I’ve been trying for ages to pin down what doesn’t quite work for me about Inara on Firefly.
I love the idea of sex workers who are respected, highly trained, and in control of their trade. One thing I knew bothered me was how Mal introduced her to Sheppard Book as “a whore” and often referred to her as such – but that wasn’t what didn’t work. He never gets called on it to my satisfaction, but I can write it all off as him being boorish and her being too forgiving. These things happen.
No, there’s something about her high position in society that seems awkwardly grafted onto a fictional society not so different from our own, like the writers didn’t quite think it all the way through. I’m still not sure I can pin it down, but tonight I re-watched the episode Shindig and finally came up with a solid example of what bugs me.
In “Shindig,” Inara takes on a rich spoiled boy as a client. He wants to keep her there as his permanent Companion. From early on, I’m seeing all the signs of an abusive misogynist, but Inara doesn’t. When they go to a fancy ball (from a transcript):
Half the men in this room wish you were on their arm tonight.
Only half? I must be losing my undefinable allure.
Not that undefinable. All of them wish you were in their bed.
Inara finds that in bad taste. She looks away, changes the topic.
I’m looking for the boy with the shimmerwine.
Oh, she blushes. Not many in your line of work do that. You, you are a singular woman and I find… I find I admire you more and more.
Here’s some free advice, Inara. If a man refers to you to your face as his sexual trophy to impress all the other men with, then expresses surprise that you’re capable of being embarrassed by this objectification, he doesn’t really respect you.
Inara should know this. You’d think the academy for Companions would cover what to do when a client shows signs of an abusive personality. You’d think she has a plethora of phrases at hand to put him in his place while still maintaining her charming facade. Or you’d think there’s a way for her to terminate the contract. And not just for this exchange – later in that same scene he grips her arm hard because she’s talking to another man. Not only is he a pig, there is now reason to think he might even be dangerous.
But when Mal remarks on how little the guy respects her, she blames Mal for pushing the guy to say something rude (beyond what he said in the quote above, which Mal didn’t hear). She seems to be as clueless as most of the rest of us are, until we learn the hard way. Shouldn’t she be an example of a woman who knows how to handle all sorts of people – including the ones no one should have to? Otherwise, sex work remains a ridiculously risky and potentially demoralizing profession, and then… what’s the show’s point?