I was psyched when I learned that Joss Whedon was going to have a new show coming out called Firefly. Although I didn't really understand the premise--cowboys in outer space? ...okay...--I had learned through my experience with Buffy to put my trust in Joss, so I was willing to go with it.*
So I watched Firefly.
And hated it.
The poor treatment that Firefly got at the hands of the Fox network is well documented--episodes aired out of order, schedule changes, excessive notes--so I'm sure part of my problem with the show is that it was pretty confusing trying to figure out what, exactly, was going on, but I've seen the show in its entirety several times on DVD, and I've seen the movie based on the show, and, yeah, I don't care for it.
This is why.**
In her post (which is rather long), Allecto critiques the many many problems that Firefly has with its female characters. And while I do not agree with everything she says--Allecto has a radical feminist viewpoint that I do not share--much of what she says about the male characters in the show and the way they treat the female characters is right on for me.***
Let's just take one example--the character of Inara, the Companion. A Companion is basically a prostitute, although there's a little hint of geisha-like prominence and training in the role, and there's a little bit of the Hooker-With-A-Heart-of-Gold trope from the Westerns, too. Still, though, a Companion is a prostitute. Inara rents space on the spaceship run by Mal, the captain, and she has made three rules for her space: (1) no one gets to come in without being asked, (2) she doesn't perform "services" for Mal or the other members of the crew, and (3) no one calls her a "whore." While Inara doesn't perform sexual services for Mal or the other members of the crew, rules 1 and 3 are broken repeatedly, all the time, any time Mal feels like breaking them. This is supposed to be "okay" because the viewers are all supposed to know that Mal's a "good guy" and would never, like, attack Inara, (and, in fact, secretly is in love with her), but still. Having the main male character invade a woman's personal space whenever he feels like it and call her a whore after she's specifically asked him not to?**** Not cool. Not at all.
And the other female characters aren't much better. Zoe, Mal's second-in-command, seems like she could be awesome, except she doesn't get a whole lot to do except endorse Mal's positions on things and stick up for him. She doesn't seem to have any agency of her own.
Kaylee is the ship's mechanic and is scientifically inclined, which seems like a good start, but she's portrayed as hopelessly bubbly and dim. If it weren't for her mechanical abilities, she would be the typical "dumb blond."
And River, who has been programmed by the evil government to be some kind of superweapon, is also all sorts of effed up. She can barely function, and when she does, she's a killing machine. So, as a character she has two speeds: (1) completely helpless; and (2) completely insane. There's not a lot of room for female identification there.
Look, I don't go around vetting my shows for compliance with some sort of feminist code before I decide if I can like them or not. I don't keep a checklist of things that a show has to have or can't have before I watch it. Friday Night Lights, for example, is a show that takes place in Texas, and the women characters on that show work very hard to conform to the southern female code of behavior. From a purely feminist angle, there's a lot to be said about FNL.
But that's not how I do things--I like a show and then I try to figure out why. In the case of Firefly, however, I disliked the show, and I couldn't really put my finger on why, and then I read those posts by Allecto and thought "oh! That's why!" In a show by Joss Whedon, who brought me my beloved Buffy, I expected female characters that were smart, and tough, and had power and agency. And I didn't get them.
Which was why, when I heard about the premise of Dollhouse, which is explicitly about the loss of agency and power, I was concerned...
* The Dawn storyline taught me this. Briefly, at the end of an episode at the beginning season five, Buffy's mother says to Buffy to take her sister with her when she goes out. Except, um, WHAT? Buffy doesn't have a sister. Or, at least, she hasn't for the last FOUR YEARS. WTF, Joss? And then, over the course of the next couple of episodes, we find out why Buffy has a sister (she's a magical key created by monks and given to Buffy for protection) and where she's been for the the last four seasons (nowhere).
** Note that some of Allecto's language in this post is rather strong, and probably not appropriate for children.
*** I'm not in agreement with her, for example, on conflating every motivation of a character with Joss Whedon himself. That's a little simplistic in my opinion. But it doesn't change the fact that women are treated poorly overall on this show.
**** I've read some defenses of Mal's character who write this off because Inara is a prostitute. Okay, well, the term for that in the show is "Companion." "Whore" is an insult in the world of Firefly just like it is in this world.