veronica Mars. It’s used so frequently it doesn’t even qualify as a twist anymore.

    And re: idealized utopia future. Agreed. That issue comes up so often around Firefly’s treatment of prostitution, and in that specific instance, I think it’s worth questioning how much the difference between then and now is supposed to represent a real improvement (I’ve been thinking of that post for quite some time, as well, but haven’t had the impetus just yet to write it all down). In general though, I find it exceptionally strange when applied to Firefly, which is so *clearly* dystopic, except that it’s Joss Whedon, so it’s also quirky and funny. And I think it’s the humour and the somewhat successful attempts by the crew to find positive relationship/connection in that crazy, messed up environment that lose people on the dystopia. So far I’ve never seen anyone manage to make this mistake with, say, BSG. Though, as with the example you gave, I think that might actually be kinda funny to read.

  10. Patrick says

    One of the primary themes of Firefly seems to be “the future may look different, but the fundamental problems are still the same.” So why assume that any future institution, such as the Companion’s Guild, is bright happy shiny utopia for the author?

    And, yes, the “lying bitch” hasn’t qualified as a plot twist for a long, long time. But they just keep using it.

  11. Scarlett says

    Given that it was Jayne, I’m quite certain that it was meant to be creepy. He’s always the one to act as the cheerfully immoral foil.

    The issue I had – and with a few other Jayne moments – was that I felt Jayne’s creepiness was meant to be a little amusing. It’s been ages since I saw any of the episodes so I’d have to watch it again to make sure, but I got the feeling we were meant to get a chuckle out of the fact Jayne was so hot for her he was willing to trade his favorite gun.

  12. SunlessNick says

    The impression I had was that we were meant to laugh at Jayne’s idiocy in thinking Mal would ever countenance such a transaction. Which doesn’t really make it better (and doesn’t speak well of Mal that he’d keep such a guy – either that creepy or that dumb – on his crew).

  13. says

    Yeah, in the episode (and in most) we’re clearly laughing at *Jayne*, not at anything else. Is it creepy that he wants to trade a gun, or any other kind of object – for a human being? Hell yes – but I think it says a lot more about Jayne’s complete inability to connect with other people than it does about anyone (other than Jayne himself, in his exceptionally limited way) legitimately believing that there’s any redeeming value in that.

    As for Mal, he is, above all else, a pragmatist. I think he generally figures he’s more in control of the situation than he may actually be, but if he’s keeping Jayne around, it’s only in so far as he thinks he’s got the creepy under control (which is, of course, helped along by the dumb). He would have airlocked Jayne if he had felt he had to, but he got at the humanity in him instead. I think there’s a surprising amount to explore in the character of Jayne, and I can’t quite dismiss it out of hand because of the creep factor inherent in this (or in the “I’ll be in my bunk” moments and other such things), sizeable though it is.

  14. says

    Wow, so what does it say about me that I was laughing at Jayne when he offered the gun for her? Well, at Jayne and at his complete inability to see how Mal would take it. I mean, it’s Jayne. You can count on him (usually) doing and saying the wrong thing. He’s just. So. Very. Wrong.

    But I’d probably rank that episode as one of the ones I liked the least in the series. As always with Joss, there were bits of dialog and moments that I loved, but the whole thing mostly left me cold. I had the general idea that it was because I disliked Saffron so much. After reading this, I realize that maybe it’s because of the “crying wolf”. I really do hate that.

  15. cat says

    I really did like Firefly, and this is was the least favorite episode- the beginning was pretty funny but when once it got to the middle with Inara acting jealous and Saffron revealing her “true” self, I tuned out.

    I asked a man on the why it seemed why the media portrayed woman running cons and other crimes by using sex, he told me this: nothing disarms a man better than sex.

    this is generalizing but it’s good point. but the show still bothers me so there might be more. Just don’t know what.

  16. says

    Honestly, I think it’s a male fantasy that men are so disarmed by sex. I mean, yes, they are for as long as they feel like being disarmed. But if women could play men as effectively in reality as they do on TV using nothing but sex, we’d be running the world, and men would be a quasi-slave class doing our every bidding in hopes of gettin’ some.

    It’s the ol’ “p*ssy power” myth. It’s not real power if all your opponent has to do is overcome his emotions/hormones and reassert himself to get back into the driver’s seat – as our male TV heroes inevitably do. The power never left him; it never transferred to her; it was just a fun role-play for him, where he got to pretend to be powerless, which is enjoyable as long as you know you’re really in no danger at all and all you need do is say the safeword and you’re back in charge.

  17. Maria says

    I think that same pretty vs. sensuous dynamic comes up in the Buffy/Faith relationship as well… it’s a thing Whedon seems to favor.

  18. Michelle says

    Hey Purtek,

    I thought this was a nice article and that you did good thinking and analyzing on why you didn’t like this particular episode. I’m just going and rewatching the show for about the 8th time and I did note that “Trash” and “Our Mrs. Reynolds” were the last ones I went to watch, largely for the same reason.

    I think that Saffron had a big character that she would have played and shown more than a 2-d character, more than the stereotypical “lying bitch” if she had been able to play in more than 2 episodes (out of 13). I think when Joss wrote this he was hoping for a lot more time with her, to flesh her out and make her more than a bi-nary blip. I know when I first saw Gunn in Angel, he kind of came across as stereotypical, but the more and more Joss worked with him, the more I saw Gunn as a full character, in the ranks of all the others. I wonder what Joss had in store for Saffron, and what her backstory was.

    I see where you’re coming from in this article and I thought the same things when I watched it, and rewatched it. As both a feminist and a rape survivor and as a writer I cannot shove one part of myself out as I take life in, and watching Firefly is no different than other activities. While I was watching it I was simultaneously looking for plot twists and characterizations and looking for sexist or feminist readings. I don’t agree on what you see as Joss presenting (either consciously or subconsciously) but I think with what we’re given with Saffron, whether or not it was Whedon’s intention, your reading is stout and factual.

    I actually found this article hunting for character insight on Saffron because she stood out as very closed and presents herself in a very stereotypical way. I wanted to know why Joss did that. It isn’t his style, and when he’s done that before, there was a plot or character reason. My theory is that she was a victim of men, particularly Alliance men and therefore has no qualm doing whatever she can to wreak her revenge.


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