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June 04 2007

'Tis Pity She's a Whore': Postfeminist Prostitution in Joss Whedon's Firefly? An academic essay which critically evaluates the character of Inara in Firefly. The author argues that the potential she had was wasted (link opens up a PDF document).

yeah, I'm sure the potential was *really* wasted, as the entire show existed for ... how many *thinks really hard* oh fourteen episodes. That's really a lot of time to spin a character arc, and take it somewhere. How did this work out in Joss' shows, with, let's say, Wesley? Who exactly liked him, after the end of the third season?

But the Lord says "Judge not!", if you haven't read the article yet...
Yeah, read the article, despite the dense academia-talk. And I agree with you bookworm that it takses to task the series and film for what they did in the limited amount of time allowed. Using another Buffy reference, how would we have thought about Cordelia after the first season? Yeah, vapid, empty stereotypical rich b!+ch - and how she changed over the next five to six years.

I kept choking at the Inara as "woman of colour" bit - sure the "orientalist" trappings were used for her, but they were using that in the whole show/film as a coloring for wealth and influence. The more chinese/oriental flavored, the more posh and wealthy and high-class anything was. In my opinion the author would have done better to note the point and its weaknesses and move on, instead she chose to close her article using that as a concluding point.
Interesting, but deeply flawed. I disagreed with most of the conclusions the author reached. For example, I don't think Mal's objection to Inara being a companion had anything to do with his religious upbringing; I believe he saw all the traditions and restrictions imposed on companions as a type of slavery. And she commented how companions are trained to please men, even though Inara takes female clients and in a conversation with Kaylee commented that there are male companions.

Plus there's that whole only-thirteen-episodes thing, but I try not to think about that too much.
I found the essay very convoluted, so much so that I could only get through half of it. The repeated use of the term "woman of colour" kept distracting me from what I was reading and, whether it was intentional or not, put a spin on the essay that I didn't care for.

I understand the author comparing Inara's status as companion to that of a geisha because of the oriental feel to the series but I think perhaps the author discounted the courtesans of the mid-16th century in her discourse on prostitution. Courtesans enjoyed more freedom than was typical of women at the time and were financially stable and independent. Being in control of their own resources meant that they did not need to rely on their spouses or male relatives to survive, as was the case for the majority of women.

That's how I percieved the role of Inara.
menomegirl, good point. and i agree with all of you in this essay and the way it was presented. I actually prefer the essay that was in "Finding Serenity" edited by Jane Espensen. That was a great essay that looked at Inara and the Companions.
I cited this article in a Firefly paper I wrote last semester (that I will be trying to get published soon). I wish this article had been available online then--I had to use interlibrary loan to get it.

I didn't address the main points of the essay, as they weren't relevant to my topic. I mostly just used her quote about nobody questioning Zoe and Kaylee's competence to help illustrate the world the show is set in gender-role-wise.
I didn't find this article quite as objectionable as some of you did, although I agree the "woman of colour" issue was particularly forced. I thought the author raised some good points, at least within the context of the literature she was referencing and the argument she set up. And, while Inara's character undoubtedly would have been developed had there been more Firefly episodes or Serenity sequels, the author is dealing with the series and movie as existing texts -- and that is perfectly valid.

For me the problem is that, while Joss has identified himself as a feminist, I don't think he has ever defined that as an academic feminist might, nor would he necessarily consider anything he has done as "postfeminist." These are the author's restrictions, not his. And I do find it problematic to isolate one character out of an ensemble and try to define that character alone as feminist or pre-feminist or postfeminist. Since Joss is writing an ensemble drama in which there are characters that must embody a variety of character traits, whether good, evil, or that vast grey area between, it seems to me that he needs characters like Inara to make the "normalcy" of Zoe and Kaylee more clearly defined. I don't say that to limit Inara to this author's characterization, but one can only clearly define characters by contrast with their opposites. Mal is certainly defined by his contrast with Jayne, Wash, and Simon, and I would hesitate to isolate him as a representative of some academic model or another.
Interesting read but most, if not all, of the racial stuff was very reachy IMO (personally I wasn't aware that 'women of colour' - not sure about that term either - were portrayed as sexually voracious in general and that certainly wasn't how Zoe was represented, usually the pride Wash took in being her husband was shown as because she was a tough soldier, not because she was ethnically Afro-Caribbean) and I agree with others that Oriental trappings were sometimes used as a sign of status not 'otherness' (doesn't Yosaffbridge's chap in 'Trash' have an oriental style outfit on - though obviously less ornate than Inara's ?). Some of the sex points seemed to cherry pick too.

For instance she talks about Kaylee's 'sexual innocence' and implies she's a 'good girl' and even mentions 'Out of Gas' but neglects to point out that, chronologically at least, the first time we meet Kaylee (in OoG) she's having casual sex with Bester up against a bulkhead and IIRC the morality of it isn't even commented on. Regardless of it, Kaylee is still presented as being the most innocent crew member throughout the series, just not sexually innocent (her attitude to sex is presented time and again as being healthily open and unashamed - though she is shown to be romantically inexperienced).

(it's a valid point about the gallant old gent's put down of the nasty girl in 'Shindig' but we know a lot of the worlds in the 'verse are patriarchal, he's just a representative of that)

The 'limited range of clients' also seems a reach. We don't see Mal smuggling his wobbly headed dolls but he still did it. Likewise, though the run of the show is set over a period of months, the fact Inara hasn't had a client in three weeks is noteworthy i.e. she apparently usually meets clients more regularly which implies she has more than we see).

Still, it makes you think about prostitution and whether it can ever be a completely free choice for a woman so not worthless.

[ edited by Saje on 2007-06-04 23:01 ]
it makes you think about prostitution and whether it can ever be a completely free choice for a woman...

Woman: "I want to be a prostitute."

Government: "You don't know what you want. You can trade sex for fancy dinners or jewelry, but not for cash."

Does that seem right to you?
The problem with this analysis is the problem that we all have with Firefly, we never got to see how the story played out.

It seems obvious to me that Inara and the companions have some other agenda beyond their apparent profession.

They obviously believe that giving people a satisfying sex life is a virtuous act. They also seem to realise that this will entail some psychological discomfort on their own part. They are prepared to do this as a sacrifice rather than for profit or for pleasure. I think this is a metaphor for a, hidden, larger purpose where they are prepared to make the sacrifice of being companions in order to carry out some larger benefit to human society.
Or, companions could be like the Bene Gesserit in "Dune." They contribute to politics, have an active role in how things are run and wield a ton of power.

Helpless? Not at all.
I have to agree that my biggest problem with the analysis is that we didn't get to see how Inara would have evolved. We knew very little of her past, and frankly didn't get to see THAT much of her present either.

Of course I'm a bit too tired to get through that entire essay at the moment so I may have more to say later, but at this point I'm finding I'm not agreeing with it.
What do the feminists say about prostitution? Is it a woman's right to choose? I suppose this is a sticky subject.
Mal is certainly defined by his contrast with Jayne, Wash, and Simon, and I would hesitate to isolate him as a representative of some academic model or another.


I so agree that a critique of one Whedon character w/o context is bogus, but when I was teaching American Lit and Mythology, I thought that Mal embodied the Modern American Hero – disillusioned with society’s morals & values, having a well defined personal code, distrustful of “civilization” and preferring the frontier. And the first scene of the pilot makes his youthful faiths and the subsequent slaughter of same, so clear.

Then there’s Inara, whose hole existence is creating illusions, and she’s not at all cynical about it. And there’s the possibility of a relationship, which if it turned out to be an illusion, would be bug-on-the-windshield crushing. Plus with the codes for companions and all her social acceptability, she’s like an embodiment of the alliance always under Mal’s skin.

I also had the idea that the Companion Guild was controlled by women so that the “regulations” were theirs, and possibly a conscious effort to separate themselves from the exploitive nature of common prostitution.

Most of all, though, as an intelligent, independent minded female, I’m getting tired of this chicken-little rhetoric painting Joss as an evil, genius in Gloria Steinem’s pumps trying to brainwash us back to the 50's.
Although I take issue with the author's tendency to make hasty generalizations concerning certain characters, and attaching on to red herrings in her main argument, it still makes for an interesting essay on the question of prostitution, freedom and independence within prostitution, and the stigma that the media and pop culture attaches to whoring.

I don't think Inara is a wasted opportunity in the context of the amount of time she was on air for. In the Firefly world, she represents the post-feminists - she presents an overly feminine side of herself, and exudes self confidence, but chooses a profession that is considered chauvinist and patriarchal in a modern context, as well as a Western one. She casts these aspects out of her prostitution by adding feminity to the experience, as well as eastern spirituality and her apparent free will within her role as Companion.

Zoe, on the other hand, represents the feminist woman, and needs no explanation (she is the closest thing to Buffy in Firefly, and I wouldn't classify Buffy as post-feminist), whereas Kaylee would probably fall under the pre-feminist category of women. She is the innocent, (usually) shy female that waits for the men to make advances on her, and is a victim of both violence and sexual predatory acts in a variety of situations.

I think the whole race thing is a little far fetched, though.

Just my two cents. Interesting read though.
I'll have to try getting through the entire piece when I'm not so sleepy, but I will say in the first half-page I already see I'm going to take issue with some of the same things others have already mentioned.

On a personal note, I don't think Inara's profession, or its genuine significance as a commentary on contemporary feminism, can be fairly and accurately evaluated outside the context of the world she inhabits; because we can't know the complete conditions or perimeters of that world (due to the show's cancellation and the lack of concrete information about her profession and self beyond any existing episodes), the fullness of what Inara Serra is and represents can only be a pale symbol of her real meaning within the Firefly-verse.

Evaluating her on the basis of the text is valid, but we know from the series that Inara was a maverick among her own kind, which means she isn't an ideal candidate to represent all individuals of her profession, especially insofar as that representation relies on our contemporary definition (and agreement) of what 'feminist' means.

I will say that as a strong woman in difficult circumstances, jettisoned for reasons unknown from the security of her Guild into a rough world outside her more refined experience, Inara seems to have made her way pretty well thus far in the face of some tremendous odds. I can only admire her; I'm not sure how successful I'd be in similar circustances.

Incidentally, Jet Set Lara, a real-life, very highly paid courtesan who lives the life Inara Serra might have once been accustomed to, has been compared to the character -- and as a fan of both Inara and the show, greatly appreciates the compliment.
Shouldn't that headline read "Tis pity she completely fails to embody any of the possibilities that a valorisation of whoredom might open up, thereby paving the way for a postfeminist politics of prostitution."?

Less snappy, I agree.
What do the feminists say about prostitution? Is it a woman's right to choose?


Feminism is an incredibly varied belief system and there is a huge debate among different camps about prostitution. Often women who feel strongly one way or the other on either side of the debate go so far as to consider anyone who doesn't agree with them to not truly be a feminist. But prostitution, or any form of sex work, exists within a very long continuum and the argument about choice really factors far more into what end of the spectrum a particular person is working, not about the industry as a whole. In other words, the argument has a lot more to do with class than with women as a whole.

I didn't get a chance to finish the paper but though I thought it was fairly well-written I was also bothered by the "woman of color" references. Not because I think the argument is necessarily invalid but because the character was not written as a woman of color, right? Wasn't Morena Baccarin only cast after the filming had started? I thought it was originally cast with Rebecca Gayheart.
There's a brief scene in one of the episodes where we find Shepherd Book kneeling at the feet of a standing Inara, and she reaches out and gently places her hand on his bowed head...
oh yeah, over four or five seasons Joss was definitely going somewhere big with this issue!
havok--I don't know about characterizing Kaylee as "pre-feminist." She does have that innocence & that "tomboy who wants to be a princess" thing going on, but she's also an extremely competent mechanic with a healthy sexual appetite. Not an image of woman I ever saw when I was growing up in "pre-feminist" days. In the scene from OoG mentioned above, not only is she not punished for having casual sex (as female characters usually are), she's actually rewarded for it with a new job. And her relationship with Inara is so unusual on screen, too. Instead of viewing this beautiful sexy woman as a rival for male attention, she loves and admires her. Very refreshing.

ZodKneelsFirst, I love your new title.

I so whole-heartedly & unhappily agree with everyone here who is saying that Inara's arc had much much further to go. I recently finished re-watching Angel from beginning to end & just re-started Buffy, and I've been marveling at the character arcs (of even a minor character like Anne). To think where Joss could have gone with Inara. Giant sigh.
Wonderful comments. I haven't made it all the way through the essay yet, but of course my back goes up seeing Joss getting thwacked around the head and shoulders for a storyline he never got a chance to complete. There is, in my humble opinion, loads of spirituality in Inara's chosen profession. She performs her job with beauty, dignity and grace. And, she is cussedly stubborn and independent. Just to make a point about a couple of the passages I took exception to (because I dislike generalizations).

The essayist writes that the Councilor says the following:

One can never be oneself, in the company of men. That's not what the script says. Inara has that dialogue and she does not say never. She says: If I choose a woman, she tends to be extraordinary in some way. And the fact is, I occasionally have the exact same need you do. One cannot always be one's self in the company of men. Then the Councilor says, Never, actually.

Out of this exchange the essayist writes, "This implies that all (emphasis mine) of Inara's encounters with her male clients involve a 'performance' of femininity at odds with Inara's true self. Inara's dialogue doesn't suggest that at all.

Then there's this one, regarding Inara's session with the Councilor: "That no such parallel scenes are shown when Inara services her male clients, indicates that the point of these shots is not to advance the narrative but to offer up psuedo-lesbian pleasure for the male viewer."

Hah! Boy, that old chestnut makes me laugh. And how does this privileged glimpse into Inara's world not advance the narrative? It goes hand in hand with what Inara says above about choosing an extraordinary woman for her own needs. And why shouldn't Inara have pleasure? It's stated later on in the episode when Inara risks everything by going to the Councilor to help Mal and Wash, that she is not able, as a Companion, to take a lover. To me, it's backwards thinking that a woman can't take pleasure or provide, yes, the care of a social worker, which in itself is a form of spirituality (in the Wiki for Inara, it states that she is a Buddhist, which is fairly obvious from the temple Mal visits in Serenity).

Then the writer at the very end of the piece, likens Inara to the old Western 'tart with a heart,' and that the "pity" is that Inara has realized that "true happiness lies within the framework of heterosexual romance." I think that's so harsh. I think you fall in love with a person, in this case it happened to be Mal. And who is to say that Inara wasn't happy.

[ edited by Tonya J on 2007-06-05 17:56 ]
I don't even know where to start. I agree with much of what has already been said, and have some points that I would like to add.
First, the implication that the show has racist undertones was BAFFLING to me. Racist because Zoe has good sex with her husband? What? And truthfully, until I read this article and looked up where Morena Baccarin was from (she was born in Brazil FYI) I had not once thought of her as a "woman of color."Actually, I still don't. I honestly think the author is reading into a casting choice that had more to do with the actor in question's ability than her race.
Also, as far as the mention of Inara's time with the Councilor and how the viewer never sees a similar encounter with one of her male clients, I say: What about the first time we ever see Inara? The scene with Inara and her client in Serenity is so erotic that I blush every time I watch it with my parents. And just that she HAS a female client is barely noted by the author! She is a prostitute, subjugated by men oh it's so horrible...except wait, is she subjugated by women as well? Or does the Councilor get a jail out of free card merely because she is a woman, and therefore it is okay for her to pay Inara for sex and have it not be demeaning?
I'm ranting, I'm sorry. As a well educated (at a women's college!) intelligent young woman I found this article more offensive and far less empowering than any one thing that Joss Whedon has produced...including Firefly.
Grrr.
Long post alert:

I agree with so many of the posters. I really feel this paper gets very little right.

IMO the basic premise of this paper, like others of the same type, is flawed. Judging Joss Whedon’s characters in isolation and against any ideological ideal will always yield the same answer. The character will not measure up to that ideal, whatever it may be. Joss Whedon does not write ideal characters, he writes characters that are flawed and conflicted and very human. With them he explores the truths about humanity and society rather than producing propaganda. So my basic objection is that the paper is lazy. IMO, it proves Inara is not what she was never meant to be.

The paper acts as though the show is unconscious of the controls over Inara and her body that she is shown submitting to. Some of what I love about Joss Whedon’s work is the way that he exposes us and our society. Doesn’t it make more sense that the writers were very aware of the constrictions that Inara was living under, and that they were saying something about it? Just because it is on the screen without a big banner saying “This is bad.” it does not mean that it is supposed to be viewed as good.

For me Inara personifies the way that female sexuality is molded and controlled by society for its own ends. The Alliance is presented as patriarchal and male dominated. Its society puts forth the fiction that Inara is respected for being the good girl, following the rules, hiding her true feelings, making clients fell good about themselves and doing everything she was taught. However, every time she is in the presence of men high on the social scale, the veneer slips and their disrespect for her comes through. She is insulted and the value of everything she has to offer in any way other than as a sex object is completely ignored or denigrated.

Inara is obviously conflicted, but I never thought that the conflict has to do with a desire for "heterosexual romance" or monogamy as the paper suggests. IMO she recognizes the fiction. She is rarely shown truly enjoying herself and there are signs of a suppressed urge to rebel against her training throughout the series.

Inara’s friend who runs the whorehouse is the rebel version of Inara. She is the woman Inara is one huge step away from being. Inara has been inching closer and closer to losing her respectability as the show continued. Rebelling is obviously something that attracts Inara, otherwise she would not have come to the rim and rented Mal’s shuttle. That attraction, however, is also something she refuses to give in to, just as she refuses to give into her attraction to the show’s main rebel, Mal. I do not think that Inara is crying in response to Mal having sex with someone else. I think she is crying at seeing the rebel version of herself take an opportunity that she, the respectable one, would not. She wants to be free of her constraints but either because of how ingrained her training is or something else we do not know about, she will not allow herself to.

The racial stuff also bugs me. We have discussed all this here before. There are many things I would have liked to have seen in casting concerning the lack of Asian faces, but the things that this paper chose were just counter-productive. When the criticisms that are made in this paper are presented to the money men in show business as a concern of the general public, non-white casting takes a hit and minority actors pay the price. It is just easier and less dangerous to try to avoid being accused of racism by only casting non-whites in minor 2 dimensional roles like the sidekick or the boss. As soon as you cast non-white actors as multidimensional, flawed and complex characters, you open yourself up to this kind of accusation. Make any character in Firefly a person of color and you can claim racism of one kind or another. Making them all white starts looking safer.

Jubal Early is no where near the racist stereotype of the African-American villain that is implied in the paper. That stereotype is an out of control, African-American Jayne. Jubal Early’s actions were thought out and focused to achieve the most result for the least risk. Because the threatened rape was in the script, to avoid the appearance of racism should actual racism have been used in the casting by excluding all African-American actors from consideration? Since producers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, I would rather minority actors be getting work and audiences be getting the best performances possible. Unfortunately the money-men do not usually look at it that way.

I’m glad I read this because by thinking about all the things I felt the paper got wrong; my own opinions became much more focused. I do really wish people would stop putting producers in a no win racial situation, however.

End long post alert. (You were warned.)
I love all the posts and comments people have made, as they're are just as interesting as reading any essay. I would think that most discourses on Inara would be tricky for the very reason of not having much information on her history or present state, as there is obviously a great deal there that would have added much more depth and intrigue into not only Inara herself, but Companions as a whole.

It would seem obvious there is much more to their agenda than simply providing pleasure, and the amount on classified information, political knowledge and connections they would gain would be staggering.

If she reminds me of anyone it is certainly those courtesans, such as Madame de Pompadour, she was an incredibly educated, intelligent and influential woman, at no one's beck and call and lived with more freedom, as mentioned already, than most women of that period.

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