Sinorrhea and the Strumpet: Why Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” annoys me

Make no mistake, I like this show. I really do. I enjoyed it and hope the people responsible for its early cancellation have been ground down into powder by now.

But the cultural narcissism annoys me, and some of the subtle sexism is hard to overlook. The culture of the sci-fi TV show Firefly’s universe is often billed as a “multicultural world” or as “a fusion of Occidental and Chinese cultures.” I call bullshit.

Leaving aside diversionary issues of what “Chinese” should be taken to mean here, there is little which is recognizably Chinese about anything on the show, apart from the superficial shit like the Chinese characters everywhere, a few “Asian” motifs in the art and costume design (as well as the musical score), the people eating sliced tomatoes with chopsticks, and of course the main characters spouting random snippets in barely intelligible, semi-grammatical, bizarrely phrased Mandarin every now and again.

At least one character (River Tam) does have a Chinese name, i.e. 譚江 – or so the internet tells me. (As, presumably, does her brother Simon Tam though it’s never mentioned or written anywhere that I could tell in the series, and the internet oracle knoweth naught thereof.) To the show’s credit, the name 江 is real (and yes it does literally mean “River”), as is the family name 譚. Yet the name 譚 when pronounced “Tam” is a Cantonese name. A Mandarin speaker would pronounce this character as Tán. Mandarin phonology, unlike Cantonese, doesn’t even allow the sound m at the end of syllables. It would be like an English name beginning with the consonants “vzg” or “pfl” (whereas some languages related to English can easily accomodate such combinations, as is to be seen from German Pflug “plow”, Russian взглядvzglyad “glance”). Since the only Chinese language/dialect which you ever hear on the show is the random Mandarin phrases and imprecations and curses, why does the only main character with a recognizable Chinese family name have a recognizably Non-Mandarin one? C’monJoss. At least fucking try here! 

If, as the show’s backstory maintains, Chinese and “Western” cultures fused in Firefly’s universe because China and the US are the two superpowers that made it into space, and the Chinese element was so significant that Mandarin became a widely-used second language, then where’s the actual cultural influence? Even those few aspects of Firefly’s cultural norms which aren’t obviously patterned off of modern America or Western Europe are not particularly prevalent in the 21st century Far East either. To be fair, some Firefly cultural traits, such as the social status of prostitutes, do have partial analogues in earlier periods in the history of different parts of East Asia (in this case the courtesan classes of Imperial China, and especially the Oiran of 19th century Japan) but surely the viewer is not meant to imagine that the Chinese that made it into space were Medieval Chinese. (Though that would make for an unusual show indeed.)If you’re going to pull a Chinese take-out with the pretty Han characters on every goddamn door and container, and afflict the cast with some bizarre form of nearly-coherent Anglo-Sinitic glossolalia, then shouldn’t you consider incorporating one or two basic elements of actual Chinese social norms  into the way these people actually relate to each other? You know, just so viewers like me don’t get the impression that the show’s creator doesn’t know jack shit about the Chinese other than that they helped gift the world with chinoiserie, use chopsticks, speak a funny language and have pretty writing. Or shit, at least take some token affirmative action and have a few characters of East Asian descent show up as guest stars? (Not that kind of “Chinese Character”, McFly!) The way things went, I started wondering if all the Chinese who came into space with the Americans were all wiped out in an interplanetary genocide or something. Or maybe they all just lost their minds and joined the Reavers, seeing their culture tokenized like this.

I have watched every episode of Firefly, and nearly all of the main characters usually behave as if they were socialized in a recognizably American fashion. One exception is River, who’s meant to be crazy.  The other exception is Inara, who is meant to be Buddhist. She even refers to the Buddha during some of her bouts of Chinese glossomania (e.g. the imprecation 仁慈的佛陀 Réncí de fótuó “Merciful Buddha”, or at least, that’s what I think she meant to say, Firefly Chinese is seldom characterized by especially stellar enunciation), has her shuttle decked out in Buddhacious fashion, evinces a mental universe which lies at a slight remove from the 21st century mainstream America, and is the only main character other than River whose name is not obviously Anglophone. Though her name, bizarrely, is actually Arabic (Ar. إنَارَةٌInāra “Enlightenment, Illumination, Shining.”) Given that she is Buddhist and her name could mean “Enlightenment”, I’m willing to bet that that’s not an accident. She was meant to have this Arabic name. (Because, of course, the Arabic language has been important historically both to Buddhists and to the Chinese! *eyeroll*) In any case, the translation is of the English term “Enlightenment”, not of any actual Buddhist term in Chinese. The term usually rendered as “Enlightenment” in English and other culturally  and historically kindred languages (Aufklärung, Iluminación, Просветление, etc.) has precious little to do with the romantic notions enshrined in the term as it is normally used today.

Now, I’m not saying Buddhism can’t have evolved over 600 years, but Inara’s Buddhism seems to have less in common with any of the actual Buddhist traditions of the Far East than it does with American New Age Buddhist confections (or, as a friend of mine once put it, “Buddhism for White Leftists.”) It gets pretty funny sometimes, what with the way Buddhist art is deployed in her shuttle, for example.

But, get ready dear reader, cause this is where the bullshit really starts a-flyin’. What’s messed up about Inara, the Oriental with an E(x/r)otic religion and an Oriental name, is that she really does seem like she’s based on a composite stereotype (albeit a rather sophisticated one) of the feminine East: the bejeweled woman in veils, who is trained in all the arts of civilization, including blowjobs. Even the pentatonic music that accompanies her plays into this. Her “Eastern” feminine persona meshes quite nicely with prostitution and naughty sex in the imaginarium of American cultural tropes. She is most strongly reminiscent of the 19th century Japanese Oiran (kind of like a geisha, only with sex actually included.) Leaving aside that this is supposed to be the future, not the past, and that China is not Japan, I wonder how Joss’s ostensible cultural sensitivity could possibly be expressing itself here. Now, Inara isn’t just a composite stereotype. She is her own person, a complex and well-written character, and her actions are not wholly beholden to orient-fetishism. In fact, her presence on a sci-fi show is in many ways to be welcomed. It’s nice, for example, to see a sex-worker on TV who isn’t scarred-for-life, actually likes her job and doesn’t take kindly to people who disrespect her on account of the fact that she workfucks for a living.

In terms of cultural representation, though, she is nonetheless clearly inspired not by the realities of Chinese, or even East Asian, cultures and histories, but by popular American fantasies about “The East.”Even those cultural aspects of the show’s universe that aren’t mere occidentalisms telescoped into the distant future do not actually employ non-western cultural phenomena, but rather American re-imaginings thereof. And Whedon didn’t put the least amount of thought into any of this, of how even a slightly clued-in non-expert such as yours truly might respond to what he’s doing.  It’s shallow.

Joss was either going for the lowest common American denominator here, or just didn’t know any better. Oh, why give him that much credit? It’s probably a hefty dose of both. And the result has given Joss a severe case of Sinorrhea and Chinoisea.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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