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.