Asian Characters Are Still Minor or Stereotyped in Film, According to New Study

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Asians are still commonly stereotyped and tokenized on-screen, according to a new study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The study analyzed 1,300 of the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019. It found that out of 51,159 speaking characters, only 5.9% were Asian or Pacific Islander. And only 44 films featured an AAPI actor in a lead role, with Dwayne Johnson booking the most work, in 14 films. The study also named mass media and entertainment as a key factor in the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. 

The study, called “The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films,” found that for the most part, Asian characters are stereotyped, tokenized, or had less than five lines of dialogue on-screen. The study says that film representation falls far below the Asian and Pacific Islander population in the United States, where 7.1% of residents identify as AAPI. And for every 15 white male actors hired, only one AAPI actor was hired. 

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“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, who co-authored the study, in a statement. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion.”

The study found that stereotypical representation included speaking English with an accent or in a non-English language (playing into the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype), Asian men being portrayed as being emasculated, and Asian women being hypersexualized. Asian characters also frequently experienced harassment or death on-screen. The study found a connection between on-screen violence and the recent increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. 

“With the rise of anti-AAPI violence in the United States, on-screen deaths of Asians and Pacific Islander characters are particularly jarring,” said Yuen in a statement. “In the top 100 films of 2019, just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander characters die by the end of the film and all but one death ended violently. This, along with 41.8 percent of API characters receiving on-screen disparagement—some of which are racial slurs—films can fuel anti-AAPI hate. With over 6,603 hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021, Hollywood needs to take responsibility for problematic representations of Asians and Pacific Islanders.”

There’s also a noticeable lack of AAPI representation behind the scenes. Out of 1,300 films, only 50 films (3.5%) were directed by an API director and 98 films (2.5%) had an API producer. No female API directors had a sole directing credit—the study doesn’t include Cathy Yan or Chloé Zhao, whose superhero films were released in 2020 and 2021, respectively. 

Films with API directors or producers were also more likely to have an AAPI lead.

“These findings offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences,” said study co-author Stacy L. Smith in a statement. “Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community. When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”

The study also included a series of recommendations to improve on-screen representations. The recommendations include hiring more AAPI actors in leading roles, hiring AAPI storytellers behind-the-scenes, and supporting organizations that nurture AAPI talent. The study was funded by Amazon Studios and UTA Foundation. The full study can be read here.

Said UTA partner and TV literary agent David Park in a statement: “One year ago, our community was erroneously blamed for a global pandemic. Now, we see violence against and hatred of AAPIs reaching unprecedented levels. The words we use, the stories we tell, how we portray people matters. The creative community is uniquely positioned to tell more authentic and inclusive stories that diverse audiences yearn to hear. This effort to document the quantity and quality of AAPI portrayals is an essential starting point for lasting progress in how our community is represented in the mainstream.”

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