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Joss Whedon

River Tam and the Weaponized Women of the Whedonverse

Tuesday 15 January 2013, by Webmaster

Joss Whedon shares a lot in common with the Greek god Hephaestus—and I don’t mean that he’s a hairy, ugly dude conceived by his mom through parthenogenesis in a fit of jealous pique and thrown off Olympus with such force that he fell for nine days.1 Hephaestus was the armorer of the gods. He made Zeus’s thunderbolts and scepter, Athena’s shields, Eros’s arrows, Achilles’s armor, and Helios’s chariot. But there’s a certain blurring of Hephaestus’s specialization, if you rummage through The Iliad. In Book Eighteen, Hephaestus is shown not only as a manufacturer of weapons, but of women, having created two artificial maidens made of gold as his workshop help who are as smart and skilled as any living girl.

I bring this up because the idea of a woman as created by a weapon-maker within Patriarchal contexts is a recurring motif in the worlds imagined by Joss Whedon, the so-called “Whedonverse.”2 It’s a motif, perhaps better defined as “the woman as weapon,” that reaches its apotheosis with the developmental journey of River in Firefly and Serenity. I say it reaches its apotheosis, because as I write this, she’s the most recent example of this trend; there could be more in Whedon’s future work that are more apotheosis-y. But for now, let’s take a look at River’s creation and development as a weapon—as the creation of weapon-makers—by first taking a look at a few of her antecedents. The motif of the woman-as-weapon is a fairly complicated one, with a number of disparate elements, and by looking at Whedon’s other lethal women, we can see how these elements converge into the figure of River.3 While these characters have been developed by a number of writers, directors, and actors working with Whedon, it’s Whedon’s guiding vision that has shaped that development. These characters are reflective of his vision and thus can be thought of as existing within a single body of work. Alien: Resurrection

Alien: Resurrection may not usually be considered part of the Whedonverse, but Whedon’s script for the 1997 sequel is rife with the woman-as-weapon theme as it would develop over the course of his future work. First, there’s the cloned Ripley (number eight in the series of clones), scraped together from DNA remnants of the original Ripley by a secret military cabal headed by General Perez. In the previous movies, the Alien itself was sought after by the evil Weylan Yutani company for development as a weapon. In Alien: Resurrection, part of that development is a manufactured Ripley, who is, to a certain extent, weaponized as a human/Alien hybrid, with enhanced abilities and mildly acidic blood. Ripley is a commodity (referred to in the movie as a “meat by-product”), existing in a twilight state between being an independent person and a lethal device. Part of her journey to humanity entails her confronting a lab full of proto-Ripleys, botched clones with too many Alien characteristics to be useful commodities, which she destroys (or, rather, euthanizes) with a flamethrower . . . an act which prompts Ron Perlman’s character Johner to mutter: “Must be a chick thing.”

And it is a “chick thing,” in that it is a human thing she does. Her euthanizing the botched clones is a crucial decision she makes on her journey throughout the film to be human, to define herself as her own person independent of her origins as she rejects her status as a weapon created by a Patriarchal authority. Part of that journey is subverting her potential as a weapon, reclaiming her artificially heightened abilities and her acidic blood to destroy the Alien threat to humanity.

To a lesser degree, the android Call, played by everyone’s favorite shoplifter Winona Ryder, is also a weapon. True, as an android manufactured on a planet of androids, she’s not created as a weapon. But she’s used by the crew of the Betty (and isn’t the Betty, old beat-up ship that she is with a crew full of scruffy misfits, a proto-Serenity?) in a tactical way. Her very body is used as an interface with the “Father” computer of the military ship Auriga, so that it can be crashed into Earth and end the Alien menace—though it’s done with her permission. Like Ripley, her humanity is defined by her human choices, including her stated mission as an android to save a dumb Xenomorph-cloning humanity from itself, even though said choices involve the use of her manufactured body in a tactical way. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel

Well, where to begin with Buffy and all her attendant mythology? How about with the very First Slayer?

The First Slayer was a girl who was weaponized by three shaman Shadow-Men in the distant past to fight demons and vampires, the implication being that, like the cloned Ripley, the girl was partly infused with the essence of the demonic agencies she would eventually fight on the Shadow-Men’s behalf. Again, the needs of Patriarchal authority are fulfilled by making a woman a lethal object. The First Slayer had no Watcher. She could not develop any further as a person beyond her function as a weapon, and was exiled from her community even as she served it.

Buffy, though she was born and not made with the potential to be lethal, was a continuation of this “woman as created weapon” legacy. The Patriarchal legacy of the Shadow-Men had been supplanted by the Watchers Council, which saw to it that the Slayer, as a weapon, was used and developed in ways acceptable to the decrees of this new Patriarchal authority. (And yes, there were women on the Council, but the tweedy Eurocentric ambience of the organization reeked of an English Men’s Club.)

As with Ripley and Call, Buffy asserted her primacy as a human being over her status as a lethal tool through her human choices, standing up to the Watchers Council, most dramatically so during her conflict with Glorificus.

But within the subset of the Whedonverse that is the Buffyverse, Buffy is by no means the only woman-as-weapon.

There’s also Anya, everybody’s favorite Vengeance Demon, alias Aud and Anyanka. Anya was “elevated” to the status of Vengeance Demon by her Patron, D’Hoffryn, who used her and her fellow female Vengeance Demons to further his ends. The Vengeance Demons were, essentially, D’Hoffryn’s arsenal.4 Anya’s choices defined her development as a human once she was stripped of her supernaturally lethal capacities, which led her back to being a demon for a while, before her ultimate death, as a human, fighting the minions of the First.

The Buffybot—unlike Call, the aforementioned machine in the shape of a girl—never achieved self-awareness, or the capacity for choice. She was created by murdering prick misogynist bastard Warren as a lovebot for Spike—a particularly noxious Patriarchal development of a woman as an exploitable commodity. Though not created as a weapon, she was reappropriated as a weapon by the Scoobies (via Willow’s re-programming) during and after Buffy’s conflict with Glorificus. While there is no real intelligence or sentience to the Buffybot, and “her” existence as a woman is debatable, the fact that Buffy re-appropriated her image, her ersatz lovebot body, for her own purposes as a weapon is pretty significant.

If the Buffybot is a weapon to be used against Glory, the question follows: Was Dawn also a weapon? Yes, in that she was a strategically created commodity that was used to thwart an enemy. The mysterious Brethren of monks created Dawn, the person, as a camouflage for the Key that they wished to keep out of the hands of Glorificus, the Beast. She was human, full of “Summers blood,” as Buffy herself pointed out, and capable of human choice. But the fact is, as a human, manufactured out of memories and mystic energies, she was, at least in her inception, the tool of a Patriarchal organization.

Darla was not created as a weapon, but re-made as one. Before she died the first time, Darla was born a human being, then sired as a vampire. But when she was resurrected by the nasty suits at the law firm of Wolfram and Hart, it was specifically so that she could function as an implement of psychological warfare, to drive Angel mad and make him become Angelus once again. When that didn’t work, she was weaponized again by Wolfram and Hart, retrofitted as a vampire when Drusilla sired her resurrected human form.

And Buffy herself has been known to re-write or recreate women as weapons, though not in the objectifying way that Wolfram and Hart rewrote Darla (or how she and the Scoobies reprogrammed the Buffybot). Buffy’s rewriting of women as weapons can be seen as liberating, not appropriating. The Potentials, like Buffy and the First Slayer, carry their capacity for lethality by way of the Shadow-Men’s Patriarchal appropriation of the female form in the distant past. During the escalation of her conflict with the First, Buffy appropriated that capacity in order to actualize all the Potentials as Slayers, subverting that Patriarchal authority and allowing the Potentials to shake off the limits imposed upon them. River Tam

So, we have a distinct woman-as-weapon template here, in the Whedonverse. How, specifically, does it apply to River and her personal journey throughout the course of Firefly/Serenity?

First, River was a remarkable child, a prodigy. Her brother Simon in the pilot “Serenity” said that River makes him, who graduated in the top percentile of his medical school class, look like an “idiot child.” We got a glimpse of her intellect and imagination in “Safe,” when we saw little River playing with Simon, concocting a fantasy scenario in which they were surrounded by enemy forces who are attacking using . . . shudder! . . . dinosaurs! “Our platoon, Simon. We got outflanked by the Independent squad, and we’re never gonna make it back to our platoon. We need to resort to cannibalism!” Looking at Simon’s homework, River said it was wrong. When Simon said his homework answers were from the textbook, little River said, “No. The book is wrong. The whole conclusion is fallacious!” This was, of course, before River was sent away to the mysterious Academy. Though later, in “Jaynestown,” we saw that River never lost the tendency to challenge authoritative texts when she “fixed” Shepherd Book’s Bible.

Later, in another flashback in “Safe,” we saw how River’s capacity as a prodigy was being warped by the Academy through the letters she sent to her family, which only Simon could recognize as being written in code; they were full of misspellings, when River had been correcting Simon’s spelling when she was three. River’s capacity for imaginative play, which could invoke a military use for dinosaurs and which is a facet of her incredible intellect, was by necessity re-directed to a cry for help. Later, in the same episode, we saw a little bit of the old, playful, brilliant River come out when she was swept up by the need to dance at the town social on a backward planet.

River’s talent, her remarkableness, her spirit, is a necessary component of her weaponization. In the Whedonverse, weaponization is partly the Patriarchal appropriation of something that belongs essentially to the woman being weaponized. This can be some inner capacity, a latent inborn talent, as is the case with Buffy and the Potentials. It can be a developed talent, as is the case with Anya/Aud and the knack for vengeance she demonstrated when she turned her philandering bunny-raising boyfriend Olaf into a troll. It can be a biological potential, as is the case with Ripley, and the traces of Alien DNA mixed with her own that the Government “kept on ice” until she, and the Queen chestburster, could be cloned. It can be an abstract or even poetic potential, as is the case with Dawn and what she meant to the Summers family as a being needing shelter and protection. Or it can be a psychologically symbolic meaning, such as the one that made Darla a mind-SCUD capable of frying Angel’s brain. Even the Buffybot, not created as weapon, had an innate quality of “Buffy-ness” that made her tactically useful the first time she was used as a weapon to help rescue Spike from Glory and when she was used again by Buffy and the Scoobies for their final battle with Glory, during which Buffy was killed. The Buffybot continued being used as a weapon by the Scoobies after Buffy’s death in that final battle with Glory, filling in for the dead Slayer until she could be resurrected on UPN.

It’s this inner capacity that makes River and the other weaponized women useful as weapons. This capacity is subverted and rewritten by Patriarchal authority into something useful to that authority and that is lethal. While it seems at first like a fair deal that D’Hoffryn saw Anya’s talent and offered her a job as a vengeance demon, an offer he also made to Willow after Ms. Rosenberg cast a particularly wicked spell, it was an offer that cost Anya her humanity. In the Buffyverse, full of non-human beings, this might not seem like so big a deal. But given the fate of Halfrek/Cecily, a close friend of Anya and fellow vengeance demon whom D’Hoffryn vaporized as punishment for Anya’s defection from D’Hoffryn’s stable of employees, working for D’Hoffryn probably wasn’t all fun and dismembering games.

The taking, developing, cultivation, and perversion of these inner capacities by Patriarchal authorities is a dehumanizing act. The First Slayer became an exile because of her Patriarchally granted “gift” of “death.” Dawn had an identity crisis as to whether she was human at all, cutting herself and asking, “Is this blood?”

River’s capacity as a weapon, her psychic abilities and her physical prowess (as in “War Stories,” when she saved Kaylee by shooting three of Niska’s men with her eyes closed) made her an object to the Alliance. Stolen goods walking on two feet. As Dobson, the Alliance mole, told Jayne in the pilot “Serenity,” “That girl is a precious commodity. They’ll come after her. Long after you bury me they’ll be coming.” Referring to the aforementioned incident in “War Stories,” Kaylee said of River in the episode “Objects in Space,” “Not nobody can shoot like that that’s a person.” Whereupon Simon asked, “So . . . River’s not a person?” Again, in “Safe,” we got a sense of the objectification of River by the Academy scientists when Simon referred to River’s mental disorders by saying, “This is paranoid schizophrenia, Captain. Hand-crafted by government scientists who thought my sister’s brain was a rutting playground.”

River herself articulates a conflation between the intrusions of Patriarchal authority (in this case specifically, the Alliance) and personal self-determination at the outset of the film Serenity, in the opening flashback/dream sequence that depicts her early days at the Academy: “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think: ‘Don’t run, don’t walk.’ We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.”

With her inner capacity weaponized and commandeered, River became a danger to the very Patriarchal authority that made her a weapon. As the scary Operative in the film Serenity says to Doctor Mathias regarding River’s telepathy, “The minds behind every military, diplomatic, and covert operation in the galaxy . . . and you put them in a room with a psychic!”

River’s psychic abilities, prior to the events in the film Serenity, were also a threat to established Patriarchal authority in “Safe.” She had the following exchange with the Patron of the isolated community of hill people who had kidnapped Simon so that he would be their town doctor: after the local teacher has accused River of being a witch, the Patron asked the girl warmly, “You’re not a witch, are you? I’m the Patron here. Do you know what that means?” To which River replied, “Yes, you’re in charge. Ever since the old Patron died. He was sick and you were alone in the room with him,” with less than pleasant results.

The need for the Patriarchal authorities to control the female weapons they have created is another recurring theme in the Whedonverse. As mentioned above, Buffy butted heads with the Watchers Council to determine how the threat of Glorificus was to be handled, and to get Giles re-hired. It was a conflict that was a sequel to, and a final resolution of, her first conflict with the Council, in which she was forced on her eighteenth birthday to fight a vampire without her powers in a rite called the “Cruciamentum.” The Cruciamentum was a particularly humiliating and violating rite by the Patriarchal Council, because it was designed to be a direct appropriation of a Slayer’s body (in that the Council felt it could claim, limit, and remove the traits and strengths that made the Slayer unique) through the roofie-like administration of drugs that made her lose her powers. During Buffy’s Cruciamentum, when things went haywire, the rite of passage also became an invasion of a safe Matriarchal home space when Kralik, the psychotic vampire Buffy was assigned to kill, kidnapped Buffy’s mom. The resurrected and very tormented human Darla had to be brought under control by Wolfram and Hart, so she was re-sired as a vampire. The cloned Ripley is kept in a bunker-like prison. D’Hoffryn punished Anya for being a weapon with a conscience and stripped her of her powers before later sending demons to kill her. Though not made as a weapon, even April, the robot love slave that Warren built in “I Was Made to Love You” and the antecedent to the Buffybot, became a danger to the community at large when, as a device, she was left to her own destructive devices.

River was a danger not only to the Patriarchal authority that made her a weapon, she was a danger to the ersatz family she had onboard Serenity, as in “Ariel,” when she sliced Jayne across the chest with a butcher knife, saying, “He looks better in red!” She was again a threat in “Objects in Space” when, in her own little fugue state, River found what she thought was a stick, but was in fact a weapon, which she pointed at Simon and Kaylee. In the film Serenity, Mal confronts Simon, saying, “You had a gorramn time bomb living with us! Who we gonna find in there when she wakes up? The girl, or the weapon?”

I mentioned earlier that it was human choice that determined the ultimate fates of the women of the Whedonvese who had been made weapons, and thus to varying degrees been made objects, by these Patriarchal forces. A weapon is a tool. Tools are made to be used. But in the case of these women and their ultimate fates, it’s a specific series of choices made in specific contexts that lead them to what is often their self-determination to subvert their status as weapons/objects, to refuse to be used. In that this self-determination is other-directed, focused on the protection of immediate and domestic groups of real and substitute families, it can be thought of as the antithesis of the Patriarchal authority that has made objects/weapons of these woman. We can think of it as “Matriarchal” in that it is female-centered power-the empowerment of females independent of any external, “meddling” authority.

As said earlier, Buffy achieved a measure of self-determination by standing up to the Watchers Council, motivated by a desire not only to save the world, but to empower her close friends and family. Dawn reclaimed her life from the monks who created her as a device to deceive Glorificus, specifically by reclaiming her blood, which she had earlier been unconvinced was blood at all, as “Summers blood.” The cloned Ripley, other-directed to save an Earth she has never seen and the remaining crew of the Betty, uses her weaponized blood to kill the Newborn Alien/Human hybrid to which she has a modicum of kinship. As mentioned before, the android Call has an other-directed need to save humanity from itself. The Potentials were actualized as weapons by Buffy, but it was an actualization that was a hijacking of the Patriarchal authority in the distant past that made the girls potential Slayers to begin with.

River, of all the weaponized women in the Whedonverse, began as the most un-actualized, aside from the Buffybot. Throughout Firefly and most of Serenity, she didn’t have full control of her body, her speech, her mind. As we learned in “Ariel,” her brain had been repeatedly opened and operated on. Simon explained to Jayne about River’s stripped amygdala, “You know how you get scared. Or worried, or nervous. And you don’t want to be scared or worried or nervous, so you push it to the back of your mind. You try not to think about it. The amygdala is what lets you do that-it’s like a filter in your brain that keeps your feelings in check. They took that filter out of River. She feels everything. She can’t not.”

Because of River’s near incapacity—in “War Stories,” she felt incapacitated to the point of asking Simon, “What am I?”—her actualization as a person occurs as she becomes actualized as weapon. Her true journey to humanity free of the influence of the Alliance begins with her “use” as weapon. At the start of the film Serenity, even Mal sees tactical applications for River, bringing her along on a job for the first time as an early warning detection device because of her precognition. While this is on one level an objectification of River, it’s also an act of inclusion, showing a level of acceptance of River on Mal’s part. When River is activated by the Operative later in the film via the infamous Fruity Oaty Bars commercial, it triggers not only her capacity to kill, but her capacity to remember, to have a sense of a past that will help her reclaim her humanity . . . the memory of the mysterious “Miranda.”

River’s actualization, or her activation, as a weapon is at least partly an actualization of her self. Prior to her trigger through the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial, she had described her mental state in “War Stories” as a jumble of impressions, intimating that the jumble was keeping herself from being herself, from understanding her memories and controlling the functions of her mind: “I hate the bits. The bits that stay down. And I work. I function like I’m a girl. I hate it because I know it’ll go away. The sun goes dark and chaos is come again. Bits. Fluids.”

Other-directed, family focused (or, more properly, “crew focused”) domestic issues override River’s Patriarchal, “meddling” weaponization so that she can be her own person, and reclaim those unique attributes that had been hijacked. This family focus is at least partly defined by notions of “home,” as was hinted at by way of the Council’s intrusion on Buffy’s home during the aforementioned Cruciamentum. The notion of Serenity as a domestic space, rather than your standard spaceship setting of most SF, is illustrated in the moment in the film Serenity when Zoe asks, after Mal has ordered the camouflaging of Serenity as a Reaver ship, “Do you really mean to turn our home into an abomination so that we can make a suicidal attempt at passing through Reaver space?” And the idea of “home” as a personal, mental, bodily, and domestic space is hinted at in River’s comment above: “We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right.”

Yes, the confrontation on the planet Miranda and the revelation of the terrible secret of the Reavers’ origins helps River reclaim her fractured intellect. But it’s the threat of the Reavers to her domestic reality, much like the threats the Council/Kryec and later Glorificus posed to Buffy and Dawn’s domestic reality, that fully realize River’s potential as a human being and weapon. Faced with the deaths of Book and Wash, seeing Zoe and Kaylee and Simon horribly wounded, she overrides her function as a creation of Patriarchal authority and defends her family, telling Simon before she confronts the attacking band of Reavers: “You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.”

Fully actualized as weapon, to the point that she can kill scores of blood-raged Reavers, she is from that point on again fully realized as a person, functional enough to pilot Serenity along with Mal.

The question arises: What is the overarching function of these “women as weapons” in the Whedonverse? I think the template is to be found in the story of the very first woman who was a weapon: Pandora.

Pandora was the first woman on Earth according to mythology, created by our friend Hephaestus, the armorer of the gods and the creator of women as tools, at the order of Zeus. Pandora was manufactured out of earth and water by the same hands that made Achilles’s armor and Athena’s shield as a kind of time bomb to punish the world for Prometheus’s theft of fire from Olympus. Like River, Pandora was crafted with artificially enhanced abilities and gifts: beauty from Aphrodite, music from Apollo, cunning from Hermes, and so forth. Her name means “all-gifted.” We all know the story of the famous box of troubles she opened (in the original myth, it’s a jar or urn, not a box). But what doesn’t get discussed much is the gift she also released-hope.

Buffy, Dawn, the cloned Ripley, and especially River—as re-directions of the punishing, meddling, Patriarchal authority that, Zeus-like, seeks to control us through force and fear—represent the hope of overcoming or subverting that authority. These women use that hope and actualize that hope by actualizing themselves, by taking control of their destinies in an other-directed way that is a boon to those of their immediate home and family spaces, and also to all of society. The freeing self-actualizations of all these women-weapons, impossible without their own capacity to feel hope, provide a means by which we all might be made just a little freer. They reclaim their use as weapons, saving us all from Glorificus and other apocalypses, alien genocide, and neo-fascist control. In so doing, they reclaim the strengths they have that Patriarchy has subverted and used for its own ends, and so make hope for us all a bit more viable.

Though he shares some things in common with Hephaestus as the creator of women who are weapons, Whedon’s goal is ultimately the opposite, envisioning a recurring path of self-actualization that frees women, and us, from their limiting use as objects of force.