There are a couple topics within feminism that really polarize feminists. One of the biggest ones is sex workers and sex worker rights. There are a lot of issues that come to play here, such as sex trafficking (which is the forcing of women and men into sex work and is not the same as someone who chooses to be a sex worker), poverty, objectification of women, and much more. Still, the rights of sex workers has become a divisive issue for feminists around the world.
In the TV show Firefly and the movie Serenity (though to a lesser extent in Serenity) Inara Serra is one of the main characters and also a sex worker. In the world of Firefly, Inara is considered a Companion, which is similar to a very bastardized western appropriated version of a geisha. A Companion entertains, has tea ceremonies, attends parties/events with their clients, provides for their clients’ spiritual and emotional well-being as needed, and yes, has sex with their clients. Despite the general acceptance in society of Inara’s profession and even her standing as a member of an elite class of people, she often comes under fire for her profession as a sex worker.
So today, I am going to explore whether or not Joss Whedon, the writer of Firefly, intended Inara to be a positive example for the rights of sex workers or if he is attempting to show that sex workers are a symptom of an inherently problematic society.
Before I get into Inara’s portrayal of sex work, I want to first explain a little about sex work and sex workers’ rights in the feminist movement. Sex work is when a person exchanges their own sexual services for compensation. Sex work does not necessarily require actually having sex—for example, a stripper or a cam girl/boy (those who solely perform sexual acts via their webcam) is also considered a sex worker. Some feminists believe that sex work is degrading and that the violence, rape, abuse, and exploitation sex workers face is an inherent effect of sex work. Other feminists contend that it is not sex work that is the problem, but rather the laws, working conditions, and the stigma surrounding sex work that actually cause the problems. Many feminists are now pushing for the decriminalization of prostitution and a lessening of the social stigma surrounding sex work. Melissa Gira Grant, a feminist writer who has written on sex and politics, explains:
In Louisiana some women arrested for prostitution have been charged under a 200-year-old statute prohibiting “crimes against nature.” Those charged—disproportionately black women and transgender women—end up on the state sex-offender registry. In Texas a third prostitution arrest counts as an automatic felony. Women’s prisons are so overloaded that the state is rethinking the law to cut costs. In Chicago police post mug shots of all those arrested for solicitation online, a shaming campaign intended to target men who buy sex. But researchers at DePaul University found that 10 percent of the photos are of trans women who were wrongly gendered as men by cops and arrested as “johns.” A prostitution charge will haunt these women throughout the interlocking bureaucracies of their lives: filling out job applications, signing kids up for day care, renting apartments, qualifying for loans, requesting passports or visas. (source)
Some sex workers have even accused feminists of reducing women down to their vaginas. Molly, an intersectional feminist, blogger, and sex worker, writes:
There is nothing more misogynist than implying/stating that I’m selling ‘myself’ when I sell sex. I am a lot more than my vagina and what I do in bed, and I expect feminists to understand that. (source)
Now that you have a better understanding of the debate raging around sex work, let’s discuss Inara’s portrayal as a sex worker.
Inara’s world is much different from that of sex workers today, and in many ways feminists who are in favor of the rights of sex workers would be very pleased with the changes made in Inara’s time. Companions are allowed to pick and choose their own clients, and it’s even implied within the show that there’s a sort of screening process before someone can request the company of a Companion. The Companions have access to some form of health care, as Inara explains that all Companions must undergo a yearly physical exam. Though never stated, it is at least implied that the yearly examination is paid for by the Companions Guild. Companions also seem to have some idea of what to expect from their clients before they contract with them. Men and women are allowed to be Companions, though men are never allowed to run the Companion Houses, and all are allowed to service either sex at their discretion. If a client behaves badly toward a Companion, they receive a black mark in the Companion registry, assuring that no Companion will ever provide services to them again. Companions are also thoroughly educated in everything from politics, to philosophy, and music so that that they can provide conversation and advice to their clients.
There is minimal stigma surrounding Companions and most of the stigma seems to be from religion and on the less educated border planets, though there is still some stigma on the central or wealthier planets as well. According to the official Firefly wiki page, “Though a Companion is welcomed as an escort at a party, a Companion would not be so well-received as husband or wife. A Companion might commit to an exclusive, long-term contract, but that would still be a business arrangement.” So despite the seeming lack of social stigma on the central planets, it’s clear the stigma isn’t entirely gone.
There are some other problems with the Companion system some feminists today might have. Though some women from the poorer border planets can become Companions, it is usually only wealthy women of status who are able to train as Companions, creating a clear divide between rich and poor women. For those sex workers unable to become Companions, not much has changed. In the episode “Heart of Gold”, Nandi, a former Companion, goes to a house of prostitution on one of the border planets. She described how the man running the house had half the girls addicted to drugs and didn’t ask for references from the clients. Inara begrudgingly calls these women “whores” simply because they aren’t registered with the Guild, and the people in the town have no respect for the prostitutes that live and work there. Throughout the episode the women are called evil and decadent (though the men being serviced never are seen as doing something wrong) and are told to know their place. One character even uses one of the sex workers to gain an heir, then tells the woman he got pregnant that he would even cut the baby from her stomach in order to take it from her.
Another issue that many feminists would find objectionable is that of consent. Though it’s never, I believe, mentioned in the show, the official description of Companions on the wiki page explains that Companions begin their education at age twelve. After they complete their education, they are trained as Companions. It’s never mentioned if a family can send their child to a Companion house just for an education, so it must be that anyone who begins their education there has the intent to become a Companion. Despite the fact that no sexual training begins until much later, one could ask if some of these children were pressured by their family to become a Companion. After all, can a twelve-year-old really have enough knowledge to know for certain they want to enter into sex work as an adult? I don’t really think so.
One final issue could be leaving the life of a Companion. Nandi, as I mentioned earlier, is a former Companion who left because she felt the life of a Companion was too restricting. Inara is told to shun Nandi after she leaves, though it’s never stated why. If there is simply a social stigma around Companions choosing to quit the profession, that is a big issue. The women and men should be allowed to quit without consequence if the life isn’t for them.
It is made clear, however, throughout the show, that Inara, at least, has freely chosen and likes her profession.
Inara often faces social stigma for her profession. She admits that she has been lectured “for the wickedness of her ways” before, presumably by other Christians like Shepherd Book. She expects this same prejudice from Shepherd Book, a Protestant monk, but though he is uncomfortable with her at first, he never seems to judge her or belittle her profession. Though he never openly states what he thinks about her profession, either, he does seem to be more liberal in his thinking.
Malcolm Reynolds, the Captain of Serenity, is constantly antagonistic toward Inara about her life as a Companion. He calls her a “whore” almost constantly, purposefully antagonizes her, and belittles both her and her clients. In the episode “Shindig”, Mal punches a man for implying Inara is a whore, but then proceeds to call her a whore to her face. Mal argues that he doesn’t like the “lie” of being a Companion, people pretending that they “won” Inara’s affections or Inara pretending to care for her clients. He also claims that he doesn’t respect Inara’s profession, but he does respect her, which seems to be the attitude of many feminists today who want to abolish sex work.
Could Mal’s contempt for Inara’s profession be intended to show a feminist view that wants to abolish sex work? Furthermore, the Companion’s Guild is sanctioned by the government, which is portrayed as corrupted and evil in the show. Could this imply that the Guild is yet another problematic aspect of a corrupt society?
No and no!
I don’t believe that Joss Whedon was using Mal or the Alliance (the corrupt government in Firefly) to show how sex work needs to be abolished or is symptomatic of a corrupt society.
Mal, I believe, comes off less as being critical of sex work and more in love with Inara and jealous of the clients she is with. Though he constantly demeans Inara and her clients in “Heart of Gold”, he is nothing but respectful and kind to Nandi and the other prostitutes. In this way, Mal actually comes off as more patriarchal by demeaning Inara and her work. Furthermore, if Mal really is constantly belittling Inara because he is jealous of her clients, then Mal’s attempts to control Inara are sexist and abusive tactics.
As to whether or not the Guild is symptomatic of a corrupt society? To that question I would say yes and no. Yes, the Guild also has its own issues that need to be addressed, such as the age that training for a Companion begins or how the system prioritizes the rich and wealthy of their society, and even issues of consent in the case of Nandi who left the Guild and was shunned for it. But no, I don’t think the Guild shows that sex work, in and of itself, is a symptom of a corrupt society. The Guild, on the whole, is shown as a much better system, but by no means perfect.
Despite the fact that Joss Whedon never openly stated anything about sex worker rights and Inara’s character, I think it is safe to assume that Inara and her portrayal as a sex worker is actually meant to be positive, while still showing certain problematic elements. The Guild shows how much better things could be for sex workers, while the portrayal of normal prostitutes not with the Guild and how abused they are allows the viewer to both see how things could be improved for sex workers today as well as the struggles they currently face.