Character Study: Zoe Washburne

With October being #BlackSpeculativeFictionMonth, it seemed only appropriate to put the spotlight on an amazing black character. Zoe Washburne, the big damn heroine of Firefly/Serenity, portrayed by Perfection herself, Gina Torres, seemed like an excellent selection.

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When Firefly first premiered, I knew the series was going to be something special. Joss Whedon was at the helm, very talented and good-looking cast, wicked cool concept. Of course it wasn’t until I saw the first episode that I realized how special this little series about cowboys in space truly was. A major part of that success was a little cowgirl known as Zoe Washburne.

It should be noted that I’ve been a diehard fan of Gina Torres since I first laid eyes on her back when she was on Hercules & Xena. Okay, it has been repeatedly noted that when it comes to the religion of the Goddess Gina Torres, yours-truly is the high priest. Think season 4 of Angel when she played the deity Jasmine and was worshiped, only more obsessed, lol.

Whether as Jasmine, Anna Espinosa, Sidney Bristow’s Moriarty on Alias, Nebula from Hercules, Jessica Pearson from Suits, Vixen or Wonder Woman from Justice League and DC Universe online game respectively, there simply isn’t a role Torres can’t handle.

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The perfect blend of power, beauty, grace and intelligence, Torres can best be described as an alpha woman, an alpha amazon at that. The type of woman you’d gladly take 10 Morpheus-style beatdowns just to be in her presence.

Even with all of this I still wasn’t ready for the awesome that is Zoe Washburne.

The thing I loved the most about Zoe was that she was all business. A weapon, a soldier, she was no-nonsense and operated like a machine. Fearless; personality-wise she’s probably the toughest member of the Serenity crew.

One classic scene was when hulking tough-guy merc Jayne is freaking out and going on a tirade to the rest of the crew about facing the merciless and savage Reavers.

Zoe’s nonchalant response: “Jayne, you’ll scare the women.”

The only thing more lethal than Zoe’s sidearm is her wit. You can always count on her to deliver a deadpan one-liner from nowhere.

Zoe’s relationship with Mal was a very interesting one. You see, Mal the captain and warrior is actually comprised of Mal and Zoe. She’s his conscience, his better half. She’s his most loyal ally and will follow him into hell without hesitation. She rarely questions or objects to his direction but when she does, it’s for a good reason. A very good reason. Mal has lost his way and/or is in over his head.

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Mal (getting shot at): You were right Zoe.
Zoe: Thank you for admitting it sir.

But their relationship is far more complex and nuanced than simply commander and soldier. They’re also best friends and have a unique chemistry that kept audiences wondering if they did hook up at one point or would they hook up at some point, as a friend noted. One thing is for certain, it definitely kept their dynamic interesting.

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Zoe’s stoic and Spartan demeanor is a throwback to another Joss Whedon character; my favorite vampire slayer, Kendra.

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Zoe characterization no doubt paved the way for another Whedon fan-favorite, Melinda May.

In fact, more than a few parallels between Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Serenity Crew are explored here.

Zoe, Kendra, and May are exceptional as characters and definitely deserve more shine than they are often afforded.

Many people don’t understand these incredible women. However they all share a mindset that I’ve personally had to adopt, as is the case with many people of color. I get being the soldier, the machine, never allowing one’s self to show any weakness. It was also refreshing to see PoCs cast in these roles as they would typically go to white actors. In the case of Kendra and Zoe, it’s especially refreshing because blacks are often relegated and reduced to being the comic relief, the dunce or another denigrating stereotype.

Zoe has depth and dimensions and layers that make her complex and fascinating. She’s a career soldier but she’s also a loving wife who allows herself to be human with her husband.

She’s a warrior but she wants to start a family and have a child. She’s fiercely loyal, not only to Mal but to the rest of the crew. She nearly got killed saving Kaylee and belted Saffron with a right cross in retaliation for trying to kill the crew and specifically attacking Mal and Wash: the two most important men in her life.

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Her relationship with Wash was refreshing and progressive in its own right. It’s rare on American airwaves that a loving interracial marriage (or any marriage for that matter) is portrayed with such depth and nuance. It was devoid of the usual racist clichés and trappings that plague many interracial pairings.

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If you haven’t already, check out the Wash one-shot comic. It’s canon and there’s a little gem at the end of the story.

Zoe Washburne has been a heroine of mine since Firefly premiered a decade ago, and my love for her (or for that matter all of the crew) isn’t waning anytime soon. Imho, I think she’s one of the best characters ever conceived and brought to life. But with Whedon and Torres at the wheels, I never expected anything less than shiny.

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