Sunday, December 22, 2013

Cult-TV Blogging: Firefly: "Heart of Gold"

A friend of Inara’s (Morena Baccarin) -- a former companion named Nandi (Melinda Clarke) -- contacts Serenity in desperate need of help.   A rancher and power-hungry psychopath, Rance Burgess (Fredrich Lehne) is threatening the women in Melinda’s house of prostitution on a barren desert world.  In particular, a young woman named Petaline (Tracy Leah Ryan) is pregnant with Rance’s baby.
Mal agrees to help Nandi, and the women under Nandi’s care.  However, when he meets Rance face-to-face, Reynolds realizes that his crew and Nandi’s group are in serious trouble.  The man is every bit as dangerous as Nandi suggested, and more. Still, Nandi would rather fight than run.
Accordingly, Mal and his crew prepare for battle.  And on the night before that battle comes, Nandi and Mal sleep together.  Inara pretends not to be bothered by their intimacy, but is shattered by it.
Rance kills Nandi while attempting to claim his child, but the crew of Serenity ultimately defeats him. Petaline kills Rance thus saving her child.
Afterwards, Inara reports that she will be leaving Serenity permanently…

The “hooker with the heart of gold” is a long-standing Western movie trope, and thus fits in well with Firefly’s (2002) Western, post-Civil War approach to the future, or outer space. 

A hooker with a heart of gold might be said to be a woman of virtue working in an occupation where virtue is not expected, nor sought.  Sometimes, but not always, the “hooker with a heart of gold” is a tragic character, who despite her core decency experiences an unpleasant fate at the hands of a cruel patriarchy.

In “Heart of Gold” -- which clearly takes its name from the trope -- the crew of Serenity helps a group of women, led by Nandi (Clarke) face off against a sadistic bastard that runs the local town, and makes plain his view of women and their place.  When not making babies for him, women are to be his compliant sexual servants. 

In one scene that seems shocking for network television circa 2002, Rance Burgess forces a prostitute to perform fellatio on him in public while delivering an address before a crowd entirely of cheering men and minions. 

It is easy to suggest that Nandi is the hooker with the “heart of gold” of the episode’s title: a woman of virtue protecting her friends, and standing her ground.   But importantly, the “heart of gold” descriptor may also apply to Serenity’s resident companion, Inara. 

Inara’s heart of gold is clearly broken here when Mal chooses to sleep with Nandi.  This development is particularly intriguing because Inara’s sobs suggest that all her high-handed talk of companions “choosing” their lifestyle, and exerting “power” of others in society is just that…talk. 

Inara speaks frequently in the series as if sexual intercourse is a kind of therapy and her role as companion is part psychologist, part sexual partner.  If this is indeed the case, and companions are liberated from traditional gender roles and parochial attitudes about sex, then what explains Inara’s emotional breakdown over Mal’s actions?  Why are her words about being glad for him so obviously a “cover” for her true feelings?

Her response could be evidence of the fact that Inara is, actually, someone who has bought into a lie and become trapped in a patriarchal structure that requires her to use her body for men’s pleasure.  Inara is thus the proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold.”  This interpretation fits in well with some other aspects of the series.  The Alliance loves to convince people they are empowered and free when, in fact, they are slaves.  

That metaphor has never been explicitly connected to Inara in the series, but “Heart of Gold” implies that this is the case.  Inara has been convinced she is “enlightened” and “evolved” about matters of sex when, in fact, she is, as Mal always insists, but a glorified “whore.”

Or, contrarily, Inara’s emotional breakdown could suggest that even when one is “enlightened” about issues of sex, it hurts to see the one you love with someone else, especially a friend.  Perhaps Inara’s “power” as a companion is valid, but it’s something she would rather shun at this point, for a committed relationship (presumably with Mal).

Joss Whedon is an acknowledged and vocal feminist, and his characters in programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse certainly reflect this fact.  Yet what “Heart of Gold” really seems to concern is freedom; the idea that we should all choose to be what we want to be; and not be pulled into society’s definitions for us.  The tragic thing about Inara here is that she doubles-down on the lie of what being a companion means, instead of choosing the very thing that she thinks would make her happy: a romance with the man she truly loves.

Next week: “Objects in Space.”

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