“Personal reasons are no excuse for war.”
Shindig is the fourth episode of the first and only series of cult TV show Firefly, which stands as a bastion of relative common sense and rational thought amidst the vast sea of bad SFF shows made for people who don’t care about the SFF bit.
Inara, Serenity‘s resident female “companion” (more on that in a minute) is contracted by one of her regular clients back on Persephone to attend a ball. For reasons which become clearer later in the episode, Captain Hammer Mal Reynolds seems a bit upset by this, and so when one of his underworld contacts finds a job for him among the upper echelons of Persephone society, he jumps at the chance to gatecrash, along with Kaylee, who, delightfully, wears just about the pinkest dress you have ever seen in your life. (If this were a Friends episode it would be called The One With the Dress.) Pretty predictably, things go rapidly downhill when Mal gets himself into a duel of swords with Inara’s rich and important client.
So Shindig is an episode that does what SFF is supposed to do. It uses its alternative setting – its alternative society – to think about an issue that plagues our society in a subtly different light. In this case, it’s thinking about paradigms of female power; and where it goes with this is pretty interesting. Inara, as a professional companion – something closer to a courtesan than a prostitute – walks a fine and intricate line between strength and weakness: though, as her client points out, she “belongs” to anyone who can pay for her, her profession is highly regarded, she moves and keeps an extensive network of contacts in high circles, and, most importantly, she can choose her clients. In short, she’s a savvy businesswoman who makes choices based not necessarily on sentiment but on pragmatism. She has power, often more so than her clients – and this is, of course, a super interesting choice for the show to make in terms of our own society, because it pretty much overturns our expectations of how that dynamic might work. But, weirdly, none of the men in the episode seem to understand this. An angry client declares that Inara will never work again; she calmly explains (in a way that feels very much like infodumping) that it doesn’t work like that, and that in fact it’s him who’ll be blacklisted by the trade. And Mal takes it upon himself to defend Inara’s honour when she’s insulted by a client, fundamentally misunderstanding the power dynamic between the pair. Now, this is a great way of interrogating male-female power dynamics – we might see the men of the episode as stand-ins for the viewer, seeing the world as they do through the tinted spectacles of inbuilt misogyny – but it’s for precisely that reason that it doesn’t work from a worldbuilding point of view. Neither of these men have grown up in a society with the kind of relentless implicit misogyny that we have. They have grown up in a society in which women like Inara – and it’s implied that Inara is in no way an oddity – do have power, and clearly aren’t afraid to use it. Mal has been travelling with Inara for a while; he knows how she does business; surely he’s worked out by now that Inara can look after herself? Perhaps we can excuse him slightly, since he’s always been unhappy with what he sees as the duplicity of Inara’s profession and tends to revert to the uncomplicated language of force anyway. But Inara’s client has hired Inara, for gods’ sake; he’s clearly familiar with how the companion system works; why does he think he’s the one with the power?
And I actually think this elucidates quite well what, for me, is wrong with this episode. It’s a perfectly good episode; it’s certainly very funny, its characters continue to be nuanced and interesting (again: pink and fluffy engineer! We need more of these in our fiction!), and wow, will you look at all the pretty pretty dresses also the dancing. But, fundamentally, it feels out of place in the series, because it interrogates an issue that simply shouldn’t be a thing in the society Firefly posits. Or, perhaps, it interrogates it from a perspective at odds with the society Firefly posits. I guess this is a pretty niggardly complaint to make in the context of all the SFF that doesn’t engage with these issues at all, let alone in the generally positive way which Firefly does, but tone and context matter, after all. It’s a good story; it’s just in the wrong show.