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March 26 2006

Female role models in Sci-Fi. The Fembot explains why Firefly's Zoe is the type of woman she would want her daughter to grow into.

I'd agree mostly with that list. But I think Kaylee would deserve a mention as well, and if I was going to include someone from Babylon Five it'd probably be Ivanova before Delenn (no offence to Mira). I'm not sure I'd want my daughter as mired in ancient traditions and mysticism as Delenn seems to be a lot of the time. Plus, Ivanova's sense of humor's better. ;p
Zoe is a great example of a female role-model and Bayne I agree I think I'd put Kaylee on that list too. She may not be warrior women-esque but she's got a soft, caring, kind and gentle way about her that I would hope my daughter would have. Plus super smart with the mechanics.

Very good article.
I haven't seen Battlestar Galatica yet, but I agree with the others on her list. I have always thought Zoe to be a great role model for women and girls and was thus very disappointed in Nancy Holder's essay in "Finding Serenity" where she does not think Zoe is feminist enough.
Yeah, samatwitch, there were bits of Finding Serenity that bugged me, especially Holder's article on Firefly not being pro-feminism. Which, to me, is mind-boggling, but also, hey, it's not Buffy, nor is it meant to be.
What, no Inara (OK, no father would pick that profession but she is a strong, independent business woman and she can fence/fight) ?

I have to say that though I adore Kaylee and think she's a very likeable and interesting character, i'm not sure i'd want any potential daughters to grow into her. For my money she's just slightly too innocent (I think she'd have real trouble dealing with the world without the rest of the crew there to watch out for her) as well as being a little bit cowardly physically (or maybe she's just so nice she can't hurt anyone even when required - i'm thinking of the bit at the end of War Stories in particular) and so i'd have to pick Zoe any day. Lady's strong, feminine, hard without being brittle and if she's maybe a little cynical it's totally understandable given her experiences (plus she's funny cynical so it ends up being a positive quality).

Have to agree with the Sam Carter vote too. Once the writers stopped using her as a tool to advance the cause of feminism, she really started to advance the cause of feminism, IMO. Tough, smart, funny, feminine, gorgeous. What's not to like ?

I also notice that there's no Ripley or Sarah Connor on the list. Maybe these characters are seen as being too masculine to be effective role models for girls/women ?

(BTW, I sort of agree with Holder's point that the Western context makes it harder for Zoe to be a truly progressive feminist hero, since she will always only seem progressive by the standards of the society around her, though I remember thinking that she restricted herself by sticking to TV for comparison since, to me, the most obvious civil war veteran analogue for Mal has to be Ethan Edwards from 'The Searchers' - in fact in Serenity some of the dialogue at the end is reminiscent of some of Edward's dialogue but given a much more positive spin)
I did not read the book you're mentioning, but I can't believe someone would find Firefly "not pro-feminist." OK, Inara is a "sp-hooker," but they go so out of the way in the show to explain that it is a profession looked at with the highest of respect, and that companions are viewed as "international businesswomen" ;-), not as "whores." Zoe, Kaylee and River are all extremely capable and powerful women:
*Zoe warns big, scary Jayne that she can hurt him, and he knows she's right, plus she confronts Mal as his conscience when there are situations they face that are "morally ambiguous." She is the only person he trusts fully. Saje, I think she was progressive even in a Western setting, because her qualities, such as being an effective soldier and having a job that is higher in the hierarchy than her husband's, are ones that are "progressive/feminist" even today -- for example, wouldn't most people assume that Jayne would be the scariest and best fighter on the ship, when in fact it is Zoe? A "progressive" woman in a Western would be, I don't know, maybe some of the women in Deadwood, who try to go against TPTB {Deadwood season 2 spoilers} . What they are doing is admirable, but I worry every episode if they will get "punished" for their efforts (like when .
*Kaylee gets Serenity to perform miracles every day she flies, despite having almost no money or resources to keep the ship in the air, and she feels free to smart off to the Captain when he needs to be brought down a peg or two ("Aye, aye, Captain Tightpants!"). ;-) Kaylee is the one person on the ship everyone loves without reservation, as seen by their concern when she was wounded in the pilot "Serenity" (and, I guess for that matter, in the movie Serenity, too). Saje, I don't mind that Kaylee is not a fighter; it can be a strong choice to refuse to hurt someone else when you know that it is just not in you to do it. At least she volunteered for the fight; her will to help was there, just as it was in the last stand in Serenity (when she found her own motivation to fight back & live ;-)).
*River telepathically learned the Alliance's deepest secret and then defeated an army of Reavers, ffs! Even in the series, before she regained her full "kickass powers," River successfully defended Kaylee and the ship against Niska's henchmen in "War Stories" and outwitted Jubal Early in "Objects in Space."

Even guest starring female characters were "feminist": Patience is TPTB for Whitefall; YoSaffBridge is a successful con woman (hey, at least she's good at her job!); Nandi runs her house after having driven out the men who were exploiting the sex workers, then hires the people she needs in a gun battle and dies protecting her employees in that fight; Mal's mother (OK, she's just talked about, we never met her) owned and ran a ranch. All of these characters, regulars and guests, are great, strong, independent, empowered women! /rant ;-)
It's well worth reading billz even though I don't agree with all the points in 'Finding Serenity' and at least one of the essays borders on offensive there are some excellent insights in there (I particularly enjoyed Mercedes Lackey's essay on freedom).

You're right that Kaylee is a capable and admirable woman in her own way but, to me, an inability to defend yourself (and friends) from attack amounts to a possibly fatal character flaw. In the 'verse people just don't have the luxury of 'choosing' not to hurt anyone that's trying to hurt them (and i'd argue she doesn't make a principled choice in War Stories but acts from fear alone). It's a tough world (ours I mean) and i'd want any daughter of mine to be able and willing to stick up for herself should the need arise (of course i'd also want her to be gentle when it doesn't too. And finding the cure for cancer wouldn't hurt either. I reckon with figurative daughters i'm allowed to be pretty ambitious ;)

Another thing that's always bothered me about Kaylee is her 'feel' for engines. I realise this is probably because Joss doesn't want to come up with too much technobabble but i'd rather she seemed more technically aware of what she was doing. Her current way of fixing things is purely instinctive (think it's Out of Gas where Mal asks her how she knows this stuff and she 'just does') and it bothers me that this is just another version of the 'girls aren't technical' fallacy dressed up as if it's the opposite (though I do give it the benefit of the doubt by assuming technology is more pervasive than 'book learning' - kind of like today's guy who can fix an engine but doesn't know much about the physics of combustion).

One of the points in the Zoe essay mentioned is that she is almost the quintessential subordinate despite being a great soldier. An example used (grabbed it off the bookshelf ;) is from War Stories with the Mal/Zoe 'Take me sir, take me hard' joke. Holder seems to think if she were more the actor and less the re-actor in this scene (and others) then she'd be a better role model. She also makes the point that Westerns are about controlling previously unbridled masculinity (e.g. lawmen bringing lawless men to justice) and that most Westerns have very little room for strong pro-active women (though personally I think this is more due to the times most westerns were made in than something necessarily inherent in the genre since modern ones like 'Cold Mountain' or 'The Missing' have plenty of room for strong women but are far fewer in number than those from, say, the 50s).

Another (IMO, more valid) point made is Wash's whole 'people don't get me and Zoe' angle since if gender roles were genuinely equal there'd be nothing to 'get' (swap their roles and you'd see that today a strong male and a comparatively weaker female would be totally accepted but not the other way round i.e. in 500 years people are apparently about as un-enlightened as we are). Again though I think this is more a comment on the context Joss created than Zoe's character itself.

In general I agree that Firefly (like all of Joss' work) is pretty pro-feminist though.
This is interesting to hear more about the essay, Saje. From reading what you say about it, I still disagree with the essay writer.

In the example you bring up: An example used (grabbed it off the bookshelf ;) is from War Stories with the Mal/Zoe 'Take me sir, take me hard' joke. Holder seems to think if she were more the actor and less the re-actor in this scene (and others) then she'd be a better role model. I think it seems the essay writer is missing the fact that they are joking around to torture Wash about his insecurity. I think that's more "torture-y" to Wash than if Zoe said something like, "OK, sir, I'm going to take you hard." I think Zoe is very much the "actor" in her sex life with Wash (like when she grabs Wash from the bridge because she "needs this man to tear [her] clothes off" -- she is still initiating [is pro-active], even if she says she wants him to do the clothes-tearing). From what Wash tells the interrogator in "Bushwhacked," I think it's still clear that Zoe is very pro-active in their sex life.

As for calling Mal "sir," well, he is her commanding officer (that's not being a "weak woman," that's being a good soldier -- a man would also say "yes, sir, no, sir" to his commanding officer).

I'd disagree with the writer's opinion about "people don't get me and Zoe," because I took that line in a different way. I thought Wash (and Joss) meant, "People don't get why a strong warrior woman like her and a smart-alecky, nonviolent guy like me are attracted to each other." I didn't think it had anything to do with who was stronger, just with the fact that they were opposites. I mean, wouldn't you expect Zoe and Mal would be more likely to "be a couple" since they have similar experiences and careers? That, to me, is also an example of how Firefly had good female role models: there was a good-looking man and a good-looking woman who worked together very closely, for a long, long time, without having some kind of ongoing flirtation or a "history" (unlike Cheers, Moonlighting, Law and Order [Sam Waterston's character had had an affair with one of the female DAs, the one played by Jill Hennessy], etc.).

About Kaylee defending herself or others. Yeah, I'd definitely prefer someone of either gender to be reliable in a fight, and in the "Serenifly" 'Verse it's life-threatening not to be good with a gun. You're right that it was probably fear that caused Kaylee not to fight, but it didn't seem to me to be because she was "girly." I thought it was because she was inexperienced with fighting. Bendis, the male soldier in the pilot (whom Mal told, "We are just too pretty for God to let us die"), froze under fire, too, and the flashback of Tracey in "The Message" showed him useless in a battle (and stealthy, professional soldier Zoe saved his life). I'd certainly be scared s***less, too, if a bunch of uniformed guys were shooting at me! ;-)

But we do agree in general about all of Joss' work being pro-feminist, not just TV; I mean, Kitty Pryde, yo! ;-)

ETA: About Kaylee's "feel" for engines: I guess that never seemed like a "nontechnical" thing to me, since she talks about all the parts and the functions of the engines in a very technical manner (remember how Bester and Jayne both had no idea what she was talking about when she told them what the engines needed? Or how Mal asked her to explain the engine problem in Out of Gas in "captain dummy talk"?). It's not like she says, "Oh, I just need to kinda wiggle the thingy," a sentence which sounded much better in my head than when I typed it. ;-)

[ edited by billz on 2006-03-27 03:05 ]
Zoe and Laura Roslin are two of my favorite TV role models, but I would have put Kira Nerys from DS9 over Beverly Crusher as a Star Trek pick.
I don't know about Kira... She's got a bit of a strong tendancy towards prejudice and violence, what with the whole Occupation thing. And her people skills are really... rusty ;p

For a DS9 pick, I'd go more towards Jadzia or Ezri Dax, or maybe Keiko O'Brian. Kassidy Yates would be good, too, standing up for her beliefs with the Maquis...
Kira or Jadzia Dax, definitely strong women & role models. Jadzia could meditate for hours or equally drink the Ferengi under the table or kick ass with her Klingon homies. Kira was a fierce fighter and strong second-in-command (and I certainly don't have anything against fighters/soldiers), but also grew and learned to look beyond her deep prejudices. But I wouldn't recommend Ezri as a role model; she was too insecure. Keiko just never grabbed me, but she did serve as a good role model of a working mom. But Kassidy -- dude, she got involved with all kinds of plots to mess with the Palmer presidency! ;-)
I think it seems the essay writer is missing the fact that they are joking around to torture Wash about his insecurity

True, billz, but they're doing it in an ironic way i.e. their mocking amounts to 'you're silly to be insecure because Zoe is clearly with you, not with Mal'. Holder thinks that the phrasing used makes it clear that Zoe 'belongs' to Wash rather than Mal. I personally agree though that Zoe and Wash see each other as equals though certainly not in the physical sphere (she could kick his arse into 3 different versions of next week and they both know it) e.g. War Stories, despite the contentious joke, also shows Zoe's obvious pride in, and respect for, Wash's skill as a pilot so in that sense gender roles are subverted.

Note that I don't think Kaylee is being 'girly' by not fighting, just a bad fighter. Possibly the 'girliest' character, Inara, seems quite proficient at the more refined martial arts even if she can't muster Mal's bull-at-the-gate stubborn ferocity or Zoe's quiet ruthlessness. Also, thinking about the 'technical talk' thing it could just be she doesn't sound it to me because of the western slang (plus, if she never says 'narrow band filter' or 'reroute the EPS conduit' even once, how can she be technical ? ;) so benefit of the doubt extended.

On DS9 i'd put Jadzia Dax ahead of the rest as role model just because she seemed more together and balanced (having been alive for hundreds of years helps) as well as tough and smart.

ST:TNG has to be Ro Laren though. Maybe not a regular but definitely tough and easily the equal of even a fairly dominant male like Riker. She seemed more in control of her passions than Kira but still retained the Kira style independence of thought and action, so, IMO, a better role model for girls/women (or anyone else for that matter, I certainly looked up to her when I watched it).
Excellent points, Saje. I agree with your view of Zoe's and Wash's seeing each other as equals since they both are great at their jobs. But, unlike Holder, I think the people in a good relationship "belong to each other" or "belong together," so Zoe demonstrating to Wash that's she's with him is not, IMO, saying that she "belongs" to him in a "subordinate" sense. Nope, I still do not agree with Holder. (I feel like I'm about to say, "Sam I am." ;-))

EPS conduit, lol! ;-)

Good call on Ro Laren. Even though she got stuck with a stupid-looking headband for a few episodes (like Ensign Ro would ever choose that thing for herself! ;-)), she was certainly tough and not to be dominated by anyone. I know Picard was scared of her! ;-) Then seeing Michelle Forbes as Commander Cain in BSG -- crazy tough (and just plain crazy, too!) in anyone's book. Hat trick, I thought she rocked as the coroner in Homicide, too. Michelle Forbes so *rocks*! *squees in a very manly way* ;-)
When I first read this I thought of Kaylee as an example of a good role model too. I do not have a problem with a young woman, untrained in combat and not having chosen a profession in which she does not expect to be in combat, panicking the first time she is handed a gun and virtually left alone with trained professionals shooting at her. I neither think it makes her cowardly or a bad role-model, especially considering that by the time Serenity came around she had come to grips with the reality of her situation and was able to do her part standing against the Reavers. As far as not spouting technical language, Kaylee just has had no schooling. She has knowledge without vocabulary. I do not see that as being a gender stereotype.

I have not read “Finding Serenity” and therefore have not read the article that has been referenced in this thread. It sounds like when I do read it, I will need to be in a well ventilated space or the steam coming out of my ears might damage the book. IMO people who claim to be feminists and then tell women that the only good role models are those who have a certain kind of job do more damage to feminism than the worst chauvinists ever can.

Zoe chose a job, a man and a life that suited her. Why should she have to be in charge of the ship to be a good role model? She is in charge of her life. As far as the “Take me sir, take me hard.” (Which I just loved.) I have a hard time understanding that criticism on any level. Putting aside for a moment that IT WAS A JOKE, I can only assume that the author is taking it as Zoe’s indication that she feels Wash has the right to give her to the Captain. Good grief! Besides the fact that one of the things that makes it funny is that it is ludicrous to think that Zoe would allow herself to be handed over to anyone as property (which we can’t consider because that would be remembering that it was a joke) Mal is acting like he is acquiescing to Wash’s orders as well. (Also enough out of character to be part of the funny that we have to ignore.) Does that mean Mal is also Wash’s property or does it mean that the author is assuming that if a man and a woman are told they must have sex by a third party, by definition the man will automatically want to and therefore be in an ownership position and the woman will be the only one being coerced? A might sexist, that.

On the other hand, if one wanted to put the joking aside, one could look at Zoe’s reaction once it was decided that they were going to have sex as a perfectly feminist one. She told him what she wanted and how she wanted it. …No, I just can’t take the humor out of that exchange. It was a wonderfully layered moment and funny too. Pure genius. Arrrgh.

Changing subject. Did Lauren Ro change as the series went on? I remember her as having a chip on her shoulder so big it was dragging her down. She made bad choices and seemed an example of how screwed up women get when they try to be strong. (Arrgh again. ;-) ) I did not see all of STNG and not in order, however.
Newcj, Ro definitely mellowed over time, while still remaining tough. There was one great episode where a bunch of people, including Ro, Pike and Guinan, get metamorphosed into children where you got to see more of Ro's back story and why she was the way she was. And then the one where everyone on the Enterprise loses their memory, where the repressed sexual tension between her and Riker is able to surface also showed another side of her. I was disappointed that she didn't resurface later on in DS9 after she had rejoined the Maqui.

As far as Kaylee's technoexpert credentials, let's not forget the scene in Shindig at the ball when she attracts a crowd of admirers by discoursing in detail about the advantages and disadvantages of particular engine parts.
I agree about Zoe, definitely. I think in a way, though, that all of the characters on Serenity are so admirable and strong in different ways. Even just taking the women; Zoe is smart, tough, loyal and independat, without losing any of her feminity; Kaylee is bright, practical, resourceful and a potent mix of innocence and sensuality; Inara is beautiful, kind, intelligent, also well able to defend herself; and River is okay, slightly crazy, but extremely intelligent, athletic, graceful and loyal to Simon.

Basically I think all of Joss' characters are good role models in one way or another. Almost every long running character is well developed enough to have both good and bad attributes, so even most of the villains can't be simply dimissed as evil. Take someone like Spike, for example, whose journey represents the power of love and redemption, despite the numerous faults he has.
newcj, your comment is perfect! You have really explained the humor, you make great points in stating that Mal was also doing Wash's bidding (within the context of the humor) and also that feminism should support a woman's choice to do ANY job she likes and not just an "approved" job, and something else I was trying to get at: it's not "antifeminist" to want to have sex with a man, especially if you tell him what you like (e.g., "take me hard," "I want this man to tear my clothes off," etc.)!

A part of that scene that just reinforces what we're saying is that Jayne walks in at the end and witnesses all this, and says, "That's disturbing!" It just emphasizes that Mal and Zoe are really not a potential couple, and watching them humorously "try" to make out (as they both demonstrate to Wash his fears are unjustified) is just, eww. ;-)

barboo, good mention of that scene in Shindig! You're right, Kaylee genuinely impressed a lot of "sophisticated & educated" people with her engine knowledge, people who might otherwise have dismissed her as "beneath their social class." It doesn't matter that she wasn't educated in the same way they were or has, as newcj said, "knowledge without vocabulary," the point is, she is a true "genius mechanic!" ;-)

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