Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite

July 17, 2012

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

Joss Whedon, Equality Now tribute address

Let me preface this piece with the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was still a disappointing experience.

My question was as follows:

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

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

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

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

And the answer was:

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

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

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

I wanted to grab the mic again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other? Does not register as a priority.

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

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

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

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

Categories: blog, Featured

About the Author

Mike Le is the Media Liaison for Racebending. A native-born Californian, he objects to shoveling snow and is a strong proponent of pollo asado fries. Mike has been interviewed about media diversity by dozens of news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, BBC Radio, and Public Radio International.

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  • He did say ‘Yeah, absolutely’ in response to a pretty bland question that really only required a yes or no answer. Do you really think he would have said ‘no’? Your other questions were so much better. I reckon they would have really gotten him thinking and probably revealed more about what he wanted to do with Firefly. I thought the sprinkling of Mandarin within the dialogue the way French used to be used within English was quite interesting too, and hearing him explain (try to explain) how he thought he could do that without casting Asians would have been even more interesting.

    I agree entirely that race issues have been simplified to black and
    white with out regards for aboriginality, religion or other colours/ethnicities.
    However, I do not think that Joss’ response was a result of that.

    Next time – go with one of those more pointed questions. They were good; especially the first two.

    • Unfortunately, I was limited by both time and the audience. A more strongly worded question would probably have been shouted down given the audience of 3500+ diehard Whedon fans, most of whom had been waiting in line since before dawn for a panel that basically started at midday.

      • A very valid point. A wise man knows his limits, and ensures that he can fight another day. I hope you get a more accommodating chance to raise this issue with him in the future. I would be very keen to hear his comments.

    • Mike Le

      I would have loved to be able to ask a more pointed question. Unfortunately, I was limited by both time and the composition of the audience. I think given the presence of 3500+ diehard Whedon fans (most of whom had been waiting since before dawn for a panel that started at midday), any more direct or aggressive question would have been shouted down.

      If I have the opportunity in the future, I’ll take that risk. I think the emphasis on the concept of Asian/American integration, but no such emphasis on the actual implementation of it, was problematic.

      Thanks for the feedback.

  • Tonya Jarrett

    I was at the NerdHQ panel where this question was asked.  I’ve read similar blogs many times over the years, not to mention hundreds of posts at Whedonesque.  
    I don’t think in a panel such as this was the place to get the sort of answer you needed because it is such a loaded subject. Also, it is a lot of pressure for someone like him to address it in a short period of time.  But I think where you go wrong Mike, and every other person who wishes Joss Whedon would make cultural groups other than Caucasians more visible, would write and cast more LGBT characters, and taking him to task about it, is that while I’m sure he wants to there are so many factors that go into casting a wider net for diversity; who shows up for casting, who does the studio want cast over who Joss wants, the story Joss wants to tell and who are the best actors to cast to tell that specific story.  I’ve never understood why JW has turned into a quasi-whipping boy for what bugs people about the artistic world.  And if it isn’t diversity, it’s the whole, “Why do you kill so many characters, Joss?”  Which also got asked.  

    I think if the audience wants to see more diversity or whatever it is they believe there is not enough of in the arts, then they have to BE the change and the world will respond.  I went to a panel at Comic-Con last Thursday, Elementary, a new Sherlock Holmes TV show.  Lucy Liu is one of the stars.  Maggie Q is the star of Nikita.  It’s already starting to happen.  Joss Whedon is not a perfect man, but he’s a good man, and one of the most brilliant champions of women I’ve ever seen.  I’m a member of Equality now for going on 7 years now because of him–give him room to breathe and I bet he will come through. 

    •  Hi Tonya,

      Like I said, I love Joss’s work. I’ve been a huge fan for years. And I’ll continue to be.

      But I also have strong feelings about diversity. So of course, if he decides to write a story so deeply interwoven with Asian culture, I’m going to start a discussion about it. Not because I want to attack him or tear him down, but because I’m hopeful this could be a teachable moment for everyone involved.

      I like to think my discussion on the topic has been rational, measured, and above all absent of any ad hominem attacks. I wanted to provide an explanation for how a person even as aware and socially conscious as Joss can have blindspots. And how those blindspots do not make him a bad person.

      All that being said, I think there’s a lot to explore in terms of Asian representation in his work. And I think it’s possible to have that discussion without calling into question Joss’s good work in many other areas.

    • Unknown

      About those two shows, note that those are WOMEN who fit the stereotypes discussed in the article. Also both those parts are racebendings of white characters in sloppy seconds remakes. Is this really where we’re at, being unable to make good original Asian female characters that we have to take pre-existing white characters and “yellowwash” them? Can’t we do better?

  • Marc

    I’m a fan of the show, but can’t say that I know enough of the history of the Firefly universe to even begin to know if this is true, but here’s my first impression of what his answer might mean.

    “cultures inevitably blend, even if it happens through conquest and violence”

    The first thing that came to mind reading that was that however asian and european cultures came together there, it’s likely that the european side assimilated some of the language and artifacts of the asian side, and… wiped the rest out. Typing it out loud, that can’t possibly be right, because that’s a pretty messed up detail to just kind of gloss over. But, fully acknowledging the dismissal of the real issue that you bring up, I can see that being somewhere close to what he meant. 

    • 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

      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.

    • Damien S.

      That’s not the only possibility.  English is an official language of Singapore — the Constitution is written in it — but 3% of the population is European.  African countries often have French, English, or Portuguese as major languages and cultural influences, but you won’t find many of those Europeans there any more.  Colonialism and cultural dominance that washed through can also be explanations.

      The harder question is “if the ‘verse was settled by everyone from Earth, why do we only see white and black people?”  It shakes hands with “if you have all this awesome terraforming tech, how the heck do you mess up Earth enough that everyone has to leave?”  A more conventional colonization effort, founder effect and all, would make a lot more sense.  I’ve joked that the ‘verse was settled by the “B” Ark.  “You white folk go on ahead.  We’ll be right behind you.  We swear.”

      If you want to let fanfic retcons run wild, one could postulate the historical records being altered on the ships or in the schools.  “We left because Earth was used up, not because we’re a bunch of wackjob refugees.  Report anyone who says otherwise to the Ministry of Harmony.”  Actually kind of fits with Parliament as seen in the movie, and the system supplement that has the last named world be named Qin Shi Huang, after the First Emperor who burned all the history books…

    • Wahnwah

      There are quite a few asian characters in the background when the cast is “on-world”, so that would be unlikely.

  • For various and lengthy historical reasons, aspects of Chinese culture are familiar to a lot of other Asians. I’m Filipino, for instance, but there’s been a huge Chinese impact on the Philippines, and so much of the aesthetic used in Firefly was very familiar to me. 

    • Hi Gabby – I am not sure how that post got up. It is a version of an earlier post that I scrapped because I could see it going so much further. Along the lines you pointed out. Coincidently enough I actually watched Firefly with my Filipino girlfriend at the time when I was living and working in China. I realise that Confucian culture has spread around the Eastern and South East Asian region, but I noticed all the Chinese signs such as for the exits and the sprinkling of Mandarin within the dialogue. I just thought it was so heavily leaning toward Chinese that it was an over generalisation given that ‘American’ was said instead of ‘western’, which I know makes sense given that it was the retelling of a very American story. I just found the juxtaposition noteworthy, but as I said I didn’t plan posting it (this seems to be the result of a technical glitch). Thanks for the comments though. I do research into influences of culture on design cognition and your comment supports a contention that I put so I was very happy to read that.

  • Anon

    I was at that panel and I am Asian-American. I did not parse your question as a pointed inquiry in regards to racial casting for actors, I actually thought it was a left-field question about whether he would create more shows or other works with Asian cultural influences. I have a feeling Mr. Whedon may have also interpreted your question in a more general sense than what you intended. Personally I think it would’ve been very clear if you said you were delighted with the Asian culture involved in the universe but where disappointed that there were no Asian actors in that universe and whether there will be any Asian actors cast if he revisited similar story scenarios in the future. 

    • I was trying to strike a balance in terms of not being aggressive, while still driving toward the point. It was a rather challenging audience, with 3500+ diehard Whedon fans who likely would not have taken criticism well. I say this as someone who has asked racially charged questions at panels in the past, only to be shouted down by the crowd.

      If I could do it again, I might try to be more direct, but it’s tough to anticipate except in hindsight.

      • To answer the question about the Tams, they were always meant to be white, this was because Whedon wanted to demonstrate how we currently have Asian people with white names, and in the future it’ll go both ways. White people with Asian names, culture, background, society.

        Kaylee was meant to be Asian, but then they met Jewel Staite and loved her so much, that’s why her room and clothes are so Asian oriented.

        I watched the panel last night and heard your question, and at the time realised how except for one prostitute in Heart of Gold their were no Asian actors in any significant roles. I hope you get a chance to talk to him again. If I ever meet him I’ll ask.

  • anda

    And there is even an Asian-American writer on his team of indispensable people, his sister-in-law. Uncomfortable truth it is. So it’s either not the forefront of his consciousness, or he isn’t motivated enough to change the default casting. 

    I doubt his reasons would mirror my own, but I would like to offer up to Asian Americans as insight, the kind of things I worry about when it comes to diversity in fantasy and fiction.  

    As a person who is always in the majority, I can say this. I have the same mandate in theory, but I often find myself trending towards Eurocentric mythos.  I think this is because sometimes it is an effort to step outside what I know. I am writing an urban fantasy story. When I am choosing mythical characters to write about I want to trawl the list of awesome Shinto beings, and Filipino creation myths available to me online, but I am terrified that I will get it wrong and that someone will stand on a rooftop and shout – Check it out, there is a White person trying to say she knows our culture.  

    Worse, I wanted to put a person in my story with a physical handicap; specifically, I wanted to write about a person who suffers from focal gigantism.  *And* there was a person who worked at a shop I visit who has one very large arm, and I am sure that is what it is.  I could do an ethnology, and get to the heart of what it is like to have this disease.  But, I am too afraid to talk to him.  Mostly, because I can’t bring myself to tell him that I want to use his illness as a plot device. But you know what would be worse than that? Using biology or culture as a plot device, and then never representing the people you reference. I love Joss Whedon, I do.  And I hope you made him uncomfortable to change his default thinking.  

    • Thanks anda! I really appreciate the care and thought you put into the characters you work on, especially with an eye toward sensitivity.

      I think Javier Grillo-Marxuach (writer on Lost, Deep Space Nine, and innumerable other great shows) had some excellent and thoughtful things to say on the subject of writing outside your personal racial/gender/etc. experience.

      We’ll have that online soon, but one of the main things he said was that it was important to understand a fundamental human connection between your own experience/motivations and that of the character you’re writing.

      Airbender (a show helmed by two white men) is an excellent example of writers respecting the characters. EVERYONE on the show is Asian/Inuit, so there’s no real room for stereotypes… everyone is a person first. Their culture and heritage is just another aspect of who they are, not the be-all and end-all.

      It’s just unfortunate that so many shows treat characters as JUST black or JUST Asian or JUST a woman, with some cardboard understanding of what that means.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      • Eater of Worlds

         That’s what Glee does with their wheelchair character.  Oh noes, the rest of my life is over now that my poor little leggies don’t work.  Oh boo hoo!  in reality, it doesn’t work like that.

      • I’ve enjoyed this discussion immensely. As a big part of my day is devoted to thinking and writing about race issues (I’m a co-owner of a multicultural children’s book publisher) I would like to first say how wonderful it is that the people participating in this discussion are so dialed into racial issues.

        As a publisher, I think It is imperative for writers to write outside their experiences, just as long as they take the time to do the research required to insure their characters are culturally accurate. Just because I am an Asian American male doesn’t automatically give me the knowledge to write from an Asian male perspective living in China. The same can be said if I wanted to write from a women’s perspective. When cultural issues are dealt with in a real, believable way, the world building becomes that much richer.

        As for Firefly I’m a big fan. I loved the integration of Mandarin into the language, I liked that Mal’s “right hand man” was an African American woman. I thought it was great that the only married couple were interracial and so genuinely in love. It was also an important gender equality message to make the most dangerous weapon on Firefly was a young girl. All powerful argument that POCs and women are viable (if not bankable) heroes, friends, and family.

        As for Joss, I get where Mike is coming from, when it comes to respecting the man and his work. Joss has done fantastic, original things with the scifi/fantasy genres and until The Avengers movie, had never really hit a home run at the box office, which may now lead to even more creative control moving forward.

        I also want to give Joss the benefit of the doubt. While I don’t know the man, he is a self-professed fan of the very genres we all deeply care about. Quite evident is Joss’s enormous respect for the characters he creates. The writer’s journey is incremental and I think Mike’s question in an open forum might plant a seed that may grow into the conscious, direct decisions regarding future casting choices.

        Seeing oneself reflected in the pop culture ‘verse is a reasonable desire to have. While I empathize with the impatience POC fans have faced it is important to act on opportunities to respectfully challenge icons like Joss Whedon to do more—I applaud Mike for doing so. While Joss is one powerful person in the entertainment industry, the challenge to do more must also be self-directed toward POC authors and authors who wish to write cross culturally. The effort to broaden the reach of diversity and make it a norm in books, plays, TV, and movies is everyone’s responsibility.

    • Eater of Worlds

       I’m disabled.  Just ask him.  The worst he can do is say no.  If you’re respectful of him and how you ask, you’re more than likely to get that response back.  You can say something like “Hi, I wanted to ask about your arm, would that be ok with you?” and take it from there.
      That fear is what separates disabled from non-disabled and prevents people from learning.  You hear a lot about little kids asking honest questions and mothers pulling them away because they think the kid is being rude or offensive.  It’s not, it’s an honest question and how else is the kid going to learn?
      Just don’t do with this fucker did on the DC metro to me.  I had my service dog with me and she videotaped me without my permission, like I was an animal in a zoo.

      • Sgaile-beairt

        Wow that reallly sucks!! being reduced to a ‘cute’ , ‘meaningful’ ‘inspirational’ image for someone else ‘s benefit is so frustrating….

        I think being honest about writing a story too, be open about wanting to be more representative (NOT making a ‘hallmark special,’ inspirationall’ !!) and not getting it wrong due to writing from the outside…i would rather have someone ask what it’s like to have MY health/ability issues than write them wrong due to assumptions…

  • Thanks so much for asking this question and writing this up. (I just watched the video for that panel and remember approving of your question.) I love Joss’ work too and do think Firefly was a missed opportunity (as much as I adore that show.) 

    • Thanks Laur.

      I love Firefly, too. It was definitely a missed opportunity… I hope something positive comes of our discussion about it. Even if it’s just making some scifi fans pause and consider for a bit.

  • Anonymous

    I applaud your audacity. Calling out creators you love can be challenging. Carry on.

    •  Thank you. I was quite nervous at the microphone. I have massive respect for Joss and a great love for his work. Many have said I wasn’t critical enough with my question. I hope people will give some allowance for the limited time and pushing for respectful, clearheaded discussion.

  • Dear Mr. Le,

    Bravo to you and this article.

    The thing is, though, why didn’t Whedon ALREADY KNOW that Asian characters should be included in a story grounded in the fusion of cultures Asian and American? Why did the question even have to be asked? Why wasn’t it completely obvious from the jump? He included white American characters, right? No one had to remind him of that. Why did it have to be pointed out to him that Asian characters should ALSO be a default choice in the casting?

    The simple answer is that white privilege generally prevents most white people from even thinking about such things (which is why they SO OFTEN confuse tokenism with diversity). They don’t consider it because the point of white privilege is that they don’t HAVE to consider it. According to the principles and precepts of white privilege, white isn’t even a race. White is default. White is normal. White is the standard. White is base humanity. When we say “American,” the white is implied, which is why all the rest of us have to hyphenate.

    I’m glad you asked Whedon the question and I hope he realized (although, from his response, I don’t think he “gets” it) the big faux pas he made and I hope he recognizes how his privilege leaves him with selective critical thinking that he should address ASAP.

  • Eater of Worlds

    The disabled community faces similar issues in TV and movies as well.  Glee’s wheelchair character is able-bodied, and they threw us a bone by having a person with Down Syndrome on, because that can’t be faked and it’s oh so obious.

    • An excellent point. Americans with disabilities (physical or psychological) account for about 20% of the population. But media representation is absurdly low. Even in cases where there are disabled characters, often their sole driving motivation is about their disability (see: Cameron’s Avatar).

  • Sarah T.

    Great essay, Mike!  I wasn’t at the panel, but I think your question is clear and polite. Whedon clearly understood the point of the question and was disappointingly evasive (basically his answer boils down to: I wanted to show this peaceful fusion of two powerful cultures… from the point of view of Americans AKA mostly white people – which isn’t an answer, it’s just a re-statement of the freaking problem).

    I hope he sees this thoughtful and heartfelt essay and provides a more thoughtful response.

  • Awesome! Blacks fought hand, tooth, and nail to be considered Americans. And we have to continue to fight to be seen or theyll forget about us.

    Its funny bc I went to nerd schools and was bff with quite a few Asians (mainly Vietnamese, a few Chinese and Taiwanese, and one Laocian and Philipino) and I didnt really get the “model minority” thing until later in life. And I grew up in a mainly black/white demographics, and my Asian friends ranged from very sexy and fashionable to very nerdy and mixtures in between.

    So I def find it strange the lack of casting and well-rounded roles, but my blinders were def up bc most of the Asians I know had money. You know, the story we tell is that their should be diversity in casting to make the US more socio-economically equal and expose people to cultures so they wont be racist. And I got the sense that theiir parents tended to be pro-white and anti-black, so I kinda saw them as the enemy a bit. But thanks for this article, it helps take the blinders off.

    I just hope as more Asians get proper representation, they dont throw blacks under the bus and do all white everything, instead of a mix of cultures. I always felt black and Asian-American culture had many similarities and amongst my friends I felt a mutual respect of certain identity issues. Asians being the model minority, blacks being the anti-thesis of the model minority, and the constraints and privileges of both stereotypes.

    • Thanks for your post, Mel. I’m grateful you chose to share some of your personal history with us. I think one of the things that’s so limiting about typical racial discourse in this country is that it often boils down to how minorities react to whites, and vice versa – you bring up the very real issue of black/Asian relations.

      I totally agree that black and Asian American culture have much in common. We forget that many of the first Black Panthers were Asian, and that we came together during the Civil Rights movement. Of course there has been a lot of conflict as well, very visible and often tragic.

      But it’s important to have a REAL dialogue so we can escape the idea of a “racial hierarchy” / “good and bad minorities.” It’s unfortunate that these concepts are such popular models in American discourse.

  • Greg Lee

    I’ve ALWAYS wanted to ask that exact same question to Mr. Whedon.  I love his work, and I think almost everything he touches does turn into gold… but as an Asian (who absolutely loves both Firefly and Buffy) I found the lack of Asian actors not only odd but completely disturbing.  I always thought that both Simon and River Tam were (perhaps) originally intended to be Asian characters, but neither actors have any Asian family origins.  The name Tam feels Asian to me — here’s the wiki link to the surname that supports my opinion of the character’s family name: 

    Thank you for asking him.  His answer is very disappointing.  I was really hoping he’d just point the finger at FOX and say, “They made me do it.”  But I suppose that would have cast a negative light on Firefly’s  cast, and he wouldn’t want to publicly do that.

  • Kalli

    Great essay. I have the same frustrations especially as someone who does like Whedon’s work and is Asian-American.

    I have to wonder if he kept his answer neutral for a reason and that he has to realize what he did. And as someone else mentioned, his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen is Thai-American and on top of that works in the entertainment industry and her ‘Nobody’s Asian in the Movies’ was included in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along the Commentary. Who knows though? I know she was on the writing staff on Dollhouse, co-writing with her husband and most of the episodes where Sierra/Priya (who was Asian, the actress being half-Tibetan) was featured prominently was written by his Maurissa and her husband. Sierra/Priya was very well written, fully fleshed character.

    Who knows I guess.

  •  I cannot agree with you more on Joss Whedon.  I have the utmost respect for that man and his work.  However, I do know that as a public figure, your reputation is always at stake, and NOTHING is off the record.  I can understand his very neutral response to your question because if he would have picked sides, someone would have gotten butthurt…

  •  Gah…  Didn’t finish…

    Whedon knew that if he picked sides, someone would have gotten butthurt. 

    It plainly sucks that Asian guys are seen as effeminate and soft-spoken.  As an Asian male myself, I dislike it extremely and do what I can to break those barriers and shift the paradigms of others.  It also bothers me that Asian kids are more likely to get bullied as well, mostly the boys. It does sadden my heart and it’s exactly what I thought of when I looked at the article you linked to about self-esteem dropping for kids watching tv (except white boys…).  Absolutely crazy.  This is the article I read earlier on bullying – it drives me up a wall.  http://www.abcsofattraction.com/blog/the-racist-bullying-crisis-why-54-of-asian-american-children-are-targeted-by-bullies/

    • Sgaile-beairt

      Two words: Toshiro. Mifune!!

    • Anonymous

      That’s why Asian-American kids need to be exposed to Asian media.
      Having grown up w/o access (before youtube and the like), it was actually a bit shocking at 1st to see a handsome Asian male character be the leading male, as well as the romantic rival or best buddy.
      Actually, reality TV has been better for Asian males than scripted shows – w/ Asian males appearing on shows like “So You Think You can Dance”, “America’s Best Dance Crew” and the various cooking, designing, etc. reality shows.

  • Madi

    I’m absolutely disgusted that I didn’t notice this before.

  • John

    Joss has answered this question before – and apologized. This time (I was there when the question was asked) he actually went a step further. Joss challenged that yes, not only should individuals be included,but whole cultures. In other words he agrees with your sentiments completely. Be careful that you are not missing the forest for the trees. 

    • I would love to see a reference to Joss apologizing about this issue. The only response I’ve seen from him before was an unfortunate remark that Summer Glau looks “kind of Asian.”


      I think a careful reading of my piece should show substantial differences between Joss’s view and my own.

      You can take a look at the actual panel footage and judge for yourself if he went “further.” I believe at the end of the question, he related another anecdote about Summer being mistaken for Asian.

      In case it’s not clear, Summer Glau (while amazingly talented) isn’t Asian. And there’s a very long, storied history of white performers portraying Asian people and Asian stories. That’s a substantial enough topic to warrant its own post, but endless other more learned and talented people have already tread that ground.

    • Anonymous

      John, if there are no trees, then there can be no forest. Following your metaphor, all the trees in Whedon’s forest are white people. Can one truly depict a culture without including any individual members of that culture?

      • Shiny

        agreed. Also, I’d rather that white directors just didn’t even try to represent “Asian stuff” (which they believe is a few words in Chinese, geishas, and neon advertisements) if they aren’t going to have any Asian actors or even try to represent the meshing of two cultures.

  • This issue goes far beyond the Whedon universe, needs to be discussed and challenged, and I thank you for bringing it up.

  • Difference between Asians and women or gay people is that will always be women and gay people, but in any conceivable future where cultures have merged there wouldn’t be distinct ‘races’. That would be hard to cast, and to me it seems preferable to go with one of those pragmatic suspensions of disbelief you need to employ to appreciate the intended meaning of any science fiction. Why do most aliens speak English? Because that’s not the point, except when it is, and then they don’t. From an artistic point of view I totally see why Joss would only highlight things that mattered to the stories he wanted to tell. I disagree with you about DS9: I think Sisko’s journey had to end with a hard choice and they ended up telling a weaker story – which I strongly believe disrespects everyone.

    All that said, when you see yourself represented on television and you realise that in your entire life that had never happened before, it has a powerful effect. I understand this as before Community there was never a credible depiction of Aspergers in the mainstream media. It’s easy to imagine that the difference this could make on someone growing up might be profound.

    • As I said before, there are many “in-universe” explanations for why no Asians might be present. Personally, I find the “racial mixing” a bit lacking. It suggests that after all racial mixing is done, then the new human race will look like white people – which is incredibly marginalizing.

      It’s also a common idea that “racial mixing” will lead to some sort of post-racism utopia. A simple look at some modern, mixed societies – such as Brazil with a massive multiracial population – will show that this isn’t necessarily the case. Even with the huge number of multiracial individuals in Brazil, the society is remarkably stratified by skin tone. Lighter skin tone is strongly correlated with increased financial standing.

      In other words, things don’t magically get better on their own. Problems don’t go away if we ignore them. To quote Martin Luther King: “Change does not roll along on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”

      As I said in the other reply, it’s unfortunate when we spend all our time constructing reasons why the future will look less diverse and more white, when the demographic trends of today point in the opposite direction.

      • I didn’t consider Brazil, that’s a good point. Although it’s probably true that while darker skinned people will be seen as lower caste, people see a mixture of white and Chinese as cute.

      • Sgaile-beairt

        that is a much stronger MLK quote than the usual “arc of justice’ one that is quoted to make (usually white) people feel happy about being passively liberal re social justice!!

  • Steve

    As an asian fan of Whedon I get where you’re coming from. But I don’t take much issue with it. I imagine that there’s a sino part of the galaxy where there’s a ship flying around with no round-eyes. Serenity just happens to not be in that part of the galaxy. Also the Tams are supposedly an asian flavored surname. They could pass amerasian. Also I don’t think a lot of asians gravitate towards acting as a profession (at least not many that are good at it), so that’ll limit the pool of possibilites .

    •  As I said, there could be plenty of “in-universe” explanations for the absence of Asians. Please see my other comment expressing why “in-universe” explanations don’t mitigate the overall marginalization of Asian faces in a series that co-opts Asian culture and themes.

    •  WOW. Really???

    • hapappa

      I hope you are being sarcastic. You say that it just so happens we don’t see any Asians in “that part of the galaxy”? “Asian flavored surname?” When you say they could pass as “Amerasian”, then do you mean they are Asian-Americans? I hope you don’t mean American = non-Asian. That’s a whole lot of justification for whitewashing in barely a paragraph.

      There are plenty of talented Asian actors. The lack of Asians in the acting business, movies/plays/tv shows is due to the people in power brushing them aside in favor of non-pocs. These higher ups unfortunately come up with excuses like “it won’t make enough money” or “this will not appeal to the majority”.

      To me, Firefly is an example of “we love the culture, not the people”.

  • american

    you should have asked: “why were there no asian cast members in firefly?”
    would have been simple and to the point. 

    • In retrospect, I would have asked a more direct question. I’ve been shouted down at panels before for asking racially charged questions, so I struggled with crafting one that would sound respectful while still getting at the heart of the issue.

  • Brenda Le

    Thanks for asking that question. I was watching it on youtube and when you asked it, I couldn’t help but applaud you. You are very brave to ask such a deep well thought out question about the show and not just something pertaining to the actors. I too was a little underwhelmed by his response but I guess that can’t be helped. He is a great director, writer and visionary and I truly believe that he chooses the people for his roles based on the person and not the race which is why I proudly display his autograph, along with actors from his shows on my wall. If his shows weren’t important or good, we wouldn’t be praising or criticizing elements of them 10 years after the fact which just shows that it isn’t forgotten. Thanks again for this. 

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  • Carbon12 Latl

    As an Asian American Joss Whedon fan, I found it funny that I disagreed with your article. It was well spoken, thought out, and I 100% respect your opinion.
    As a “minority” I hate to think I get a leg up on everyone else because I was a minority. I am not a fan of affirmative action because someone is of color. Affirmative action should be about people who come from particular hardships such as economic background or locations they grew up. Just as in casting with Firefly, I wouldn’t want any actor to replace a qualified actor just because he is Asian. I think the actors were perfectly casted for their characters. Maybe Joss didn’t find an asian who fit any of the molds of what he was looking for.
    I like to think I’m very accepting of racial diversity. Now I don’t have any close personal African friends, but I am not going to go out and try to befriend someone who is African just to say I’m diverse. I just haven’t met anyone I connect with who happens to be african. So it rings true to me that the crew of Firefly can be diverse in Asian culture without having asian characters.
    I find it funny when reverse racism happens. Someone should be treated better because they are of color. That makes me just as uncomfortable that degrading me because I am of color. Maybe I’m naïve but I try to believe people look to more of who they are and what they can do. I hope we can get to the point we don’t take about race good or bad.
    On the flip side of this, I’ve always wonder how much Fox had a hand in casting the series. It’s easy to cast feminist shows because men would always like to see more women on screen. Maybe marketing had a lot to do with the casting choices?

    • Thanks for commenting.

      I don’t want the focus to be taken off media diversity, but I wanted to share a link about affirmative action:


      I think it should also be clear that it’s not just about “being seen as diverse,” but about the tangible impact a lack of diversity has on viewers – especially children, as described in the study I cited.

    • We are not asking for any leg up on everyone else. The fact is that there are so many POC who are fantastic actors and are systematically kept out of big movies. This issue that Mike is talking about is NOT affirmative action. Serenity and Firefly are based on Asian cultures, that is a fact. Who better to depict the Asian-American experience than Asian-American actors? The face saying the words is just as important as the words coming out of their mouth. 

      It’s not reverse racism when POC actors demand the same varied access to roles that are given to white actors. 

    • Anonymous

      There are enough talented Asian-American actors and actresses.
      The Asian-American actors who don’t fit the stereotype of the short. geeky Asian nerd have the tougher time getting roles (since so many “Asian roles” are for geeky engineer or Chinese delivery guy).
      Heck., the producers of “Harold & Kumar” wanted to change one of the 2 leads into a white male character, but the writers fought tooth and nail since that would have changed the whole basis of their script.

      • Anonymous

        Wow. I didn’t know that about Harold & Kumar, but I’m not surprised.

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  • None

    don’t worry, they’ll probably cast an AF as the love interest of the WM protagonist who rescues her from the evil AM who are yellow peril threatening but somehow remain sexless to her

    • Yellow Peril

      Wow. It’s like I wrote this comment myself. Thumbs up, other me!

  • Jacarandachick

    A great piece with wonderful insight, I’m ashamed that I hadn’t reached this critique of Whedon of whom I am a diehard fan, thank you for enabling me to identify my own blind spot

    •  Thanks for reading! There’s no shame in not noticing something like this. We’re all conditioned to pretend race doesn’t exist. The idea of “colorblindness” is noble in theory, but so far divorced from reality that it hinders genuine progress.

  • It’s possible that Joss wanted to cast Asians, but couldn’t, because of a lack of pull with the network. And I would LOVE to hear about that from him

    However, 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.

    It’s also possible that Joss may have brought Asians into the show “eventually.” It’s an interesting idea, but 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.

  • Hi Russ,

    Thanks for commenting. I think this is a common thought, and the answer is unfortunately we don’t know what the plans may have been.

    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

    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.

    More to the point, it’s frustrating to think that a show can be so thoroughly integrated with Asian culture, language, art, and objects, but that the inclusion of Asian faces and bodies is considered an “afterthought.” It would have been minimal effort to have some of the secondary characters in the show cast with Asian actors, and it would have been far more believable overall (not to mention far less problematic, for the reasons outlined in my post).

  •  Thanks Charles. Glad to hear the question was well-received by at least some members of the audience. I was quite nervous about broaching the topic in front of so many adoring fans.

  • Thanks Erin, and thank you for the link. It’s an unfortunate reality that while Asian concepts, objects, language, and culture are often celebrated in America, our faces, voices, and identities are not.

  • I think that Tam is a Dutch name.

  • Xenaclone62

    Agreed. I would hope that if there was ever more ‘Firefly’, there would be an Asian in the crew. Maybe a Buddhist monk to semi-fill the Shepherd’s shoes?

    • A Buddhist monk would be better than nothing.

      But it would still be hugely frustrating if the only Asian character were effectively a wise, mystic Asian stereotype. Why not an Asian gunslinger to change things up?

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  • I just wanted to thank you for this incredibly thoughtful post. 

    I watched the panel, remember that question specifically as one of the better ones and remember being equally nonplussed by his answer. 

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

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  • I watched the video and was thrilled that you asked that question. In a room full of Browncoats, that was brave. I was disappointed in his non-answer and am now over him. It was Firefly that made me buy all his DVDs.

  • Kathleen

    I am a huge, hardcore fan of Firefly and Joss Whedon, but I have to say: bravo. Thank you for your thoughtful article and for the way you were respectful even though you got a mediocre and disheartening answer. You, sir, are an example!

  • Nony

    I’m embarrassed that for the longest time I didn’t even notice that there were no Asians in a tv show where Asian culture has such a huge impact. That’s how used to white washing I’d become that such a glaring omission just flew over my head. After noticing it and reading some of Whedon’s responses to that critique (primarily how dismissive he is of it) I’ve stopped being a fan of his. I hate to make this comparison but if Firefly were set in a world with heavy African influences especially in terms of set, clothing, language and culture and there wasn’t a single black recurring character the backlash would have been huge. And in that scenario if the creator had said I auditioned black actors but it just happened that none fit any of the roles I honestly would have dismissed them as racist.

    • Thanks for writing, Nony.

      I absolutely think that an Afrofuturist show without black actors would have created much more substantial uproar. The truth is that the Asian American community is still coming into its own as a political force. In contrast, the African American community has made dramatic strides in terms of visibility and representation. I really admire that and hope the 2010s will be a decade that reveals Asian Americans as a potent political and cultural force.

    • Gina

      That was actually the reason I couldn’t finish Firefly. The whole setting felt wrong, somehow.

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  • Shiny

    Spot on. I’m also a HUGE Firefly fan, and I was really really upset by the lack of Asians. Joss said in an interview that they meant to cast an Asian American actress as Kaylee, but they ended up choosing Jewel Staite anyway. (and I love Jewel Staite but it still makes me sad). And I actually thought Summer Glau was part Asian but no, they just chose an actress who looks like she could possibly be part Asian. (isn’t that just going out of the way to avoid casting an Asian??)
    then, all thats left is a handful of badly pronounced Chinese phrases and a bunch of stereotypes: geishas, neon advertisements and some fashion influences. I don’t feel “honoured” lol.

    • Anonymous

      As bad as this is, it’s even worse with the La Jolla Playhouse’s production of the play ‘Nightingale’ – which is set in mystical China.
      The men in the play, including those who portray the “Chinese” emperor are white, but of course the exotic female characters are played by Asian actresses.
      There’s also the new Wachowski film “Cloud Atlas” where a portion of the film is set in a dystopian futuristic Korea. And while Hollywood used the Korean actress Bae Doona, it appears that Jim Sturgess (of “21” fame where they “whitewashed” the lead characters) does yellowface.
      If true, that wouldn’t be surprising considering how Hollywood has been “whitewashing” films with an Asian origin.

  • atomicshogun

    i have been waiting for this essay and articulation. thank you deeply. i am a huge fan of his as well and remembered how proud i was when Daniel Dae Kim kept reappearing on Angel as a non-stereotypical “asian” man. anyways i hope this article comes up in his google alert and you get the response you and our community deserve. i’m watching. peace to you. -atomicshogun

  • Duke

    Mike, can you (or anybody else) explain the anecdote that Whedon was referring to about the Asian American journalist who took issue with casting and Asian woman as Sean Maher’s sister? At first watch, I almost thought Joss was saying that Summer Glau was Asian (she’s not right?), but then realized he was poking fun at the journalist for thinking she was Asian? For some reason this part of his response stood out to me and almost seemed to belittle the topic you raised.

    • Hi Duke,

      You can watch the question and response here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UcbuSN90Cs

      Joss finished with the following: “And then, so to wrap it up, I got a lot of flak from one Asian journalist who kept asking why I cast an Asian woman as Sean Maher’s sister, that didn’t make any sense. And was very angry about it.”

      It’s a very unfortunate anecdote that he’s bandied about when the question of Asian actors has come up. He means it to be funny, but it has strong implications that having a white person with “Asian-ish” features is equivalent to giving a role to a genuine Asian American performer.

  • RR

    The more I hear about media whitewashing, the more I get sick of hearing the word “culture.” It reminds me of Shyamalan saying that TLA would be “culturally diverse” or the producer of “The Weapon” saying that white Tommy Zhou would be a “culturalized Asian.” Culture seems to Hollywood’s way of saying that they’d rather buy Asian clothes, Asian foods, and have their actors poorly speak bad Asian languages than actually hire Asian actors. It’s like they’re saying “We like everything you Asians made but we don’t like YOU. Sorry.”

    • Thanks for writing RR. Yes, you’ve hit the issue precisely on the head. Asian culture is acceptable, but Asian people are not.

  • Got Your Back

    I applaud your bravery in bringing up the issue directly with the creators of the show. But you need to understand that Mr. Whedon’s primary focus during casting isn’t justice or equality. Instead, Mr. Whedon’s focus is ratings, and Asian guys are simply not perceived to be as much of a draw. If you really want to make a bigger difference, don’t buy all of the DVDs and autographed DVDs that you mention in your post, boycott any movies in the theatres that don’t cast Asian-American actors/actresses, and make your friends do the same. Then, send the money that you would have used for the movie ticket or DVD to one of the hundreds of struggling Asian theatrical organizations that might be nurturing the next Asian-American superstar. Rosa Parks wasn’t allowed in the front of the bus because the African-American community used reason to persuade the local municipal board of the rightness of their cause; Ms. Parks won the right to sit in the front of the bus after months of protests and boycotts. It’s said that those who don’t study history are condemned to repeat it. History teaches that reasoned debate doesn’t always produce results. Let’s take a cue from the history books on how to deal with the problem of Asian-American underrepresentation, which has remained unaddressed for much too long.

    • Hey, thanks for writing.

      It’s definitely true that boycott is a powerful motivator. Especially after our interaction at Comic-Con, I don’t think I can justify spending more money on Whedon merchandise.

      However, I think it was fair to write an article with this topic, given Whedon’s openly expressed views on women’s social justice. My hope is that others with feminist leanings will see the value in also fighting battles on behalf of other minorities.

      In terms of supporting Asian American entertainment, I regularly support indie film and theater in the APA community. But I don’t think that means I shouldn’t write pieces like this one.

      Honestly, I get this sort of criticism a lot. Some advocate boycott, or writing letters, or marching, or founding production companies. I think the reality is that we have to take every possible tool we have. I feel arguing about which tool is best is counterproductive when we should be putting everything out on the table.

  • Anonymous

    Let’s not forget that in Whedonverse Daniel Dae Park had a minor role as the Wolfram & Hart attorney, Gavin Park.
    Yeah, GP was the typical asexual Asian male character, but at least he was a somewhat recurring character on “Angel.”
    Otoh, Whedon played up the whole hyper-sexualization of Asian women bit in the episode “She” guest starring Bai Ling (uggh).
    Ling would go on to play a similar type role later on “Lost” – where of course, her character has a fling with Matthew Fox’s character, Jack.
    Seems like Ling has been the ” go-to-girl” whenever Hollywood needs an exoticized portrayal of Asian women.

    • To be fair, that episode of Angel was written by Marti Noxon, who sucks and wrote all of the worst episodes of Buffy/Angel.

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  • Anonymous

    I assume that Whedon’s response was genuine, but that unfortunately he just doesn’t think of diversity the way he should. If the sci-fi world depicted in Firefly is supposed to be Sino-American, then there should be some Asian characters. Period. Not sure how else a Sino-American future could make sense.

  • T.Chicken

    I think lack of asians have to do with the early cancellation of Firefly, which means that they don’t have enough airtime to write up Asian Characters.
    In the defense for the ad in Serenity, the city is based on Tokyo and they use japanese advertisement.

  • Anonymous

    The absence of any Asian characters in the foreground was quite jarring, every time I watched Firefly, much as I loved the show. How could they be so thorough as to have automated warning messages that alternated between English and Mandarin, but not manage to have a single Asian-American actor in a speaking role?

    I grew up watching M*A*S*H in syndication. I watched a couple of episodes, and my memory was confirmed: many episodes had actors from Asian backgrounds, often several. How is it that M*A*S*H could pull that off in the late 70s and early 80s, but neither Firefly nor Serenity could?

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  • Vonnels

    Mr. Le,

    I am late reading your post, I actually discovered it while looking for something else. I found it thought provoking, and it mirrored some things I had often wondered about myself. I wanted to point you in the direction of a post you might find interesting.

    I am a fan of a young adult series of books called The Immortal Instruments. They are being made in to films and they have been casting for a while now. You might be interested in a post by the author (Cassandra Clare) defending her insistence that the character she wrote to be Asian be played by an Asian. http://cassandraclare.tumblr.com/post/23181390945/magnus

    As a person with an intense interest in Asian culture, I look forward to more Asians in American media.

    Thanks again for your essay!

  • Ruru

    To mention actual violent incidents with Asian victims in your article about tv casting goes too far. I request that in future articles, you would think twice about the connotations of juxtaposing racial issues in media and racial violence. Those incidents really deserve individual attention and more focus than a mention in an article about an old Joss Whedon show.Thanks

  • Dish

    I saw this panel on youtube, and your question stuck with me. When I heard it I thought, “finally! Someone is asking the question!” If I had the opportunity to be at a Firefly (or any Whedon) panel I hope I would have the same courage to ask such an important but sensitive question. I also found his answer unsatisfying, but not surprising. He is going to give you the diplomatic answer rather than just saying “I didn’t want to hire any Asians” or “the studio wanted white people” or whatever the real reason is.
    Now, I love Joss Whedon and pretty much everything he’s created, and Buffy was the most important piece of media for me growing up so, I’m not going to say he is not a feminist. I think he is and I think his identification as a feminist is important for media and to recognize how he helped change female roles in media. But, I think it is important to challenge his work on this point. Like you point out, fighting for equality should not be just about gender (or just about race); inequalities are present in many different forms and to be a champion of equality it is unreasonable to only focus on one facet of inequality.

  • Good news: Joss has apparently cast Ming Na as an Asian American soldier on his SHIELD show.

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  • erica

    I do think, to some degree though, it’s accurate. I mean, the culture became half American half Chinese, but non-Americans and non-Asians didn’t suddenly disappear or suddenly turn into one of the two races. I’m not saying he’s right in not casting ANY Asians, but I don’t think he did so purposely. I can spend the entire day out in Central Florida going to malls and such and not see a single Asian the entire day (it sounds weird, but I’ve noticed that not many Asians seem to live in Central Florida).


    Obviously with certain statistics on Ethnicity VS population size, he’s still extremely wrong and combining European and American still only leaves you with 18%, but I mean… Worldly speaking, Londinium was the Western colony and Sihnoh as the Easertn colony, wasn’t it safe to say that at least 50% of people stayed behind on these two planets? Not many people went out terraforming.

    I sound like I’m trying to justify him but I’m not. I’m just saying maybe the ‘verse happened to work out somewhat similar (though we still should’ve seen at least a handful of Asian characters).

    • happyappa

      To have a world obviously influenced by east asians, with basically no asian people is a joke. How convenient. Let’s have white people be the heroes and have all the asians dead for some reason, or just not in sight. I mean, they’re THERE, just not on camera. Also, saying that American is a race and using it to mean “white” is a reason why people don’t understand this. The casting decisions of this show probably contribute to that kind of thinking too.

  • – Thank you for a beautiful article . I am a big Whedon fan as well and rewatched all my fave shows recently and I can’t help but notice the overwhelming whiteness and it’s just sad when you find someone that speaks up for equality between men and women, portrays sex workers in a positive light, but then fails when it comes to other important things, like poc being on the shows. I didn’t even know firefly universe was supposed to be half chinese, I always wondered why hayley had attires and accessories from other cultures . .

    Sigh . Want to find something perfect.

  • Saori

    Or it could possibly be due to generations of Asian/Caucasian/Black/Etc intermarriage and “Breeding” (please forgive that word). If you look at Brazil, they have the largest base of mixed genetics but predominantly look Caucasian/Latino.

    The strongest gene pool will win out.

    I do understand what you are saying and being Asian (Japanese/Korean) I mean I really do GET it, but honestly, get over it, enjoy the show and let it go!

    <3 Saori

    • happyappa

      The “strongest gene pool”? What are you referring to?

      You say you understand, so I thought you’d realize that turning various East Asian cultures into a background for Whites is nothing new and “but there’s intermarriage” or “it just happens to be about Whites” are excuses. It doesn’t just happen, the creators decided to make it about White people, and they don’t care about East Asian PEOPLE. This show just looks like cultural appropriation.

      Telling someone to get over it (aka the typical “you’re being too sensitive”) and enjoy is ridiculous when POCs such as Asian people are never given equal chances to play in shows, even ones like this. And you can actually criticize the show and still enjoy it, just don’t excuse the trashiness because you’re a fan, which is what you’re doing.

    • Hwang

      Your post regarding Brazil and “stronger gene pools” is… misleading at best. Looking at:


      0.4% of Brazil are Indigenous (self-identified by culture – genetically, there are many more)
      7.61% are Black Brazilians (descended from Africa)
      47.73% are White Brazilians
      42.13% are Pardo Brazilians, or Mixed-Race Brazilians
      And only 1.1% are Asian Brazilians (of which most are of Japanese descent)

      As far as mixing goes, it is still largely through intermarriage of White, Black, or Indigenous. The fact remains that the number of Brazilians of East Asian descent is far, far smaller than those of European or African. It’s no wonder most Brazilians don’t look Asian.
      1.5 million out of Brazil’s nearly 194 million people have Japanese descent, mixed or otherwise (that’s ~0.8%).
      The ratio of those of Asian descent to those of non-Asian descent in Brazil doesn’t even closely resemble the ratio on a global scale. Han Chinese alone roughly make up 18% globally.
      In other words, using Brazil to justify the possible complete lack of Asian people in the human race many generations into the future due to lacking “strong gene pools” is, again, misleading at best.

      And on a personal note, almost all people of at least half East Asian descent I’ve met have very pronounced facial features that would be called “Asian”. Personal experience perhaps, but just sayin.

  • cherryla

    Joss barely uses black people in his shows. He’s one of the people that I’m on the fence about since he has his ‘token’ favorite ethnic actors that he uses but anyone outside of his club he doesn’t seem to recognize. I went to a panel a few years ago where his brother and his Asian wife spoke. The brother casually and with ‘humor’ said how the network asked him to have a more diverse writing team so they hired his wife (the brothers) and than he got on as a 2 for 1. It literally made my blood boil since he followed the letter of the law but not the spirit. Ever since I’ve looked at him differently and no longer give him a ‘pass’ because of my love of Buffy (not very diverse with POC but with all white female starring cast for most seasons) and Angel (1 black guy). It’s why I’m very aware of rather a show has a diverse cast before watching since why should I support a show that doesn’t respect the diversity of our country and my black/brown/beige/gay/LGBT/etc brothers and sisters. Sorry for the rant but it really ticks me off that shows have all white casts and everyone says that it’s reflecting of our society. It’s reflective of their insular world but not mine.

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  • cheesemonkey

    Thank you for your article.I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, mainly because I wanted to go as a genuine Asian character to a Fan Expo or a Comic-con. I’m also a huge Joss Whedon Fan and have been for years. I wanted to celebrate being a Joss Whedon fan as one of his Asian Characters.

    I tried to find (Google) a female Asian character: I came up with this:.
    Ivy in Dollhouse, Liza Lapira Captain Hammer’s Fan Girl in Dr.Horrible played by Maurissa Tancharoen (Married to Jed Whedon- just found that out. Merh), The Boxer Rebellion Slayer from Buffy.

    So this year, I’ve just thought I’ll go as the Captain Hammer Fan Girl since my BF is going as Captain Hammer anyway. I thought about doing Fray, the Future Slayer. I’m going to call dibs on her being Asian. But no one would really get it… unless they are hard core Whedon Fans…

    Troubles of an Asian-non-anime-whedon-fan-girl. Yeah that exists now.

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  • Jay

    Whedon did cast Dichen Lachman in Dollhouse, and Maurissa Tancharoen in Dollhouse and Dr. Horrible, both of Asian descent.

  • Eduardo Castellanos

    As big a fan as I am of Whedon, he did the same thing in the Buffyverse. You can make a (flimsy) case for Sunnydale as a homogenous small town in California, but to have a show set in Los Angeles that doesn’t feature any latino characters (or extras, for that matter) much less even a word of spanish? Completely inexcusable.

  • Mandokarla

    I finally made myself watch Firefly after much peer pressure. I like it, but I should note I’ve never been a crazy Whedon fan. I don’t dislike him, but I’m not as big a fan as many others are.

    Anyway, what I mean to say is that this article meant a lot to me. As an Asian woman with nerdy interests, the lack of GOOD Asian representation in so many sci-fi franchises really makes me sad. I say “good” because that weird Asian fortune teller from “Turn Left” in Doctor Who doesn’t count as Asian representation.

    People try to explain to me that Firefly is in a future that came from the fusion of two world superpowers: China and the US. That’s why we see Chinese (and the odd Japanese cultural icon like a geisha) influences everywhere.

    But those influences are everywhere except among the main cast. Sure, there are two characters named “Tau,” but both are whiter than bread. Just seemed like a throwback to “yellowface” for me.

  • Yaqoob Jamal

    asian actors suck… who would you put? not his fault asian people suck at acting

  • Raphael Duffy

    I know this is a super old article, and although I’m reserving judgement on Joss for any subtle racism or not, I wanted to add my two cents and I feel like it’s worth mentioning his comics work. I’ve read most of season eight of Buffy, and there was an Asian character; maybe Asian American? It’s been a while. There was also a black woman, a far cry from the token kid from the hood of Charles Gunn. I find this interesting because the biggest difference with the comic is, of course, no casting. Also, there’s probably a lot less stupid executive decisions, and a lot less voices that impacted the work of Joss Whedon. That being said, there were also plenty other writers on the comics. My best explanations are:
    1. Joss has recognized some of his mistakes with minorities and is trying to do better.
    2. Or the lack of casting has made a huge difference somehow.
    Obviously I don’t know, but these are my best explanations and I think it’s interesting to observe the stark contrast between the portrayal of minority groups in his television work and his, later, comics work.