Okay, so that’s a couple of points there. I actually posted this post earlier, got anxious about it and took it back down, and am now putting it back up. I sound a little anti-Amy-Chin… I’m sorry about that, coz I’m not really. I disagree with her, but I feel like this post is maybe a little… uh… emphatic about that on a couple of points. So bear with me…
To continue on with that theme, Amy-Chin argues that another key attribute required of prostitution in order to make it feminist is in relation to the public/private distinction. Now, I am not an American liberal feminist (sorry mes amis) and so the whole public/private sphere thing just doesn’t have the appeal it seems to for others. Part of this is because the public/private distinction is an incredibly gendered divide, one which has been used to both keep women in the ‘private’ sphere, and to render the abuse of them not a matter of public concern. But the other thing is that, whilst I get that according to a particular model of labour, the ideal workplace might be one which you can leave behind, I’m not convinced that any of us ever do that entirely, and I’m not convinced it would be a simple good. What we do for a living is part of who we are; this is always the case, even if we hate it with a fiery passion (the fiery passion is part of who we are… or how we are). But even accepting that this distinction might be a key matter for the possibility of feminist prostitution, the issue really seems to relate to the capacity to treat it as any other job. To be honest, this seems a fairly class-based question, at least in the world of Firefly (I want to think some more about whether it is in the contemporary world). Those who are poor don’t seem to be able to live out this distinction between the public and the private. The entire crew live where they work, and occasionally this means that blood and cow manure are where they live. Mal is thoroughly defined by his job, even as there’s more to him than that (of course). Kaylee spends a huge amount of her time ‘off’ in the engine room, present to the possibility of ‘having to work’. In some respects, amongst the others depicted, Inara’s job is the most defined by the public/private distinction if only because she has to go to her clients.
Perhaps one of Amy-Chin’s points of evidence for Inara’s inability to maintain a public/private distinction is that Inara reaches a point at which she declares that she needs to leave Serenity. This comes after her friend Nandi, who ran a whorehouse, was killed. We’re set up to believe this is the grounds for Inara’s confession of love for Mal (he is certainly about to say so to her), but instead, she says “I learned something from Nandi. Not just from what happened, but from her. The family she made, the strength of her love for them. That’s what kept them together. When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it, you can’t break away. And you never want to… I’m leaving.” According to Amy-Chin, ” [i]t is not merely Mal’s moral objection to Inara’s profession that inhibits their relationship; it is the fact that, as a Companion, she cannot escape her identity and have a private life outside her public profession. As the series makes clear she has a choice: to renounce her professional identity and financial independence or leave. There is no third way.” (p. 183). This is, certainly, one possible reading: that she cannot escape her job without giving up her financial independence. Amy-Chin connects this to Inara’s comment on Companion policies on dating: “it’s complicated.” On the other hand, Inara’s background remains a mystery; she left an excellent position as the up-and-coming ‘House Mistress’ (it would seem the Guild or Guild schools are broken into ‘houses). Earlier in that episode, Nandi has commented that no one knows why she left. Given that it’s pretty clear she’s drawn to Mal, and enjoys her time on Serenity, and is visibly upset by the discussion, I would suggest that it can be read as an impossibility because of previous experiences. Say, (ooh, randomly, because this motif is never used ;-)) she was hurt either by, or because of people she was close to. Or hah! I have just discovered ‘Inara’s secret’, and it makes her even more understandable and in some ways quite selfless here. But I will not spoil yez. There’s a youtube clip out there you can find if you like.
A few other things: Amy-Chin claims that Zoe, Kaylee and River “do not trade on their femininity as a source of their power” (p. 178). I really object to how this is phrased. I don’t like the idea that femininity is a) a defined thing and b) a source of improper power. (Men ‘trade on’ their masculinity all the time; I’ve never been sure why women should be ‘good girls’ and not do so…) Which power, precisely, does Inara gain as a result of her femininity? Her respectability? Surely that’s a result of her job rather than simply her appearance or manner (though these may be key to her job)? Which femininity, precisely, are these other women not trading on? The definition of femininity at work seems a fairly middleclass one, if it is defined by Inara’s appearance and grace. Kaylee’s femininity is, I would suggest, very definitely present; it is simply a less trained one, one which is probably more working class. It’s a significant part of who she is, and even a significant part of her getting the job on Serenity (is that power?). River’s femininity might lie in her balletic grace, which causes everyone to underestimate her, but is also a key part of her deadly fighting style. Would we really want to set her fighting prowess in opposition to her femininity here? And Zoe… I adore the depiction of Zoe: she is incredibly capable, but thoroughly feminine. She doesn’t ‘trade’ on her femininity, but if you ask me whatever ‘power’ she has (and that’s seriously such an undifferentiated term it’s probably half the problem here) is bound up with her femininity.
Another: Amy-Chin claims that for the Companion, “the emphasis is on education and refinement, albeit for the express purpose of pleasing men, rather than the cultivation of such traits for their own worth.” Heh. Welcome to twenty-first century education. Show me a single form of education that is not at least sold on the grounds that it will enable one to do a particular job! Further, it’s not clear to me, given that Inara does in fact service a woman client, that we should be assuming that only men engage Companions. It’s clear that Inara chooses to primarily service men… and could choose otherwise.
Which brings us to a question which is particularly interesting, I think. There are those feminists who argue that heterosex for money undermines the idea that heterosexuality is the naturally occurring sexuality, and that in this way prostitution is a transgressive act. Amy-Chin argues that because Inara’s prostitution is placed in the context of her burgeoning (but oh! never fulfilled! never fulfilled!) romance with Mal, it is in fact this relationship that legitimises Inara and thus her job. She argues that a fairly conservative notion of sexuality is actually at work in Firefly. In many ways, I agree with her. There are three (or so… ) major couples: Zoe and Wash, Kaylee and Simon, and Inara and Mal. All three are straight. Their stories all curve in an arc. And this, I think, is part of what’s interesting here. Sexuality, as it is depicted in narrative, is given a strong teleology. It is a key dynamic of progression. The achievement of heterosexual union is most often climactic (at least an element of a climax, (heh; I am a kid, I know) or perhaps more strictly, a kind of ‘reward’; note the reflexivity in relation to this in Kaylee’s hilarious-but-oh-so-fucking-awesome response to Simon’s declaration of having wanted to have had sex with her in the film: “Screw this! I’m gonna live!’. This is the difficulty that is faced by attempting to write a conventionally-shaped narrative about prostitution: here’s Inara, achieving heterosexual (well, mostly) union, on a regular basis, with the ‘wrong dude’ and without ‘reward’ games being played (I just found this discussion in amongst research; disappointing that Firefly fans don’t take up all the opportunities the Whedon man offers!) . Amy-Chin is right here, that all of Inara’s encounters with her clients are subordinated to the sweet agony of her unrequited love for Mal (well, if her feelings are anything like mine ;-)). That is, of course, partly because the show’s… uh… about him; he centres the narrative. There’s a moment in Heart of Gold, when Inara comes across Mal leaving Nandi’s room. He falls over himself to make excuses, and she cuts through the crap and tells him she’s glad, adding “One benefit of not being puritanical about sex: you don’t have to be embarrassed afterwards.” Later, however, we see her sobbing her eyes out. Now some see this as ceding ground to conventional monogamous heterosexuality, to have her in tears over Mal sleeping with someone else. And that’s certainly in play. I don’t want to pretend it’s not. But in addition to this, there’s also the dynamic that Nandi is the whore that Mal can ‘get past’ his issues with prostitution with. Further, Inara knows that sleeping with him would immensely complicate her world; this is reinforced by the fact that although their desire for each other has been pretty clear from the beginning, and she, not being an idiot and also being well-educated in such matters, would know this, they simply haven’t had sex. And the one I personally like best: that she’s upset that he had sex with Nandi and not her, and she wants to sleep with him; simple desire stymied. Nonetheless, the centrality of Mal-and-Inara to the narrative does seem to push forward the one-true-love-for-ever-and-ever-oh-and-of-the-opposite-sex-please image of resolution which Western narrative has engaged in for so long. And it is part of what functions to rescue Inara from the place her prostitution would usually put her: soiled, broken and completely lacking in morals. Mal sees worth in her, and so the audience is supposed to too. This is, of course, problematic, because it is our immediate acceptance of Mal-the-hero which then feeds through into legitimising Inara as someone to be respected and valued, rather than her on her own terms.
Yet this is not quite so simple either, methinks, because the audience’s relationship with Mal is fairly ambivalent (or at least potentially is): we are clearly meant to disapprove of Mal’s repeated description of her as a ‘whore’, particularly since it is set in contrast to his obvious, if extremely poorly expressed, affection and respect for her. This affection and respect, I might add, is heterosexual (and as such fairly conventionally heteronormative in some respects) but it is also not premised on simply what-she-is-for-him; that is, while it’s problematic that Inara’s value is seen through Mal’s desire for her, at the same time, his desire, I think, moves beyond a woman-as-object-for-man’s-use kind of misogynistic heterosexuality, and into a real acknowledgement of her as a person. He emphasises this himself when he says “I might not show respect for your job, but he didn’t respect you. That’s the difference.” For example, his willingness to joke with her, his somewhat unwilling or admiration of her capacity to move easily in a variety of settings, his belief that she will easily play out her role as a rogue in Trash; there are lots of other examples of his demonstration of respect for her abilities. Indeed, part of what he seems to dislike about her job is that he thinks that others don’t respect her for it, and that she permits this. This isn’t necessarily the case, and indeed, he does seem to know this, too…
And the fascinating thing about their relationship, which I think that Amy-Chin misses, is that by raising this issue explicitly, Joss is prompting the viewer to interrogate his or her own understandings about sex, sexuality, women and prostitution itself. Mal’s internal struggle over whether or not he respects Inara is not unusual, or unrecognisable: in fact, it’s the tug-of-war that Western culture continues to work with. There are women who have sex with others who pay them. Where in that is the badness, the lack of respect, exactly, inherent in that? There are sex workers who are great at their jobs… why is this a bad thing? These questions remain live, because so few disrespect Inara’s job. As the audience, we know that Mal, especially the Mal who is so obviously anti-Christian, ought to be getting over whatever is standing in his way to respecting Inara (and to getting with her), and this obstacle is not, I think, depicted as being ‘Inara’s job’ so much as ‘Mal’s stupidity about Inara’s job’. This emphasis is a radical shift. As Mal works through his tug-of-war, then, so can the audience, asking: What makes a whore, and why are they considered to be the least worthy of all women? Why is sex-for-money such a problem for conventional morality? Why is monogamy, for that matter, thought to be where it’s at? And for me, this is what makes text feminist: when it prompts and coaxes its audience to que(e)r(y) and work through conventional misogynistic crap in order to reach a feminist realisation, rather than merely representing the feminist ideal.