In amongst the very fun discussion about kick arse women on TV which has been happening over at Hoyden About Town, the wonderful su suggested that I might be interested in an article which takes its place in the world of Whedon-verse fan-academia. Given that I spent a sizeable proportion of thesis-writing time refusing to allow myself to engage in Whedonverse academia, I was rather cheery to be able to read it. “Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, by Dee Amy-Chin (Feminist Media Studies 6(2), 175-189) is a good article in lots of ways. It sets itself a task, and it works it through: is Inara, from Joss Whedon’s Firefly really a feminist depiction of prostitution, as some have thought? Few articles really succeed in doing this, so it’s nice in that regard. I should say from the get-go that Amy-Chin reckons Whedon fails at feminist prostitution. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, perhaps surprisingly, I disagree with a number of her claims. Part of this, again perhaps unsurprisingly, is because I stand by what I said about Buffy all that time ago: first, that it is a text like any other, with multiple meanings at work at any given time; second, that what makes a text feminist is not that it depicts a feminist utopia. So I’m just going to run through a few of Amy-Chin’s more memorable points and point out my responses. (When I say memorable, I kinda mean ‘I’m doing this off the top of my head coz I’m feeling rool lazy and elsewise this post will not get written. So correct me if I’m wrong, won’t you please?’)

She claims that the way that Inara is filmed reproduces her as an object under the male gaze. Her focus (I think she’s borrowing someone else’s work, from memory) is on one of our first encounters with Inara. After having been used by Mal to make a preacher uncomfortable, and been called a ‘whore’ yet again by him, she is knelt on the floor and bathing herself with a sponge. In some ways, and Amy-Chin notes this, the scene can be understood as voyeuristic. Inara’s attention is turned in on itself, and displays no awareness of the viewer. This is where Amy-Chin suggests the male gaze is permitted to take hold: Inara doesn’t glance back. But what’s interesting to me is that Amy-Chin simply by-passes what for me were the really interesting elements of the way that Inara is filmed in the pilot episode: the shots are paused. I’m not sure if you all remember what I’m talking about here, but as she squeezes the sponge out over the container of water, there’s a split-second pause, where the water hangs in the air, suspended. There’s a shot, too, of water dripping down her back, of her graceful movement, and this too pauses. This echoes earlier, where she is ‘servicing’ a client, and the shots stutter again, pausing as she glances away when he asks about her home (indeed, it’s unclear in this earlier part whether she actually is looking away, or if it’s a physical rendering of her internal reaction to his question). Now the question is, is this stuttered temporality significant? To me, yes. The action pauses, giving space for reflection. The reflection may be Inara’s, but for me at least, it was also mine. It asks you to dwell with her at that moment; not in simple observation of her body, but in a wondering about what is especially significant here. It offers breaks in what could be otherwise a simple voyeuristic gaze. Inara might not gaze back at the gazer, but a sense of intimacy is engendered because the shot is no longer about how hot she is (although she totes is ;-)).

But the real bulk of Amy-Chin’s argument engages with existing feminist writings about prostitution. She explores, briefly, positive theorisations of prostitution that have been offered by a range of feminists. From my recollection, the main elements of these are: that the woman (we’ll let the gender thing slip in this context, but I do know there are boyz who do this too, k?) ought to be able to choose whether or not she engages in prostitution, that prostitution ought not to be a matter of stigma, that she should be able to maintain the distinction between public and private, and that the focus of health testing should fall on clients, not on prostitutes themselves. This last one I won’t look at, really, except to note that Inara does undergo a health check, and there’s nothing that really suggests she checks out her clients for their health record.

It’s pretty clear throughout the series that Inara chooses her clients, and has a great deal of control over who she services, under what circumstances. The Guild is mostly what makes this possible: when a client turns nasty, she tells him that he won’t be able to get a Companion to contract with him ever again, as he will have a black mark against his name. So far, so feminist, it would seem, right? Well, if we’re being entirely fair, we should point out that whilst she has the capacity to respond to bad behaviour on the part of her clients, she is nonetheless subject to it. Which leads us to the next issue that needs addressing: the question of stigma.

It’s certainly true that the stigma remains attached to prostitution in the universe of Firefly. Mal continually displays his disapproval of her way of making money, to which Inara’s rejoinder is that at least her way of making money is legal, unlike his. He refuses to name her as Companion, the name in the Firefly universe for a woman who has undergone training, is a member of the Companions’ Guild, and sexually services her clients. Instead, he refers to her habitually a ‘whore’, even when she grumps at him about it.

Shepherd Book appears uncomfortable with her and her choice of profession, although it is to her that he turns at the end of the first episode when he has a crisis of faith. This produces the rather lovely image (Amy-Chin argues it’s not so great because it draws on a history of prosititutes providing spiritual support) of Inara’s hand resting on Book’s head in benediction. I personally like the inversion; it challenges the Christian disapproval of prostitutes. Indeed, we can even read this as speaking back to the stories of Mary Magdalene: maybe she wasn’t grateful to Jesus for ‘allowing’ her to escape her ‘sins’, but he was grateful to her… (this is all quite aside from the question of whether Magdalene was actually a prostitute at all; probably not seems the current scholarly understanding, but she was powerful in the early Church (and had a Gospel all of her very own) and so her influence had to be diminished: whoredom, clearly the key!). This is interesting because it’s fairly clear that a recognisable form of Christianity has persisted into the future Firefly depicts; and oh, thank all that’s holy (sarcasm, mes amis), it’s evangelical.

Now, see, Amy-Chin thinks that this stigma, clearly still at play in this universe, means that Whedon isn’t depicting feminist prostitution. To me this isn’t the case at all. I am a little (just a teensy bit) bit over the idea that the only way for something to be making an activist point (feminist, anti-racist, anti-transphobic, whatevs) in a TV show is by showing the perfected version of the world. It supposes that, in order to be feminist, a show should depict how the world would be if it were… what? equal? different-but-with-respect? Whatever. The point being, Amy-Chin thinks that Whedon is failing to do something feminist with the Inara character because she is stigmatised, because the world is not ideal. Personally, I think that a world not-yet-perfected allows us to see the continuity between that future and here, but also allows us to imagine another way that prostitution could be done. One in which to some at least, the prostitute may be conceived of as a respectable woman, in which her work is not thought to be an inherent violation and derogation. Indeed, in one episode it is her status that allows her to intervene in the acts of government officials, a situation that is especially tricky for the crew of the Serenity (and which as a result keeps coming up). A world in which the prostitute is given sufficient control and support of her own work that she can choose her clients and respond when they do not give her the respect she deserves. But a world which still has a perhaps exacerbated version of the dissonant understanding of sex work we currently live with. A world, though, through which we are encouraged to work it out…

More to come…

(PS I have not edited this properly, so apologies for that…)