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Asian Representation in TV and Films: Golden Years Ahead

The journey of Asian representation on screens and current challenges

I work to ensure that the women I play are not just relegated to stereotypes. That includes Evelyn Wang [Everything Everywhere All at Once], an aging Asian immigrant woman, normally invisible, but in our story, she is the superhero. She is the one who finds her voice. Evelyn’s voice and so many like hers need to be “ heard. Because we all have superpowers. These combined superpowers can and will change the world. - MICHELLE YEOH, Acceptance speech of 1st SeeHer Award at Gold House Gold Gala in May 2022 

Everything Everywhere All At Once became a breakout global hit in 2022 and received international recognition from critics and fans. Michelle Yeoh made history as the first Asian to win an Oscar for Best Actress, a significant victory for the Asian-American community. After its success, it seemed that Asian American media began to flourish on both the small and big screen. There was Past Lives by Celine Song; BEEF, the Netflix drama series starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun; American Born Chinese, Kelvin Yu’s Disney+ comedy series; and the Netflix live-action remake of the famous anime One Piece (1997–ongoing). 

Many viewers and experts have been saying -and celebrating- that we are witnessing the ‘golden years’ of Asian representation and stories in the media, and there is encouraging data that backs that statement.


The percentage of Asian characters with speaking roles on screen skyrocketed from 3.4% to 15.9% in the last 16 years, according to a large report from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. The report suggests that despite Hollywood's talks about progress, not much has changed on screens for marginalized groups, with the exception of the Asian community. 


Before Everything Everywhere All At Once, there have been other milestones for Asian characters on screen in the last several years. Crazy Rich Asians (Jon M. Chu, 2018) was the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority Asian cast in 25 years since The Joy Luck Club premiered in 1993. It was also a rom-com in a superhero-dominated box office, featuring two leads who were new to the big screen and flipping from English to Cantonese to Mandarin and back. But what seemed like a risky bet became a genuine blockbuster. The following year, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite performed well at the box office and won multiple awards. In 2022, Pixar released its first Asian-led film, Turning Red, a coming-of-age that revolutionized newsrooms and social media with a battle over the authenticity and relatability of Asian immigrants in North America.


TV shows like Fresh Off the BoatKim's Convenience, and Squid Game have also had a significant cultural impact. And we can’t ignore K-pop, K-dramas, social media content, and other cultural exports that have gone mainstream in the U.S. In fact, the surge of bestselling books written by Asian authors, like Min Jin Lee's Pachinko and Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before, have served as an opportunity to adapt these stories to the screen.


Factors behind the rise of Asian representation

Bing Chen, CEO and Co-Founder of the nonprofit collective of Asian founders, leaders, and creative voices, Gold House, attributes the rise of Asian characters and stories on screens to several reasons. One is the proliferation of new channels and platforms that host more content. More storytelling has translated into more diverse storytelling. On platforms such as YouTube or TikTok, Asian content has become dominant, reaching young audiences worldwide.


Another factor is the significant change in what audiences like to watch. There is an increasing interest in foreign films over Hollywood productions, and the pandemic accelerated that shift as viewers sought out new content to devour while stuck at home. Take, for example, Squid Game, which premiered in 2021; it set a record for the most-watched show on Netflix ever and ranked No. 1 in more than 90 countries across the world.


This shift in the box office is tied to investing and producing original content from abroad (i.e., in India and South Korea). It has also translated to giving more creative control to Asian writer-directors: Beef's Lee Sung Jin, Turning Red's Domee Shi, Minari's Lee Isaac Chung, Joy Ride's Adele Lim, and Never Have I Ever's Mindy Kaling. 


Chen highlighted to TIME Magazine that this change comes after decades of advocacy and reflects a care to reach creative excellence as opposed to just a sort of representation -although there is still room for improvement.


Asian representation through history

Asians have historically been underrepresented in North American films and television, and when they appeared, they often did so in stereotypical ways. 

  • The perpetual foreigner. Asian characters were often depicted as outsiders, regardless of where they were born, usually in conflict with their identity and a lower sense of belonging to America.

  • The model minority. Hardworking and depicted as great students and knowledgeable workers, usually in fields like law or STEM. Though seemingly positive, the stereotype places undue pressure on Asian Americans to excel and conform in various aspects of life.

  • The martial arts fighters. Naturally skilled fighters with excellent knowledge of martial arts. When the characters are older, they are often portrayed as masters.

Other stereotypes come from gender. While Asian men have historically been depicted as emasculated, weak, or undesirable, Asian women were often fetishised and tailored to the male character’s desires and purposes in the story.

  • The lotus blossom. Young, kind, and submissive object of desire.  

  • The dragon lady or tiger mom. Authoritarian, harsh, and emotionally detached.


Asian Americans have been frequently treated as a single monolithic group on screen, and there has been usually little diversity in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, body size, or skin tone.


The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and Gold House published a study in 2022 across Asian representation in streaming platforms. The report examined significant characters in the top 100 films and series on streaming platforms and revealed progress in non-tokenized Asian roles and a rise in multidimensional storylines; however, it also highlighted that many of those roles still spotlight proximity to whiteness more often than they show authentic cultural specificity. 


The stereotypes of the eternal foreigner or the tragic hero are not common in recent content. However, the model minority persists; nearly half of the Asian characters analyzed in the study were in intellectual fields, and only 11% were shown as working class. Portraying female characters as quiet and passive is less preventive; however, ​​more than half of them were shown in romantic relationships with white men.


The report also found that most Asian characters’ storylines are not exclusively focused on their race; just 18% of characters had a storyline in which race was central to their arc. 

Having said that, there remains a lack of cultural or ethnic specificity. Only 24% of characters were explicitly identified as having ethnic origins from a particular Asian country, and 45% had names typically associated with Asian heritage.


Race-agnostic roles should not come at the expense of cultural authenticity. Cultural specificity can be an essential tool for combatting monolithic perceptions of these groups and for depicting authentic Asian characters who are fully realized, multidimensional individuals.


Gold House created the “Gold Story Test,” drawing from the Bechdel Test, which measures gender representation. It serves as a guide that poses questions like “Is the character defined by their race to the exclusion of other characteristics or by their proximity to whiteness?” For example, the character is romantically involved with a white character, played by a white or multiracial actor, or isolated from other Asian characters.


Sources

A Balancing Act: Asian representation in streaming 

API Women authentic representation and storytelling #writeherright

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