Re-watching “Heart Of Gold” this time around, I found myself remembering one of the key messages of George Miller’s 2015 sensation Mad Max: Fury Road. As the “wives” of Immortan Joe say time and time again in that story:
We are not things!
While I personally found that message a little hollow due to the flimsy characterisation given to the wives (see here for my more complete thoughts) it’s still a message that should be taken on-board more, in real life and in the fantastical world of visual fiction. And in Firefly, in “Heart Of Gold”, we get a really good exploration of it.
The polarised sides of “Heart Of Gold” are defined by two male characters: Malcolm Reynolds and Ranse Burgess. One is the captain of a vessel that has women as nearly half its compliment, has fought alongside one woman for over a decade and finds himself immeasurably attracted to the most sexually liberated woman on the ship. The other is the cruel domineering landlord of the moon, with a wife he treats as an afterthought due to her inability to bear children, and a predilection for buying sexual gratification, which he soon extends to what he views, essentially, as breeding rights (“Heart Of Gold” has little interest in discussing parental rights, with Burgess portrayed as totally unfit to be a father, and I think that this is fair enough really). For Mal, women are part and parcel of daily lives, people like any other, a concept that he has stated and reiterated on several occasions in the shows run so far, most notably in “Our Mrs Reynolds”. For Burgess, they are things, disposable pleasures or incubators for his seed, to be used and discarded as he sees fit. When Burgess gives his rallying speech to his men the night before the attack, it’s like he’s saying everything that Mal, in terms of his relationships with women, has been brought up to hate.
It is a contrast defined by an emotional connection being made, and a total lack of care for the “whores”. The contrast is made through dialogue and visually, not least in a scene I have already talked about, when Mal and Nandi enjoy a night of passion, while Burgess forces a turncoat “whore” into an act of oral sex in front of his men. In the end, Mal fights Burgess so he can defend these woman and their way of life, and their potential ability to build a better world for themselves. When he loses Nandi, he goes after Burgess with furious abandon, but unlike the cruel and totally unrepentant Burgess (“She was just a whore…”) Mal still has some mercy in him, “the mark of a great man”. But not so much mercy that he is willing to step in and stop Petaline from getting her well-earned revenge.
That’s Mal’s side of the coin, but “Heart Of Gold” isn’t interested in just being solely about Mal’s relationships with women and his battles over them. No, “Heart Of Gold” has female characters with strength aplenty on their own terms, in the way that Whedon shows tend to be full of.
There are different kinds of strength exhibited: there is the physical, as the prostitutes of the brothel take up arms and shoot at out at the men riding in on them with murderous intentions, an act which carries with it a strength of will as well. There is emotional strength, in the willingness to risk everything just to protect Petaline and her baby, and the affectionate manner in which Inara and Nandi interact despite the rather large obstacle that comes between them in the form of Mal. There is a ruthless streak in some of them, most notably Petaline at the conclusion, that points to a hidden kind of strength required if they are going to make their way in this world and out this far from civilisation.
Sexually liberated, capable and willing to fire back at the people firing at them, and not willing to just be swoon damsels for the men to come along and rescue, the women of “Heart Of Gold” are examples of how to properly create that illusive strong female character: sure, they can fight if they have to, but their real strength doesn’t come from the ability to do that. In the end, their real strength lies in the bond that they have with each other and the community that they have helped to create on this otherwise desolate moon, the representation of which so scares Inara, who realises that she is unwittingly falling into the same pattern.
Her role in the story, culminating in that final scene, is one of strength also, and finding the courage and the fortitude to take that fateful step and make arrangements to leave Serenity for good. No traditional happy ending here, with the man declaring his love and the woman falling into his arms. No, instead, a more mature approach: a female character making a decision about her own future, independently, and that decision is to forgo an entanglement with the central male character. In essence, she’s choosing her career over the possibility of any kind of relationship with Mal, rejecting that possible union because there is simply no way that Mal would ever be OK with Inara being who she is: he can share his ship with a sex worker, despite his jabs, but he could never share his heart. Inara’s tears in “Heart Of Gold” reflect that: an understandable frustration that things can’t ever really work out perfectly, and that there are hard choices to be made in the near future. Some take the tears as a sign of weakness: I take them as a sign of humanity. Later, when Inara holds a knife to Burgess’ throat, you have no doubt she’s willing to sink it in.
Fury Road can be compared to easily enough. Both that film and “Heart Of Gold” feature nominally central male characters who take a decreasing role in things as time goes on. Both feature female characters who are strong in different ways. Both feature an antagonist who views women as objects as opposed to as people. Both feature this villain getting his final comeuppance at the hands of one of those women. Both feature groups of women facing into a happier, but a little uncertain, future, with the central male presence departing from the scene. The added complication of “Heart Of Gold” is Inara leaving Serenity, a plot point that will only come to fruition on the page.