Sex Work & Serenity

Right off the bat, I’m going to say that I am not a member of the Joss Whedon fan club.

“But he’s soooooo feminist and has complex female characters and he totally wrote a really positive sex worker character! Come on, you have to love Firefly.”

Well, no, actually, I don’t. You know what I would love? Diversity in the production and leadership of the entertainment industry. It’s well and good that Joss Whedon has a hard on for sexy looking ladies who can enact violence but you’re not a feminist just because you wrote a female character who can handle a sword. The Whedon canon is problematic on many levels but Whedon himself gets lots and lots of cookies for being a good liberal. When it comes to Firefly, you can’t ignore the omnipresent racism. I don’t hate Joss Whedon but I’m really not a fan of his work. He may have good intentions but they amount to sophomoric manifestations.

I’m not saying this as though I’ve got it all down myself. As I look back on my own body of work, I’m horrified by the ways that white supremacy has informed it. It’s embarrassing to look back on things I’ve written or said and I have very much needed some of the stern kicks to the ass I’ve gotten on my path to becoming a better writer, activist, and person.

No, I don’t care for Buffy. I’m sorry if I have disappointed my readership. I don’t really care for Firefly either but I did watch the entire (short) series. I am both a sex worker and something of a nerd and as such I get a lot of people who make the assumption that I genuinely must love (or, perhaps, be grateful for) the cult television show Firefly because it has an esteemed character whose profession is sex work. In many ways, the character Inara Serra has helped people re-conceive some of their notions of sex work and I do have friends and colleagues who enjoy the show and have a lot of good things to say about it.

I think it’s a deeply problematic portrayal largely because we don’t actually gain a sex worker’s perspective. Instead, we are given an interpretation of sex work as seen through the lens of a heterosexual cisgender white man. Here’s a link to a great essay from a sex worker with their thoughts on the show.  Trust that all sex workers know just how fascinating white men in positions of power find them. I’m not going to be impressed that one of them condescended to consider that sex workers are worthy of being written about. I’ll be impressed when sex workers are considered authorities of their own lives and get recognition for the art, science, and analysis they have to offer about themselves and any other topic under the sun. I’m not grateful for scraps, I want to be seated at the table. Note to Joss: you need a sex worker consultant, mmmkay? Hire one to help you write the whores you seem to admire.

A major source of tension between the show’s protagonist (a cisgender heterosexual white man in a leadership position) and its sex worker character is the fact that her occupation is legal, sanctioned, and esteemed by a galactic government that the protagonist staunchly opposes. Captain Malcom Reynolds is a war trauma survivor who is bitter that his means of survival are illegal and highly stigmatized. He self-righteously insults the character Inara, a companion, by ignoring her boundaries all the while making use of the safety she affords him and the income her rent provides. His behavior is depicted sympathetically on the basis that it’s completely rational to assume that he would be ambivalent about this “role reversal” and because underneath his bad behavior he really loves her.

Barf. Maybe someday we’ll all move past the playground assumption that the way to a woman’s heart is to blow past her boundaries, invade her space, and to degrade her with insults but that’s not the case with Firefly. It’s frustrating to see yet another male protagonist be openly abusive and sexist “but in a good way!” who is also nearly fully supported and protected by the object of his own internal conflicts of masculinity and entitlement.

Her character does highlight that when stigma and criminalization are removed, sex work can be a safe and even sacred occupation. Why this has to rely on a orientalist tropes and a rather racist blending of distinct pan-Asian traditions, I don’t know. The show’s backstory involves China becoming a global superpower and yet there is nary a Chinese protagonist to be seen. Inara Serra is something of a courtesan-geisha-devidasi and her wardrobe, speech, and practices can be best described as an appropriation buffet of the ‘exotic east’ with elements of the that spans the continent of Asia and dips into the Middle East and northern Africa for good measure for your complete colonial breakfast.

Inara is the one character spared from a life threatening injury during the course of the show. Part of this can be credited to her skillful screening of clients I did appreciate seeing. In an early episode of the show, Inara asks Captain Reynolds if they’ve finally arrived somewhere she can screen for some good clients. The captain informs her that he will be doing business with someone who is a definitive “bad client.” The illegal nature of his work and immediate desperation for income leaves him in a position where he is forced to engage with someone he knows to be dangerous for himself and his entire crew. Left without any viable options for his survival, he takes on the “train job.” It’s a decision that comes back later on in the show and costs him his life. Good thing his villain was able to resuscitate him for further torture and the inevitable happy ending rescue from his loyal crew. Sadly, this is not the case for sex workers whose murders are ignored by law enforcement and whose lives are derided by the media reporting on their deaths. Nevertheless, the focus on screening and the ability to decline work was good point of focus.

IHer worst injury—being pistol whipped–occurs on the final episode of the show. It is of note that it is the prostitute who is impenetrable while all of the other character sustain major internal injuries, usually by bullets, but also impalement. She wears an armor of makeup, keen observation, knowledge of martial arts, and emotional detachment that make her untouchable while also being a source of healing and pleasure touch for those with whom she chooses to share contact. The impenetrability of Inara can be seen by her emotional fortifications, lack of mortal wounds, and her chosen weapons.

The episode “Shindig” does explore this theme with relative nuance. Inara takes on a client that is clearly a jerk but a jerk she can handle quite well of her own accord through her skill and subtle command of tremendous power. The Captain overlays his own definition of respect onto the situation and punches her client in the face and commits to a duel by sword with an opponent that he is woefully unprepared to handle at all. Inara comes to him in the night to offer him freedom but he declines. She offers him brief counsel on swordplay commenting that the captain swings too broad and forcefully with a sword to be effective with it. She tells him that humans are vulnerable and that only a few pounds of pressure would be needed to penetrate skin with a sword. The captain only sees one potential way to handle any situation: pure brute force.

Despite her compassionate lessons from the night, the captain fails to see beyond that perspective and it becomes clear that without intervention, he will be killed. Inara intervenes on his behalf and the captain takes advantage of the distraction she provides and “wins” the duel and is credited with victory. Inara escorts him from the duel field back to his ship. Inara knows the power of a flick of the wrist and the captain barely registers any of the lessons she conveyed or the risks she took on his behalf. She is the epitome of grace and power in ways that those around her do not see and can not comprehend.

It makes sense that Inara is exceptionally guarded in the constant company of those who cannot see beyond her occupation even though she shares a living space with them and offers them protection that they would be utterly lost without. The one time we see her relax in any way is the episode in which the crew travels to defend a brothel on a border planet, run by a former friend who chose to leave the Companion Guild in favor of independence. In this episode, we see an example of “whorearchy,” where Inara firmly stands behind the distinction that she is upper class and registered with the guild and is a companion whereas those they are coming to rescue are whores. The emphasis on legality as legitimacy is once again highlighted when Captain Reynolds is intimate with the madam as if to indicate that it isn’t the sexual component of Inara’s work that he objects to so much as her relationship to a government he doesn’t support. This moves her to an unprecedented display of emotion.

There is a wealth of complexity to be explored there but it never really gets more nuanced than Captain Reynolds saying that he respects Inara but doesn’t respect her job. There would have been a distinctly different tone if Inara’s classism or willingness to be registered with a clearly corrupt government had been challenged, especially in contrast to the character of River. Both Inara and River have both spent time in Alliance medical facilities but to very, very different ends. In one episode, Inara smugly remarks that she supported planetary unification (the product of a brutal war) and maintains an air of superiority of the legality of her work. Rather than having Captain Reynolds point out the ways that Inara has benefitted from and is complicit in oppression, he merely invades her space, calls her a whore at every opportunity, and harbors a secret crush. This was a missed opportunity for critical commentary on the cost of legitimacy.

Inara is a sacred companion because she is protected by a violent, imperialist, and oppressive government. The unregistered whores on the border planets are left to rely on their own wits and the good will of the crew of Serenity. This is why decriminalization rather than legalization is preferred by sex workers: a street level worker has the same rights to protection as a high end escort. In the Firefly universe, only registered companions are afforded protection by the Alliance. Inara has a sacred and untouchable body but the whores are threatened with mass killing, evisceration, and live in poverty. Rather than confront any of these issues, she makes the decision to leave Serenity and ultimately returns to cloistered living.

It must also be said that creating a sex worker character who is never messy in appearance or emotions, adept in swords and arrows, devoid of needs or backstory, endlessly forgiving of intrusions and transgressions, financially stable enough to support herself and a scrappy crew of smugglers is more of a white nerd’s wet dream than a three dimensional character portrait. In many ways, this is demonstrated directly the fact that her character is only seen and judged on a sexual basis. It is because she is only seen as a sex worker that she evades criticism for her other actions.

As a sex worker, there are things I have gained from Firefly’s depiction of sex work. For one, it introduced conversations about what makes sex work dangerous as well as a different paradigm for how it can be received. Firefly made the assertion that it’s OK to be a sex worker so long as you’re classy.  It was conceived within a mindset of a non-sex worker and as such, it is a starkly incomplete depiction. In contemporary society, sex workers are excluded not just from participation in the writing of popular entertainment but also in conversations and policy making about the welfare of their own lives. It’s believed that those outside of sex work are the best sources authority about this highly stigmatized profession and Firefly is another example of that for me.

Despite however benevolent the depiction of Inara as a sex worker might be, the focus is neocolonial and classist in nature. All sex workers deserve rights and protections, ESPECIALLY those who don’t come from an elite background. It has been disturbing to me to hear fans of Firefly assert that we need a system like the “Companion Guild” that verifies the STD status, criminal history, legal status, non-use of drugs, and biometric identity. No-fucking-way. All sex workers including those with STI’s, criminal histories, undocumented citizen status, and substance deserve a decriminalized status for their trade.

The show has also led to a proliferation of conversations about sex work that don’t involve sex workers. I would love to be corrected here so please chime in if you have more information, but I haven’t heard of any Firefly conventions who have reached out to the sex worker community for any input. Many of my conversations with “browncoats” ultimately dismiss any of my concerns as “not understanding the show.” For the most part, it turns into a debate between feminists protesting a “glamorous” depiction of sex work and white dudes who want the freedom to fuck sex workers. This is not where the debate should be centered.

To further prove my point, here’s details on an episode of Firefly that Joss Whedon wanted to make but couldn’t that pretty much proves how fucking clueless he really is about sex worker politics:

She had this magic syringe. She would take this drug. And if she were, for instance, raped, the rapist would die a horrible death. The story was that she gets kidnapped by Reavers and when Mal finally got to the ship to save her from the Reavers, he gets on the Reaver ship and all the Reavers are dead. Which would suggest a kind of really bad assault. At the end of the episode, he comes in after she’s been horribly brutalized, and he comes in and he gets down on his knee, and he takes her hand. And he treats her like a lady. And that’s the kind of stuff that we wanted to do. It was very dark. And this was actually the first story that Joss pitched to me when he asked me to come work on the show. He said, ‘These are the kind of stories we’re going to do.’

So, before anyone tries to tell me that Joss Whedon is sex worker positive, please remember that he thought depicting the gang rape of a sex worker would be grounds for good entertainment. I’m not that impressed by the ‘she’s secretly dying’ idea or that rape is what would finally bring her together with Captain Reynolds. Joss, really, if you ever write another sex worker character you really need to talk to one.


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5 responses to “Sex Work & Serenity

  1. Hi Maggie; just a few thoughts. Not arguments; not contentions; just thoughts. I have long wondered what sex workers thought of the Inara character in “Firefly”, and am very interested to read your take and think you have a lot of excellent points. And yeah, Whedon needed a sex-work consultant, badly. Probably he suffers from what most of us straight white middle-aged guys suffer from: Certitude that we know enough about it already. (Which, of course, we don’t.)

    Re: Mal: “His behavior is depicted sympathetically” Not entirely, or so it looks to me. Multiple characters, including Kaylee–who is widely regarded as the conscience of the crew–deride him and give him grief over his archaic attitudes. Indeed, one of the main reasons he has her on the ship is because having a registered sex worker gives you entry to places–and it’s implied those are the more respectable places–that you can’t enter if you don’t. I’m sure you can cite multiple instances where his behavior is depicted sympathetically (or can be interpreted that way); my only point is there are other instances where it’s depicted as backwards and uncivilized.

    (I think it’s important to remember that Mal is raised in the sticks, the ‘verse equivalent of the ante-bellum South. He’s hick. He’s not racist–you can’t do “racist” on TV any more–but he’s definitely a hick, hero or no.)

    “Why this has to rely on a orientalist tropes and a rather racist blending of distinct pan-Asian traditions, I don’t know.” I suspect because it’s an American TV show, and Americans are psychotic when it comes to sex work in particular, and anything to do with sex in general, really. Yup, people are getting over it, as least so far as GLBT folks are concerned–but just barely and with glacial slowness. But one way to slip different moral behavior past the ever-vigilant Mrs. Grundys of our entertainment complex is to wrap them in something “foreign.” I may be wrong, of course, but my guess is: That’s probably why. (How a French-made or Japanese-made variant of Firefly might handle a similar issues is an interesting thought.)

    “. . . devoid of needs or backstory. . .” I can’t remember if it was Whedon or one of his writers (Tim Minear, perhaps), but it has been stated that Inara was both dying of some as-yet unspecified disease (hinted at in the pilot), and her backstory was going to be explored in future seasons which, of course, never happened. In a nine-character drama where the primary first-season story arc–the River and Simone story-line–takes up a lot of the time, some characters get short shrift. Kaylee, Wash, Zoe, and (most notably) Shepherd Book all suffer from this. (At least Jayne gets an episode.)

    Again, to be clear: I’m not going to argue with you that Whedon is sex-worker positive, a good feminist (JEEzus no), did a great job on integrating Chinese and Western cultures, was sufficiently inclusive in his casting (Jewel Staite, as part Native American, was as close as we get to Asian), etc. DEFINITELY not. And as someone who is a big supporter of decriminalization and NOT legalization, who thinks the Swedish model is . . . I’m trying to think of a polite way to say “a fucking disaster” . . . and who is sick and tired of our culture being so damn psychotic about sex (not to mention one of your distant admirers), I won’t argue with many of your conclusions. I just wanted to toss a few thoughts out there for you, is all.

  2. you have feminist aids

    wooooow shut the fuck up

  3. Maggie, Great article. Thanks for taking the time to unpack a show that I’ve also encountered an opaque acceptance to and inability to have debates about with fans. Their “You just don’t get it” seems a coward’s way to dismiss thematic fallacies.

    I also feel Mr. Whedon’s understanding of the politics of gender are closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs and aimed at the 12-year-old fanboy within him. Depiction of sex work, sex workers, etc. does not automatically give him a free pass in my opinion.

    Keep up the good work,


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