If you want to hear a geek wail, there’s a pretty good chance that the untimely cancellation of the sci-fi classic Firefly will do the trick. Chronicling the adventures of a crew of criminals and fugitives trying to earn a not-so-honest living in the ‘verse, Firefly featured a great band of characters, whip-smart dialogue, and a plot filled with twists that have kept fans onboard for years despite having only a single season. Made back when Joss Whedon was considered a Nerd God of the highest order, it’s hard to imagine a show with a more secure cult status.
Like many fan favorites (of any genre), Firefly has some unfortunate hallmarks that push it towards “problematic fave” status. The slut shaming of Inara by Mal is relentless and off-putting, actor Adam Baldwin’s politics and position at the forefront of Gamergate is pretty grotesque, and the bloom is certainly off the rose with Whedon. However, the most troubling aspect of the beloved show is the cultural appropriation.
Within the history of the show, America and China became the major superpowers on Earth-That-Was, fusing together to form the Anglo-Sino Alliance and eventually ruling the entirety of the globe before expanding into space. Because of this, Firefly features a mishmash of American and Chinese influences, with everyone slipping in and out of Mandarin while also swaggering around like cowboys from the Old West. Which is fine! The idea that fantasy is usually heavily Eurocentric is a detriment to the genre, so there should be more fantasy and science fiction that is influenced by Asian culture and legend. Unfortunately, the complete lack of actual Asian characters in Firefly is negligent at best, racist at worst.
While Firefly does feature some excellent characters played by people of color in the main cast, the apparent prevalence of Chinese people in shaping the universe of Firefly is not reflected at all in the casting on the show. Despite the Chinese taking up 50% of the population in the Firefly universe, there isn’t a single major or supporting character of Chinese descent. They aren’t even background characters, for the most part. The culture is reflected in the clothing design, architecture, and signage, but not in the people, making it a costume instead of a rich heritage.
Using China as a cultural touchstone without having the represented populace reflect that influence is a common thread in Firefly. Sure, Mal is constantly spouting garbled Mandarin and Kaylee embraces Chinese fashion with her hair and clothing, but where are the actual characters to give this culture the authenticity and depth that it deserves? Statistically, there should have been multiple Chinese people aboard Serenity and they should have dealt with many other Chinese people in their line of work as well. To take on aspects of Chinese culture that are appealing and to give them to white characters instead is to basically say that while your story and history is beautiful, we’d feel more comfortable giving these elements to white characters. It should be clear that this is just… super f*cked up.
When approaching problematic pop culture, it’s easy to dismiss things on the basis of “it was a different time.” It’s a difficult thing to wrestle with and honestly comes down to individual consumers to decide what levels of problematic they can deal with in their media. Ultimately, nearly everything can be written off as problematic in one way or another, so we just have to decide what the line is for us.
However, acknowledging the troubling elements from the past is the first step. Realizing that the things that you love aren’t blameless doesn’t mean that you love or appreciate them any less. It means that you recognize that they’re human products and are therefore flawed. The important step is that once you realize what’s wrong, you work to ensure that things are different going forward. New shows must have a broader cultural richness and tell a wider variety of stories instead of just the white savior narrative. We can’t change the past, but we can make sure that the worlds that we want to explore look different and more diverse in the future than the whitewashed sameness that we’ve been offered previously.
Does Firefly’s problematic appropriation disqualify it from fandom love? No. Personally, I don’t want to live my life without Zoe Washburne kicking ass and taking names. But we do need to realize that there are no sacred cows. There is always the desire to push back on criticism when the thing being critiqued is something that we love, but being a true fan means allowing for growth within the fandom. As pop culture becomes increasingly progressive and inclusive, that’s bound to lead many to examine the things that we love through a more critical lens.
By taking bits and pieces of a heritage without allowing people who actually belong to the culture to take part in the stories is like a form of artistic colonization. We cannot continue to erase people of color from their own narratives under the guise of “homage.” Firefly certainly did many things to propel science fiction into a new era, but here’s hoping that in the future, space looks a lot less homogenous.