The One Thing I Don’t Like About Firefly and Serenity

Ok, so there are actually a few things I don’t like about Joss Whedon’s sci-fi series Firefly, and the follow-up movie, Serenity. Most of those things, though, are of the “Simon (played by the gorgeous Sean Maher) should totally get more screen time, and also more kissing scenes, OMG!” variety, rather than genuine quibbles over the story, or the casting, or the writing, etc. Pretty much everything I dislike about the franchise is easy to get over, or ignore.

Except, you know, there is this one thing:

One of the things I love best about the series is how well-developed the female characters are, and how strong and capable these women are, within a variety of roles. The character of Inara (Morena Baccarin) allows for an interesting exploration of feminine sexuality. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is a more than competent mechanic. Zoe (Gina Torres) just flat-out kicks ass.

And then there’s River Tam (Summer Glau). Her mysterious past is the key to many important plot points, and provides the character with a number of features that make for some very interesting storytelling. And among these is the One Thing I Don’t Like.

I’m just going to say it straight out. I think it will be easier that way. River Tam shouldn’t be able to kick as much ass as she does. Summer Glau is an extremely capable actress – and she looks like she weighs maybe 120 pounds, tops. There is no way a girl that slender, with arms that thin, would be able to knock out all those Reavers.

I mean, yeah, it makes perfect sense that she can use weapons effectively. What else would all that secret government brain-altering be for, right? When River picks up a gun, or even an axe, I’m totally cheering for her. But when she punches grown men in the face bare-handed, and it actually has a serious effect, it jolts me out of the story every time.

See, I happen to be a woman who hits people on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been doing martial arts since the age of six, and I think anyone who knows what to look for would be able to tell. My upper arms, kids, are huge. The muscle required to hit another person with any real force is bulky. If you’ve got it, it’ll show. And even with as much muscle as I’ve got, from years and years of consistent training, I’d have a hell of a time disabling an opponent with just a few strikes, no matter how well-placed. That takes tremendous force, and it’s just not believable when it happens on-screen, especially when the ass-kicker has the physique of a ballet dancer.

I love Firefly and Serenity. I am thrilled that Joss Whedon wants to create stories with strong women – especially women who are physically strong, and fight. But I’m still waiting to see women who are actually built like fighters in those roles.


  1. Gategrl says

    Can you point to some sites with photos of women who *are* in that kind of shape? I’m interested in this, because I think shows like Buffy and Serenity can give women the impression that you can be a twig and be able to fight off an attacker – which is so not true. Not that I’m saying all women are gullible like that —

    But also, I don’t know if you watch Atlantis, but at least Teyla, the kick-ass woman on that show, usually uses a pair of sticks to knock the men down and out. But even then, I’m not sure if she has the physique to build that sort of force behind her swings with the sticks.

    • Chronicx47 says

      Ive trained a few women in the 110-135 range over the years and in truth ive seen many female fighters who didnt show much muscularity who could easily knock out a grown man. with a well place punch under the chin on the button or on the temple, a female who knows how to throw a proper punch-who turns their hips into the punch can EASILY knock out mostly anyone. i get your point but your honestly dead wrong.

  2. KPhoebe says

    Yes, yes, yes on all points, except I don’t actually like River.

    But this is one of the reasons I like Alias. Usually when Sydney knocks someone out, she either kicks them in the back of the head or elbow strikes to the face. And Jennifer Garner is one of the few “action stars” with muscles – when she runs, she runs really fast, and when she punshes someone, there’s a fair bit of shoulder going into the blow. It’s still silly and unrealistic, and I still scream “GIVE HER A GODDAMN GUN!” every three minutes, but it’s a nice change from feeble!superpower!Buffy and teeny!crazy!River Whedonesque “action” women.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    I also agree with pretty much everything you said. Then again, despite my total lack of martial arts experience, I roll my eyes whenever I see grown men on TV send each other flying across the room with a punch to the jaw. It doesn’t work that way, from what I’ve seen in real life (not that I’ve seen tons of real life brawls).

    I actually like the idea of smaller women being portrayed as able to fend off attackers, but in real life, don’t they use leverage throws and moves that take advantage of specific weak points on an attacker’s body? Why can’t we just show that sort of fighting? That’s kind of what they did in “The Avengers”, and it looked cool (which I suspect is their main concern).

    Or are they afraid it’ll give women ideas about defending themselves realistically? After all, I know some producers say they’re not allowed to show a headshot on TV, even when it’s a scene involving a military trained assassin (who would use a headshot rather than a chest shot), for fear it’ll give people ideas.

  4. Revena says

    I’ve never seen Atlantis… I will say that weapons can level the playing field a lot, though, and it often comes down to finesse over strength once you’re armed, even with sticks. 😉

    My big objection to super-skinny girls as butt-kickers isn’t so much that it creates an illusion that skinny girls can all kick butt (I don’t imagine there are many people taking that message away). More, it’s that I’m bothered that even when a role calls for physical strength, filmmakers seem to be reluctant to actually show women who are realistically physically strong. It’s so important that women with screentime look a certain way that the actresses must conform to that specific body morphology, even when it doesn’t make any sense in the role.

    There are a few exceptions, of course. One that springs instantly to mind is the character of Vasquez from Aliens, played by Jennette Goldstein. You can see an excellent picture of her in that role here. It’s probably telling, though, that Vasquez isn’t the lead in Aliens, and is typed as a rather non-sexual supporting character. So, like, maybe it’s ok to show muscular women on film – as long as they’re not sexy, heaven forbid!

    I’m trying to think of other actresses who’ve built up good muscle for an action role, and kinda coming up blank, but if I can turn up any other pictures, I’ll be sure and let you know. I’ve got pictures of myself floating around, of course, but I think I look chubby in most of them, rather than muscular… 😉

  5. Revena says

    Hehe… Well, as agreed in the famous KMR Accord of 2005, you’re allowed not to like music/movies/characters that I like… 😉

    I think I need to start renting Alias, maybe. Jennifer Garner, from what I’ve seen, seems to be very toned, at the least. Good muscle definition in her upper arms.

  6. Revena says

    As a woman of average height in a male-dominated hobby, I tend to be smaller than the majority of my opponents. But I do hold my own. Kicks are good – most women have very powerful thigh muscles. Throws are good. You don’t need to be able to actually lift an opponent in order to put him on the floor – many throwing techniques are actually clever combinations of leverage and tripping. And, of course, carefully targeting your attacks for maximum effect, using knowledge of pressure points and nerve clusters, etc., is a good idea whether you’ve got a size disadvantage or not.

    I’ve got no idea why that sort of fighting doesn’t make it on-screen more often. I personally think a side-kick to the face out-awesomes a punch to the jaw any day of the week.

  7. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think Katee Sackhoff on the new Battlestar Galactica looks reasonably muscled, with broad shoulders. She’s not a hand-to-hand ass-kicking type of character, but at least one episode stressed that some raw physical strength is required to pilot the type of fighter she pilots. So at least she looks right for that role, to me – and she does not look like a lithe dancer, by any means.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    And even a smaller woman who’s regularly fending off attackers, with or without weapons, would need to have some muscle on her. I think River is sort of a holdover from Buffy, who had special powers in place of muscles.

  9. sbg says

    That woman on Terminator 2. She was all muscle. Of course, she wasn’t huge, but they definitely showed her as physically capable.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    You mean Linda Hamilton/Sarah Connor? Very true – in fact, at the time, there was a lot of positive fuss her muscle tone and the fact that she trained with an Israeli military guy or something. For a long time, it was cool for women to be lean and toned instead of lithe and waspish.

    Then a few years later, all the fashion mags announced that it was quite liberated for women to choose to be girly and soft and curvy. I was all for the curvy part, having never passed for the stick-girl body type fashion designers seem to prefer.

    And then, let’s face it: when The Matrix scored big, people were just so anxious to mimic the camera work and wirework that very little attention was paid to whether the fights were remotely plausible.

  11. Sonja says

    You’d like to see women who are actually built like fighters…
    Well, what about Cory Everson? She played Atalanta in the Hercules series and a bodyguard in an action movie. She was the 6-time winner of the Ms. Olympia competition from 1984-89 so you can bet that she is all muscles.
    And there is
    Michelle Rodriguez. She kicks ass, and you believe it. Known from “Girlfight”, “The Fast and the Furious” and “Resident Evil”. In this, she was all competence and *much* more interesting than the female lead character, played by Milla Jovovitch.
    Jovovitch herself had some fights with the doglike Aliens from “The 5. element”. While she seemed artistic (and the character had superpowers) in my opinion she was not believable enough. But the whole movie wasn’t and didn’t want to be, so what…

  12. R says

    I hear very good things about Michelle Rodriguez’s work, but I’ve somehow managed not to see any of the films she’s been in. I should make an effort to rectify that situation, I think.

  13. scarlett says

    Haven’t seen Atlantis since it finished here in Australia almost six months ago, but I remember Rachel Lutrell seemed quite muscular – they’re always showing that off in midriff tops and skirts split up both thighs. She looks more toned and muscular then the lead guy.

  14. SunlessNick says

    I agree. I have little problem with Buffy because she is supernatural, but with characters who are “structurally” normal women, I want the “structure” to reflect what they’re meant to be capable of.

  15. scarlett says

    I just watched Firfely and Serenity, and River always struck me as a ‘plot device’ character – the one the drag out when they need to create tension, or a story twist. But that’s just one more thing I’m not fussed about her :p

  16. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think I’m one of the rare people who didn’t see her as just a plot device. I was quite affected by how this exceptional young girl had been twisted into a tortured killing machine by pricks seeking to cover their own asses. She’s a little tough to get into because she doesn’t really speak for herself, because she can’t: I think that’s why some people don’t see her as a real character. It just depends whether the glimpses we get of her through Simon move you or not, I suppose.

    I certainly don’t think Whedon intended her to be a plot device, though – nor do I think he failed. It’s just a tough type of character to pull off.

  17. Dale says

    A couple more examples of kickass women who actually have muscles.

    Juno from The Descent, played by Natalie Mendoza. The character was very into extreme sports. Then she had to kill cave monsters.

    I just watched this movie last week, Eden Sinclair from Doomsday, from the same director as The Descent. Played by Rhona Mitra, who reportedly trained every day so that it wouldn’t look completely ridiculous when she was able to beat up someone armed and in full-plate armour. I was impressed with how realistic they were able to make that – she spent most of her time dodging, used kicks rather than punches, went for the head most of the time, and jumped on rocks whenever she could to gain a height advantage, and she still wasn’t able to actually take down the guy until she managed to climb a wall and steal a guard’s weapon. We also have Viper, portrayed by Lee-ann Linberg, or someone.

    Sarah Connor on the Terminator TV show, as portrayed by Lena Headly. Although not so much that it’s believable when she wins the fight with the much bigger, musclier, also very trained Derek so easily, especially since they were basically wrestling on the ground.

  18. Lynne says

    @Jennifer: I agree– the River we see in Simon’s flashbacks is much more interesting than the ominously babbling River. I also want to note that she isn’t built like an action heroine because she isn’t one. Her asskicking, while kickass, is mechanical and unnatural. She was cast to look like a teenage girl, not a statuesque goddess, and when she does things that shouldn’t be physically possible for her, it SHOULD be jarring.

    Personally I don’t have trouble suspending my disbelief when it comes to action-physics (clarke’s third law, all the way!) but I was under the impression that River is slight and fragile looking because that’s who SHE is. /end rant/

    I do wish there were more high-profile built ladies as well as better choreographed fights (but seeing as how I haven’t been into the martial arts since I was young, I wouldn’t know where to begin…) because I think a touch of realism within the unrealistic situation makes for more interesting TV. I’m really attached to Firefly because the characters are so real that I can forgive the bad Mandarin and improbable mechanics.

  19. Maria says

    If you have access to the DVD of S1 of the Sarah Connor Chronicles, there’s a great extra featuring the fight choreagraphy between Summer Glau and another female terminator who’s played by a contortionist. What I liked about it is that they emphasized that the physics of force are meant to look really odd because the actresses fighting weren’t supposed to be human.

    Maybe that’s a cop out — I mean, the male terminators are always big and strong, and with the Cylons in BSG, neither the Cavil nor Leoben male models ass kick to the same extent their fragile female counterparts do. I think there’s a tendency to fetishize little female asskickers like that’s feminist or ground breaking, even tho it’s not and it’s a re-deification of a particular female body type that gets more and more unrealistic in each iteration.

  20. Lynne says

    Absolutely! Even Joss falls prey to the small girl/big gun dynamic… a lot. And fetishistic is absolutely the right word to describe it. (

    I love Buffy, and it makes me feel better to put the archetypical skinny badass in a supernatural context, but I recognize that often, little chicks dishing out beat-downs are just a newer outlet for male gaze (albeit with a sheen of awe.) The thing that bothers me is that female fighters tend to never get mussed or unattractive, even in the heat of battle.

    I could never give up my addiction to action, though– realistic or not, I love explosions and a world in peril that gets saved at the end of the day. I DO think it would be neat to see action heroines that don’t have to beat men at their own game once in a while…

  21. Maria says

    And they ALWAYS have long hair!! That actually bothers me a lot — my hair’s a struggle just when I’m doing yoga, and I could not imagine being hyperfemme (long hair out, long nails, heels, tight clothes, etc) and trying to get a good stretch, let alone kick someone’s butt. Even the workout class where that’s sort of the point (the pole dancing one I just started) features ladies with some serious musculature, since to keep your balance in heels while doing yoga works the fuck out of your thighs and hamstrings. They certainly aren’t chubby or fat — but they for sure aren’t DAINTY either.

    That’s what I liked about that particular extra on S1 of T:TSC — both Glau and the contortionist are thin, but when they’re practicing, at least, you can get a since of the kind of musculature at work in their movements… then they costume/makeup that out, so that when they do the shot by shot comparison it’s GLARING how different it looks.

  22. says

    It doesn’t bother me so much. Developed muscles doesn’t mean as much as the ability to use them in adrenaline-crazed car-lifting feats, especially combined with a superhuman intellect focusing and timing those feats in impeccably aimed blows. Not very probable, but less impossible than artificial gravity on a spaceship.

  23. Maddie says

    I’ve been a Whedon fan for a while now, and this is actually something that has bothered me for a while. Although I don’t do any martial arts, I have been dancing for a number of years, and you need hellofa load of muscles to just move around as fast as River (in Serenity) and Buffy do. They aren’t necessarily visible, but they are there, and they need to be trained continuously.

    When River’s first fight scene came up in Serenity, I remember asking myself wtf was going on, because I’m assuming that the Tam’s ran away at least a year previously and unless River was doing exercise in her sleep, I doubt she’d have the muscles OR stamina to beat up a bar full of muscly men. Even if she had been programmed to. It just doesn’t WORK.


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