Strong Female Characters: River Tam

For those familiar with my Strong Female Characters series, welcome back! To those who aren’t Thanks for reading! This blog is republished from an earlier Land of the Nerds post, edited and adjusted mostly because (a) we have a special “Browncoat Month” for April of 2015 and also (b) because I’ve revisited my previous opinions and decided to write a bit more.

1. Who is the Character?

River Tam, the little sister of Simon Tam, from the television show Firefly (2002) and the film Serenity (2005).

River Tam
River Tam

2. What is her role/career in the world she belongs to? 

River Tam is the youngest child of a wealthy family. In her back-story, she is revealed to be a highly intelligent and talented child, a prodigy. She corrected answers and problems in mathematics tests and the textbook, was a skilled dancer, and also had a highly active imagination.

River: flexible and athletic
River: flexible and athletic

At a young age, she understood that the Alliance planets “meddle” with the Independents, “We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right.” (My husband argues that this scene is entirely a dream, I think this is a memory/dream).
This young prodigy was accepted into “The Academy,” the school with the “most interesting program.” The Academy was really a secret government program, and River was a test subject. While she was there, River was subjected to experimentation and operations, things that stripped her mind of the ability to filter emotions.

They played with her brain
They played with her brain

River became a “reader;” She could tell what others were thinking, what they were doing, read their thoughts. River also became a super-kung-fu Reaver-killing Ninja. (Reavers are like ‘roided out Monster people, for those who don’t know the world of Firefly) in the body of a sweet, innocent looking girl.

Her prey


Of course, her fighting prowess is a secret for much of the Series; and her Reading ability alienates many people. People think she’s a little crazy; she sees things that are not there, and holds secrets she can’t express.

Everything she says and does can be interpreted as semi-prophetic; she does not sense the future, but her exposure to “key members of Parliament” and the work done to her at the Academy left her knowing some damning personal evidence.

werent cows inside

River sent home a series of coded notes and letters to her brother, Simon Tam. He quickly realized she was in danger and broke her out of her imprisonment. After this, when her brother broke her out of “The Academy,” they both became fugitives because of her knowledge.

3. What is the source of her power? Does she have [magic] power because she was born with it? If she was not “born to power,” how did she get the power? (i.e “Chosen” by a mysterious council, win via election, did she take the power or have it forced upon her?) Did she have to put up a fight to obtain her power?

River was born to some of her power. She was highly intelligent, naturally talented, and gifted to the extreme. It helped that she was the child of a wealthy family that helped cultivate her skills and intelligence at an early age, and encouraged her mental growth.

It is quite possible that, had she been born on a Rim world or a Border world, she would have used that mind of hers to be a person of great influence; a Big fish in a Small pond. Her education prior to the Academy was fortuitous.

Her ‘Power’ however is not just her intelligence. The intelligence and talents she was born with and cultivated in her early years were what got her accepted into “The Academy.” She got her ‘powers’ as a result of the government experiments. River did not WANT the powers she had- she did not want to be a Reader, to see people’s thoughts. She also did not want to be the ninja assassin that she became. She struggled to ‘get better.’ She did not want to be a killer, or to hurt people.

This is the root of my problem with the Whedonverse; he consistently has female characters primarily possess power because something was DONE to them. She’s not a “Ninja-psychic-assassin” on her own accord, she was forced to be one.

kill with brain
You’ve been put on notice.


4. Who are the important men in her life? Can we, in any way, attribute her position, power, or authority in thanks to the men in her life (father, brother, boyfriend/husband/lover)? (Did Daddy give her the power, is she only cool because she’s the Chosen One’s girlfriend?)


While she interacts with several men on Serenity, River has four important men in her life: her brother, Simon Tam; Captain Malcolm Reynolds; and the two “Hands of Blue” agents who are hunting her down.

Simon rescued her from the Academy. He gave up his fortune, and his claim to his family money to get her out of the place that she was trapped. Throughout the series, any threat to River and Simon is loyalty-bound to protect her. Simon never believes that it would be her fault if she took a knife to a crew member, because she was victimized and she had something done to her. No, Simon would argue, “she can’t be a killer, she’s a child. If she leaves the ship, I do.”


Captain Mal assumes a father-type role over River. He mistrusts Simon, but he accepts the siblings like part of his crew, and thus, important. Mal accepts River as part of the crew in a symbiotic relationship with Mal protecting the doctor from harm and Simon pays the Tam family way by keeping the crew patched up when they get foolish and fill themselves full of bullet holes. Mal protects his crew, and protects River. When she begins to cost more than that, he puts her to work believing that she will be more valuable as a protector and reader of their enemies than sitting all cooped up on a ship and cabin-fevered. When River starts fighting a crowd in a bar, Mal brings her back to the ship to figure out what happened, instead of abandoning her on the planet.


The “Hands of Blue” are seeking her out. They are, in the series, the people who represent the government, looking for her. They represent those who performed the experiments. They are the ones who metaphorically forced her to be a psychic. They are the evils of science. They are the dirty part of making the worlds safe.

We can attribute River’s psychic ninja skills primarily to the “Hands of blue” and the government and larger agencies that they represent.



5. Is she ever used as a “Damsel in Distress?” If so, how does she handle her capture/stress? Does she rescue herself or did she put herself into the stress to begin with?

 Though River did initially seek out the Academy, and wanted to be a part of it, River did not ask to be experimented on. When she felt betrayed by her school, she did reach out to her family, asking for help, to be rescued. She could not rescue herself. She needed someone to help her, and she had enough wits about her to sneak out the message. She used her intellect to help burst herself out of this perpetual prison.

She begins the show having been rescued once. She gets captured again, with her brother, in a religious village that tries to burn her as a witch. The Captain and crew of the Serenity rescue the Tams.

It could be safe to say that River doesn’t usually put herself into any of her stressful situations. She ‘gets a pass’ because she’s the ‘innocent, mentally handicapped’ girl. With the exception of her kidnapping by villagers, every time she is in danger, it is due to an exterior influence. In the movie, Mal brings her on a bank robbery job, where she’s instrumental in saving several lives from a Reaver attack. Later, a subliminal message causes her to start karate-kicking everyone around her (incidentally, another subliminal phrase, uttered by her brother, stops her).

She tries to find her own ways out when captured. She sent the coded letters to get out of the Academy. When the entire crew is held hostage by Badger, she distracts the leader of the thugs. She blindly and precisely shoots and kills three guards, when her friend Kaylee freezes up in combat.  When the village tries to burn her, she mind-reads and outright accuses the village leader of killing the previous leader. This (unintentionally on her part) causes the village to further press for her to be burned.

 river gun

6. Sex. Is sex and sexuality important to the character? Does she spend much of her time trying to impress the men around her? Is she the maiden/mother/crone?

River Tam is a Maiden. She is  young, presumably in her late teens. She does not spend a lot of time thinking about her own sexual appetites or desires. She does not really have them. She does not fix her hair, doesn’t worry that her clothes are ill-fitted, and does not have a real romantic interest.

Outwardly, she is sweet, innocent, and charming. Perhaps that is also part of why she was experimented on; the least likely assassin would be the innocent charming young girl.

However, she does flirt, one time, with Badger, the previously-mentioned thug leader, when his men held the crew hostage. If the show continued, one wonders if there would be some sort of romantic relationship for River.

 7. How ‘manly’ is the character? Is she a tomboy, or androgynous? Is she really just a male character in a female body?

Despite her ninja skills, River is not very butch. Her feminine charm, the girlish charm, is part of what made her such a dangerous assassin. She dances. She twirls. She plays with Kaylee.

She is very childish, however, and is constantly teasing and baiting Jayne, who doesn’t like her (especially after she ripped his good shirt with a knife).

8. What are her weaknesses?

The biggest weakness of all- she seems to have no control over her powers. Simple control words and phrases can put her in kill mode. Her psychic powers leave her so frightened and scared that half the time she does not understand what she sees.

The stick she picks up is a gun.

river stick
There are an awful lot of “River’s Feet and Hair” shots.


She’s dangerous, a ticking time bomb of ‘crazy’ and is likely to “blow us all up or rub soup in our hair.”
The secrets she holds are another weakness. She doesn’t know how to explain what she knows, or even if she really knows what she knows. She’s crazy, everyone tells her this, and second guesses her actions.

9. How Interesting would she be if she were a male character?

That is an excellent question. Now, understand, this is pure speculation, but I am pretty certain that a male River Tam would have been a different story.

Boys subjected to secret government agency experimentation, if they go crazy, manifest in different methods. I doubt a BoyRiver would have been psychic. It would have been no problem if BoyRiver picked up a gun and shot three attackers without looking at them. Or if boy River told Jayne “I Could kill you with my mind.”

BoyRiver would probably have just been left Mute instead of having parts of his brain removed. His Ninja skills would not be as secretive, and he probably would have already mastered martial arts prior to going to the academy.

Mayve BoyRiver would have been more like Chuck Bartowski, of the TV Show Chuck: A repository of governmental secrets programmed in his brain, including previously unknown assassin skills.


no power in the verse

On a summary, I do think that River Tam is “Strong.”  I feel that by giving her psychic “killing with her brain” powers and combining them with insanity was a bad call. It would have been much more awesome if she’d been a willing participant in becoming a Reaver killer. Maybe the “reason” would be just as “right” as the Operative we see at the end of Serenity. It is very possible that River was being designed to be the next Operative….a monster meant to make a world that River had no place in. A world without a river is a wasteland.

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1 Comment

  1. Kronos

    Very interesting read – Had to read this as soon as I saw River Tam – fantastic character I think.
    I agree with most of your posting, but I do think that River has some strength that is her own.  Calling for help was something that I think she did which showed great courage.

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