I have a real empathy for creators who have watched time march right past their work, as society changes while things like, say, early-naughts South Park’s handling of homosexuality stays the same. Joss Whedon is an unusually tricky subject for this, because on the one hand he’s been pushing boundaries he resents or morally opposes all along, and on the other hand his work is very much a product of its time. It has to be tough to know what you were trying to say, to think you’ve said what you were trying to say—and then to see time just change the conversation from “A > B” to “Oranges vs. Hubcaps”. One day, you wake up to find that what you were trying to say, that you were so certain you’d said so clearly, is widely set aside in favor of assessing some subtext or detail you weren’t aware of, or hadn’t given a second thought to. (I’m not trying to say society is wrong to change, mind; I’m just empathizing with the creator who gets left behind.)
It’s widely understood but it still bears stressing: public gender dynamics have changed tremendously in the last fifteen years. Firefly aired in the 2002-2003 television season. This was before homosexuality was decriminalized nationally in the States; buggery laws in the U.K. wouldn’t be repealed for another year after its initial air date, and trans rights as a concept were still taken as a joke, an easy punchline for those smartasses on the Information Superhighway. The Internet was something people were widely familiar with, but Myspace hadn’t been founded yet (to say nothing of Facebook) and the first iPhone was still four years away. The dot-com bubble had definitively burst the year before, as well; the development of the 3G mobile network directly contributed to a nasty telecoms crash, and by the end of 2002 those factors plus 9/11 all contributed to a loss of $5 trillion USD in market value of companies on the stock market at the time. (I’ll get back to my point now, but there’s a piece out there waiting to be written about the series’ future-retroism in the wake of phenomena like “AOL Time Warner”.)
So, back to the women of Firefly: one defining trait of these characters that hasn’t been discussed is that they don’t really have any flaws. Each of them has limitations, sure: Kaylee can’t talk trade catty insults at a fancy dress ball, and of course River is tormented by forces outside of her control, to pick two obvious examples. But those aren’t flaws, any more than being short reflects a moral failing. They don’t reflect poorly on the character. In fact, they’re basically the opposite of flaws, since grace and courage in the face of difficulty reveals stronger virtues, not weaker ones.
It stands to reason that time would’ve forced some moral weakness on the characters just to flesh them out. After all, a character with no failings at all is a cardboard cutout, not a real person. However, going strictly on what we have to go on, these are some highly admirable people we’re discussing here: hard-working, honest, loyal, generous, friendly, intelligent and competent.
I do not believe that this trait in their writing was an accident; I contend that this is a central point in the contemporary feminism that Whedon was attempting. What we most certainly didn’t get in Firefly was the type of humor where the audience laughed at the girl for being a girl, a la M*A*S*H and others. The women of Firefly are all clearly laudable characters worthy of emulation, and any one of them could easily serve as a person that the viewer could want to be like.
It begs a curious question, though: just what sort of specifically moral shortcomings might these characters have had? Might Kaylee have been lazy, perhaps, or even regularly – to say nothing of manipulatively – dishonest? Zoe, distrusting or even callous or cruel to those outside her immediate circle? River, dangerously sociopathic? Inara, elitist, classist or racist? That the show didn’t play up the class disparity between her and Mal from her end – Mal still got his digs in – seems more glaring in hindsight, and doubly so since the show got so much mileage out of that very tension between Simon and Mal. Any one of those options greatly unbalances the show’s appealing chemistry, but then again each of those traits seems at least plausible for the characters as they’re presented.
There’s another element to consider here, though. This tendency to write female character more as tropes-come-to-life than fully realized, flawed characters is hardly a trait unique to Firefly, and there’s a pattern here that goes a long way back. (In fact, one could easily argue that it goes All The Way Back, so I’m going to limit my scope to roughly contemporary works here.) Shows like WKRP and, closer to Firefly’s air date, Coach and Home Improvement all took the Sensible Woman trope up to and well past the point of realism. While it seems benevolent enough on the surface, it’s a natural starting point for writing female characters with no defining traits whatsoever. After all, the male characters were defined by both their strengths and weaknesses: many of the episodes were devoted more or less entirely to a given male character’s flaws, while the episodes focused on female characters tended to be much more focused on their struggles. And Whedon was justly recognized as being much better at this type of writing than many of his contemporaries back then, too.
In other words, if Whedon was commenting on the smirking bro-ness of M*A*S*H with his writing, it’s not like he was a one-man television revolution in its own, either. Whedon said he got the idea by thinking about the Reconstruction era of the South (I have also avoided talking about the Lost Cause, oh yes I have!) and the Millennium Falcon, so the skeletal ideas were already pretty familiar at the time. But if it’s an expression of his feminism, perhaps it shared more similarities with other works of the day than is widely appreciated now.