A Blinkered Vision of Multiculturalism

Firefly was an American space western drama TV series that ran on Fox from 20 September – 20 December 2002. It was the brainchild of writer and director Joss Whedon, who is best known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and writing and directing The Avengers.

The series was set in the year 2517, five hundred years after a universal civil war. The narrative revolved around the crew of Serenity (a small “Firefly-class” transport spaceship), trying to survive on the fringe of their star system after fighting on the losing side of the civil war.


In this future, the United States and China (the remaining two surviving superpowers) have fused to form the Alliance (the central federal government), leading to a degree of fusion between American and Chinese cultures. According to executive producer Joss Whedon’s vision, “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today”.

The series’ 14 episodes certainly do little to advance the representation of Chinese culture and Chinese actors in Hollywood, despite the promises of Firefly’s futuristic multi-cultural premise.

The most significant ‘fusion’ of Western and East Asian cultures appears to be in the form of language. The Sino-American Alliance has turned Mandarin into a common second language; it thus appears in advertisements and the show’s main characters often use Mandarin words and phrases as curses. The show’s fans have created an unofficial site to translate all the Mandarin phrases and words used in the series.



This same breadth of imagination does not appear when it comes to how Chinese characters are featured in the TV series. None of the nine Serenity crew members that form the ensemble cast are culturally Chinese – the only character with some East Asian inspiration would be Inara Serra (played by Brazillian-American actress Morena Baccarin).

Inara Serra is a ‘Companion’, a high-society courtesan licensed by the Alliance. She is the 26th century cross between a geisha and an escort/mistress, is Buddhist, and has some aptitude for martial arts. The show features a recurring element of sexual tension between her and Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the owner and captain of Serenity.



Whedon’s idea of including a plot event that involves Inara Serra “inject herself with a serum that causes anyone who rapes her to die a horrible death and then having her get kidnapped and gang-raped, with that horrific scene only hinted at by the discovery of her dead kidnappers” was vetoed by Fox executives (Business Insider).


With the exception of Inara Serra and Zoe Washburne (played by African-American actress Gina Torres), there are no prominent ethnic minority characters in this futuristic vision of multiculturalism.

When East Asian actors appear in brief roles as background characters, they appear as (1) as one of the prostitutes within a ranch-like brothel in the middle of a barren land and (2) a random geisha:




No noteworthy Asian male character was featured.

OFFENSE DATE: September 1, 2002

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