Firefly and Western Literature
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In an article recently published in the Great Plains Quarterly’s special issue on the HBO series Deadwood, Anne Helen Petersen suggests that part of Deadwood’s revisionist approach to the western genre is revealed through its portrayal of the female characters. In the Western, Petersen argues, the prostitute is one of the dominant female character types, often romanticized: “The foreward to Chris Enss’s Pistol Packin’ Madams exemplifies this historical revisionism: ‘Hard workin’, hard livin’, and hard lovin’, these pistol-packin’ madams were the brave and colorful business women of the Old West’” (quoted in Petersen 269). Petersen points out that the actual life of a prostitute involved little bravery and less color: “Prostitutes haggled with drunken customers over prices, endured special brothel ‘taxes,’ spent wages on bribing town officials, and suffered from malnutrition, tuberculosis, botched abortions, and alcoholism. . . . Yet these ugly realities of prostitute life are conveniently and consistently elided in songs, books, historical landmarks, plays, and film” (269).


Rather than the romantic view of the prostitute’s life that Westerns usually provide, Deadwood not only “presents the harsh reality of life as a prostitute [but also] opens the narrative to allow these women to explore their sexuality, the potential for love, and the perils of sudden emancipation, but never in a manner that unrealistically elides their past” (275).


The women of Deadwood, Peterson continues, “consistently and successfully resist the strictures of patriarchy that surround them, achieving autonomy, self-expression, even, in all its complexity, happiness. Yet their advances teeter in the balance as George Hearst (and the modernity and civilization he embodies) takes root in Deadwood” (268).


The prostitute’s opposite in the Western is the character type that Peterson calls the Victorian Woman: “The schoolmarm, the mother, the helpmate—all are civilizing forces that threaten the individualistic self-reliance of the frontier. Feminine forces (domesticity, monogamy) thus pull men from their ‘natural state’ in the wild into the suffocating domesticity of the home” (273).


I’ve quoted the article at length as I think some of Petersen’s insights can be applied to Firefly as well as Deadwood, at least to a certain extent.  Firefly’s twist on these two dominant female character types is to combine them into one character, Inara, who, like the Victorian Woman is certainly a force and certainly civilized, and whose occupation as a sex worker associates her with the prostitute type. That the Western usually opposes these types (often as rivals for the hero’s affection) again suggests how Firefly reinvents the usual tropes, reversing the moral expectations usually associated with Inara’s profession (she is, after all, the ship’s only respectable traveler).


I wonder though if Firefly participates in romanticizing the life of the western prostitute. If we don’t get the details of the “harsh reality” of that life as we do in Deadwood, are there other elements of Firefly that challenge the Western’s romantic view of the prostitute’s life?


And what about the other female characters? Do Zoe, Kaylee, or River have any relation to either of these two dominant female character types?



Quotations from Anne Helen Peterson, “’Whores and Other Feminists’: Recovering Deadwood’s Unlikely Feminisms.” Great Plains Quarterly 27 (Fall 2007): 267-82.


Posted by Michael.




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