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Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite

Tuesday 31 July 2012, by Webmaster

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