“Do you know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets other people killed.”
Meet Zoe Washburne: Fighter for Independence, second in command on the transport ship Serenity and an occasional, if reluctant, big damn hero.
Portrayed by The Redoubtable Gina Torres in 14 episodes of “Firefly” and two glorious hours of the film Serenity, Zoe is one of sci-fi’s toughest, most fascinating and most relatable characters. We root for her, we feel for her, we wish we could be her. (If we told her any of this we’d probably get a raised eyebrow in response, at most.) What is it about this particular character that we love so much?
Ultimately, it boils down to two things: Strength and Humanity.
Now, as many of you know, the Strong Female Character is a trope that’s become problematic, especially in sci-fi. The new “Mary Sue” isn’t just an idealized every-woman, she now has to be fierce and strong as well. She’s given a weapon and taught martial arts, and that’s supposed to be enough to placate those of us who still think we should have had a Wonder Woman movie by now (Ahem).
There is no question that Zoe is a badass. She’s a commanding, no-nonsense force to be reckoned with–and that’s without her gun. With it, she’s deadly.
That said, her strength is not derived from her weapon or her skill as a fighter, but from a complicated, very human composite of experience, surroundings and, yes, feelings.
Zoe is a fighter not just because of what she has to be, or because of what she’s been through, but by choice. As a career soldier, she finds herself on the front lines of the rebellion, and that suits her fine. Of course, life as a soldier means she has also been to Hell and back. Her natural reserved demeanor provides a thin veil for the pain of experience behind her eyes, but the fact that she walks around with this pain and keeps moving forward makes her strong.
Her loyalty is extraordinary. She is cautious and selective about the people she allows into her inner circle, but once they’re in, she will love and protect them for life. She’s not strong because she’s some solitary, emotionless warrior. The love she shares with her family, friends and crew makes her more of a caretaker, and that caring makes her stronger.
Her relationship with her husband Wash is particularly noteworthy. When we meet them they are already married (though we learn in flashbacks she was not his biggest fan when they first met). Their relationship is loving, supportive, sexy, and peppered with everything from flirting and comfortable bickering to important discussions, even fights. We actually get to see a couple working on their relationship in shockingly healthy and/or normal ways, and it’s both remarkable (because it’s such a rarity for entertainment) and relatable.
Further, it is a relationship that brings out the best in both of them. Seeing Zoe in a happy marriage doesn’t make her somehow “softer” or “weaker.” In perhaps her most defining moment on the show, she is at one point confronted with the choice of saving either her Captain or her husband; she chooses her husband before the bad guy even has a chance to try to torment her with it. She is not defined by her relationship or her partner, but her unfaltering love gives her clarity, and that, too, gives her strength.
She is a woman who respects those who deserve it, and so she commands respect. She has everything she needs to fly solo and take care of herself, but she chooses to support her family and crew, and so she is supported. She has been through enough extraordinary circumstances that she could have easily allowed herself to be shaped by tragedy, as so many modern heroines are. Instead, she shapes herself with her choices, feelings, beliefs and actions. She is not strong despite her human failings; her humanity and complexity is what galvanizes her strength.
To talk more about Zoe, “Firefly,” Serenity, or Strong Female Characters, leave a comment here, come chat with us on Twitter @LegionofLeia, or single me out @dani_ketch. Just to answer the obvious question: yes, character profiles have moved from Fridays to Thursdays. If you have any characters you’d like to see, let us know in the comments.
Happy Independence Day, Legion!