Inara’s misogynistic client

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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):

ATHERTON
Half the men in this room wish you were on their arm tonight.

INARA
Only half? I must be losing my undefinable allure.

ATHERTON
Not that undefinable. All of them wish you were in their bed.

Inara finds that in bad taste. She looks away, changes the topic.

INARA
I’m looking for the boy with the shimmerwine.

ATHERTON
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?

Comments

  1. Tessa says

    My interpretation of that was that Inara really has led a rather sheltered life; we only see her meet one old friend (Nandi) that I can think of at the moment, but she expresses surprise about Inara’s leaving the House Madrasa. I suspect that if the people doing the training expect most of the women to stay in the House all their lives there’s probably quite a bit of security, etc.

    Also, I think that they’re pretty far out on the outskirts here. On the central planets Companions are more respected/accepted/understood, but out further things get a bit fuzzy, and people don’t quite understand how the dynamic is supposed to work. Inara is expecting that the apparently upperclass people in this society will have a handle on it, so she’s not really looking out for warning signs (and maybe doesn’t respond to them as well as she could when she first picks up on them, maybe in part because she doesn’t want Mal to think he was right about anything).

  2. scarlett says

    I would have liked Inara to be more aggresive in Atherton’s downfall. Like, she called out that she’d stay with him to save Mal; it would have been cool if, instead, if it had been a bluff all along to allow Mal to get the upperhand, rather then mal taking advantage of noth Inara and Atherton’s moment of weakness.

  3. says

    The entire episode turned me off of Firefly. Well, that and the one with the other companion and the whole girl-kissing thing (the way it was handled was really, really angry making).

    I don’t necessarily mind the idea of a Companion (although I am kind of iffy on the way the concept fits into our current society and how it interacts with other portrayals of prostitution in popular culture). However, I was very put off by the poor treatment that Inara received throughout Season 1 and how it was covered up by the characters saying all the time how Companions are respected.

    Isn’t one of the golden rules about writing “show don’t tell”? I felt the respect for Companions was a lot more “telling” than “showing”.

  4. SunlessNick says

    However, I was very put off by the poor treatment that Inara received throughout Season 1 and how it was covered up by the characters saying all the time how Companions are respected. [b]- tekanji

    From what I know, it would only have got worse in season 2 as well.

    On the central planets Companions are more respected/accepted/understood, but out further things get a bit fuzzy, and people don’t quite understand how the dynamic is supposed to work. - Tessa

    Then again, she’s supposed to have been working in that region for a while, with a variety of upper-class clients (what we see in her first scene in the Pilot looks like her routine to me) – so she should be used to what the people there do and don’t get.

  5. Mecha says

    My current mental interpretation (it’s been a while since I’ve seen Firefly) is that there is a certain societal (and contractual) propriety to the situation that she is attempting to maintain, not wholly unlike (except by degree, clearly) someone who’s being polite to a drunk. I am sure all of us who have worked by contract have had a similar experience, at one time or another, where the one who contracts us does something which offends us at a personal or professional level, but it doesn’t cause an immediate auto-contract break for monetary/societal reasons. As much as Mal’s ‘whore’ usage also bugs me, I feel that that is partly the same thing. Now we would generally say, ‘She should stand up to his sexism immediately and call him on it, damn the responses’, but there are clearly consequences to that, likely that she does not want to incur immediately. It’s… realistic, not idealistic, I guess. I dunno.

    That thought train does indicate that society is not quite as changed as it should be to accommodate the Companion construction, though. I do think that there is a certain distinction between ‘low’ and ‘high’ society that might be implicit here. Low society are going to be bastards and sexists (Mal, Jayne, even Atherton is essentially ‘low’, being podunk royalty IIRC). True high society, less so. But we don’t see much true high society, so we’re left with… yeah.

    My mind’s swirling about the topic, but it comes back to me with ‘need more data’. Sadly, I don’t own the episode (I borrowed the series from a friend) so I’m just having to work off a one-time seeing.

    -Mecha

  6. Jennifer Kesler says

    However, I was very put off by the poor treatment that Inara received throughout Season 1 and how it was covered up by the characters saying all the time how Companions are respected.

    Isn’t one of the golden rules about writing “show don’t tell”? I felt the respect for Companions was a lot more “telling” than “showing”.

    This is definitely a big chunk of what bothers me about how her character is presented. Either they’re respected, they’re not respected, or they are struggling to gain respectability. Any one path could have worked in the story, but instead we get lip service to Grrl Power and same-old same-old in the actions.

    Nick, I know what you’re referring to about S2, and I may blog on it. Gah, that may be the worst idea for a storyline I’ve ever come across. What happened in the movie, however trite, was so far superior.

    I am sure all of us who have worked by contract have had a similar experience, at one time or another, where the one who contracts us does something which offends us at a personal or professional level, but it doesn’t cause an immediate auto-contract break for monetary/societal reasons.

    Yes, but most of us aren’t trained in diplomacy, as Inara seems to be. I’m struck by how she has a diplomatic yet to-the-point reply for everything in the series except this guy.

    She does tell Mal off about the “whore” usage and barging into her rented shuttle without permission. It’s just he keeps right on doing it and yet they’re supposed to be some sort of OTP. It’s the old and deeply unsettling trope of a man’s refusal to respect a woman’s boundaries being seen as charming and romantic rather than hostile.

  7. says

    She does tell Mal off about the “whore” usage and barging into her rented shuttle without permission. It’s just he keeps right on doing it and yet they’re supposed to be some sort of OTP. It’s the old and deeply unsettling trope of a man’s refusal to respect a woman’s boundaries being seen as charming and romantic rather than hostile.

    You hit the nail on the head. I would be much less bothered by Mal’s treatment of her if it wasn’t portrayed as an OTP kind of deal. Having a “loving” relationship with an emotional abuser? NOT HEALTHY, NOT A GOOD TV TROPE.

    When people start singing the praises of Joss Whedon as if he’s some uber feminist icon, I can’t help but think about Firefly. Sure, he may be better than the average creator, but simply being not (too) sexist does not equal feminist. Ugh.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Worse, I think the writers thought it was an alternative to the sarcastic banter you get between TV couples to signify sexual tension. Had Mal and Inara just teased one another, even sometimes hurtfully, but not in ways that say “I can treat you however the fuck I want”, it would have been totally different.

    But even if Joss and Pals didn’t didn’t mean any harm, there’s a tanker truck of male privilege motoring through it: they know Mal doesn’t mean anything evil because they wrote it from his point of view. Inara magically knows it, too, because she’s written (rather half-assedly) from their point of view. And the audience is supposed to know that dammit, the good guy wouldn’t do this to her if she didn’t kind of secretly like it.

    I can’t help recalling times a guy has made me very uncomfortable, and I’ve been assured he has a crush on me and I should be flattered. I most certainly did not kind of secretly like it. But I was told I should, and that was very bad advice.

    The Inara situation is made worse by the flashback ep in which we see her first renting the shuttle. Her caveats include “no barging in without an invitation” and “that’s the last time you get to call me whore”. After which he violates both repeatedly, over her objections. It’s a representation of conquest, and it’s just not romantic like the creators seem to think.

  9. says

    I am a huge Joss Whedon fan, and Inara always bugged me. I do love Firefly – but I love it because of Kaylee/Simon and the friendship between Kaylee, Inara, and River and despite Inara/Mal and the “racism, what racism?” inclusiveness.

    Inara especially always seemed half-assed.

    Re: whether or not Joss is feminist, I would argue that feminists – even feminist men with privilege – are allowed to make mistakes, so long as they learn from them. Which really makes me very curious about his future (non-comic) projects and really wishing I could grill him about all this. A part of me is cynical and notes that his TV projects became increasingly male-centric. The idealist in me, however, points out that male feminist role models are even rarer than female super-heroes and wonders if Joss has simply been trying to tackle that idea, but hasn’t quite gotten it right yet.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    I hope it’s clear I’m not saying anything negative about Whedon as a person. Within the extreme ignorance and bigotry of the film industry – which is just as powerful there as in Dixie – he’s a pretty advanced feminist. Absolutely he’s allowed to make mistakes, and unlike most people in his profession, he seems self-motivated to learn and grow. (I believe 90% of what we see on TV that’s “not wrong” from a feminist perspective comes from a motivation of “oh, what are the damn feminists ragging about now” rather than a sincere desire to write women well, the latter of which I suspect Whedon has.)

    That’s why I keep nitpicking at his stuff, ironically. At least – unlike writers who avoid developing their women characters for fear they’ll offend – he has the guts to get out there and make mistakes so we CAN analyze and learn and tease out what works and what doesn’t.

  11. says

    *nods at Beta* I think I’m a lot harder on creators who seem to me to be doing a good job in some ways than on those who seem to be completely unaware and dismissive of the concerns I consider to be important. It’s just… They can come so close! And I want them to go the rest of the distance, because I know they’ll produce something wonderful if they do.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, the ones who don’t even try are just giving us the same crap we’ve analyzed and criticized many times before. Writers like Whedon give us whole new examples from which even more new understanding might come.

  13. SunlessNick says

    Mal doesn’t mean anything evil because they wrote it from his point of view. Inara magically knows it, too, because she’s written (rather half-assedly) from their point of view. And the audience is supposed to know that dammit, the good guy wouldn’t do this to her if she didn’t kind of secretly like it.

    Her caveats include “no barging in without an invitation” and “that’s the last time you get to call me whore”. After which he violates both repeatedly, over her objections. It’s a representation of conquest, and it’s just not romantic like the creators seem to think. - BetaCandy

    It seems to be a case of boundaries being conflated with inhibitions – and thus the violating of boundaries being conflated with the shedding of inhibitions. And then because inhibitions aren’t widely considered real personality but rather something that gets in the way of real the personality, that must mean that Inara’s boundaries don’t count as what she really wants but rather something in the way of what she really wants.

    Which reminds me of MaggieCat’s issues with the red Kryptonite in Smallville, reducing Clark’s inhibitions so that he carries out various sociopathic acts. In this case, inhibitions are being conflated with conscience, but again, that raises the idea of Clark’s conscience not being his real personality.

    Which could tie back to Mal: if Inara’s boundaries are really inhibitions, then Mal respecting them would also be a matter of inhibition rather than conscience or honour (sticking by the deal he agreed). He doesn’t want to respect her, and she doesn’t want to be respected by him: anything breaking the patriarchy’s mold is redefined out of the characters’ “real” personalities.

    I don’t think for a second that Joss Whedon believes any of that. But it’s an easy story to tell because we’re taught to believe it. And I do think he’s vulnerable to the associated “love conquers and excuses all” trap, as that’s something I’ve seen one way or another in all his shows (which is a shame, because he also makes a powerful story out of the exact opposite).

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    It seems to be a case of boundaries being conflated with inhibitions – and thus the violating of boundaries being conflated with the shedding of inhibitions. And then because inhibitions aren’t widely considered real personality but rather something that gets in the way of real the personality, that must mean that Inara’s boundaries don’t count as what she really wants but rather something in the way of what she really wants.

    I am so writing that down – that’s exactly it. Dramatic media frequently mix inhibitions and boundaries up. This is probably actually an easier mistake to make if you’re NOT a boundary-busting entitlement jerk. I mean, where precisely is the line between a boy running up and hitting a girl on the arm to say “I like you” and a man insulting a woman’s career to get a rise out of her? When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so bad. And I think that’s where the writers were coming from.

    And like I said, what really bugs me is that he includes other people in his “Inara’s a whore” routine. Maybe if it was just between the two of them I could buy it as sexual tension banter.

    The problem is, the only difference between inhibitions and boundary violation is, in some instances, the participants’ understanding. The actors in this case put across that Mal is just venting frustration and Inara doesn’t take him seriously. That’s why the show isn’t ruined by it. But it’s such a great example of the disconnect between male writers who’ve never had to ask themselves, “Is she someone I think might rape me?” before saying yes to a date and women who can’t help but make these evaluations, almost unconsciously.

    It’s also a great example of how you can be a nice guy who obviously gives a shit about women and probably monitors his own behavior to a relatively high standard, and still not be a perfect writer of women. Worth mentioning: a woman writer can make these mistakes too – because she’s generally unaware of abuse, because she compartmentalizes fiction fantasies from harsh realities, because she’s been abused and internalized the patriarchy’s thinking to cope, etc.

  15. Kateydidnt says

    Yes, but most of us aren’t trained in diplomacy, as Inara seems to be. I’m struck by how she has a diplomatic yet to-the-point reply for everything in the series except this guy.

    But this is also the only situation we see her in where it is her client that needs the correction. In “Jaynestown” Inara is diplomatic and to the point to her client’s father and corrects him immediately but he is not her client. With Mal there is a completely different contractual dynamic. I always understood the scene with Atherton to be her putting up with him for the sake of fulfilling her duty. Yeah, she should be more choosey, but the episode indicates she has gone with Atherton to other functions and obviously gets some enjoyment out of it or she would not repeat the process.

    Bah, I don’t know if I just contradicted myself or not.

  16. says

    Yeah, she should be more choosey, but the episode indicates she has gone with Atherton to other functions and obviously gets some enjoyment out of it or she would not repeat the process.

    That’s exactly the implication that bothers me. We’re being told Companions are very specially trained for what they do, and part of what they do is select clients who aren’t only civilized and mentally healthy, but energetically compatible with the Companion. That’s a tall order. So we’re to believe she picked this guy with all that training…

    …which means she likes abusive men?

    I don’t think that’s what the writers intend to imply, but it’s there amidst their fumbled patchwork of stories from old westerns.

    Look at it this way: here on earth, where no one gets Companion training, there are plenty of women who are smart enough to recognize abuse disguised as affection or passion. It’s a lesson many of us learn the hard way, but there are millions of women here and now who would’ve seen through that guy quicker than Inara. In fact, the story was coded so an 11 year old boy could see through him faster than she did. It made her look stupid, when her training should include the collective wisdom of those millions of women who know better and then some.

  17. Teha says

    at the same time, you saw her get that treatment with (forget who) “I’m sure you make your clocks go faster to cheat us of our fun”. I think sometimes training fails.

    I think Atherton hadn’t really been confronted with that which he wanted but couldn’t have until that moment. I could be being generous here, too.

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