I’ll be upfront about my bias right off the bat. I think Firefly was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen and Serenity was an awesome movie. There will always be an angry place in my heart for Fox for cancelling it (and a lot of other great shows, too).
I recently got a book of essays from fans of the show and there were some interesting points raised. Now I came at the story backwards. I watched Serenity first and then was lent Firefly on DVD. So I got to see the unaired brilliant pilot rather than being introduced with the hastily written episode “The Train Job.” My impressions of the characters and crew are different than they would have been if I’d started at the beginning. I’ve also read the novelization of the movie which gives some additional information which changes some things.
I think the universe Joss Whedon created is amazingly rich, lending itself to all sorts of metaphors and discussion because it honestly feels like a real place.
One of the essays talked about the ambiguous nature of sex in the Firefly-verse. Inara is a registered Companion, like a geisha but one whose job includes having sex with her clients as well as entertaining and being a graceful social asset. She is respected and of high position within society. However, during the episode “Shindig”, a mean girl is reduced to running out of the room when it is implied that she is sexually promiscuous: “It took a dozen slaves a dozen days to get you into that get-up but your daddy tells me it takes the space of a schoolboy’s wink to get you out of it.”
Here’s my alternate point of view. In our society, actual sex is frowned upon but titillation is used constantly. Thus the writer focused on sex as the key issue. But what if it isn’t sex? What if it’s choice and discrimination? Inara constantly points out that she chooses her clients. They must prove themselves worthy to hire a Companion and if they behave badly, they become blacklisted by the entire Companion community. That’s a great deal of power.
In contrast, the mean girl is being taunted about being undiscriminating. She’s available to anyone who asks for her. That’s the insult.
It’s an interesting view on sex. Where self-respect is the truly valued commodity in personal relationships, even if those relationships are more business than emotional. The more I think about it, the more I applaud the idea and think we should be encouraging it. Girls are sexual beings and there shouldn’t be any shame attached to our desire to have sex, any more than boys should be ashamed for wanting to have sex. But neither boys nor girls should be sexually indiscriminate.
If you have self-respect, then you come to sex as an equal partner, able to give and demand equal pleasure. I have to say, when I heard reports of teen girls giving boys blow jobs, my initial reaction wasn’t to be upset at the girls because they were bestowing sexual favours. I was more annoyed because I was pretty certain those girls were not getting oral sex in return. To only give or take pleasure one-sidedly is to reduce the one giving it to a lesser status at best and to an object at worst.
I have no idea if that’s what Joss Whedon was actually trying to portray in Firefly and the episode in question was actually written by Jane Espenson, who worked with him on Buffy. I’d love to get a chance to ask him about that and so many other features of his shows. But knowing how hard he’s worked to encourage young women to see themselves as strong, independent people worthy of respect, I can’t say it would surprise me to discover it was deliberate.