But let's get back to the #3 on that list. The third spot is occupied by one River Tam, Joss Whedon creation and one of the main characters on the prematurely cancelled Firefly and follow-up film Serenity. The problem Cracked highlights?
"Despite River's inherent ass-kicking abilities, she rarely uses them to the benefit of the crew. The character has been driven insane by her experiences, and therefore she spends most of her time saying crazy things and throwing up on her brother's bed. In fact, protecting River forms the backbone of no less than five out of thirteen episodes, plus the theatrical movie. That is a lot of rescuing for a feminist hero."And as backup for this critique, they pulled out a crazy woman who claims that Joss Whedon is a rapist. Because all men are rapists, didn't you know? Le sigh. Well, let's take a look at this argument from Cracked, because it isn't all its cracked up to be.
First and foremost, River Tam was not driven insane by her experiences. She was made insane because the government stripped her amygdala. This wasn't just some "weak woman overcome" thing. This was purposefully and medically done to her. It removed her agency, and it was part of the government's plan of turning River Tam into an object and not a subject. And although this is a small nitpick, the throwing up on her brother Simon's bed wasn't because of the insanity so much as it was based on her reaction to the drugs Simon gave her to try to conteract her insanity. So it isn't like Whedon created a crazy female character who went throwing up everywhere willy nilly. Secondly, protecting River and Simon from the government is a main theme, not because they are weak and need protecting but because they are fugitives from the law. That is a lot different than a Rachel Dawes situation. Thirdly, I don't know where they get that five episode count. From where I'm standing, protecting River was just one storyline in the pilot episode; Bushwhacked had a different backbone of introducing Reavers and the Alliance stupidity full on, with keeping Simon and River away from the government playing an adjacent role to the primary theme. Ariel is about gathering more information about River's condition and pulling off a daring heist. Objects in Space is about River being smart enough and able enough to take control of a dangerous situation and utilize her talents to protect not only herself but her newfound family and home. Safe is really the only episode that is about protecting River. Fourth, and this may be a bit of a nitpick as well, a lot of River's talents aren't strictly inherent. She had the ability to become an ass-kicker, but she had to be trained by the government. She isn't Buffy. She is a girl who was used.
Fifthly, this criticism put forth by Cracked may be a valid critique if not for two caveats, one being that River Tam is hardly the only kick ass feminist heroine on the ship (Zoe comes immediately to mind as another); and the second caveat being that this is actually kind of a traditional feminist narrative. Think A Doll's House. Think The Awakening. Think The Yellow Wallpaper. Hell, think Wide Sargasso Sea. All, with varying levels of success on the part of the female protagonist, start off as an examination of the female as the object, as something to be controlled and possessed. Nora escapes; Edna swims out to sea; the protagonist in The Yellow Wallpaper goes insane and then begins to crawl; Antoinette goes insane and decides to take her own life. River Tam is among these narratives, with Zoe Washburne representing another narrative.
River Tam had something taken from her, she was broken, and through that she became stronger and overcame and fully grew into a self-defined entity. And yet, even when she is broken by a government who wanted her as an object, as a weapon, we are told outright that she is "a person, actual and whole". Her journey is powerful because it doesn't come from a place of film-exploitation. We don't see the horrific things done to River in an attempt to titillate us; we don't see what has been done to River at all. Even her brief nudity in Serenity (the episode) is meant to emphasize her vulnerability and her odd openness to the world. And through it all, though she has been beaten and broken and used like a thing, she is someone who comes into her own; she becomes someone who is able to control her talents -talents that had made her object in a different situation- in order to fully set herself and her companions free. And that is the thing Cracked's list doesn't seem to recognize: River's journey in Firefly and Serenity is the journey toward empowerment. We don't meet her already empowered and powerful. We meet someone who has had horrible things done to her; we meet someone who has been sacrificed for the greater good. And through her journey, she becomes a feminist icon.