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July 07 2006

Joss Whedon and race. One of those critical essays that tend to pop up from time to time. It's an interesting and provocative read.

Okay, I got half way through the paragraph on Buffy and had to stop. "...I remember very clearly that Black male vampires were disproportionately flamed. This is beyond color-blindness and into willful racial insensitivity." ??? Excuse me while I choke on my bagel and the absurdity of this statement. I get the feeling that this is the case where when you look so hard for a flaw, any flaw, you'll find one.

Okay, just finished reading the whole thing. I know it's not supposed to be a serious essay or anything, but I felt like the research was poorly done. There was too much of "I think I remember..." "[racial example] or something." Even if I was open to the idea tha the Whedonverse is "colour-blind" I wouldn't be convinced by that blog.

That being said, I understand where she is coming from but I still don't agree with her position. I think Joss has made leaps and bounds in comparison to most mainstream television when dealing with racial stereotypes and the likes. The fact that "Joss’s Firefly characters may be multiracial, but it’s just skin color," proves in and of itself that he goes beyond making an issue of colour and simply accepts it. I think that's a big thing considering these days a lot of t.v shows and movies try to capatlise on interraical or homosexual love and use it as their selling point.

I don't know where I'm going with this, I'm obviously not disputing the fact that the majority of characters in the Whedonverse are of an anglo-saxon background but I don't consider that to be an issue in the story Joss was/is trying to tell.

That's my two cents anyway, says I, brown fan of all things Joss. : )

[ edited by escapist_dream on 2006-07-07 10:59 ]
Well, it is a provocative essay (and an "essay" in the literal sense, meaning a working out of thoughts and feelings on paper, not a fully-formed airtight argument), no doubt, and there is much I disagree with. But please remember our cardinal rule to play the ball, not the woman.

And second, I belatedly realized that I was at grad school with the writer, and she is really a terrific person. So be nice in your critiques/responses. :)
"I get the feeling that this is the case where when you look so hard for a flaw, any flaw, you'll find one."

Either that or there is a flaw...

No, I do think she raises an interesting question, and poses problem that pervades liberalism in general. How color blind should we really be if race is still an issue?

"This kind of post hoc rationalization shows up a lot among us Joss fans: trying to find a way to make the world make sense. The problem is that you can only make it make sense by taking into account the casting and writing choices of the shows’ creators."

This is the phrase I most took notice of. Think about how many times we have all heard arguments about Buffy that seemed to simply be there to try and make sense of the world. And while this sentence really refers to race in Buffy, I think it applies to many other aspects of the show and the story-line. Not to be too controversial but we have all heard the arguments that seasons 6 and 7 of Buffy were too dark or mature for some or that the actions of those that some deem out of character are simply products of the realism of the show. In both cases, some people will argue that the mature, dark, or realisitic nature of the show are simply post hoc defenses of those final two seasons. Think about how that dynamic works, and really, it tends to make sense. In that sense, there were parts of the essay that I do agree with and this was one of them.

[ edited by jerryst3161 on 2006-07-07 11:20 ]
I didn't read it all. I did notice that in one paragraph, the writer was making an issue of Kennedy having no racial identity, and then in the very next paragraph was complaining that Gunn was stereotypical.
I actually like the fact that in Whedon's work, characters are characters. There is no issue with race, because everyone just is, but with different skin tones.
*shrugs*
And here stupid old me thought that colour-blindness was a good thing. Interestingly enough, the author seems to have reservations towards race herself, since a black woman with a white guy is ok, but a white woman with a black guy makes her uncomfortable.

Yes, the early Buffy was pretty white-washed. But remember Kendra, who surpassed even Buffy in Slayer-expertise? And principal Woods remains the single most sexy guy Buffy ever met.

Anyway, I remember reading the casting call for Serentiy, where so many roles - including the Operative - had 'open to any ethnicity' tagged to it.

And we don't know why Joss' chose Chewetel for the role of the Operative. Maybe he was the best actor around. Maybe Joss found him just sexy. No one can tell except maybe those involved in the decision.
But reducing grand actors like Chewetel and Gina to being cast because they fulfill a racial stereotype does not do them justice, imho.

Oh, and one thing: showing a black character without ethnic background is still a bad thing? I don't quite get it. Does that mean that having a lesbian character without showing her roots in the LBGT-community is bad either?

This doesn't make sense to me.

Cheers!
If by provocative you mean "provokes frustration," you got it right, Simon! I go beyond disagreeing with this writer's article; I think she was way off base! I'm sorry that this is a person who was a classmate of yours, SNT, but I have to say I think she did not do a good job of supporting her points with accurate facts.

For example, all the writers from the Whedonverse that I know of — saw on DVD commentaries etc. — are white.

I don't know if it's true that "all" the writers are white, but from what I've read in other articles about Hollywood, it's a problem through all of Hollywood that it is hard for nonwhite writers to get started. And I am guessing, based only on his name, that Jose Molina (writer of Ariel and co-writer of Trash for Firefly) is a Latino man. I know that Vondie Curtis Hall, who directed the hi-larious Our Mrs. Reynolds, is an African American man. So -- I don't see this "all white" situation happening. (And so many women were writers and producers and so on in the Whedonverse, I'm sure I would leave someone out if I tried to list them all.)

Plus, I don't know writers that much, but I know that people like David Fury, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt and (my "scary/funny/unbelievable all at once" favorite) Tim Minear are so unique in their writing, that you just couldn't find anyone like them, and they were certainly hired for their talent, not for "playing golf" with Joss.

(I had to laugh about the working-class kid, whatsisname, being recruited from Hastings Law School initially to work in the mailroom. You know, the evil white guy lawyer who is the first W&H lawyers we see, in the first Angel episode.)

OK, I don't usually join in to Buffy/Angel discussions very much, because I have to admit I don't know them as well as most people here. But even I know that she's talking about Christian Kane's character Lindsey. So, I'm not really impressed when someone whose knowledge of these shows is so cursory that she doesn't know Lindsey says "let me analyze race as a factor in 12 seasons of shows."

I would have spit out my bagel (if I had been eating one, escapist_dream) when the writer started going on about a "Black Warrior Woman" being a stereotype about African American people as "wild, primitive, fierce" and "white boys like to have a Black Warrior Woman in their work to demonstrate how cool they are with the race thing." OK, snark light is on: I certainly have seen dozens and dozens of movies and TV series with Black Warrior Women. Oh, wait, the other thing. /snark

I know that Aisha Tyler is playing Jennifer Love Hewitt's best friend on Ghost Whisperer, and Chandra Wilson got an Emmy nomination for being a tough doctor on Grey's Anatomy, and L. Scott Caldwell is a cancer survivor on Lost, and Alfre Woodard had a young man locked in her basement for a year on Desperate Housewives, and I'm sure there are some actresses currently on ER who are African American, and -- OK, I don't watch sitcoms other than Scrubs, The Office and My Name is Earl (and on Scrubs, Aloma Wright plays Laverne, a really snarky nurse). OK, no warriors there (except maybe Dr. Bailey ;-)), and, in fact, hardly any African American women on drama television series at all. Casting Gina Torres (a woman who is of Cuban heritage) on primetime television at all was great, and putting her in the role of the totally professional soldier, second in command, in a happy marriage was totally incredible. (Oh, wait, Gina's going to play a supervisor of the hostage negotiation team in Standoff; does that count as Warrior Woman? ;-))

Book is a preacher, the magical negro.

Now who's the racist? Book is a former Alliance operative ballet master, and his race has nothing to do with his beliefs or actions. The writer adds "He has considerable more complexity than that, but it’s too unexplored." Yeah, that's mystery, not racism.

Inara, one could complain about the fact that a mixed ancestry (possibly South Asian) actress has a geisha/Asian-sex-arts-based character.

Brazilian. And, how about b/c prostitutes in America have an image like the whores in Deadwood, but geishas in Japan were respected, well-educated, etc.?

The saddest thing for me about Serenity was the bounty hunter. A great actor, a great concept, but — The Serenity bounty hunter is virtually the same character as the bounty hunter in the last episode of Serenity. And given the fact that they are both solo bounty hunters, with special skills, secret, uniquely menacing, likeable in their own crazy ways, etc. — with all those similarities the fact that they are both Black men cannot be a coincidence.

You mean Richard Brooks in Objects in Space and Chiwetel Ejiofor? Yes, it IS a coincidence, as a matter of fact. I can't quote Joss' commentary exactly, but I know he talked about being blown away by Richard's reading for the role of Jubal Early, and remembering him from Law and Order. I don't see any racism in giving a great actor a tricky role as an insane villain! (Is Joss anti-Brit for writing/casting Badger as a Cockney? ;-)) And as for Chiwetel, well, if Joss had chosen, say, Hugh Jackman as the Operative, well, then the BDM would have earned some BD$. But Chiwetel was so great, Joss cast him. So, that is the exact definition of (a) coincidence that Jubal and the Operative were both men of color [since Chiwetel is African and British, I can't say he is "African American"] and (b) color-blind casting. Then she goes on to say in that paragraph "But I can only conclude that Joss et al felt that the Blackness was an intrinsic part of the menace in those characters. And it’s got to be Joss, because these are critical stories and critical characters." But this conclusion is not based on anything other than her feelings about it, certainly not on the extensive commentaries & interviews by Joss on both these characters/stories, and certainly not on some pattern of using African American actors to represent menace (Big Bads=a bunch of white [or scaly] boys, yo)!

OK, so what do I hope to achieve with my ranting about the writer's rant? I hope to summarize for other posters what her tone is, how poorly supported her arguments are, and convince you to save your time by just skipping this article as poorly argued and going on to other links on the main page that might be more interesting. If you want to think about/discuss whether there is racism in the Whedonverse, I certainly think we should all be free to do it on this thread, or with your own DVD, comics collection, etc. (and it could be very interesting!), but I don't think this woman's article supplies truly useful, factual or thoughtful analysis about it. IMO! ;-)

ETA: Apparently, I thought 7+5=11. Heh, add much? ;-)

[ edited by billz on 2006-07-07 12:12 ]
You know, frankly I find it a bit disconcerting that people keep talking about how similar Jubal and the Operative are. Other than their skin color, they're totally different. Well, ok, they're both after the crew, but their motivations, methods, etc are all different. Most importantly, the Operative was not a bounty hunter. How could anybody watch Serenity and think that?
Okay, thankyou billz, at least now I know I'm not the only one who felt like that article/essay/whatever was sub par, not only in its arguments but the points being made as well.

This is nothing against the writer herself, who I don't know from a bar of soap but simply a piece of writing that I feel doesn't seem or want to delve into the deeper issues regarding race that Joss manages to handle quite well.

How about Wash, ay? What a stereotype! A blonde, funny pilot. I knew it! Joss is racist against white people!
"Plus, I don't know writers that much, but I know that people like David Fury, Jane Espenson, David Greenwalt and (my "scary/funny/unbelievable all at once" favorite) Tim Minear are so unique in their writing, that you just couldn't find anyone like them, and they were certainly hired for their talent, not for "playing golf" with Joss."

I think her point was this Billz: at some point, race is an issue, and by simply ignoring it and its impact on our society (being color-blind), Joss is doing society a disservice. I dont necessarility agree with that, but its not about talent in regards to the writer, its about how an all white writer staff affects the public discourse on race.
But isn't that implying that in some way white writers are incapable of writing legitimate ethically diverse characters?
jerryst3161, I can agree that having all-white writers could affect the public discourse on race, that's a good point, but I would just say again that, even though Firefly was only on a half-season, there was already one writer of color writing important eps, so the "all white" label doesn't apply, and there may have been other writers on all 3 shows whose heritages we don't know, and also that Joss would not be the first person in Hollywood to have mostly white writers working on his show.

I also agree with escapist_dream's point that white writers might still be able to have a writer's empathy for the stories of others. Joss is a guy, last I checked, but he wrote pretty kickass females, for example. A good writer might interview people, research, or find other ways to find out what would be authentic for a person to say. Like, you don't have to be a cop to write dialogue for a cop. It's true you can't know everything about being a member of a different ethnic group, but a talented writer might still very well capture a lot of truth!

If the writer's only point had been to talk about affects on the public discourse of white writers in general, I would have agreed. I disagreed because I felt she was singling out Joss for things he really hadn't done, IMO. (In particular, she made a remark about hiring white writers because they are like people you would play golf with, which IMO sounded like dissing Joss as some stereotypical "rich white country club member.")
I really like what Joss has done in his 'verse of keeping all the people, people. He has said that there are enough monsters and aliens within humanity that there is no need to make them up. To me, this is about race.

(my emphasis)

This is my main problem with the essay. It's very easy to read anything into anything if you set out with that intent (for instance i'm guilty of seeing everything in 'Firefly' as related to personal freedom, since that's an issue i'm very interested in, whether it is or not. It is though ;). Joss may well have picked every actor he picked purely on talent. Surely that would be true colour-blindness ?

I also agree with the comment above about a disproportionate number of black vamps being burned. The author says "I don't trust laying character decisions off on things that can't be quantified or described objectively". OK, let's see some numbers then. Count the total number of vamps burned and then count how many are black and we'll know categorically whether there's even a point there to discuss before we start coming up with plausible reasons. Feelings and impressions are fine when stating a subjective opinion but not when you're trying to describe a real world phenomenon (or make accusations, however nicely made or honourable the intent).

It's true the end of rascism isn't shown or discussed on Firefly but then neither is the development of fusion (or whatever it is) powered space-ships or apparent faster-than-light communications. And to say that it seems strange that sexism still exists when racism doesn't misses the point that in a frontier scenario women actually are weaker (on average) than men in the physical sphere whereas, obviously, people of different ethnicities aren't. This means that oppression of women (or any other physically weaker group) doesn't need a systemic element so your average tin-pot dictator (e.g. Rance Burgess) can do all the oppressing he wants without any kind of instituionalised prejudice to back him up. Racism needs institutional backing to last though because otherwise the oppressed people will just rise up and kick ass.

Re: white writers, well, any writer is a product of his/her culture and has the ingrained, subconscious attitudes that go along with that. Whether you're racist surely depends on how you consciously act towards/write about non-your-colour people. Your subconscious attitudes betray how racist your society is not you personally (though it's true that it's you personally that has to strive to overcome your own inherent bias and sometimes in trying to overcome we can either fail completely or swing too far the other way).

And I also think most of us have at some point wondered why there are so few Asian actors in Firefly when the Chinese influence is supposedly so huge that people speak Mandarin as their second language so she also has a point there (whether that was Joss or the network's decision none of us can know).

All in all though, quite an interesting read even if I disagree with a lot of it and it's worth bearing in mind that it's not a finished, polished article it's more like a blog posting since it's largely aimed at a closed mailing list's membership.
I find it interesting to see the nearly immediately all negative responses posted above. This is becoming predictable; someone makes a commentary that in some way criticizes anything Joss related, and there is this immediate response to protect him. And I am not trying to be provocative in saying that, just making an observation based on years of coming here. But let's stop for just a moment and consider these arguments here on their merits. One thing we do know is true; Sunnydale, as part of California, has never represented the mix of ethnicities present in nearly all Socal cities. If there are many Asians, we never see them, except for the same Asian guy who gets to walk thorugh a lot of scenes in the background. Same for African Americans, save for Wood and Kendra- and Kendra is presented as someone of exotic background, not American. Olivia is, of course, English, making the point even more.

But I think that this is sort of an Oleana/Rashoman/Crash kind of thing- we see what we see from our particular perspective. I wonder how many people on this board are people of color (and I wonder at the propriety of perhaps asking people to provide some info on their background here when they respond). I honestly do not know. We are here color blind- but I think that your background and education may color how you respond to the writer's argument. I am a white 53-yo old doctor and researcher, with self-training in critical theory and media studies. I find some merit in the issues that are raised here. Maybe I would temper some of my comments more than she did, but the issue of race in the buffyverse has been long debated in the pages of slayage, for example. There is the idea of the tragic mulatta, as yet another example. The idea of the Magical Negro, and of the Negro Warrior Woman are long-studied tropes, and not new to this writer's argument. There is little question Zoe is a warrior, and that Book has hidden knowledge that would be of benefit to Mal, but which never does get passed on. And there is no debate that both Jubal and The Operative were black. The question to ask, then, is why? There is also little question that Joss has not been nearly as senstive to issues of race and class as much as he has to gender and sex- but so what? He can't be perfect, you know, and issues of race were never his primary concern. Gender has been- and he has stated as much.
Yes indeed, this was an interesting read. Remember, we explore every side of a topic. There's no right or wrong, just a honest take of said subject.
Hey, there were Asians in Angel? Remeber the old couple in the little shop that were really kung-fu demons? And people say there was no diversity?

The lack of Asians in Firefly was, to me, a glaring omission. Which means, of course, that we need to write the fanfic that explains where they all went... :)

[ edited by Chris Bridges on 2006-07-07 14:08 ]
While I see the worthwhile aspects of the essay, I do think it essentially flawed and not just because of the lapses in remembered details. It's the same feeling I get when I read any essay that attempts to quantify a work of art through a politicized lens: it's not a particularly rewarding thing, especially in a case like this, which is 90% criticism.

I think her point was this Billz: at some point, race is an issue, and by simply ignoring it and its impact on our society (being color-blind), Joss is doing society a disservice.

I would agree with this if I thought that a primary motivation of entertainment and art is service to society. But I'm kinda in the opposite school, and I think politically naive art is often better, more enriched and illuminating, than politically active art. In fact, most politically aware art makes me restless with boredom. I love Joss and his alive awareness to issues of gender, but that's not the basic reason I love his work. It's a bonus, true, and I doubt I could love his work if it were blatantly sexist and demeaning to women, but lots of people make feminist art (books, movies, visual art) and I don't care at all for their work because they have great politics but uninteresting talent.

As for her claims:

-- the propensity for African American vampires to be burnt is probably because they were the same stunt guy, and he was the only one comfortable and capable of the stunt.

-- Gunn/Fred were cute, and chemistry is subjective. She didn't see it, I kinda did (though the hottest chemistry was between Illyria and Wes).

-- I'm not actually aware of the stereotype of having African American women as Warrior Women. The stereotype of hot chicks kicking ass has been a recurrent theme, but the only time it was specifically African Amer. women was in those '70s blaxploitation movies, and here I'm thinking of the characters Pam Grier played. So I don't think Zoe's character is a stereotype.

-- She does kinda have a point with Book being the "magical Negro" character; that's a definite stereotypical character, and Book didn't get enough development in the 13 episodes to really go beyond that.

-- I was, as an Asian American, sad that Firefly didn't have any Asians in the cast, but I wouldn't trade the casting of Summer Glau and Sean Maher for anything. Both were utterly perfect for their roles.

-- The Operative and Jubal Early are nothing alike! Jubal is the dark mirror of River: what she could be, with her psychic powers and intuitions, if she were insane and sadistic. The Operative is actually in a linear connection with Mal and Book: he is what Mal used to be, before he was disillusioned by losing the war, a fervent believer. He's sane, rational and a cold-blooded murderer because he believes, like the designers of most genocides, that what he does is for the betterment of society. Jubal is scary like a serial killer, while the Operative is scary like Pol Pot. Isn't it actually more racist to lump their characters together because both were played by charismatic and talented African American actors?
Dana5140 my "negative" comment about the article is in no way related to protecting the integrity of Joss. This is an issue that I have great interest in, not only in the Whedonverse but on the greater playing field of life. I know you weren't just speaking to me, and I know there is no right or wrong to this topic, simply everyone expressing their own opinion.

Do y'know it honestly never occured to me the lack of Asian-oriented characters in Firefly, even though it is a super power? That might be due to many reasons, but jumping to the conclusion that it's related to some underlying racism on the part of Joss and the other writers seems a bit harsh.

Why would knowing the colour of the people on this board be relevant? If I was from an ethnic minority in the US would that then make my point more valid?

Joss isn't always going to get things right, he's not always going to have the time and space to create a deeper and more layered universe that he may have liked to. That doesn't mean we should find the worst possible conclusion from that. That doesn't mean we shouldn't explore all possible reasons either. I just think, personally, that the examples used weren't all that convincing.
Dana5140, I did not dispute the writer's points b/c she was criticizing Joss. I disputed them because I thought some were either factually wrong or incomplete, or because I thought they came from opinion being presented as fact. If she had used inaccurate facts to criticize, for example, a politician I didn't like, I would still have to admit or point out the facts were wrong.

If you say that there is actually a phrase "Magical Negro," then I will accept that, but I still do not feel that in any way Book would fulfill that role. IMO, Book was kind of finding his way as a shepherd, not entirely good at his job yet (and why he had so many moments of doubt). Nothing "magical" about him. This wasn't like The Skeleton Key (which I just saw on HBO -- a big yuck for me -- that film WAS racist!).

Yeah, it's always good to be have diversity of actors. Maybe there would be more visits to Asian-dominated planets in the second half of S1 or in S2, etc. Remember, we only got to see half a season of Firefly, and some of that was under orders from Fox (more jokes! more sex!). So, is it fair to criticize Joss both for not casting enough Asian American actors, and then criticize him for casting several African American actors because their roles are "stereotypes"? I mean, isn't "rugged loner war vet" a stereotype, too? Is Joss anti-white (and anti-ugly) for casting a good-looking white guy as the captain? Or, like escapist_dream wrote, anti-white for casting a white guy as the married joke-telling pilot who's not a very good fighter? Or casting a big white guy as the hit man? (See, if Jayne were played by an African American actor, would that then be a "stereotype" of a violent, uneducated minority person?)

OK, Sunnydale was pretty white. Aren't the suburbs white? I live in a little town in the mountains (South Park would not be far from the truth); it's pretty white here, folks. Still, yes, I do agree, I always like to see more diverse people on TV.

So here's the question no one's bitched about brought up yet. Where were the people with disabilities? (OK, there was River, who had a mental illness due to surgery and experiments; who else?) And, also, there was a really vicious blind assassin in Angel -- is that no love for the visually impaired? No, I don't think the reason there weren't people in wheelchairs or with white canes or using sign is because Joss is anti-handicap, just like I don't think they hadn't gone to the Asian planets yet was because Joss is racist or insensitive. It just plain didn't happen. Might've been nice -- but it didn't.

That's not the same as the writer saying she thinks Joss used Black actors to embody menace, which was one of the things I pointed out as not having any factual basis I could see.

Heh, when I hit "preview," I see escapist_dream and I have each other's back on this. (Rock on, escapist dream!) Well, I'll post mine anyway, so forgive areas where we both were thinking alike. ;-)
I've always felt that Joss and the casting crew could have made a more conscious effort to cast ethnically diverse characters. I wouldn't trade Summer Glau as River for anything but claiming she looks vaguely Asian, as Joss believes? I can't see it.
Yes, there should have been more Asians in that 'verse.
And a wider mix in Sunnydale.
And it comes as a big surprise to me that Kennedy was Latino, so perhaps a little "ethnic identity" would have been useful there. Except that her background (except for being a rich spoiled kid) didn't matter.
I'd like to hear J.August Richard's take on playing Gunn. I know he was happy to grow hair again and wear suits in the last season because he wears suits, but the character of Gunn lost his past that year for a long time. It was even pointed out when he was singing Gilbert and Sullivan and tried to hastily rap when someone was near. To me, it was saying that Gunn became too white.
And he paid for it. Now I can see that argued both ways. Black man gets too uppity and gets punished OR man ignores his strengths and his real goals and gets lost.
Much of Joss's work can be argued in such diverse ways.
This essay? A good first draft, that has stimulated some thought on my part and clearly on others.
Don't have time to weigh in fully, lots of great comments going on, though :) Will say in response to:

The lack of Asians in Firefly was, to me, a glaring omission. Which means, of course, that we need to write the fanfic that explains where they all went... :)


Isn't this explained in the Visual Companion to some extent? That the Chinese part of the Alliance (Sinon, one of the two most Central planets) was fairly insular and stayed away from the frontier?

I do have to throw my hands up a little at the fact that people complain about stereotypes when people are shown to express an ethnic background and then complain that people are ethnic in skin colour only when they don't constantly reinforce a stereotype. I realize that the push is for the middle ground, but thats a really subjective thing and a standard that you can't expect everyone to agree on. That and the 'this character is african/chinese/gay/disabled and did something wrong therefore the writers are saying all african/chinese/gay/disabled people are evil'...

And frankly, I find the idea that you can't write believable characters outside of your sex/race/culture to be eye-rollingly simplistic and insulting. Its all about the talent, observational skills and life experiences of the writer.
-- I'm not actually aware of the stereotype of having African American women as Warrior Women. The stereotype of hot chicks kicking ass has been a recurrent theme, but the only time it was specifically African Amer. women was in those '70s blaxploitation movies, and here I'm thinking of the characters Pam Grier played. So I don't think Zoe's character is a stereotype.
{snip}
-- The Operative and Jubal Early are nothing alike! Jubal is the dark mirror of River: what she could be, with her psychic powers and intuitions, if she were insane and sadistic. The Operative is actually in a linear connection with Mal and Book: he is what Mal used to be, before he was disillusioned by losing the war, a fervent believer. He's sane, rational and a cold-blooded murderer because he believes, like the designers of most genocides, that what he does is for the betterment of society. Jubal is scary like a serial killer, while the Operative is scary like Pol Pot. Isn't it actually more racist to lump their characters together because both were played by charismatic and talented African American actors?


Word, dottikin! Although I disagree about Book's degree of "magical" (see above, I'm posting too much, dear gods somebody stop me!), I think you really nailed the inconsistencies in the writer's arguments about the supposed "Black Warrior Woman" and the false comparison of Jubal Early and the Operative. (Oh, also add: Jubal Early is the ultimate outsider -- freelance bounty hunter, in a ship the size of an escape pod -- and the Operative, although nameless and rankless, is the ultimate insider -- a clearance so high he has to kill you once you've seen it.) ;-)

And I agree, I could see the Tams being played by anyone of any race, and they did have an Asian last name, but Sean and Summer are so perfect in their roles, yo!

ETA: Good point also, zeitgeist. There would have been so much more to explore -- well, you know the rest. But I really thought that the Disabled Gay African Chinese character was a right bastard, you know? ;-)

[ edited by billz on 2006-07-07 15:03 ]

ETA2: zeitgeist, every time I look at your post, it's longer and with more good points I want to squee about and point at. Are you revising it, or am I crazy? I think I'm writing about half as fast as you, and it's making me look really bad! ;-)

[ edited by billz on 2006-07-07 15:07 ]
billz - you're telling me ;) (re: that character was a bastard!)

Just a quick note to say that when you think about characters outside the main cast on Buffy/Angel, if you stop to single out white or black or asian or women or men or whatever, of course you are going to remember them dying horribly - that's what nearly EVERYONE outside the main cast did :)

p.s. "I don’t trust laying character decisions off on things that can’t be quantified or described objectively." I don't think that I trust character decisions that ARE 100% concrete and objective; plus I have this failing where if you can't remember a character's name, I tend not to trust your interpretation of their interpersonal dynamics with other characters ;)

ETA - yes, I edited two times, once to restructure and expand on a point and once to add a point :)
LOL! You're right, they all went down in dismemberment, flames or dust, a rainbow coalition of horrible screaming death! ;-)

And just so long as I'm not crazy, that makes up for any feelings I might have about being a phase and a half behind you (and damn that bastardy disabled gay african chinese pig-dog anyway)! ;-)
I couldn't read past the third time the term "white boy" was used by the writer in reference to Whedon or white males in general. If one is going to pen a treatise concerning racial sensitivity, then one should not be using that quite derogatory term -three- times in said article.
Some of the questions the writer poses about race and Whedonverse have occurred to me as well; more for Buffyverse than Serenifly. I think she has some valid points but as stated earlier, I think some assumptions she makes are a product of looking for flaws rather then a consistent pattern of racial insensitivity. I think there is some "whitewashing" in Whedonverse (I also think Sunnydale was meant to be somewhat whitewhashed), but by no means do I think certain ethinic groups are killed more grusomely or cast purposely to exploit stereotypical roles.

If Wash had been black, would the writer contend he was being marginalized by being represented as a "bus driver"? Inara would HAVE to be white to escape criticism. Even then she wouldn’t, since the fact she was an “elite prostitute” and white would make a racial statement on its own. The fact that Simon and River aren't cast as Asian discount the "Big brain" stereotype. Gunn was a stereotype initially, but purposely so I think, to allow for growth of his arc. I do think the lack of Asians makes sense in the Serenity world, and I can see her problem with Jubal and the Operative on some basic level. However, in the larger sense, the crew of Serenity, Buffy and Angel all had plenty of whitebread “Big Bads”. Enough, I think, to reflect racial population distribution, at least in the USA. Furthermore, the quality of all the characters, whether good or bad in nature, transcends most ham-handed stereotypes for said characters.

[ edited by Charmuse on 2006-07-07 15:20 ]
Dana5140, actually I don't agree with you. The discussion on this board is based on more facts than the article discussed itself.
I find that the arguments here are civil and not of the "She dissed Joss - let's diss her!" kind.

The author has an opinion and the right to utter it, she even has a point or two, like the white Sunnydale and the absent Asians in Firefly.
Joss /is/ probably writing characters of different ethnicity as if he wrote for white characters. And you know why? Because he's white and he doesn't have the experience growing up in a coloured family.
I am a writer from a fantasy tradition, I couldn't write a novel taking place in the financial world if my life depended on it.

Does that make Joss' series and comics white-central, or white-angled? Of course it does. It's only natural. He only has that one pair of eyes to view the world with.
Does that make him a subliminal racist? Of course not.

I once wrote a paper on the subliminal misogyny in Harry Potter that I find quite relevant. I wish Rowling had integrated one woman without motherly traits, or one woman that is connected to the metaplot in a relevant way.
Does that make Rowling a misogynist? Of course not, she even is a feminist.

My point (and that of others, I guess) is that she tries to substantiate her arguments with more, miniscule facts, thus reading her point into the text (here, the series). The frank contradictions in her arguments (Tess pointed one out, KernelM the other) proves that to me.

And I react so strongly towards this line of 'arguments', because I once applied them on the Harry Potter text myself, trying to building on the point that I had. :-) The problem is that the text (or series or film) can't win if you want to find flaws in it.

If you write a book with a female villain in it, some will cheer that finally, women are depicted as equal to men in good or bad, being worthy opponents; while others will condemn it as using the "female as agent of evil" stereotype.
On the other hand, if an author doesn't put women in the roles of villains, some will accuse him or her as not taking them seriously enough or underrepresenting them.

I don't know if I am expressing myself quite clear enough here. :-)

While I find Zoe to be a rounded character in feminist tradition (A woman as the hard and disciplined soldier type? Yay!) in a cool interracial couple, she sees a stereotype of the wild Negro Warrior Woman.
Where I see Book as a mysterious figure of authority even to the captain of the ship, representing God (!), she sees the Magical Negro.

So, I argue more with her line of argument than the few arguments she has.

Cheers!
As a sidenote, I would argue that Book is in fact NOT a representation of the magical negro, in spite of the fact that he helps a white character (Mal) realize their faults. He does not initially appear uneducated or low in station (which I realize is not essential to the archetype), not a 'noble savage'... while he is a 'wise old man', I don't see him as subservient to Mal in any way. I think of him as a friend and mentor to Mal /shrug, and I don't see him as 'unable to solve challenges without the involvement of a white associate'. He sure solved the ship that attacked Haven.

Found the section on externalizing the 'other' to be very interesting, though I pause at the outright rejection of any normative type or externalization as a learning tool. While she says that they can be useful, she finds that Odo, 7 of 9, etc. are ovecoming their essential selves to fit in... and it makes me wonder if she watched the same shows as I did. The claim that there is no internalized racism within these alien cultures which are so often externalized fragments of humanity... well... just not true. There is racism and sexism and other -isms within Klingons and Ferengi and other cultures (and I use those specifically as she singled them out).

Regardless, bravo for the thinking and the writing and most definitely for the putting it out there and provoking a great discussion!

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2006-07-07 15:57 ]
I can see some of the points the writer is trying to make. OK they were not made in the best way (as the writer admits in places the it's a bit "raw and clumsy like a list post or mail post").

..But this whole thing is not just about the works of Whedon, it's industry-wide and deeply embedded. I think the author only focused on Whedon because they respect the worlds he has created. Let's be honest, if a writing staff is almost entirely white and middle class than dealing with race in a way that is true to life, politically-correct and dramatically interesting is incredibly difficult.
Lots of passionate and learned thoughts and perspectives in response to this earnest essay, which, in and of itself, provides value. The piece seems to me like the thesis of someone who has been thinking about these important and timely issues separately, and then has taken a crack at seeing whether they apply to these shows. (Perhaps watched once, and casually?) If I were the professor, my red-penned notes would read something like this:

"Interesting thesis premise -- sounds like there could be something there. Take the semester to dig deeper, get to know your primary source material as well as if you'd written it yourself and broaden your consideration of supporting (or unsupportive?) theoreticals. In your research, visit the classics, modern thought-leaders, and post-modern unconventional sourcing."

"Be open to the idea that things may not wrap up as neatly as you first suppose -- that's why we undertake this type of endeavor. If things were always exactly as we first posited, then where is the discovery in this? You have some strong feelings about this, which is a great place to start. Careful that that doesn't lead you to the conceit forcing the outcome to fit the bias of your hypothesis (see this, for an example) -- consider even just the possibility that the richest and most examined outcome could be multi-tonal, contradictory, complicated, and may leave some questions left unanswered. You've sown the seeds of a compelling paper here. Looking forward to watching it evolve as your final thesis comes together."

[ edited by barest_smidgen on 2006-07-07 16:03 ]
Yeah, true Dana5140, I don't think anyone could say that Sunnydale isn't much whiter than it would be in real life (unless it was one of those slightly disturbing gated communities) though i'm only going by other shows/books etc. since i've never been to California (or the US for that matter).

Personally, I wonder if this was deliberate, either so as not to muddy the gender bias arguments in BtVS or just because all the actors were the best for their respective roles but i'm also aware that I wonder this at least partly because i'm keen to think the best of Joss and the rest of the creators and if I came cold to the situation i'd just see it as (at best) subconsciously racist.

I agree with dottikin since I thought Gunn/Fred (Frunn ?) were really nice together and also hadn't noticed black warrior women as being a huge phenomenon (though as mentioned above Chiwetel Ejiofor isn't African-American since he's not a Yank, he's African-British though we don't often - or ever, in my experience - put it like that over here). Good speculation about the stuntman too.

However, though I agree that The Operative and Jubal are totally different characters and both actors knocked it out of the park I think the author's point may have been partly that Joss thought both guys were so right for the part of baddie because he subconsciously sees black people as other and therefore inherently threatening (not because they're black but because he isn't, if you see what I mean). I.e. his in-group is not the same as theirs (it also struck me that he has Chiwetal use his native English accent as The Op since it's been a feature for, like, ever of Hollywood that they use English people as villains possibly for the same reasons of 'alien-ness'). Wood was also an ambiguous character to start with, more or less being set up as the/a baddie at the start of Season 7 only to reveal that he's actually a goodie.

That said, billz makes a good point about physically disabled people and you could say the same of most groups (the Scots were woefully under-represented, I may sue ;) which leads back to the point about finding what you're looking for if you try hard enough (the author's looking for racism and hey, presto ;).

I've also seen the complaints that Gunn started to 'talk white' as the seasons progressed on Angel to which I say, well, yeah. He's among white (and green ;) people at work and during his off hours so of course he isn't going to use slang they don't understand (i'm not black but I know a bit about speaking a different dialect of English to those around you and trust me when I say you stop using your own slang pretty quickly when people keep asking 'Eh ? What's that mean then ?' every other word ;). As soon as he's back with his street crew he goes back to using his original form of speech.

Was he punished for what he became ? Maybe, not because he was a success but because of how he came by his success. He became a guy that didn't care about the consequences to others so long as he could hold on to what he'd 'achieved' (i.e. been given). There might have been something there about the moral compromises black people have to make with 'The Man' in order to succeed in a racist society, not sure. When he scraps the vamps at the end it's not saying 'There, back in your place' it's more like 'Here's the Gunn we all know, a good man, at last being true to his own nature' (IMO).
To be honest, dealing with race in a true-to-life, politically correct and dramatically interesting is difficult no matter the make up of your writing staff, because they will all carry their own pov forward, their own experiences forward, and their own agenda or mission statement vis a vis the topic or issue at hand forward.

Saje - re: (the Scots were woefully under-represented, I may sue ;) Don't worry, I'm reading this whole thread in my head in my best Scots accent :D And I agree with you re: Gunn.
barest_smidgen, you are very wise. May I suggest this topic to be dropped. It will lead to no good.
A few things:

- as the essay begins with a very general view of "racial color-blindness", it strikes me that this is inherent in Hollywood; taking Joss to task for it seems a little unfair or at least there's no really strong reason to make an example of him alone
- the essay doesn't flow very well at all, making assumptions, misremembering things, using half-formed opinion as fact
- the lack of Asian cast in Firefly/Serenity is distracting, specifically as that's the make-up of its fictional universe
- the comparison of Jubal Early to The Operative seems to stem solely from the fact they are both played by black men; even the briefest analysis of the characters show vast differences (and I've said this for a long time)
Pardon me if I repeat anything others have said. We were only at comment 11 when I started writing this and with work (darn work is so distracting) and all I have not had time to review the rest of the comments and rewrite my own.

I have so many problems with this essay. I think most people would agree that there could have been more ethnic diversity in BtVS, that the efforts to correct that in Ats were not always done as well as one would like, (though to ignore the beautifully done racism that Angelus used in his efforts to drive a wedge between Wesley and Gunn is to throw suspicion on the credibility of the entire discussion) and that it would have made a lot of sense to see more recognizable Asians in speaking roles in Firefly.

Personally, my feeling has always been that Joss chose his battle and it was gender stereotyping and relationships. From there he has added questions of morality, faith, and politics. Should he be faulted for not including race as one of his issues if it was not something that he is drawn to?

The fact is, if a theme is not something that comes out of you naturally, you will probably not do it well. So you just hire writers that can fill in that space, right? Well, yes, if you can find someone that also fits into and understands the writing style and humor of the show and if you can find a way to pack one more thing into an already highly complex and layered story without making what you really want the show to be about fall apart. Risky to say the least.

So that brings us back to casting. I won’t even go into the fact that on most shows anyone beyond the core group is going to be either an antagonist or a victim so any guest actors of any color you have on a show are going to be one or the other. This author uses Firefly to assert that the non-white core characters are also stereotypical. What if we switched characters and color? Let’s make Jayne and Wash black, for instance. Then what happens? Well, if you are looking for racism, you now have a big, mean, not very bright, overly sexed, black henchman and the timid black comic relief. Oops. If you make Kaylee black you not only lose the ability to mess with the stereotype of the All-American farm girl but also risk portraying a black girl as promiscuous, low class and pining over a man who is above her. Not good.

Joss makes characters and sometimes uses recognizable stereotypes to create expectations that he can then play with. He does this mainly in terms of gender roles because that is what speaks to him and as a result, that is what he does well.

One other thing, though I could go on for a long time. Every time I hear Jubal Early and the Operative being criticized as being the same character, racism alarms start screaming in my head. The only things the two characters have in common are that they are the antagonists, they are after River, they are apparently good at their jobs and they are played by male actors with black skin. Other than being black, that makes them the same as Dobson, the blue hand guys and the commander on Ariel. If a person watching both characters cannot see beyond their skin color, the criticism should not be of Joss. The person in that position needs to look inside themselves and see what is causing them to lump all characters played by black actors together without seeing any difference.

…And that, if you think about it, is what Joss has always done best in areas other than race. He has made people ask questions about their own and society’s expectations. Maybe the fact that people need to examine why they automatically think Jubal and The Operative are the same character shows that Joss is, whether purposely or not, starting to add more to the examination of race in our society than people are giving him credit for.
I'm interested that no one has brought up the character of Forrest. Riley's Second-in-Command, loyal to a fault. Does he fit a stereotype? (I am asking without snark or malice). Certainly, he's turned evil and half-demon in the end, but so are Maggie (white) and Dr. Angleman (white). I find it interesting that, as a strong black supporting character, he wasn't mentioned at all.
I think the complaint about Jubal and the Operative is an interesting one because many people cannot look beyond the skin colour. The writer's point that being colour blind does not always work out, is demonstrated here. Joss may have picked the best actors for the job, not caring what colour their skin is, but should he have also taken that into account, knowing that others will see only the skin colour?
I don't know.
I found this essay thought provoking but frustrating because of what I see as a conflict between her use of arguments that I might have sympathy with and her application of them. Also, some assumptions about how certain characters ought to behave which seem to reduce them to stereotypes.

For starters
Wood wasn’t incredibly well fleshed out so that may have hampered the Buffy flirtation. Or maybe it was just that you KNEW a real SoCal girl like Buffy would have had *some* thoughts about Wood’s race. Possibly, it’s something in me, reacting to white woman/black man versus black woman/white man. But I don’t think so.

Has the writer completely failed to engage with the show in its own right rather than as fodder for a thesis? Is she, at the expense of context, thinking of the actors rather than the story and a supposed choice (for the SoCal girl) between David Boreanaz, James Marsters and DB Woodside?

She doesn’t acknowledge the history of the characters as built up and seen by the audience over the previous 6 years. The prospect of SMG with a black man seems to have caused her enormous discomfort. Does she really suggest that the writers have Buffy find the prospect of a relationship with Woods ‘worse’ than one with any of her previous boyfriends for the sake of being true to others' percetion of her? In this context surely the writers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Had she turned her nose up at Wood because he was black (though brought up by a watcher) what would that have signified? Alternatively, were her friends and sister just consious that she might be moving on from Spike?

The audience may have had some, but different, negative ‘thoughts’ because we were set up to think he might be a major baddie but Wood as a love interest for Buffy was such a mislead that I’m not sure that anyone other than Spike should need to read anything into it; the ‘thoughts’ the writer alludes to might be something he wondered about (whether Buffy actually had them or not)- there was a delicious "I won't show my jealousy' moment that was really to be savoured. I enjoyed the way the vague potential with Principal Wood played out and the space for different subtext. I wondered, briefly, whether some US sensibilities were being teased but I can't say I dwelt on it.
Admittedly, early Sunnydale was "not a haven for the brothers," but I thought that was sort of "the point." BtVS was about the stereotypical tiny blonde girl in a dark alley we are used to seeing on TV and the movies, being menaced ... and then the twist.

The writer seemed to get that Sunnydale was a parody of a medium-sized town as we always saw it in the media: suburban, very middle class, mysteriously located near every geographical feature you could want (you've got caves, cliffs, the ocean), everyone knows each other, everyone is far too good-looking to be natural, and, oh yeah, white. And then the reality kicks in - Sunnydale's a supernatural slaughterhouse.

However, there's this whole generation gap that the writer misses. Both Sunnydale and the tiny blonde girl are takeoffs on the stereotypes of previous generations. We've had some capable female protagonists in horror films for some time now. Shrieking, hapless bottle blondes are from a bygone era. So, too, are the ethnically homogenous neighborhoods (unless you're in my neighborhood, which remains oddly whitebread to this day). Angel was more contemporary, but BtVS is definitely riffing on the Very White Fifties.

Or, hell, you can just rationalize it that the extended families of Asian- and African-Americans would have enough collective common sense to haul any relatives out of Sunnydale once word got through the grapevine about how many people "have lost someone who just...disappeared, or got skinned ..."

And ... Shepherd Book, the "magical negro"??? This is being held up as a cliche, but ... if it's a cliche, why don't I know about it?
To all, yes, I know that we are arguing facts- but arguing facts is what happens whenever we are linked to a post that criticizes Joss. I am simply noting this as a pattern, nothing more. And I enjoy this, of course, since I love debate and discussion- but hey, you didn't know that about me anyway. :-)

Couple of comments. One thing that is certain is that both Jubal and The Operative were black. End of issue. Does not matter if they were in every other respect different. The fact is, the only two operatives we ever saw on FF were black, and my original question was, why? Operatives, in the context of the show, are evil/bad. That's the code the show uses. Now, using an old issue, we all know Joss did not mean to imply the evid-dead lesbian cliche when Tara was killed, but that does not mean it was not implied in the reading of a lot of people. So Joss may have meant nothing by making them both black, he might have unconsciously done so, he might have meant to- we don't know- and because we don't know it allows for at least one reading where the fact they are both black may have meaning. I personally do not think it important, but I can appreciate that others might.

The issue with Kennedy is that she was a latino without any real latino identity- but then Willow was Jewish without any Jewish identity. This is not unusual to any single character in the buffyverse, and the issue of Willow's non-Jewishness has been discussed in past slayage writings. But then you can hide your Jewishness, by and large, while it is far harder to hide your black skin. My point it that Willow was never coded as Jewish, save for a few comments; Jubal and The Operative were definitely coded as black, by virtue of their skin. As was Gunn, Wood, Forest. However, only Gunn was coded as "street" black. And that only for a short period of time. And we can ask, was he better off as a street fighter or as a super duper attorney from hell?

"If a person watching both characters cannot see beyond their skin color, the criticism should not be of Joss. The person in that position needs to look inside themselves and see what is causing them to lump all characters played by black actors together without seeing any difference. "
I disagree here. I think that Joss is way smart, and would understand that placing two black actors into operative roles could be read as racially suspect. I think he simply failed to consider it, or perhaps felt that there was a point to be made by doing so, though I am not sure what that point might have been. We all know they are two different characters, with their own quirks, etc. but hey, both are black, and why was that decision made given how America views its race relations? That in a future world race does not matter? That would be my guess, but hey, we still are living here today, you know? Still watching through today's lens.
I have a few issues with the essay's methodology, but most of that has already been discussed. As a discussion, it's very provocative. As an essay, it's disorganized and incomplete.

My real problem is with the assertion that interracial relationships are largely ignored in the Buffyverse. Buffy herself almost exclusively dated interracially - she dated a black man and two bumpy foreheads, and she spent months (if not years) agonizing over the inherent differences therein. The question of whether or not it was okay for a slayer to love a vampire was raised constantly, and was handled with a lot of grace and respect and honesty.

The substitution of a vampire (being of a different species) for a minority fits perfectly into Joss' vision, wherein he took things which are scary/complicated/confusing in real life and put them under the magnifying glass of his fantasy world. This always allowed us to examine real life in a clear, unrestricted manner, and it follows suit in this example. Are people uncomfortable examining the morality of interracial relationships? Often, yes. Is it easier to examine an interspecies relationship, which is inevitably out of our social context? Of course.
The fact is, the only two operatives we ever saw on FF were black, and my original question was, why? Operatives, in the context of the show, are evil/bad.


It seems as if you refer to Jubal as an Operative, when he is not. Also, this is like saying that the Alliance is evil when it is not. It is simply at odds with our heros, trying to do the right thing, but somewhat corrupt and subject to the foibles and failings of the people who make up the Alliance.

And I don't know that I would agree on your comparo re: Willow coded as Jewish, Jubal and the Operative coded as black. Willow was given lines that coded her as Jewish, Jubal and the Operative were not given lines/actions that coded them. It seems to me that coding might have to be a bit more deliberate than this implies on first glance to be coding by the writer rather than reading by the reader. Its certainly open to discussion whether (as you say) they were chosen because they are 'other' than Joss, but just having the skin doesn't necessarily code them as anything.

Good questions re-raised re: Joss' motivations or lack thereof in choosing the two actors. I think its just 'cause they both delivered subtle and powerful readings of characters where interpretation and presentation were crucial and Joss loved them. I would guess he struggled with it a bit as he knew it could be read as black=other, etc., but ultimately decided 'Eff it, I'm doing what's right for the character and the show/flick'.

ETA - what barest_smidgen says in the post after me. Yes, that :)
Some more specific thoughts on the idea that some of the black men who live in our 'verse suffer from the unimaginative sterotyping pens of their writers...

I'd offer that what is so compelling and terrifying about both Jubal Early and The Operative is precisely the thing that makes them not stereotypical black villians. (Which often means, *cringe*, indiscriminate, unchecked, street violence.) Instead, these baddies bring us to our knees with their calculating reason, corrupted intellects, and their almost genteel violence. This special brand of evil is often stereotypically reserved for elder, white, butler-y type gentleman, or fastidious, white, gay characters. No matter who is embodying that affect, the shit creeps me out. But with these two actors? As Saje says, they knocked it out of the park, and in ways I've never seen before.

And re: the discussion of Gunn's being "punished" for becoming "too white," I think that's exactly the experience the writers were commenting on. I've always seen that piece of Gunn's arc as old skool 'verse storytelling: using the mystical as the metaphor for the real world struggles an outsider might face trying to make his way in hostile or unfamiliar territory. It's not racist or lazy stereotyping to say that some black Americans feel caught between cultures and aren't given a free pass from either to transition between the two -- to suggest such would be missing the forest (Forest?) for the trees. The experience is a reality of This Land for many of our brothers and sisters and it's monstered-up here for emphasis -- to be illustrative for our thoughtful consideration. And I think we're the better for it.

(By-the-by, I don't think it is an entirely unfair position to say that this group enjoys tussling more over the writings or perspectives of those that critique Joss' work, rather than those who praise it. That's just natural, given the crowd at this match. We're here to share, for sure, but more so to discuss and debate, and to do so thoughtfully. And really, that's what's different at Whedonesque -- things rarely dissolve into a piss-fest. (Unless Marsters is on the menu. ;) ) Taking a moment to disagree amongst friends and to figure out why we do is a way for our brains to exercise and evolve. Where's the fun in "yeah, i agree" six-ways from Sunday? This site would be one long birthday thread of: "Happy birthday! Hope you have a great one! Have a wonderful birthday and year! We raise a glass on your birthday! I totally agree with the author! He's right - couldn't have said it better myself! This gal is spot-on in everything she said. What he said! Ditto!" Sure, we argue the point, but isn't that the point?)
"belatedly observing that Sunnydale is too white"

That might be true, but it might also be life. My high school had one black student out of about 2000, despite being near a city with a healthy African-American population. (Clay stood out because he was Book-like in character and talent, not because of his skin color.)

dottkin said: Gunn/Fred were cute
That is incorrect, according to the writer, it was "between Gunn & whatsername".

As other people have pointed out, statements like this make me think the writer made snap judgements based on superficial appearances, without bothering to find out more. Which is how racism starts, kinda ironic.

zeitgeist said: "while he (Book) is a 'wise old man', I don't see him as subservient to Mal in any way"

Interesting observation. When Mal is confronted by Jayne, Simon or Wash, he usually puts them down. With Zoe he reflects (but may disagree), and I think Book is the only person Mal might back down from.
This brings up a wonderful quote from our dear (apparently Early-esque) Operative; "That is a trap. I offer money, you'll play the man of honor and take umbrage; I ask you to do what is right and you'll play the brigand. I have no stomach for games."

If we include an Asian cast member in Firefly, then many people scream "of course you'd do that."

No one says that Lost is stereotypical, for having an Asian couple. In fact, I have yet to really see an Asian man/woman with a man or woman of another race depicted on television.

If there aren't Asian cast members there's criticism for it not being "realistic" to the nature of the world and that's a double-edged sword.

I believe in finding the right person for the role -- race should not be a part of it. There are poor white people in the inner city, there are poor Asian people in the inner city -- statistically, there are more poor black people in the inner city. Among the population of poor, the majority is black. So would it be such a stretch to depict Gunn as a black man in the inner city? A white man in the inner city would've drawn laughs and disbelief, since it's evident that many people don't realize there are a good amount of poor white people in a city.

While we're on race and also class, Xander is obviously not rolling in money. In fact, a central part of his character is that he has always needed to work for his money. You can't say that all white people are rich or there aren't any wealthy black people -- I'd argue that Trick's suits are evidence of a much more lucrative lifestyle than most of the other characters have.

Also, Sunnydale was never meant to be a "rich suburb." It was meant to be a small town. Cordelia's wealth was gained through illegal means, Joyce (Buffy's mother) certainly caused a lot of medical bills and this was NOT easily paid. In fact, Buffy took several jobs. For a rich suburb, they should have the money to pay for anything they wanted, right?

If a role is defined by "Asian" or "Black" I think that's a problem. I'm sure that Joss, Minear, Fury, Espenson, et al. have an idea when they write the characters who they are, in their minds, what they look like. All writers do this. But what they think in their minds does not always translate to screen.

Evidence of this is the initial casting of Rebecca Gayheart as Inara, and the subsequent final casting of Morena as Inara. Gayheart is obviously not Brazillian. She is, according to IMDB: Irish, Italian, German and Cherokee descent. So sure, did Joss initially want Inara to be what is essentially "white"? Maybe? I don't think he meant to make her Asian, which if it were the case, would be stereotypical (Asian geisha). But he found the right Inara in Morena, who is obviously not white.

One of the biggest statements I took task with was how Sunnydale is wholly white. It's a one-starbucks town! You can find them all over the country -- they are mostly one race. You can't say that it wouldn't be absolutely odd for a family of another race to move into a tiny sleepy town like Sunnydale and claim "job transfer." Transfer from what? Sunnydale isn't exactly the hub of innovation. It just made sense that Sunnydale communicate the "small town" feel. And whether many people like to admit it or not, most of our small towns in America are almost entirely white.

As far as race on Buffy, lest we forget Inca Mummy Girl Impata, who was not in any way white. Forest, Principal Woods, Mr. Trick, several otherwordly assasins, there is diversity. If you want more diversity, you can look at the fact that Willow is Jewish.

Something that confused me was;

The conniving Asian lawyer — I worried, briefly, about an Asian character being so sneaky,


why does it matter what race the character is? If it's white, you cry stereotype. If it's black, you say they're being unfair to wealthy african american people by implying they obtained wealth through immoral means. Sneakiness and immorality transcend race -- it's a human problem, not a race poblem. Why concern over Asian characters?

This essay, while I understand is "raw", just isn't put together well. "Raw" does not mean sloppy. It doesn't mean half-statements and it doesn't mean you don't remember the names of central characters. It means that you form a reasonable chain of thoughts and the way they come together to form a cohesive essay is lacking. I found this difficult to read. Easy to understand the statement, but entirely a jumble of words to read.

[ edited by Browncoat on 2006-07-07 17:37 ]

[ edited by Browncoat on 2006-07-07 17:44 ]
Dana5140 - was Jubal an operative? I thought he was a bounty hunter.
Personally, my feeling has always been that Joss chose his battle and it was gender stereotyping and relationships. From there he has added questions of morality, faith, and politics. Should he be faulted for not including race as one of his issues if it was not something that he is drawn to?


QFT.

Zeitgeist, I think the two who black operatives were referred two are Book ('s implied past life) and The Operative. Jubal is clearly not an operative, we're all agreed.

Consider Gunn's arc. He started as a street paladin--fighting to defend the weak and helpless against powers far greater than his, and with a horribly short life expectancy. He ended as a high-powered attorney, with Wes/Fred class smarts, who had murdered to avenge his wronged love, and made a second pact with the devil to keep his smarts that cost Fred her life and got him justifiably stabbed by Wesley. Frankly, I consider Gunn's arc second only to Wesley's in its depth--he gained the world, but lost his soul, again, in the process. Or did he?

Gunn is really the only character by which we can judge Joss' handling of American race issues.* The others never had time to develop an arc (Book, Zoe) or were simply not long enough in duration to provide a long-term view (Early, The Operative, Wood, Rona, Kendra, The Unnamed Paramedic in "The Body", The First Slayer, ...)

My contention is that even though race wasn't something Joss tackled head-on, what we do see of it in his work is sufficiently fair, even-handed, and thought provoking that criticizing him for "not doing more" is unwarranted.

* And yes, by American race issues, I do mean primarily black/white. While acknowledging that others exist, the essay author has focused primarily on that interaction, and I acknowledge that it has primary merit--not because it's the only problem (treatment of Native Americans is similarly shameful) or the most current (dealing with an exploding Hispanic population seems to be America's biggest current challenge), but because it has a long history and clear visibility.
escapist_dream, you said: "Do y'know it honestly never occured to me the lack of Asian-oriented characters in Firefly"
Well, I'm going to assume that's because you are not Asian.

It is very easy for white people, who probably the majority of us are on here, to pretend to be colorblind. The fact is that if you are a minority, you are (probably, I don't mean to generalize) always aware of your "otherness"... your culture, heritage, and the way you are treated differently by society. White people nowadays often say racism isn't a big problem anymore. Ask a minority, I think you will hear differently.

I don't think anyone believes Joss and the other writers were purposely racist by writing or casting the characters the way they did. It's just that it's probably very easy for white writers to unconciously leave minorities out while coming up with characters in their created world. We all have unconcious prejudices.

Yes, Sunnydale was a suburb, but it was in California, which has an extremely large population of Hispanics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but as far as I remember, there was never once a Hispanic character in any Joss show. Iyari Limon is, but I don't know if Kennedy was supposed to be. In any case, it never became part of her identity. (Actually, on second thought, there was that Angel episode with the Mexican wrestlers, but I don't think that counts much.) It's not so much that the minority characters in the Whedonverse were stereotypical or poorly written (although I was always uncomfortable with Kendra's portrayal), it's just that maybe there weren't enough.

[ edited by fortunateizzi on 2006-07-07 18:24 ]
jclemens - meant that in response to Dana5140's previous post, which seemed to suggest otherwise on first read. The argument seems totally different when you look at it as Book/Operative (which I would, as I am of the opinion that the entire flick is a workalike for Book's backstory). Parallel stories of belief/faith/redemption(maybe) between Book/Operative and Book/Mal and Mal/Operative. See also what barest_smidgen said above re: non-stereotypical casting of villains coded in non-traditional ways. Fun stuff :)
Most of anything I would have to say has been said, so I won't just rehash it all. The only thing I do want to say (which I might have missed already being said) is that some of what the author says actually leads to a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" problem. Specifically, I'm thinking of the idea of Joss writing people of color who nonetheless aren't "raced". It's a problem because if a privileged white writer did write a person of color who also was "raced" they'd just get essays written asking why a privileged white writer thought he had the right or the ability to know what a "raced" person of color would be like. Heh.
Look out for the casting of WW, either way he's raciest. He might as well cast Nathan - being called sexist might take away some of the heat.

Some one catch me out if I’m completely wrong here but is the ratio of white actors to other ethic groups already greater to start with. If so let’s move this conversation in a 'not Joss’ fault' direction, blame Hollywood that’s always fun.

The group I’m part through I feel is sadly under represented, isn’t it time we saw a female writer who happens to be a suffer of dyslexia, dysphasia and a carrier of muscular-dystrophy who’s also from the UK. Give me a job! Man that was hard to spell - I’m allowed to mock dyslexic people, as one it is my God given right. (Oh atheist too!)

[ edited by Aurey09 on 2006-07-07 19:27 ]

[ edited by Aurey09 on 2006-07-07 19:44 ]
My personal opinion is that, with so much obvious racism in the world, concentrating on "perceived" racial slights is dangerous to say the least.

And, if you are going to explore the negative side of colour-blindness then you had better be a much better writer, with a better command of your subject than this particular author.

It's not a slight on the writer, per se, but I think using your personal opinion to impugn someone's perceptions of their fellow human beings, without any kind of proof, is foolish and inane.

Here I am, trying to desperately - as a parent - to raise colour-blind children, in the hopes that a few generations from now, racism can become a relic of a stupider age and you can be told off for that as well...
No one says that Lost is stereotypical, for having an Asian couple. In fact, I have yet to really see an Asian man/woman with a man or woman of another race depicted on television.


Deep Space Nine gave us one of those, in Miles and Keiko O'Brien.

I was actually relieved when they stopped trying to write Gunn as so "urban"--it did seem stereotyped, and the (all-white, I believe) writing staff always seemed very uncomfortable writing his initial "Yo, dawg, what up?" style of speech. I think as the series went on, they relaxed a little more and became better at writing him as a human being, instead of an Inner City Youth.

As for Book being the magical negro, I don't think we're meant to see him as subservient to Mal in any way. I think he certainly falls into the Wise Old Man stereotype at times, but he's much closer to Obi-Wan Kenobi than Uncle Remus.

[ edited by JesterInACast on 2006-07-07 19:50 ]
All this talk of being "colorblind" reminds me of The Colbert Report... if we ignore race all the problems we have with racism will go away. That's why Stephen insists he's color blind. He can't see races, he only knows he's white because people tell him so. ;)
If he is not subservient then he fails the Magical Negro test (take it online, now, at yourjokehere.com!). He can be wise so long as he's subservient to a white man, so the idea goes. If he's more Obi-Wan, then he fails. Let's be careful not to take it any further re: the writer. Play the ball, as they say :)

fortunateizzi - also reminds me of Dave Chappelle's blind-KKK-member skit where no one tells him he's black until he's 80 years old! :)
This reminds me of a toungue-in-cheek article I wanted to write in response to all the articles saying that Joss Whedon is somehow against gay people because he killed Tara. My article was going to prove that Joss Whedon is really a racist.

If you go through the Joss Whedon's 'verses, a pattern starts to emerge. The two slayers that were killed were black (Kendra, Nikki Wood), while the white slayer was brought back to life twice. In Firefly, the black woman's happy marriage had to be destroyed by killing her husband, and it was the black preacher who gets killed by the Alliance. Joss must just hate black people.

My article would have been toungue-in-cheek because I believe that Joss just writes the best stories he can, wherever that takes him. This blog post however, is serious (Oh, well. I can read it toungue-in-cheek, even if it wasn't written that way).
menachem - tsk, tsk, you leave out the Chinese Slayer Spike killed during the Boxer Rebellion and the medieval slayer in Tales of the Vampires (start the canon war now, don't wait for 'Season Eight'!).
My article would have been toungue-in-cheek because I believe that Joss just writes the best stories he can, wherever that takes him.

That's exactly part of why sometimes this sort of analysis can be extended too far. To wit: Aware white writers shouldn't ever subject characters of color to horrible things, even if he also subjects white characters to those things, because it somehow subliminally communicates a racist message. Don't write an African-American as a thug, because it says all African-Americans are thugs. Don't write a woman as a housewife, because it says all women should be housewives.

(I'm not saying the author of this piece is saying that. I'm just saying that there's a line past which the argument or analysis would become absurd.)
menachem - tsk, tsk, you leave out the Chinese Slayer Spike killed during the Boxer Rebellion and the medieval slayer in Tales of the Vampires

You're right.

And what about Mr. Trick, who had a cushy job as the mayor's right-hand man, only to be staked and replaced by Faith, a white girl from north of the Mason-Dixon line.

And with a little stretching we can add Jasmine to the list.

I'm sure there are many other examples of obviously racist behavior in the Whedonverse.
Yes, Jubal is a bounty hunter and not an operative; I simply wrote to quickly, which is a problem I have. Though as noted, I think that Book was at one point an operative as well, as that is hinted at a number of times- still makes the point.

I recall a sitch from way back in my college days- I was in a class on social science, and I am not sure how we got there but we got to talking about race. And I noted to a black woman in the class that when I looked at her I did not first notice she was black, I noticed she was human- and she got angry at me and wanted me to note that she was black first. And we both got into it. And of course we were both missing the point. I was noting her humanity as an important factor of her being, becuase in my world you treat all people alike and with courtesy and respect; she was stating that, of course she was human- what else could she be- and that was nothing special with regard to being a person per se, and therefore to her her blackness was an important part of her identity. We were both right and we were both wrong, and in that is a microcosm on race relations in the US.

Joss wrote so eloquently about gender-based differences; he did less so for race and class. The reason Sunnydale comes in for criticism is precisely what people have said- if it is in SoCal, then it should reflect the racial mix of that region and it does not- how many middle-class suburbs of LA are exclusively white? With over 40% of the population Hispanic and more than 15% black, Sunnydale ought to have a different mix, yet it did not. Now, again, this was not Joss' concern- he was writing with very specific goals in mind addressing gender and sexuality, and likely writing based on his own knowledge and expertise. And using writers who did the same- trying to portray the black experience in Buffy was not their goal. We should simply acknowledge that and get on with it.

For all that, money was never much of an issue for anyone but Cordelia (when she lost it) and Buffy (when her mom died). We still don't know how Willow and Tara managed to come by funds, for example. Did they contribute to the upkeep in Buffy's house in S6? When Buffy needed the dough and yet they lived there and ate there and took care fo Dawn?

Class issues were touched on in part, usually through Cordelia and Xander. Cordy of the upper crust- for a while- and Xander decidely blue collar. Xander's folks were coded as blue collar as well- lower socioeconomic class, drunkards. Willow's mom was part of the intelligentsia, coded upper middle class. Joyce was decidely middle class. Anya was used as a counterpoint to the class issues- she said the things we all knew but in mixed company would never articulate.

But blackness was notably absent, really, in Buffy, save for Wood. I do not think the author was squicking over Buffy-Wood, since she was okay with Faith-Wood; I htink she was sort of saying that it was not a relation she thought was realistic or workable. For whatever reason. My feeling: Wood was not tragic enough.
I think discussing Book/Operative as both being black Operatives starts in the same place, but goes elsewhere entirely. The author seemed to think Buffy/Wood was unrealistic as Buffy would obviously have had iss-ues with dating a black guy (wha?). Quotation came as follows:

Wood wasn't incredibly well fleshed out so that may have hampered the Buffy flirtation. Or maybe it was just that you KNEW a real SoCal girl like Buffy would have had *some* thoughts about Wood's race. Possibly, it's something in me, reacting to white woman/black man versus black woman/white man. But I don't think so.


Humbly disagree.

...these relationships don’t work to naturalize the relationships; they make them stand out more as “progressive” relationships in the non-progressive world he creates.


I don't even know what to say to this except that it doesn't seem to be internally coherent enough to refute. There's not enough info there for me to say anything in response, except that I disagree. A little further on this is fleshed out as 'if its like the world we live in then they are portrayed wrong, if its not like the world we live in the portrayal is invalid unless you show me the history of race relations in this fictional universe'. Which is, quite frankly, nonsense, IMO.

[ edited by zeitgeist on 2006-07-07 21:14 ]
Wow, interesting discussion so far, with a lot of good points made on all sides.

I will say, I tend to agree with those above who think that these critiques can sometimes get caught in a sort of catch-22 where anything the writer does is negative: i.e. - reinforcing racial stereotypes by making a character TOO black/Asian/lesbian/Jewish or being too color-blind and not giving enough racial reference points if the writer doesn't succomb to those stereotypes.
Any way you go at it, you can find things to criticize if that's what your aim is.

I don't think Josh's handling of race was perfect, far from it - though I think he did better than the vast majority of what's on TV and certainly seemed fairly aware of the casting decisions he made. Sunnydale, in particular, was pretty white, though there were a few more efforts at diversity in later seasons. I also wish we could get to a point (and I realize it's hard, since we are still in a race-counscious and racism-filled society) where we could just appreciate fine acting by people like Gina Torres and Chiwetal and not assume that they were only picked because of their race.

And, sometimes stereotypes exist because some people fit them. I remember tons of people complained when Rose was introduced on Lost, saying she was such the stereotypical religious strong black woman matriarch. But I've met many women like that. And many older black women do in fact have a great deal of faith.
It was far more realistic to me that Gunn – coming from an LA street gang in a poor section of the city - was black, than if he'd been white, just to subvert steretypes. And yet what was interesting to me was all the places his character went and how he developed and grew.

Finally, I tend to agree with theonetruebix above that part of the reason a part of me finds these analyses grating, at least when they're taken too far, is that being too PC or race-conscious can be the antithesis of good storytelling. Don't misinterpret me - I understand that there's a real problem when all our popular culture is white-washed or only reflects certain segments of society, or if it only reinforces certain stereotypes, especially since pop culture is such a touchstone for so many people.. But I also think that while such issues are deserving of thought and analysis, it's dangerous if writers start going too far in second guessing their every instinct and writing more to preach or to "provide positive examples" than to simply tell a good story. It's why I would have hated it had Joss decided Tara's character was sacrosanct, forever, just because he couldn't possibly kill off a lesbian. Or anytime a writer's decisions make viewers more conscious of a show's race/gender/sexuality decisions than the characters themselves. Characters written for such reasons can become just as much symbols and cardboard cutouts as total stereotypes if one isn't careful.

Sorry for this stream-of-consciousness post. I really have enjoyed the discussion here, and think some of the issues raised by both the author and the various posters are thought-provoking.
Why are plane crashes always reported in the news? Because no one reports that a thousand planes landed safely.

Why do we make such a big deal about race? Because there doesn't seem to be enough harmony.

It has never really bothered me that there haven't been Asian characters in Firefly - and I am of Asian descent. The world is so populated with two cultures meshing -- fine, but where are there rules saying you have to represent everyone? Of course, it might seem a bit stereotypical for an Asian character to speak Chinese -- but everyone else does too.

Ultimately, I am more into a good story with good characters, whether that means white, black, green, purple or orange.
Here is one interesting link, from slayage volume 10: www.slayage.tv, then click on Volume 10 to get the article):

Naomi Alderman and Annette Seidel-Arpaci

Imaginary Para-Sites of the Soul: Vampires and Representations of ‘Blackness’ and ‘Jewishness’ in the Buffy/Angelverse

And from Slayage volume 17:

Ewan Kirkland

The Caucasian Persuasion of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

And finally, one more citation:

Ono, Kent A. "To Be a Vampire on Buffy the Vampire Slayer : Race and ('Other') Socially Marginalizing Positions on Horror TV." Fantasy Girls: Gender in the New Universe of Science Fiction and Fantasy Television. Ed. Elyce Rae Helford. Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield, 2000.


In passing, I wish Joss had not killed Tara and for me, any reason would have worked. :-)

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2006-07-07 22:01 ]

[ edited by Dana5140 on 2006-07-07 22:05 ]
Man, I've missed a lot of work today reading through this fascinating discussion! Great points by too many of you to address!

My personal opinion is that, with so much obvious racism in the world, concentrating on "perceived" racial slights is dangerous to say the least.


There are endless slights that are not blatant, that doesn't make them not exist, and not an underlying societal problem.
Joss's response to underlying sexism was to create BtVS to lampoon its presence in popular culture.

Secondly, it is absolutely true that the stereotypes of the "magical negro" and the "black warrior woman," among others, definitely exist whether or not you have ever noticed them. They date back to the beginnings of film/radio/television, and possibly further. Othello, anyone?
And absolutely Zoe, Book, Kendra, Nikki Wood, The First Slayer (hello!) owe part of their DNA to these stock characters. As everyone has noted, Joss likes to play with stereotypes, like the little weak-looking female kicking ass. So, he takes these others (or ME does, whatever) and spins them a little too. It doesn't translate as brilliantly, IMO, as his great feminist metaphor, because he doesn't come from that place.
And I would really like to know how to write a character with "racial identity" without being accused of stereotyping. If you're white, and especially a man, somebody is guaranteed to call you out on it.
That said, the author clearly loves and enjoys Whedon. She definitely made me think more about race in the 'verse, even if I don't agree with many points. Really, everytime I watch a DVD now, I will be taking stats on the ethnicity of flaming vamps. ;)
I really can't believe she didn't have something to say about the First Slayer, or the Shadow Men. Also, Gunn's old crew being so "racist" against all demons that they blew Caritas apart was a (maybe anvilicious) twist on intolerance in society. Worth a comment, I thought.
Oh, and the lack of Asians in the 'verse? Has always bothered me.

And Asian/Caucasian/black TV couples?
1. Ross/Julie on Friends
2. Lucy Liu/some white actor on Ally McBeal
3. Yang/Burke on Grey's Anatomy
4. Ming Na/black actor on ER
5. Parminder Nagra/another black actor (damn memory!) on ER
6. Ming Na/white actor on Jonathan Silverman's old NBC sitcom

Sorry, needs more research, I know! But I obviously already watch too much TV, and the point is made. I'm not writing an essay or anything :)
I think that by and large the essay is very good, and brings up some important (though not new) points, and Joss (and other producers of entertainment) needs to think about them. Looking to create a balanced cast with regards to race, ethnicity, and gender - and free of stereotypes - IS doable, and many producer/directors make a conscious effort to do this on a regular basis. He can choose to do a better job of this in the future if it's truly important to him. I think we've seen progress over time in that respect, but his TV career has been stalled so we can't see if he would strive for more balanced casting and creating populations that make sense with the worlds he creates.
"To all, yes, I know that we are arguing facts- but arguing facts is what happens whenever we are linked to a post that criticizes Joss. I am simply noting this as a pattern, nothing more. And I enjoy this, of course, since I love debate and discussion- but hey, you didn't know that about me anyway. :-)"

It makes perfect sense that on this site there would be more push-back to an essay that was negative than positive about Joss’s work because the people who frequent the site are here because they already like the work being criticized. However, it is not like no one ever agrees with negative essays. Link to something that tears apart BtVS S6 and you will get people coming out of the woodwork to agree. You will also get people coming out of the woodwork to disagree, me being one of them. Will I be doing it to protect Joss? No, I will be doing it because I like S6 and think that much of the criticism is undeserved. Of course if the writer comes up with some points I consider valid, I will agree with those.

"One thing that is certain is that both Jubal and The Operative were black. End of issue. Does not matter if they were in every other respect different. The fact is, the only two operatives we ever saw on FF were black, and my original question was, why? Operatives, in the context of the show, are evil/bad. That's the code the show uses."

Putting aside for the moment that Jubal Early and The Operative did not have the same job as either operatives or bounty hunters and that neither was the only representative of the Alliance shown doing evil, are you saying that all black actors should have been eliminated from consideration for the role of the Operative on the basis of their race? That is what it sounds like. Had Joss used up his quota of black antagonists with Jubal Early and needs to start on antagonists from other races or cast them all as white?

Book does not enter into it because we are only guessing that he was an operative. In fact he could have been much higher than that in the Alliance or a ballet star who was also a mercenary-groupie. Even if he was once an operative, he is certainly not being presented as evil during the time of the show.

"how many middle-class suburbs of LA are exclusively white? With over 40% of the population Hispanic and more than 15% black, Sunnydale ought to have a different mix, yet it did not."

On the subject of Sunnydale being unbelievably white, I am in agreement with lots of people. Yes, I think more ethnic diversity would have been good. Yes, I think Sunnydale being lily white was part of the satire of the idyllic suburban community displayed in film and TV shows of the 50’s - ?. Yes again, I also grew up in a suburban town in the metropolitan NewYork area of New Jersey where there was one Chinese-American and one African-American and one Latina in my High School class and maybe two of each in the whole school during the 4 years I went to school there. It is different now, but mostly because there are many more East Indians, Koreans and Latinos. The city next to it has had plenty of almost 100% African American high schools for decades.

I'm white but found the lack of Asians in speaking roles in Firefly distracting. Then again I was involved with an Asian actor for around 7 years, so I am a little more aware of their absence in places where it seems natural to cast them.
It remains a curiosity to me that we can even really include Firefly in this discussion. Buffy and Angel, at least, are essentially complete products of multi-season lifespans. But with Firefly, we're dealing with a product whose growth and lifespan were artificially stunted by the network.

Making judgements about any one character, let alone the creators' approach as a whole, from a show which had barely more than a dozen episodes seems more than a little misplaced and disingenuous.
This is truly a great discussion thread, and I want to thank everyone - or nearly everyone, - for addressing the issues, rather than the author. Just wanted to say two quick things: (1) I hope the extent and passion of the conversation is enough evidence that Whedonesque does not serve simply to protect Joss and diss his crits - we can have a to-and-fro about him too; (2) the happenstance that I know/knew the author allows me to filter her words through our acquaintance, credit the "rawness" of the material (it's really a thinking-out-loud piece, and while factual inaccuracies should be called out, they're not reason to dismiss the entire thing), and give her all benefits of the doubt. And still disagree with many of her premises and conclusions.

My view tends to be that the movie/TV industry is culpable with respect to underrepresentation and cliched portrayals of non-whites in various ways; that said, it is awfully difficult - and perhaps unfair - to level such accusations at one creator, particularly one whose public utterances and deeds so clearly (to me, at least) signify a man who is aware of these issues, and who does the best he can, and particularly with respect to one creator who has a very coherent and consistent vision of the world that he is creating. Accusing him (or anyone) of less-than-perfection seems a little uncharitable.
Making judgements about any one character, let alone the creators' approach as a whole, from a show which had barely more than a dozen episodes seems more than a little misplaced and disingenuous.


With respect, the 'verse characters got a lot more time to develop than any movie you can name, and people pick movie characters apart all the time. Also, Joss created an awesomely realized alternate universe with lots of detail, so the opportunity was there. Just, you know, not taken. I agree you can't tackle everything in less-than-one-season plus 2 hours. It isn't perfect, but it's closer than almost anything we've ever gotten in terms of entertainment. I love the toes off that bitch (as a great man once said, and I've been dying to use :)
"It makes perfect sense that on this site there would be more push-back to an essay that was negative than positive about Joss’s work because the people who frequent the site are here because they already like the work being criticized. However, it is not like no one ever agrees with negative essays. Link to something that tears apart BtVS S6 and you will get people coming out of the woodwork to agree. You will also get people coming out of the woodwork to disagree, me being one of them. Will I be doing it to protect Joss? No, I will be doing it because I like S6 and think that much of the criticism is undeserved. Of course if the writer comes up with some points I consider valid, I will agree with those."

Well, I think an important distinction to make here is the motivation of those who argue against what the author claims. If they argue against it just because they want to defend Joss, then Dana is more than correct, but if they argue against it because they actually think the article is wrong, then I could see everyone else's point. I dont know, whenever I come here I see only positive things, but really, its a product of all fansites in general. Go to SMGfan.com and you will see that they do not take any crap about SMG, and the same goes here, you guys dont really take any crap about Joss. Does that mean that you argue against this paper because you like him? In some ways it does, but please dont misinterpret what I say here. What I mean is this: I think whenever someone says something negative about someone you admire, of course you are going to defend him, but that DOESNT mean that your critiques about the article arent correct. This is something Ive always said, but you have to argue the arguement, not the motivation, and I think thats important here. Billz and escapist made incredibly insightful counter-points to the article, and thus, it doesnt matter if they really just wanted to defend Joss because I really feel like you should argue the argument. Whats interesting is that earlier, I argued that post hoc arguments concerning the buffyverse are wrong, but I dont think that they are wrong simply because they are post hoc arguments or arguments simply meant to defend someone. They are wrong because I can logically make them unsound, and I think thats important to our discussion.

Really, this could turn into a debate about affirmative action very quickly, what with quotas and social responsibility and the like. Ideally, we do want to become color-blind and not care about the color of a persons skin, but I think that when we do that we basically place our heads in the sand. We back away with our arms raised and say "hey im color-blind, im moral, so I shouldnt have to worry about this stuff". But I dont think that can be case, simply because everyone isnt color-blind. The real question is this: do we have a responsibility to recognize race so that we can fix the problems? I think we do, and in that sense, I think Joss is incorrect in some ways. He isnt a racist by any means, he isnt a bad dude, and in fact, he helps the situation alot when it comes to sex and gender, but if he wants to truly be socially responsible, then he should hold himself to the same standard with regards to race that he does with gender. In that sense, I dont think the author is totally incorrect...

ETA:
"My view tends to be that the movie/TV industry is culpable with respect to underrepresentation and cliched portrayals of non-whites in various ways; that said, it is awfully difficult - and perhaps unfair - to level such accusations at one creator, particularly one whose public utterances and deeds so clearly (to me, at least) signify a man who is aware of these issues, and who does the best he can, and particularly with respect to one creator who has a very coherent and consistent vision of the world that he is creating. Accusing him (or anyone) of less-than-perfection seems a little uncharitable."

The question of responsibility in the movie/entertainment industry is an interesting one. I dont think that entertainers have any responsibility when it comes to being socially responsible. For instance, if Joss wanted to say in season 7 that Buffy was wholly responsible for the attempted rape and that she brought it on herself he could totally do that. Of course, Im going to disagree, but that right shouldnt be taken from artists simply because we disagree with it. We have remotes, we dont have to buy dvds, and we dont have to watch the show. In that sense, it doesnt have to come down to social responsibility, but when you maintain that you are socially responsible, you lose that ability NOT to be. Its like what happens when you dont vote, that is certainly your responsibility, but if you dont, I dont think you can complain that our leaders arent correct and shouldnt be in office. At some point, Joss became socially responsible, he is quoted as saying that he was a making a statement against guns when Warren shot Tara (and yet, Wesley is on Angel shooting people in knee caps when they dont work on Fred's case...but I digress), and when that happens, I think he does place himself in a position that makes what he does socially responsible. Thats why I think it does matter when it comes to Joss, and thus, the authors claims about racial irresponsibilty, do ring somewhat true.

[ edited by jerryst3161 on 2006-07-08 00:35 ]
(The following isn't in response directly to the article or to any particular comment, but is meant in the context of the general discussion.)

The weird thing that always strikes me about criticisms of people being "color blind" is that it seems to be asking people, for example, to see a black man as a black man before they see him as anything else. But suppose the black man in question himself doesn't see him as a black man first, but happens to be a devout Christian and sees himself primarily through that lens first? Don't we do him a disservice by seeing him first as a black man?

Isn't the real point that we should first make no judgements at all based upon race, and then secondarily make our judgements or have our opinions based upon WHO THE PERSON IS. And that's not even something we can do without knowing anything about him.

I do get that the underlying intent of the "being color-blind is not enough" and/or the "being color-blind is not the goal" argument is the premise that there are, in fact, non-white people who take particular and perhaps even primary pride (for lack of a better term) at their racial or ethnic background. But there are also many who don't focus on that aspect of themselves as the primary aspect of their character or identity.

It seems itself a little racist to argue that we should just assume that any black person we see inherently sees themselves first or primarily as black, or that any Asian person we see inherently sees themselves first or primarily as Asian, etc, etc.
In the end we are all just "Happy Meal on Legs" in the verse known as Buffy.
I do not define myself first and foremost by being a Happy Meal.

[ edited by Browncoat on 2006-07-08 00:48 ]
jerryst3616 has put into words some of what I have ham-handedly tried to say. I wish to argue the argument, not much else, so I take each issue as it comes, some agreeing with and some not- and my observation was that there is a tendency here, due to the love, to immediately look to pick apart arguments rather than to find support. I see this all the time in my profession, chiropractic, and I was editor of our leading bioscientific publication for 18 years. That is, when articles are published that critcize chiropractic, we pull out our guns and argue forcefully; when they applaud the profession we bask in the glow. There is nothing wrong, per se, in doing this, but my feeling is that a bit too often for my liking I see initial highly critical responses here- it takes around 20 posts or so before people really begin to delve into the matter. And for some reason, whenever I get involved, we end up with 100 posts. I am a bad boy! :-)

But there is a beautiful paper on Slayage that looks at this isseue from the Willow- Tara perspective. It looks at the issues that are involved in presenting represnetation on TV, the expectations of audiences and viedwers, the rights and responsibilites of authors, and so on. The pper is by Judith Tambron and I would love to reprint the paper, not to generate a new Willow- Tara death article, but to better raise the issues we are discussing here.

And newcj, I am not saying that two black actors should not hav been offered the job. I was careful to note that I do not have a problem with this casting decision; however, I also noted that I felt that Joss had to know that casting two balc actors in these roles was going to be problematical- since the roles are both evil. My question, which has never been answered, and cannot be answered by anyone but Joss, is why?
however, I also noted that I felt that Joss had to know that casting two balc actors in these roles was going to be problematical- since the roles are both evil.

I don't buy this. There are countless evil white men in Firefly. Why should Joss have paused for these two to think, "Hmm, they are both black"? It's not as if these were the only two evil characters to appear in Firefly/Serenity. So it's really the critics who are singling them out because they are black.
Why should Joss have paused for these two to think, "Hmm, they are both black"? It's not as if these were the only two evil characters to appear in Firefly/Serenity. So it's really the critics who are singling them out because they are black.


You are absolutely right, bix (if I may call you that). It is the critics. Because that is the world we live in, and nobody, not even Joss, is that color-blind, especially in the entertainment industry. So, either he didn't figure enough people saw Objects in Space to care about it, or he figured "hey, this might be interesting." But he couldn't have not thought about it. His casting is too deliberate for that. Personally, I don't feel that the man has a responsibility to make his shows the fully-fleshed Rainbow Coalition, if that's not where he comes from. He has statements he wants to make, and stories he wants to tell. It's his agenda, and I'm along for the ride.
But he couldn't have not thought about it.

Well, he could have thought about it this way (as hypothetical as anything else, of course, since we can't speak for him): "Hmm, I wonder if people will get on my case because I happened to cast a black man as a bad guy. Whatever, that's their problem, not mine."

On edit: Even if we want to get into the political/social awareness thing, it's actually more progressive (for lack of a better term), for example, for Jubal Early to happen to be black. Because while there might be a racial stereotype of, say, the strong black man threatening to rape a white woman, the reality of the episode is that Kaylee isn't scared of Early because he's a black man, he's scared of her because a strange, unknown, and violent man somehow broke into the ship undetected and is threatening to rape her.

Point being: Early isn't even an unintentionally racist depiction of a black man, because in the context of the story being written, the threat he poses isn't perceived by anyone on the ship as being about his blackness.

If there are people out there who read this character, this casting, and this performance through the racial lens, that says more about the culture of which that viewer is a part than about the conception, casting, and acting of the character.

IMHO.

(Tangentially, if any portrayal of a non-white character as a villain risks being criticized, doesn't that inherently, and disrespectfully, accuse the actor who portrays that character of being a kind of Uncle Tom?)

[ edited by theonetruebix on 2006-07-08 01:47 ]
If there are people out there who read this character, this casting, and this performance through the racial lens, that says more about the culture of which that viewer is a part than about the conception, casting, and acting of the character.


Precisely the point, and maybe it was meant to. I just don't believe it was a matter of complete chance, or simply having two exceptionally gifted actors who happened to be black. Maybe I'm wrong, that's just my opinion.
With respect, the 'verse characters got a lot more time to develop than any movie you can name, and people pick movie characters apart all the time.

This really doesn't hold water in quite the way it's meant to. Any given film is self-contained and complete. What we're talking about here is the equivalent of writing an essay on a movie when all one has seen of it is the first 15 minutes. That's not enough to know what, if anything, a movie was communicating about, say, race.

Same goes for Firefly. If it had been an intentional 13-episode mini-series, then it would be possible to extensively analyze what it was, or wasn't, saying about, say, race. But if it had anything to say about race -- implicitly or explicitly -- that "anything" is woefully incomplete.

The best anyone could do is offer a perspective on what they think the series had to say about race only within the context of "this series explored next to nothing of its own characters, settings, and universe, compared to what it would have explored had it not been cancelled."

That's really not at all like analyzing a complete and discrete two hour movie.

I mean, I wouldn't want someone thinking they could analyze Fight Club if they'd only seen the first 15 minutes. Metaphorically speaking, we only saw the first 15 minutes of Firefly.
We saw all of Firefly that ever will be, sad to say. Let's deal with what is, here. All we have to go on is what there is. So we can judge or comment only on what exists, not the future show that never was.

"If there are people out there who read this character, this casting, and this performance through the racial lens, that says more about the culture of which that viewer is a part than about the conception, casting, and acting of the character."

Precisely. And Joss knows this, which is why he has been so effective at refashioning the female superhero and playing with gender stereotypes. If you replace the word "racial" above with the word "gender," you have exactly what has happened with Buffy. The problem I have with your argument is, to me, it seems to blame the viewer, not the writer. I would argue it involves both.
From the Judith Tambron that Dana mentioned:
"And I knew some people would be angry with me for destroying the only gay couple on the show; but the idea that I COULDN'T kill Tara because she was gay is as offensive to me as the idea that I DID kill her because she was gay." (Joss)

Isn't that pretty much what we're talking about? Because I think that it would be pretty bad if Joss thought that The Operative should be a black man because black men are scary. But I also think it would be horrible if he auditioned Chiwetel Ejiofor, and despite an amazing performance, said that he couldn't be The Operative because he was black.

I've thought about it before, how the last villain on Firefly (when episodes are shown in order) and the main villain in Serenity are both black. Soon after, I felt bad about thinking like that, in terms of color, when both actors were wonderful in their roles. (Also, I thought that if the folks over here weren't outraged about it, it was probably because it wasn't something to become outraged over.)

One last thing: is it weird that I don't think of Book as being black? I keep reading these comments, specifically those about "the magical negro" and thinking 'Book isn't black' and then going, 'oh, right'. I guess in this instance I'm just color-blind. But I honestly can't see how that's a bad thing, looking at a person for what he is as a person. Book is a preacher with a mysterious past. As opposed to Book is black. He's also a preacher with a mysterious past.
We saw all of Firefly that ever will be, sad to say. Let's deal with what is, here. All we have to go on is what there is. So we can judge or comment only on what exists, not the future show that never was.

But that's my point. There can be NO DEFINITIVE ANALYSIS of race or ethnicity in Firefly because the vast majority of Firefly was never produced.

The most anyone can do is say "this is what the few episodes made seem to say to me about race and ethnicity, but that really might not at all be what the series would have said about race and ethnicity".

Suppose you had only seen 13 episodes of Buffy. Would any analysis you made of it REALLY have held up in any definitive sense when someone got around to showing you the entire 7 seasons?

It's not that the issues can't be discussed. But it's laughable for anyone to think they know what Firefly was saying about race or ethnicity, since Firefly is incomplete.

[ edited by theonetruebix on 2006-07-08 03:54 ]
fortunateizzi said: "escapist_dream, you said: "Do y'know it honestly never occured to me the lack of Asian-oriented characters in Firefly"
Well, I'm going to assume that's because you are not Asian."

I am, in fact, Asian. ;) (Currently living in one of those small white-bread towns, too!) Where's the Sri-Lankan slayer, huh? (Where's a Sri-Lankan actress at ALL in Hollywood?) But I digress...

I just had one more (hopefully) last point to make. I always found Trick's comment back in Season 3 about Sunnydale being white-washed as very clever. The writer's were acknowledging the lack of ethnic diversity in a show all about over coming one's percieved differences and handicaps. Again, this didn't strike me as unusual that there was nary a dark face to be seen but at least from my experience of living in the edges of surbubia this was true to life. I'm not from the U.S though, I just assumed this was the case around the world.

Also, wow. I went to bed hoping this discussion wouldn't get out of hand and I wake up to see some amazing, thought-provoking answers. If anything, this essay has definately gotten some brain juices flowing that have been dormant for a while. :)
"So it's really the critics who are singling them out because they are black."

I assume you are using the term critics loosely as any person who criticizes, because I do not recall professional critics objecting to the Operative being black.

"And newcj, I am not saying that two black actors should not hav been offered the job. I was careful to note that I do not have a problem with this casting decision; however, I also noted that I felt that Joss had to know that casting two balc actors in these roles was going to be problematical- since the roles are both evil. My question, which has never been answered, and cannot be answered by anyone but Joss, is why?"

The more I think about this the more I am amazed that this is even a question. In the entire Firefly/Serenity universe there were two, count them two, black antagonists and people are honestly saying that Joss's motives for casting those two, count them two, roles with black men should be examined? In the white column we have multiple evil characters every episode. In the movie itself one could argue that the doctor who experiments with River's brain is more evil than the Operative. It is unbelievable that with that being the case, people imply that he must have had an agenda of some kind in mind because he cast two black antagonists in a row... two years apart and in different media.

Actually, if I recall correctly Joss did say why he cast CE though. He said that they had discussed getting a star and decided that it would not help the box office enough to make it worthwhile. The studio therefore told him to go get the best actor he could find for the role and he found CE...who seems to be a rising star...and rightfully so. The Operative was a tough role and he did it beautifully.

Could it be that Joss did his casting magic this time in OIS and Serenity; matching his fascinating villainous characters with perfect actors and so made them more memorable than the dozen or so bad guys who appeared before them? Would the Operative have been the Firefly/Serenity universe's Spike, if we had been given 2 more movies? He was certainly on a journey of self discovery at the end of Serenity.

Joss has also indicated he would have had Jubal come back if there had been more Firefly...along with Dobson, Badger, Niska, and Yosafbridge. Let's see. One American accented man, one working class English man, one older Eastern European man, one white woman, one African American man, I wonder if an Asian of some sort was next. He was assembling quite a rogues gallery, but apparently it only matters that the one in the last episode was black and so was the one in the movie.

This makes me sad.
Sorry, just getting back home and had to check this thread. That's how interesting I find this discussion, because it is provoking me to re-examine my own attitudes about race. So awesome, and no small part of why I love Whedon and Whedonesque!

It is unbelievable that with that being the case, people imply that he must have had an agenda of some kind in mind because he cast two black antagonists in a row...


When viewed in order, and in very close temporal proximity to the film (as I experienced Firefly/Serenity) it is a bit more jarring until you examine the characters more closely. Am I racist because I noticed this first, before delving into their separate motivations and character traits? Probably. When I see a character, or a person that I am unfamiliar with IRL, I notice skin color. I do not make a judgment as to who they are, but it is part of who they are, at least in my real world experience. Being white and female is definitely part of who I am. Are those my only defining characteristics? Certainly not. To me, it is unrealistic to think that Joss, who is so ultra-sensitive to gender issues, thinks that race issues are totally irrelevant to the point that he does not consider them in casting decisions. Do I think he has an agenda when it comes to race? I have no idea, and I can't coherently draw one from viewing his body of work. Neither can the person who wrote the blog entry/essay, apparently. I do think he has an agenda, just not involving this particular issue, from what I've seen. But it's naive to think that anybody who designs entertainment for the masses and is on the inside is completely color-blind in casting decisions. That's my final word on the subject, I promise!
It is a testament to both actors, that they were the most memorable villains in the 'verse, and THAT has nothing to do with race. It is due to the inspired writing, and brilliant characterization that Richard Brooks and Chiwetel Eljiofor brought to those roles. I would have loved to see what happened next. And damn, I can't find it right now, but whoever brought up that the Operative's story was a parallel to Book's history? Just WORD. I am kicking myself that I didn't see that before. This has been a great discussion, everybody. Thanks so much!
Interesting discussion, thanks :-)

How about the Angel ep "Are you now or have you ever been?", where a girl had been passing as white?

Obviously she was used to mirror Angel's position and all that. And yet even with all the anvils, I thought that the episode did have a strong anti-racist message.

Also Angel episode "Hero" (sniff) argues strongly against intolerance.
Karenina – I thought of those episodes too – it would be interesting to know the writer’s take on them. I appreciate their intent but (Doyle/Cordelia interactions aside (sniff, sniff) found felt they were a bit heavy handed.

Long post alert – I tried to post what follows in the comments section of the linked to blog but couldn't. So I thought I’d post it here before the thread falls off the page.

Comment:
I accept, on the whole, your argument that colour blindness can be regressive but I question how you’ve applied it to Buffy and Angel (Firefly/Serenity not so much – though I feel unable to quibble when we got only 13 episodes of something that was intended to have a 7 season run).

You invite counter examples of people of colour in Buffy. I’m not sure whether to class these as further or counter, but I’m wondering how they might fit into your analysis

Forrest - Riley’s friend - we saw plenty of him. Sure, he became evil, but I found him neither unrealistic nor stereotypical and far more believable than Riley’s other mate Graham.

Olivia – did you discount Giles’ girlfriend because she was British?

Kendra – Her portrayal bugged me -especially the accent. I thought she was somewhat clumsily handled and her death a little unrealistic (how come Drusilla didn’t do that to everyone). On the other hand I wonder how much different things might have been if Bianca Lawson had accepted/been able to accept the role of Cordelia. [not sure where I got that bit of trivia from – I think the DVD commentary though I see it’s mentioned on Imdb]

Daniel Dae Kim is the actor who portrayed Gavin Park (the W&H lawyer). Given Joss Whedon’s propensity to reemploy the actors who give good performances on his shows I imagine (just my guess) that he might have wanted to use him in Firefly it hadn’t been cancelled and if DDK hadn’t been snapped up by other shows (Enterprise, ER, 24 the movie Crash and now Lost) after his death and zombie moves on Angel.

Interracial relationships

There were plenty albeit not literal in the everyday sense. All you have to do is see the vampires, werewolves, demons and general ‘others’ as symbols of race. If we the audience, however we self identify, identify with any one of the main teenage characters we sooner or later deal with some kind of ‘forbidden love’.

Buffy/Angel; Buffy/Spike; Willow/Oz; Xander/Anya and also in a more literal rendering Cordelia/Doyle and Doyle/Harry (his ex wife) all fall into this category. We never did see Lorne get it on and I’m not sure what that says  (fears of accusations of bestiality perhaps!!)

I would have been very angry if, despite the growing up she had done over the previous 6 seasons Buffy had voiced concerns about Principal Wood’s race. I would have felt let down by the writers. I saw Buffy/Wood as a mislead designed to tease the US audiences; by which I mean US audiences in particular because white woman/black male pairings seem to be more of a ‘taboo’ in the US than in any of the countries I’ve lived in (we have our own versions of racial prejudice and constructs but interracial relationships do not seem to attract the same attention that they do in the US – a point which Giles/Olivia was perhaps intended to highlight).

The shows are watched in many parts of the world. Watching Buffy from outside the US I completely skip by any question of whether Sunnydale is a realistic depiction of a small Californian town. How would I know? Plus, it has a hellmouth, vampires, a huge numbers of demons and, as Trick acknowledges, an enormous death toll. How realistic can it be? I don’t expect the surface of a US show to reflect my life and I go straight to the storytelling, the relationships and the interactions. Oh, and the allegory and metaphor!

As for Gunn/Fred, I felt they did have chemistry and though I found aspects of their relationship annoying or amusing it was a ‘roll your eyes at the love birds’ kind of annoyance.

You say
So the “show it, don’t discuss it” strategy of showing a socially penalized relationship but not showing the social penalties (the homophobic or racist responses) is just not effective.
How about the fate suffered in the Selfless (Buffy season 7) by Rachel, played by Jennifer Shon. She is the Asian girl whose humiliation prompts Anya to cause the deaths in the frat house that lead D’Hoffryn to say “It's like somebody slaughtered an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog”. I certainly read her humiliation as having a racial element that reflected the attitude of the frat boys to not only women but asian women.

There were also several episodes which addressed ‘mixed’ relationships and in most cases they showed social penalties.

Hero (Angel 1:9) where you get Cordelia denying the SoCal girl attitude/prejudice that both the audience and Doyle attribute to her.

Are you now or have you ever (Angel 2:2) and the impact on the character Judy suffers for trying to ‘pass’

Wild at Heart (Buffy 4:6) where Willow loses Oz to one of his own kind. She’s conscious that at first that they don’t share a musical culture – and then discovers that there are things that Oz and Veruca have in common that she will never understand. See also Buffy's comments to Riley in New Moon rising about getting a 'momentary wiggins' over Willow's unconventional relationship (as Buffy had over Tara).

A couple of other points. I find your discomfort with Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative odd. Jubal was not one, he was a bounty hunter. If we are to imagine anyone from Firefly as an operative it would be Book (though he could have been something much more senior than that).

The Operative had more in common with the ‘hands of blue’ guys and the Alliance ship commanders or Inara’s female client than he did with Jubal (apart from his blackness). In the comics that link the TV show to the movie he takes over when the independent contractors Dobson (the Alliance guy from the pilot) and the blue handed guys fail. I read nothing into these two men being black except that the comic ends with a black hand holding a picture of River. The fans can wonder if there’s to be a return of Jubal – but goodness, no, there is in fact more than one good black actor available!

So much is in the eye of the beholder. I was already aware of CE as an actor. When I first saw the trailer the cliché that sprang to my mind was that of the antagonist having a British accent!

end comment.
I drafted this last night so it includes my take on a few things mentioned above. I was amazed to come back today to see how this thread has grown.
Is it like, a bit much to expect Joss to y'know, entertain us, redress the polarizing sexism inherent within portrayal of female characters in film/tv, and to now somehow combat the inherently racist order of today's late capitalist, western industrialised society? I can see how color blindness could be used as a neat way of sidestepping a genuine celebration of difference. I can equally see that difference and otherness and how we engage with this [within ourselves/those around us] are pretty strong themes in all of The Whedon's work. Which, while not addressing race per se, certainly exlpores the mechanisms of exclusionary systems that undoubtedly underpin racial exclusion/ race stereotyping. Or perhaps none of that makes sense and I will go back to reading the comments of smarter, more Whedon-informed people.
Makes sense to me ewiggy.

As long as people are mentioning times race was directly dealt with though, this is the example I alluded to earlier. From Buffyverse DB S4, Soulless

"ANGELUS: You want to impress the girl. Move in, get her to love you, and after a couple days of flowers and chocolate covered cherries, (bangs his hands on the bars) you'll bend her over the kitchen counter—

WESLEY: That supposed to rattle me?

ANGELUS: Kinda bony for my taste, but different strokes...

WESLEY: The Beast called you an adversary.

ANGELUS: Bet he loves to rub that shiny bald head against her soft, milky skin. Mmmm...good..."


One of the most believable and best acknowledgments of the racism that lurks in people that I've ever seen. Angelus knows that if he is too overt, Wesley will close it off, never admitting to himself, much less anyone else, that Gunn's color might be making his relationship with the woman Wesley loves even more difficult than it would be otherwise. Wesley would never want to think of himself as a racist, yet culturally Gunn being black can have powerful emotional consequences. By painting a picture in which Wesley, and the audience cannot help but see Gunn's (black) head and Fred's (white) skin, without mentioning his color but instead mentioning hers, Angelus does the job without raising Wesley's protective armor.

Yes there is a reason why, when I ran into a high school classmate one evening years ago and spent a few hours having an interesting conversation with him, he strongly advised me not to tell the man I was involved with that it was my one male African-American classmate rather than simply a male classmate that I had spent the evening with. I did not see that it would make a difference. I knew he was going to be concerned and jealous because I had spent the evening with another man. What difference would it make that that man was black? He assured me it would, and did not want me to cause myself any more trouble than necessary. As I recall I did tell my boyfriend, but I did it carefully and he admitted that though he did not want it to make a difference, it did. The moment in Ats above captures that element in our societal makeup beautifully...without any anvils.
People might be interested to know that the author responded to some of the points made in this Whedonesque thread in the comments section of her blog entry.
Interestingly, she mentioned the oddity of all of our comments being purely critical and seeing her post as purely criticial when she says she is really an apologist for JW more than anything. I see support and discussion as well as criticism here and I think people enjoyed debating it. It feels like she took our posting as personal attacks, which we try very hard to guard against here. Most of the posts here seem to be taking issue with the arguments (and, bad with names or not, whatshername or whatshisname is bound to attract comment), with some trying to defuse potential straying by reminding folks that this is in fact a blog post, or pointing out fallacies or trip ups in the post. The response by the author of the linked post was to assume snark and superiority on the part of the commenters; I'm sure I'll catch it on the jaw for saying so, but you need thicker skin than that if you are going to post debate-bait somewhere publicly accessible. Gods forbid she ever posts something that gets linked to by AICN or IMDB. Regardless, thanks again to the author of the linked post for stirring some great debate. Remember, whether we agree or disagree with specific points, we're on the same side (the side that's smuggling black market b!X's).
Actually, Z, I'm going to disagree. I think the author did a pretty good (and thorough) job of engaging with many of the specific criticisms here, and didn't show a particularly thin skin - except perhaps in response to some of the more personal lines here. And she also acknowledged that commentators here may have more knowledge of the Whedonverse than she, while demonstrating that she actually is very familiar with Joss's work. As she says at the end of her response, "this has been a very useful conversation for me," which I don't think is the mark of someone who is expressing a feeling of being attacked. Anyhow, it has been a good conversation on both ends.
I just thought she restated what she had already said and did not really address most of the criticisms with anything new. I did not think she showed a particularly thin or thick skin, but find her statement that she is an apologist for Joss a lot more convincing in her comment than her original post. Whether being an apologist for someone indicates a certain condescension towards their work is another question all together. She especially did not address the overriding question of whether an artist should have to address every social problem in his work rather than concentrate on those that spoke to him the most and why.

But then since it is off the first page now the questions are pretty moot for our purposes.
Although I didn't finish the article, I must agree that I too was a little...disappointed by the characterization of the bounty hunter and the Operative. Although they are both fascinating characters it really did strike me that they are both dark skinned black men, as opposed to the light-skinned Zoe and Book. The bounty hunter in particular makes me very uncomfortable with his repeated threats of rape and sexual violence, which appear to play on fears of black male sexuality and the need to protect white womanhood, etc. Not that I think this was intentionally racist...but that history of racism cannot be ignored as the bounty hunter threatens to violate our beloved kaylee...it was really striking to me, and still upsets me to watch.
The bounty hunter in particular makes me very uncomfortable with his repeated threats of rape and sexual violence, which appear to play on fears of black male sexuality and the need to protect white womanhood...

But that's the recent cultural history of the viewer talking, not the culture of the world being depicted.

As I argued earlier, I think the real significance here is that not one member of Serenity's crew is afraid of Jubal because he is black. For them his threat -- including in this particular scene -- has nothing to do with fear of a black man.

While it's entirely legitimate to note that the "black man threat to the white woman" is unquestionably a real-world piece of bigotry, I think it's vital also to note that said real-world piece of bigotry (IMHO) has nothing to do with what's going on in this scene.

Stepping back a bit: At what point does a black character get to be a threat against a white character and not have it be seen as a racist portrayal?

Compare it (in a weird way) to Joss' speech before Equality Now in NY. Why does Joss write many compelling characters of different races and ethnicities as, good, evil, and everything in between? Because we're still asking that question.

[ edited by theonetruebix on 2006-07-09 06:54 ]
Compare it (in a weird way) to Joss' speech before Equality Now in NY. Why does Joss write many compelling characters of different races and ethnicities as, good, evil, and everything in between? Because we're still asking that question.

Word, b!x. :-)
Well, he could have thought about it this way (as hypothetical as anything else, of course, since we can't speak for him): "Hmm, I wonder if people will get on my case because I happened to cast a black man as a bad guy. Whatever, that's their problem, not mine."


Or, in fact, he could have been intentionally combatting one very real type of racism--the underrepresentation of minorities in criminal roles. The fact is that more white actors and fewer actors of color are selected (read: paid) to portray criminals in American television than would be indicated by a racial distribution of actual American criminals. Whether this sort of racism against minority actors is justified or not is left as an exercise for the reader.
But that's the recent cultural history of the viewer talking, not the culture of the world being depicted.

As I argued earlier, I think the real significance here is that not one member of Serenity's crew is afraid of Jubal because he is black. For them his threat -- including in this particular scene -- has nothing to do with fear of a black man.


Our recent cultural history cannot be discounted just because this is a futuristic story. The show is still a product of contemporary society and is still affected by our views of race, class, religion, etc. Your comment that the characters don't fear Jubal because he is black seems to ignore the root of the criticism...which is that the image of black man threatening sexual violence against a white woman draws, at least in part, its terror from historical depiction of black men as savage, hyper-sexualized animals who would defile white women. We need only look to some of the greatest American films (King Kong, Birth of a Nation, etc.) to see this fear played out on the screen. So, maybe the crew of Serenity does not fear Jubal because he is black, but we must ask ourselves why do we the audience fear Jubal? What culturual codes and representations are being accessed to create this fear?

Anyone familiar with the history of lynching in this country knows you cannot seperate this horrendous practice from the supposed crime black men were often charged with: the rape of white women. To ignore this very recent part of our history (I know a woman whose grandfather was lynched) and to ignore the very real consequences this racism has on us today by saying futuristic stories are immune from our history is to do what the author of this essay claims Serenity does...pretends racism just went away. But when you use such shocking images (like Jubal's horrific threats to Kaylee) which seem to so clearly play on these culturual phobias, you can see where it might look like racism, even if it is only racial amnesia.
which seem to so clearly play on these culturual phobias


Again, this is in the eye of the viewer. If racial and sexual equality are parts of the universe being presented, any stereotype-play is of the bring your own subtext variety, which of course, Joss invites. To say you can't have a world without racism or sexism because we still have it is to disempower the idea that we can some day achieve it. If you deny us the dream and representation of that world, you chip away at our ability to achieve it.

Re-reading her reply, I still get the feeling she thinks she is/was being attacked, and I'll say again I don't think that was anyone's intention. I also feel that she more or less rehashed her original thoughts, though she did add a couple snips that were illuminating.
But when you use such shocking images (like Jubal's horrific threats to Kaylee) which seem to so clearly play on these culturual phobias, you can see where it might look like racism, even if it is only racial amnesia.

Those are the only choices? Racism or racial amnesia? The only possible ways Joss could ever have written Jubal to do the things he did were either racism or racial amnesia?

Sorry, I don't buy that.

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