The Strength of Inara

Last weekend at AggieCon (which was a blast, btw), I had the pleasure of participating on a panel discussing Firefly: The Immortal TV Show. Among my fellow panelists were the AggieCon Literary GOH Catherynne Valente, author Patrice Sarath, and Captain Whittaker from the Airship Isabella.

The conversation during the panel was quite interesting, and it took several turns I never would have expected. I love this about open discussion and convention panels. I always learn so much just by listening to others’ opinions. In fact, the panel was so thought-provoking, that a few of the panelists and several audience members continued the discussion out on the patio afterwards.

I’ve always held Joss Whedon as a strong advocate for women’s issues, a feminist at heart, so I was surprised to hear Catherynne say that she felt Joss Whedon showed the complete opposite in his works. She cited several examples such as how Whedon kills off the women characters, but perhaps the most astonishing example was to hear her say that Inara Serra, played by Morena Baccain, was an underdeveloped character and an example of a weak woman.

Catherynne pointed out that sex workers have no problems telling people that they’re attracted to them or handling such situations, and of this I have no doubt; however, I don’t believe that Inarra lacked the courage to tell Mal she loved him, but rather she was wise enough and strong enough not to tell him.

Inara is a companion. In the world of Firefly, this is similar to a Geisha or a Courtesan, a high-class, well-educated sex worker. Although Mal seems to take pleasure in calling her “whore” and other such misogynistic attacks on her choice of career, as the audience gets to know the characters it becomes clear that he says these things in order to remind himself and attempt to keep an emotional distance from her, because he is deeply in love with her. And she is deeply in love with him. The tension between the two is undeniable. Then the question remains: why don’t they ever get together?

The easy answer, of course, is that Joss Whedon is a sadist, which he is when it comes to romantic relationships in his stories, or that the sexual tension is necessary for plot or conflict purpose. Certainly the above two reasons are true, but the more important answer lies within the characters themselves. In fact, it is what helps define those characters.

Love is powerful. Sexual desire is powerful. Combined, they are virtually impossible to deny, especially when one is in such close proximity with one’s beloved day after day after day. Additionally, Inara and Mal are normally in the middle of space for weeks on end without seeing anyone other than the other members of Serenity’s crew.

Only someone with amazing strength could deny such a strong attraction and deep love. Day, after day, after day.

Inara has sex for a living, but what she does for her clients is much more than just carnal gratification. She nurtures them and honors them, and most of them honor her and her position as well. In such a profession, she understands the power of sexuality and the power of intimately coming together with another person. It can be a profound experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

Inara understands the depth and possible dangers of passion. She understands that she and Mal come from two different worlds and that love is not enough to make a relationship work. She is not blinded by romantic notions of happily ever after. She fully grasps the risk of crossing that line with Mal.

Theirs is a business arrangement. She rents a shuttle from him so that she might expand her clientele across the galaxy. She is quite obviously in love with Mal and sexually attracted to him (Hello! Nathan Fillion! Who wouldn’t be?), but she is also aware that giving into her desire would likely destroy both their lives. Mal understands this, too. Therein lies the tragedy. They are deeply in love, but they cannot (or rather should not) be together. Which, of course, makes them want each other all the more, as what is more delicious than forbidden fruit? Even if it is a self-imposed restraint.

Being in love, they could not just have sex and leave it at that. We’re not talking about a physical release here. It goes so much deeper than that. Inara knows it. Even though she has sex for a living without emotional attachment, her feelings for Mal are already present. Mal, on the other hand, has a strong sense of integrity around sex. He sees it as a sacred union, and I love him for it. This is part of the problem he has with Inara’s profession.

If they were to cross that line, Mal would not be able to live with Inara continuing her career as a companion, which would ultimately tear them apart. For this is Inara’s choice, her career, her life. To give it up would be to give up who she is, and a strong woman does not give up who she is for a man, not even Nathan Fillion. Inara’s refusal to sacrifice her life, and thereby herself, for love is a testament to her strength, especially under their circumstances and in such close proximity.

In “Heart of Gold,” Mal sleeps with another woman, Nandi (a former companion), and it’s a very *hot* scene. It’s my favorite episode not only for the steamy scene between Mal and Nandi, but also for Inara’s reaction when she learns that Mal had had sex with Nandi.

Inara knows Mal. She knows that sex is sacred to him, so she understands that when he chose to be with Nandi, although Mal is not in love with Nandi, it was not meaningless to him. Inara goes into an empty room and cries. Her tears do not show weakness, they show her strength. She goes to where no one can see her and deals with her pain alone. It’s heartbreaking. But she is not jealous. She is heartbroken because here is a painul reminder that she cannot have what she so desperately wants. What she so desperately needs. She wants to be able to lose herself in love. She wants to lose herself in him. She wants to give up everything just for one night or a chance at love. She fantasizes about it, but she is too strong to actually do it.

Because she is wise enough to know the truth. She knows that by giving into her desires, she will destroy both their lives.

Inara is not by any means weak; she is stronger than I could ever be.

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~ by omgrey on March 30, 2011.

46 Responses to “The Strength of Inara”

  1. This almost made me cry. The relationship between Mal and Inara was one of the most funny and most heartbreaking parts of the show. I wish I could know what would have happened between them, and I really wish I could see the scene of Inara announcing her departure from Serenity to its crew. Unfortunately, that scene takes place between Objects in Space and Serenity…one of the many lost pieces of the Firefly story. I think I’m going to go cry in an empty room now.

    • I wish I could know what happened between them, too. But their love story is as beautiful as it is because of the tragedy. Because of it is unrealized and unsatisfied. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Brilliant Article on a
    Brilliant but Tragic Relationship :)

  3. This is perhaps the greatest explanation of their relationship and Inara’s resolve I have ever read. Mal and Inara’s relationship was funny, tragic, frustrating and maddening all at once, and while I’d love to see the happily ever after, the reality of that is even with more seasons to that show, there probably never would have been one. Thank you for writing this, I always found Inara to be one of the strongest characters on that show. Wonderful article.

    • Thank you, Big Bad Jayne (love the username). There is no happily ever after for them, but nor is there HEA for any of the greatest love stories in literature or pop culture. That is precisely what makes them so great.

  4. Interesting article. I wanted to agree with it, but several thoughts began to nag at me:

    1) The episode “Shindig”, Mal believes that Inara has no respect for herself, as she seems willing to sell herself off to a demeaning sort of guy. He feels he has to fight for her honor since she seems unable or unwilling to do it herself. He’s willing to die for her honor, while she could just walk away from her side of the contract at any time. Why doesn’t she call the whole thing off? Because she does not feel that the rich dude has insulted her honor in any way.

    2) In the comic, Mal ends up becoming quite wealthy. Wealthy enough to probably submit to Inara an “exclusive” kind of contract. He fantasizes about it (or maybe I read that into it), but in the end he does not.

    What I am saying is…I think Mal loves Inara, but knows that Inara does not love herself since she is OK with being nothing more than a paid slave, and in many ways tells her so. This is her weakness. That is the only real reason a relationship would not work out. She does not respect her own self worth enough to value her own happiness.

    • In “Shindig,” Inara was engaged in a business transaction with Atherton, who appears to be a good guy at the beginning. Handsome, rich, etc. He, of course, turns out to be a misogynistic narcissist. Inara never intends to stay with him. She doesn’t give him a no, as the weekend business is just commencing and he is one of her regular customers. Inara has had to learn how to diplomatically let men down easy, and she’s not going to upset him this early in their weekend engagement, as the fantasy is part of the package. She does stand up for Serenity, however, when Atherton insults her.

      By the time Atherton begins to show his true colors, childishly acting out the way narcissists do when they momentarily realize there are more people in the universe than themselves, Mal reacts, escalating the situation. Had he not been there or reacted so rashly, Inara would’ve skillfully been able to smooth things over and then graciously take her leave of him and possibly cut him off as a client.

      Yes, Mal was defending her honor, but her honor did not need defending. Inara knows that comments such as Atherton’s speaks more about Atherton’s personality and honor than it does about her own.

      And her love for Mal is clear when she offers herself to this monster to save his life. The stakes are increased, and it is no longer for his love but for his life itself. The ultimate selfless act, which fortunately becomes unnecessary. Had it come to that, though, I have no doubt that Inara would’ve found a way out of it with Atherton believing it was his idea.

      At the end when Atherton threatens her and she says that it “doesn’t work that way,” she stands up for herself, her profession, and for all battered women in her reply and actions. Atherton is put in his place and left shamed.

      As for the comic, I cannot speak to that as I have yet to read them.

      • Your arguments are sound. But if you were a paid professional with your choice of clients would you submit yourself REGULARLY to the fantasies of a misogynistic narcissist. And if so, how can you say that you respect yourself?

        Thanks for reminding me of the name — Atherton acts and speaks as if Inara is property he owns – i.e. to Atherton, since money changed hands, Inara is his. Inara could have chosen very easily to correct his thinking without necessarily losing his favor.

        And please read the comics, they are very worth it. I felt they were very much like lost episodes.

      • That’s the point. She didn’t realize he was a narcissist until that episode. Narcissists are extremely charming and skilled at hiding their abusive nature (and misogyny), especially during short spurts, like Inara and Atherton would have had. Only when pushed do they show their true colors. Or, sometimes, after cohabitation for over a year. They cannot keep up the facade forever, but many partners don’t see the narcissist beneath the charm for years, sometimes decades.

        Mal’s reaction (and Atherton realizing how much Inara cared for him and Serenity) hurt his fragile narcissistic ego.

        If you haven’t come in contact with a narcissist, count yourself very lucky. Read up on them so you can spot one before it’s too late. They do quite a bit of damage.

      • You are right, I know only what a narcissist is by reading of them, none personally. To me, Atherton just seems like a rich creep who thinks of Inara as a paid whore, an object that he has every right to own, and to derive pleasure from, and to enjoy the envy of her other suitors. He does not see her as a human person with choices and feelings. And he does insult her before Mal even shows up, and she says nothing to defend herself.

        A commenter here suggests that Inara was terminally ill; that makes a little more sense about why she might be so intent on remaining detached. But to me it still shows that she does not believe she deserves love or happiness, and that, ok, ok, might not be weakness, but it’s definitely not a good thing.

      • You just described a narcissist. They don’t see others as humans with feelings and choices. They think others are theirs to own.

    • “2) In the comic, Mal ends up becoming quite wealthy. Wealthy enough to probably submit to Inara an “exclusive” kind of contract. He fantasizes about it (or maybe I read that into it), but in the end he does not.”
      I’m not sure what comic you’re referring to, but Mal would never hire someone to have sex with him. Even if it were Inara, and even if he knew she loved him as much as he loved her. As omgrey wrote in the article above, sex is sacred to Mal.

      • Well stated.

      • As I am reading all these comments, and feeling the need to respond, I am also watching clips of various Firefly episodes, and realizing I don’t remember every little thing like I used to, which probably means I should watch all the episodes again – Yay! Thanks for giving me a reason to do that.

        I just don’t know if what you are saying here is true. I think that if Mal knew for sure that Inara loved him, and if he were in a position to offer Inara a life where she would no longer have to have sex with anyone but him, AND a life where she can still have her luxuries, keep her dressed nice, and keep her at a level befitting a Companion’s status, I don’t know that he would not make an offer like that to her. Which is why I was confused that he didn’t when he had the chance. You are saying that it is because he believes sex is sacred — can you please tell me which episode you are referring to? I think you could be right, but I can’t recall where he might have said something like that. Maybe it was the first one?

      • Yes! Watch them again! Any excuse is a great one to watch them again. :)

        The confusion here is that you feel that Inara needs to be rescued from her life as a companion. She doesn’t. In our culture, prostitution is looked upon as something a damaged woman is forced into, which is sometimes the case but not always. There are plenty of sex workers, especially the higher class one’s that choose that lifestyle and career.

        As to where I get Mal thinks that sex is sacred, it wasn’t a particular episode; it was throughout the series. In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” he does not take sexual advantage of his “wife,” whereas Jayne wants to buy her in trade for a gun. Only because it had been so long for Mal and because she is so very convincing does he even consider sex with her. Yes, had she not drugged him, they would’ve had sex, he is human after all; but think about how much he resisted her. One can only take so much seduction.

        Again in “Heart of Gold,” he’s in a house full of sex workers who would love to please him for helping them out, but he does not go there like Jayne does. Certainly Jayne is nearly polar opposite of Mal in his regard for women, but he’s useful for the comparison.

        Mal gives himself to Nandi because of the connection they develop throughout the evening. Like I said in the article, he’s not in love with her, but it doesn’t mean nothing to him either.

      • I don’t think Inara must be rescued from being a Companion. I think she enjoys the life. I think a person could be a Companion and still defend their own honor, still respect themselves. I think it would all depend on the suitors she chose. Like the young ones =)
        I also think that Inara believes in real love and marriage as sacred too. That might be something I read into the way she encourages Kaylee’s love for Simon. I would think that if a Companion fell in love with a person, she could choose to leave and marry.
        Maybe, just maybe, I believe that it is always stronger to admit to being in love with someone, and opening yourself up to possible rejection. Come what may. Any other option like “protecting Mal’s feelings”, or “knowing for sure that it won’t work out” “knowing she has a terminal illness” is all just fear — not wanting to get herself possibly hurt. Because the truth is loving is scary, and to do it you need to say to heck with “what if” and that means you need to be stronger than you think you can be.

      • Inara does believe that love and marriage is sacred, no doubt. And I agree with you that it takes a lot of strength and courage to admit to being in love because it’s very, very scary. One makes themselves very vulnerable in love, and that’s frightening. But it’s not this fear that keeps her from telling Mal. That’s the original point. It might be why Mal doesn’t tell her, but it’s not why she doesn’t tell him. She knows it would never work. By doing so would be selfish and futile.

        From experience, I can confirm that love is not all one needs to make a relationship worse. Sometimes it’s better not to go there because many lives can be destroyed if one does. Yours, theirs, and other lives that are touched.

  5. Well said! People will often write off women as weak if they’re emotional or cold if they’re emotionless. This was often a criticism of Buffy as well. She, like Inara, had extraordinary emotional depth and her love and desires often came to a head with her job and reason for fighting; having to cope with that conflict and coming out the other side IS a sign of strength. Inara keeps Mal at a distance to protect him because she knows the reasons why they can’t be together. That is strength.

  6. One thing to note is that at the 2009 ComiCon in San Diego, CA, Joss Whedon confirmed that one of Inara’s major secrets that never got revealed was her fatal illness. No other details were provided except that she had a terminal illness, not what kind, if it was hereditary, spontaneous or contracted, nor how long she had known or had to live.

    I am of the opinion that her strength came from choosing to leave The Academy after discovering her illness. And it is further illustrated as she continuously chooses self-sacrifice. She ostracizes herself from love and familiarity to spare those around her of her own mortality. She can’t be with Mal, because she can’t bare to hurt him, even if it tortures her every single day.

  7. Inara and Mal, and their relationship or lack of, is a recurring source of conflict and character development for both characters.

    Saffron almost got her brains blown out by Inara for doublecrossing Mal. Atherton found out how unwise it was to treat Inara poorly.

    At the beginning of the Big Damn Movie, Inara had left, probably because it was becoming too hard to be around Mal, with their incomaptibility issues, and Mal let something he loved go free. And then, when the Operative uses Inara as bait to trap Mal and River, despite knowing it was a trap, of course our not so white knight comes charging to the rescue. One of my favorite scenes is Mal and Inara in the hold, when he comes the closest he ever did to admitting to her, and probably to himself, just how much he loves her.

    I maintain Firefly is Joss Whedon’s masterpiece, and the best thing on television. The characters, the story, the setting, all of it rich, vibrant, with a life all its own.

    Can’t stop the signal.

  8. I was looking for some insight into this relationship but i didnt know it. Great read =)

  9. There is a moment, after the death of Nandi, when Inara and Mal’s eyes meet. They are both devastated. She is *wills* him into action man/guns ablazing revenge mode, and he goes for it. Because they understand each other. All their verbal jousting is kid stuff compared to that moment. And they know it. Both live lives they have chosen so they don’t have to be ruled over. Mal gets angry when’s told what to do and Inara wants choice in her life. In that moment Mal is told (without words) what he has to do and he does it. They are both wary of the power they have over each other and rightly so. Both are *damaged* people. With Mal we know why but with Inara we have more to guess about. But the answer isn’t that she’s weak, or scared, or exploited. It’s the opposite.
    And please she is no mere sex worker. She’s a Companion. Sometimes it means sex, other times she is an entertainer, or a counsellor and a healer. Witness her exchanges with Book. He seeks her out for understanding and comfort as much as any of her clients seek her for other reasons.

  10. Plus given Inara’s secret [won't write it out loud], she has another powerful reason for keeping her distance from the man she loves.

    • Ooooh! What secret? Is this the one Joss revealed at ComicCon? Someone put it in the comments, if it is. If it’s not, I’m really curious now.

  11. [...] shindig sydney opera house the guild ticket toy story whedon WhedonverseThe Strength of InaraOMGrey analyses the strength of Inara Serra:Inara is a companion. In the world of Firefly, this is similar [...]

  12. AMAZING POST! Couldn’t agree more. Inara is one of my favorite characters and I love the dynamic they set up between her and Mal (reminded me painfully of a similar situation I was once in.)

  13. This is such a beautiful post, and outlines so eloquently exactly how I feel, and why Inara is one of my very favourite characters, her strength is so subtle and can be misunderstood, but when you understand, it’s pretty amazing. Every complex, poignant and lovely layer of Mal and Inara never ceases to break my heart or put me in a morose mood for hours.

    Also, concerning what another commenter said:

    “One thing to note is that at the 2009 ComiCon in San Diego, CA, Joss Whedon confirmed that one of Inara’s major secrets that never got revealed was her fatal illness. No other details were provided except that she had a terminal illness, not what kind, if it was hereditary, spontaneous or contracted, nor how long she had known or had to live.

    I am of the opinion that her strength came from choosing to leave The Academy after discovering her illness. And it is further illustrated as she continuously chooses self-sacrifice. She ostracizes herself from love and familiarity to spare those around her of her own mortality. She can’t be with Mal, because she can’t bare to hurt him, even if it tortures her every single day.”

    This is exactly what I believe too, and I thought I was basically the only one, so thank you for putting that so wonderfully. To me, this post describes their relationship perfectly, but doesn’t quite justify her leaving Serenity in Heart of Gold. Her being sick does; it adds another layer to everything and gah. -melts into puddle of tragic awesome-

    I cannot even articulate how much I admire Inara, Mal, everyone, the ‘verse…and I never get mushy over things like this, so… thanks =D

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  15. Entirely agree – also a great example of the truth that unrequited or unrealised love is far more narratively engaging and (oddly) emotionally satisfying to the viewer or reader than the more straight forward alternative

    • It is indeed. The sexual tension that can last for years in television shows. I suppose it is the memory of that rush of a new love, but once together it all becomes too realistic. Audiences want the chase, the longing…and they think they want them to get together, but once they do, they lose interest. I’m interested to see how this season of BONES will be with Brennan pregnant. I think it was a bad choice to have Booth & Brennan sleep together. We’ll see, I suppose.

  16. I may not be making any friends here, but I don’t think Inara is a symbol of feminine strength. She certainly has many qualities that would make one think of her as a strong person, an individual, very much one of the cast – all out on their own doing their own thing and coming together aboard Serenity.

    But let’s back up and look at the arrangements a companion makes a little more closely. We’re talking about a person whose job is similar to that of a geisha. She entertains, counsels, services her clients in a variety of ways, including sexually. And this person gets to choose her clients. How does she make the choice? What measures does she apply? These aren’t ever fully fleshed out in Joss’s ‘verse, and that’s what leaves me and a lot of other people seeing Inara just as she was described by Catherynne – a half-developed character with more weakness than strength apparent.

    Also, it doesn’t help that we’re constantly reminded that Inara’s job involves having sex for money. That point is repeatedly brought up for us in “Shindig,” and most other episodes with a big “Inara component” in the plot line, and in each case Mal is brough to the rescue so we can be reminded how sacred Inara’s sex is to him, even though he can never have it. In the end, Mal stands in for anyone who has suffered unrequired love. Instead of getting on with his life and seeking out love with someone else, he spins his wheels and treads water in this tense dance with Inara. It helps keep the story alive, but in the end it leaves us, like the characters themselves, pining for release and satisfaction.

    With fantasy stories, we have to either have a fully believable world created for us by the writer, or we need the writer to reflect our realities to us in creative ways, the better for us to understand this world we live in. Joss tried for the latter and came damn close, but he missed on making us believe the companions could be strong individuals without their professional title and duties. Inara, sans companion title, is presented to us as just another attractive woman. The companion corps are trained up from youth, right? So the industry is run by the people who do the work instead of pimps now. Big difference. We’re still seeing children trained to provide a service with their bodies, stealing from them the chance to ever fully understand and experience intimacy for themselves. It will always be an experience juxtaposed to another’s pleasure or satisfaction.

    “In such a profession, she understands the power of sexuality and the power of intimately coming together with another person.”

    I want to believe this is what Inara’s character thinks. But Joss never did a good enough job of proving it. The scenes in “Heart of Gold,” are powerful, indeed, both Mal and Nandi’s lovemaking and Inara’s tears. But I just didn’t buy into the idea that crying over what she could never have with Mal was reflective of Inara’s love for him.

    If it were the case that Inara truly loved Mal but felt unable to be with him, it is only because she derives her strength from being a companion, thereby ensuring control over who her intimate (sexual and otherwise) partners will be (i.e., how, when, how often, in what manner, she will delve into the realm of vulnerability with another person). If real love with Mal was presenting itself to her mind and heart, why not ditch the companion role and settle down with Mal somewhere?

    Therein lies the rub. The ‘verse would cease to be without Mal at the helm of Serenity. Joss needed to keep the tension alive so the show could go on, and in doing so, he left Inara in her underdeveloped and, ultimately, weakened position.

    • I think Whedon had great plans for Inara, and the brevity of the program certainly did the character (not to mention the fans and Whedon) a huge injustice. Whedon often takes a very long time to let things slowly unfold, and perhaps some of Inara’s characterization suffered because of this. Thank you for your comment. xo

  17. This made my heart swell and cry. Especially the last two paragraphs. Great article and writing.

  18. Thank you for this! Inara is my second favourite character (after Mal, of course), and her inner strength has always been so obvious to me. But I’ve definitely had arguments with other nerds about why she and Mal don’t hook up. You’ve put it far more elegantly than I ever have; now I have somewhere to link these folks. <3

  19. […] archived) article from Whore to Culture takes a critical look at the notion of Companions, or this post which takes a different view and praises the strength of character Inara shows (both have great […]

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