Whedon and orientalism

I haven’t posted in over a week. Cause I suck. Well, mostly cause I am busy.

Joss Whedon. Cult leader. Adored by many. Creator of Teh Slayorz. Racist? Hah. Well, perhaps. But, orientalist? A little.

I’ve been made aware through a student and the webz and a niggling in the back of my head since it came out that the Firefly/Serenity series exhibits some of the classic signs of Orientalism.

1) Take the premise: A future where China and America become the Alliance. Kudos to the acceptance of an Asian civilization as potentially powerful enough to match the ‘West’. Though, as one instructor asks, might this speak to the recent refurbishing of ‘the yellow peril’ as the ‘China threat’? Perhaps. The Alliance does speak to the fears of authoritarian rule, and there is a long standing trope of the Oriental despot. But, we don’t really see evidence of this being referenced in the series. Further, the critique of power/authority explicated in the film seems to follow a tradition Eurocentric liberal schema. So, no, it doesn’t refurbish the orientalist trope of the despotic oriental.

2) If China is the shared cultural touchstone of the firefly universe, we see no embodied evidence of it. While the sets and trappings of the universe are bathed in a superficial ‘Oriental’ mishmash of Chinese culture, and the characters attempt to swear in Mandarin, we see very few Asian characters, except for a few extras. As Hyphen Blog states here: “If I had a dollar for every science fiction perpetrator who used Asian languages as a signpost of the future, BUT NOT ASIAN PEOPLE … well, I’d have a bunch of dollars.” The criticism here is that this absence of Asians in a world where they are supposedly integral plays into the orientalist trope of the ‘inscrutable Asian’ who manipulates sneakily behind the scenes. Etc. The argument is interesting. Claire, the author, says: “In the world of Serenity, Asians are literally inscrutable. We somehow rule the universe enough to get our main lingo (Chinese, natch) spoken everywhere, yet you can’t scrut us. Anywhere.” And, on the other hand, in Bladerunner, which opens to a setting with a similar premise, we can imagine another world: “the massive moving billboards of future cities burdened with the facets of Asian beauty and Asian power. The politicians you’ll love to hate will be Asian. The CEOs who own them will be Asian. The guy in the corner store? Still Asian, but so, too, the cops that park there illegally to grab a dozen you tiu with their coffee, and the kid that stupidly holds up the store while the cops are there. You can’t make up, like, over half the world’s population, be poised to swoop down upon the new global economy like a hawks on a dazed field mouse, and not end up everywhere.” This makes sense from a North American view, because replace Asian with white here, and that is what power looks like in North America today. We are so immersed in it, we take it for granted. The fact that this doesn’t happen in Firefly says something.

2a) One thing to note, here, is that this argument can be complicated by the critique of race as culture. They are not the same. Both categories are shifting sites of hermeneutic performance. Race is a contested category, especially noticeable for anyone who inhabits what we locate as ‘mixed-race’ positioning. Culture too is not static. And since world war two we’ve had a general popular understanding that culture does not equal race. So this further shakes up the issue. But, equally, people do build interpretive constructs based on the notions of race and culture. They act and think based on them, and these are not neutral ideas people hold about race/culture. They are structurally codified, and much of how we see race/culture fits within semiotic structures that need hyper-vigilance to untangle. And this is where Claire is probably on to something. No Asians in a half Chinese universe? Seems… inscrutable.

3) The issue of appropriation and cultural imperialism holds equally well here. Whedon is happy to take the spoils of the pretty objects, the material culture of China (or really, Asia in general AS China–the trappings are often a hodgepodge), without Asians having any stake in their use. We’ve seen this before as colonialism. Museums, for example. The complicity of power/knowledge that allows Whedon to do this is different than, say, China taking up Western window dressing. Why? Because Asian appropriation of the West is placed within a politico-epistemic context wherein that appropriation is labeled modernization. When the balance of power shifts, I think we will be shocked at what Occidentalism looks like. The power that allows Western appropriation of Asian culture is the same power that Said speaks of when he says that Orientalism is facilitated by the power of Europe to be there. This is an unequal and loaded power. Firefly is the practice of it in a cultural sense.

4) The taking up of vaguely Asian mish-mash under the sign of China is classic orientalism. It has nothing to do with China, expect on the surface, but everything to do with Western imaginings of some vague, exotic Asia that it has the power to represent.

5) The issue of representation is one of power. The latest stink about the movie version of Last Airbender is a good example. See here for an analysis. Thea Lim at Racialicious argues that Joss Whedon suffers from a similar problem in general, and specifically in his new show Dollhouse.Even in a universe where half of the dominant power structure is supposedly Asian, there are no main Asian characters. When the show takes the troupe to Alliance controlled domains, there are still no Asian actors. Aside from appropriation, this is an issue of representation. It is well-known that Joss identifies as a feminist. And it shows. He often attempts to and almost as often succeeds at providing strong, complex, well-represented female characters. It seems pretty clear that in this regard he is aware of the issue of representation and women in television and film. So why not with other issues, like race and class? I’ll leave the answer to that question for the reader.

Epilogue: Now, don’t get me wrong. I like a lot of Whedon’s work. I have gotten hundreds of hours of pleasure watching his many shows. Nonetheless, there are issues with Whedon’s worldview that can be challenged. We can, and I have, done the same with Gandhi and Mother Theresa. They too have their issues. “White-washing” our heroes does a disservice to any self-understanding of ourselves as heroes. If they are perfect, and we rationalize or ignore their flaws, then we will never measure up. Regardless, this need not be about him in particular. We can point to so many others who do the same. The issue here is one of Orientalism: the systemic episteme that allows for the kinds of things I speak to above. How we combat disempowering discourses and activities is by being aware of them and not just replicating them. We can challenge it when we see it. We can shake up these discourses only when we know how they operate. As such, perhaps I can offer this post as a gift to Joss because I am a fan, however critical a fan I may be.

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One Response to “Whedon and orientalism”

  1. Fuzzytheory Roundup « fuzzytheory Says:

    […] back, I’m surprised I have a couple of posts on Joss Whedon’s universe. Try Whedon and Orientalism for […]

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