overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

A column tackling gay issues, gay themes, and just general gayness in television

Outer space, deviant sexualities, and FIREFLY's fanciest lad

by Whitney Cox

One place I can't fault Joss for his portrayal of queer people is Firefly. Maybe because it's set so far ahead in time, maybe because its characters are already so roguish and marginalized, or maybe just because the future has other things to worry about than who tips your fancy — I couldn't say, really. But one way or another, Firefly handles its queers by making them exactly what they should be: Not A Big Deal.

Totally heterosexual
Which is not to say that everyone is gay in the 26th century — far from it, in fact. But the stigma has been pretty much removed. When Mal is asked if he's 'sly,' he responds quite calmly that, no, he tends toward womenfolk. When Inara's mystery client turns out to be a woman, Kaylee's shock at having her assumptions proven wrong is overwritten almost instantly by her amazement at how glamorous they look together, while Jayne is just one of those pervy straight men who think lesbians are super-hot. The whorehouse has boy-whores and girl-whores alike, though the latter outnumber the former by a far bit. There's still the understanding that man-and-woman is mostly the way it works, but there's enormous room for variation on (and elimination of) that theme. Heteronormative relationships may still be important when you're trying to repopulate a planet/run a patriarchy, but when you're out in space, it doesn't so much matter who's in your bed.

So, in some sense, it's difficult to label Simon as a closeted homosexual when he's operating in a world where there's really no need to be closeted. After all, why bother hiding a sexuality no one would disapprove of? Why the reluctance to recognize in himself what he has no reason to hide? And what makes you think the boy's gay, anyway?

Well, okay, so maybe he's not gay. Sure, he's coded pretty gay by modern standards — he's a fancy lad, dignified and fussy in the face of dirty, sweaty adversity, and completely incapable of doing those manly things like actually hitting someone when he shoots a gun — but that doesn't necessarily mean anything. What makes me call him gay is the fact that the boy is obviously wrestling with a transgressive sort of sexuality that he doesn't quite know what to do with. While what he's trying to hide may not specifically be an attraction to members of his same sex, for all his behavior, he might as well be. He displays all the hallmarks of a man who represses his sexual identity — even to himself — out of terrible fear that it might manifest and out him as a deviant.

Simon's pretty normal. He was raised normal, had a normal family, went around doing normal things, and has been socialized to believe that normal is the only way to be — go to med school, become a doctor, get married to a proper girl, and have a litter of genius kiddies. And if everything had gone right, that's probably exactly what would have happened (including the wedding with the woman who seemed semi-exciting at first, but whose only bedroom request after a few years would be that the lights go off first). He would have lived out his nice, normal, boring existence without ever having to deal with anything but how gosh-darn normal he was.

You'd have to be gay not to...
Of course, everything didn't go right, and Dr. Simon Tam, top 3% of his class, becomes Simon Tam, wanted fugitive on a boat full of people who think he's the freak. His first instinct, of course, is to try and keep the normal going as much as possible — a plan in which Kaylee has a big part. She's got a thing for the big-city doctor, and she doesn't make much of a secret about it; therefore, she's available, interested, and (best of all) comparatively normal. What's not to like?

Simon/Kaylee is fun to watch in the way that watching two trains on a collision course approach each other in slow-motion is fun to watch — which is to say, kinda painful. She's got such a thing for him, and he's trying so hard to like her back — and failing so very miserably. The two actors have great chemistry together, which just accentuates how the two characters... don't. Simon wants so bad to be her beau that he seems to notice that he's not actually attracted to her; his attempts at wooing Kaylee are made even more pathetic by how half-hearted they are, and while she keeps having to take the lead for all their romantic ventures, his desperate struggles to keep up are fueled far more by the twin desires for normalcy and not to hurt her than they are by any real desire for her. Simon's lower parts, it seems, have their interest elsewhere1.

I stand firmly by the assertion that if you call someone a 'man-ape gone wrong thing,' it's actually code for wanting to have hot monkey sex with that person. Enter Jayne Cobb, the Hero of Canton and Simon's true object of fixation. Jayne has a big gun — stop it, I'm being serious — a foul mouth, and the kind of unabashed male sexuality that in prehistoric times would have involved clubbing his mates over their heads and dragging them hair-first back to his cave. In short, to a starched-shirt city slicker with a stick up his ass the size of a small moon, he's irresistible.

That Man-ape Gone Wrong
You don't really need me to point out that Jayne is one giant red flag. He's seven miles of bad road. If one of my girl- or boy-type friends ever got with someone like Jayne, I would beat that person severely 'round the head until I instilled some good sense (or knocked her/him unconscious, whichever came first). He's got most all of your classic potentially abusive partner indicators, and no corresponding indicators suggesting that anyone would be able to change him of his long-term roguish ways. The 'don't stick your dick in that, it's crazy' rule totally applies here, and I wouldn't get naked near Jayne unless he was tied down and I was armed. Quite frankly, I don't think Simon would, either. But that doesn't mean Simon doesn't want him.

If you watch from the beginning, you can see Simon's initial horrified reaction to Jayne grow and change into an equally horrified fascination that he attempts to mask with disdain. Simon has the attitude and behavior of a man who tries so very hard to hold himself and his dignity together because he knows that there's something he doesn't yet understand and can't quite control beneath the surface. There's a general rule that the tighter a businessman ties his tie, the more likely it is he wants to be bent over and dominated — and it's a rule I feel applies here. Of course Jayne is an oversexed, underwashed space cowboy (though not so much a gangster of love), but he's got that edge of danger that makes him extra-appealing to Simon, who quite frankly doesn't know how to let go in any other way. When you've been safe and secure all your life, suddenly having a love interest who's liable to knife you or turn you in to the cops at any moment adds a level of danger that has the potential to be really erotic.

This is not suggesting that Jayne/Simon either should or would ever work. In fact, the idea of their building anything approximating a relationship (contrary to 99.99% of the Jayne/Simon fanfic I run into out there not that I read that sort of thing shut up and go away) is pretty much entirely ridiculous, and I'm fairly sure Jayne would respond to such a suggestion with a reaction fifty parts horror to every one part arousal. However, impossibility has historically had difficulty blunting fantasy, and might even make it more appealing — after all, Simon wouldn't have to worry about how he'd actually react if such a thing were ever to happen. Not, of course, that Simon would ever acknowledge that he has those fantasies. But if he could get past his mental block of propriety and begin to let his sexuality run free rather than cramming it into the ill-fitting closet of propriety, he might begin to see that there's more to life than being normal all the time.

Of course, I would be remiss in implying that being pinned to the bed and done real hard in the backside would solve all of Simon's problems. But darned if it wouldn't shake loose a few of 'em.

1And I'm not talking about his sister — though we don't refer to that relationship as 'freaky space incest' for nothing, that's another column in and of itself.

NEXT TIME, ON OUT-TAKES: The Sex Lives of Supervillains; or, Holy Herbivorous Lesbians, Batman!

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