Strong Women of Firefly: Zoe Washburne

Welcome back to Land of the Nerds and to my column about Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. In this series, I explore the women in Science-Fiction and Fantasy. Sci/Fi Fantasy has a variety of strong, powerful, superb female role models, and the Firefly ‘Verse is no exception. In this particular post, I want to examine Zoe Washburne.

Note: I’m only going to discuss Zoe’s part on screen in Firefly and Serenity, not in the volumes of the post-Serenity Comics.

Understand before you read this that I am trying to avoid spoiling the Movie, so will mostly refer to the show.

1. Who is the character?

Zoe Washburne.

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


Zoe and her husband.
Zoe and her husband.

On Serenity, Zoe is the First Mate, the second-in-command of the ship. Whenever Captain Mal leaves, it is with Zoe in charge.

During the Unification War, Zoe served in the same unit as Mal was his second-in-command then, and remained his second-in-command in the civilian sector when he bought a ship.

She is also the wife of pilot Wash.

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 the power,” how did she get the power? (i.e “Chosen” by a mysterious council, win via election, did she take power or did she have it forced upon her). Did she have to put up a fight to obtain her power?

Unlike River, Zoe does not have “super ninja-magic powers” due to the meddling in her mind.
Zoe possesses a strength of character, of personality. She is a “Warrior woman,”  battle hardened after a long war, knows how to lead (and to command).

She has power and strength on her own merit.

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?)

Zoe and her Fellas
Zoe and her Fellas

Though there are several men that associate with Zoe, there are really only two of any importance to her day-to-day life. First, her friend and commander, Captain Mal, and sec, her husband, Wash.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds: Captain Mal is her former sergeant. He served with her in the war, and once it was over, he found a way to bring her in on his business, running the ship Serenity.

In many ways, Zoe takes a deferential role to Mal, the Captain. But, that may be out of the ingrained-military relationship they’d had in the past. He was her Sergeant, now he’s her Captain. They fought together, they served together. She calls him  “sir,” out of deference, and perhaps as a nickname. She has a way of telling Captain Mal that ‘Yes, I know, your ship, your rules, but remember….”

I get the impression that the two have not had a sexual relationship, and never will. (Not because she’s married to another man). The two are brothers-in-arms, not lovers. Friends.

Hoban Washburne: Wash is her husband. When she met him, she didn’t like him, but clearly they eventually hit it off, because Zoe and Wash have a very passionate relationship. They love each other. If there is anything of a thorn in the side of their relationship, it’s Mal. (and thus is an entire subplot of one episode).

mal wash
Wash and Mal are not the best of friends.


Zoe does not need Wash, and she does not need Mal to be strong and independent. THEY need HER. There’s an impression that if she were to leave the two of them, the ship would fall apart.

Evidence to this: Watch Zoe’s reaction in Serenity, after the crash.

She is strong enough to mourn later.

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?

Zoe is not the damsel in distress. If anything, the Captain and Wash are the ones in need of rescue.

Note: When captured and tortured, what better to talk about than the Woman that comes between you?
Note: When captured and tortured, what better to talk about than the Woman that comes between you?

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?

Sometimes, it appears that Zoe does seem to have some sort of need to impress the captain, but not to take him to bed.

But she does talk about her relationship with Wash on a rare occasion.
Here’s what Wash likes about her:


Zoe is a little more discreet. She doesn’t want to talk about her marriage, as it’s none of the Purplebelly’s business.

She flirts with Wash, plays with him, loves him.

zoe wash snuggle

Sex is clearly important to her, but a very private matter.

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

She is ‘manly’ in that she is a war veteran. She does not allow others to see her weak. She takes charge, is in control. But that doesn’t make her ‘masculine.’
She still wants to have children, and wants to wear a slinky dress from time to time.

But is she a male character in the female body? No.

8. What are her weaknesses?

Other than the weaknesses of the human body, Zoe tends to let the Captain lead her around, and it is often to the detriment of her relationship with Wash.
She’s not a ‘weak willed woman.’ She jokes about it, but when she says “I was weak,” when confronted by the police, it is almost farcical.

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

BDH-Zoe_Washburne_firefly_with_gun_smNot very. she provides that triangular dynamic between Mal and Wash, a great leader, and a strong person to take charge when Mal is absent.

Boy Zoe wouldn’t have the marriage aspect with Wash, or would be married to She-Wash. BoyZoe might still have been Mal’s war-buddy, but it might be perceived that a Boy Zoe is only around Mal as Hero Worship instead of loyalty. Boy Zoe would still kick ass, he just wouldn’t be as memorable as the Zoe we know and Love.

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