Good Dog: Thoughts on Firefly

8 Aug

The sad news is that, while I am technically sticking to my posting schedule, I do not have a big, well-researched piece for you today.  This is because I was introduced to Firefly over the weekend.  And I mean I watched all fourteen episodes plus the movie in a matter of about… two days.  I regret nothing.

When I tell you I’m not much of a television person, I don’t mean it in the way that some people mean it, where it’s like, some sort of badge of honor in not owning a TV.  Growing up, I had to fight to watch television, because my mom was worried that it would rot my brain and/or distract me from my schoolwork (I’m not sure about the former, but the latter is definitely true).  I never had my own television, and when I went off to school, I didn’t have one to bring with me… and then I remained sans-television for roughly six years, simply because I could afford to have one.  I’m guessing in those six years, I forgot how to watch it.  Or I became addicted to the internet.  One of the two.  Or both.

On top of all of that, I do not have a head for television or movies.  I have a hard time remembering details, or character names.  I just don’t tend to absorb information well when I’m watching something.

So, it should come as no surprise to you that prior to Firefly, I had limited experience with Joss Whedon.  I had heard of Buffy (though I’m not sure if I knew enough about it to be able to connect Whedon’s name to it until recently), I’d seen Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog,  and I’d listened to that live episode of This American Life where he sang.  It was terrible, but also adorable.

No, the thing that really made me take interest in Joss Whedon was when he first appeared (and then became a recurring character) as a puppy in the web comic, Riot Nrrd.  Actually, the very first panel of the very first installment of Riot Nrrd reads, “Joss.  Fucking.  Whedon.”

Now, that might not sound like much of a commendation, but within context (you’ll just have to read it), it kind of is.  I mean, Joss Whedon may just be a puppy – ahem, creator of television series, excuse me – among puppies creators of television series, but the fact that a web comic about fat/disabled/lesbian/queer/biracial/POC/transgender lady and genderqueer dorks saw fit to even have a conversation about him?  And a conversation that, in context, reflects the notion that marginalized people would even bother putting enough faith in him to be disappointed?  That’s actually a pretty high commendation.

So I was stoked when a friend decided I needed to be educated about Firefly.  I was prepared to be pretty impressed.

Now, I don’t want to give a rundown of the entire series.  If we’re going to keep with the puppy analogy here, Firefly makes Joss Whedon look like a St. Bernard who not only shits in the toilet, but also reads Tolstoy and makes his own olive oil.  I mean, is the main protagonist a cis, het, white male?  Well, yeah – we’re still talking puppies here.  But there is so. much. good. shit. going on.  Like, there’s a sex worker who is not a victim, and an inter-racial marriage that, while it conforms to that idea that black women are more masculine than white men, is not a source of anxiety (i.e. the man is perfectly comfortable with the fact that his wife kicks more ass than he does – and in the episode where he’s not okay with it, it’s not because she kicks ass, but rather because she has stories about it).  Three out of the four main female characters are extremely capable and self-sufficient (and the one who isn’t is still never the “damsel in distress”).  And the most wonderful thing about all of this is that you barely even notice it.  It feels effortless, which, in my opinion, is a major triumph in writing diverse characters.

But I don’t really want to talk about that.  I want to talk about a specific episode.   And I want to talk specifically about one scene.  In “Objects in Space,” a sadistic bounty hunter boards Serenity, and he is scary. as. fuck.  And in this one scene, he very matter-of-factly threatens to rape one of the female crew members.

I’m sure there are plenty of “bad puppy” arguments one could make, because a person interested in critical theory and deconstruction can’t really ignore the fact that this is a black man threatening to rape a white woman.  If you’ve ever paid attention to anything EVER, there should be all kinds of sirens going off in your head regarding this dynamic.  And if you don’t have sirens going off, maybe you should reread To Kill a Mockingbird.

The above paragraph just made every browncoat on the internet hate me – just you watch.

Anyway, I want to ignore that dynamic for just a moment, and point to the gravity of that scene, and how fucking terrifying it really is.  As my friend and I discussed, rape is common on television.  It happens a lot.  It happens pretty much weekly on Law and Order: SVU, in fact.  I’m one of those people for whom SVU is addictive.  It’s not like I even watch it, really, or absorb what is happening.  All of these violent rapes?  They don’t mean anything to me.  I’m numb to it.

But in this episode, it’s the threat that is terrifying.  There is no actual violence, and it’s still more frightening and meaningful than the actual (okay, not actual, but you know what I mean) rapes that happen weekly on SVU.

I’m sure we can all point to the reasons why – the threat is leveled against a character that we have come to love over the course of the series.  That’s the real difference, isn’t it?  In SVU, the victims are people that the audience doesn’t know.  That doesn’t make it less horrific, but it’s easier to not feel it, to not register what has actually occurred.  It probably doesn’t help that most of the time on SVU, we learn about rapes after they have happened, or the actresses being raped aren’t very good, and the rapists aren’t either.  Additionally, the show is so freaking formulaic that we always know what’s coming, and what’s coming is rape.

But the fact that this scene is so freaking scary is a major point in Whedon’s favor.  I’ve mentioned before that I do not object to using rape to make a point.  The point that was being made in “Objects in Space” was that this bounty hunter was a scary, sadistic fuck.  It’s also a testament to some seriously good writing that a verbal threat of rape can carry so much weight on a television show that exists in a culture where rape is often a punchline, or doesn’t mean anything at all.

So I was not disappointed by Firefly.  My expectations were not dashed.  Joss Whedon didn’t really descend into puppydom in my estimation, though from what I’ve heard, I ought to skip Dollhouse.  That’s really no problem for me.  After all, I’m not much of a television person.

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