Frustrations Of An Asian American Whedonite

By Guest Contributor Michael Le, cross-posted from Racebending

(l-r) Nathan Fillion, Joss Whedon and Summer Glau at San Diego Comic-Con. Courtesy: Entertainment Weekly.

Equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity. We need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance, and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and woman who’s confronted with it. We need equality. Kinda now.

- Joss Whedon, Equality Now tribute address

Let me preface this piece with the following:

I’ve been a fan of Joss Whedon for many, many years. I’ve seen every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer more times than I’d care to admit. I have the complete Angel 30-disc DVD box set. I have two signed copies of Dollhouse S1 on Blu-ray (one to watch and one to keep). My girlfriend recorded her own versions of the music from Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and I have my very own copy of Titan AE.

And, of course, I’m also a huge fan of a little show called Firefly.

The show was groundbreaking in many ways and quickly became a cult favorite. Although it only lasted one season, it went on to influence many shows that followed with its unique mix of drama, grounded science, and the patented Whedon snark. It was the beautiful, critically acclaimed show that left us too soon. And then it became the little show that was so dearly loved that, against staggering and impossible odds, it actually attained closure as a major Hollywood film.

At San Diego Comic-Con 2012, I finally got to ask the question. The question that’s been burning in my mind for almost ten years now.

The answer, unfortunately, was less than what I’d hoped. Fundamentally, it boiled down to this: it just wasn’t something Joss cared about.

I get it. The man has a lot on his plate. He’s done a lot of amazing work, both on-screen and off.

But it was still a disappointing experience.

My question was as follows:

One of the things I loved about Firefly was the exploration of the fusion of Asian and American cultures. Many Asian Americans go through a similar journey. I was wondering, if you were to explore that again in the future, if you would be willing to include Asian or Asian American performers?

If you’re surprised by my question, go back and watch Firefly again. Or read this xkcd comic, because Randall Munroe is apparently working on a relevant xkcd for every possible topic in the world, like Wikipedia in webcomic form. I’ve watched the show several times and I’m fairly certain that there isn’t more than 15 seconds of footage with an Asian person on screen.

We’re virtually faceless, and completely voiceless, in a universe that is supposed to represent a Sino-American future.

Courtesy XKCD

So I walked up to the mic. Repeated the question over and over in my head, to make sure I didn’t get the phrasing wrong. I asked my question.

And the answer was:

Yeah, absolutely. It’s not a mission statement, in terms of who I’m casting for a particular thing. It was a mission statement of the show to say that cultures inevitably blend, even if it happens through conquest and violence.

This was a very nice, neutral answer. Joss gave a genuine, heartfelt response, and I appreciate that.

But the answer still frustrated. Because it was clear that the notion of cultural integration was more important than the practice. That the grand vision of a mixed Asian/American tomorrow was more important than the inclusion of Asian faces and voices today.

I wanted to grab the mic again.

Shouldn’t it be a priority, if you’re trying to tell a believable story about a Sino-American future, to include Asian characters?

Isn’t it marginalizing to fantasize about a “mixed Asian” world completely absent of Asian people, especially when you live and work in a city that’s almost 1/8th Asian?

If you were to write a scifi show about a merged African and North American empire, do you think it would be acceptable to avoid giving a single spoken line to a black actor?

Or maybe something a little closer to Joss’s familiar causes:

Would you ever tell a story that purported to have major elements of American gay culture, without having a single gay character in-frame for more than 3 seconds? What about a show that claimed some feminist themes, but cast only men, with women barely seen and never heard?

But instead, I held my tongue. I’d spent the better part of an hour formulating the exact phrasing of my question in my head. I knew I’d be judged harshly for any poorly worded outbursts–especially with dozens of other fans waiting to ask their questions.

Mock travel ad for Shinon, one of the core worlds in the Alliance.

The issue isn’t Joss Whedon. It’s the blinders. All the blindspots that make it tough to understand problems that you’ve never or rarely ever had to personally deal with. The blindspots that make it tough to understand why, sometimes, race should influence casting decisions. That sometimes it should be a mission statement–or, at the very least, a priority.

The most familiar blinders for your average Whedon fan involve gender. Joss is well-known as a crusader on behalf of women’s rights, not just in his development and championing of prominent female characters, but in his spearheading fundraising efforts on behalf of amazing organizations like Equality Now.

On endless occasions, Joss has explained (with patience, care, and wit) the value of advocating for feminism. It’s an ongoing issue throughout the country, and very evident in fandom culture.

Video games, comic books, and sci-fi are perceived as male pursuits. Women participating in these fan cultures regularly face sexism and discrimination, both subtle and vulgar. The individuals who perpetuate this culture, who bring misogyny to the gaming table and reduce superheroines to agentless blowup dolls, don’t see the problem. They can’t see past their blinders.

It’s very, very admirable that Joss is able to grasp and articulate the reasons why gender equity is something that is valuable and important to everyone. This is something that a very, very large number of creators would be incapable of doing. It’s even more admirable that he’s become such a vocal and active champion for feminism.

It’s also unfortunate that he doesn’t see the overlap with the ongoing racial inequities in America.

Growing up Asian American, it’s harder (though far from impossible) to keep the blinders up with regards to race and representation. Asian Americans face a number of racial challenges: pigeonholed as model minorities, forever viewed as foreign or “incompletely” American, seen as exotic, submissive, quiet. Asian men are depicted as dehumanized, undesirable, powerless–from Long Duk Dong, to The Hangover, to Alan Scott’s gay lover (killed off by rote scripting known as women in refrigerators). Women are depicted as hyper-sexualized geishas, cartoonish exaggerations remnant from decades of American colonization in the East.

Mock ad for Fruity Oaty Bars, which are sold in the Firefly universe.

And when an Asian character does not fall into the stereotype, it’s often convenient to simply whitewash the character–through simple exclusion or outright yellowface. Sometimes it’s just a matter of retaining an Asian name and casting a white person (such as with Dr. Wendy Lin of Cabin in the Woods, Detective Tanaka in Dollhouse, and even the Tams in Firefly).

A recent study demonstrated that watching television lowered self-esteem among children–except for white boys. Black boys, black girls, and white girls had lower self-esteem.

The study was restricted to black and white children, so unfortunately I have only anecdotal (and musical) evidence that the same applies to Asian children. But it’s telling that even people studying race regularly focus on black and white as the catch-all “American” categories.

Here we see the intersection of both gendered and racial representation in media. Joss holds one to be a dear cause, to be integrated into the themes and characters of his stories.

The other? Does not register as a priority.

This is the sad result of a society that encourages colorblindness as the answer to racism. It’s the equivalent of abstinence-only education: the idea that ignorance is the optimal solution to social problems. This limited racial framework makes it challenging to discuss the killing of  Vincent Chin, the beating of Asian students in Philadelphia, the economic struggles of Cambodian and Laotian Americans, the murder of Asian food deliverymen, or the hazing of Asian American soldiers.

I love so much about Joss Whedon’s work. I appreciate the depth and detail of his worlds and his stories. I admire his talent as a writer, his courage and perseverance as an advocate for women everywhere. I only wish he could see the value in including Asian faces and voices in his work, alongside the language, art, and music that make up our ethnic heritage.

All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause – there are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action. Once a month, once a year, or just once…Even just learning enough about a subject so you can speak against an opponent eloquently makes you an unusual personage. Start with that.

- Joss Whedon, essay on the killing of 17-year-old Dua Khalil

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  • http://frameofnature.wordpress.com adrienne_again

    Inara (Morena Baccarin): Cool/Feminist/Empowered because she owns her sexuality, manages a successful business, commands more legitimate respect outside of the ship (being an elite in society at large) than any other crew member or passenger, and is a decent fighter with a number of different weapons.

    Zoe (Gina Torres): Cool/Feminist/Empowered because she is second-in-command of the ship, is a war veteran (rank of Corporal), is one of the strongest fighters, and maintains a healthy and egalitarian partnership.

    I’m personally also a big fan of Priya (Dichen Lachman) from Dollhouse. I do see improvement over Whedon’s career (Buffy did have some serious issues with race, no denying that) but I agree there’s a lot more he could do with MOC in particular. Tahmoh Penikett?

  • http://frameofnature.wordpress.com adrienne_again

    Inara (Morena Baccarin): Cool/Feminist/Empowered because she owns her sexuality, manages a successful business, commands more legitimate respect outside of the ship (being an elite in society at large) than any other crew member or passenger, and is a decent fighter with a number of different weapons.

    Zoe (Gina Torres): Cool/Feminist/Empowered because she is second-in-command of the ship, is a war veteran (rank of Corporal), is one of the strongest fighters, and maintains a healthy and egalitarian partnership.

    I’m personally also a big fan of Priya (Dichen Lachman) from Dollhouse. I do see improvement over Whedon’s career (Buffy did have some serious issues with race, no denying that) but I agree there’s a lot more he could do with MOC in particular. Tahmoh Penikett?

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com/ Peter Hassett

    I felt the same way, but we saw just 13 episodes. Who knows what woulda been in episode 14? Episode 45? Serial fiction is a weird thing. I would have preferred plural Asian characters on the ship’s crew, but I appreciate the limitations of the format and shortened life.

    (I hope this doesn’t read as me invalidating your point, which I agree with.)

  • TeakLipstickFiend

    Excellent piece – thank you. His answer to your question is very unsatisfying. Surely he is not unaware of this particular criticism of Firefly?

    I’m rewatching Buffy at the moment and have reached the final season. I can’t help feeling that the Asian “potential” who doesn’t speak English exists only for the laughs.

  • Shinzon

    So basically, what you all want is:

    Joss should break SAG reg and cast people are of color who aren’t actors (despite there being not as big a pool of Asian actors for the TV industry to draw upon) simply because ‘he should’?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=615763230 Cherry Davis

    I’ve been frustrated with him for a while since he’s not inclusive but has a few core favorite POCs that he uses but usually everyone looks about the same. I saw his brother and his wife talk at an event a few months ago and they pissed me off so much that I refuse to watching anything they are affiliated with. The brother (laughing) said how the network asked for Joss Whedon to diversify his writing cast so he HIRES his brother and his Asian wife??? He laughed and said it was their ‘talent’ really???? Not nepotism and it defeated the purpose of getting more varied viewpoints on the writing staff. Jackasses

  • Sharmie Taffe-Fletcher

    joss whedon needs to write a show where the main cast includes the following: women of varying sizes, more than one asian main character, more than one character who isn’t straight, and fewer white people than people of colour in the cast overall. toss in a few people who are disabled in a manner that is irrelevant to the plot of the show (and is just a part of their lives). i’d peg that the perfect show.
    the only flaw of firefly in my eyes is that none of the main cast is asian. as much as i love sean maher and summer glau, the tams should have been asian. or wash. or even book. even as a black woman, i’d prefer to see an asian Book in the series just because it makes so much sense. blech.
    I love Joss and I know he tries but he’s not a perfect feminist, and he’s definately not perfect when it comes to representation of race. here’s hoping he starts addressing that.

  • jvansteppes

    You’re very generous with Whedon, Michael. What an unsatisfying and evasive answer to the question of why he whitewashes his work. Over and over again I’ve heard the story about how there wasn’t a single Asian actor who could have played Kaylee, yet when I saw the show I always thought she was one of the weakest links, along with the guy who played Gina Torres’s husband. Blasphemy, I know. I haven’t seen Angel but I was struck by how white Buffy was and the invisibility of Latinos/Asians/Blacks in a California town. How hard would it have been to integrate POC in the show?

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you 100% on this. I love Joss Whedon. His work has been incredibly important and influential in my life. But seriously, dude has GOT to start casting more PoC. I’m getting tired of applying the fuck-it-I-like-it rule.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, but would go a step further and say that his definition of feminism is why I don’t associate/identify with feminism. It is typically white privileged women who have every privilege you can name, and they rate their progress in terms of how much attention/accolades/progress that they make, and everyone is supposed to shut up and cheer for them.

    So perhaps he was trained by a “typical” feminist which would explain his views? So the win for the “attractive” thin white woman is a win for all WOC including Asian women and they should just shut up b/c hey look, it’s another girl, and you are a jealous misogynist who supports the patriarchy if you don’t cheer for her.

    • http://heavyarmor.wordpress.com/ Heavy Armor

      I vaguely remember Joss mentioning that he spent most of his time in college devoted to “Women’s Studies” (I don’t remember if that was his major or if it was just a minor). So if it seems like he is a typical “mainstream” feminist, I’m betting that’s the reason why.

  • http://twitter.com/Tam5 Tam Frager

    This issue reminds me of the abolitionist and suffragist issues of the mid to late 1800s. One of the reasons Susan B. Anthony became so well known was that she refused to take on more than one cause (she was strictly a suffragist, not an abolitionist). One of the reasons her mentor, Lucy Stone, the woman whose speech is said to have brought Susan B. Anthony into the movement, is a hero of mine is that she refused to see these as separate issues and fought for equality for all, not just one group. It’s sad that we still have these battles to fight.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Hans-Anggraito/579945966 Hans Anggraito

    i didn’t know that the firefly universe is supposed to be a sophisticated sino-american universe, i thought the asian stuff included in the show is just your typical sci-fi orientalism (e.g asian culture as alien culture ala star wars)…

    it’s equally telling and troubling that the white artist’s vision of cultural MIX-ing means only to include passive and benign cultural articles of POC (clothing, food, music, etc) but EXCLUDING their agency and political power.

    Wait, isn’t that the dictionary’s definition of american multi-culturalism?

  • Anonymous

    I’m personally annoyed by his treatment of LGBT characters. His commitment to LGBT issues seems to be not much more than “lesbians are hot,” with few gay male characters. As well, with Willow there wasn’t even a mention of the word bisexual. Sigh.

  • premmy

    “If you were to write a scifi show about a merged African and North
    American empire, do you think it would be acceptable to avoid giving a
    single spoken line to a black actor?”

    Can we not do the “If this was a “Black” thing wouldn’t it be a bigger deal? thing? It’s just kind of needlessly divisive.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, plus it’s not accurate. Movies based in Egypt always use white people with tans. It is ridiculous how many movies set in North Africa have no POC even in the background. And movies set in the Middle East do the same thing.

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  • kaigou

    I’d like to believe it’s just blind oversight, but after the last time I rewatched, i can’t get behind that anymore. At some point, I came across an interview with Joss where he mentioned he’d originally been looking for a Korean or Chinese actress to play Kaylee… and then he came across the actress he eventually chose (who just happens to be white, slender, and conventionally pretty) and she was just “perfect”. That says to me that any notion of a diverse cast was acknowledged as desirable… then intentionally discarded.

    After finding this out about the original vision of Kaylee, I rewatched recently and… wow. It’s like someone knew that Kaylee was supposed to be the token Asian girl, and not being that… they compensated in every other direction. Normally I don’t watch characters’ chests when they talk, but third viewing, I had the leisure to see something other than attention to faces. In nearly every scene, Kaylee is wearing some kind of Asian-themed print. Her shirts have fans, peonies, Kwanyin, even pagodas. Her bunk is the mishmash I’d expect from a Westerner who collects anything Asian with no regard to origin or meaning. Her accessories — the fan, the umbrella, the jackets, even geta — are all Asian accoutrements. Even those pigtail-braid-loops things she does with her hair are reminiscent of the pictures I’ve seen of Shanghai schoolgirls in the 30s. It’s like someone said, well, she’s not Asian, so we’ll make her Asian-detailed in every other possible way. That wasn’t by accident; props just don’t ‘happen’ to pile up more in this corner than that one. From the very first pilot, the styling, settings, and dressing for Kaylee (with the exception of the flashback of her first meeting with the captain) is this nonstop barrage, to the point that it feels to me like they figured piling on the Asian accessories would somehow make up for the obvious lack of Asian roles among the cast.

    (You do kind of need to marathon the episodes to get the full depressing nonstop effect, though.)

    So I’d say, they were full-well aware of the irony of positing a Sino-Anglo world… in which there are no actual Asians. But when you add in the Kaylee-cum-Asian overdrive and the sign for “dogs” that pans down to meat on a barbecue… it’s hard to see how they not only were fully aware but thought it just fine. Since, y’know, Gina Torres had already filled the WoC Token Position.

    Joss is a great feminist if you’re young, slender, white, and conventionally pretty. And his Buffy was landmark in a lot of ways. But it’s been enough years. We need the next generation’s Joss, because Joss himself has proven where his limits are.

  • http://twitter.com/NateCrowder Nathan Crowder

    Brilliant essay. It’s good to remember that advocating diversity in one arena doesn’t automatically count as advocating diversity in other areas. They do regular studies of television and ethnicity that go beyond black and white and how that matches with our country’s actual ethnic diversity. It’s always heartbreaking to see the percentages.

  • Anonymous

    So many good questions! I’m another WoC (though not Asian) who feels similarly about the awesomeness of Whedon’s work and also the frustration it brings. I wonder if he might be more open in a less public sphere (not saying that’s a good thing), like if a PoC brought him a pilot that spoke to him but also moved beyond what he’s comfortable with….? I dunno. In some ways, people like Whedon are almost more frustrating than just the usual whitewashing or erasing, because it’s hard to understand how somebody could so totally GET IT but so obviously not be with it at all.

  • http://twitter.com/tachyondecay Ben Babcock

    Thanks for writing this. Some people lose sight of the fact that, as important as it is to critique media we dislike, it’s even more essential to critique the media we love. How else will we make it even better? So I applaud your courage for asking that question and for writing this post.

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  • forget whedon

    I’m fairly sure “Firefly” is a romanticization of southerners in the civil war (with slavery and race conveniently removed of course). I really couldn’t finish this show and there’s only like 10 eps. You’re right to say it isn’t only about Whedon: white Hollywood appropriates Asian or Asian-American culture without Asian or Asian-American people all the time (the Departed, 21, etc.). We need withdraw our allegiance to such directors and support independent Asian American media.

    • Medusa

      Really? I’ve never seen Firefly that way… could you elaborate? I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this!

    • Anonymous

      It’s so nice to hear someone else say this, that’s something about Firefly always made me uncomfortable (in addition to the absence of PoC). I feel like if you were to ask Whedon about it he’d say that the Independents are some kind of fusion of cowboys and anarchists, but the “states rights vs. big gov’t” and “old-fashioned chivalry” are pretty much straight out of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Which might have been interesting if he was willing to address the history of slavery in his interpretation. But, nope – cowboys!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1581708940 Joe Greenlee

      That’s not really accurate. They mentioned more than once that the outer colonies of the Browncoats were freedom bastions and the inner planets of the Alliance upheld slavery as legal. So Whedon definitely did NOT romanticize slavery or the South. If anything it was a war won by the Alliance (as the South) and the ramifications were disastrous on a human rights level, which was the entire point of the show. It was an issue Joss was going to elaborate more on but cancellation forced that and a dozen other plotlines to be scrapped.

  • grease

    Near as I remember (I haven’t bothered to see it in a while), the movie Bad Day at Black Rock (1954 with Spencer Tracy) centers around the Japanese-American internment but had no asians either.

  • Charle

    Ah, the blinders. It struck me that the scenarios you highlight are used by Hollywood and comics on a fairly regular basis: X-men was meant to parallel the Civil Rights movement, yet originally featured a grand total of one character of color (I’m talking Storm–Beast, Nightcrawler, and Mystique’s blueness don’t quite count here) to illustrate the prejudice and discrimination the mutants faced. Using white, predominately male characters to appropriate POC struggles? Nothing new. And I respect Joss Whedon’s work, as well, so it’s a shame that he isn’t more in tune with his Asian American audience.

    • Anonymous

      Storm belongs to the second generation cast of X-Men. Her lot launched in a special edition 1975 comic. (The series began in ’63.) There was a Native American character (John Proudstar, codename Thunderbird) in the same relaunch cast. He was killed off in the first normally numbered issue featuring the new cast.

      So… Rather worse than that even, is what I guess I’m saying.