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"Mars Needs Women" - A Firefly Essay

Sunday 21 February 2010, by Webmaster

How a Dress, a Cake, and a Goofy Hat Will Save Science Fiction

by Maggie Burns

Science fiction is broken. Like poetry and art music, science fiction threatens to spin itself into a self-referential genre so disconnected from everything else that only initiates can find value in it, a tiny irrelevant genre jealously guarded by hardcore fans. So much insider knowledge accrues about each created universe that it pushes away the newcomer. A genre that fired the imaginations of those who actually got humanity into space is reduced to teddy bear aliens, macho swagger, and jiggle. Those of us who love sci-fi are so hungry for it that we will devour nearly anything, which only serves to keep the standards low and the scenarios familiar.

What is the cure for sci-fi’s problems? A goofy knitted hat. A frilly dress. A birthday cake. You and me, and people we know, in space: Firefly.

Sci-fi at its best has higher goals than any other genre. Its creators bring us hope, fear, and truth. Hope in sci-fi shows us what we can be, what we could be if we lived up to our potential. Fear plays out in warnings about our present and future. Of these three, fear appears most often, since it encompasses all of the dystopian fiction: extrapolations of society’s flaws taken to their logical extremes, dark explorations of human nature, terrifying insights into the ugly side of our societies. This type of sci-fi also brings us aliens, which have been standing in for our fears and our flaws in various forms since they first appeared in literature.

But the highest goal of science fiction is to tell us the truth about ourselves. We find it in every sci-fi work that ever tried to say: “This is how it is. Don’t pretend, don’t turn away, don’t lie. This is who you are. This is what we are.” Seeking truth is the strongest and the bravest course, the hardest fiction to write, the most difficult to fall in love with, because it holds an honest mirror to humanity. We never want to look that clearly at our own reflections. Is that a blemish coming on? Does this dress make me look like the privileged product of a globally exploitative oligarchy? Why, yes, actually, it does. Turn that mirror to face the wall.

Firefly sets out to tell larger truths through fiction, just as sci-fi tackles larger social and socio-economic issues than most other genres. Firefly is not merely telling entertaining stories, though it does that exceptionally well. It’s not simply creating a vivid and gorgeously textured universe, one that is completely believable. It’s not just a fun ride with space cowboys and excellent cussing in Mandarin.

Firefly is all those things, but like the finest print sci-fi, from A Canticle for Leibowitz to The Martian Chronicles to The Dispossessed-and unlike the vast majority of sci-fi on television—it also sets out to show us our world through a created one. Like the best sci-fi novels, Firefly does this by being honest in its depiction of the breadth of life, in its inclusions and exclusions, in its reflections of class and gender and economics. The only sci-fi television show that has ever dared to tell the truth like this was Farscape, which only got away with it because every character except the hero was an alien. Farscape showed us messy, gross, violent, crazy alien life in Technicolor: old women who make soup that you don’t want to look at too closely, young women with good hearts and damaged souls, insecure warrior men who need friends, alien warrior women who discover they can be more—people we know in our own lives, but never see represented in sci-fi TV. Sci-fi television only allows this much reality, this much painful insight, only hits this close to the bone, when the characters are aliens. Until Firefly, we never saw so much reality played out with people. No aliens in Firefly. And no easy answers. There are plenty of monsters, but they all take human form, just like in our world.

Firefly reaches us in a way we can accept by giving us a world that draws us in, using touchstones that tell us: This is the real world. This is a recognizable ’verse, where we could live. The show does not use any of the easier sci-fi tropes: no aliens to embody our difficult or less palatable traits, no black-and-white hero, and most of all, no simple world consisting primarily of militaristic men. This world includes women of all kinds, rich and poor, strong and weak, brave and scared. This is so rare in science fiction that it’s completely revolutionary. Who lives in a world with so few women? Who lives so far removed from the messy realities of life? Modern sci-fi television has its roots in a genre historically so sexist that women and the messy realities of life are identical, both eradicated from all those sparkling spaceship interiors, except for the occasional beautiful scientist’s daughter who needs to be rescued.

One of the biggest weaknesses of sci-fi television is its insistence on framing so many narratives within that same sparkling, orderly, male-dominated militarized hegemony. From Star Trek to Stargate SG-1, the universe appears through this lens. Whether it’s Star Trek’s Federation, or Stargate’s recognizable U.S. Air Force—right down to guest appearances by each Air Force Chief of Staff—this framework dominates television science fiction. The militaristic framework is off-putting, whether you have a military background or not. If you do, it’s always inaccurate and irritating, especially when lives are thrown away without comment. If you don’t have a military background, it’s alienating, familiar only through all of its sci-fi forebears. The trope is self-referential and lacks any visceral link to a familiar reality. Ultimately the military framework is a narrative cheat, a shorthand, without depth of thought or character resonance at all.

Powerful and cruel but faceless bureaucracies fronted by militaries made up of marching automatons are the dullest cheap trick of sci-fi. Firefly mercifully kept these people in the distant background, where we like our governments to be. When we did see representatives, the soldiers were wearing absurd purple armor and the officers appeared to be jackbooted hotel staff. Even the scariest villains seemed to be taking time from their office jobs to scrub the bathroom, with their black suits and blue rubber gloves, though their mysterious blue baton of infinite nosebleeds was quite effectively terrifying. The true villains of Firefly were far more frightening, because they were recognizable from our daily lives. They included ethical dilemmas, conflicting loyalties, putting food on the table. Financial survival, taking care of family. Trying to stay safe. Trying to keep flying.

Faceless bureaucracies, expendable military forces, demonized villains, God-like aliens: these will kill a genre that has infinite potential, because they dangerously limit the ways we allow ourselves to imagine. They exchange endless imaginative possibilities for a vending machine array of choices. As much as I love the decade of Stargate SG-1, it has done more than any other show to reinforce the prevailing male-dominated militaristic and oppositional human/alien tendency in science fiction. Humanity’s problem is ultimately humanity, after all. Sci-fi does not need to eradicate reality as we know it to speak the truth. Instead, it needs to embrace the familiar, as Firefly does. The people we know, the things they use. These draw us into a fictional world on such a deep level that we accept the truth of it without question.

Firefly is the only sci-fi show ever to feature the kind of people I went to high school with, the people who aren’t usually represented in fiction except as cannon fodder. Take Jayne, the mercenary muscle on the ship. I went to high school with approximately one thousand Jaynes, wearing that same green coat, so Jayne embodies truth to me. He wasn’t great at school, was deeply loyal to his friends and family, liked trucks and guns and beer and women he could understand. Anything else was suspicious. When you see someone so completely true on screen, how can you react with anything but pleasure, no matter what kind of untrustworthy horndog bonehead he is? The truth in the character of Jayne says to me that people matter, as they are, with all of their flaws and idiocies. We’re all in this together.

Take Kaylee, a genius mechanic from a podunk moon, the sweetest person you’ll ever meet. I went to high school with a thousand Kaylees, too, though they were busy fighting for survival, because the lives of the rural poor are scary and harsh, with narrow boundaries and a limited choice of futures. But they had Kaylee’s heart, that fragile fear that people were looking down on them, that they weren’t good enough or pretty enough or smart enough. I recognized Kaylee. Kaylee is true. Follow the truth of that character logically and you understand the heart of the show.

Kaylee can fix nearly anything, sees the good in everyone, can’t handle a gun. (Though I bet she’d be able to field strip one in no time flat, plus fix that sticky chambering mechanism that always jams when the humidity is high.) Kaylee was the beating heart of the show as she tended the beating heart of Serenity. When have you ever seen anyone like her on a spaceship before? You see capable and tough women, women who are essentially men, and not just regular men like you and I know, but a Navy SEAL in a D-cup woman suit, with twelve advanced degrees and not one single trait that we would recognize as belonging to a female human. Fantasy women. Projections of idiotic ideals.

Is anyone surprised that sci-fi appeals to relatively few women, when these are the characters out there to identify with? I adore the admirable Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1, for instance, but she is just not representative of most women I’ve ever met-at least outside of Caltech. Which leads back to the original problem. Yes, Samantha Carter is pretty much the image of my brilliant sister, who got her Ph.D. at Caltechbut that’s still not a way into the fiction for the rest of us. I admire Samantha Carter, I even know people exactly like her, but she’s not me, and in her world, there’s no place for me. She’s a militarized superhero. There’s no place for librarians or liberal arts types or your mom or the woman who works in the bakery down the street in almost any sci-fi universe. That omission commits two crimes: it makes the created world not true, and it alienates a vast segment of the audience. So much of scifi is guilty of these crimes.

Except for Firefly. Firefly has Kaylee, who in “Shindig” saw that big frilly pink and white ruffly dress in the window of a shop and fell in love with it. Kaylee breaks your heart, because Mal made a rude comment about her and the dress—how she would have been like a sheep walking on its hind legs—and Kaylee, who loves everyone, wouldn’t speak to Mal again until he showed up with the dress for her. It was a powerful, human moment. Mal needed Kaylee dressed up and on his arm to go to a fancy party. And our Kaylee was beside herself with delight. This is someone we know.

Kaylee breaks your heart again because a gaggle of mean girls mocked her dress. Looking at them, you have to agree, their dresses are gorgeous and subtle, especially that gold one with the sort of cutaway jacket worn by the queen bitch. Wait, do you realize what just happened? We’re talking about dresses in sci-fi. We’re talking about mean girls at a party. We’re talking about girl stuff. Which is an essential part of life for half of the human race.

I’ve never actually had front row seats for a supernova, been involved in a spaceship dogfight, used warp drive, had dinner with a Cylon (that I know of), or watched a planet explode from orbit. But I do know a thing or two about mean girls at parties, and how terrible you feel when they are horrible to you. And how great was it when the nice man with the sash came over and told off the mean girls? And how fun was it when all the boys wanted to talk to Kaylee because she knew all about spaceship engines? Vindication!

It’s not real—it’s not truth—unless you include the mean girls at the party as well as the part about how the singularity is about to explode, weapons at maximum, fire! You’re not telling the truth if you leave out Kaylee, or Zoe, or Inara, or crazy barefoot River tearing labels off all the cans or rubbing soup in people’s hair. It’s not true, if they’re not there. It can’t be. No matter what story you’re trying to tell about humanity and its problems, your fiction will never ring true without the people and things that tie it to a reality we recognize and feel on a visceral level.

In “Out of Gas,” Kaylee baked a cake for Simon for his birthday. Like the dress, it’s far more than just an object out of Planet Stereotypical Femininity, stuck in frame to give texture to the world. That would be a cheat. We’ve all seen that in sci-fi. Colonel Caltech shows a slightly feminine side and then gets defensive about it to the rest of the crew, all men, who snicker at her (“Look, she’s wearing a dress!”) in a deeply ugly way that plays into the fallacy that women can’t be strong and effective in traditionally male milieus without giving up everything that we associate with the feminine. Everyone on Firefly completely disproved that idiotic fallacy—like real people, who disprove it daily.

Who would you rather stare down at the end of a barrel, Mal or Zoe? Mal, obviously, because he’d blink, and then bash you in the head and leave you there to come back and bite him in the ass another day. But Zoe would blow your head off without thinking twice or breathing hard. Yet Zoe also has a wonderfully true traditionally feminine side. She wants a dress with some slink. She was married to a kind and gentle man. The closest Firefly comes to a superhero is Zoe, who is saved from becoming a knee-jerk feminist cliché by her genuine layers and depth.

The birthday cake Kaylee baked in “Out of Gas” is much more than a simple realistic touch. To begin with, Kaylee had a crush on Simon and everyone knew it, except maybe Simon, which lends a deliciously true texture to the proceedings. The scene in the kitchen played out in such a lovely way, everyone gathered at the table together. We didn’t get to see that very often on Firefly, so every time it happened was precious. The crew had come together from the most disparate walks of life, from all classes, a man of the cloth and a prostitute, fighters and professed wimps, a couple of geniuses and a mercenary lunkhead. The family gathered over dinner and settled down to birthday cake together, though later in the episode everyone but Mal abandoned the ship, only to return at the end, united again.

Would it mean as much without the cake? There’s a mess hall scene in Alien that I think of, whenever food shows up in sci-fi. Goop for dinner, blue milk, everyone acting like a bunch of guys, even the women. The food is deliberately alienating, not your mother’s macaroni and cheese or anything we recognize, a choice which further equates the abandoned normal world of grass and air with women, family, home, playing into the feminine equivalent of emasculation that I object to so strongly. Food can still be food as we know it, in space. Woman can still be women as we know them. Sci-fi seems to be the last bastion of the absurdly archaic idea that a woman must give up all of the traditional trappings of femininity to be strong. That the politically correct representation of a woman must absolutely not include any of those traditional trappings or it somehow belittles women. That food can’t be apples and chicken or we won’t believe that we’re on an alien planet. That women can’t be recognizably women or we won’t know we’re in space. That it’s not the future unless we eradicate the messy realities of life.

Why does sci-fi cling to this so strongly? We know perfectly well it’s not true. We all know dozens of fierce, strong women who enjoy the whole range of human endeavors without losing one molecule of their strength. To propose otherwise, as so much sci-fi does incessantly, is to deny the richness and texture of humanity, to set a story in a shallow world populated by cardboard heroes. Is my sister less of a brilliant scientist because she knits booties for her co-workers when they have babies? That sounds completely insane, yet it’s exactly what most sci-fi tries to force you to believe. Were all those heroes really hatched out of incubation chambers? Who changed their space diapers? Who grew the cotton and wove the cloth? You look closely and it all falls apart. Worse, removing the whole range of women and all of the messy realities of life impoverishes the landscape so badly that it’s nearly impossible to tell a decent story. It takes almost all of the colors out of the paintbox and leaves you with a muddy olive drab.

Consider Jayne’s mother, who sent him a wonderfully goofy knitted wool hat in “The Message.” Orange and yellow bulky wool, with rust-colored earflaps and a big pompom on top. If you weren’t in love with Jayne already, for being 100 percent himself, then watching him open up his mother’s present and immediately put it on would have made you fall in love. Wash made fun of him instantly: “Man walks down the street wearing that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.” To which our Jayne replied, “Damn straight,” because he didn’t quite get the meaning and took it as a compliment to himself instead of an insult to the hat. (Luckily for Wash, I’m thinking.) That was a gorgeous scene.

Jayne’s hat played all throughout “The Message.” He took it off as a sign of respect for the dead, when the crew was listening to Tracey’s message asking Mal and Zoe to take him back home to his folks on St. Albans. Womack, the Fed who chased them down, told Jayne that the hat made him look like an idiot. Jayne took it off again in respect for the dead when Mal and Zoe carried Tracey’s body down Serenity’s ramp to the waiting family.

Jayne’s hat didn’t really even mean anything in “The Message.” It was just a hat, doing hat things. But like the cake and the frilly dress, Jayne’s hat signifies an entire wealth of background to this universe, where mothers still knit hats for their grown sons, where sons unconditionally love the hats their mothers send them. Where a mechanical genius can fall in love with an unfashionable ruffled dress and wear it to a party, so that you’re just dying with embarrassment for her in front of the mean rich girls in their expensive, tailored gowns. Where the same genius mechanic can take a break from fixing a spaceship engine and bake a cake for the cute doctor she has a crush on. Each of these things grounds the fiction in a vital, recognizable, complex, dirty universe. Each of these things is far more than just a thing.

Firefly does some lovely work with people and objects, playing with the shifting boundaries between them. Villains like Adelai Niska and Rance Burgess and Jubal Early turn people into things, treat people as objects. But when the transformation goes the other direction, as with the dress, the hat, and the cake, it’s exactly what we do in our lives every day in order to belong to a world in which physical objects are our interface: we imbue objects with meaning. A dress means something-it’s never just a dress. In fiction, a cigar is never just a cigar. Nothing in scifi is ever free of valence, weight, meaning.

A gun is a tree branch is a gun. River became Serenity itself, in the addled mind of Early, the bounty hunter in “Objects in Space” who, more than anyone in the series, read things as people and people as things. “Ain’t nothing more than a body to me,” he said to Kaylee, as he calmly threatened her with rape, turning our beloved Kaylee into an object and his own body into a weapon. Turning people into objects is the worst crime you can commit; its obverse, making objects take on the hearts and meanings of the people around you, that’s quintessentially human, one of our highest accomplishments. Objects are what we use to read the world and how we make the world reflect ourselves back to us. Objects are where we put our hearts outside of us, in gifts, in memories, in meaning. The biggest object of all, Serenity, is far more than a ship: it’s a home, a family, a place to belong.

The crew of Serenity lived in space, yes, but it was space that was familiar. It’s home, just somewhere else. Firefly is people we know, with relationships and objects we can understand. In the pilot episode alone we saw easily a couple dozen things we’d never seen in space before: the spaceship’s captain peeing then washing his hands; a recognizable Christian preacher with a Bible; a pretty girl with a dirty face and no education running the engine room; veterans of a lost war who had to live with that loss and that mockery every day; the painful daily effects of class differences; a realistic gunshot wound, with blood and pain and someone going into shock; men and women who cared about each other as friends, without any sexual overtones; horses and cowboy hats; people who were barely scraping by and needed every bit of cash they could get their hands on, just to survive. Didn’t you always wonder about the bathrooms on the Enterprise? Serenity herself felt so much more real than any spaceship we’ve seen. There were dirty dishes and mended clothes, comfortable couches and weird art, birthday cake and strawberries. People ate apples. It’s the present, in the future. Imaginative fiction about the future makes no sense to us at all unless we can imagine ourselves in it.

What’s wrong with science fiction? Try to get someone who doesn’t like science fiction to watch Firefly. If they won’t, it’s because they’ve seen too many shows along the lines of the various Star Treks, where women and men are interchangeable, or Stargate SG-1, a show which I love dearly despite all of its flaws. These types of shows push people away with military uniforms and guns and firefights, with aliens who are ever so slightly—but ever so importantly—different from us. Maybe they cannot use contractions; maybe they have glowy eyes or a little prosthetic on their foreheads, or slightly strange ears. These signals tell us that we’re dealing with an easy world, familiar tropes, a sanitized, polarized reality: the usual. And because of this constant use of the easy way out in sci-fi television, people who would love Firefly if they watched it will flinch when you suggest they try some. That’s a loss, both to them and to the genre, because sci-fi is consistently poorer for the lack of a more varied audience and a more varied range of experiences among its creators. It doesn’t have to be like this. Science fiction can be infinitely better. It can be more.

The cure for science fiction can be found in Firefly, where realistic men and women rise above the kinds of nightmare realities we’ve all faced, in order to solve their small problems, and from there, the big ones. Antiseptic rumbling spaceship troop carriers full of space Nazis are not going anywhere, and that’s perfectly fine, as long as there’s someone in the picture, somewhere, who feels like someone you know. Someone wearing a goofy knitted hat from his mom, or someone proudly presenting a lopsided birthday cake, or someone who falls in love with a great big frilly confection of a dress.