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Dearest little one,
I was born into a world that I didn’t quite fit into. For a long time, I looked up into the skies, wished upon all the stars I could see, and dreamed of becoming an astronaut. My destiny, I decided, was out there in the great dark vastness of space. And so I sunk myself headfirst into the sci-fi genre, seeking out new life and civilizations with the USS Enterprise, channeling the Force in a galaxy far far away, and locking that all-important last chevron on a gateway that promised to send me hurtling to the other side of the universe.
I was a dreamy and distracted little thing – and not exactly made from Starfleet material. In fact, I was more your typical “before” in any teen movie makeover: thick glasses, big feet, perpetually messy hair, braces that glistened whenever I spoke. My nose was forever in a book, my head forever in the clouds, and my feet forever tripping over themselves (there’s a reason my PE teacher ordered me to “practice throwing and catching a ball in isolation”).
Still, though, I believed I had a place among the stars – until my frustrated father informed me, less than kindly, that an extremely short-sighted and clumsy little girl like me would be bottom of NASA’s hiring list. That my lack of coordination or athleticism wouldn’t exactly cut it in the airforce, either. That my sweet and softly-spoken nature, in fact, wasn’t going to cut it in any sort of military setting. That my penchant for bright patterns and candy colors was as opposed to the utilitarian uniforms seen in the world of sci-fi as possible.
That my dreamy, romantic outlook on life might cut it down here on earth, but that it had no place out there in the vastness of space. Because people like us? The kind of people who relied on free school dinners and childcare credits, shared a box bedroom with our siblings, and lived in a teeny-weeny flat above a Chinese takeaway? We weren’t the kind of people who could ever hope to make it into that world. Unless, he allowed, I join the army, let them break my personality down, and rebuild me into someone different.
“But I don’t want to be someone different,” I said, face falling.
“Then be realistic,” he told me. “It’s never going to happen for you.”
Little one, I’m not going to pretend that those words didn’t hurt. I stopped trying so hard at science and mathematics, not seeing the point anymore (they never came naturally to me – I always had to work at them), and threw myself into the humanities; history, religious studies, literature, and art. I especially loved any and all creative writing assignments, as they allowed me to escape the world via another means; I can’t tell you how many versions of myself I tried to pen into stories set on far-flung planets. Too many to count.
Pop those AirPods in and fire up the new episode of Brad Wright’s Conversations in Sci-Fi
For years, I felt compelled to hide my love of sci-fi, as it didn’t feel as if I had any right to it. There were no Kayleighs (or Kayleigh-esque characters, at least) for me to dream alongside. There were no bright-eyed romantics wearing pinks and yellows and purples out there in the big wide ‘verse. There were no softly-spoken avoidants of conflict to identify with. Or so I thought, anyway.
While I was writing my university application – I opted for English & Creative Writing, naturally – I was flicking through the channels and I stumbled across a show I’d never heard of before: Firefly.
Little one, the episode was half-finished. In fact, I was about to keep scrolling to the next channel – but then it called to me by name.
And, just like that, my fate was sealed. Because right there on screen, my darling girl, was the multifaceted woman I’d been longing to see reflected back at me ever since I was tiny.
“I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘Verse can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.”Captain Mal Reynolds, ‘Serenity’ – S1, Ep1-2
Firefly’s Kaylee (Jewel Staite) was utterly unlike any sci-fi heroine I’d ever come across before. She was kind and thoughtful, and perpetually cheerful. She sewed teddy bear patches onto her overalls, twirled a rainbow-printed parasol when the sun shined too brightly, and never minded a bit when she got covered in engine oil. She was a self-taught mechanic – with no expensive education behind her – and she was by no means a natural warrior; in fact, in War Stories, her instinct is to hide when she is cornered by three armed men. Indeed, it’s only down to the intervention of Summer Glau’s River that Kaylee – too frightened to shoot, even to save herself – survives the interaction.
This is largely due to the fact that Kaylee is the heart of the ship; she is driven by kindness – no small thing in this brave and terrifying new world in which we find ourselves. As Staite puts it, her character is wholesome, sweet, and “completely genuine in that sweetness”, adding, “She loves being on that ship. She loves all of those people. And she’s the only one who loves all of them incredibly genuinely.”
Celebrity stylist Denise McAdam on the psychology of Samantha’s changing look.
Essentially, Kaylee is probably the last person you’d expect to find aboard a Firefly-class transport ship manned (and womanned) by smugglers, companions, and the Alliance’s “Most Wanted”. She’s also, more importantly, probably the last person you’d expect to find keeping its engine running sweet as a nut.
Still, though, Kaylee (along with all her lovable quirks) becomes an invaluable part of the Firefly family. And, much like myself here on boring old Earth-That-Was, she soon finds herself pigeonholed by one of the important male figures in her life – something which we see firsthand in ‘Shindig’ (S1, Ep4), when Mal (Nathan Fillion) catches her staring moonily at a very pink ball gown in a shop window.
“What are you gonna do in that rig? Flounce around the engine room?” he asks sharply, mind on other matters. “Be like a sheep walkin’ on its hind legs.”
While my father was pretty unyielding in his theories as to what I should and shouldn’t be dreaming about, though, Mal sees the error of his ways. He buys Kaylee the “frippery” she’s been dreaming about, and gives her an all-important task; accompanying him to a lavish ball, “questioning” the buffet table, and wearing her beautiful dress for all to see. And while some do their best to make her feel unwelcome, it’s not long before she’s holding court in the center of the ballroom and dishing out engine advice to a rapt audience.
Because here’s the thing with Kaylee; she can be both a mechanic and a hopeless romantic. She can be anything she wants to be, so long as she’s given the opportunity; hell, that’s how she ends up aboard Serenity in the first place. Indeed, as we see in ‘Out Of Gas’ (S1, Ep8), she only ever clambered into Firefly’s engine room for a quick roll in the hay – or roll in the nuts and bolts and engine bolts, I suppose – with Bester (Dax Griffin), the ship’s first mechanic. It wasn’t until she inadvertently solved a problem that had left her paramour stumped, in fact, that Mal realized she was the only person for the job.
A spoiler-free review of the first five episodes.
I suppose, little one, that brings us to another of Kaylee’s most standout qualities: she’s unabashed when it comes to talking about her needs and desires. She is, quite possibly, one of the first empowered women I’ve seen in that sense; sex-positive, yet still allowed to retain a sense of innocent naïveté. It’s incredibly refreshing – you have no idea how refreshing – to be given a female character that’s allowed to enjoy one-night stands, talk about masturbation, and talk about missing sex, yet still allowed to be a hopeless romantic with teddy bears stitched onto her heavy-duty overalls. It’s the sort of thing we’ve been conditioned to believe is a juxtaposition over the years; that a woman’s worth is somehow linked to her staying “pure”. But, as Cayce LaCorte made clear in her now-viral TikTok on the matter, this couldn’t be further from the case.
“Just because some guy randomly sticks his penis in you at some point in your life does not change your worth, it does not change who you are, it doesn’t do anything other than it happened,” she says, insisting that the concept of virginity is a “patriarchal concept used to control women and girls”.
“Sex is important. It’s a big deal. It should always be a big deal. It has nothing to do with your first time. It’s just ridiculous. The whole concept is ridiculous.”Cayce LaCorte, via TikTok
We’ll talk about the toxicity of purity culture when you’re older, I suppose. For now, though, I just want you to know that you are lucky enough to have been born into a post-Kaylee world. That a multifaceted woman can wear many hats. That your mother knows what it’s like to dream about an untraditional future – and that she fully intends to help you realize those dreams in any way she can. Because you, my darling girl, are a tiny seed with so much potential. If you are cared for, watered, and given the chance, you can grow into an elegant lily, or a festive holly bush, or a magnificent oak tree, or whatever you damn well please.
Soma Ghosh on the fetishization of the female form in the MCU.
One day, when you’re older, we will sit down and watch Firefly together. We will talk about the fact that Kaylee fixes engines for a living, and attends balls in gorgeous gowns for fun. That she can be friends with people with different interests. That she knows how to stand up for herself without resorting to violence. That she can wear oily overalls and silk jackets, and stomp about in heavy-duty boots whilst twirling rainbow parasols, and none of it means she has to change who she is. That she can talk about the intricacies of space travel with the best of them, and still find time to gossip and giggle with her friends. That she can be kind to others without fearing it will hurt her own chances at success. That she can have sex for fun, and fall head-over-heels in love with the right person at the right time for her.
That she can be any number of juxtapositions because life isn’t about fitting into neat little boxes; it’s about scribbling outside the lines and creating your own gloriously messy wonderful path to tread.
It’s an important lesson, little one, and I’m going to make sure you don’t miss it. Because when you look up at the sky and dream, I never want anyone to bring you crashing back down to earth again. Instead, I want you to feel empowered to do what it takes to make those dreams a reality – and I’m going to be right there beside you, cheering you on. Because I have a theory of my own; parenting is a lot like flying – or, at least, it’s a lot like flying if you follow Mal’s advice on the matter.
“You know what the first rule of flying is? Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds.
“Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home.”Captain Mal Reynolds, Serenity (2005)
I love you, little one. I can’t wait to watch you soar.
Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.