Just what are feminine wiles?
MAL: Hear you’re looking for me?
INARA: I was. Care to sit?…I was hoping we could talk a little business. Would you like some tea?
MAL: Okay, what’s your game?
INARA: I offered you tea.
MAL: Uh-huh. After inviting me into your shuttle of your own free will, which makes two events without precedent, which makes me more’n a little skittish.
INARA: Honestly, Mal, if we can’t be civilized and talk like-
MAL: I’m plenty civilized. You’re using wiles on me.
INARA: I’m using what?
MAL: Your feminine wiles. Your Companion training, or some might say uncanny ability to make a man sweaty and/or compliant, of which I’ve had just about enough of today.
INARA: Maybe this isn’t the best time.
MAL: No, no. This is a fine time. You just talk plainly, is all.
Mal famous utterance, that he fears Inara’s “feminine wiles”, comes in “Trash” an episode that contains a great deal of a certain female character trying to get others – mostly men – to do what she wants. But what the hell are feminine wiles?
Obviously, you won’t be finding a picture perfect definition anytime soon. Type the phrase into Google and you first get a rather neutral description from blog site “On The Rocks”:
Feminine wiles are a woman’s power. They are what she covertly uses to influence her man, or any man, to get what she wants. It is what any particular woman might want that a man has to be careful of. If her end game is to increase her ability to love, then her manipulation or influence of her man is a very good thing.
Of course, keep looking down that Google search page and you’ll find stuff that is resoundingly negative in tone, containing words like “bitches”, “sexual bewitchery” and suggested search terms frontloaded with MRA garbage like “Why are men becoming more feminine?”
Taking a step back from all of that stupidity, we can describe the term as simply the actions or words of a woman when she is trying to get someone – I suppose a man, though I can’t imagine why the term has to be set to happen to just one gender – to do something that she wants, in a way that can be seen as more pleasant than “nagging”, another term that is just loaded in a gender sense. So, the question that occurs to me watching “Trash”, which has the above scene very early, as a major bit of set-up to the entire plot, is what kind of feminine wiles, if any, do we actually see in the episode?
You have to look at Mal and Inara first and foremost. I notice, in those more negative appraisals of feminine wiles, they are often described as having an overt sexual aspect, essentially a seduction, a promise of sexual gratification to come in exchange for the desired behavior now. But in the very scene that Mal drops the two words, there is precious little overt sexuality on display, beyond Inara’s annoyed declaration that Mal is not her lover, and thus should not have any power whatsoever over her affairs. She’s dressed nicely, but without any large amounts of skin showing, and her manner and act – inviting Mal into her shuttle, for once, and offering tea – is more in line with the seeking of a civilized discussion than any kind of feminine mind control. In fact, Inara’s behavior here, while feminine perhaps in terms of clothes and colors, could just as easily be performed by a man, and Mal’s suggestion of “feminine wiles” is heavily influenced by his previous interaction with “Yosaf Bridge”.
Saffron/Bridget/Yolanda is the real user of “feminine wiles”, having gotten some kind of companion training in her lifetime, enough to give her an imperfect but effective grasp on how to use her body, her charm and her obvious intelligence to get people to do what she wants. But in the opening of the episode, her efforts are clumsy, probably as a result of her dire straits: forced to balance the tight rope between Mal and Monty with no way to win, and then needing Mal to give her a lift off the dirtheap of a planet she has found herself stranded on. When she remarks “But face it hubby…I’m really hot”, it’s both an arrogant declaration and an admission that she’s sort of out of ideas: trying to seduce Mal as she did before is pointless.
Instead, unable to control Mal through his pants, she tries to control him – and, by extension, the rest of the crew – by other means, namely, the chance to get a lot of money. The opportunity of a big score is enough to get the rest of the crew on board with her plan, and Saffron’s manner in her pitch meeting – half matter of fact, half dismissive of their previous encounter with her and the associated brush with death – is another example of her attempting to alter her image to get favor with others. It works.
Or, at least, Saffron thinks it works. In truth, she has already gone way too far on her road as a vamp manipulator, to the extent that anyone with even a passing familiarity with her is unable to trust her as far as she can be thrown. Mal, Inara, the rest of the crew see through Saffron fairly easily, and while she might still be able to pull enough of a con to get Mal’s gun out of his holster and sabotage Serenity slightly, she is now too isolated to actually get everything that she wants. If Inara is showcasing something that we might call a positive use of feminine wiles – essentially a gracious manner in the pursuit of a better business relationship – than Saffron is the total opposite, and a failure to boot. The episode’s title does not just refer to the method by which the Lassiter is taken from its owner, but the kind of person, deep down inside, that Saffron really is, made real by our last glimpse of her, her wiles all used up. Even with somebody like Durham, who still professes love for her, Saffron’s act is lacking success.
So, feminine wiles, as many would understand the term, don’t actually cut a lot of ice in the world of Firefly. Being pleasant, respectful, caring and loyal – all things that you could attribute to Inara in this episode, whether you want to call them feminine wiles or not – is what gets you ahead, because it is what keeps you from being left isolated and alone. And a woman wielding a fist at the right moment, as Zoe does, or her well-learned craft, as Kaylee does, or just her innate understanding of what makes people tick, like River does, in order to achieve their goals, is as wily as any sultry look or seductive action. People like Saffron seem incapable of understanding that, or dealing with a world where they can’t get everything she wants just through the imaginative use of her body. In others words, without being trashy.