Firefly— Joss Whedon’s short lived, much loved sci-fi western— is a vast universe to be contained in a mere fourteen episodes. While the story was continued in the major motion picture Serenity and in the comics that followed it, the general audience still didn’t get a very good look at the inner workings of Whedon’s creation. Placed after a universal civil war 500 years in the future, a rag tag group of outsiders are crew to the transport ship Serenity. Taking on whatever jobs they can— legal or not— they travel the universe just trying to keep food on the table. They have a captain and co-captain, a pilot, a mechanic, muscle, and in the first episode pick up a Shepard, and a medic on the run from the benevolent Alliance with his supposed psychic little sister. They also have Inara Serra, a “Companion” leasing one of the ship’s shuttles to serve her clients in. Her job? To the untrained eye, being a Companion may look like “whoring,” but look deeper and the woman’s role is a lot more intricate and shows what sex work could become in the future; how its stigma could be removed and the industry made safer.
Companions find empowerment in their occupation where most would see it as demeaning. They are in full control of how they work and with whom (Episode 4 “Shindig”). Companions are mandated by a Guild on the planet of Sihnon, which requires yearly evaluations and keeps a record of their clients, good or bad (“Shindig”). The Guild trains Companions in not only the art of seduction but also teaches art, music, languages, eloquent speech and even traditional tea ceremonies. A Companion is considered a well-respected role of the society.
Companions operate similarly to how Geishas in ancient Japan did. The thing that separated a Geisha from strictly a sex worker or Oiran is their attention to art and eloquence. Geishas went through similar training to Firefly’s Companions. “To become a Geisha, one was committed to a house through various means. A woman, who acted as a madame of sorts as well as a maternal, guiding figure, ran these Geisha houses, okiya. A girl joined an okiya as a child and began training in the arts… These are women who have carefully trained in traditional Japanese instruments and music, dancing, calligraphy, literature, poetry, and the tea ceremony,” says Caileen Machard in her essay “Geisha in the Wild, Wild West: How the Companions of the ‘Verse are Influenced by Geisha Culture.” After their training, Geisha women would then go to work either in their okiya or, if they were lucky, would live in one specific patron’s house, working only for them with their living expenses covered. This was known as danna (“Geisha: A Life” Iwasaki 56).
In the fourth episode of the series, “Shindig,” one of Inara’s clients, Atherton, takes her to a ball and offers her a deal. “I’m trying to offer you something, you know. A life, if you want it. You can live here on Persephone as my personal companion,” he tells her. She would be able to live rent free much like Japanese danna. Inara considers the proposal as she clearly fits into the society there, even knowing several of the attendees at the ball by name. She nearly agrees to save Malcom Reynolds from the duel the two men later engage in, but in the end rejects Atherton.
It is important to understand that sex isn’t the primary concern for a Companion or in a Geisha’s life (Iwasaki). While Companions in Firefly seem to rely primarily on sexual engagements, it is not the only service they provide. Inara is shown serving tea to her client at the beginning of every engagement. In the seventh episode of the series “Jaynestown,” she offers valuable advice to Fess Higgins which ends up saving the rest of the crew. She also has social power. “She is pretty much our ambassador. There’s plenty of planets wouldn’t let ya’ dock without a decent companion on board,” says Malcolm in the first episode. In the second episode “The Train Job,” Inara uses her social status to her advantage and struts into the Paradiso Jail and saves Malcolm and Zoe from a suspicious sheriff who has been questioning them. Inara’s profession gives her significant power in the verse.
Sex workers aren’t typically viewed in a positive light. Many people see it as degrading or immoral, and in cases of human trafficking this is true. It’s also seen as unsafe and many believe it breeds violence. This is also true in certain cases. “When a pimp compels a prostitute to submit to sexual demands as a condition of employment, it is exploitation, sexual harassment, or rape — acts that are based on the prostitute’s compliance rather than her consent. The fact that a pimp or customer gives money to a prostitute for submitting to these acts does not alter the fact that child sexual abuse, rape, and/or battery occurs; it merely redefines these crimes as prostitution,” says the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Illegal, organized sex work is rarely ever ethical in the U.S. Sex workers are subjected to crimes that— if it weren’t sex work— would be federal offenses. Sex workers are taken advantage of and degraded. Even in the Firefly universe, danger in sex work is prevalent. In episode fourteen, “Heart of Gold,” a group of sex workers are put in danger when a local big shot tries to steal the baby of a prostitute he impregnated. The brothel is an illegal one, not mandated or approved by the Guild. The workers there were never trained by the Guild and aren’t under their protection. What the brothel does is illegal because they aren’t certified Companions. While the leader of the brothel is anything but benevolent, the fact remains that the sex workers there live dangerous lives. However, part of the danger in sex work may be due to the fact that it isn’t legal or regulated in most countries.
Amsterdam has a vibrant sex work scene that is highly regulated. Like any other business, sex establishments face municipal regulation over location, organization, and how business is done. To prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, city health services offer sex workers access to free or no-cost clinics to find out their status and receive any necessary treatment. A bill made in 2000 helped lower instances in which the erotic industry is harmful to the sex worker (Amsterdam.info). Amsterdam authorities “regulate prostitution, aiming at protecting minors, eliminating forced prostitution and combating the new phenomena of human trafficking. Any sex business must obtain from a municipality a license, certifying that it has fulfilled the legal requirements to operate.” (Amsterdam.info). Because sex work is legal in Amsterdam, it creates a safer, less shameful environment in which sex workers can operate. “Under circumstances in which sex work is accepted and regulated in society, in which the sex worker is protected and granted the same rights as any other laborer, sex work has the possibility to be beneficial to women,” says Kelly J. Bell in her article “A Feminist’s Argument On How Sex Work Can Benefit Women” (1).
This is exactly how Companions work in the Firefly universe. Because of the Guild’s strict regulations, Companions are safe to do their work and benefit from both their income and the social status that comes with their title.. They can blacklist clients who have hurt done them harm (“Shindig”) and only choose clients who they wish to work with. They have services to help them in case of STD’s or abuse. Companions serve as an example of how sex work in our society can progress with safer regulation and removal of the stigma around the industry.
In the case of the brothel in “Heart of Gold,” part of what forced the brothel to ask for the crew of Serenity’s help is because they knew no one else was going to be there for them. They were working illegally, without approval of the Guild. Were they a legal brothel with certified Companions, they would have had protection and regulation under the Guild. Because they were working illegally, they had to find other means of protection. Luckily, the leader’s connection to Inara afforded them that.
The Companions of Firefly are strong. Inara is extremely bright and can stand her ground in just about any situation. Another Companion in the series, Saffron, is not exactly the best example of an upstanding character, but it can’t be denied that she’s one hell of a woman. Malcolm calls her a “brilliant, beautiful, evil, doublecrossing snake.” (Episode 13 “Trash”) She’s not a good person by any means, however she is strong and doesn’t let people step on her. Saffron knows what she has and she uses it to her advantage. There’s nothing degrading about what she does. Companions like Saffron and Inara are strong women who have full control of their bodies and demand respect from the people around them. So do real life sex workers.
Part of this empowerment comes from the writer behind them. Joss Whedon is widely known as an avid human rights advocate, especially when it comes to equality between the sexes. Inspired by his feminist mother, Whedon has always had a fascination with strong women. “His excitement at a young age at seeing a girl character ‘let into the club’ had grown into a desire to tell her story himself, because it was story he himself wanted to live: ‘Somebody who appears to be or is weak becomes stronger. But in almost every case, that persona is female.’ “ (“Joss Whedon; The Biography” Pascale 31). He has been honored many times by Equality Now for writing so many female characters that are not only strong, but iconic. His works such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and of course Firefly have extremely intelligent, independent and strong females, often as the main characters. At the 2006 “Make Equality Reality” event, Joss Whedon gave a speech in which he spoke about the many responses he has given to reporters who ask him “Why do you write such strong female characters?” His final answer to this question was haunting: “Because you’re still asking me that.”
What Whedon has managed to do with characters like Inara and Saffron is craft a world in which sex work is the norm. Women do what they will with their bodies and have protection and resources should they ever need it. They’re highly intelligent and commanding individuals with high regard in their society. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is. If we can bring real life sex work into this same, positive light, we can create a safer, stigma-free environment for which the industry to operate.
Edit: It was brought to my attention that certain phrases in this article were too vague and came across as insulting. I’ve since changed them to reflect my argument more clearly.
Whedon, Joss. “Firefly.” FIrefly. 20th Century Fox. California, 20 Sept. 2002.
Machard, Caileen. “Geisha in the Wild, Wild West: How the Companions of the ‘Verse Are Influenced by Geisha Culture.” Watcher Junior 7.2 (2014): n. pag. Whedon Studies. Web. 9 Apr. 2015. <http://www.whedonstudies.tv/>.
Iwasaki, Mineko, and Rande Brown. Ouchi. Geisha: A Life. New York: Atria, 2002. Print.
Bell, Kelly J. “A Feminist’s Argument On How Sex Work Can Benefit Women.” Student Pulse. Student Pulse, 2009. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “Top 10 Pros and Cons: Should Prostitution Be Legal?” Procon.org. Procon, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.
“Amsterdam Prostitution.” Amsterdam Prostitution. Amsterdam.info, Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
Pascale, Amy. Joss Whedon: The Biography. Illinios: Chicago Review, 2014. Print.
Whedon, Joss. “Joss Whedon Equality Now Award Acceptance Speech.” YouTube. Equality Now, 8 May 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.
Photos are credited to FOX, Mutant Enem, Daily Mail and behindtheredlightdistrict.blogspot.com.