‘Firefly’: The Clever Way Characters Were Allowed to Curse On the Show

Though it was short-lived, the TV show Firefly cemented itself as an important piece of nerd history and culture.

The one season and one film established a well fleshed-out universe and an engaging cast of characters that fans fell in love with, and to this day there is an active Firefly fandom.

The show was gritty and dark, and though it aired on Fox, the producers were able to write dialogue for characters who swore and made sexual references instead of the euphemisms used by many other shows. But how did Firefly get away with this when other shows didn’t? And how did it add to the world-building of the show?

What was ‘Firefly’?

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The show Firefly was set in and around the spaceship Serenity, far into the future after many different planets have been colonized by humans. However, despite this sci-fi premise, the aesthetic and general vibe of the show is much more Western in nature: the characters are all outlaw smugglers, the planets they visit are often dusty with saloons and even train robberies, and the outfits carry clear Western influence.

The main characters of the show are the crew of Serenity, led by Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion.

The show only aired for 11 episodes before it was canceled, but it was revived with the film Serenity, comics, and games, due to the passionate fan following it developed. It’s clear that there was something special about this show, when such a small original source material could build such a cult fandom.

What was the world building of ‘Firefly’?

Actor Nathan Fillion
Actor Nathan Fillion | Jim Spellman/Getty Images

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Firefly takes place after the Earth has been used up, and a large Alliance has kickstarted the colonization of several central planets in an unnamed system. Before the events of the show, Captain Reynolds and his first mate Zoe Washburne fought in a war against the Alliance so that other planets could secede.

The secessionists were known as Browncoats, and the crew of Serenity wear that label with pride. However, the Browncoats lose the war, and so the crew of Serenity live underground, exploring the seedier areas of the system.

Another important factor of Firefly‘s universe is that Chinese culture and Western culture have fused significantly. It makes sense: today, China is home to the largest population, and it’s likely that Chinese culture and languages will be more and more global — and perhaps, as in Firefly, galaxial too.

How were characters able to curse on the show?

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If you watch Firefly, you’ll probably hear some characters speaking in Chinese. Sometimes, this is subtitled, other times, it is not. What you might not know is that, if the Chinese isn’t subtitled, it likely means that they’re swearing.

According to Mental Floss, the writers of Firefly incorporated swear words in Chinese and didn’t provide translations or subtitles, meaning that the network didn’t realize that it was something to be censored. While many viewers of Firefly may have guessed from context that the characters were swearing, Chinese-speaking viewers might have gotten a bit of a shock!

The show also had its own slang for the universe: fans today might use “shiny” in place of “cool,” or other Western-seeming slang that comes up on the show. Even if Firefly didn’t last nearly as long as it should have, the way it fleshed out its world lives on in the minds and creations of many of its fans.