Back in 2002, you may have watched a little old show called Firefly. It was a Joss Whedon brainchild, a unique sci-fi show that tried to mesh together Asian and Western cultures as a backdrop for space cowboys. No, really. Whatever the case, Firefly became known as a show with a Sino-American background, as evidenced by its Asian/Western aesthetic and the phrases of Mandarin Chinese used right alongside the English in the dialogue. However, one major question remains: why were there never any Asian characters of note in all the episodes or the movie?
In the commentary for the Firefly movie Serenity, it’s stated that China and the U.S. were the two superpowers who took the human race to the stars, and so, by the time the series starts, these two cultures have merged into the default “human” culture. However, if the two cultures really merged, one would expect them to, well, merge—the prevailing theory that the Asians settled on the richer central planets instead of the poorer ones in the Outer Rim doesn’t hold water, because no ethnicity is inherently smarter or better than another. Asians should have been on all planets, rich or poor.
Which brings us to our main cast. There were only a couple of extras who were Asian, which is a shame in and of itself, but none of our main cast—Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Inara, Jayne, Shepard Book, or Simon and River Tam—were Asian. So we’re left with a bunch of mainly white characters who all speak some amount of Mandarin Chinese, use chopsticks, and dress up in Asian-inspired clothes and hairstyles. Without an Asian character in the cast and without Asian values reflected in the storytelling, this little bit of otherwise creative worldbuilding smacks of cultural appropriation.
Fortunately, however, Firefly is an old show with a huge fandom (hello, Browncoats), and many of them have written extremely nuanced and articulate posts on why Firefly’s cultural appropriation is a big problem. So I won’t go into that here. It did occur to me, though, that Firefly’s problem could easily have been fixed by racebending. That is, the producers could easily have changed one or more of the characters’ ethnicities so that they were Asian. But which ones would be best?
First things first, let’s figure out what the show meant by “Asian”. We’re not all the same, despite what the media would have you believe. I’m Taiwanese-American, with an additional three years of Japanese studies, and that’s the background from which I’ll be approaching this post—Asians of other backgrounds, please feel free to chime in with your opinions in the comments. From the show and from the movie, we can see that Mal has a couple of Chinese characters on the walls in his room, the gang use chopsticks occasionally, and they all use Mandarin Chinese in everyday speech, as do many of the news programs and announcements. Based on these and other facets of the set design, I’ll assume that by “Asian” the producers meant “Chinese”, although there are also Japanese characters on some of Serenity’s doors. (But let’s just give them the benefit of the doubt there—surely they didn’t think all Asian languages were the same, right?)
Firefly already has two notable characters of color—Zoe Alleyne Washburne and Shepard Derrial Book—so I won’t consider them here, just because changing their ethnicity reinforces, to some extent, the idea that all minorities are part of some amorphous Other and are all interchangeable. (ETA: As one of our commenters points out, Inara is also played by an actress of color, the Brazilian-American Morena Baccarin.) As for Kaylee, there’s supposedly an interview out there that says that she was originally meant to be Chinese, but then Whedon met Jewel Staite, Kaylee’s actress, and thought she was perfect for the role. (I can’t find the interview, but everyone on any message board seems to be citing it, so if anyone has the original source, please send me the link.) If Kaylee were truly meant to be Chinese, one would think that a casting call would specify that only Chinese people were to be auditioned for the role—like the number of casting notices out there that only want Caucasian actors.
Nevertheless, Kaylee’s character design stayed intact from conception to camera: she always has her hair styled in extremely Chinese fashions, she wears stereotypically Chinese clothing, and in a few episodes even carries a Chinese parasol. If Kaylee were Chinese with this character design, she would be, in terms of cinematography, a complete stereotype. Without some serious changes to said design, Kaylee would not be a good choice for racebending.
Not to worry, though, Firefly has gifted us (hah) with an extremely white cast from which to racebend. The most interesting racebend out of all of them, I think, would be Captain Mal himself. We don’t normally get Asian male leads in Western media; if we get any Asian characters at all, they’re a sidekick, a villain, or, obviously, the tech support. Mal, a swashbuckling, jaded renegade who commands a spaceship, would be breaking several stereotypes at one go if he were Chinese. However, as Mal is the product of an American production team and, specifically, a FOX team that already gave Whedon no end of troubles when he attempted to keep this show on the air, it’s unlikely that anyone would have supported a Chinese male protagonist, despite how incredible it would be.
Given that, I think there are two characters who might be even better suited for a racebend: Simon and River Tam.
No wait, hear me out. I know they fit a lot of Western stereotypes of Chinese people—Simon is a genius surgeon and River is, well, a waifish ninja—but they also seem to share some cultural values traditional to China that even a racebent Mal does not, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite any of the plotline to benefit from this. Simon and River Tam already have a last name, Tam, that is ethnically Asian, and a racebent Simon and River would add layers of representation and social commentary to an already nuanced, clever show.
What do I mean by “traditional Chinese values”? Well, it’s not exactly disingenuous to say that some cultures respect certain values more than they do others. This doesn’t mean that all Chinese people hold these values in the same esteem—it only means that these values are commonly taught as good values in Chinese society, even if there are people who don’t believe in them. It’s similar to how individualism is taught as a good value in U.S. culture, even if there are people who don’t believe that it is. Simon received a lot more characterization than River, who fell into the trap of being a bit of a plot device, and it’s Simon who got the chance to both encapsulate and subvert these values.
So let’s focus on Simon. First, and most obviously, Simon takes care of his little sister. As can be seen in “Safe”, he’s always looked after her, and as evidenced by the pilot episode, he gave up his entire career as a trauma surgeon to break River out of the Academy. In China (and perhaps to a greater extent, in Japan and South Korea), taking care of your family and especially your younger siblings is something the oldest child in the family should do.
Simon is also an incredibly talented and dedicated surgeon; in “Ariel” he saves a dying man from an incompetent doctor at the risk of blowing his and River’s cover; in “Trash”, while Jayne is on his operating table, he tells him, “No matter what you do, or say, or plot; no matter how you come down on us… I will never, ever harm you. You’re on this table, you’re safe. ‘Cause I’m your medic. And however little we may like or trust each other, we’re on the same crew.” At this point, Jayne had already attempted to sell Simon and River to the Alliance. Simon clearly understands the necessity of working together for the good of the crew; he also knows the value of his work and knows the importance of doing it well, no matter his distaste for it. All Chinese values.
As a proper Chinese son, Simon should respect his elders and superiors, and this holds to an extent—he respects his parents up until they refuse to believe that River’s in trouble. In “Safe”, when he sets out to find someone who can rescue River, he’s thrown in jail for talking to unsuitable people. His father bails him out, but warns Simon that he’s brought shame down upon the family and if Simon were ever in trouble again he wouldn’t come and get him. At this point, Simon no longer fulfills the filial duty expected of an obedient Chinese child—instead, his loyalty is clearly to his sister. This disrespect later extends to the captain of his ship: he’s Whedon-brand snarky at Mal when Mal orders his sister around in “Safe” and in many other episodes, and in Serenity he punches Mal after Mal takes River out on a raid where there were Reavers.
Mal: I’m fixin’ to do some business. I can’t be herding these steers and your sister, too.
Simon: She didn’t mean any harm.
Mal: I never figured she did. But when a man engages in clandestine dealings, he has this preference for things being smooth. She makes things not be smooth.
Simon: Right. I’m very sorry if she tipped off anyone about your cunningly concealed herd of cows.
—Firefly 1.05, “Safe”
With two Chinese characters in Simon and River, Firefly would have had a greater opportunity to disprove stereotypes: with only one Chinese character, the show would have run the risk of saying that that one character stood for their entire race, but two Chinese characters would allow the audience to come to the very obvious conclusion that not all Chinese characters are the same. Simon in particular seems like a person who would cling to a culture familiar to him—when Kaylee questions him about his extremely proper behavior in “Jaynestown”, he tells her, “It means more out here. It’s all I have. I mean, my way of being polite or however, it’s… well, it’s the only way I have of showing you that I like you. I’m showing respect.”
As immigrants into the Western culture prevalent on board Serenity, the Tams could have embodied a difference between Eastern and Western ideals that would have given the writers material for several more episodes. The resulting culture clash could have taught a discerning audience a lot about culture. And with two Chinese characters from a relatively well-to-do family gone off to the Outer Rim, there would have been even more opportunity for clever social commentary—many Chinese students now immigrate to the U.S. and to Europe for work or study purposes, and while many are incredibly rich, others come with next to no money. It could also have illustrated the glaring income gap that already exists in China today. Simon and River themselves would actively break some stereotypes—Simon, who’s clearly in love with Kaylee even though he’s a dork about it, goes against the image of the sexless Chinese man; River is hardly a meek geisha or a “Dragon Lady”.
If Firefly had been the seasons-long show its fans wanted it to be, the show would have had a lot more time to develop its characters, Asian or not, into well-rounded, un-stereotypical characters. As it stands, though, all of Joss Whedon’s cultural mashing just came off as oddly, wildly appropriative. In Firefly parlance, not shiny.