joss whedon and the blurry line between homage and appropriation

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

I don’t really like Joss Whedon.

Phew, there I said it. Sure I admire Whedon’s gender politics, but I find his dialogue and characters glib and unbelievable.

But my real problem with Whedon is much more superficial.

While most people were enjoying the full use of their patella, I spent last July lying in front of the TV after having the anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee repaired. To cheer me up my loving roommates bought me the boxset of Firefly. I loved the movie Serenity and I will always have a soft spot for Buffy (well, seasons 1 & 2) so I was pretty thrilled. But after the first episode opened with a coupla blonde actors speaking some sort of mangled hybrid of Mandarin and Cantonese, I wasn’t so sure.

After screening several episodes where – apart from being space cowboys and quasi-anarchists – the cast of the show wear kimonos, carry paper parasols, and talk about making pau, I started to get more and more annoyed. But was I just being a jerk? What was so wrong with the array of East Asian symbols and decor on the set of Firefly? Was I preventing myself from enjoying a perfectly good TV show by being some sort of yellow fever watchdog?

So I got my Movie Watching Companion (who actually speaks some Mandarin and Cantonese) to watch it with me and help me figure out if I was just being cranky. And that was when any hope of entertainment really went out the window. We played back (and back) the parts of the show where the characters break into Chinese. After the fourth or fifth time that he confirmed for me that the actors were just speaking gibberish with some kind of Chinese inflection (either that or that was their attempt to speak Mandarin and the show just couldn’t afford a dialogue coach) we shelved Firefly in favour of Veronica Mars. Bedridden or no, I’d lost all desire to watch the whole series.

I get that there’s all sorts of chinoiserie in Firefly because the idea is that in the Future where Firefly is set, China will be a great superpower and so will have cultural dominance. But if that’s the case, then why are there absolutely zero actors of East Asian descent on the show? If China has such a hold on culture, shouldn’t there be at least a few Chinese or East Asian characters in the central cast? Sure the Tams look a little Asian, but as far as I can tell both Summer Glau and Sean Maher who play River and Simon are not East Asian. And though I never got to the end of the series, I’m pretty sure I noticed no more than a handful of actors on set who looked East Asian, and none of them belonged to the main cast.

When Whedon uses the dressings of East Asian or Chinese culture, but has few or no actual East Asian people working on the show, I start to get irritated. If “Asian” clothes, music, swear words and parasols are so great, why don’t actual Asian human beings get to be in the show too?

Here’s a quote from Firefly’s Wikipedia page, describing the show’s music:

The musical score expressed the cultural fusion depicted in the show. Cowboy guitar blended with Asian influence produced the atmospheric background for the series. As one reviewer stated:

Old music from the future — the music of roaring campfires and racous [sic] cowboys mixed with the warm, pensive sounds of Asian culture and, occasionally, a cold imperial trumpet, heralding the ominous structural presence of a domineering government. Completely thrilling.

There are approximately 47 countries in Asia. From which of these are we drawing the “warm, pensive sounds”? Granted, this quote comes from a fan and not from the show, but still. Vomit.

So when I heard that Whedon had a new series out starting in February, I didn’t rush to the nearest TV set.

And then last weekend I got the flu and most of my friends were away at a conference. The flicker of Buffy love never really went out of my cold heart, so I watched the premiere of Dollhouse.

Now, if I had never watched and despised Firefly with its Chinese take-out mania, I might never have noticed Dollhouse’s opening motorcycle race through Chinatown, the decorative Buddha heads and bonsai plants in the Dollhouse’s head office, the “midcentury modern motif with a Japanese aesthetic” that informs entire freakin’ set. Or maybe I would’ve, but it wouldn’t have irritated me as much, I don’t think. You know, I could get over the glib and unbelievable characters, because Whedon has an amazing imagination and always interesting concepts. But now that the curtain’s been pulled back on Whedon’s cultural mining, I can’t put it out of my head, and I don’t really feel like watching episode two of Dollhouse.

I know Joss Whedon is a revered character to lots of folks. And listening again to his Equality Now speech and how articulately he is able to explain why gender equity matters to men, women and everyone, I feel kinda sad that he can’t lend some of that great analysis to the way he approaches race. If you think I’m wrong and shallow and missing out on great art, please convince me that I am. Because it would be nice to be able to admire Whedon again.

But before you mount your counter-argument, just do one thing. Take a good look at the picture of Eliza Dushku as Echo on the set of Dollhouse at the top of this post. See behind her? It looks like there might just be an East Asian person in the photo, maybe doing Tai Chi. Hey, maybe that guy in beige will become one of the main characters on the show.

Or maybe he’ll just stay firmly in the background.

  • laure mcelroy

    I totally believe that you’re not, but it’s so hard to ignore present fact and the lessons of history.