I’m a big fan of the TV show Firefly: Its world building, colorful characters and beautiful effects make it the most interesting of modern space-based SF television show of the past twenty years. I have the TV episodes and the movie, Serenity, and I enjoy them whenever I can.
But the show has been around for a while now (it has been surpassed in realism only by The Expanse on TV, and The Martian in movies); and as I’ve rewatched it recently, I have to admit to finally recognizing the Big Damned Secret about Firefly‘s world; and for an American, it’s hard to notice, because it doesn’t take the usual form that it does in the US; but once you see it, you can’t not see it.
Firefly is racist. Not against Africans, Muslims or Mexicans; instead, the downtrodden race is Asian. And our heroes are as racist as a bunch of Alabama rebels.
Now, it’s true that none of this is depicted blatantly. At no time does an Asian walk into a bar, only to have the bartender shout out, “Hey! We don’t serve your kind here!” Nowhere do we see Asians being singled out for bad treatment above-and-beyond what anyone else is suffering. And there don’t seem to be any Jim-Crow-esque “Chinese entrance to the rear” signs about. What we do see is racism by omission: An entire race being ignored at best, or underrepresented at worst, largely invisible, while the show’s characters have no concern about using elements of that race’s culture when it pleases them.
Not seeing it? OK, let’s look at this carefully. To begin with, our hero, Captain Mal Reynolds, comes to us by way of being on the losing side of a civil war between the Alliance and the Independents, a clear parallel to the American Civil War between the Union and the Confederacy. The most obvious comparison you can make as to which side is which is the fact that the Alliance won, as did the American Union. The political view central to our Civil War was that Slavery as an institution needed to be abolished; and the one thing we know about Firefly’s Alliance was that it was an effort to bring the Chinese and American political machines together. When the Alliance won, the American “melting pot” and Chinese became one.
The Independents were against this alliance between the US and the Chinese, though we’re not told exactly why; it’s alluded to that the Alliance would adversely impact the freedoms of all people—especially the Independents—but it’s not clear how.
We do know that elements of Chinese culture have worked their way into the rest of the Alliance, especially in media, art and cursing. These are cultural elements that the crew of the Serenity, like everyone else, have wholly appropriated into daily use.
But what we also see—and this has already been pointed out by many fans of the show—is an ironically low number of Asians in these worlds. When we do see them, they tend to be living in the fringe areas, the hardscrabble life we see in most of the worlds Serenity visits. But we don’t see many Asians in prominent positions, in command roles on Alliance ships, in well-to-do areas. Though the Alliance is supposed to welcome the Chinese, those selfsame Chinese seem to be out of sight.
And you’ll notice another prominent place where you don’t see Asians: Anywhere near Serenity or its crew. No Asians serve on or travel on the ship. Throughout the series, Mal never approaches or speaks to an Asian; few of the places he or his crew frequents seem to have many (or, for that matter, any) Asians around. The world of Firefly doesn’t think highly of Asians, nor does it give Asians many opportunities beyond farmer, sex worker or random crowd extra. Yeah, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an Asian on this show that isn’t covered in dirt.
Look at the parallels: A race and culture over which a war has been fought to include in everyday life; after the war, the race/culture is rarely seen, especially in upper or important roles; the main characters have appropriate parts of their culture, as has everybody else, but they do not associate themselves with the race itself, and even act as if they largely and effectively don’t exist. Are you seeing it yet?
Well, one more thing guaranteed to gnaw at the back of your mind is the unfortunate similarity between the words Browncoat and Redneck. Though Mal and his crew don’t apply the word Browncoat to themselves, others apply it to them regularly, and Mal doesn’t argue the appellation or its assumptions. And he demonstrates the same… let’s say, “lack of appreciation” for Asians that rednecks tend to demonstrate towards Africans in the US.
You see it now, don’t you? In fact, you’ll have a damned hard time not seeing it after reading this, won’t you? Now you know how I felt upon realizing it myself: That the TV series that seemed so realistic, so sensible, so desirable, should also be centered around a main character who is the equivalent of an unapologetic redneck and racist, who resents an American-Asian alliance, walks through life just sort of looking past Asians and acting like they’re not a part of his world at all. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that Mal secretly dislikes Simon and River, not just because of their obvious rich upbringing (or the slightly-dangerous sister), but that even their last name—Tam, a very Asian-sounding name—reminds him of something he quietly hates.
Now, it’s possible that this was intentional on the part of the writers. If maybe the series had lived on beyond its meager part-season of episodes, some of this might have come to a more obvious light and have been addressed. It may be that Joss Whedon fully planned on exploring this racist undercurrent in individuals and society, maybe highlighting this clear flaw in Mal’s (not to mention society’s) character so he could be reformed… or, at least, softened somewhat. Maybe we would’ve eventually seen “Yellow Power” slogans and an NAACP for the Chinese (you don’t even have to change the acronym!). Or heard news reports about an unusual number of Asians that had been killed by Alliance peacekeepers this year. Yellow Lives Matter, and such.
And is this the only social area that can use development? It could be pointed out that women in general haven’t been presented in the best light on Firefly, one female character on the crew being a prostitute, another being crazy and homicidal, the third being largely emotionless (okay, we caught her smiling in bed once), and the last being immature; likewise, we see few women in rich or command positions, they are largely portrayed as prostitutes, con artists and eye-candy wives.
But the parallels between Asians in Firefly and Africans in post-Civil-War US are the most striking, and unfortunate. Not just because it seems humans can’t function, even in the future, unless they have at least one group to unite themselves against; but because the characters that need that aspect of their personality changed the most… just happen to be the show’s central characters.