Spoilers for Firefly/Serenity
Inara Serra is a Companion. According to Mal, that’s just a high-class prostitute; according to Inara and pretty much every other character, a Companion is like the glamorous older cousin to the Japanese Geisha (appropriate, given the series/movie uses a lot of references to eastern cultures). Sexual services are one of the many she provides as a companion – among others, a partner, conversationalist, confidante, listener, builder (not propper-up) of self-esteem. Her teaching and nursing skills are excellent.
She’s also one of the few beautiful female characters whose role required her to be beautiful. How many characters have we seen where the character was meant to be the average-looking girl-next-door type, as channelled through Cameron Diaz or Angelina Jolie? But Inara’s physical attraction is vital to her job, and it helps that, in contrast, ZoÃ« and Kaylee are far less glamourous.
Because part of Inara’s job is to provide sexual services, she provides such a fascinating examination of sexuality, particularly female sexuality. In Inara’s case, she is very much in control of her sexuality and sees it as just another product to sell; the ultimate ideal for prostitution in general, I think, where sex can be bought and sold by men and women without ownership of the person coming into the equation. The companions have got themselves regulated into guilds which give them a tremendous amount of power to wield – among it, the power to command respect.
Even in the back corners of the Alliance, where the women aren’t registered and are, as Inara reluctantly corrects, “˜whores’ (a word, as a registered companion, she hates being referred to as), they still band together and present a united front – and fighting force – against men who see it as their right to use women for sex and then discard them.
We see this in Heart of Gold, where an unregistered ‘whore’ (Petaline) is being bullied into giving up her baby by the father, whose own wife is barren. Because Petaline is nothing more then a prostitute, he sees it as his right to do what he wants with her – and their baby.
And then there’s the episode where a spoilt heir likes to doll Inara up and show her off, but ultimately expects her total obedience. He doesn’t respect her, although he sure appreciates how good he can make her feel. But when he tries to bully her, Inara laughs at his threats to guarantee she never works again. It doesn’t work like that, she informs him; the guild chooses its clientele, not the other way around. Mr. Spoilt Chauvinist will have to rely on his charm and winning ways to get women from now on. It illustrates that for some, sellers of sex will never be respectable, but that those sellers of sex can command respect from most if they organise themselves.
Yes, Inara’s role is one that only a woman could play. But, I think, in the same way a mother is a role that only a woman could play, and a father is a role that only a man could play. Where Inara raises the standard is that she is a complex, fascinating character, a woman who is liberated in her sexuality – and helps to liberate some of the taboos about prostitution.