Thursday 12 January 2017

Heroine Fix: Kaylee Frye - Girl Genius

Warning: this contains spoilers for Firefly and Serenity.

I spent a lot of time this month trying to decide which of the Firefly ladies to focus on this month.  The sensual and dignified Inara?  The lethal and efficient Zoe?  The visionary and flexible River?  Or even Patience, who rules her moon with an iron fist?  All tempting, but in the end, I went with the girl after my own heart: Kaylee Frye, with her eternal faith and optimism, a mechanical genius and passionate woman.

Fans of Firefly have the privilege of being introduced to Kaylee three times: the original (unaired) two-part pilot, The Train Job and the movie, Serenity.  In the pilot, we first see Kaylee running to the engine room to shut down the engine so the ship can avoid detection.  She climbs up a ladder and flips a switch, then comments in the dark: Now I can't get down.  In The Train Job, she crawls out from underneath a panel (in the traditional manner of all sci-fi television engineers).  For the movie, Serenity, she's scrambling for the engine and deflecting her captain's angry demands to know why the buffer panel has detached.  She calmly reminds him that she promised him that the jury-rigged couplings would hold for two weeks, six months ago.

Like most of Joss Whedon's characters, Kaylee isn't easy to fit into a stereotype box.  She's cheerful, almost always smiling, even when she's been shot.  She's smart and a mechanical genius, describing herself as someone that machines just talk to.  She's the one who understands the ship and keeps her in the sky.  Jewel Staite explained in interviews that she first played Kaylee as an innocent, until she saw the script for Out of Gas, and realized that Kaylee is just unselfconscious about both her sexuality and skills.

 Kaylee likes people just as much as she does machines.  She's genuinely delighted to greet new arrivals and convince them to sign up as passengers on her ship.  She's proud of Serenity and one of the few times she gets upset is when someone insults her ship.  She tells Shepherd that her ship is the nicest at the Persephone docks.  With her rainbow parasol and her little buns on her head, she's happy to talk to people and find out their stories.

It would have been easy for the character to tip into irritating Pollyanna territory but one never gets the impression that Kaylee is ignorant or dismissive of the dangers they face.  She simply chooses to focus on what pleasures are available, from sampling a fresh strawberry to wearing a beautiful party dress to playing games with River.

When it comes to love, I am certain that Kaylee has a stack of romances tucked under her bunk.  She immediately falls in love with the doctor, Simon, even though he's too preoccupied with his sister to see it.  The only time she despairs is when she thinks he's about to leave the ship and even then, her earthy complaint that "going on a year, I ain't had nothing twixt my legs weren't run on batteries" is one of the best in the entire movie.  Although it leaves her male crewmates shaken, she's not ashamed.  She doesn't back down.

When Simon shyly confesses that her affection is mutual (just before they're about to be overrun and horribly killed), her reaction is to press him for specifics: "You mean to say, sex?"  When he confirms it, she immediately transforms from nervous to determined.

If she's been stuck with a year of batteries, I'm with Kaylee on proper motivation.

That's Kaylee in a nutshell.  Give her the right motivation and she will move heaven and earth to achieve her goal.  Once she knows a happily ever after is possible, she no longer has any doubt.  She is going to live and she is going to get her happy ending.  Show her a broken machine and she will find a way to fix it.  Give her the chance to meet a dozen people and she will walk away with at least eleven new friends.  She believes in others more than they believe in the themselves, which makes her all the more precious in a crew that's often more cynical than hopeful.
It's easy to praise fierce female badasses as pushing forward the expectations of women and girls.  But Kaylee represents another side of the coin: she enjoys feminine frippery but isn't intimidated by grease and machines.  She's cheery, brilliant and comfortable with herself.  She's everything modern women should be aspiring to be and she always finds time to take a moment to herself to dream.

Next month's Heroine Fix will take a look at a more contemporary heroine: Penelope Garcia from Criminal Minds.  See you then!

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