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Kaylee Frye, an Incomplete Role Model

January 21, 2010

So, it turns out that my articles were not what Bitch Magazine was looking for – I suppose I will just have to write something new. In any case, I’m publishing my final deliverables here:

It’s easy to turn on the TV and find shows about how fun and exciting it is to be a doctor, lawyer, or FBI agent – but what about being an engineer? Where’s the glamour and excitement in that? You could try some of the reality shows on the Discovery and Science channels and watch Doing DaVinci, Building it Bigger, or Heavy Metal Task Force. Or maybe you watch American Chopper or Restorer Guy on TLC. The problem is that all of these shows are for and about men and describe men’s relationship with creating and caring for technology.

As a female engineer, I find my invisibility in the media problematic. But that is why I got so excited about Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which depicted a woman named Kaylee Frye as the ship’s engineer. In the real world, some women have difficulty balancing their desires to be feminine and their desire to be taken seriously as an engineer. Since engineers are coded as masculine, feminine-presenting women are automatically taken less seriously as engineers. While this tension was reflected in Kaylee’s character, there were missing elements in her back story that made her feel less real. Where and how did she learn so much about engines? What was her childhood like? Was becoming an engineer her life’s ambition? Granted, she’s a relatively minor character and the series ended incomplete, but the issues that were left unresolved reflect the issues that women in engineering engage with every day.

Firefly is often described as a futuristic “American space western television series” which explores the lives and adventures of nine people aboard a space ship named Serenity operating on the edge of civilization engaging in smuggling and occasionally more legitimate cargo runs. Set in the year 2517, the eclectic main characters include two war veterans from the losing-side, a genius pilot, a girl-next-door ship’s mechanic, a fugitive doctor who recently rescued his schizophrenic younger sister from government-funded brain experiments, a Companion (the futuristic version of a courtesan or geisha), a mercenary and a pastor.

Joss Whedon is oft-credited for his efforts to create strong female characters while operating in a sexist film and television industry. He took women’s studies courses in college and often cites his mother as the foundation of the feminist principles on display in his work. He has an appreciation for the complicated lives of strong women and the delicate interplay that fuses their lives. In his 2006 Equality Now speech, he explained “when I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact engaged and even attracted to the idea.” He creates worlds where strong, compelling women thrive.

Yet, especially in blogging forums, he has been criticized for his treatment of women in Firefly.  The women of Firefly are complicated and engage in behaviors that simultaneously reinforce and challenge gender roles. Zoe, the first mate and the captain’s war buddy is almost always subservient to the captain in acknowledgement of military hierarchy, but married the ship’s pilot explicitly against the captain’s wishes. Inara, the Companion, is in many senses a glorified prostitute yet she maintains explicit control over who her customers are and the nature of her engagements. River, the doctor’s younger sister, is uncontrollable and wild as a victim of government experiments.

But I am primarily interested in Kaylee, the ship’s engineer. She is completely feminine – she’s the girl-next-door – she’s sweet, wholesome, cheerful, bubbly and a little bit of an airhead. In a 2005 interview with Radio Free Entertainment, Jewel Staite, the actress who plays Kaylee explains “I’ve heard her described as the heart of the ship.” Kaylee is a constant source of cheerfulness and positive energy as well as the individual responsible for making sure that “the blood keeps pumping” or the engine continues operating. She has an impressive intuitive understanding of engines that is portrayed as at odds with her femininity. In the episode titled “Serenity”, Kaylee explains that “machines just got workings and they talk to me.” On, she’s described as “Serenity‘s ace mechanic, a tomboy who accepts anything the universe throws at her with a smile and a bounce”. But “tomboy” seems like a shallow descriptor. While Kaylee loves engines, a generally masculine trait, her experience of engineering is that of nurturing and mothering, which is generally coded as feminine. She often personifies the ship, Serenity, and takes insults towards the ship personally. In “The Train Job”, after the pilot takes the ship through a particularly challenging maneuver, Kaylee pets the ship and whispers, “That’s my girl. That’s my good girl.” In “Bushwhacked”, a government offices orders for the ship to be searched and insults Kaylee:

Commander Harken: I want every inch of this junker tossed.
Kaylee: [offended] “Junker”?
Mal: Settle down, Kaylee.
Kaylee: But Captain, did you hear what that purple-belly called Serenity?
Mal: Shut up!

In “Out of Gas”, Kaylee apologizes for not seeing the warning signs before a catastrophic failure, “I’m sorry, Captain. I’m real sorry. I shoulda kept better care of her. Usually she lets me know when something’s wrong. Maybe she did and I wasn’t paying attention.” Over and over again, Kaylee characterizes Serenity as a child or pet that she is responsible for taking care of. This is in direct contrast to the more typical (male) characterization of ships as a female lover depicted in the old sailor’s saying, “they’re bluff in the bow, round in the counter, and cost a fortune to keep in powder and paint.” While Kaylee’s work is masculine, her behavior and appearance are not. This tension between masculinity and femininity is present throughout the series. Kaylee is not the sort of tomboy who rejects femininity and wants to play with “boy things” – she is an active participant in determining how to blend these seemingly disparate parts of her life.

There is one particular episode where this tension bubbles to the surface. In episode 4, “Shindig”, the crew is on planet and Kaylee falls in love with a poofy pink dress she sees in a store window. Malcolm, the captain, 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 is at odds with engineering. Numerous studies have explored this phenomenon including one by Dr. Wendy Faulkner of the University of Edinburgh in “Genders In/Of Engineering: A Research Report”. She explains that this dichotomy between masculine and feminine parallels the schism between technical and social that is also present in engineering. As she explains, this phenomenon “draws on the conventional gendering of a dualism or dichotomy between ‘the technical’ realm and ‘the social’, by which men/masculinities are so readily associated (symbolically) with technology and women/femininities with people.” As a result of this societal assumption, men are assumed to be more suited to technological careers while women are encouraged to pursue people-oriented, service careers. However, this division does not easily map to individual’s lives. For Kaylee, there is nothing different between her love of the dress (femininity) and her love of engines (technology). Yet, it is interpreted quite differently by Malcolm in that he supports her love of engines and criticizes her love of dresses. In the same ways that the masculine/feminine dichotomy is weakened, the technical/social dualism also falls apart on closer examination. There are very few engineers who do not have to work with other people and as a result, most engineers develop decent people skills despite the stereotype. In addition, engineering education is increasingly emphasizing the importance of developing engineer’s communication and teamwork skills. Therefore, Kaylee’s friendliness is not out of sync with her identity as an engineer.

Later on in the episode, Malcolm 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 for wearing a store-bought dress and betraying her social class. Ultimately, she finds a place for herself as “one of the guys” dishing engine stories.  This presents an interesting clash of class and gender politics as the women appear to care more about Kaylee’s “outsides” and the men seem to be drawn to her “insides”. Kaylee is much more socially successful in her interaction with the group of men. With them, she is the center of a discussion on the benefits and drawbacks of various engines:

Kaylee: I’m not saying the 80-04’s hard to repair. It just ain’t worth it.
Older Farmer: It’s a fine machine, you just keep it tuned.
Kaylee: T-sai boo shr! The extenders ain’t braced.
Murphy: I’ve been telling him to buy an 80-10 for years.
Kaylee: Those tenders snap off, don’t matter how good the engine’s cycling.
Younger Farmer: Miss Kaylee, I wonder if I could request the honor of having this [dance]…
Murphy: [interrupting] Wait a minute, let her talk! She’s talkin’.
Kaylee: By the way, the 80-10’s the same machine. They just changed the plating, hoped no one noticed.

It is unclear whether this scene is supposed to reaffirm Kaylee’s identity as an engineer, make a comment on her inability to fit in with women, or some combination. Her ease in this dialogue may also be an indication that her skills as an engineer came from growing up in a farming environment. Interestingly, Kaylee is desexualized in this scene as Murphy cuts off a young man attempting to ask her to dance. Once again, it is not possible for Kaylee to engage in feminine and technical behavior simultaneously.

Ultimately, the episode “Shindig” ends back on the ship with Kaylee looking lovingly at the poofy pink dress hung up in her cabin. Kaylee clearly values “feminine” objects in equal proportion to her love of “masculine” objects such as engines. Throughout the series, she struggles to be viewed as both an engineer and as a sexually available woman to Simon, the ship’s doctor. The captain and Kaylee have a professional sibling-type relationship and in the episode “Jaynestown”, Simon is shy about engaging in a different sort of relationship with her:

Simon: Mal, I, uh, uh… No, n-n-nothing happened. There was, uh, there was – there was some drinking, but, uh – No-no, we-we certainly didn’t – I would never. Not with Kaylee.
Kaylee: What do you mean, not with me?

Despite their obvious attraction, it is unclear whether it is simply out of shyness, a sense of obligation towards his sister, or a nagging feeling that Kaylee is not the “right type” of woman that is holding Simon back. Ultimately, their relationship does not materialize until the series is continued in the movie “Serenity”.

Historically, the concept of genius has had a complicated gender not unlike Kaylee’s character. Christine Battersby explains in her book, Gender and Genius, that as early as the Romantic Era the “genius” is coded as a feminine male. To be truly creative, a man must be feminine in that he is emotional, moody and romantic while also having masculine traits of discrimination and detachment. As Battersby explains, “we still associate the great artist with certain (male) personality-types, certain (male) social roles, and certain kinds of (male) energies.” Male sexual energy was seen as an important component of authentic creativity. This is of particular interest as Kaylee also exhibits a healthy appetite for sex despite the little she has the opportunity to engage in. In “Serenity”, Kaylee explains that “we’re [going] on a year now, I ain’t had nothing ‘twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries.” In fact, in episode 8 titled “Out of Gas”, we learn that Kaylee got her position on the ship when she was caught by Malcolm having sex with the previous engineer, Bester, in the engine room. While covering themselves up, the previous engineer claimed that he was having trouble fixing the grounded ship and Kaylee pipes up that a particular component needs to be adjusted:

Bester: No can do, Cap. Secondary grav boot’s shot.

[Bester’s local girlfriend calls out from behind the engine, where she’s getting dressed again.]

Kaylee: No it ain’t! Ain’t nothing wrong with your grav boot. Grav boot’s just fine. [waves to Malcolm] Hello!

Bester: She doesn’t… eh, that’s not what… [to Kaylee] No it ain’t!

Kaylee: Sure it is! Grav boot ain’t your trouble. I seen the trouble plain as day when I was down there on my back before. Your reg couple’s bad.

She fiddles with it and the engine begins humming. Mal offers her a job on the spot and fires Bester. This is an interesting beginning to Kaylee’s career as an engineer as it glosses over her pre-Serenity history. In our society boys are encouraged to take things apart and build objects in which they learn mechanical skills and confidence and girls are not encouraged to participate in those same activities. Presumably, Kaylee’s childhood included engaging in those “male” activities – but this point is not emphasized. She herself proclaims that this is the first time she has ever been aboard a Firefly-class ship. This lack of background makes Kaylee’s character seem less realistic because all female engineers have a story about how and why they became engineers. As Dr. Faulkner explains, “Thus, there is nothing remarkable about a man choosing to be an engineer. Many of those interviewed provided little or no account of their choice; they either never gave it much thought or it was all pretty obvious to them. By contrast, virtually all the women interviewed have a story to tell about why they made the choice; like not having children as a woman, it demands an explanation.” As a result, it is less compelling for Kaylee to get a job as a ship’s engineer seemingly at random. Firefly does not depict a future where gender does not matter, in fact presenting as feminine is an ongoing concern for Kaylee’s character. Yet, rather than prioritize framing a back story for Kaylee, her character is simply used as another example of the eclectic nature of the crew.

Since I first learned about Firefly, I have been drawn to Kaylee’s character. As an engineer, it is exciting to see someone in popular culture working through the same social pressures that I am engaging with every day. However, the lack of development of Kaylee’s character prevents her from making the type of impact that she could. Kaylee Frye could be an excellent role model for little girls who grow up to be engineers, someone just needs to tell her story.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 7, 2013 01:22

    My only objection to this article is the emphasis on the lack of development of Kaylee’s character. More development would have occurred, but the show was canceled after less than a season.

  2. May 8, 2016 22:12

    Really… such a good webpage

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