Hathor Watch-Along – Firefly, S1 Ep4: “Shindig”

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Sooo, I missed a week, there. My bad! But it’s all good, Hathorites (Hathorians? THLers?), because now I’m here with the next installment in our Firefly watch-along: “Shindig.”

facial expressions of women insulted in this episodeThis is the episode that starts off with Mal and Jayne hustling pool and chatting with lowlifes in some sleazy back-planet bar while Inara watches on. Mal does some less-dishonest-than-thou pick-pocketing (inorite?) and then there’s a bar fight (hooray!) and we’re given the theme of this episode: Mal doesn’t fit in socially anywhere (and neither does anyone else, really).

I’m actually gonna skip over most of the rest of the summary this time because this episode is memorable – and kind of notorious – and I think all I have to say is “the one with the ball, where Mal insults Inara a lot (and also Kaylee. Nice), and then it turns out that Inara’s client is a reprehensible asshole.”

Jennifer wrote a post about the “wtf is going on with Companions, anyway?” issue which is worth reading for more on Atherton being a creep. Which is not to say we can’t talk more about that, because wow, there is a lot of “bwuh?” to unpack.

But! Let’s not forget that this is also the episode where Badger tries to arrange a deal and ends up holding most of the crew of Serenity hostage, River exhibits some pretty clear evidence of mind-reading (as well as general mental disturbance), and basically everything Jayne says is hilarious. Also, Kaylee gets to wear a pretty dress…and get insulted by strangers.

I’ve always hated that scene, and Jennifer’s email to me about this episode illuminated part of why:

The girls who are mean to Kaylee – it’s the black girl who says “Standards” when Kaylee asks what this party lacks compared to last year. Somehow, really heavy racial irony like that always leaves me cold. It has ever since I was 7 and someone explained to me why the cantina bartender didn’t want the Threepio and Artoo in his establishment. Maybe that’s just me, but it always feels like white folks having an ironic laugh at something they think is long in the past, when it’s really not so much.

Also, when the older (white, upper class) gentleman comes to Kaylee’s rescue, he does it by slut-shaming the mean girl. Yeah, that sure makes me kindly disposed to him! And then, of course, when Kaylee is surrounded by masculine attention, it’s because of her mechanical expertise – which is cool, in a way, because it’s neat that she is impressing people with her experience and smarts. But it’s also a little uncool in that she wore that fancy dress and went to a party where the main activity appears to be dancing among heterosexual couples (hmmm), and it’s only when she’s being “one of the guys” that she gets to have actual fun.

In short, the sexual politics in this episode are weird and generally gross.

With the delightful exception of Zoe and Wash, who are the cutest ever – but also a safely married couple. Hmmmmmm.

Enough out of me – what are your thoughts on “Shindig?”

Next week (for reals, this time) we’ll be watching one of my faaavorites: “Safe.” See you then!

Comments

  1. Clay Mechanic says

    I agree that it’s frustrating how this episode repeatedly nears brilliance, but takes a dive into mediocrity at the last moment. We see Inara screening clients… except she chooses a pig with no redeeming features. We see Inara in the social world that respects her… except they don’t. Kaylee makes friends who share her interests… and they’re all old white guys, because girl mechanics are weird. Inara’s cultured skills include fencing… but Mal’s manly bar brawling skills save the day.

    Why didn’t the writers have Mal soundly defeated, wounded but not killed? Their client could still acknoweldge his determination and hire the Firefly, and the scene would have been more powerful for it.

  2. Maria says

    I realllllllly wanted Kaylee to defend Inara’s honor, since at that point in the series it’s more clearly established that Kaylee and Inara are friends. Like, what, it’s only bad to call Inara a whore when you’re NOT Mal?

  3. says

    Clay Mechanic, great summary of the ep’s ups and downs. And I like your version of the dual scene!

    Maria, LMAO!!! But what a cool idea, to have Kaylee defend her.

    @Revena, thanks for breaking down the old dude’s slut-shaming for me. Something about that always bothered me, but I’m always still gritting my teeth about standards when it comes along. There’s a lot to parse in that episode. You could almost take it line by line.

    Re: Kaylee at the dance. I never figured out why that scene was so unsatisfying, but what you said finally got me there: it’s all about what entertains the guys, not what entertains Kaylee. Sure, they’re hanging on her every word like the opening scene in GWTW, but not one of them can be bothered to ask her to dance?

    In addition to all that heteronormativity, note that gender roles haven’t changed an iota in 500 years: women still wear makeup and fancy dress, for example. In real-life history, men have actually spent more centuries in high heels, stockings, eyeliner, wigs and the like.

    Classic, classic dialog: when Jayne says he’ll chip in to buy Zoe a slinky dress, and without even a split second of hesitation, she deadpans to him, “I can hurt you.” The line is awesome, but Gina Torres’ brilliant timing makes it stellar.

  4. says

    Clay Mechanic – Yes to all of that. I think my write-up here makes it sound like I am totally down on the episode, but I find it frustrating largely because I really like parts of it so much.

    Maria – Word. ALSO, riffing off what Clay Mechanic said… What would it have been like if Kaylee had been the one to call Atherton out? Obvsly a duel would have ended badly for her and that would be un-awesome, but what kinds of awesomeness MIGHT HAVE BEEN? I think I need to go on a hunt for fix-it fic.

    Jennifer – One of the younger dudes starts to ask her to dance, and gets slapped down by another guy, even. So Kaylee doesn’t even get a chance to decide for herself if she wants to take a turn around the floor. So irritating. We see in this episode and others that she likes old-school romance-y stuff (though she is also very practical and straightforward about her sex life at times), and I think it’s disappointing like whoa that she gets this one opportunity to attend a really fancy dance in a ruffly dress, and then doesn’t dance at all.

    Which reminds me that I totally didn’t hit class issues this time, though this episode has a fair amount of stuff to look at there. Anyone have thoughts?

  5. Tristan J says

    Something about Atherton’s shift in accent at the end bothers me, and I can’t quite put my finger on why. Just, the show using someone’s ‘lower-class’ English accent as a joke at their expense doesn’t sit right with me. (I rewrote this like twelve times trying to express what about it bothered me)

    Also, did anyone else find the main Inara/Mal?Atherton plot to be just plain boring? I’ve seen ‘Stupidly manly (and impulsive) fellow does something stupid, manly and impulsive to impress an attractive woman’ too much to really find it interesting, and the show subverts tropes and cliches all the time. I mean come on, Mal kicked a helpless prisoner into an engine intake because it was easier than having a sworn enemy, it wouldn’t have been out of character for him to regret starting the fight and run away.

  6. SunlessNick says

    I realllllllly wanted Kaylee to defend Inara’s honor, since at that point in the series it’s more clearly established that Kaylee and Inara are friends.

    They had a lovely, easy affection at that point in the series (which actually had me shipping them if I’m really honest).

    Like, what, it’s only bad to call Inara a whore when you’re NOT Mal?

    Alternatively, she could lay into Mal the next time he did it. And I really hated that it was somehow supposed to be charming when Mal did it.

  7. says

    Tristan J – Atherton’s accent changed? I totally didn’t pick up on that! Southwestern US English speaker, here, and my ear for some accents is totally dead. Going from an “upper-class” accent to “lower-class” would be an interesting addition to the class portrait we see in this episode…

  8. Tristan J says

    @ Revena

    Yeah, I think it’s supposed to come off as ‘He was just hiding his true nature, and in revealing his true, douchebag nature he also revealed his true accent’, but a) his true, douchebag nature was visible right from the word go, so no surprises and b) connecting his douchebag nature to his accent is problematic for me.

    On a happier note, my favourite scene in the whole thing is Wash and Zoe’s post-sex scene. Wash punctuating the sentence ‘Here lies Zoe’ with slapping her arse makes me laugh every time. As does the word ‘corpsified’. And her hitting him with a pillow.

    Zoe and Wash basically disprove Whedon’s own motto that happy people make boring television.

  9. M.C. says

    Hey, Badger is played by the same actor who played Canton in the series 6 opener of Doctor Who. Which is another show featuring a female character called River with a mysterious past who knows an earth-shattering sectret that keeps the audience guessing…
    So, who’s up for the theory that River Tam = River Song? *gg*

  10. says

    Clay Mechanic,

    RIght, despite all the talk about how Companions are supposed to be “ultra classy courtesans” or whatever, totally accepted into society & super cool, for sure…all we ever SEE is Mal calling Inara a whore &…people like Atherton who show the dangerous sexual politics of sex work. Sigh.

  11. Jhamin says

    As you watch the series unfold, I always thought that it became more and more evident that the Companions in general and Inara in particular were never really intended to be a part of the series. Rumor has it that a “Space Hooker” was forced on Whedon by the network executives who wanted to make sure men watched the show. (all the stuff wrong with that is a whole other topic).

    If you look at the rest of the crew without Inara it makes so much more sense that they all ended up traveling together doing shady things together. I always thought it just strained suspension of disbelief that a respectable person dealing with society world associate with the scum of the spacelanes. And lets be honest, that is what the crew of Serenity is as far as the rest of the setting is concerned.

    The weird, inconsistent sexual politics of the Companions always seemed to me to be an excellent example of not thinking through all the implications of a character or their presence in the setting. If the “Fox wanted a space hooker” stories are true then it makes sense Whedon slapped in a “hooker with a heart of gold” into his space western and figured he’d work out the details later. But never really did.

  12. says

    Tristan J – Okay, now I am really fascinated by this accent thing! Because there’s a lot of class mimicry in this episode in general, including River’s accent aping when she talks to Badger… I wonder if a really close analysis would pick up changes in Mal’s and Kaylee’s speech patterns when they’re trying to pass at the party? I don’t know where I’d go with this, but it makes me think wistfully back to linguistics papers that I wrote on less interesting narratives.

    Jhamin – Do you remember where you heard the “Fox wanted a space hooker” thing at all? I try not to let it color my critical analysis, but I’m actually really obsessive about listening to commentary tracks and interviews and such, and I don’t remember ever hearing that. Of course, people contradict each other and themselves in commentaries and etc. all the time, but I’d still be really interested in where that story came from.

  13. Charles RB says

    Jhamin,

    “As you watch the series unfold, I always thought that it became more and more evident that the Companions in general and Inara in particular were never really intended to be a part of the series”

    In retrospect, I’m wondering if the Companion’s in-universe mythology was meant to be wrong and how the Guild markets itself and the ‘real’ profession was banal and a bit crap to work in. Most of Inara’s “a companion chooses etc” talk is to clients, you have people like Atherton and the boss in Jaynestown (hiring her to make his son A Man And Not A Wuss doesn’t seem to fit the rhetoric) showing little actual respect, and there’s that whole thing with the word “whore” being a diss for Inara but okay to use on the brothel in Heart Of Gold because they’re not in the Guild (and aside from a lack of glam, they’re not really doing anything different). It scans like the characters are being unreliable and not telling the whole truth, like there was a set up for a deliberate jab at our own culture and the sex industry: the mainstream’s happy as long as it’s glossy and fits a fantasy.

    (And if that was the case, I don’t think all the writers knew…)

  14. Quib says

    Charles RB,

    Some of it makes sense to me as culture clash between the Alliance and the Outer Planets. It still wasn’t explored well in the series, but the companions system definitely seemed to originate from the upper class inner planets, and may have been recent development there.
    So it kinda makes sense to me that Mal might not ‘get it’ or know how to act.

    We don’t see much of any other companions or the Guild, so it leaves open what’s typical in treatment or regard for them. Although, it is still clear that the idea of shame-free, acceptable prostitution doesn’t match up with the ideas about sexuality, women’s status, etc. that is shown in the show.

  15. Clay Mechanic says

    Maria, I like your suggestion of having Kaylee call out Atherton, but agree with Revena that she would logically lose, which could be frustrating. Two fix fic options:
    (1) Atherton challenged, so Kaylee gets choice of weapons. She chooses some obscure engineering tool. Atherton picks up his by the wrong end and electrocutes himself. (That last sentence came out a lot more Freudian than I intended. Oops.)
    (2) Atherton handily defeats Kaylee, but due to a technicality, Kaylee’s Second gets to take over. Kaylee has naturally nominated Inara as her Second. Inara defeats Atherton without breaking a sweat.

    Jennifer Kesler, yes, guys in wigs and stockings would really improve that scene, especially since Mal would be dressed to match.

    mordicai, the way Firefly writers treat the Companion concept makes me long for Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. Beta Colony there has some very… intimate… therapists. A severely traumatised character visits one in the backstory to “A Civil Campaign”, and this is portrayed as an unambiguously good thing. In the process, it doesn’t tell us the occupation is productive and socially acceptable, it shows us. Image if, in season 2, we learn that while Kaylee truly loves Simon, he is just plain inconsiderate as a partner. So, with her encouragement he visits a Companion, to learn to make love like a gentleman.

    This enters a whole new minefield, by defending men who solicit prostitutes. I think it would still improve on the situation where every one of Inara’s male clients is obnoxious or a loser. That just makes her look bad, as the linked article in the original post points out. There’s certainly a double standard at work when her one female client is portrayed sympathetically.

  16. SunlessNick says

    She chooses some obscure engineering tool.

    If she chooses that setting’s version of an arc welder, she might be able to fry him before he can turn his on.

    Although the idea of Inara kicking Atherton’s ass is appealing.

  17. says

    Clay Mechanic – Oh man, I would read the hell out of a what-if fic where Inara beats Atherton in a duel. I suppose I’ll have to go searching for one. Or maybe write it.

  18. Clay Mechanic says

    SunlessNick, Revena, I’m ambivalent about my own suggestion there. Inara is smart, and shouldn’t need to resort to violence. Consider how she crushes Atherton at the end of this episode, just by saying, “You see, you’ve earned a black mark in the Client Registry. No Companion is going to contract with you ever again.” However, Warwick Harrow intrudes once more, saying “You’ll have to rely on your winning personality to get women.” Not only does he steal Inara’s moment, it’s yet another insult to her profession.

    I think this scene would have been neater if Warwick had responded with something like, “Yes, ma’am. Atherton, you’re banned from my house parties until further notice.” This would establish that:
    (1) Inara can inflict more pain with two sentences than Mal can cause with a sword.
    (2) Companions really do have power and respect: they can change the social landscape.

    That assumes that Companions are meant to get respect, and the writers were trying and failing to communicate this. After reading some of the posts above, especially Charles RB‘s, I’ll grant that maybe the writers intended to show that high society in the ‘Verse is crumbling into decadence, and
    Companions are symbolic of this.

    Speaking of which, Revena asked about class issues. I think we’re supposed to see that high society in the ‘Verse contains some people who use their wealth productively (Warwick Harrow, the men who discuss engineering with Kaylee) and some parasites (Atherton Wing, the women who insult Inara). This steers us straight back into gender portrayal problems, since the productive people are all men, and the parasites are mostly women.

    We also see a perceived hierarchy: Badger considers Mal a snob, but underestimates the leap from there to Warwick Harrow. Mal is happy to smuggle, but considers himself a rung above Badger’s other criminal enterprises, and slave trading to be reprehensible. The upper classes accept slavery (“It must have taken a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that getup.”) Note that we never hear if these women actually own slaves. The speaker is being intentionally insulting, but the implication appears to be that slave owners are lazy, not evil.

    One interesting touch is that Kaylee and Mal are introduced as “Miss Kaywinnit Lee Frye and Escort”. Does anyone have a better explanation than these?
    (1) Mal knows there are outstanding warrants for him, so wants to keep his full name out of the society papers.
    (2) The people who run these functions have on ordered list of every citizen in the ‘Verse, and some quirk of heritage ranks Kaylee the higher of the two.

  19. jennygadget says

    Revena,

    This whole conversation has me itching to write fanfiction – even though I never have before. I also have to add to the chorus of people saying “THAT’s what was bugging me so much about that scene with Kaylee holding court, but I could never quite explain it. Thank you!”

  20. says

    jennygadget – I’m glad the conversation has been thought-provoking. This kind of discussion is exactly what I was hoping would come out of the watch-along idea – I’m thrilled that other people are getting as much out of it as I am.

    I hope you have some fun with it if you decide to try your hand at some fanfic! I find fanfic that critiques as well as celebrates so fascinating and awesome. :D

  21. Robin says

    M.C., Hey, Badger is played by the same actor who played Canton in the series 6 opener of Doctor Who.

    Yep. Mark Sheppard shows up in pretty much everything these days, particularly sci-fi series. If a show lasts more than one season, the fanbase almost inevitably starts speculating when and how he’ll make an appearance, and whether his father will be included. :)

    As for Kaylee not dancing… In the commentary for ‘Shindig’, writer Jane Espenson describes a scene that was cut from the end of the episode in which Kaylee admits to Simon that she doesn’t know how to dance and he begins to teach her. Espenson also notes that, while Kaylee doesn’t get to dance, she does have a group of handsome young suitors hanging on her every word and bringing her chocolate and fresh fruit — fine indulgences for a sensual girl who has to eat “molded protein” for most of her meals and is largely ignored by the object of her affections (Simon).

    I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed the racial politics of the black girl looking down on Kaylee. (Hey, look, there’s my privilege.) I’ve always seen it as simply a class issue, since most modern sci-fi is (or at least tries to be) color blind. But in a society so similar to the Reconstructionist American South, it does have echoes of the attitudes it contained.

    And, yes, the slut-shaming of Banning (the head mean girl) is problematic. Part of me can’t help but cheer every time I watch it anyway, because I identify with Kaylee so strongly and hate seeing her as the victim of the same faux-helpful abuse I experienced in junior high.

    I do love the idea of Kaylee / Inara dueling Atherton, but I doubt the network would have let the show get away with such a Mal-light storyline so early in its run. Fox is weirdly stagnant in its sexual politics a lot of the time.

    Final note — Zoe and Wash (aka the Warrior Woman and the Semi-muscular Man) will always be awesome.

  22. Nuri says

    Sorry for commenting in a thread so old, but I’ve only discovered this series recently – and I wanted to add to the comments my favourite moment of this episode. When Kaylee first falls in love with the frilly dress, and everyone makes fun of her for it, Zoe shoots them a killer look and turns around, her arm around Kaylee’s shoulder. I loved this moment of sisterhood, how Zoe, being not girly and clearly not caring about dresses and balls, respects Kaylee’s moment of übergirlyness and stands up for her.
    But hey, Zoe’s fucking awesome.
    And tomboys are entitled to a healthy dose of pink puffiness once in a while, if they feel like it.

  23. says

    Nuri,

    I have to agree SO MUCH. It doesn’t matter to Zoe what Kaylee wants; it only matters that the guys are effectively telling her it’s wrong to want it. This series really did well at showing women-as-buddies.

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