From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.
This week we are celebrating Gina Torres. Get your tickets to Alamo Drafthouse's Serenity Movie Party here!
When Zoë Washburne appeared on the screen in Firefly, she was a revelation for many of us. Sure, we’d seen warrior women before, and powerful ones. It’s not that there hadn’t been female military types or women kicking ass. It’s that Zoë didn’t fit the stereotype. Zoë was strong and loyal and powerful. She was also married to a man physically less able than she. She was funny. She wasn’t in black leather, showing us what her ass looked like in it at every opportunity. She was unique, which is sad if you think about it. She broke all the stereotypes of a warrior woman. Even more unusual? She wasn’t the only woman in a group of men. By the time we got to Serenity, Zoë didn’t shock us anymore. When the film ended, we never really got to see a character like her again.
When we see a warrior woman in movies or TV, here’s what we normally see: she’s rarely physically imposing (outside of Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones), but she’s deadly. She’s usually good at martial arts because we couldn’t possibly have an object of desire for the straight male gaze be too muscled, can we? The warrior woman is nearly always portrayed as typically desirable. She’s in tight black leather or some other impossible outfit to fight in. She may have boob armor that would actually kill her if she fell forward. She’s got a tragic past or she wouldn’t be doing this for a living, of course. She’s also probably going to die. Why? Well, she’s stronger than the male lead, or more talented, or taller, god forbid. How could we allow her to become the male lead's romantic interest? Everyone would laugh at him. She can’t be terribly funny or likable or her death would be too sad for the audience. She has to be so tragic that she’s killed off in a noble way. Because if she isn't the male lead's romantic partner, why does she need to live?
When we met Zoë, we quickly realized that she wasn’t any of those things. Zoë is a career military woman. Her tragic past is the same as Mal’s and everyone else who went through the war. She’s not broken by it the same way he isn’t broken by it. They’re definitely affected by their past, but they want to live. They care about things other than revenge. They care about their friends and family. They’re still working for the good of the ‘verse. They work as a team. They have a language, a banter that comes from long association and one they clearly want to continue. Zoë is loyal to Mal to a fault, except for one occasion which we’ll get to, but is also willing to make suggestions and call him out when he’s out of line.
It’s obvious from the first moment we see Zoë that though she’s physically imposing, she’s also not dressed as the “hot, angry, tragic martial artist.” (Go ahead and take a moment to think of how many of those you’ve seen.) She’s not in sexy clothes. She’s not there to seduce. She’s not there for longing gazes. She’s where she is to work. I mean, Gina Torres is beautiful, obviously, but the character of Zoë carries that beauty without its being the focus of her character. Despite Torres' beauty, that isn’t the first thing you say about Zoë. You say, “don’t mess with that woman.” In fact, in the novelization of Serenity, River says that she’s more afraid of Zoë than Jayne because she’d kill for Wash or Mal without hesitation.
Then there is her marriage to Wash. A married warrior? How can that be? I think the biggest shock and joy, for me, was that her husband is physically less powerful than she is. He doesn’t fight. He even waxes poetic about the benefits of being with a warrior woman. They have a loving relationship that doesn’t suffer from some outdated feeling of inadequacy on his part. He’s proud of her strength. We’ve only seen this flipped. What’s more remarkable here than even these reversed gender roles is that Zoë has her priorities straight. There is no struggle over loyalty to her job and her boss versus her marriage. When Niska tortures Mal and Wash, and when it’s Wash that's jealous of her job, it’s the complete opposite of what we’ve seen. And when he tells her she can choose one of the men, she reacts almost comically fast, choosing her husband over her boss without a second of hesitation. When Wash is killed in Serenity, she’s devastated, but even then, Zoë holds herself together and continues to take care of her family - the family she’s found with the crew, and the daughter she and Wash have together that we meet in the comic book continuation of the story.
Zoë fights and loves and has friends. She’s funny, she’s strong and she’s also vulnerable. She’s…gasp…a person. She’s a well-rounded character with all the feelings she should have. She’s allowed to have a story that isn’t just about whether or not she’ll get the guy. She’s got the guy and there is still more story to tell about her. Zoë’s character has broken so many conventions that, by the time we get to the end of Serenity, we forget why anyone bothered with them in the first place.