By Sabienna Bowman
This will be the last Women in the Box feature I write for a while as I take time to refuel and explore the television landscape of the past in search of more characters to spotlight (and hey, if you have suggestions let me know either in the comments or on Twitter). In choosing a final character to spotlight for this phase of the column, I decided to dip once more into the Joss Whedon well and focus on Zoe Washburne, second in command of the good ship Serenity, wife to Wash, and resident warrior woman on the short-lived Fox series/cult classic Firefly (2002).
The warrior woman is a well-worn trope in genre television. From Wonder Woman to Xena straight on through to Buffy, they’re women who are competent fighters capable of taking down foes of all shapes, sizes, and genders. They can be (and often are) fetishisized within their fandoms, as the idea of a beautiful woman with power holds a certain allure for the audience. And make no mistake, warrior women within genre fiction are almost exclusively beautiful (Game of Thrones‘ Brienne of Tarth being a welcome exception to the rule). As played by the statuesque beauty Gina Torres, Zoe was stunning and lethal—but she was also married.
It was her marriage to Serenity’s pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), a sweet and geeky man that set Zoe apart from the atypical warrior woman. Her stoic character stood in stark contrast to her constantly chattering and quipping husband, as well as her Captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). Zoe was presented as a woman with two loyalties: one to her husband and one to her career. At times, these two loyalties would leave her caught in the middle between the man she followed and the man she loved.
Even though her days in combat ended before the series began, Zoe was a soldier to her core and Mal her leader. While Firefly was set in a distant future that mirrored the idea of the melting pot that was the American frontier, its idea of what a soldier is and how they behave was grounded in reality. Loyalty drove Zoe; it was the code that motivated her, keeping her at her Captain’s side even as they left the fox holes behind. In episode eight, “Out of Gas,” it is Zoe who makes the decision to return for Mal, who decides to go down with his ship after the engines and secondary life support go offline in the aftermath of an explosion. She makes this decision despite suffering from her own injuries sustained while saving fellow crewmember Kaylee. Later in episode twelve, “The Message,” Zoe and Mal reencounter an old war buddy and Zoe is quick to complete the mantra of their unit when Tracy begins it:
Tracy: When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl – when you can’t do that…
Zoe: You find someone to carry you.
We know next to nothing about Zoe’s time before Mal and Serenity, but it is established over and over again that her character was forged by the war between The Alliance and the rebels. She addresses Mal as “sir,” throughout the run of the series despite their mutual friendship and affection for one another. Her use of the honorific suggests an inequality in their relationship, an imbalance of power. It’s not a title she offers to any other male member of the crew aside from Mal because their relationships weren’t forged on a battlefield. Even as they lead the lives of outlaws, Zoe is incapable of leaving the rules of war behind her. To some her behavior may suggest subservience, but it’s nothing more than the respect of rank that is ingrained in soldiers and a constant reminder of what makes her tick.
As I stated before, there are two sides to Zoe though. She isn’t simply a soldier; she’s also a woman possessing a great deal of confidence in her femininity. She typically dressed for the rough and dangerous jobs the crew took on, but she didn’t disdain all traditional gender ideas. In episode four, “Shindig,” she discusses her taste in clothing:
Zoe: If I’m going to wear a dress, I’d want something with some slink.
Wash: You want a slinky dress? I can buy you a slinky dress. Captain, can I have money for a slinky dress?
Jayne: I’ll chip in.
Zoe: I can hurt you.
In one exchange, Zoe swings from openly embracing her feminine side as she discusses dresses with Kaylee to reminding Jayne of her fighting prowess. It’s a recurring theme with her, she is always strong, confident and possessing a self-assuredness that can easily intimidate if the need arises. However, she’s also a loving wife and her relationship with Wash provides her character with her truest center. She may be a soldier at her core, but love drives her. At one point she and Wash even discuss having a child together, proving that Zoe was not rejecting the typical ideas of femininity even as she filled the more traditionally masculine role in their marriage, acting as a defender for her husband and the rest of the crew. Still, it is worth noting that she takes her husband’s name. It seems even in a futuristic landscape where Mandarin is a common tongue and people live on spaceships, patriarchal traditions remain intact.
Zoe and Wash appear to be a mismatched couple on all fronts. She is his physical superior both in looks and in strength. He’s sarcastic and talkative, while her personality is measured, favoring deadpan humor over fast-flying quips. Furthermore, Wash is plagued by insecurities when it comes to his wife and Mal’s relationship. Wash believes Zoe would choose Mal over him right up until she doesn’t in episode ten, “War Stories.”
When Wash goes on a mission with Mal in a form of protest for Mal always leading his wife into danger, the two men find themselves kidnapped by a sadistic man named Niska. Zoe is forced to choose between Mal and Wash, and she doesn’t hesitate before choosing her husband. The choice is partly strategic—as a soldier Mal is better equipped to survive the encounter than a civilian—but it’s also meant to illustrate where Zoe’s priorities lie both to the audience and to Wash. Her loyalty to her Captain runs so deep that she can’t shake his command, but her husband is her partner.
By giving Zoe these twin narratives of soldier and wife, Firefly creators Whedon and Tim Minear allowed her to subvert and embody the tropes that come along with each role. While she doesn’t completely rise above the stereotypical idea of the beautiful, deadly warrior woman, Zoe does manage to challenge it by subverting our expectations to be both a gun-toting soldier and a woman in a committed relationship—making this futuristic character all the more real in an age when women can be soldiers, wives and mothers.
Sabienna Bowman is a freelance writer and editorial manager at TV Equals. She is also a contributing writer at Film Equals and you can find her previous work at Wit & Fancy. Follow her on Twitter @sljbowman.