“As a rule, I say, girlfolk ain’t to be trusted.”
Ben Edlund and Jose Molina
OK. Episode eleven, now. Trash returns to the problematic virgin/whore figure of Saffron, who we first met in Our Mrs Reynolds pretending to be Mal’s wife in order to steal Serenity. Here, Saffron (not her real name) rocks up pretending to be someone else’s wife in order to steal something else (hi, River Song). On being ratted out by Mal, she’s left stranded, and makes him an offer: she has the plans to a billionaire’s house, which she’ll share with Serenity‘s crew in exchange for a share of the profits in the inevitable robbery.
Got all that? Good.
One of the things I struggled with when thinking about Trash was just what, exactly, Saffron is doing in this episode. She’s clearly not supposed to be a sympathetic character (since the denouement of Our Mrs Reynolds saw her trying to fry the crew of Serenity), and yet the show seems fascinated by her very unknowability. She is functionally nameless, addressed as “Bridget”, “Yolanda” and “Saffron” depending on which man is speaking to her (and it is always a man); perhaps more interestingly, her motivations and her actions are unguessable. There’s a potent scene late in the episode where she appears to break down in front of Mal, having disappointed the billionaire who turns out to be yet another of her husbands, and her grief at this is quite convincing; that is, until she reveals that she’s used Mal’s distraction to steal his gun. The episode seems drawn to the fact that there is simply no bottom to her.
What’s going on here, then? Can we read this destabilising influence back into Our Mrs Reynolds and salvage something of that episode?
Well: yes, and no. One of the puzzles of Saffron’s arc is just how such a problematic character ever made it into such a wryly self-aware show (see also: War Stories). But if we see her primarily in terms of her unknowability, her anarchic potential, we can construct a sort of quasi-feminist reading which sees Saffron/Bridget/Yolanda as one “answer” to the rough-around-the-edges semi-dystopia Whedon creates in Firefly. Her extreme self-interest destabilises the patriarchal fiction of marriage: her “husbands” are thieves or hoarders, and her shenanigans perform a sort of incredulity that these people, these ungenerous and roguish capitalists, could actually believe in her shy-virgin act, simply because she is a woman. In other words, she uses their unacknowledged prejudice against them; like many a Shakespeare villainness, she makes her greatest weakness her greatest strength.
But Trash, unfortunately, still feels the need to “trash” Saffron – literally: the end of the episode sees her trapped in a rubbish container by Inara and Mal. That’s because, I think, if her anarchic potential is threatening to the patriarchal order, it’s also threatening to the order pertaining among the crew of Serenity. Firefly is essentially a story, or a set of stories, about the power of community as an answer to impersonal capitalism; friendship in the face of atrocity, camaraderie in a world that has no place for it. Saffron, by contrast, is an extreme individualist who refuses, repeatedly, to become involved in any meaningful relationship; her self-interest consistently denies and destabilises the possibility of the community Serenity represents. In order to sustain the ideological fabric of the show, the writers have to close down the transgressive and anarchic potential of the character by turning her, literally, into trash.
See also: every single female character who has ever shown a shred of self-interest. Notice that the same thing pointedly doesn’t happen to Jayne, who is very definitely out only for himself and who only gets a sound talking-to by Simon. No: if you are female, and if you refuse to live by the rules, then you can go in the trash.
That went well, didn’t it?