River Tam and the Weaponized Women of the Whedonverse
Joss Whedon shares a lot in common with the Greek god Hephaestus–and I don’t mean that he’s a hairy, ugly dude conceived by his mom through parthenogenesis in a fit of jealous pique and thrown off Olympus with such force that he fell for nine days.1 Hephaestus was the armorer of the gods. He made Zeus’s thunderbolts and scepter, Athena’s shields, Eros’s arrows, Achilles’s armor, and Helios’s chariot. But there’s a certain blurring of Hephaestus’s specialization, if you rummage through The Iliad. In Book Eighteen, Hephaestus is shown not only as a manufacturer of weapons, but of women, having created two artificial maidens made of gold as his workshop help who are as smart and skilled as any living girl.
I bring this up because the idea of a woman as created by a weapon-maker within Patriarchal contexts is a recurring motif in the worlds imagined by Joss Whedon, the so-called “Whedonverse.”2 It’s a motif, perhaps better defined as “the woman as weapon,” that reaches its apotheosis with the developmental journey of River in Firefly and Serenity. I say it reaches its apotheosis, because as I write this, she’s the most recent example of this trend; there could be more in Whedon’s future work that are more apotheosis-y. But for now, let’s take a look at River’s creation and development as a weapon–as the creation of weapon-makers–by first taking a look at a few of her antecedents. The motif of the woman-as-weapon is a fairly complicated one, with a number of …