Cultural Hierarchy in Firefly

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The series Firefly, a space western, is set in a time where Earth has been abandoned for a new solar system far away. Constantly switching between genres, and heavily dependent on futuristic technology, travel, language, fears, and culture, the series needed to find a way to reach mimesis for its viewers. In other words, the show needed to be effortlessly believable and comfortable, and with visual or verbal cues that would allow audience members to assume certain things about characters, locations, cultures, actions, and the outcomes of those actions. One of the ways Firefly did this was through the construction of a social hierarchy based on a planet to planet differentiation where the classes were literally separated by planet.

Society in Firefly is broken down into four main groups: high, middle, low, and drifters. The homes of these classes are denoted by the core planets, middle reaching planets, far reaching planets, and those who live on ships, respectively. Each class has its own type of dress, different level of technology, different cultures, and differing opinions about the Alliance, or the solar system’s government.

High culture is found on the core planets and some smaller areas. They are the wealthiest planets and are lush in super advanced technology. Buildings are extremely futuristic, cars hover and race through huge skyscrapers, and large houses are guarded by invisible fences and sensors at every door. Their clothing is either extremely futuristic or has heavy 19th century influences, and no expense is spared at their dress, food, parties, housings, etc. In the following clip, three of the ship’s main characters, Simon, a doctor, River, his sister, and Jayne, a crew member, break into a high level medical center on the central planet Ariel. Here, Simon is able to use the futuristic and amazing technology to do a full body and brain scan of his sister. Take note of the technology and clothing.

Because of the lab’s location on Ariel, which is explained to be a central planet of great wealth, this level of amazing technology does not surprise the audience. Instead, all of the technology, and the amount of medicine available to be stolen, seems obvious to the viewer, and mimesis remains strong.

The middle planets are a happier mix between the high technology and futuristic genre of the central planets and the minimal or non-existant technology and western genre of the outer rim planets. In the following clip, the ship Serenity, lands in a port of Persephone to restock and take on passengers. This middle planet has some technology, and the port is well stocked and busy. However, as it is a middle planet, the port is still dirty and jam-packed with people of all different races, creeds, and cultures. Technology does play a huge part in their lives, but, as you will see, they still cook and sell food out on the street or from tents.

Horses and spaceships ride next to each other, computers stand next to cloth covered tents, and little boys sit on space-safe storage bins. The fashion is mixed, but not wealthy, and cannot be easily described by one era or another. The sci-fi futuristic and western genre mix sets the audience’s expectations for what types of things would be available on such a planet, and sets expectations for behavior. For example, one would expect to find parts for a ship here, but not the high tech medical center that was found on Ariel. Also, as this port sets up mimesis for the audience, we are not surprised to find the crew getting shot at by a trader, and then picking up a pastor and a wealthy traveler as passengers.

Following the line of technology, the low planets are the most poor with the least amount of technology and comfort. These planets often have no technology whatsoever, and rely heavily on horses, wagons, and other ranching, farming, and cooking implements that one would have seen on the Oregon Trail, or in the Wild West. The following clip shows a planet that is a huge producer of mud, and follows the crew around as they get a short tour from the foreman as he describes the status of the workers.

The view is pathetic, especially in comparison to the first video of Ariel’s medical center. The indentured servants work knee deep in smelly mud, mixing dirt and water with the most basic of tools. Their clothing is raggedy, their food consists of a liquid bread/beer, and they worship a statue of a thief made out of, that’s right, mud. These surroundings, while unfortunate for the mudders, set the audience’s expectations for the rest of the episode. From this scene, we expect and accept the dingy bar area, the group signing around a guitar, and the hope that was given to them when a thief dropped a bag of money while fleeing the scene of his crime.

The final social group is made up of those who live on the ships, drifting, not calling any planet home. Many of these captains and crews are, like Mal, soldiers from the wrong side of the rebellion against the Alliance, fugitives from the law, or those who don’t really quite fit in. While this group is often made up of those from other groups, many of whom retain their dress and cultural habits, they are treated differently by those with whom they interact. For example, these groups tend to be a bit more rough and tumble than those found living on the middle planets. Take the following clip, for example, where Inara, a high class companion, is attending a ball with a client on a high planet.

Atherton, a high class gentleman, points out that Inara, a high class woman, should not be living on “that flying piece of gossa”. While it does not detract from her appeal or manners, per say, it is not considered a place for a high class woman to be living, although she does choose it. The episode then continues, creating mimesis through our past experience and expectations of groups from different “worlds”. For example, when Kayle enters the ball wearing her store-made dress, Inara curses. We understand her sentiment immediately as the show, through its construction of social hierarchy, shows us how to react when two classes mix. It is then no surprise later in the episode when Mal, protecting Inara’s honor, punches Atherton in the face, as we would expect him to do, even at a fancy ball. As Atherton is of the high class society, it is then no surprise to the audience when Atherton reacts by stating “I accept,” and Mal is then bound to a duel with swords. While this may seem fantastic or strange in the audience’s sense of reality, because of the mimesis created by the show, the audience understands Mal’s surprise but also accepts it as a cultural necessity.

I think that it is also of great importance that Firefly is indeed a television series. While in the movie, Serenity, they did briefly describe the cultural difference between the planets, I think that it takes the length and freedom of a television series to really create the mimesis that makes this show really work. Take, for example, the following clip from the first episode of Firefly, where the crew is sitting down to dinner.

Mal and Zoe explain to a passenger how the outer moons have such a difference in the level of technology. Mal explains that “they”, aka the Alliance and the central planets, dumped settlers on the outer planets with the bare minimum of technology. This is an interesting moment, that built up over the series, really helps to explain why the classes are separated onto different planets, and probably helps explain the economy of the system. Furthermore, it helps create mimesis in the series and give the audience their expectations.

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