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The strength of Firefly’s Inara Serra

Saturday 2 April 2011, by Webmaster

Last weekend at AggieCon (which was a blast, btw), I had the pleasure of participating on a panel discussing Firefly: The Immortal TV Show. Among my fellow panelists were the AggieCon Literary GOH Catherynne Valente, author Patrice Sarath, and Captain Whittaker from the Airship Isabella.

The conversation during the panel was quite interesting, and it took several turns I never would have expected. I love this about open discussion and convention panels. I always learn so much just by listening to others’ opinions. In fact, the panel was so thought-provoking, that a few of the panelists and several audience members continued the discussion out on the patio afterwards.

I’ve always held Joss Whedon as a strong advocate for women’s issues, a feminist at heart, so I was surprised to hear Catherynne say that she felt Joss Whedon showed the complete opposite in his works. She cited several examples such as how Whedon kills off the women characters, but perhaps the most astonishing example was to hear her say that Inara Serra, played by Morena Baccain, was an underdeveloped character and an example of a weak woman.

Catherynne pointed out that sex workers have no problems telling people that they’re attracted to them or handling such situations, and of this I have no doubt; however, I don’t believe that Inarra lacked the courage to tell Mal she loved him, but rather she was wise enough and strong enough not to tell him.

Inara is a companion. In the world of Firefly, this is similar to a Geisha or a Courtesan, a high-class, well-educated sex worker. Although Mal seems to take pleasure in calling her “whore” and other such misogynistic attacks on her choice of career, as the audience gets to know the characters it becomes clear that he says these things in order to remind himself and attempt to keep an emotional distance from her, because he is deeply in love with her. And she is deeply in love with him. The tension between the two is undeniable. Then the question remains: why don’t they ever get together?

The easy answer, of course, is that Joss Whedon is a sadist, which he is when it comes to romantic relationships in his stories, or that the sexual tension is necessary for plot or conflict purpose. Certainly the above two reasons are true, but the more important answer lies within the characters themselves. In fact, it is what helps define those characters.

Love is powerful. Sexual desire is powerful. Combined, they are virtually impossible to deny, especially when one is in such close proximity with one’s beloved day after day after day. Additionally, Inara and Mal are normally in the middle of space for weeks on end without seeing anyone other than the other members of Serenity’s crew.

Only someone with amazing strength could deny such a strong attraction and deep love. Day, after day, after day.

Inara has sex for a living, but what she does for her clients is much more than just carnal gratification. She nurtures them and honors them, and most of them honor her and her position as well. In such a profession, she understands the power of sexuality and the power of intimately coming together with another person. It can be a profound experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

Inara understands the depth and possible dangers of passion. She understands that she and Mal come from two different worlds and that love is not enough to make a relationship work. She is not blinded by romantic notions of happily ever after. She fully grasps the risk of crossing that line with Mal.

Theirs is a business arrangement. She rents a shuttle from him so that she might expand her clientele across the galaxy. She is quite obviously in love with Mal and sexually attracted to him (Hello! Nathan Fillion! Who wouldn’t be?), but she is also aware that giving into her desire would likely destroy both their lives. Mal understands this, too. Therein lies the tragedy. They are deeply in love, but they cannot (or rather should not) be together. Which, of course, makes them want each other all the more, as what is more delicious than forbidden fruit? Even if it is a self-imposed restraint.

Being in love, they could not just have sex and leave it at that. We’re not talking about a physical release here. It goes so much deeper than that. Inara knows it. Even though she has sex for a living without emotional attachment, her feelings for Mal are already present. Mal, on the other hand, has a strong sense of integrity around sex. He sees it as a sacred union, and I love him for it. This is part of the problem he has with Inara’s profession.

If they were to cross that line, Mal would not be able to live with Inara continuing her career as a companion, which would ultimately tear them apart. For this is Inara’s choice, her career, her life. To give it up would be to give up who she is, and a strong woman does not give up who she is for a man, not even Nathan Fillion. Inara’s refusal to sacrifice her life, and thereby herself, for love is a testament to her strength, especially under their circumstances and in such close proximity.

In “Heart of Gold,” Mal sleeps with another woman, Nandi (a former companion), and it’s a very *hot* scene. It’s my favorite episode not only for the steamy scene between Mal and Nandi, but also for Inara’s reaction when she learns that Mal had had sex with Nandi.

Inara knows Mal. She knows that sex is sacred to him, so she understands that when he chose to be with Nandi, although Mal is not in love with Nandi, it was not meaningless to him. Inara goes into an empty room and cries. Her tears do not show weakness, they show her strength. She goes to where no one can see her and deals with her pain alone. It’s heartbreaking. But she is not jealous. She is heartbroken because here is a painul reminder that she cannot have what she so desperately wants. What she so desperately needs. She wants to be able to lose herself in love. She wants to lose herself in him. She wants to give up everything just for one night or a chance at love. She fantasizes about it, but she is too strong to actually do it.

Because she is wise enough to know the truth. She knows that by giving into her desires, she will destroy both their lives.

Inara is not by any means weak; she is stronger than I could ever be.