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October 10 2005

Again with the Inscrutability! A somewhat angry blog entry about having Asian sensibilities in Serenity but no Asian actors.

You can please some of the people some of the time....
The lack of Asian actors is a valid criticism, but the rant about Asians being inscrutable in the show(s) is a little off. I am part Asian, and am pretty cognizant of Asian stereotypes portrayed in the media when most non-Asians don't see it. I don't think Joss is guilty of that transgression, but, yeah... he probably should have included some Asians in the cast and among guest actors.
I saw some Asian extras in the movie, yeah, none of them were regular characters but they were still there. And I believe Joss at one time in some commentary or interview said that one of the reasons he picked Summer Glau is that she had an Asian look to her and thought of having one of the parents be Asian.

So if Joss had made the bad guys Asian, or the Alliance Asian would there have been an outcry that Asian people are being made the bad guys and why couldn't they have been the captain or the heroine? And if he had done that wouldn't there be an outcry that there are just too many Asian action style flicks out there right now and that he was trying to jump on that popularity bandwagon?

[ edited by Firefly Flanatic on 2005-10-11 06:01 ]
The ethnic makeup of the crew does bother me a bit, but not quite in the same way. The mixed language spoken in the Firefly universe suggests that the population would be genetically mixed as well. In keeping with that, I'd rather see a cast and extras that largely lack any discernible ethnicity.

Of course, that kind of creative choice would really limit the pool of actors to choose from, and having talented actors is really more important than having them look right. And after watching the series, would anybody here trade in any of the cast members? They were born to play those roles.
Beat me to it Galvatron. Here's my piece anyway.

It's been mentioned before most notably on the Firefly DVD featurettes that neither Joss or his casting department deliberately excluded the casting of asian actors. There just weren't any dramatically qualified actors who happen to be of asian descent available for the key roles.

For instance it's been said that an asian could have been cast as Simon but can you say that Sean Maher didn't nail the role and own it completely? If Sean Wong came along and did the same then it would have worked out just as well, but not better. For me it's about the acting, not about race.

Also I would think that the sheer quality of this material is what hits audiences, no matter where they're from. I'm sure you'd find more than enough asians who love Firefly for the universality and truth of the stories told and the skill used to tell them, regardless of who outwardly represent that world.
Daniel Dae Kim was unavailable.
Personally, as a Greek, I was offended how they were portrayed in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". They were portrayed as this loud, crazy, very opinionated family - oh, wait, that is my family - nevermind! :^)
Summer Glau looks more like a Balkan/Slavic girl to me, and Sean Maher has distinctive Western European facial features. But whatever. The last name of their characters is Tam, and so there has to be some Asian descent somewhere down the line. Or they changed their family nae to graft onto the culture. Either way, there's some Asian influence there somewhere.
Her problem about the movie(and show) is not the portrayal of Asians but the lack of Asian actors in key roles.

it's been said that an asian could have been cast as Simon

Simon Tam as an asian and a doctor, I think someone will think... hey, that's a stereotype. No one will ever be satisfied. :)
My friend and I were talking about the intro sequence of Serenity, and she pointed out that the relative lack of Asians could be attributed to the demographics of the emmigrant population of Earth-that-was.

Very mild movie spoiler:

Despite my mildly sarcastic tone and my mild annoyance with this sort of chicly deconstructionist hipper-than-thou ranting, I have some sympathy with this position. Asian males in particular have been sort of ritually castrated by Hollywood, while Asian women have been turned into subserviant sexpots.

Actually, I was slightly ticked off by "Angel" re: Wolfram & Hart in that any real life law firm in L.A., evil or otherwise, is populated largely by Asians and Jews. Trust me on this one. Of course, the ADL didn't complain because we Jews aren't exactly lacking for evil lawyer role models, but you get the picture.

But here's the thing: People who shoot this stuff off from the sidelines are always willfully/self-righteously unaware of the difficulties.

Try to imagine this scenario: Joss comes to Fox and says, "Hey, I've got this space Western where people curse in Chinese, there's no sound in space, and for the cast I want to have Ron Glass, Gina Torres (we don't want to put African-American actors out of work, right?), and instead of this Fillion guy, I'd like John Cho (From "Harold and Kumar" and "Better Luck Tomorrow") as Mal, Chiaki Kuriyama as Kaylee, and Sammo Hung as Jayne. How's about it?"

The response would probably be, "no -- but how about Lucy Liu as Inara?"

I'm not saying he shouldn't have tried a bit more (assuming he didn't), but, you know, you only get so many divergences from the standard before the studio suits' heads' all explode.

Or would they rather Joss had just done his own version of "21 Jump Street" with a multi-ethic cast?
Well, I'm Asian and I didn't mind at all. I would've been more annoyed if they had in face had an Asian character just for the sake of having a token Asian character.
Firefly Flanatic wrote:
And I believe Joss at one time in some commentary or interview said that one of the reasons he picked Summer Glau is that she had an Asian look to her and thought of having one of the parents be Asian.

I don't know if that's a reason that Joss picked Summer, but I read that given her looking "kind of Asian," he considered casting Simon as Asian and having River be half Asian. However, he hired the best actors for the parts. He also said there was no coming backstory of an as-yet-unvisited Chinese region of the 'verse in contrast to the heavily American region we've seen.

BAFfler wrote:
The last name of their characters is Tam, and so there has to be some Asian descent somewhere down the line. Or they changed their family nae to graft onto the culture. Either way, there's some Asian influence there somewhere.

Or perhaps not. Tam could be Northern European.

Writer Jane Espenson, "Shindig" DVD commentary

JE: And that's Edward Atterton as Atherton [Wing]. And we sort of-- we sort of had this tradition on the show of giving characters Asian-sort-of-ish names um regardless of how they were cast.


JE: Yeah. So, like um, Simon and River: Tam.

And, oh, that blog links to my site. Here are Serenity movie translations.
Thanks for clearing that up Ying - I knew he said something about her looking Asian (and I do think she looks like she could have some Asian in her).
Okay- here's the thing, adding an asian just for the sake of "adding an asian" is racist. Token blacks, whites, asians, whatever are a really lame aspect of entertainment. And if Joss had added an asian just to "add an asian" people would have been pissed.

Joss has always said that he was extremely happy with how everyone in Firefly/Serenity fit their roles- he was looking for talent and the character. I'm sure if an asian would have fit River better then Summer, he would have cast the asian.

Galvatron's thing about mixed races in the future is kind of how I feel it works. But here's the thing- despite the actor/actress's actual heritage who's to say their character's heritage? Genetics is an odd thing, and most of us are mixed as it is- but sometimes we tend to look like one part of our heritage rather then the other.

I personally only look like one side of my heritage while my sister looks like the other. I have a friend who is part black and part asian/white- but you wouldn't guess it because she mainly looks like she is a black/white mix. And one of my baby cousins? He has two parents who are asian/causcasian mixed but dominantly look asian (they have black hair and brown eyes) while the baby has blonde hair and blue eyes!

And then there's also the fact that just because the society is largely asian influenced it doesn't mean every group you come across is going to have at least one asian person in it. I live in an area heavily populated by asians but I know people who don't have any asian friends or in the least not many.

The cast is beautiful and talented as is, let's leave it at that.
Someone in a Serenity review mistook River for being Asian. I never thought she looked a little Asian before I read that. Now I can sort of see it.

I always assumed the Tams changed their name for the prestige. I like the touch of having the people in high society having asian last names. And I love the name Wing. Maybe I'll name my next pet that.
Okay- here's the thing, adding an asian just for the sake of "adding an asian" is racist.

My sense is that Joss had a non-ethnic-specific casting call for his main characters, and that he prioritized who best fit the roles. I agree with this approach, and I think the cast should have stayed as is. Behind the lack of Asian lead actors in Firefly/Serenity is the fact that so many Asians are discouraged from entering the entertainment business.

While I agree with Joss' approach, I cringe before statements that call efforts to go from 0 Asians to 1 Asian "racist." As an Asian, I'm appalled by how few Asians there are in movies and TV (and how unfriendly that world is to Asian actors), and I would applaud any effort to change that fact. It's not the same as actual racism. Yeah, it's annoying when an Asian or other minority is simply grafted on for no good reason (anybody remember Yellow Ranger?), but I honestly I think that's better than nobody at all.

Asian actors are turned down for roles all the time. Hollywood has very homogenized standards of beauty that close the doors to people of all other ethnic backgrounds as well. Jet Li didn't even get to get together with Aaliyah in "Romeo Must Die" because Hollywood had trouble contending with an Asian actor being a 'leading man.' I think that if someone entered Hollywood saying "My mission is to make a mainstream movie where an Asian man has sex onscreen!" I wouldn't call that "racism"; I'd call it progress.

[ edited by Ronald_SF on 2005-10-11 10:12 ]
Hollywood is crazy! Jet Li is one sexy guy! Didn't they also do the same thing with that Julia Roberts/Denzel Washington movie "The Pelican Brief" where in the book the two leads had a romance but in the movie they didn't because he's black and she's white? At least I think that's what I remember hearing about at the time. Again, if that's true, Hollywood is crazy because Denzel Washington is another super sexy guy.
Other than Jackie Chan and Jet Li, I can only think of Asian (almost all Chinese) women in substantial (not lead) roles in NorthAm films and most of those are grads of HK action genre: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang ZiYi, Shu Qi, Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, and others. The problem with Asian personalities being invited to join the Hollywood queue is that they'll just end up in yet another formula film anyway in which, as Firefly Flanatic points out, people from different cultures may mix on the street, at the club, in grocery stores and in airplanes but not on film. Very sad and completely incomprehensible to me.
Speaking as an Asian actually living in Asia ... it didn't bother me. Much the same way that in everyone in Japanese Animes speaks Japanese, or everybody in a Hong Kong flick automatically knows martial arts, etc. doesn't bother me.

Sometimes, a dream is just a dream.

Actually, Denzel Washington is an odd case. He has admitted to beig somewhat uncomfortable doing love scenes in general (there may also have been a race issue for him at some point regarding scenes with white women -- I have vague memories of reading about that around the time "Jungle Fever" came out.). In any case, I think he was completely on board with them removing the love story from "Pelican."

Anyhow, there are differences in the issues because black men these days are usually perceived onscreen as hypersexual, while Asian men are perceived as being somehow undersexed (guess that's why there's hardly any Chinese people around). So, that's why it's in some ways more a big deal if Jet Li or Chow Yun Fat gets the girl than if Wesley Snipes does.

I haven't seen it, but thid issue irks some Asian men so much that it was spoofed in a short film called "Asian Pride Porn" which featured playwright David Henry Hwang.

For the record, I've only seen two movies in which an Asian-American guy "gets" the non-Asian girl, and I've seen a lot of movies. One is Harold & Kumar, the other is a film from the late fifties by Sam Fuller, "The Crimson Kimino."
Hmm... it's such a fine line issue.

Take that ridiclous essay about Gunn from 'Reading Angel' for example - it talks about Gunn being portrayed as a black stereotype, yet when he becomes a lawyer he becomes 'white'.

It's like... well which would you prefer? We have a character living on the streets and he's the 'token black guy', but if he has a hint of education or class he's the 'black guy masquerading as white guy' and you're back to the same issue.

It's just ridiculous.

I'm not sure what the Asian population is like in the US... but we get the same issue about representation of the minority here in Australia - and our Asian minority is quite large, and the issue keeps reappearing every now and again. But people argue about it boths ways like I've said - if you have a interracial relationship on television that doesn't mention the racial differences then they're all ' you're ignoring the issue', but if they do see it as an obstacle it's a 'cliched and stereotypical presentation'.

Yeah... what do you do?
I don't know if that's a reason that Joss picked Summer, but I read that given her looking "kind of Asian," he considered casting Simon as Asian and having River be half Asian. However, he hired the best actors for the parts.

Yeah I remember reading that too.

I always took the Tam siblings as being like a 3rd or 4th generation Chinese family descendents. They didn't look Asians anymore, but somehow their parents kept some of the traditions going. Though Summer's face, does reminiscent a little bit of Asian faces in my opinion.

You have to remember that Asian kids, traditionally only inherit the surname from the father, not from the mother. My take on Simon and River, is that their Great Grandfather married a Westerner, and so on, their son married another western woman, and also, the grandson (which if you got lost, is Simon's and River's father). Thus neither one of them really looks Asian, even though their descend from a Chinese family. It's not that unbelivable. Several friends of mine fell for western people, married them and had kids. If these kids marry other western people, of couse they'll start to look less Asian.

I have a friend in the Netherlands, who as he said is 1/4 Taiwanese, because a grandma or grandpa is from Taiwan, but he doesn't look like having some "Asian Blood" in him.
I have a friend in the Netherlands, who as he said is 1/4 Taiwanese, because a grandma or grandpa is from Taiwan, but he doesn't look like having some "Asian Blood" in him.

That's the case with me. I'm 1/4 Filipino. I resemble my Filipino mother and have Filipino features, but not the obvious ones.

Casting a show is hard. You have to consider so many variables. Ideally, you want a good racial/ethnic mix, but you don't always find actors who have the persona that you want. You have to, more than anything else, find people who can act, who can get along well with each other, and who create the right balance in the cast (in terms of age range, appearance, etc.). I worked on casting a show recently where we ideally wanted a number of people of Middle Eastern origin, and only three showed up to audition. Of the three, one was good enough to best cast, and she was. (She quit less than a week before the show opened and I had to take her role in the show.)

Maybe more effort should have been put into auditioning and casting, but I also know that the time and space it takes for auditions is costly. If you're doing things on a small budget, you limit the time allotted for casting and then work with whomever shows up in that time.

If I had my druthers, there would be some Asians on the cast, because it fits with the future that Joss laid out. Maybe there would have been some added if "Firefly" had been allowed to continue, but we'll probably never know.
I enjoyed the movie, but in the back of my mind, I was troubled about the lack of a clearly Asian actor, especially in view of the background and storyline. As one poster mentioned, it does seem reasonable that many people are racially mixed at that point in the future.

On the other hand, I am sympathetic to what the writer has said. Is it possible that an Asian actor can be famous for something OTHER than his martial arts skills?

Before the appearance of Bruce Lee and kung-fu movies, the typical Asian actor portrayed men that were either domestic servants, coolies or evil geniuses (think Hop Sing in “Ponderosa” or Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon”). Bruce Lee proved that an Asian man can be tough, strong, sexy and cool. However, despite this, Asian actors still have remained largely emasculated in Hollywood. While Bruce Lee's characters were strong enough to fight off villains, they were not allowed to get the girl.

Generally, Asian women have also suffered from stereotyping. Asian women have been portrayed in Hollywood as sensual, innocent characters who are victimized by suitors (think Madame Butterfly or Liat in “South Pacific”) or scheming dragon ladies (think Mrs. O’Toole in “Big Trouble in Little China”).

All this would be harmless fun except for the fact that American cinema is a reflection of American society. Thus, despite a steadily growing Asian-American presence in the U.S., society (and Hollywood) still treats Asians as outsiders.
Though Sweden being a country where " Not to be a racist, but...." seems to start every coffee tabel comment about current events, I do not react in such a specific way. I really have a hard time identifying which prejudice is used: gender, sexuality ,religion etc. Often it is being a woman AND a foreigner. I just know there is a lot of it around.

Re: Serenity I just remember that I from start became very curious about the absence of Asians in all the crowd scenes. Thinking about reasons, I assumed it was on purpose for future explanation. As if the Asian and Chinese influence started from the core planets much in the same way the North American continent is spreading its influence today. ( I mean trademarks, communication, language and the likes.)
Then I got caught up in the story and promptly forgot about it!

( EDT and about capitalisation)

[ edited by onesnailshort on 2005-10-11 14:55 ]
Things are changing. Lets not forget Sandra Oh. A supporting actor in "Sideways" and one of the leads in "Grey's Anatomy". She's a Canadian of Korean descent.

her IMDB link
I think this 'article' lost all credibility when it started calling people 'whiteboy' and talking about racial domination schemes.

Just another bitter nerd rant.
Steathless Lurker, I think you and I read different columns.
Deleted because it was an irrelevant comment.

[ edited by Cris on 2005-10-11 22:53 ]
Ruby2 - Methinks the article was edited as commenters on the article pointed out the use of 'whiteboy' and 'slope' in the article, which I did not see either.

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