Look at the Pretties!: a Semiotic Analysis Investigating the Representation of Gender and Power Through Visual Codes in Firefly

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  • Topic: Joss Whedon, Firefly, Serenity
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  • Published : September 28, 2012
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“Look at the Pretties!”
A semiotic analysis investigating the representation of gender and power through visual codes in Firefly RACHEL CHOI (N753511) Queensland University of Technology

A self-proclaimed feminist, Joss Whedon is renowned and admired for his positive representation of women throughout his oeuvre. His history of writing strong female characters appears to perpetuate his American space western series Firefly

(2002-2003) with characters like Inara and Kaylee who, on the surface, suggest a reconfiguration of conventional gender and power constructs. However, contrary to Whedon’s intentions, the visual codes embedded in the text do not adequately demonstrate a subversion of the traditional privileging of male power. By considering the material signifiers and the related immaterial signifieds in the episode “Shindig” (Whedon and Espenson, 2002), it is evident that the representation of gender within the show is ambiguous. Although Firefly offers audiences stimulating commentary on gender roles, female characters remain constrained by the gendered notion that female empowerment is drawn solely from relationships with men.

Firefly takes place in the year 2517, hundreds of years after Earth became too populated to sustain its numbers. Through ‘terraforming’, the world that the show inhabits actually involves many worlds, as there is no limit to the number of planets and moons that have undergone this process. The social and cultural context of the program is difficult to ascertain as Whedon has drawn on a multitude of influences to create this futuristic ‘verse (the show’s contraction for universe). Not only has he married the genre specific elements of science fiction with that of a Western, but he also introduces audiences to a universe that seems unmistakably familiar and yet vastly unfamiliar. Extracting components from the contemporary world, Whedon attempts to shift current social and cultural paradigms through “a hybridization of elements” where “every visual choice is strictly tied with an ideological and moral meaning that originates from the genre codes” (Maio 2008, 211). What Whedon intended to create through Firefly was a metaphor of “the future as another then, or as another now” (Espenson 2004, 2) – a seemingly remote galaxy of worlds as a reflection of and commentary on the social, cultural and political climate of today’s world. The result is a universe that appears to embrace the attitudes and values of both the East and the West, never broaches the issue of racial disparities and glorifies the occupation of a Companion. It is this last aspect that will be the focus of deconstructing the first character to be examined through semiotic analysis.

Inara, as a Companion, is essentially a high-class prostitute culturally coded as the Japanese geisha. Certainly, the show frequently emphasises the societal legitimacy of her profession, her complete freedom to choose her clients and as shown in “Shindig”, her power to blacklist disparaging clients from engaging Companions in the future. However, the seemingly empowering incorporation of the Orient and reworking of the prostitute can be destabilised when examined more closely as “the sign-symbol has a surplus of signification in that there is always more meaning than first encountered” (Juschka 2009, 173). Amy-Chinn (2007, 175) argues that the show “draws on patriarchal and colonialist discourse to reinscribe the body of a woman of colour as a site of white (predominantly male) hegemonic privilege”. This view cannot be reached without an understanding of the relationship between the signifiers and their signifieds within the text, an understanding that relies on membership to a particular interpretive community as “signs and conventions … depend on cultural knowledge” (O’Shaughnessy and Stadler 2008, 135). With the exception of her attire at Persephone’s “social event of the season” (Whedon and Espenson 2002), Inara’s wardrobe can be described...
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