The Women of Firefly/Serenity: Kaylee

Kaylee from Firefly/Serenity is a woman doing a man’s job, but she never comes across as either the stereotyped beautiful-tomboy or the butch-tomboy that we see so often in film and television. Rather, she’s a reasonably attractive woman who loves her job, which just happens to be a mechanic for a spaceship.

And a damn competent mechanic she is, too. In a flashback episode , she is introduced as the fling of Serenity’s initial mechanic, a somewhat incompetent guy. While this guy has no clue what’s wrong with the ship, Kaylee notices the problem while lying on her back and looking up at the engine during sex. Says a lot about the guy, too, that the ship’s mechanisms are more intriguing then his ability in bed.

Kaylee has the kind of relationship with Serenity that we see a lot of men having with their cars – or, for that matter, people having with beloved pets. She “˜talks’ to Serenity, and Serenity talks back. She is deeply in tune with the ship, which is part of what makes her so competent. That, and she really knows her stuff.

Kaylee is infatuated with the young, good-looking doctor, Simon, who’s from a much higher social class then she is. He and his sister River are fugitives; they’ve ended up on Serenity out of necessity, not choice. Occasionally, because he can be a stuck-up prat, ignorant to the sensitivities of people like Kaylee who have chosen that life, he makes disparaging remarks about it. And what does she do? Swallow his insults and smile sweetly? Not Kaylee. She gives him what-for. How dare he insult her life? How dare he treat the people who’ve chosen it as beneath him? Such exchanges always end with Simon apologising profusely for his insensitivity, and trying to be more open-minded.

A woman who, rather than have her way of life insulted by a man, gives said man what-for, which ends in an apology and a mending of ways. A woman whose competency at her job is rated far higher then any stereotype she may or may not fit into. A woman who can hold her own with the men in her life without being reduced to a stereotype. How utterly cool.


  1. Jamie Legaspi says

    Kaylee’s treatment of Simon actually rubbed me the wrong way. The poor boy is a fugitive trying desperately to keep his little sister safe and repair her gorram BRAIN DAMAGE on top of it, and she doesn’t take that into consideration even a little bit? Like, “Simon must be frazzled from looking after River so much, I shouldn’t hold it against him too much if he’s a little snappy.”

    It was the only thing that really bothered me about Kaylee–had the roles had been reversed, everyone would be up in arms about how horribly insensitive Male!Kaylee was being to Female!Simon. But no, she’s just being naive and isn’t Simon so funny when he’s hurt?

  2. Maria says

    Hi Jamie —

    I actually disagree — I think female!Simon would be characterized as a classist, elitest, snooty bitch if she said some of the things male!Simon said about the ship, and that part of her character arc would be her humbling, similar to how Inara, who spurns Mal and is in the show’s eyes putting on airs when she insists on maintaining sovereignty over her space, has to have Mal defend her in that ep where he duels for her.

    It’s not Kaylee’s job to nurture Simon’s feelings. THAT’S a gendered expectation.

  3. Jamie Legaspi says

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to connect considering people’s feelings to gender–I probably should have left out that role-reversal bit. Regardless of gender, the mental strain put on Simon’s character is HUGE. He’s in an entirely foreign world, gave up everything for a brain-damaged sister who eventually proves to be the dangerous kind of insane (stabbing Jayne and only remarking that “he looks better in red” after getting back-handed in response, shooting three people in just as many seconds, getting hold of a gun and only realizing it when people panic and try to get her to let go of it, then knocking out Simon, Jayne, and knowingly holding a gun on Mal in the movie).

    Yet everyone thinks Simon should be this perfect, happy person who never says a word out of place. Moreover, the fact that River’s brain has been irreparably damaged means that Simon has to know that she’ll never REALLY recover from what the Academy did to her. And very few of the crew seem to notice that, aside from Shepherd. “The boy gave up everything for his sister” is all Simon gets in recognition, aside from River herself. She even explicitly tells him that he deserves more: “You gave up everything you had to find me. And you found me broken. It’s hard for you.” I find it an extreme injustice when only the people who are SUPPOSED to care (Shepherd and River) acknowledge Simon for one of the most futilely noble sacrifices on television.

    If Simon had been female, they would have explored the effects of her decision outside of interactions with River. I expect there would have been a Heart Of Gold-esque shot of Female!Simon crying in a corner from how horribly torn up she’s REALLY feeling. “Outside, she’s a snooty classist bitch–but look how broken and tragic she is inside! God, it must suck that she’s always forced to lock up her little sister! We should cut her a little bit of slack, shouldn’t we?” But as a boy, Simon is relegated to “Did River just STAB Jayne?! Dude, lock her up so she doesn’t shoot anyone–wait, why are you so down about it? SUCK IT UP AND BE AWKWARD AROUND KAYLEE LIKE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO–WAIT, NOT THAT AWKWARD. STOP HURTING KAYLEE’S FEELINGS!” It’s like the crew only cares when it’s THEIR well-being on the line–even when Mal says that Simon might get hurt, it’s because he’s the only medic they’ve got and everyone ELSE is screwed, because then Simon can’t keep River in control to keep THEM safe.

    I wasn’t trying to say that Kaylee specifically should nurture Simon’s feelings. I was trying to say that hardly anyone seems to really KNOW how much Simon’s really given up for River, at least not in the right way, simply because he’s a guy. That makes them incredibly insensitive regarding Simon, especially Kaylee.

    Just because she’s sweet and lovable doesn’t mean she can’t be callous in her own way.

  4. Jamie Legaspi says

    I hate double posting, but my comment is long enough and there’s no edit button.

    Why is it never Kaylee’s fault? A lot of people say that “Simon’s always hurting her FEELINGS!” and it’s true in a shallow way, but that’s because she can’t bother to remember that Simon MIGHT be kind of frazzled from spending weeks (maybe months) keeping his brain-damaged sister from stabbing someone or getting caught by bounty hunters or the Alliance. Your comment–that Kaylee “isn’t responsible for nurturing Simon’s feelings”–is the exact reason I can’t stand how everyone always takes Kaylee’s side when Simon’s gone through a LOT more emotional wreckage than she has. She does get held hostage and threatened a lot, but I’m not talking about that. Has she ever had to make the kind of decision that Simon did–where it’s “live with the guilt of abandoning someone you love,” or “give up everything you’ve known and live as fugitives for the rest of your lives”? If so, then she should be happy that the most he does is get tongue-tied and snappy once in a while. If not, then she should respect that he hasn’t decided to off himself after finding out just what they did to River.

    In fact, Simon came pretty damn close in “Safe”–he was about to let himself be burned with River when the villagers thought she was a witch. He didn’t run or keep protesting or scream out the unfairness of it all–just wrapped his arms around River and told them to light it. Did Mal and Zoe not notice that he wasn’t even tied to the post? Did they tell anyone outside of a general “the doctor and River nearly got burned at the stake”? Did SIMON tell anyone how close he came to assisted suicide? Did River TRY to tell them, and they mistook it for her usual babbling, or…

    …I should stop typing before I start losing my love for Kaylee. Or Mal, or Zoe, or… anyone.

  5. Raeka says

    I haven’t seen Firefly in a while, so my memories might not be the most accurate, but from what I recall of Simon most of the things he said/did to hurt Kaylee involved being rather elitist and snobby. Yes, dealing with River was a huge strain –but just because you’re under a lot of mental pressure does not give you the right to be bitchy. Just because I’ve had a bad day at work or school does not give me the right to make disparaging comments on someone else’s lifestyle or taste.

    Don’t get me wrong –I don’t think Simon ever intended to hurt Kaylee, and it was this naivete and the fact that he was obviously making an effort to adjust his world views that kept him a likeable character, rather than just an elitist snob. And I think, to some degree, Kaylee and the crew DID cut Simon some slack for River’s condition; after all, Mal never kicked the two out even though they frequently attracted trouble the crew otherwise would not have had to deal with, and Kaylee kept forgiving Simon his attitude problems, even if she took a little time to be hurt and angry about them.

    What you seem to be saying with your post is that you feel a lot of people ONLY see Simon as an elitist; I can’t speak for humanity in general, but I quite liked him, DESPITE being an elitist, because he had many more redeeming qualities (for instance, his devotion to his sister). Yes, I totally think Simon was at fault for many things he said and did in the show, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like him overall, or didn’t appreciate the sacrifices he made :)

  6. says

    I second Raeka here. Simon was privileged, and like a lot of young privileged people, he had a lot to learn in that area. He was also preoccupied with the very difficult task of not only caring for River but actually finding a solution to her unique problem. He did inadvertently hurt Kaylee’s feelings, but whenever he got called on that, I felt he tried to make amends and do better in future. That’s about all you can ask of a human being, so I don’t know about other fans, but I appreciated those good qualities while acknowledging his mistakes, too.

  7. Jamie Legaspi says

    …I think you both are missing the point. It’s not about how WE see Simon. Of course we as fans know that he doesn’t really mean to hurt Kaylee’s feelings and he’s under enough stress to kill a small planet. The problem is that the other CHARACTERS don’t seem to care in a significant way. And I don’t think a bad day or even a horrific mistake can ever compare with what Simon is putting himself through.

    Of course HE’S learning from his mistakes. The problem is that nobody else NOTICES it, even when they should. Inara is a privileged person living in a barely-running Firefly–shouldn’t she have SOME idea of what Simon is going through, at least on a monetary/status level? Mal and Zoe have undergone the same scale of personal upheaval that Simon has–shouldn’t Mal respect that he hasn’t ended up as badly as him, and Zoe respect Simon’s fortitude more openly?

    But Inara ALWAYS sided with Kaylee, the most Zoe did was chip in on watching River, and Mal was… Mal. I do respect that he didn’t just toss them off the ship onto the nearest planet, but he was still extremely heavy-handed in how he dealt with River’s psychosis. Mal is perfectly able to lock River up (with Simon’s knowledge/permission), yet he casually orders Simon to do it? HE FORCED SOMEONE TO LOCK UP HIS OWN SISTER. That’s nowhere NEAR as well as he could have handled it. Sure, Simon did it because he’s supposed to, but how must he have felt?

    Maybe Joss would have fixed this problem if Firefly had run for more than a season, but Fox is a bastard. Simon has his flaws, and he’s already trying to fix them–but Kaylee has flaws, too, and she (by default, as we’ll never know in canon) doesn’t seem to think Simon can POSSIBLY be hurt by the fact that she’s always misunderstanding him.

    Do you understand my point now?

  8. says

    The problem is that the other CHARACTERS don’t seem to care in a significant way.

    Ah, now I see. You didn’t specify whether you meant fans getting pissy with Simon or the other characters not cutting him enough slack. I assumed you meant fans, and apparently so did Raeka.

    I haven’t seen the show in a couple of years, but I recall thinking Mal, at least, is too hard on Simon, so you may well be onto something there. There were a lot of times the show left me feeling like the characters were taking some of each other’s deeds too seriously and others not seriously enough. It was like the writers wanted the drama of a certain situation, but they failed to set up the proper dynamics, so we were just supposed to understand that a certain character had done something right/wrong even though it really didn’t play that way to us.

  9. SunlessNick says

    Not precisely a reply to the Kaylee/Simon subject, but it did remind me that Kaylee is the only one of the crew whom saw attempt any kind of social interaction with River. The others babysat, granted, but they largely seemed to see it in the light of that word; Kaylee is the only one I can remember talking to River for River’s own sake.

  10. Quib says

    “Regardless of gender, the mental strain put on Simon’s character is HUGE.”

    I agree in a lot of ways, but the thing is, the script never gave him an opportunity to express those emotions, let alone to Kaylee. It isn’t just Kaylee’s misreading, or mistreatment of Simon’s feelings, it’s that he never visibly develops them.
    He has a lot of reasons to dislike being on Serenity, and there was a lot of potential there for him to open up and express some emotional depth. Instead, the show (more than the characters, I’d say) created a division of Kaylee as emotional, and Simon as uncomprehending. Which is in many ways gratingly contradictory to earlier character development.

  11. Jamie Legaspi says

    Simon must be consciously hiding it from people, otherwise we would have seen much more than resentment and awkward statements. During Objects in Space, River reads his mind and he’s thinking, “I would still be there [on Osiris]…”

    I think Joss was starting to delve into Simon’s feelings during Objects in Space, because River starts talking about how “everyone” would be better off without her, free to live their own lives–it’s obvious that she really means SIMON would be better off, because everyone who isn’t knocked out or tied up gets this guilty look on their faces. By all means they should be RELIEVED to see her go willingly, but instead they look the exact opposite: Now that they’ve started connecting with Simon and River on a personal level, they REALLY start to comprehend how much Simon’s given up for her and how insensitive they’ve been to him.

    That, in my opinion, is when Joss shows us that he’s starting to correct all the fumbles he made.

  12. Raeka says

    Oh, I did misunderstand –I thought you meant we, the viewers, didn’t appreciate the stress Simon was under 😛

    I do think that the crew, too, could have been more sympathetic to Simon’s situation –but I also think it would have been out of character for them.

    Inara has a certain kind of privilege, yes –she’s used to luxury, having people address her in a certain way, etc– but the thing with Inara’s ‘privilege’ is that I always felt it was a fragile, fake privilege. She may dress nice, get paid nice, have people talk nice to her –but her job basically boils down to prostitution. Or, at least, I have the feeling that’s the way most of the world sees it. Mal calls her a whore. What’s-his-name from that episode where Mal dueled a guy for treating Inara as a thing, not a person, certainly didn’t treat her as a member of his own class. The episode ‘Heart of Gold’ showed how most of the rural country views prostitutes –and I got the feeling she related to them more as /someone in the same business/ rather than as Simon did. Inara is aware at every moment that her ‘privilege’ can be taken away with a word, a look –Simon’s privilege is entirely in /his/ control.

    As for Mal and Zoe –I think you are forgetting that they were on the losing side of a bloody, bitter war –a war that /Simon’s class won/. Mal and Zoe have absolutely no reason to love prominent members of the Alliance, and I honestly think that if it hadn’t been for the fact that the Alliance was so obviously his enemy, they would never have allowed him to stay.

    As for Mal being heavy-handed; look at it from his point of view. He has a ship and a crew of people in a dangerous job, and he’s supposed to protect them –often from the Alliance itself. And then some rich, snobby, Alliance kid waltzes on board with a crazy girl who is obviously not ideal for the sensitive nature of their work. If the Alliance brat himself doesn’t compromise things by selling them out or screwing things up because he just can’t /deal/, his crazy kid sister will probably go psychotic at the wrong time and get them all killed.

    …and you want Mal to hold his hand and tell him what a big, strong boy he is for doing his best, A for effort, etc? 😛 I just don’t see it in Mal’s character.

    As for forcing Simon to lock up his own sister…again. Mal is responsible for /everyone’s/ well-being on the ship. River is very like a child in many ways. If some parents’ child was acting out, would you just swoop down and set them straight? Generally, I think people ask the parent (Simon) first to /take responsibility for/ their child (River). Mal made it clear at the beginning that Simon was responsible for River. Simon loves his sister very much, and would put the crew at risk for her; Mal was not willing to put the crew at any more risk than he did simply by taking her on, and was ensuring that Simon would not allow that to happen.

    Simon could have refused, after all. But the only thing that would have happened is that Mal would have done it himself.

    I’m not saying that the characters are all excused from being so insensitive to Simon’s problems –I agree that they’ve done their own share of wrong in the rocky relations between them. But I think it was more in character for them to have their own foibles to overcome, things to learn from Simon as he learned from them –and maybe if Firefly had continued, we would have seen more episodes along the line of Objects in Space. The characters could have all started out with a courteous, mutually compassionate relationship, but that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting to watch, would it? 😉

    I just want to make it clear that I’m not trying to attack you or any character –this is just the way I remember the series, and how I interpreted it, and the discussion was so interesting I had to chime in… ^^;

    Good lord, this is long.

  13. Jamie Legaspi says

    Okay, I do not feel that anyone should HOLD SIMON’S HAND or tell him what a good boy he is, and I know it would be out-of-character for anyone but Kaylee (who is too naive to even THINK about it).

    On Mal: I would HATE if Mal started being all gushy and praising Simon–there are different ways of respecting people, you know. Mal’s respect would be more action-based than gushy-encouraging-praise, but you would still know it’s there after a while. Moreover, he SAID that River could unintentionally shoot Simon and they’d be out of a medic for months, but he still makes SIMON, the MEDIC, lock her up without any backup? That’s just stupid.

    Simon would have understood, at least as a doctor, if Mal locked River up himself. Doctors KNOW that patients who are dangerous would warrant the appropriate restraints, by the appropriate people. Simon has neither the mindset nor the physical ability to keep River contained if she has another psychotic episode, but Mal does. As a brother Simon would have protested AFTER finding her locked up, but as a doctor he would have understood why because Psychotic!River is a completely different person from Normal-ish!River.

    If Mal would have locked River up herself, his meaning would have been perfectly logical: “Psychotic!River is dangerous, and I don’t want to risk our only medic getting put out of action. You can let her out to eat and all, but check with me first and if she gets stabby again, you can patch me up after she’s secured.”

  14. Quib says

    I think they forget he’s a doctor sometimes. Like when a newly introduced character gets shot, and no one seems to think to do anything about it.

    “Simon must be consciously hiding it from people, otherwise we would have seen much more than resentment and awkward statements.”
    Because it’s a t.v. show, only the things the writers and actors can show us can really be said to exist. Speculation is fine and all, but not entirely relevant to an analysis of the characters as the show creates them.

  15. Dan says

    “Inara is aware at every moment that her ‘privilege’ can be taken away with a word, a look –Simon’s privilege is entirely in /his/ control.”

    Not posted here before, but reading this sentence, it suddenly struck me that maybe Inara’s lack of empathy for Simon stemmed from the fact that he securely had the life of privilege that she constantly has to fight to maintain, and he gave it up. Perhaps she feels that he took his privileges for granted in a way she never did, and so she has little sympathy for him after he’s voluntarily given them up.


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