Why I Hate River Tam

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Braak, crotchety ranting, poetics
Tags: , , , ,

I realize that this opinion is going to put me in the minority of 1) Joss Whedon fans, 2) Science Fiction fans, 3) People Who Watch TV.  I know that, and I can accept it.  But the fact of the matter is, I can’t stand River Tam.  I hate basically everything about her and (as I have said before, ad nauseam) I think Firefly would have been immeasurably improved if she’d been played by the bomb from Dark Star.

I have reasons.

Tiny Kung Fu Women

Let’s get this shit out of the way, first.  I know that I am prejudiced against the archetype of the Tiny Kung Fu Woman, and I know that there are a lot of arguments against me on that score.  If you look at my first polemic on that subject, you will see a number of them.  Many of these arguments are worth addressing (Bruce Lee only weighed a buck thirty!), many are pertinent (you don’t need muscle to be good at Aikido!), many are dumb (I’m a lot stronger than you’d think I would be!).  So, I don’t want to go too much into this, because it’s kind of a tangential argument, but:  Bruce Lee only weighed 130 when he came to the US, but after fighting a whole bunch of big guys and getting unacceptably tired while kicking their asses, he went to the gym and added another forty pounds of muscle to his frame.  Also, when he only weighed 130?  This is what he looked like:

Look at that dude’s lats.  He looks like a fucking cobra.  Don’t even try to tell me that “weight” doesn’t matter, because you know I’m not even talking about “weight”.  Yeah, sure, we wouldn’t be having this discussion if Summer Glau had lats like a fucking hang-glider, AGREED.

And it’s true that in Aikido, the better you are at it, the less energy (and thus muscle) it requires:  which is why all the Aikido masters are either tiny Japanese people or old dudes with fat bellies.  And in the crazy context of Firefly, River has magic dance-fighting powers, so, like an Aikido master, maybe she learned how to apply her dance-powers in a way that minimized effort requirements, and thus could kick ass without needing to build muscle.  BUT, an important thing to note about Aikido masters is that you rarely see them win Ultimate Fighting Tournaments (I mean, sure, it’s beneath most of them, but it can’t be beneath ALL of them, right?  Why doesn’t some dude like Stephen Seagal just go in there and wreck everyone, to show people how great Aikido is?), and that none of this has anything to do with how you swing an ax.  Remember, in Serenity, when she kills all those dudes with an ax?  The thing about axes is that they are chopping weapons, not slashing weapons — a slashing weapon could, in theory, if you were infinitely precise and graceful, sever arteries and tendons with only the very tip of the weapon.  This would require no more force than is absolutely necessary, and would allow you to use the weapon’s mass to keep it in motion, minimizing effort.  An ax CANNOT be used that way.  It is a chopper, and the thing about chopping is once the ax goes in, you’ve got to yank it back out.

Axes, in other words, take muscle.

There are a number of other issues with the mechanics of River Tam’s fighting; I know that she has magic ballet powers, and it’s true that ballet-fighting can yield some good fights (see:  Alexander Gudonov in Die Hard), and that one major fight in Serenity was okay, I didn’t mind that.  But there are issues, like the fact that River Tam only weighs about a hundred pounds, and those high spinning kicks aren’t grounded, like in Tai Chi — that means that he weight is going to be a factor.

When you kick a person, the force that you apply to them applies to you as well; when you’re grounded, you channel that force back into the Earth, which can absorb it.  When you *aren’t* grounded, even when you’ve got a really good spin on, you get pushed back when you hit someone.  And if you weigh a hundred pounds, and you spin kick a dude who weighs two hundred pounds, that’s going to cause problems no matter how perfect your technique is.

All of this is tangential, though, because the fact of River Tam’s implausible ability to fight is not the point.  I mean, I didn’t have a problem with Buffy — she had magic super-strength powers.  Fine, okay, done.  No worries.  This is an issue that could have easily been addressed with River (“uh, experiments have given her adrenal glands something something something science.”), but I can see why they didn’t bother.

The problem that I have is that it exposes the conceit, and it’s the conceit that I don’t like.

Magic Teenage Girls

Joss Whedon loves the hell out of magic teenage girls.  I will not comment on why this is, because, of course, I don’t know.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it was a kind of joke/irony:  that the typical victim of horror-movie monsters (a tiny, fragile-looking blonde) was suddenly endowed with the butt-kicking power to destroy them.  And insofar as that was an interesting irony, great, no problem.

But what, exactly, was it doing in Firefly?  This gets back to my Dark Star bomb theory, so let me elaborate:  why was River Tam tiny and fragile and pretty, and also able to do kung fu?  It’s not an accident; this is art, and art is never an accident.  It is because someone wanted to juxtapose those two ideas, and again, why?

River Tam is the victim of gruesome science experiments, but all the side-effects of this are invisible.  There are no scars, no wounds, no deformities where artificial muscle mass was added, or bone spurs were grafted onto her to increase leverage.  The Gubbermint turned River Tam into a living weapon, but so far as we can tell, there are no signs of it at all.

(Oh, of course, the Gubbermint wanted her to be a SECRET weapon, fine fine, except she’s not a REAL weapon, it’s not a REAL Gubbermint, it didn’t WANT anything.  The point is, why is this a story about a secret Gubbermint weapon that looks like a tiny fragile girl, instead of a story about a secret weapon that looks like someone did some messed-up shit to her?)

So, I don’t want to get into any arguments about a cat’s feminist credentials (Heaven only knows that Joss Whedon has done a lot of good for representations of women on television), but there’s something about River Tam being a completely regular, pretty TV actress who also has secret butt-kicking powers that strikes me as being a little…uh.  I want to say “crypto-misogynist”, but I don’t think that’s really right.  Let’s put it this way:  we spend a lot of time, as feminists, talking about how we can portray women in a way that’s more complex than how they look.  And the semantic, storytelling tool of “secret kung fu power” is typically used as a way to absolve us for ogling a woman.  That is:

“It’s okay for me to drool over her tits!  She could kung fu on me!”

This is part of what bothers me about River Tam:  she’s still pretty.  Whatever else we can say about her portrayal, the fact of the matter is that she still fits into a stereotypically pretty-girl mode that the authors are unwilling to challenge even when they have the opportunity to point out that she’s a secret genetic killing-machine.  Moreover, there’s a kind of a notion that, as long as she’s a secret genetic killing-machine, she doesn’t HAVE to be anything except regular-old-pretty (or mostly; Summer Glau is kind of unusual looking, I guess).  She can be skinny and have huge eyes and long silky hair and perfect skin, it’s all okay because she can kick a guy!

In this light, of COURSE she couldn’t be replaced by a giant sentient atomic bomb, because giant sentient atomic bombs aren’t pretty.  And they aren’t fragile, delicate creatures that make you want to hold them and protect them and cherish them, the way River Tam does.  They might open up some interesting ideas, in terms of semantics and story and good SF questions (what does it mean to be intelligent?  To be alive?  To be female, actually — if we imagine that the Gubbermint had copied River Tam’s brain onto their atomic bomb; is she still a girl, even though she doesn’t have a body?), but it denudes the purpose of River Tam’s character, which seems to me to be explicitly created for the purpose of having people drool over her.

I guess that’s not true, precisely; I mean, if it WERE  true, then you could expect that most of what anyone has to say about River Tam would be either:  “Oh, Summer Glau is so hot” (the basic patriarchal issue), or “Oh, man, River Tam just KICKS ASS” (the tool to forgive that issue).  “Kicking ass” and “being hot” aren’t actually character traits, and while we might point out that characters like Zoe and Kaylee are also hot, when you talk about what you like about them, what do you talk about?

Character moments, right?  Like when Zoe refuses to accept Wash’s argument that their lives are too dangerous to for a baby; or when that evil dude wants Zoe to choose between Wash and Mal and she doesn’t even let him finish his sentence before picking Wash.  Or how Kaylee is always covered in grease, but gets so excited when she gets to wear a pretty dress — and then is heartbroken when the other society ladies just make fun of her for it.

What do we talk about when we talk about River Tam, though?  Oh, well, also that she’s crazy.  Sorry.  That she’s “crazy.”  This plays into the same issue, though, so let’s look at that:

Crazy, Crazy On You

I’ve said before that, of all the things I hate in storytelling, one thing I hate A LOT, is when people are “crazy.”  Like, we’re expected to believe that they’re crazy, they could do anything, something weird is going on in their heads, but whatever it is, it doesn’t make any sense.  What the hell is wrong with River Tam, exactly?  Is she Borderline?  Schizophrenic?  Does she have Aspergers?  Is she just developmentally-challenged?

Well, they talk about how she’s got a disrupted amygdala, which helps to regulate memory and emotion (this…well, look, let’s just accept the explanation the show gives us:  she’s unable to control her emotions, in any way).  So, she should have a behavioral model like someone with Borderline Personality Disorder, right?  Everything is a raw nerve; when she’s happy, she can’t stop being happy; when she’s sad, she can’t do anything but be as sad as possible.  Borderline Personality Disorder is a big deal, and it’s huge and disruptive and, actually, a little off-putting.  People who  are genuinely unable to control their emotional states are a little terrifying to be around.

We don’t see River do much of that, though, just go off on terrible crying jags where she trashes everything on the ship and tries to claw Simon’s eyes out.  It’d make an interesting contrast, too, if it was held up against these conditions of Schizoid Affect — a total, emotionless state, you know?  Maybe they were getting at it, but it doesn’t look like River Tam alternates between emotionless robot and jagged emotional wreck, and I think we all know why.

So, is she schizophrenic?  If we concede that those weird points where she’s got people talking to her and saying their secret thoughts are actually basic telepathy, then she has all of, what, one hallucinatory episode during the whole first season?  And it’s a kind of a generic one, too — she’s in the woods, and she sees a stick, but it’s actually a gun that was left lying on the ground somewhere (?).  We don’t see other typical symptoms of schizophrenia, like genuine pressured speech — even in her little tirade about how the Bible needs to be “fixed”, there’s still a clear, motivated rationale behind it; this isn’t a schizophrenic’s notion of what’s wrong with the Bible, it’s an autistic’s.

(Incidentally, I would like there to be a moratorium on people who are autistic, or robots, or vulcans or whatever, trying to understand articles of faith and not being able to understand it.  There are plenty of reasonable theological discussions to be had, and a lot of interesting ideas, that don’t need to be opened up by, “But this person is barely able to understand what it means to be human!”  I’m not an atheist because there’s something wrong with my brain, thanks.)

So, is she autistic?  Does she have a weird kind of Gubbermint-induced Asperger’s?  I guess that’s what makes the most sense, though it sure doesn’t look like it.  (If you want a really good benchmark of what Asperger’s could look like, to interesting effect, I can actually recommend Alphas, on that score.)

Now, the question:  why not?  Why DOESN’T she have a crippling emotional disorder?  Why isn’t her schizophrenia intense and disruptive and eerie the way actual schizophrenics are?  Why isn’t her autism more pronounced, more relevant to the actual show?

(I should also make a brief point and mention, except for Objects in Space, almost every episode of Firefly could easily have River Tam excised and still be almost exactly the same story; in my opinion, this is a problem for a major character.)

And I think that the answer to all of these things is the same as the reason why she isn’t physically messed-up:  those are off-putting.  They aren’t pretty, or sexy.  They aren’t fragile and delicate.  They disrupt the basic conceit of her character, this juxtaposition between the pale frail flower and the kung fu.

Maybe I Just Hate Us

Mostly, what I think I don’t like about River Tam is what the rampant adoration of her signifies.  The thing is, she is not a good character — and by good, I mean very specifically:  a character with emotional consistency, with depth, with the sense that she is the product of a lifetime of experience and is complete with wants and needs and thoughts and opinions.  She’s not a whole character; she’s defined wholly by her craziness (“craziness” here being just a bunch of signifiers for actual disordered mentality) and her ability to kick things and that she’s pretty, and none of those things are actual character traits.

What she is is an old-fashioned, super-misogynist 18th century caricature of a woman — beautiful, delicate, basically a moron — that we’re forgiven for loving because she has the power to kick things.  And of course she’s the most beloved female character from Firefly, despite the fact that every other woman on that show is more interesting, more developed, more complex, and above all, more worth our admiration.

That’s the problem that I have; the popularity of a character like River Tam exposes an undercurrent of archaism, of backwards-thinking, that obviates all the work that Whedon does with his shows.  That he’s given us some pretty great characters on Firefly, and who’s the one that everyone loves?

The one that is plainly, explicitly designed to be drooled over.

  1. truculentandunreliable says:

    I seriously could not agree with you more. The thing is, too–she kicks ass not because of who she is, but because of what’s been done to her. Buffy started out the same way, but we saw character growth that showed that she had agency and strength. I realize they didn’t have time to develop her character fully, but, like, she doesn’t even fucking *talk*.

    I found pretty much every woman on that show (including the women from the brothel and Christina Hendricks’ character) to be more interesting and badass than River Tam, as well. It’s sad when minor characters have more development than someone who’s supposed to be the hero of the story.

  2. mbourgon says:

    Actually, I think you hit on it at the end there. She’s the MacGuffin! What’s her point of being there? To give them a reason to run away. And while at it, something to look at.

    And interestingly enough, I found this quote on Wiki.
    “[…]Lucas describes R2-D2 as “the main driving force of the movie … what you say in the movie business is the MacGuffin … the object of everybody’s search”.[..]
    So River = R2D2. Yeah, I can see that.

    Personally, when I think of River, I don’t remember the crying and the screaming – I remember a few kick ass moments, and that 500-mile-stare of disinterest)

    Oh, and ObRiverTam: http://xkcd.com/311/
    (note that this could roughly describe the Terminator TV show, right?)

  3. braak says:

    @Truculent: Yeah, and you know, being badass because of what was done to you isn’t implicitly bad. That’s why Wolverine is badass, and I like Wolverine. But that’s because Wolverine is an actual character, independent of his ability to chop a guy.

    @mbourgon: Even more reason that she should be replaced by an atomic space bomb.

  4. braak says:

    All of this is just making me wish, if she can’t be an atomic space bomb, River literally vacillated between being a dangerous maniac and a complete schizoid personality. You know, like those experiments made her into a kind of proto-Reaver, and they were using personality experiments to get it under control, but it just made her kind of bipolar, instead of…working.

    I also would have liked it if Jayne was the only one she actually liked, because she was telepathically attracted to his murderous thoughts. I think it strengthens the conflict with Simon, in the sense that it’s not just that she doesn’t really recognize him, but she doesn’t even know how to interact with him without trying to bite his face off.

  5. John Jackson says:

    @mbourgon: Actually, Glau’s character on Terminator was far more like a robot Buffy’s character than like a MacGuffin. For a bit she had an arc, but then John fell in love with her and it got weird. It was interesting around the middle of the last season.

    @braak: I think you’re going to far in assuming that everyone likes her because everyone secretly wants to be patriarchal and think of women as playthings. It definitely fits for a wide swath of River Tam adorers, but I think more crucially is that she is a cypher for whatever you want her to be. When I think of River I remember that scene where she pretends to be SpaceIrish to distract Badger. She literally can become anything at any time because she is nothing. The cypher is attractive to many people because you can imbue it with mystery while still giving it all the traits you think the perfect person should have. And while it is not a healthy way to look at women, it is not as brutal in its misogyny as ‘idiot dolls’.

    “I also would have liked it if Jayne was the only one she actually liked, because she was telepathically attracted to his murderous thoughts.”
    Now, that would have been fun.

  6. Jesse says:

    I guess I’m in the minority, but I honestly forgot/overlooked her “sexy badass superweapon” thing. For me, she’s a horribly traumatized kid who loves her big brother. Man, that moment in the pilot episode when she comes to and realizes what happened, sees Simon, throws herself at him clinging for dear life — I weep like a little girl every time. I think the superweapon stuff would have been explored and played with more in later seasons (that’s why they were more like teasers). What we have, though, is an arc where she slowly, haltingly recovers, or begins recovery, in the most nutty, inhospitable-to-recovery environment imaginable.

    And I think it’s pretty clear that they were doing something Reaver-like to her before Simon’s rescue, right? Isn’t that where Serenity leaves us at the end?

  7. Kate says:

    Maniac Pixie Dream Girl?

    I was never able to figure out what bothered me about River, but I think you’ve got it here. Thanks for posting this. As usual, it was an insightful, interesting read.

  8. braak says:

    @Jesse: yeah, that’s where the movie leaves us, but I’m not sure how much of that was teased out in the actual show. It wasn’t specifically precluded by it — like, when it turns out the mystery of that one planet and the Reavers and River’s deadly government experiments were all connected, I’m not sure anyone could point to something in the show and be all “But wait, that’s impossible!” But up until the movie, there wasn’t really any indication that the government had anything to do with the Reavers.

    @John: Justin really liked that scene, too — with Badger — and it’s always kind of bothered me. Firstly just because it seemed constructed solely for the purpose of showing that River can do that, but secondly because it raises a whole host of other questions. Why would Badger be more sympathetic to the other (I think they’re Space Cockneys, actually) Space Cockneys? Also, wait a minute, why are there even Space Cockneys in the first place? No one else has regular English accents, and it’s all hundreds of years in the future — do all the Space Cockneys come from the Lambeth region of Londonium? Wouldn’t the terraforming / migration process have blended together all of these different languages & accents, so that everyone would end up with that weird WIld West accent and also cursing in Chinese?

    I think Firefly’s 13 episodes lets it get away with a lot, because they can just pretend that they never got to those answers. (Where are all the Chinese people? Where are the rest of the Space Cockneys? Wait a minute…explain this terraforming thing to me a again. &c.)

  9. braak says:

    Like how, in Shindig, Mal fights a duel with that guy, and not only is it never mentioned again, by anyone, but the fact that apparently on some planets you still fight DUELS never comes up again.

  10. braak says:

    Ostensibly, of course, if there was a continent on Londonium called Lambeth, and that’s where all the Space Cockneys came from, that would be completely awesome.

  11. Jason Gormally says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I used to love River; I thought she was a fantastic character… until I watched Serenity with Joss Whedon’s commentary track.

    I hesitate to say this, but I get the feeling that Joss wrote River the way he did because Joss himself is, frankly, detached and more than a little skewed towards the whatever side it is River herself is on.

    Seriously. Watch the flick with his commentary; something’s not clicking there anymore with him and it’s kind of hard to listen to.

  12. John Jackson says:

    Yeah, I do love Firefly, but the entire show suffers from the same stuff that Nolan’s films suffer from. Plots with great potential, characters with compelling stories and good acting, but everything serves the purposed of looking awesome, rather than anything else.

  13. honestoliver says:

    As if all this weren’t enough, she was also smug and full of herself — and it’s not just that she was arrogant, but that the writing itself seemed to endorse it. Can’t stand that.

  14. Interesting stance. But I see a lot of false assumptions in it that corrupt the analysis.

    Lets start with the fighting skills.

    You seem to forget that Summer Glau is in fact a trained athlet in real life with a focus on endurance (with you said was the point of Bruce Lees additional training). I’ve seen untrained women her size holding a sleeping child of 40kg for more than 10 minutes without showing since of tiring.

    Than they developed a mix of existing martial arts that matched her body type and she actually trained daily half a year. You mention that such styles may not hold in a competition. While many competitions lay weigh to various ideas, you seem to be in favour for knock outs. Actually her perceived mode of martial arts was not about flynning or a fair fight, but about killing, given the fact that she cannot do it easily with brute force its more likely that she will attack nervcenters, while without an additional weapon (and don’t tell me they don’t exist, I have some bittersweet experience in that direction). In that last fight she dual wielded a sword and an axe. This gave balance and I pretty much thing she used the axe primarily for dodging and the sword for killing.
    The Reavers she fought did not use any martial arts, but are used that their brute force attacks are enough, enhanced by a lot of adrenalin which suggests they were strong but slow (River was fast but weak in terms of power)

    And she was previously shown to have predictive powers that allow her to move out of the way from attacks and plan the best way to attack herself. This way its not even unrealistic if she can dodge gunfire if needed, which was never shown.

    The mental disorder

    We see her as child before other influences come in and she seems to have that systemizing tendencies you associate with aspergers back than, too. The description of what would to be expected with the amygdala stripping is the schizophrenia and while we only see that once from her perspective, before her brother has the opportunity to study her problem she was obviously in heavy schizophrenic phases with few lucid moments the whole time.

    Which is exactly why there was not much time for character development, yet the show had just begun and introduced the basic characters. Some had the chance of a bit character development like Jayne, but actually it was not that much for all of them at that time.

    How you come to the conclusion she should have an empathic connection to Janey because she is like minded in her aggressiveness is beyond me. In her lucid moments she is shown to have pretty much her “old” character which was a basic nice one. Not very developed, renember, she had not had really time to grow beyond that and even without the amygdala stripping would have had a post traumatic stress syndrom to overcome first.

    She is not aggressive per se. Actually her cold minded killing if neccessery shown in war stories was way more frightening.

    Is she a good character? Well she has certainly depth with all that deamons to fight, but is a bit shallow in development which is perfectly plausible and may have led to much character development over the following seasons. No time in the movie, though. It was easy for me to have an empathic connection to the hell she lives in.

    When it comes to Joss Wheadon I’d think he would even have a bit of the same view that you have, would it not be his own brainchild – simply because of some things Jubal Early said while philosophing some patriarchal ideas about how power equals earned priviledge and who was told to be a vehicle of Wheadons own world views.

    If I have any critic on the character it would be that she has all that physical ability without even a bit of the regular training Summer Glau has in real life is a bit far fetched.

    Do I think that River Tam is an objectified vehicle for the male gaze or a Maniac Pixie Dream Girl? She might, if it was only for the movie but as she was introduced in the show definitely not.

    Is your assumption, that muscle mass, the one thing males have an advantage in by nature trumps all of the things women have a natural advantage in (endurence and flexibility) on the hindsight I see as very male centered and yes, passive aggressive misogynistic.

  15. braak says:


    But I see a lot of false assumptions in it that corrupt the analysis.

    What’s up with people these days, presenting reasonable arguments to me but phrased in a way that makes me want to eat their livers?

    Anyway, ignoring all of your arguments about the fighting issues (because I clearly pointed out that the issue of the mechanics of her fighting was tangential, and that I didn’t really care about it), you actually largely seem to agree with me, except insofar as I’m disinterested in interpreting a character in terms of imaginary development that may or may not have occurred in subsequent seasons of the show.

    So. Congratulations, I guess. You win.

  16. braak says:

    How you come to the conclusion she should have an empathic connection to Janey because she is like minded in her aggressiveness is beyond me. In her lucid moments she is shown to have pretty much her “old” character which was a basic nice one. Not very developed, renember, she had not had really time to grow beyond that and even without the amygdala stripping would have had a post traumatic stress syndrom to overcome first.

    This is because I think it would have been more interesting. Instead of a little girl who sometimes just didn’t know what was going on, and also had kung fu powers, I think it would have been more troublesome for Simon if he had to deal with the fact that his sister alternated between being a confused, hurt little girl, and a deadly, murderous psychopath.

    Which is to say, yeah, I get it, I know why she was like that in the show. I just don’t think it’s as interesting as it could have been, if the writers had been a little more daring with her character. (see also: sentient atomic space bomb)

  17. Machine says:

    Completely agree with every point you made. She has no depth and any scene with her in it irritates me to no end. And she DOES look weird.

    Also, this was an excellent read. Love your subtle humour.

  18. Chris says:

    I completly agree. I can never understand why she was so popular when she was essentially a blank slate with very little development outside of a prop to further the development of Simon.

    Then again, Joss Whedon has essentially made a career out of taking the most boring women in the world and shoving them front and center, and then expecting us to find them facinating simply becuase they are hot. (Remember those long, drawn out scenes at the end of every Dollhouse episode focusing on Echo doing the most mundane things.)

    What bothered me most about River though was not the ass kicking in itself, but rather the telepathy that allowed her to do it. In a show that went so far out of its way to present a “realistic” version of space colonization, it seemed incredibly out of place to me to give a character magic powers.

  19. I agree with you insofar as how the ‘crypto-misogynistic’ (or whatever, sorry) aspect of River explains the rabid fanboy (or girl) following she has, which is one I never quite understood. I was always a bit dismayed at her popularity, considering I like her just as much as everyone else and there are many other characters with much more grit and substance to them.

    So I certainly believe that explains it. And that’s a problem, I agree.

    But I still really like her. She’s a good character. Not great, like everyone else on the ship, but good.

    As for your fighting issues: it’s a tv show. I really don’t care. I accept your point on what that lapse of believability means, but I still really don’t care.

    Maybe it’s a matter of perception. Maybe I’m just in the minority like that other commenter up there: when I think of River, I do not think ‘crazy’, I do not think ‘kung fu girl’ and I do not think ‘hot’. I think of a vulnerable girl who loves her brother and her new family but cannot articulate it.

    I think that ties into the question you mention near the beginning: ‘why?’.

    I think the answer is that she’s a tiny bit Buffy-esque. She juxtaposes childlike innocence with manmade soulless machine. I think she’s the symbol of the ultimate ‘evil’ of the show: humans with too much power. I think she beautifully reflects a similar stolen innocence and barely reined-in insanity in Mal. Which is also the reason why he takes her an Simon in, and the reason he can’t explain why.

    Considering this, it is also just her character I admire. She is essentially brave, determined, insightful and simple, with an incredible ability to love. Some of my favourite scenes are between her and Simon.

    I don’t see her as a main character at all, so her not being pivotal in many episodes does not bother me. It’s obvious from the movie that Joss had big plans for her, but didn’t get time for them, which is fine as a reason for me, though emphasises even more what we lost when the show was cancelled.

  20. karna says:

    She is boring and the rest of your points are valid, but…… If there had been a second season, her story would have developed and she comes out of her shell. She would have been amazing.

    It was really building up to something. Reminds me of Luke Skywalker, annoying, boring little shit until Return of the Jedi. Same thing would have happened here, she would have transformed into a cool hero.

  21. braak says:

    Supposition, your honor. Request that the defense’s remarks be stricken from the record.

  22. Rose says:

    “[E]xcept for Objects in Space, almost every episode of Firefly could easily have River Tam excised and still be almost exactly the same story…”

    Really? Had Simon not brought River onboard in the pilot, Dobson would not have followed him, and the entire episode would have been about them traveling to Whitefall to sell the supplies to Patience (making it a much shorter episode). Had River not existed in Safe, she wouldn’t have run off from Simon, meaning Simon wouldn’t have been kidnapped. Her existence was the entire motivation for Ariel–if she wasn’t there, Simon would have had no reason to break into the hospital. She saved Kaylee’s life in War Stories, not to mention the fact that, if she hadn’t, Niska’s men probably would have taken Serenity and every member of the crew would have been tortured to death at least once. If River wasn’t around, Simon wouldn’t have run away from home to break her out. He wouldn’t have joined the crew of the Serenity. So, without Simon the medic, it’s very likely that Zoe and Mal, both grieviously injured in Out of Gas, would not have survived.

    This is assuming you don’t consider the movie to be included in “almost every episode.” If we’re looking at the movie, she saves the lives of Mal, Jayne, and Zoe by warning them of the man with the gun and the Reavers at the very beginning, not to mention potentially saving the rest of the crew, who could have been killed after the Reavers finished with the city. Assuming they survived that, they would not have traveled to Miranda (not having received the clue from River), and so never would have found out about the catastrophe there. They then wouldn’t have risked (and, in one case, lost) their lives trying to get the message out. Also, since the Operative wouldn’t have been chasing River, he wouldn’t have attacked Haven and all the other locations when he was “leaving no ground” for Serenity and her crew to go to. This is even ignoring her end fight scene.

    So, River is absoulutely essential to the show. Yes, there were some episodes where she wasn’t relevant, but if she was the main feature in every episode, the show would be called “River,” not “Firefly.” Some episodes are, obviously, more centric to one character or another, but you can’t cut one character out and expect it to be the same show. The reason people love Firefly is the balance and interaction between all ten characters. Remove one part of the equation, and it all falls apart.

  23. braak says:

    Listen, River is only saving lives in these scenarios because those scenarios are constructed purely for the purpose of permitting River to save someone’s life. Furthermore, every single example that you’ve mentioned is not an example of character balance, it’s an example of plot balance.

    Also, why the hell am I even arguing about this? I don’t give a shit. Like Firefly however much you want to; River Tam is a crap character.

  24. Rose says:

    In response to the first part, saying “She’s only saving lives because the writers wanted her to save lives,” well, you could say that about any character any time they do anything. The only reason Mal is stealing is because the situation was set up just so he would steal. The only reason Jayne is being mean to Simon is because the situation was set up for Jayne to be mean to Simon. I’m honestly not sure what you mean by character balance versus plot balance. The point I was making was that River’s existence significantly affected the plot of Firefly.

    As for your second part, I don’t know why you’re arguing about this, either, because I don’t make a habit of pretending to understand the motivation of total strangers. However, I am discussing this because I wanted to know if you had a more substantial argument than the one you expressed. I’m always interested in hearing opposing viewpoints (especially regarding a show where the lines of right and wrong are not clearly drawn, so there are ways to have sympathy for both sides), so I assumed you would be as well. Also, I am capable of expressing myself without using profane language to try to make a point. I had hoped we could have an intellectual discussion regarding what I consider to be an interesting character, but evidently, I was wrong. In the future, if you wish, I won’t trouble you by assuming you and I will treat each other and our opinions with respect.

  25. kelly says:

    just found this and clearly the conversation has been over for a while, but i just have a few more things to add…

    First, what’s the point of writing a thesis on a subject that you apparently care so little about and then berate and belittle anyone that disagrees with you? What’s the point of posting something online for the world to see if you don’t give a crap about what anyone else says or thinks. Posters who don’t care about their audience just like to see their awesome words and opinions in writing and online. You said that you expected fans to show disagreement, so why not run with it??? Hear the other opinions out and post a counter, rather than a sarcastic snide self righteous remark? But wait, congratulations, you win. good job you. you wrote an opinion piece.

    I’m not even going to come back to this website, ever, not even to see if you respond to this comment. Clearly anyone that disagrees with you is just ignorant.

  26. braak says:


  27. braak says:

    So, I think Kelly there is a sissy because I think drive-by comments like that (“How dare you give your opinion and then not engage in discussion? I’m going to give my opinion, but also swear that I’m never coming back, since I, too, hate discussion!”) are bullshit.

    And I didn’t respond very well to Rose up there because I was tired, and because I am tired of the conversation about plot and what it’s for. However, she does deserve a response, and so here it goes:

    “The only reason Mal is stealing is because the situation was set up just so he would steal.”

    Good. Good point, this is actually a good point. The only reason that Mal is stealing is because he was written into a situation, and because he was created as the sort of character, who WOULD steal. Correct.

    And why is that? I mean, why was he written as that sort of character and why did the writers give him those sorts of opportunities, as opposed to what we might posit are literally an infinite number of other possibilities?

    Good question! I suppose we could say because the writers like that sort of character, right? The anti-authoritarian rogue who follows his own personal code of honor, who plays by his own rules but is still good. That is a character who is appealing to the writers, and to the audience, and so they create a character like that, and then they put him in a bunch of situations that show that he’s like that.

    Well, all right, but WHY do we like a character like that?

    I don’t know, precisely, but I’m sure we could go on at length about how Firefly is some kind of weird paean to propertarian feudalism that I don’t want to get into because I actually think the fundamental politics of Firefly are pretty despicable when you break them down.

    Now, let’s do the same thing with River Tam:

    Why does River Tam kung fu all those guys?

    Well, because she’s written to be able to do that in a scene.

    Okay, so, why is she written that way, and not some other way? Why wasn’t Serenity about her knowing a secret code or something, and THAT was the clue that they needed to find out about the Reavers or whatever?

    Because the writers like that sort of character, who is fragile and pretty one moment, but can kick a guy in the nuts the next.

    Fine, but WHY do they like that sort of character?

    Yes, there we go, please see the eleven hundred words I’ve already written on the subject.

    When I say that River is actually an inessential character, I don’t mean that she’s inessential to the plot of Serenity in a purely mechanical way, like, certain events don’t occur as a direct consequence of the things that she does. I mean that all of the things that AREN’T the plot would have been the same, and the plot would only have to be rejiggered slightly, in order to pretty much cut her out of it.

    And, in fact, this is a good point: why WASN’T it a secret code that the Serenity crew found and the government wanted? Well, if River hadn’t been there, and hadn’t had secret kung fu powers, then at the end when they had to fight all those Reavers, then what would they have done?

    Well, obviously you would have had to rewrite the end of the movie so that the conspiracy on whatever that planet was didn’t involve the Reavers at all, and then…well, and then, in my opinion, you’d have actually had a better movie. The Reavers aren’t a requirement of the pacification gas the Gubbermint invented (in fact, you could have just as easily said, “The Gubbermint invented this pacification gas to STOP the Reavers, and then used it on this unsuspecting planet because of TYRANNY). So what are they even doing there?

    Well, they’re just brought in to heighten the stakes and give River Tam someone to kick, and now we’re full circle, aren’t we? River Tam had to have kung fu so that she could fight the Reavers; the Reavers had to be there so River would have someone to kung fu on. None of it makes any difference.

  28. Black_Hatter says:

    I see the points that were made in this article, and I can’t really say that I disagree, except perhaps on one point:

    As I understand it, you claim that River Tam was given super-kung-fu powers by the creators of the show to counter the fact that the rest of her character consists of “hey I’m vulnerable and crazy isn’t that sexy.” But I would argue that the martial-arts powers were put in to the character, not to disguise those traits, but to enhance them. Note that I am not talking about some kind of “foil” in which the fighting contrasts with the rest to enhance them. I’m talking about the fact that the super fighting powers are sexy by themselves. By using kung fu instead of say, boxing, they actually increase the overall level of sexiness that her character provides. Which is really the primary role of River Tam anyway.

    In short, a vulnerable crazy girl is sexy, but a kung-fu vulnerable crazy girl is more sexy. A lot more. I think that this explanation satisfies Occam’s razor more effectively than the idea that the creators put that much thought into the level of political correctness of the character.

    *Now switching from hormone-driven male mode to supergeek fanboy mode.

    If you look up a picture of the axe that river uses in the movie, you may notice that it is not, in fact, a chopping weapon. It is much too short and the blade is far too angled to make a good hatchet, much less a war axe. In truth, that weapon is less of an axe than it is a very broad-bladed knife.

    Lastly, I’d just like to point out that River Tam is my fourth favorite character. My first is Kaylee, followed by Mal, then Wash, then River, then Zoe tied with Simon, then Jayne.

  29. David Duggan says:

    Hate is a strong word for a feeling about a TV character.. Sounds a lot like the Dan Quayle gaff over the Murphy Brown character. Plus all above average physical and intellectual characters need to have obvious visual traits. After all this is fiction. And as far as jiggering Rivers character out it would be like eliminating Dorthy from the Wizard Of Oz or Mat Dillon from Gunsmoke. And as far as what constitutes a weapon or cutting utensil I find trying to think such mundane things out is a bit over the top. Well maybe not with Trekkie’s. I think River Tam’s character is cute but not sexy and of course deep and foreboding.

  30. braak says:

    You’re not serious.

    Okay, no, I am definitely closing comments on this one. This article is from two years ago; go talk about new stuff, you knuckleheads.