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July 19 2012

Interesting article on Asians in Firefly. An article on a Comic-Con 2012 question about Asians in Firefly.

An interesting article on colorblindness (in the pejorative sense) in casting for Firefly.

I'm Asian, and I really don't care about the writer's diatribe.
Didn't seem much like a diatribe to me.
The original question is flawed. The person asks,

" ...if you were to explore that again in the future, if you would be willing to include Asian or Asian American performers?”

Until we have a list of every actor who has ever auditioned for every role, we won't know whether Joss had considered Asian actors. But the person asking the question assumes that Joss did not consider any, because Joss did not cast any Asian or Asian American performers.

I like Joss' answer. I like that he said that it was "not a mission statement." Because it's not. Casting an Asian actor because you want to make some kind of statement about cultures blending is not a good idea. It means you're focusing on skin color and not talent, and isn't that the kind of thinking we're trying to diminish?

I'm Asian American. I was not bothered at all by the fact that there weren't any Asian actors in the cast. It is a disservice to Asian actors to suggest that a character would have been better if cast by an Asian actor, because it assumes that their ethnicity (and not their talent) would be the reason.

[ edited by the ninja report on 2012-07-19 02:58 ]
I'm also Asian American, and I get where he's coming from, but the cast is so perfect I can't wish that it were different. Sure, it would have been nice to see some Asians on the show, but Joss isn't responsible for championing everything.

The lack of Asians on tv is a problem though, as Maurissa put so well with her song on Commentary! The Musical.

At least we've got Maggie Q on Nikita, which deserves way more viewers than it gets.
There is a lack of Asians on American television, but I don't think that wishing Joss had made it a priority in a TV show that was cancelled ten years ago is a way to solve that problem. There isn't much chance that Joss will be doing anything w/Firefly/Serenity outside of comic books.
I think that this article is thoughtful and well written. Racism, like sexism, can be sneaky and insidious, and yet unintentional. Glad this was posted.

[ edited by hann23 on 2012-07-19 03:51 ]
Adding in that I'm Asian-Amer too, and do feel this to be important.

Sure the big nine are all pretty great, but consider the minor characters. Surely Fanty and Mingo could have been Asian twins with Cockney accents, or basically any one at all. I think I recall two Asian people with speaking lines on screen, a shadow puppeteer and one of the lab technicians that experimented on River. Then off screen whenever there were warnings in Mandarin the pronunciation greatly improves when people can actually speak the language.

I'm okay with not really broaching this with some of his other projects but part of his world building here was notionally built on China.

Plus this isn't exactly like the first time a niche community has at least asked about how they end up being reflected in the worlds Joss builds. I remember at last year's SDCC he was asked about gay men considering what he's done with reflecting gay women in various media.

Granted that hasn't happened yet but I would like to see it. Plus Whedon it seems like Whedon has taken it upon himself to address a more behind the curtain issue, about whether out gay men can convincingly play straight romantic leads or roles where their sexuality doesn't define them. (NPH in Dr. Horrible and Sean Maher's in Much Ado, and Tom Lenk in Cabin respectively.)

These potentially awkward questions at least remind that this is an issue to take into mind with future projects. Like Dollhouse featuring an ethnic minority woman (and Australian at that!) or hopefully more of Mo joining the ranks of his frequent on screen collaborators. Or the fact she actually did get a song in the Commentary musical about that particular concern.

Also I suppose part of my hope is that you don't portray the world as it is [available by your means], but how you would want it to be. To steal directly from Whedon. Despite how statistically there might be fewer minorities auditioning for roles shouldn't mean just giving up. (That's not an accusation towards Whedon specifically.)
FWIW, I had a bit of fan wank about Asians in Firefly, and it mostly went like this: in the Anglo-Sino alliance that is the Alliance, the Anglo is military power and the Sino is economic power, and our crew only ever really dealt with established military power, not established economic power.

This is not, of course, necessarily how they conceived it. But it provides room to be able to explore the Sino side of things at some later date and provide a narrative explanation, even if it is created after the fact.
This was also addressed by one of the featured speakers (HÉLÈNE FROHARD-DOURLENT) at the recent Slayage conference in a presentation entitled "Somebody's Asian in Dr. Horrible: Humor and Racial Representations in the Whedonverse." She too feels it was a missed opportunity and that by not including diverse racial representations in Joss' work there is a tacit acceptance of the systemic racism that pervades Hollywood.
Thats how I always fanwanked it b!x. That if we had seen more of the inner planets we would've seen more asian characters. We mostly saw the poor planets with a heavy western influence.

Also am I the only one who used to think Summer might be part asian?(I know she's not now, but back when the show was airing I did)
There was someone who had a similar complain about no one of Latin American decent on the show Community.
The opposite of racism is not carefully keeping track of everyone's race so there is exactly the right amount of everyone. You're still making race a primary concern in that thinking.
Joss answered this question several times when Firefly+Serenity were originally released. From what I remember, he said quite plainly that he wanted to use Asian actors in the show, but felt that he couldn't find any actors who were good enough for his standards (or who fit)--the way he put it is that the pool of Asian actors in Hollywood was too small (or at least the pool he was seeing for his show). If he had shot in Vancouver it would have been a different story I'm sure. Also, it's worth mentioning that, if you know the Firefly universe in more detail, the crew was adventuring on planets that were in the 'american' part of the verse (even though the cultures had blended, the verse was still split into american and asian halves, though they used different names, I think one is called Shinzon?). And there are one or two asians in the Serenity comics, where they didn't have to worry about casting. and while some may feel this is a cheat, River and Simon do have some Asian heritage, I always felt that provided some direct Asian presence, at least in spirit.

now you may ask, what about Daniel Dae Kim, who had already appeared on Angel? well, I don't know, but I can only speculate that there was some reason it didn't work out; for all we know Joss might have been saving him for a very special role later in the season, not wanting to just toss him in as a random Asian character. It is definitely kind of heartbreaking that Kim did not appear in Firefly, he is such a great actor.

as for the above author's use of the Joss Equality statement, Joss has also talked about picking your battles ...gender is his specific battle, his obsession, not race, and that's perfectly fine; not every creator needs to have every agenda (like how about all the worthwhile agendas that aren't buzz-topics?). And even on that front, he always tries to go beyond the simple agenda, for the most part he's actually trying to make art and put his agenda a distant second ...and for example he has done shows (and one gigantic movie) where women are scarce, despite being one half of the population.
That being said, I don't agree with ninja report's statement that it would be somehow wrong to cast a particular race in order to express a particular thing or create a particular milieu, and in fact I think Joss did want some Asians to appear in the show to express the cultural mixing, it just didn't work out in that short run. For example on Babylon 5 in the 90s you could clearly see that JMS cast a number of Asians in small roles, many of whom were awkward and wooden (only because of the small pool of actors they had access to), but he wanted to make the point of the cultural mixing and representing different races, and I think that was a good thing (and strangely their acting actually added to the show, the show had an intentionally strange overwrought style to begin with). Both choices are valid (both Joss and JMS) for different reasons. I think that when you're faced with a small pool and a reason to cast minority actors, it's valid to take lesser actors and make the statement and accept the loss of quality, or it's valid to set a high bar and make a better show but lose some of your statement. all of filmmaking is full of these types of compromises. And it's the same reason why we constantly see Hollywood substituting one Asian race for another, it's not that they can't tell the difference, it's that there aren't enough actors to work with. On the other hand, we see a lot of 'beauty' casting in Hollywood where they're obviously willing to cast a lesser actor just to get someone generically marketable; but Joss has great standards compared to most (and very 'specific' as well, even down to, as he says, casting people with interesting faces that capture character, to slightly redeem the pressure of casting pretty).

All that being said, an argument could be made that they should at least have cast more Asian extras, or brief roles (in that case it doesn't matter how small the pool of actors is), I'm not claiming that there isn't a small issue here. And I definitely was surprised that there weren't any Asians appearing in Serenity, after Joss had time to think about this and maybe do a better search. But he was trying to serve 100 different purposes while making that movie, I don't really blame him, nor can I see anyone else playing the roles in that movie (and that brings things back to the fundamental problem of objecting to something based on such a specific agenda--there are always so many other things that choices in a movie need to serve, and for Joss there are many more artistic requirements that he fulfills compared to what I see in most directors).
Is it okay to throw a self-plug in here? (Mods, if not, please let me know) I am co-editing a volume of essays that look at race, ethnicity, power and privilege in the works of Joss Whedon (forthcoming from McFarland in 2013). It will feature the wonderful Helene Frohard-Dourlent's featured speech from Slayage 2012 about the song "Nobody's Asian In The Movies" from Commentary! The Musical, as well as two articles on race in Firefly/Serenity (one discussing the very issues in this article linked here from the standpoint of Said's Orientalism). I can promise it will be a fascinating addition to the conversation going on here!
Another Asian-American going to throw in some thoughts. Joss believes in causes, sure, but I think he cares more about his story than anything else. It's about who's right for the part not which issue is more important. Then Firefly would just be 7th Heaven.
As much as I love Firefly, the absence of any Asians in a universe ostensibly always struck me as a rare off-note in what is otherwise a masterpiece. I grew up in the San Francisco bay area which has a huge and diverse Asian population, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, Thai, Malaysian, Indian ... even in the less diverse parts of this area, I still don't get through a day without speaking with a handful of folks of Asian descent. The idea that the future culture would be so permeated with spoken and written Chinese language, but so devoid of Chinese or any other Asian faces was really bizarre. Not even seeing folks that looked like they were half or quarter Asian. Plenty of Chinese, Japanese, and Indian stuff, but no people. Kind of reminded me of the movie, "A Day Without A Mexican."

I don't know why Firefly was cast the way it was cast, but I'd be very, very hesitant to conclude that it was due to a "very limited pool of Asian actors" in Hollywood who aren't "awkward and wooden," and that casting in accordance with the author's own described vision for the future universe as a Chinese-American culture would somehow require casting "lesser" actors just to make a statement.
I agree with this article, actually. It's always bothered me that a show based on a society that relies so much on cultural integration didn't have a single asian main character, or at least supporting character.
On the subject of casting Asians in Serenity apart from extras - the main new characters were Fanty and Mingo, the Operative, and Mr Universe. So you either have the scumbag, untrustworthy Asian criminals, the insane, murderous Asian villain, or... the Asian tech wiz. Hmmm.
They would all be mixed race anyway. That would be difficult to cast and would serve to highlight something tangential to the stories Joss wanted to tell. All science fiction requires suspension of disbelief if its intended meaning is to be conveyed. Why do most aliens speak English? Because that isn't the point, except when it, and then they don't.
The lack of Asians always bothered me as well. I mean, after 9 seasons, nearly 200 episodes, and 4 stand alone movies, you'd think a single Asian character would have been written in....

Not that I disagree there's a lack of diversity on American television, but who knows what would have happened if we had more than 15 hours in the 'Verse? Like Bix above, I always imagined there were whole planets where people of Asian descent were the vast majority and we simply didn't get to go there in the short time we had.

But to all of those saying they are disappointed that there wasn't an Asian main character, which member of the crew would you like to see replaced?
I always imagined there were whole planets where people of Asian descent were the vast majority and we simply didn't get to go there in the short time we had.

There is a Joss interview where he says the Chinese ruling power had their own planet. I must try and dig that one out.

Here we go.

Here's a quote from Joss on the old Firefly Fox site from 2002.

In one of these clips Joss Whedon talks briefly about the core, he says: "There is two major planets in the core.. erm, the central planets are Sihnon which is basically China and Londinium which is basically America."

It's always been that Shinon was basically China and Londinium was basically America. He's said that since the days of the old site (whose mirror I've been perusing again tonight).
In my previous post I meant to say 'Sihnon'.
From some of the other comments, I get the feeling that people haven't read "Serenity The Official Visual Companion". Look at page 12, there's an image of all the planets and their separation into two empires (Chinese and American). Here's a selection written by Joss,
"On Earth-That-Was, the two ruling powers were once known as America and China. Though their empires remained separate, the two powers worked together throughout the colonization process, their cultures -- as so many had -- melding at many levels. Sihnon ('SEE-non', a bastardization of Sino, our word for 'Chinese'), was the new China, basically."
on the map, there are three other 'Chinese' planets (and a few shared by both empires, as far as I can tell, like Simon+River's homeworld Osiris seems to be).

But nonetheless, I wasn't claiming it made any 'sense' for Asians to be absent from the other worlds, I only meant that it wasn't a deadly artistic requirement, and the idea of Asian-controlled worlds that are somewhere offscreen, allows for easier suspension-of-disbelief. Maybe that needed to be spelled out more clearly in the series, but I keep coming back to the fact that, it's only 14 episodes, there is so much about the verse that was barely touched on.

I also think there are some artistic reasons why for Firefly, it was useful to initially focus on the 'classic' american races, and show the Asian culture filtered through them (sort of like going back in time and then inserting an Asian culture, that was the whole idea, old-fashioned cowboys speaking Chinese, american prostitutes doing tea ceremonies---though yes I realize there were Chinese in the Old West, and Joss stresses that in the Visual Companion), that's the meaningful part of what Firefly was doing, that was its 'fantasy' concept, for example to hear non-Asian characters speaking Chinese without any Asian context, that accentuates the idea and the contrast to useful extremes (and enhances the idea that the culture has mixed everywhere, not just for practical reasons of communication). What we're seeing is historical America dropped directly into the future. The main complaint has been that the Asian culture in the show means the lack of Asian characters is an insulting oversight ...except the artistic point of using Asian culture in the show wasn't mainly about the intermingling of American and Asian people physically (that's in the concept but it wasn't the main point)---it was more about historical american culture seen in a different perspective, and an exploration of our ideas about the past/present/future and their relationship, sort of like jamming together the history of America and one of its possible futures. It's meant to be old-fashioned-American in so many ways (it's about Freedom, the Individual), yet seen through many prisms.
That is not a justification for the total absence of Asians, but it's a plausible reason for why it wasn't on his main agenda for the initial episodes, his mission-statement was a different set of things.
Nonetheless I would bet anything that he originally envisioned River as Asian ...but he found Summer Glau, and it's hard to argue with that. (and myself I always viewed her as a half-Asian character)
Then off screen whenever there were warnings in Mandarin the pronunciation greatly improves when people can actually speak the language.

The warning in Out of Gas was actually in Cantonese.

Serenity did also have the guy in the Fruity Oaty Bar commercial, which wasn't exactly a shining role...but it was a damn funny commercial. I don't remember if his part made the actual movie though.
BrewBunny: my 'conclusion' was due to the fact that Joss said it in multiple interviews (about the small pool, not the other stuff). It's not my idea, I was repeating what I remembered him saying (sorry that I don't have the links to the 10-year-old interviews+posts, hopefully someone else can find those), and the more important point is that it speaks to his intention---his intention clearly stated, was that he wanted Asian actors in the show, he agreed that there should be. His claim was that he couldn't find them, that it was a limitation of shooting a show like this in L.A.
I'm also not claiming any personal knowledge of the Hollywood Asian talent pool in the year 2002 (though I presume it's larger today), I'm only basing it on what Joss said (or my memory of what he said) ...but when you see the same few Asian actors getting used over and over again (substituted as every imaginable nationality), and some of those are borrowed from other countries, it's not hard to believe that the local pool is not large, especially for someone as seemingly fussy as Joss in his casting.

I was not even slightly suggesting that the talent pool is specifically "awkward and wooden", that was me describing a few of the Asian actors on Babylon 5 ...if you know the ones I'm talking about, you might use the same words (how about that ship commander near the end of season 1? it was like he was reading off a page. though maybe that was just his version of the unusual B5 style, maybe i'm wrong). I certainly wasn't implying that Asian actors would tend to be like that, it was one specific example (from a different decade, presumably an even smaller pool), of a creator who made it their priority/agenda to show the diversity, yet was seemingly limited by the talent they could find at the time (I think I remember JMS talking about this in a commentary, he wanted the show to be even more diverse than it was). and I approved of it 100%, it added to the show, even though it gave us actors like that ship captain.
btw, Daniel Dae Kim was on the B5 spinoff Crusade, and was great. But now that I think of it, there actually were some good Asian actresses on B5, so I probably was overstating it.

Overall I don't see how it's a leap to suggest that a smaller pool could lead to a smaller likelihood of finding actors who fit particular roles or who would suit a director who sets the bar so high, or the idea that a creator or casting director might sometimes need to make a choice between the importance of diversity vs. quality (the perfect combination of both isn't always going to appear, even though that actor surely exists somewhere). But even so, that doesn't explain why Firefly didn't cast some smaller roles as Asian.
Let's also keep in mind that a show like Firefly didn't have access to the entire talent pool in Hollywood (and last week Joss reminded us that its budget was even smaller than Buffy and Angel). Certainly I've seen so many brilliant Asian actors that it feels as if they should have been able to find some that could make the cut ...but I still find Joss's claims to be plausible, particularly because he seems to have very specific requirements in the way he casts.
There's the studio to consider too, they constantly muck up casting, but I'm not sure if they would factor into this issue.
I could be completely wrong. I only brought this up because no one else seems to remember that Joss talked about it 10 years ago.

Fruity Oaty Bar oh my god, I forgot that guy!
random note: In the Visual Companion Joss talked about having more of a Hong Kong sensibility than an American sensibility (in all of his work, not just Firefly).
Superb article. I was always struck by the lack of asians. Only the fact that the main cast were all so perfect in their roles made it not bug me. However, there were plenty of significant minor roles where he could have used a chinese actor or two. No way you can't cast at least that much.

I'll have to revisit my Visual Companion to check out the two empires bit. Several peeps have mentioned previous articles where this subject matter has been meaningfully addressed by Joss. Could y'all post links to the articles because I don't recall any that gave me any more satisfaction than this article's author got from his question at comic-con.

One last point that some peeps seem to be overlooking: This isn't about including asians on just any show for the sake of diversity. This is about including asians in a world specifically created as sino-american. In my opinion, that requires chinese actors for the sake of logical consistency and continuity; linguistic and other cultural nods are just not enough. Maybe we would have made it to the chinese part of the universe if Firefly lasted more than one season but I have never heard Joss say so.

Just for the record (so y'all don't think I am arbitrarily blasting Joss for something he did ten years ago and can't change now even if he wanted to), Firefly is by far my favorite thing that Joss has ever done. Firefly and Serenity were the first DVD's I ever bought. I also have all of the comics as well as action figures and other collectibles. And I have watched both with commentary almost as often as without because I absolutely love the familial comradery of the cast. Listening to Ron Glass chokes me up every time.
I look at it this way: ultimately it's about the artistic vision, and how you want to depict your world. It's one thing to want diversity as a means to fuel your creative vision for the universe but another to make it a "mission statement" (I.e. cast an Asian person because we need the diversity).

Thinking "I WILL cast an Asian actor" when you haven't found the one you like for a part is not doing the Asian acting community any favors. A show creator's responsibility, first and foremost, is telling his or her story the way he or he meant.

And Firefly was 10 years ago! 10 years ago, there were quite a few Asian actors who weren't "on the radar" who might have auditioned for Firefly, but obviously didn't get the part, and moved to star-making things. Daniel Dae Kim didn't become very well known to much of the mainstream until he was in Lost. Sandra Oh wasn't extremely well known until she was cast in Grey's Anatomy, which debuted in 2005. Maggie Q was doing Hong Kong action movies. Devon Aoki was modeling. Michaela Conlin was doing guest spots and didn't get a steady role until Bones in 2005. John Cho did Harold and Kumar in 2004. All of these actors are now in steady roles that may help other actors enter the business with a little more hope.
Thanks for pointing that out hacksaway, I keep lending my set of the series away so I haven't seen it in... erm... 6 years...

That said, I do watch Serenity and they definitely had Mandarin during Miranda bits. Which in hindsight were automated ads and not warnings. But yeah, I still kind of got the feeling in the set dressing they stopped using recognizably Chinese characters and it was like hirigana or something made up? Or maybe it was bopomofo in hindsight but that doesn't seem exceptionally useful.

And as for ninja report's theory-- yeah, while there are some actors who are relatively known now, why wait and why not discover new talent to introduce to further audiences? Like Daniel Dae Kim being in a fairly prominent recurring role on Angel before Lost, or Christina Hendricks' memorable appearance in Firefly, or how he introduced non-Australians to Dichen.

...actually in hindsight it might look a little on the nose that the human trafficking series featured three recurring Asian actresses. That sounds like it's coming close to an accusation but really I think it might be him at least taking a little more consideration into depicting a representative world-view.

[ edited by orangewaxlion on 2012-07-19 13:41 ]
It also depends on much influence Joss has on the casting process. Whilst we like to attribute everything to him, he is at the mercy of the network, the studio, the advertisers and the agents. And I have heard one story where he only found out one major character was cast in Dollhouse by reading Whedonesque's front page.

But would it have made sense to have more Asian actors on Firefly? Yes it would. Why didn't it happen? I have no idea.
How can we talk about "making sense" in the context of such an excellent show that ended far too early? Did that make sense?

Yes, there should have been more Asian actors. They could have been introduced during that first season that was so rudely truncated. Or we could have met them in the seasons that never were. Perhaps we could have seen some Majority Asian worlds--when the budget could afford more than rough little planets resembling the countryside near LA...

(I'm picturing a world with so much natural water than terra-forming still left it fit only for aquaculture. Firefly's hold would never have recovered from that dried & fragrant cargo--the only export from The World Of Shrimp!)
My comment is at the blog. My wish is that Joss not be held solely responsible for diversified change, which it often sounds as though is happening. We should be writing/emailing directors, screenwriters, and studios to communicate and make our opinions heard. Buffy saved the world a lot but I'm not sure Joss is cut out for more than writing/directing great stories and keeping up his efforts with Equality Now.
This is a really difficult topic, and there are so many different reasons as to why these things happen the way they do. Buffy is probably my favorite show ever, but there's this little part of me that is bother by the lack of diversity in the main cast. Being an African-American, I always wanted to see someone on the show that looked like me. That being said, the Firefly topic is a different monster because it actually takes place in a society where Asian culture is so prominent. Regardless, it never kept me from enjoying the stories that Joss had to tell.
I adore Firefly, but the lack of asian actors--not necessarily in the central cast (because that's a relatively small group of people and it would be silly to say that you had to represent every major world ethnicity in a group of that size) but among the extras and guest stars--always struck me as a weird misstep. Obviously we might have visited the "Chinese" part of the system in later episodes--but I don't see how you are supposed to have a world where everyone speaks a little bit of Chinese (using it, in fact, when they're particularly angry or upset, which suggests that it's a very familiar language) and yet the boundaries between the "Chinese" and "Anglo" regions are utterly hard and fast. If the Chinese all live on the "China planets" and the American/Anglos all live on the "Anglo planets" there's really nothing to account for this widespread bilingualism; it should be no more common an ability than it is today.
I think the author of the article is noting their disappointment in the representation of their race in a Whedon story that's based on that culture.

Full disclosure: I have an adopted Chinese son. The article resonates for me powerfully. I often go through my day believing that I don't have stereotypes or cultural biases. But then something will happen and I realize that I will never know what it's like to be of my son's race. I have to challenge my own beliefs and practices of my own background and learn history and language to approximate an understanding of what it is like to be Asian American. IMO, this article says that even the most open members of a culture can still be dominated by their own experience of that culture..

I wish that we could all just think naturally in diversified ways. Sadly too much oppression has occurred and is ingrained in cultures that must be confronted.

This was another good swift kick in my white behind.
Hi guys, author of the post here. Simon was kind enough to provide me with an account to respond.

There's so much thoughtful discussion here, and I feel inadequately equipped to address them all. I would like to address some general notions that seem to be coming up.

Why are you attacking Joss / Firefly specifically?

Many have wondered why I'm being such a harsh critic of Joss, Firefly, or bringing up race issues in a 10-year-old show.

First, I hope that it's clear in my piece that I have enormous respect for Joss. And that I'm a big Firefly fan.

What I hoped to articulate is two things: 1) It's possible to love something and still have misgivings about it and 2) it's possible to be very socially conscious (as Joss often is) and still have blindspots.

Criticism comes up in fandom all the time. I hope my criticism is constructive, and I hope it's clear it comes from a place of honest concern, not anger or hatred.

If nothing else, the Firefly reunion showed me how relevant the show is, even 10 years later. I would argue it's MORE relevant now than when it aired 10 years ago.

So this is, in my view, a great time to renew the discussion.

Although most film/television marginalizes Asians, Firefly is an especially prominent example, because it made such extensive use of Asian language, culture, art, etc. while almost completely excluding Asian voices and faces.

There are in-universe explanations for why Firefly had no Asians in it.

There could be plenty of "in-universe" explanations for why Firefly is so overwhelmingly white, with some black people.

But the best scifi tackles social issues in present day. It was groundbreaking to have Sulu and Uhura on the bridge of the Enterprise in the 1960s.

And I'm grateful that Deep Space Nine tweaked its finale, so that Captain Sisko didn't abandon his wife and children. The original plot called for that, but the writers changed it, because they were conscious of the problematic portrayal of a black man leaving his family.

There are ALWAYS reasons to exclude people of color. But the BETTER reasons fight for their inclusion. It's sad to see scifi project a "white future," as though the actual demographic trends (increasing diversity) are an annoyance to be written around instead of for.

Joss would have gotten around to including Asians eventually.

I think this is a common thought, and the answer is unfortunately we don't know. I think the best opportunity for that would have been the live-action film, which was really no more inclusive of Asian faces than the television show.

If I'm really honest, this is something that has been an issue throughout Joss's work. There are many cases where he has characters with Asian names, but uses white actors. Of course there are "in-universe" explanations for this, but that doesn't really address the (even unintentional) contribution to the marginalization of Asian faces. (see previous question)

Even in Angel and Buffy, there were places where having Asians would just flat-out make SENSE. Los Angeles is 1/8th Asian. The UC system (where Buffy went to college) is 35% Asian across the board, with many campuses having far more than that. As others have joked before, UC Sunnydale was really the whitest University of California campus seen in decades.

It's silly to try to get a "quota" system for characters.

I'm not asking that every show look like the Planeteers. We don't always need "one of every color," with a list that we check off boxes on.

However, Asians have a long, long history of exclusion. Google "yellowface" for a look. Or consider the case of Bruce Lee, the biggest Asian American star, who pitched a television series to executives. They decided to steal his idea and cast David Carradine. In the 90s, they created a sequel show, again with David Carradine.

In what universe is David Carradine better equipped to portray an Asian kung fu master than Bruce Lee?

Again, I'm not asking for an Asian person in every show. But if we can even construct a show like Firefly, with such deep involvement of Asian language and culture, and STILL avoid casting Asians... then of course the discussion should start here, with a beloved show that - I believe - has a substantially problematic absence of Asians.

In other words, I want to fight against the tendency in Western culture to find Asian objects exciting and interesting, but Asian faces and bodies an inconvenience to be written around.

Joss may not have had control of the casting process.

Definitely possible. And I would LOVE to hear about that from him directly. But it's not something he's ever brought up when the question has been asked (and mine is not the first time it's been asked). Instead, he usually has brought up an unfortunate anecdote about Summer Glau looking "kind of Asian."

He actually brought that up when I asked the question, but I chose to cut it out, because I felt it distracted from the main conversation.

Artistic vision...

"Artistic license" is regularly used as an explanation to exclude people of color. It's funny because even in book adaptations, where the characters are originally brown, people will defend the "artistic license" of the director - forgetting or rejecting the original artistic vision of the writer.

I guess my response would be to ask the same question I asked in the piece:

What are your priorities? Would you buy a story that claimed to integrate women's history but completely excluded actresses from speaking roles? Would you completely not question an Afrofuturist story that didn't have a single line spoken by a black actor?

If you would honestly say, "I would accept a series like that without question" then I don't know if we'd ever see eye to eye, and that's fine. We can agree to disagree.

If you would pause, even for a moment, then I hope it's clearer why I'm pausing to actually voice the question in a public way.

It's really hard to find a good Asian actor.

"We found the best actors for the part" is often used as the reason why a white male is cast in a role. It was used by the producers of The Last Airbender. If anyone saw that trainwreck, I think they'd agree it's VERY hard to argue that those actors were chosen for acting ability.

To this, I would say: Gene Roddenberry was able to find George Takei in the 1960s. Asians made up 0.5% of the population in the 1960s. Today? 4.8%.

If Gene could do it in the 1960s, then surely Hollywood's casting teams could accomplish the same today.

I love the main cast. I really do. And the show would obviously have been different if some of their characters had been portrayed by different actors.

But imagine if Gene Roddenberry had decided to throw in the towel in 1964. If he'd said to himself, "It's too hard to find an Asian actor, and I have this white actor who auditioned, and he's SO PERFECT..."

I know it's hard to believe, because you almost never see them on the screen, but Los Angeles is full of struggling Asian actors. They fight for even five seconds of screentime. And many of them are flat-out fantastic, the kind of actors who breathe life into a character, make them solid and real and utterly vibrant.

A lot of times, a casting call goes out, and it doesn't specify an ethnicity. You'd think that'd make it "colorblind," right? But instead, agents look at it and think, "This means they want white actors." They don't want to waste anyone's time, and they figure if they had WANTED to cast Asians (or blacks or Latinos or Native Americans), then the cast-call would have said so.

That's just one tiny example of how the Hollywood machine doesn't account for non-white actors. It's just one tiny reason why you've rarely been introduced to Asian actors of the caliber of George Takei, with the fire of Anna May Wong, with the suave appeal of Daniel Dae Kim.

That's the tragedy, the inequity, I'm trying to bring to light. I hope it's clearer why it matters to me, even if you still fundamentally disagree.
BrewBunny: my 'conclusion' was due to the fact that Joss said it in multiple interviews (about the small pool, not the other stuff). It's not my idea, I was repeating what I remembered him saying (sorry that I don't have the links to the 10-year-old interviews+posts, hopefully someone else can find those), and the more important point is that it speaks to his intention---his intention clearly stated, was that he wanted Asian actors in the show, he agreed that there should be. His claim was that he couldn't find them, that it was a limitation of shooting a show like this in L.A.

I would be really interested in seeing whatever someone could dig up with Joss saying that there is a limited pool of Asian actors in Los Angeles. That's such a loaded statement on it's own, and it doesn't really jive with the reality that there is a major concentration of different Asian immigrant populations in and around Los Angeles, so it seems like if he had said that, people would have called BS on it.
Hey, great discussion. I don't have much to say on the issues that hasn't been better said by another, but I did want to point people to two things:

There's a fanvid on this issue, "How Much for that Geisha in the Window" (a trifle nsfw on language)

It's from a vidder whose stuff I've liked in the past, except for their take on Dollhouse, which I found to be unfair.

There's also an article on the series' effective use of design to : Rebecca M. Brown, "Orientalism in Firefly and Serenity"

Her conclusion, which deals with the Star Trek counter-example: "And Firefly shows us that Orientalist discourse is not merely a myth to be overcome at some future, utopic, multicultural stage. Rather than show us a clean, modernist "bridge" with a crew of mixed gender, race, and species, we see the messy periphery of the universe. Our point of entry into this world has shifted, and we see the potential within that messy amalgam instead of wishing for a cleaner, brighter, unified future. Firefly and Serenity explain to us, through the use of Asian elements in often Orientalizing ways, that the constructions of the Other we inherit cannot simply be overcome, blown away, or swept under the rug. They are replaced by new constructions (Independents by Reavers) and the old Others (Asian language, dress, behavior) are often incorporated into the Self in complex ways. Historical precedents continue in the future, whether in the form of the frontier and the cowboy, the businesswoman/courtesan, or the evil empire. The liberal humanist hope of escape from these differences and these histories ignores the durability and strength of these discourses, whether they engage with assumed gender roles, the "civilizing mission" or Orientalism."
Mike, I'd just like to congratulate you on not only a wonderful article but also the thoughtful, patient and well-written response you've posted here. You and (and the other folks over at race bending) continue to do a wonderful job of bringing such an important but undervalued issue to light. After years of spending time on feminist blogs and forums, I know from experience that after a while answering the same questions over and over again can be frustrating and that frustration can show in your writing. But I can tell form your response here that you have the patience of saint! Rock on and continue the good work!
Yes, fantastic post and a worthy cause, Mike. I think the key phrase that I find myself repeating over and over in arguments like this is: It's possible to love something and still have misgivings about it.

It can be easy--and I know because I've done it plenty myself--to fall into the trap of taking criticism of an aspect of a show as an attack on the entire show itself. But most often I find I'm criticizing the things I love--if I hate it, why waste my time? (well, there are a lotta valid reasons to do that, but whatever)
I totally agree, Jobo. An important part of loving and appreciating something is being willing to honestly examine the parts of it that aren't perfect. Mike's post on his blog and his follow-up here are excellent examples of how that can be done effectively.
Mike, just wanted to add my voice to the thanks around saying some difficult stuff. I hope you, and others, don't mind me using this as a jumping off point to voice my own opinions, as I had a def. reaction to the key interaction that set this off.

I have to confess, listening to Joss' response to the question, er, in question really brought me down when I watched the Comic-con panel. As an African-American, I actually found his answer to feel somewhat dismissive, and similar to what I've heard people say to me around similar issues with my ethnic heritage(s).

And it hurts because I want to feel fully a part of this fandom. I've come to adore the vast majority of Joss' output, and his passionate Feminism has been a support and bulwark for my own efforts in that area.

When Joss, who supports as an ideal so much of what I believe in, from “geekdom” to women’s rights to the importance of catharsis in story (no matter how painful) just seems to dodge and dismiss something so obviously off about how his story's portrayed, and around a system (Hollywood) he’s otherwise fought so hard to change and work around, it just feels so very, very wrong.

Now. to those who dismiss what I’m saying here – I know Joss isn’t my chew toy. I recognize he has every right – moreso than most – to pick his battles. Given the excellent roles African-Americans had in FIREFLY, you’d think I’d be OK with that.

I’m not. In part because, yes, the text, the underlying concepts around FIREFLY, underlines a point of ethnicity that the actual story kind of ignores. And I see a lot of justifications around the lack of Asians in the ‘verse that seem to truly stretch credulity to protect Joss’ rep – and I think he’s strong enough to take and interact with the criticism. And if Joss grappled with that, I’d think I, and many others, would understand, just as we understand that, say, Black Widow wasn’t the lead in AVENGERS (and for those unaware, in comics she has led the team before).

Because: Joss wrote an amazingly nuanced and complex role for Scarlett; one that literally baffled critics into playing into the very sexist tropes Joss has long-fought against. Likewise, Zoe and Book are incredibly nuanced and complex characters, and it’s a sin – as it is for the rest of our beloved crew – they never got their stories told in the fashion that should have occurred.

That the nuance of interactions around ethnic tropes seems to be lost around Asian/Asian-American portrayals for Joss is sad for a much different reason. It makes me feel disconnected from my fellow Browncoats, in a fashion I suspect many women feel disconnected from comics – or the average summer blockbuster. I don’t know if I’m doing a great job of explaining this, or how my love feels tainted in this way, but all these feelings are real, and the people dismissing them...please think again. To be critical is not to love less, but sometimes to love just as well as others.
Totally agreed, asim. I'm Asian and the racism and casual dismissal in Firefly fandom is really off putting to me. There's definitely a lot of great people in fandom (that's not even a question) but we still need to hold fandom, as well as the show, accountable for the discrimination it can perpetuate.
A good read and an excellent response to the common points I've seen here and elsewhere. Thanks Mike.
I just spent an half an hour losing a really long, nuanced answer to this. Let's just see that I don't see the issue so much as being any one show -- though it would have been nice to see some really good Asian actors on FF and, let's face it, Wolfram and Hart is, very certainly, the only law firm in Los Angeles with only one Asian employee and, it appeared, very few Jewish ones, either.

Let's just say that, while I'm not Asian, my world, ethnically speaking, looks much more like a "Harold and Kumar" movie than most of what you see in the media and it doesn't have to be that way. While there probably are relatively few really great Asian actors out there compared to other groups for a number of reasons you could write several books about, the really great Asian-American actors that have emerged over the decades -- James Shigeta, Keye Luke, and John Cho are three superb examples -- have gotten a very raw deal relative to their massive talent. The problem isn't roles like the Hangover per se, it's that it's the only kind of role most really good Asian-American performers like Ken Jeong are likely to get.

[ edited by bobster on 2012-07-20 03:49 ]
They found enough good actors (who could sing!) in 1961 to cast Flower Drum Song. I doubt there are less Asian actors now.

Okay, some of the actors were dubbed.

[ edited by redeem147 on 2012-07-20 12:59 ]
Bobster, I don't think Ken Jeong is necessarily limited to roles like his in The Hangover. He one of the best parts of Community. It might be difficult for him if he wants to turn to more dramatic roles, but this is something that is difficult for other comedy actors as well. I don't yet believe that it would be more difficult for him just because he is Asian.
Coincidentally, a bit of a controversy is brewing over the fact that Ben Kingsley has been cast in the newest Iron Man as the Mandarin, a Chinese villain.

Can Ben Kingsley Play Chinese?

I love Ben Kingsley and have no doubt that he would be awesome in whatever he does, but people are going to see Iron Man 3 irrespective of who plays the villain. Why not take advantage of the opportunity to show off one of the many hot and charismatic Asian actors out there and expose them to a broader audience? It's not like Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans were huge household names before they were cast as Thor and Captain America, and they didn't have Robert Downey Jr.'s big name to help sell tickets either. It's pretty icky for Marvel to gamble two other major Avengers characters on little-known actors, and then pull a yellowface for a supporting role in another well-established Avengers character franchise. Heck, if they need recommendations for candidates outside of whatever imaginary "limited pool of Asian talent" allegedly exists in Hollywood, they ought to call Quentin Tarantino, who has a knack for finding all kinds of ASIAN ACTORS WHO KICK ASS!!!

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