Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Big Damn Working Class Heroes (Firefly)

If you’re on the internet, then you probably know about Firefly. We like it. We like it a lot. We like it because it’s the ultimate underdog story: not only is it a story about underdogs, it’s also a story that was the underdog. It was cancelled before its time, but the whole cast and crew and writers have gone on to have fantastic careers, thus vindicating that it was a great show and shouldn’t have been cancelled, etc.

We already know all of that. So what the hell am I hoping to add to a discussion of a show that was cancelled ten years ago?

You already know that it’s a good show, it’s got a lot of awesome female characters, and the storylines are tight and beautiful and gaaaaaah we miss it. Seriously. So, again, what’s left to say?

Well here’s the bit that I don’t think we’ve ever talked about, at least not on here. And it’s pretty simple, but it makes a difference. Did you ever notice that everyone on this show, all the characters I mean, are the best at their jobs? Like, the best ever?

It took rewatching the show just recently (and by that I mean last night) for me to realize that this isn’t really a group of scrappy underdogs saving the day by the skin of their teeth. I mean, they are certifiably scrappy, and I suppose they do save the say with some rather skinned dental work, but they aren’t actually underdogs. They’re just on hard times.

This resonates with me, because the whole scrappy underdog story actually pisses me off. Oh, I love the idea of people not in a position of power getting the chance to show the world what they can do, but I really hate the idea that you just have to “believe in yourself” and you’ll get far. Because you won’t. You have to work hard to get anywhere. And that’s okay.

So the fact that all of the characters on this show are phenomenally talented at what they do but still live in poverty and are marginalized and have crappy lives? I actually find that significantly more powerful. Because these are people who have the skills to pay the bills. They are good at what they do. And they can’t use their talents to their fullest abilities because of the circumstances of life and the vagaries of law and evil corporations that do human experimentation on children. You know, normal stuff.

But think about it. Wash is a horrifically talented pilot. Kaylee has made an engine run on spare parts and prayer, and the thing runs beautifully. Zoe and Mal are both incredibly good soldiers, and Jayne is very good at what he does (hit people). Simon is proven time and again to be one of the best doctors in the ‘verse, and River, terrifying though she may be, is incredibly talented. Oh, and Inara is a well-respected and loved Companion, and Book is generally considered too good for them all.

Let’s face it, these are not incompetent people.

Which makes it all the more touching that their lives are such unmitigated crap. Because that is a hell of a lot truer to life than the whole “believe in yourself” thing. I hate to sound depressing, especially since I’m actually having a very nice week, but it’s true. This story is much more common. Where the people who work hard and put in the time and dedicate themselves to their craft still can’t get ahead. Because they were born in the wrong place. Because they don’t have a support network. Because they chose family over career.

This may make me sound like a bleeding heart liberal (and that’s perfectly fine, let’s be real here), but I really appreciate the show for this. Probably more than I appreciate it for anything else.

Yes, the female characters in Firefly are well-written and fully-realized and just masterworks of acting and storytelling, but so are a lot of other female characters on Joss Whedon’s shows. Buffy actually hits that spot for me better than Firefly does, so that’s okay. And it’s true that this is an amazing show that was tragically cancelled too soon, but so are lots of shows, when you get down to it. There’s nothing new to note here.

This is what moves me about Firefly. That it addresses class issues. It addresses the inherent injustice of our chosen economic system. Not that we are biased against talent, which isn’t true at all, but that we have no in built way of making sure that the talent we find actually rises to the top.

Kaylee is a great example. Here’s a woman who can recognize any engine, probably fix most of them better than the people that designed them, and she’s keeping a bucket of bolts in the air for barely any pay out on the outskirts of society. It’s not that her choices are bad, it’s that you have to stop for a second and realize that Kaylee didn’t really have any choices. She got her job working on Serenity because she had sex in the engine room and happened to fix the engine while she was at it. It was her way off the farm. Literally her only way.

Imagine if Kaylee hadn’t come to see Serenity that day. Not only would the ship not have run nearly so well for nearly so long, but she’d also not have left home. She’d probably have married a nice boy from down the road. And that’s fine. But it’s not what she wanted.

Instead of being used to at least keep one ship flying, Kaylee would have never gotten to see the black. And even when we see her in the run of the show, she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves. Kaylee could be out there designing ships, amazing ships, but she isn’t. Because she’s not educated. Because she was born on the Rim. Because she’s from the wrong class.

Or take Simon and River. They’re probably even better examples because they actually come from a higher class background. They grew up with money. Education. Opportunity. And now they have none of that, because Simon chose family over career. 

It’s not a bad choice, and the show certainly validates him for it, but it is an unusual one. He decided that he’d rather save his little sister than be head surgeon. That’s great. Really. I commend that. And I also commend the story for admitting that this changes his life forever.

We do not live in a society where opportunity is either free or forever. Simon loses his chance to “live up to his potential” when he rescues River. And there’s certainly an aspect of the story that examines how he clearly doesn’t mind. But there’s also another side of this. And that’s the part where we all take it as read that he had to give up his career to care for her.

That’s the part that gets me. Because I’ve been a fan of Firefly for a very long time, and I only just noticed how freaking talented all these people are. Like, I thought about it in passing, but it just now hit me that any one of these people could have had a stellar career, a legitimate, money filled career, had they not been in some way disadvantaged. Lower class. Discriminated against. Chosen a different path.

I didn’t notice it because, well, we don’t, do we? We just figure that’s the way things are. That people born poor will stay poor. That the Kaylees and Jaynes of this world will be lucky to leave the farm. That veterans with PTSD should be happy with the jobs they can get, even if those jobs are out of the way and don’t pay well. That people who choose to take care of an ill family member should say goodbye to having a steady job.

We have been brainwashed into thinking that this is true. And it doesn’t have to be.

I guess, to sum up, let’s call this a reminder. A reminder not to take our lives and opportunities for granted, and a reminder that Firefly is a damn good show.