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Examining Kaylee Frye of Firefly

October 25, 2009

So for this project, I’m going to be writing two essays. The first is going to be about female engineers in the media. The second is still in the process of being conceptualized – I’m thinking something about being a feminist engineer.

Now, I’m going to be using the term “engineer” very loosely. I really need a better word to refer to all the women who work in skilled technical male-dominated professions (including technicians, mechanics, electricians, machinists, construction workers etc.) Let me know if you have any input. In any case, I’m going to focus on Kaylee Frye from the TV show Firefly who is the girl-next-door ship’s mechanic. Plus, I’m planning to explore Rosie the Riveter and how her image has been used and reused through time. Lastly, I want to take a look at Kari Byron and Jessi Combs of Mythbusters.

To start off, I just want to focus on Kaylee Frye from Firefly. I’m going to assume you have seen this show at least once because well, most people have. I’ve always been a huge fan of Joss Whedon – I watched Buffy and Angel growing up. I loved Firefly, even now I watch Dollhouse. There’s been a lot of talk around the internet about whether or not Joss is a feminist. He identifies as one and holds up his commitment to strong female lead characters (like Buffy, Echo etc.) as proof. In Firefly, his female characters have been criticized for not living up to the feminist standard created by Buffy.

As a female engineer, I am particularly interested in the collision of femininity and mechanical know-how that comes together in Kaylee. Because of this, I find her to be an incredibly compelling and problematic character. In the real world, some women have difficulty balancing their desires to be feminine and be taken seriously as an engineer. One day at lunch, I sat with a bunch of first year students. Somehow, we got on the subject of how Wellesley students as a whole tend to dress nicer/trendier than Olin students and I mentioned that when I cross-register at Wellesley, I sometimes feel inclined to dress a little nicer to fit in (I suppose that’s my motivation?). One female first year student explained to me that the reason Olin students, particularly Olin female students, don’t dress as nice is because well-dressed women aren’t taken seriously in engineering because it makes them look too feminine. I was horrified and responded that there are lots of very-talented well-dressed women at Olin. I couldn’t believe that the notion that women should down-play their femininity to be taken seriously as engineers was alive and thriving among first year engineering students in 2009. It really makes you feel like change is at a snail’s pace.

But that’s why I find Kaylee to be such an intriguing character. She is completely feminine – she’s the girl-next-door – she’s sweet and wholesome and cheerful and bubbly and a little bit of an airhead. But, at the same time, she has this completely non-feminine intuitive understanding of engines. In Episode 8, “Out of Gas”, we learn Kaylee’s back story of how she arrived on the ship. To quote the Wikipedia article (unfortunately I couldn’t find a clip):

“Another jump into the past shows Mal hollering at Bester, the unkempt mechanic, for failing to get the ship underway. He catches the man in flagrante delicto with an engineering groupie who, as she is getting dressed, interrupts Bester’s excuses to correct his inaccurate diagnosis. As she emerges from behind the engine, we see that it is Kaylee. When the “genius mechanic” sputters incomprehension, she quickly fixes the problem. Impressed, Mal asks her if she’d like to work on Serenity. She happily runs off to wind up her affairs at home. Bester questions why Serenity would need two mechanics, and Mal ominously agrees that he doesn’t.”

It comes off better in the clip, but basically the premise is that Kaylee has an intuitive understanding of engines and no formal training. This is interesting because it buys into the idea that people are born with mechanical ability – an idea that people have been using to explain why women just aren’t interested in engineering. I think that you can be born with qualities that enhance mechanical ability, such as spatial skills, a good memory etc. but mechanical ability is something that is learned. Kaylee didn’t intuitively understand what was wrong with the engine, she had to have spent enough time with engines to understand how they worked and understand what to prioritize while problem-solving – people without education have experience. I don’t think it’s useful to characterize Kaylee as having been born with this knowledge because it’s not possible and and it contributes to women and minorities feeling “impostor syndrome” when everything doesn’t come naturally to them.

In episode 4, “Shindig” (available on Hulu), the crew is on planet and Kaylee falls in love with a dress she sees in a store window. Mal mocks her for desiring the dress and says “what are you going to do, flounce around the engine room?”. Statements like this reinforce the notion that femininity and engineering just don’t mix. Considering that my initial reaction was “why the fuck is that dress so princess-y? I mean really, of all the dresses … that’s probably one of the uglier ones” – clearly the dress is meant to be symbolic. Later on in the episode, Mal ends up buying Kaylee the dress to aid his cover while attending a ball where he will connect with a potential customer. There she is criticized by the other women at the party and ends up as “one of the guys” dishing engine stories.  Apparently, what makes you feminine, and fit in with women, is on the outside. Kaylee’s mind/interests are masculine, so she only fits in with the men. Ultimately, back on the ship the episode ends with Kaylee looking lovingly at her poofy pink dress hung up in her cabin.

As far as I am concerned, the main problem with Kaylee is that I like her too much. I love her character – I love that she can be so feminine and technical at the same time. But I hate that she’s impossible – her lack of character-development (granted, she is a relatively minor character) washes over the details of her existence that just don’t fit together. I’m glad that she’s on television, but I wish she could be more realistic – maybe then she could actually be a role model.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 9, 2009 13:06

    I want to start my own blog now :)

  2. Shalon permalink
    November 14, 2009 02:19

    Kaylee is basically an uncomplicated child. She was raised around ship engines and has an almost intuitive understanding of them. I lived for five years with a man who was very similar. He also had the unfortunate experience of being lightly retarded. He understood engines because they interested him and he paid attention to the information he learned about them, but he was not raised around anyone with any social graces and had none. I saw Kaylee as a more perky, less challenged, female version of him. She is portrayed as very young, having to get her parents permission to even sign onto the ship. Depending on your view this would make her somewhere between 15 and 20. To me that explains all her lack of knowledge. The show points out that she was very sheltered and ONLY knew about engines and sex before she met Mal. I didn’t see ANY missing character development. Except for the lack of growth, which could be easily explained by the fact that the show ended well before Joss had hoped it would. Especially since Joss Whedon has expressed that he had planned to expound on ALL the characters, telling about Book’s connection with the Alliance, Kaylee’s parents, Wash’s past etc. I love your article though, It made me have to think about why I liked her so much.

  3. January 28, 2010 23:31

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

  4. April 3, 2010 15:21

    You made some good points on this subject.

  5. June 15, 2010 16:10

    I must say I really like your writing style it is so much better than most blogs I read.

  6. October 29, 2010 23:36

    Best you should edit the post name Examining Kaylee Frye of Firefly radengineer to more suited for your webpage you write. I loved the the writing even sononetheless.

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