liv: alternating calligraphed and modern letters (letters)
[personal profile] liv
I spent some of the weekend at [personal profile] emperor's readthrough of Joss Whedon's Firefly. I'll write about the social experience behind the cut, and while I'm giving you the choice whether to read about the event, I'll also make some comments about the portrayal of sex workers in the series, and mention potential small spoilers.

So I really like the idea of readthrough style social events: get a dozen or so friends together and rent a big, cheap self-catering place for a weekend, and socialize while doing a specific, fun activity rather than just hanging out. In fact, that's pretty much what we did for our not-honeymoon, we even rented a big house from the same company that the readthroughers usually use, in the neighbouring village to the one where this weekend took place.

The downside is that numbers for an event like that are necessarily limited, and it's really difficult to avoid that turning into the awful thing where the cool people get invited and other people, who might have been part of the guest list, feel shunned and excluded. Historically I think some of the readthrough events led to a bunch of drama and hurt feelings, and it's got much better in recent years but I know some people still have negative associations with the whole concept. And then on top of that you put a bunch of people together in a house for a long weekend with a lot of alcohol and a fair number of chores needing to be covered, and it can get a bit fraught.

In fact, this year's event went really, really well as far as I could judge. Partly because there was a little bit more slack in terms of the timetable than sometimes, but generally everybody was helpful and friendly and focused on having fun. And [personal profile] emperor's organization was fantastic, based on years of experience of running these sorts of events smoothly. It was especially nice to see [personal profile] kerrypolka and [personal profile] naath and [livejournal.com profile] fluffymark and [personal profile] wildeabandon, plus several people I know less well but definitely like. And [livejournal.com profile] atreic and [personal profile] emperor, of course, though they were mostly too busy organizing for much socializing.

The acting felt like about the right level of serious; people put effort into their roles, but also were having fun and we didn't worry too much about things like choreographing the endless endless gunfights, and we were often a bit silly at the Big Dramatic Moments. Firefly works well for a readthrough thanks to Whedon's trademark snappy dialogue, but less well in that there's a lot of action that can't really be conveyed in that kind of semi-staged context. [personal profile] emperor's casting was really excellent, really perfect choices for the main crew plus [personal profile] kerrypolka and [personal profile] fluffymark doing brilliantly with most of the major one-shot roles.

I had a bunch of bit parts, which suited my limited acting talents just fine. The biggest was Petaline in Heart of gold, who spends most of the episode pretending to be in labour. This is not a great role, partly because it mostly involves screaming, but also I really hate the Hollywood conventions of what childbirth is supposed to be like, and on a personal level I was basically acting out my own recurring nightmare. Also we all completely corpsed at the dramatic climax because we got a bit too enthusiastic about the scene where the bad guy snatches the newborn baby out of Petaline's arms and ended up ripping the limb off the doll representing said baby. But anyway, I felt completely comfortable just having fun reading that part as well as my others, and not anxious about not being able to act "well enough", or not having gone to lengths to find costumes and props; some people did, but others just wore their normal clothes and either was fine.

The thing is, when I first watched Firefly, I was really excited about it. Because I love chosen family stories and I loved the characterization. But the more I think about the show and read meta, the less impressed I am. The worldbuilding makes absolutely no sense, and I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the cowboys-in-space theme which tries to make the Browncoats into a supposedly "cool" analogue of the Confederacy from the US Civil War by glossing over the whole slavery issue and making basically everybody in the entire galaxy white. I mean, there are characters of colour in the main crew, but the whole background, all the minor roles and all the crowd scenes, are white white white.

What really struck me about effectively marathoning the whole season was how awful the gender stuff is. I mean, great, Whedon made that great quip about writing strong female characters, and yes, we have Kaylee and Zoe who are brilliant at mechanics and fighting, respectively, but it just feels so much like Whedon offering his audience the kind of women he's attracted to and feeling proud of himself because his tastes run to geeky and athletic women as well as traditionally feminine blonde airheads. There is far too much implied rape, both using rape threats as a lazy, thoughtless way of generating peril (particularly in Objects in space, ugh!) and also this constant, constant visual trope of men pinning smaller women under their bodies. There are some minor / background characters who are women just doing whatever their jobs happen to be, doctors, politicians etc, but really, that's a pretty low bar considering everything everything else, and there could be rather more women than just Patience offering jobs to Mal's crew.

But then we have Jayne being constantly crudely sexist, and ok, the narrative doesn't entirely approve of him, but he's portrayed as so lovable, as if it were almost cute that he keeps coming out with these "hilariously" inappropriate comments. And it's sort of nice that Kaylee is portrayed as being generally enthusiastic about casual sex, but seeing the whole series at once she really does just seem like a male fantasy of a "liberated" woman.

The main thing that stood out for me in this readthrough was the whole awfulness around sex work. I mean, nothing whatsoever about the Companion stuff hangs together. It's been pointed out before, plenty of times, by people much more genre savvy than I am, but still, I have to rant. I'm just about prepared to buy the idea of sex work as not only a respectable but a highly respected and esteemed profession, but the script keeps on telling you this is the case via infodumps, yet nothing about any of the characters' attitudes or behaviours makes sense in a world where the Companions' Guild exists. If Companions have high status, why does everybody keep sniggering? Why would people be all pearl-clutchy about a Companion interacting with a Shepherd (priest-equivalent)? Why does Mal lie about Inara being an ambassador? Etc etc, it's just really flimsy, it's too transparent that the whole set-up is based on a fantasy of highly trained and skilled women who will have sex with rich men for money, but there's not been any thought about how society would look different if such people existed.

And the way that everybody, particularly Mal, keeps on using the word whore, constantly and with relish, like a little kid who's just learned a "naughty" word and is enjoying the reactions they get from saying it in front of adults. It's really, really gross, as are all the plotlines that involve Inara actually doing her job. The thing with Fess Higgins' father hiring Inara to help him lose his virginity is gross. The thing where Inara takes a female client and everybody gets giggly about it is gross (and yes, Jayne's I'll be in my bunk line is rightfully a classic but again, there's this sort of ooh-isn't-he-naughty expectation of audience identification with his objectifying nastiness). And I really disliked everything about Heart of Gold, highlighting this nasty sexist dichotomy between the respectable Companions and the independent brothel where even Inara describes the workers with the w-word. And I hate the lazy, lazy soft-porn cliché of Mal and Nandi having sex the night before she's killed.

I know people often excuse Firefly's flaws on the grounds that the series was cancelled (boo!) before Whedon could tie up the loose ends and develop the plot-hooks from the early episodes. But if the internet rumours are true that what was due to happen was Inara being gang-raped, I'm on the whole pretty glad those episodes were never made. Or maybe it's just that the series is showing its age, it's more than ten years old, after all.

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Date: 2015-10-05 04:45 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Leo)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
This is basically how I feel about Firefly, with one caveat.

River deserved much better than her treatment on show, it wasn't perfect by any means. But -- ultimately, River is a psychotic character who is institutionalized, whose older brother goes to great risk to break her out and rescue her, and this is portrayed as heroic. When she broaches the idea that she's so dangerous she should be killed, the other characters react with horror, and are supported by the narrative -- the point of Serenity isn't that they should have killed her while they could have. Unlike many other works I could name.

This is a *really big deal* in Hollywood. I can't think of a single other character with psychotic symptoms in a movie or TV show who is not a serial killer or other villain. The only examples I can think of in books are in works whose writers are mentally ill with psychosis themselves.

River is infantilized and sexualized in turns, gets nowhere near enough choice about her treatment, and occasionally she IS violent (though generally in realistic ways - she's violent because she thinks she's in danger, not because being psychotic makes her an amoral sadist somehow) -- but she's seen as a person by the narrative, and as a young girl in trouble who deserves to be rescued, instead of being the monster or a lesson about how people are too sentimental about dangerous crazy people. She doesn't stop being worth saving even when she's screaming and crying or pulling knives on people. That's a big deal and I was really obsessed with Firefly as a crazy teenager pretty much solely because of her.

I'm not entirely sure how much of this was on *purpose,* mind, because Joss Whedon's thing for waifs who beat people up and say crazy things in a vulnerable fashion is well known, but it's still... there, and it doesn't get recognized as progressive much because people aren't really aware of disability in general. In any case it's a huge step up from Drusilla in Buffy and Angel, who is a great example of the 'psychotics are sadistic, frighting monsters' trope.

(I'm sorry if this isn't very coherent, I'm pretty sleep deprived right now but I wanted to say something.)

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Date: 2015-10-06 05:48 am (UTC)
shehasathree: (walk unafraid)
From: [personal profile] shehasathree
+1

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Date: 2015-10-06 10:59 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
Given that it's externally-inflicted, Farscape had already been there and walked a tougher line over it, I think?

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Date: 2015-10-05 04:50 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
http://beta.digitalspy.co.uk/tv/ustv/feature/a669140/11-things-you-may-not-know-about-joss-whedons-firefly/ suggests Inara's future story arc also included terminal illness. Given how Whedon tends to smother his female characters in personally negative plot development, that might well have been on top of the gang-rape. That's taking the trope of killing off the token minority to ridiculous extremes.

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Date: 2015-10-06 01:37 am (UTC)
switterbeet: (floating island)
From: [personal profile] switterbeet
1) That sounds like an amazing gathering/event! /wants cool local people to do funstuff with.

2) OMG YES. That disconnect between Companions being this respected guild and the way Inara is treated has always made me twitch, but I had been attributing it more to Mal being an ass than the actual world-building fail. (Although I was also particularly peeved with Inara's distaste for the brothel-runners.) ... but it is kind of everywhere in the whole universe there. It has been awhile since I've seen it, but I think the Shepherd himself gives Inara some side-eye at one point or another?

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Date: 2015-10-06 06:33 am (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
Yes, these things and more. Jayne always seemed like the kind of character that Mal should have spaced when he had the opportunity to, if not never got hired in the first place. Then again, Mal is a character that probably should have been spaced as well, whenever any one of the cast of women got the opportunity.

Like other Whedon projects, it seems to be a thing that was potentially better than other shows, but that meant the bar of other shows was very low and not managing to get over it.

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Date: 2015-10-06 07:32 am (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
The gender thing that I always struck me about Firefly is that I really don't understand why Mal is in charge - he seems less competant than Zoe. It feels like he's in charge because he looks the part (because male).

Whenever I say this, Ben always says "but it's his ship" and I guess that's true but I don't think the show is saying "it's his ship and even though Zoe would be the captain if it were based on merit, we're stuck with this doofus", I think the show clearly assumes that Mal is a great leader and I just don't see any real evidence for it.

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Date: 2015-10-06 08:10 am (UTC)
nameandnature: Giles from Buffy (Default)
From: [personal profile] nameandnature
I watched it again on Netflix recently with my partner, who hadn't seen it before. I found Early's threat to Kaylee in Objects in Space shocking because the writers hadn't really gone there before: sure, we're told the Reavers are rapists and murderers, but there's no suggestion that they single out women in the way Early does, and none of Early's cold premeditation. The ship has been invaded by baddies before, but Whedon successfully made this the worst instance. The threat to Kaylee was part of that, so I'm not sure it's completely gratuitous. Whedon thinks OiS is the best thing he's done, ISTR, and I can see why.

Watching Serenity immediately afterward was probably a mistake: the film is no-where near as good as the series, and they seemed to have hit the reset button on Mal's relationship to River, so now he wants her off the ship again.

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Date: 2015-10-06 11:07 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] flippac
Bonus points for the race issues inherent in Early's threat too :/

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Date: 2015-10-06 08:55 am (UTC)
jack: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jack
Yeah, what other people said. I think there are a lot of good things about Firefly, which is why people love it, and things that are more feminist than most other TV. But there's also a long laundry list of gender and race which is really not OK which I'm more and more uncomfortable with, and lots of people legitimately hate.

I think part of it is that Whedon, like some other creators, often writes very good characters, so if there's a character who ticks some box, they're also often a very good character, and so it's quite good to have any good character ticking that box, even if they're actually also problematically stereotypical. But that means people can love and hate the same characters.

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Date: 2015-10-06 11:01 am (UTC)
lavendersparkle: (Ood)
From: [personal profile] lavendersparkle
I couldn't get on with Firefly because I basically have zero tolerance for 'lovable cheeky chappies' and therefore spent the episodes I watched hoping Mal would die.

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Date: 2015-10-06 12:46 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I like Kaylee a lot, but then she's *my* fantasy of a "liberated woman" too... free love, fixing things, and wearing pretty foofy dresses! What could be better ;-p

Objects in space would be the worst thing ever, except that Heart of Gold is worster. Eurgh.

Jayne is just clearly awful. I didn't get a "you should like this flawed person" feel from the narrative, but maybe that's just 'cos I don't like him.

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Date: 2015-10-07 03:53 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Photo of me with my 2012 Purim beard, with stripes shaven into it. (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Your readthrough get togethers sound fun. I have a group of friends I went to summer camp with when we were fourteen that I've managed to keep in touch with. When we were teenagers, we'd have camp reunions at each others' parents' homes; now that we're older, the past few years we've rented a large house once or twice a year to get together in. It sounds like the experience is similar to what you describe in some ways, including the drama: Not everyone can equally afford to chip in, so the folk with high paying tech jobs end up subsidizing those with less money, and there's push and pull in selecting the house between those who want something more financially conservative and those who can afford something nicer. And some people have working lives where they need to schedule vacation months in advance, and some have working lives that are prone to sudden emergencies and they can't plan ahead and commit to dates months ahead. So the planning is a mess. And, you, know, people who used to be dating and aren't anymore, and people who are feuding and don't want to see each other, and all the accumulated social cruft of being a group of friends for fifteen years... But when we actually get together, it tends to be a lot of fun.

Re:Firefly, it's a story I admire much more for its aesthetics than for its politics, and I think that's always been true for me. The notion of telling a Western in space is so integral to Firefly's identity that it's bound to warp the show's themes. And I think my love for Firefly is similar to my love for Tarantino's "Django Unchained": Much as both are struggling to modernize the Western, they are dependent on tropes that we know are problematic but still (at least for me) find enjoyable as power fantasies.

In general, Joss's feminism is kind of a mess, but I feel like it would be a lot less of a problem if he weren't held up so often as some kind of icon of geek feminism. It would be better for the general discourse if he were thought of just one of many creators publicly aspiring to create feminist art and sometimes making a mess of it. This would be easier if there were more mainstream creators publicly aspiring to create feminist art, and it would be easier if Joss were more willing to admit it when he fucks up, but... this is where we are.

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Date: 2015-10-15 01:41 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I have a group of friends...

Squee! It's not just us! :-) That is the best description of readthrough politics and loveliness I have read :-)

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Date: 2015-10-10 10:38 am (UTC)
kerrypolka: Contemporary Lois Lane with cellphone (Default)
From: [personal profile] kerrypolka
I was really appalled by Nandi dying (that was one where I hadn't read the script all the way through before getting up to act, and had a "wait, I DIE?" moment). Look, it is a Strong Woman asserting female solidarity! Who sleeps with the male protagonist and then bites it five minutes later, whoops.

(no subject)

Date: 2016-01-02 07:03 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
I was halfway through watching the series for the first time when you posted this, so I put off reading it until I had finished (which was the night before Limmud, hence no comment until now).

You'll probably not be surprised to learn you were disturbed at things that passed me by completely (and possibly vice versa), but a few comments:

The worldbuilding makes absolutely no sense, and I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the cowboys-in-space theme which tries to make the Browncoats into a supposedly "cool" analogue of the Confederacy from the US Civil War

Oh, is that what it's supposed to be? Being a non-USAn, this passed me by completely, and I was left utterly at a loss trying to figure out why all these societies set in the future were at the tech level of either nineteenth century America, or barely-more-than-present-day at best.

I'm just about prepared to buy the idea of sex work as not only a respectable but a highly respected and esteemed profession, but the script keeps on telling you this is the case via infodumps, yet nothing about any of the characters' attitudes or behaviours makes sense in a world where the Companions' Guild exists.

I read that as a society where the progressive urban elite were trying to inculcate a sex-positive attitude, but the message had not yet got through to the more conservative rural population, or those on the fringes of society, which is where most of the action takes place, and most of the characters come from. The exceptions among the crew are of course Simon and Shepherd Book, both of whom do not IIRC have problems with Inarra's status.

Have now finished watching the whole series (but not the extras on the DVD box set, nor the film), I'm left wondering why people raved so highly about it. I think part of it for me is that my standards for media SF are much higher than they had been twenty years ago (partly due to my flatmate Oliver in 1996–7 watching ST:TNG along with me and pointing out all the holes in the plots, which I had never noticed before, but now are much better at spotting). But I think part of it might have been because I watched the episode "Serenity" first, which is how the DVDs ordered it, but Wikipedia tells me it was rejected by the TV bosses as the pilot episode, and screened last of all. One the one hand, this meant I had a better understanding of why everyone was there and what their background was for the remainder of the series; on the other hand, I think the lack of knowledge had I not seen it first would have added mystique, in much the same way that the dribs of knowledge of the First Age in tLotR had a mystique that The Silmarillion did not.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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