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February 21 2009

Sex Work, Firefly and Audience Engagement. A sex worker critically assesses the Companions in Firefly. Worth reading.

Interesting and there are some good/interesting points, though I have a number of criticisms of the criticism as well, that I don't have time to go into. Looking forward to seeing some discussion of it, however. In addition, the link within the link to the Racialicious post on Firefly has many problems.
I agree. I thought the author made some good points, but I also think Joss wasn't presenting an ideal, and he at least attempts to address the classist issue in the 'Heart of Gold' episode. However, I do think it would have been interesting for Joss to get more of the perspective of those working in the sex industry.
I read the whole article. I'm sorry, blah blah blah. When I read articles like this that try to dissect a show that I love, it irritates me.
I got a headache just reading it.
Why try to be so lofty. It's just good television. Enjoy it for what it is.

But my own personal opinion is this....whore is a bad name that someone puts on you trying to demean you or belittle you.
We know Inarra is not a whore no matter what her profession is.
I read the whole article. I'm not sorry, I thought the author was pretty insightful in explaining how even well-meaning attempts to subvert stereotypes can actually betray the very ignorance and prejudice that the author is purporting to confront. When I read articles like this that try to dissect the work of a writer I love, I appreciate their ability to remind me that joss is just a writer and not some kind of feminist white knight.

Why try to be so lofty. It's just good television. Enjoy it for what it is.

Funny how this is exactly the kind of dismissive comment that seems to come up anytime a social critic actually criticizes joss' take on sociology. At least we managed to get it out of the way right at the beginning of the thread.
I thought that was a great essay. The reclaiming/unshaming of the label "whore" (rather than distancing from it) rang true for me as soon as I read it.

madmolly - I suggest not reading.
I don't need to read this article. I know that the Companions are grounded in historical concubines and geishas, not modern whores, so anything comparing the two is a waste of time, IMHO. She really doesn't have any legitimate knowledge to contribute. If it was a historian who studied geishas or concubines or something like that, then I would read it.
I don't need to read this article. I know that the Companions are grounded in historical concubines and geishas, not modern whores, so anything comparing the two is a waste of time, IMHO. She really doesn't have any legitimate knowledge to contribute. If it was a historian who studied geishas or concubines or something like that, then I would read it.

Yeah, because it's not like a common whore would actually have any meaningful insight on the subject of ... whores. I'll reiterate what I just said about dismissive comments. Had you actually deigned to listen to the thoughts of this particular common whore, you'd have learned what she thought of your own distinction between "special" concubines and geishas and "common" whores.

[ edited by BrewBunny on 2009-02-21 20:13 ]
There is a huge distinction. And I'm not differentiating between common whores and concubines, though there is a huge difference, but modern whores and historical concubines.

edit: To elaborate, modern prostitutes (I assume) are not trained in instruments, poetry, dancing etc. They are not a sign social status for a noble or wealthy person. Calling historical concubines (be they from France or Japan) whores is untrue, as they differed greatly from both the average prostitute at the time and today.

[ edited by SteppeMerc on 2009-02-21 20:30 ]
There is a huge distinction. And I'm not differentiating between common whores and concubines, though there is a huge difference, but modern whores and historical concubines.

Huh? Just re-read your post and think I get what you're trying to say. And again I say that if you actually bothered to read what this whore has to say, you'd know what she thinks of that exact distinction.

[ edited by BrewBunny on 2009-02-21 20:30 ]
I personally (can't speak for anyone else) am not trying to be dismissive. I think good points are made, but while the article acknowledges the approach and intent of Joss' work on the subject to some extent it also disregards it in other important ways. It is important and interesting to compare and contrast the geisha/concubine/whore aspects of it, and those are different things. I think some of the arguments are a little bit strawman ("Sexwork already DOES involve more than sex!" strikes me as a useless argument given what Joss was and was not saying with Firefly's companions, a word to which the protesting seems a bit too much).

The constant implication that the things Joss chooses to mention as important aspects of Inara's work implies that he thinks these are things absent from existing sextrade is a bit of a leap. I'm also generally of the opinion that while the opinion of someone grounded in a profession/skill/lifestyle/hobby is important, it comes with its own set of blinders. Its important to be grounded by but not limited by these things. I find it useful to look at an opinion grounded in X as well as one completely not grounded in it and try to objectively divine what blinders each side is wearing. I also think that its important to remember that this is a living, breathing world that is not ours, so there is divergence that needs to be at least understood, if not accepted.

Also, that anything Joss has to say about sexwork is being done in the confines of a 1 hour sci-fi drama, which will be different by necessity (of tone, pacing, character motivation, plotting, and arc) from what he might have to say about it/seem to be saying about it if he were to write an essay on the subject. I accept that I, Joss, and all of us have our own different experiences that will, of course, change our approach to, understanding of and arguments about any subject. In any case, like I said, good article, but it seems to make some arguments that are good and interesting and some that are tenuous at best.

I think that assuming an author is supportive of everything portrayed in a work (classism and associated inequities, for example) is a huge mistake, especially in a work cut drastically short. Likewise with what a certain segment of fandom says/does/thinks. I do think the article comes around in the end to something more of us can probably agree on - Inara and her work are a more realistic depiction than many people think and that has its pros/cons - whether its a subtle reinforcement of things that are wrong with the trade today, I'll leave up to folks who are experiencing it. To me, it never seemed like it was portraying some lofty ideal of prostitution so I am left disagreeing with many of the arguments. I am, however, glad to have read the article.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2009-02-21 21:33 ]
As someone with a very strong belief in monogamy, (though I've not yet had a chance to put that belief into practice,) this was an interesting article to read. In the perfect future I sometimes imagine humanity eventually achieving, prostitution doesn't exist - but I find neither it nor its practitioners to be evil or inferior.

This article didn't seem to address Heart of Gold at all, which I felt was a major failing for something which was analyzing this aspect of Firefly so specifically. My expectation of Firefly was that it would do what Joss' shows typically do: set up the stereotypes with its characters firmly bound by them, and later have those characters break free and take ownership of their own fates. Willow started out believing in the stereotype of the nerd and letting that be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but broke free and self-actualized; Giles viewed himself as the Watcher, a distant and remote force guiding or controlling Buffy, but gradually evolved to more of a paternal relationship with her.

I think Inara's journey would have been realizing that the structure of the Guild was classist, and did marginalize less fortunate whores; indeed, she seemed to have taken the first several steps down that path already, and it may well have been her motivation for fleeing Sihnon. Certainly, Mal had many potentially insightful things to say about Companionship, though his presentation was likely sub-optimal. The hints for a development that would have been less objectionable to this sex worker, I would argue, were already in place.

One thing that seems certain when Joss starts a character - perhaps the only such - is that that character won't end up in the same place he started.
SteppeMerc... I think you may be confusing concubines with courtesans. A concubine wasn't neccessarily any more than a sex slave, mistress, or secondary wife; while a courtesan was a high-class prostitute that was typically well versed in literature, history, & politics and who acted as a social and intellectual companion as well as a bed mate. While a concubine MIGHT offer a man more than her body, doing so wasn't an intrinsic part of concubinage.
Yes. Yes I was. While I was typing it I figured it wasn't quite the right word but I couldn't get it. I was indeed thinking courtesan. That is why only people who are qualified to talk about such things ought to, morons like me messing up the words. ;)
This article didn't seem to address Heart of Gold at all, which I felt was a major failing for something which was analyzing this aspect of Firefly so specifically. My expectation of Firefly was that it would do what Joss' shows typically do: set up the stereotypes with its characters firmly bound by them, and later have those characters break free and take ownership of their own fates.

Interesting point. Inara definitely did start off the series distinguishing between her own elevated status of "companion" and that of common "whores." I recall one of the terrific essays in Finding Serenity that observed that Inara's power and status was really something of an illusion insofar as she really only had as much power and status as she was allowed to have by the social structure in which she operated (that of the Alliance-sanctioned Guild) and only so long as she complied with its paternalistic and male-protective requirements (such as those of the required medical exams). It would have been interesting to see if, as the series might have played out, Inara would have rejected the socially-constructed that she initially embraced and instead come to appreciate Mal calling her a "whore."
The problem with any discussion of Inarra is that the series was cut short before we had any good idea of what the Companions Guild actually was.

I can't imagine a Whedon series where they didn't turn out to have some hidden purpose that would be revealed as the series progresses. I also can't imagine that they would not turn out to have some flaws as an organisation that Inarra would have come into conflict with.

Many 'whores' are doing sex work to support children, as single mothers. Some others do it because they are drug addicts. In either case they would not describe themselves as 'whores' but as a 'mother' or 'addict' who does sex work as a job to support themselves.

We know Inarra uses sex as part of what she is doing but we don't know what her full purpose is. I think Mercenary is right to say that the article should have dealt with 'Heart of Gold'. Perhaps if the series had continued some of the characters might have reappeared and introduced some debate with Inarra about their status as compared to hers.
Thinking about that last comment again, I'm thinking you're more and more right, Mercenary. The author's point seems to be that even though Joss is purportedly trying to give a positive spin on sex work through Inara's example of a sex worker who is not some strung-out crack whore who gets beaten up by her domineering pimp, he's actually kind of undermining real-life sex workers who come without all the "companion" bells and whistles, instead just simply f*** for money. But Nandi serves as a good foil for Inara's supposed elevated stature. While Inara's power comes from playing by someone else's rules, Nandi's power comes from playing with her own. By totally ignoring Nandi, the author overlooks a great example of a sexworker who is about nothing more than f***ing for money, and only on her own terms, which is exactly the sort of thing the author is looking for.
I'm on board with zeitgeist. I think the article makes some very good points and makes a convincing case that on a societal level, the fact of "whores" and "prostitutes" being invariably looked upon unfavourably is a closed-minded thing. But does FF actually support this? Note that while Mal constantly reminds Inara that she is "a whore," he has no issue with Nandi--it's not the exchange of sexual pleasure for pay that is his problem, but the classism and government interference and the pretension that Mal attacks in Inara and her whole society, the exact same features that the author's article finds fault with. The show sends a lot of mixed messages about Inara's occupation, really (compare "Shindig" with "heart of Gold"....) and I don't think there was enough time to get a full idea on what the perspective actually was.
I found the article incredibly over-written, more of a rant than an argument. I understood her (was it a her?) points eventually, but I thought they would have been better made if she'd provided anecdotal examples of her viewpoint and then compared them to Firefly.

I agree with Mercenary. "Heart of Gold" really examined this issue, both the male "ownership" and the female empowerment. Also, in "Shindig" Mal had that line about the difference between insulting Inara's work and insulting Inara. I can see where this article is coming from, and it made some decent observations about our society--but Joss was creating a society that commented on ours, and to do that he would have needed more than 14 episodes.

I'm not saying Joss is perfect and from what I've heard/read in interviews, neither is he, but I wonder if this article would have been written if Firefly were in its seventh season.
The article did seem to have some decent points, but mostly it just felt like a babble. I got about half way but then I realized I really hadn't read anything but rambling from the last couple of paragraphs, and then I just skipped the rest.

Sure, maybe the portrait of Inara was not fully supporting the rights of todays sex workers but come on, the show was a scifi-western with 9 people + the ship, the 'just a television' comment is highly valid: the main thing is to entertain. And seriously, is it Joss's fault that he is a white heterosexual male? Are the minorities the only ones that are allowed to support minorities? Sorry, some interesting ideas, but I'm not sold.
I really liked this article. The over-written aspect didn't detract from some clearly-stated strong points, and I'd really like the author to get some respect for writing this POV out in full, rather than this general dismissiveness.

Some angles in Whedon's work have indescribably struck me as off, and not the best effort or representation as a progressive model in terms of gender politics, classism, or race discrimination. The discussion over at the Racialicious article also brings up some good points, though the issue there seems more cut-and-dried.

To build on some of the author's points regarding women's sexual empowerment or sex phobia, I think there's a visible Whedon trend of prioritizing story-serving ideals, and I remember Whedon had a quote on story creators not "having an agenda"; it reminds me of old discussions about the BTVS "sex is bad" issue.

Watching Firefly, the Guild was a thing that didn't seem to be serving as a shining example of rightness, but also not as a paternalistic hey-here's-where-society-has-problems presence like the Watcher's Council. It seemed more benign and moral; given more screen-time, it may've turned out to be a well-meaning guild/union in the most basic way- meant to secure sex workers' rights. It had flaws, of course, and I'm confident Whedon would've exploited that and made with the power shiftage. Dollhouse, at least, has grabbed onto the issue of people owning their own bodies before it has a chance to be left unaddressed.

I'll be looking more closely at Whedon's approach to these issues in Dollhouse anyway, since he does seem to improve upon, or act with a heightened awareness of these issues as he continues. I dearly love Buffy and Firefly, and I do believe they're a giant step in the right direction, but it never hurts to see where some details could've been better tackled.

[ edited by Jav on 2009-02-21 23:54 ] Gah, edited for grammar-suckage.

[ edited by Jav on 2009-02-21 23:55 ]
I really liked this article.


Me too which is why I posted the link. It felt like something new which is quite rare these days in terms of analysing Firefly. I'd be interested to see the author's take on Dollhouse.
Like I said there were parts I liked, but I don't feel it was all that new. At times it reminded me uncomfortably of the "Joss Whedon Is A Rapist" livejournal entry that got linked and deleted here half a dozen times.
Important topic, muddled argument. The "three main points" she seizes on seem bizarrely heterogeneous. 1) The term "Companion"??? Really? That's one of her major beefs? That just seems like a personal quirk promoted arbitrarily into a principle. 2) The Guild? There she's the one being ethnocentric in saying that "whores don't like registration" because it means being exploited by corrupt officials. Yeah, maybe it does in your country. But there are now and have been historically plenty of places where "registered" whores had far, far better protection, healthcare and worker's rights than "unregistered" whores who were dependent on the tender mercies of pimps and violent johns.

The only one where she has, I think, a real point is in 3) the contradictory status of Companions in the Firefly world. There, I think, Joss and his writers just hadn't figured out what they really thought the status of a Companion was, and what that would really mean. Inara is meant to be the one with by far the most prestigious social position of anyone on the ship, and yet it's incredibly easy to insult and degrade her by refererring bluntly to the nature of her work. Something just doesn't add up there, to be sure.

I guess what bugged me most in the piece, though, was this:

There can be no doubt that he is putting genuine effort into presenting women as complex and multi-dimensional characters and that Inara herself succeeds as being sympathetic, likeable, engaging and generally well-portrayed.
However, this does not mean Whedon, as a heterosexual white man, is going to succeed fully in his efforts.


The "as a heterosexual white man" is just so crudely essentialist. I'm not sure that she realizes here that she's saying "straight white men are incapable simply by virtue of being straight white men of not being sexist pigs" or if she does realize and doesn't care. either way, it hardly suggests that she's out to give Joss a fair hearing.
That's one part that reminded me uncomfortanly of the reductionist (or reductio ad absurdum?) lj article I mentioned above. Although that may be giving the lj article too much credit.
The "as a heterosexual white man" is just so crudely essentialist. I'm not sure that she realizes here that she's saying "straight white men are incapable simply by virtue of being straight white men of not being sexist pigs" or if she does realize and doesn't care. either way, it hardly suggests that she's out to give Joss a fair hearing.


At times it reminded me uncomfortably of the "Joss Whedon Is A Rapist" livejournal entry that got linked and deleted here half a dozen times.

Staw man, much? Nowhere in the article did she say anything remotely approaching the sort of specious ad hominem attacks that you're both reading into it. Seriously, it's kind of sad that people would conflate such a relatively mild criticism with that particularly rabid little joss-as-wife-rapist diatribe. Just in case you skimmed over it, you might want to note this little tidbit:

The fact of the matter is, deconstructing a lifetime of embedded education is a subsequently lifelong task. Whedon’s ability to perceive, identify and critique discrimination and prejudice within the genre he writes does not mean he’s going to do it right or perfectly every single time. This is true of anyone with privilege.
I expect more from Whedon because he has named himself as someone desirous of dismantling a lot of negative tropes within the sci-fi/fantasy arena and who has tried to do so.


[ edited by BrewBunny on 2009-02-22 01:36 ]

[ edited by BrewBunny on 2009-02-22 01:37 ]
Staw man, much?

I don't, as it happens, refer to the "joss as wife rapist" diatribe because I've never heard of it. Suggesting that I did when I didn't so as to paint my argument as unreasonable is, ironically, enough, a "straw man."

What I say isn't a "straw man" because I quote her very words and comment on what she actually does say.
Like I said, "reminded me uncomfortably", I'm not conflating the two. They are altogether different animals, though they share faulty logic at points. Because X is Y they cannot understand Z is really not an argument that ever flies with me, so the "as a heterosexual man" == fail. Stating absolutes like "this is true of anyone with privilege" is also demonstrably false. More likely? Sure. True as in always true? Not at all. Again, I'm not conflating the two and kept my general unease about that particular statement to a secondary post away from my actual arguments. Its not a straw man in my case, either.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2009-02-22 01:39 ]
Uh, where did she say that white men are fated to be sexist pigs? But seriously, if this essay made you feel uncomfortable, some might say that's a good thing.
Firefly was a slice of society (outer planets, seedier clients and criminals), not a whole. We have to imagine Companion life would be far different on Ariel than it would be with the hill-folk of Jiangyin. I remember complaints about a space-faring society having horses and low-tech farming communities, these same people conveniently forget when we do see the floating-city, hi-tech stun gun worlds of the inner planets. To put it another way, do we revile "The Sopranos" because it doesn't reflect people who live like "The Waltons"?
Yes, I agree, faulty logic and flawed premises and arguments that ignore part of the dataset should make me uncomfortable. While she doesn't say he is fated to be a sexist pig, she does say that because he is a white heterosexual male, he will not be able to succeed completely in making fully rendered, multi-dimensional characters where women and minorities are concerned. I do agree with the follow on point that just because he is trying doesn't mean that he gets a free pass, I just also don't think that being a Causasian who likes women and has a penis prevents him from ever having a truly valid point to make when it comes to those who are not Caucasian, heterosexual or male. Being able to empathize with those who are unlike us is a valuable (and actual, existing, I swear) trait of human beings and dealing with the "Other" is one of Joss' persistent themes.
Eh. Never mind. You boys are right. Joss is like the most awesome-est feminist ever!!!
Seriously? You can type that after reading what I wrote? And to do it with "you boys" is either particularly egregious and diminutive or exceptionally cheeky. In which case "how dare you" or "bravo". I don't think he's the most awesome-est feminist ever and is entirely deserving of criticism. I just feel that while the article raised some good points, it fell back to some (as snot mentioned) unnecessarily reductionist tactics and uses absolutes which is rarely a good idea. I just don't think that the article is above criticism, either.
I found the article a very interesting read. This is the first time I've read the insights of a sex worker on the subject of Companions in general, and Inara in particular.

As with any creative expression, whether it be writing, art, music, etc., the work is a reflection of its creator. One of the observations that seemed to evoke the strongest emotions for the writer was the idea of elitism, class, and how that perception translates to the elevated stature of a Companion, or the more lowly position of a working class whore... and that there is an intrinsically different "value" placed on the services of each.

At a certain point I was equating her insights to my own work as a freelance artist. Sometimes I take on work that may not be my creative dream project, but a gal has to pay the rent. So as long as the project is not violating some personal standard, I do a professional job and make it the best that I am able to in order to please the client.

I noted that the author argued that the importance placed on the education of a Companion, notably the psychological training, somehow meant that they possessed skills of relating emotionally to their clients in ways that regular "whores" were not capable. She pointed out that sex workers do have psychological skills that are honed from experience and skills of observation that come from practicing their work. Again, I can relate to this in that I am a self taught artist who has gained a wealth of knowledge from years of real world experience. I may not have a degree from a school, but I've learned by doing, and operate at a level that is equal to, or greater, than what a school would have offered. Like the author, I also take exception to the perception that skills and knowledge gained from attaining a degree are automatically superior to real world experience and practice.

The author discussed the aspect of elitism and class with respect to the Companions and regular "whores". She mentioned how the differences in class translate to the assumptions made about the differences in services offered by each type of sex worker. I did understand her objections and appreciated her insights as to how this perception tends to perpetuate misconceptions. Also there is the aspect of contemporary views transplanted onto a futuristic society, and it can be distressing to see the misconceptions still existing. Well, maybe that's part of the fundamental situation with human beings as a species. We keep trying to make strides to become more enlightened, but we still fall back on very ingrained behavior. Heck, maybe it's in our DNA to keep having certain class structures, snobbery, societal structures. It goes back to our earliest lineage... get a group of humans together and an Alpha will take over, with the rest of the individuals finding their own place in the pecking order. So the elitism and classism in Firefly is there because humans are there, we can't seem to help ourselves from that kind of behavior.
So the elitism and classism in Firefly is there because humans are there, we can't seem to help ourselves from that kind of behavior.


Too true.
My apologies for offending your sensibilities, zeitgeist. But yes, seriously, when I read this:

It could be argued, consequently, that Firefly’s depiction of sex work is an authentic one. On some levels, it is. Certainly, in Inara he created a vivid and well-rounded character.

Unfortunately, the societal perception is that what we see of sex work in Firefly is not realistic and not evocative of the experience of sex workers - that it is a hypothetical ideal. Ultimately, Firefly is not aware or critical enough of the common social consciousness around sex work to fully deconstruct it; instead it engages with established misperceptions and subtly promotes them.

It is not the worst depiction of sex work in media today; but it is far from ideal.

and then read this reductionist response:

I'm not sure that she realizes here that she's saying "straight white men are incapable simply by virtue of being straight white men of not being sexist pigs" or if she does realize and doesn't care.

it's kind of hard not to feel like getting a little cheeky. Or maybe it was seeing this crap on one of my other tabs up in firefox right now that sent me into a fit of feminist hysteria and I took it out on an innocent bystander.

[ edited by BrewBunny on 2009-02-22 02:34 ]
Wow. What the f*ck. Seriously? That is insulting to everyone, pretty much. Impressive.

On the reductionist thing, however, is fighting reductionism with reductionism fair game or not? I honestly do believe that she is saying he is inherently incapable of sidestepping the traditional sex or race related blunders/tropes/whatever you want to call them because of his race/sexual preference/class and I'm optimistic enough to refuse to believe that that is so. I don't believe that the oppressed are essentially incapable of racism or sexism either.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2009-02-22 02:43 ]
I disagree, z. I think she asked the very fair question of whether a privileged white heterosexual male knew enough about the world of sex work to represent it honestly and positively. Then she went on for many, many paragraphs about the ways in which the ostensibly positive depiction of companions in the world of Firefly ("companions are classy") are in her view a way of subtlely reinforcing all of the negative stereotypes that we hold about sex work in our own world ("whores are cheap sluts"). And ultimately concluded that in this case, if Joss was aiming to make us view sex work in our own world in a positive way, he didn't quite hit the mark. Which is quite different than saying that "all men are sexist pigs" and "Joss wants to rape his wife."

BTW, I had pretty much the same reaction to that poll as you did. Only probably louder.
:) The interesting thing to me is that the answer to whether privileged straight white guy knew enough to represent the sextrade honestly and positively appears to be: he ended up presenting it as it is today rather than as it should be. And I regret bringing up the lj article. I wasn't trying to conflate that two, I swear; rather to say that there is a logic gap in both that make me uneasy because it felt to me like this article said that he was doomed to fail because of his gender/sexual identity and class, which the rest of the article decries. That gave me some cognitive dissonance. I'll go ahead and rescind any mention of the lj as it is more problematic than productive in our discussion. Even mentioning it gives it too much credit.
Much appreciated, z. :-) That particular screed shouldn't be treated as representative of feminist criticism any more than one of Ann Coulter's screeds should be treated as serious conservative political commentary. If anything, that banshee is probably what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he referred to "howling hermaphrodites." But that would be a mean thing to say about hermaphrodites, so on second thought I'll take that last bit back.
:) Cheers, BrewBunny, always a pleasure. You are absolutely correct re: representative commentary and I want to be clear that I did not at any time believe the lj to be in any way representative of normal feminist criticism.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2009-02-22 03:31 ]
I struggled to read all of it. Maybe I'm used to scientific essays which are concise and get to the point very quickly, but I found it hard to find any evidence base opinions in the first few pages, which put me off reading the rest. I was kind of skim reading it I will admit, but nothing jumped out at me at all, besides a very vague generalised "Joss tried, but failed, and should stop getting so much credit for being a feminist writer" Which is nothing I haven't seen before, and more concisely written. (And before anyone complains about my critiquing, it's no less than what the author of this essay is doing to Joss' work)

I am sure there were good arguments in there somewhere, but I just couldn't be bothered wading through pages of "loftiness", as someone put it up above, to get to it.
zeitgeist: ... he ended up presenting it as it is today rather than as it should be.

Which is what he had in mind, that people don't change just because you give them spaceships and put them on a different planet. (Utopia makes boring drama.)

Kinda like how people are missing the point about the Chinese phases in Firefly. A Chinese character speaking Chinese is unremarkable. The non-Chinese characters, all who mix in (English-appropriated) Chinese phrases without a second thought, that is a more interesting concept for someone watching the show today.

Considering it is a critical article, I was hoping for better reasoning. For example:
Re: Inara's social standing
Because it differentiates her from “other” types of sex workers. It elevates her above them. For her to be elevated, a negative perception of sex work must first be in place.

By that line of reasoning, because pro players are elevated above players in the minor leagues, there must be a negative perception of baseball in the first place.
I appreciated the meta-ness, and some of the thoughts on being a modern-day sex worker. But I too was disturbed by the "he's a privileged white guy so he can't know" talk.

Really? Then most of our TV writers shouldn't be writing.

I'm also tired of the idea that everything written needs to be Utopian and politically correct.

The very fact that there IS a main character who is treated with love and respect AND is a sex worker is huge. Joss Whedon isn't out to change everything about how the world thinks - he's just trying to tell a story.

If he tried to rally to everyone's cause... we'd never get to the story. Street kids! Sex workers! Lawyers! Coffee shop workers!

And yeah, the article could have done with some breaking up (headlines or something).
I have to assume that based on this article, in a few years time we'll be reading an essay by a person with a blank personality who has new personalities imprinted upon for engagements about how inaccurate Dollhouse is.
My biggest problem with articles like this, as well as ones on racism and gay issues, is that many of them boiles down to the fact that whatever Joss, or any other writer, does he cannot get it right because he is to white, to straight, to male and so on. And the notion that only a sexworker can write "right" about sexwork or only a gay or african american can write "correct" about gays and african americans is as silly as it is common.

The notion that Joss cant write the correct kind of feminism because he is male (we have all stumbled upon that notion) is indeed silly, and in the end very sexist.

This article though had several good points.

[ edited by Satai (with Punsch) on 2009-02-22 17:57 ]
I don't understand why the author finds 'companion' to be a derogatory term. To me, a companion is an equal.

Nor do I understand her repeated need to push that Joss is a "white, heterosexual male." I mean, Joss wasn't a teenage vampire slayer either and THAT story did okay. And I don't know many writers who would consult Equality Now for script advice and input, like he did with DH.

Criticizing that there are different levels of whores in the 'verse is kind of silly. Considering that now, as in Ancient Roman times (who also had to register and have medical checks), you have your high class hookers, who are considered more prestigious than your brothel workers, who trump the streetwalkers- you basically seem to get what you pay for. I'm glad the author aspires to the lofty ideals of sex worker as counsellor, and they do provide a public/community service. But I used to work in an office that faced a brothel, and we'd watch the clientele when we were bored. It was basically get in, get off and get gone. There didn't appear to be much hanging around for high tea and conversations about Nietzsche.

I'm disappointed at the lack of 'Heart of Gold' references, it makes it appear that the author hasn't bothered to fully research the series. Or even the BDM.

IMHO, particularly compared to your CSI's (where the hooker usually ends up stuffed in a garbage bin/floating in a lake/fed through a woodchipper in the first 5 minutes of the episode) I thought Firefly's portrayal of Inara and the companions was extraordinarily sensitive and well depicted.

But like Simon, I am curious to see the author's take on Dollhouse.
Presumably a spelling error/typo by a non-native English speaker ?
You are indeed correct. Sorry 'bout that.
In swedish "American" is spelled with a "k", and almost all hard "c" sounds, like in American or companion, is spelled with a "k". Exept in different loan words and when in a "sch" combination or the like. So sadly its quite easy to forget.
Not in any way a problem Satai (with Punsch), your English is way better than my Swedish ;).

(and I agree with the main point of your post too BTW)
Way back when, it was a counter-culture thing to refer to "Amerika" indicating Kafkaesque dissonance/alienation.

[ edited by toast on 2009-02-22 18:39 ]
Ah, my bad - I wasn't familiar with your screenname and was unaware that you're from across the pond. :-) I should have assumed that, but I've actually come across that spelling recently by some political writers criticizing the possibility that the US is heading down the dark road of socialism that currently plagues lovely countries such as your own. And my compliments on your English too, which is also far better than my Swedish.
I found this a fascinating, articulate article by someone with personal knowledge of the subject. I think she makes some very valid points.

I would like to read her opinion of Dollhouse.
Sidenote - I did find the style to be a bit too... elliptical and indirect? I found the author's more conversational style in the comments to be quite pleasant and in any case I'll be interested in seeing the inevitable zDollhouse post.
I think everyone is missing a rather huge point that this article is missing as well. You're all assuming that Inara is right.

Mal is our lead. He is called a common thief, and he calls Inara a whore because, I feel, a part of him is fighting the word "companion" as well, for the very reasons the author brings up -- that it clouds the issue and separates her above her sister sex workers.

Firefly is not utopian in any regard. It is about how there can be no utopia. Companionship is not a lofty ideal of whoredom just as the Alliance is not Joss's lofty ideal of government. One man's utopia is another man's dictatorship.

Inara and Simon are our outsiders. Until shortly before they got on Mal's ship, they were living in a utopia. Now, after that gov't has messed with River's mind, Simon has had his eyes opened. What never got addressed that I think you all haven't thought about is from what Inara is running. Just because we caught up with her in Serenity on the Guild's planet, don't forget that a registered companion was for some reason flying around in the backend of the system with a thief. Why? Could it be she wants to be far from the Guild's eyes?

The author's ignoring of "Heart of Gold" has to be intentional. She does not seem the type of author that would be willfully uninformed. She's seen the episodes, but the ideas brought up in HOG don't sit with her argument, so they're omitted. This is my conclusion when coupled with the remark about Joss being privileged, heterosexual, and white. Alone, each of these things would be minor annoyances. Together, they ring of bias and agenda.

"Heart of Gold" is the true message about prostitution that Joss's world sends -- the so-called "common whores", given less respect by some, are free. They are under patriarchal rule, just as Inara is (though she is only beginning to show her suspicion of that fact), but by the end (admittedly with male help, but our crew need be involved in some way, and it is the whores who free themselves for the most part) they are entirely free to govern themselves.

Just as Mal is, as long as he can fly.

A utopia, or "a world without sin," is a prison. Total order is shackles. It is nothingness, and it is sterile. Free will is us, being god's instruments of chaos set loose upon his perfect world. That is the real message of Firefly. I wouldn't have it any other way.
Way back when, it was a counter-culture thing to refer to "Amerika" indicating Kafkaesque dissonance/alienation.


I did not know that. So now I can imbue my typos with political Kafka-ness. I like it!

Thanks for the compliments on my English folks. It makes me all blushy. ; )
Really late to this party, but I have to chime in because this is a real pet peeve of mine. The author of the article lost me as soon as she brought up the "heterosexual white male" argument. Actually even before that, because in the (introduction?) of the article, she states, not about Joss specifically but apparently about any man trying to write insightfuly about women, that we should question "what cultural mores have they been inured in and how do these impact their misguided if well intentioned efforts?" Not a totally unfair question, but IMO, the phrasing ("misguided if well intentioned efforts" says it all.

I think this puts her terminal political correctness pretty much up front. I'm not saying she doesn't make any worthwhile points, but this is a real ramble (not all that well written) and I can't get past the impression that there is, in her opinion, no heterosexual white male on the planet, who could possibly come anywhere near an understanding of "genuine" feminism.
To which I say "bah humbug", for all the obvious reasons. Take this line of thought to it's "logical" conclusion, and what you get is that no person separated by gender/race/class/, etc., can ever truly understand anyone except someone else of the same gender/race/class.
Which is a separatist argument that you can never get past.

I also agree that if she was really serious about exploring her subjective objectively, there is no way she would have ignored a discussion of Heart of Gold.
I understand why anyone would be bothered if the idea they take away from an argument is that a white heterosexual male is supposed to be incapable of appreciating or representing well the perspective of someone else. The flaws in that logic are indeed obvious, as everyone is saying.

But I find there to be a very important middle ground, which I tend to think the writer was going for: such a writer does in fact need to cross into different cultural space to represent those experiences well, and is in fact working from something of a disadvantage to do it. Do I happen to think Joss does it very, very well? Yes. Do I think he is perfect all the time? No.

I regret that the author of this post seems to have encountered only one view of fandom--I'm tempted to suggest that, as a non-fan, her understanding of the internal dynamics of fandom is probably limited by her experiences. She's less likely to get immediately why we react off the bat to certain criticisms of Joss, and she may not be aware that he is, in fact, frequently subject to criticism on his feminism.

But the above does not for a second make me dismiss her article and her perspective. And I am in fact trying to show that I approve completely of her acknowledgment that our social contexts, and the ideas we are inured in, etc., are important elements of the ideas we have and the way we express them.

In short: Zeitgeist said:
I honestly do believe that she is saying he is inherently incapable of sidestepping the traditional sex or race related blunders/tropes/whatever you want to call them because of his race/sexual preference/class and I'm optimistic enough to refuse to believe that that is so.


I believe she is that optimistic, too, which is why she referenced the way un-learning our social programming is a life-long journey. It'd be an odd thing to say if you believed someone never could make strides towards deconstructing their own unconscious prejudices.
BrewBunny, can you tell me how you'd respond to an argument that said, patronizingly, that although she tried very hard and managed to do some things very well, so-and-so "as a homosexual black woman," couldn't possibly write a fully convincing or insightful portrayal of, say, the country music scene?

Or is simplistic and reductive essentialism only bad when it's not "white, heterosexual, male"?
I wonder how many comments there would be if she'd left out "white, heterosexual male". Without it, the article still stands strongly, and is in no way contingent on these three words; it seems like many here are ignoring previous comments that explain it, or not bothering to read the whole article which details rather fully the author's thoughts on the context from which Joss may be approaching his work. I firmly believe every person's upbringing, cultural influences, and gender inform their artistic expression (not to mention, oh, your entire lives?), and I'm not seeing anything that's offensive or patronizing about this suggestion, beyond that careless phrase.

As for HOG, it's really worth reading the comments at the source site, as zeitgeist mentioned above. Anyhow, I'll quote it here:

Commenter:
I wish you’d covered the actual portrayal of “whores” in Firefly, in the episode Heart of Gold.

Author's response:
[I]t is...probably a topic for a future article, as is the portrayal of whores. I really wanted to focus on Inara and Companionship in this one as so often I come across the attitude of it being wholly positive and for me, it simply isn’t.

So, basically a confirmation of some points stated above; the elevated status of "Companions" is what's being criticized. The 'verse divides whores and Companions, and that is how the author's tackling the issue.

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