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The US Asian population grew 72% between 2000 and 2015 (from 11.9 million to 20.4 million), the fastest growth rate of any major racial or ethnic group (Pew Research Center, 2017). Despite this, Asian Americans have been degraded in the realm of popular media and neglected in the consumer market. Thus, lacking the ability to obtain a voice or leave a trace in American pop culture. The meager representation that Asian Americans have is highly controlled in a distorted lens, which paints them in an exaggerated light for comic relief (Min Huh, 2016). This kind of representation affects the perception of Asians for the US people that consume popular media and even more so for the Asian American youth living in the US. The influence of film and TV on people brings up the question: How does Asian American representation in western media affect the perception of them in the physical world? The stimulus materials that most closely demonstrates the idea of perception is “3D Pavement Art,” by Joe Hill and “The Historian as Participant,” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. The pavement art challenges one’s perception by using art to show a realistic image despite it just being drawn. A historic event also affects the perspective of one who took part in the events rather than a non-involved historian. Despite the gradual improvements of Asians in media, they still lack accurate representation, which does not help the perception of Asian Americans in the US.
It is important to note that in non-representational arts, Asian Americans have flourished: poets, writers, directors, photographers, fashion designers, architects, interior decorators, and visual artists. The creative offerings of Asian Americans are not just accepted but celebrated. Only in representation arts, such as film and television, is the representation of Asians not up to par. Though, there have certainly been advancements in representation with the release of Crazy Rich Asians. For Asian Americans, that movie was like Black Panther for African-Americans. Crazy Rich Asians was the first modern story with an all-Asian cast and an Asian American lead in 25 years; the last, The Joy Luck Club, was in 1993. The movie was monumental, considering how rare it is for an all-Asian cast. Also, for the first time, Marvel is going to incorporate an Asian American actor as the lead in Shang-Chi. Not only has that been unprecedented for Marvel, but a recent study by USC Annenberg (2018) showed that Asian Americans represent only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood. An Asian superhero will instill confidence in young Asian Americans as it has always been out of the ordinary to conceive an Asian as a superhero. It is ignorant to say there have not been any strides in Asian American representation since, in recent years, there certainly have been. Though, many Asian Americans still do not feel as if their image and culture have been adequately depicted.
Many Asian Americans have indeed been frustrated by the lack of Asian roles in television and film. A study revealed that out of 1,100 popular films, 70.7% of the characters were Caucasian, and only 6.3% were of Asian descent (USC Annenberg, 2018). Despite being seemingly low, it accurately reflects national demographics as the United States Census Bureau (2010) reported that there are 18 million Americans of Asian descent or roughly 6% of the population. Thus, if the demographics in films are similar to demographics in the US, then why are Asian Americans upset at “fair” representation? It is tricky to define “fair” representation because what might be “fair” for some may be “unfair” for others. For example, some believe that it is enough for Asians to receive roles proportional to their percentage of the population. In other words, for each percent of the American people that are Asian, then that same percent of movie and TV roles should be given to Asian actors. However, just basing it on numerical assessment is not fair to others as, in many cases, Asian actors are given fewer lines. According to USC Annenberg (2018), more than 40 of the top 100 films did not have an Asian actor with a speaking role. Despite Asian American actors getting a proportional amount of roles, many are often restricted to minor or non-speaking characters, which does not seem fair to some.
Asian Americans are also upset because Asians play roles that lack diversity and perpetuate stereotypes. Studies support this, for example, one study revealed that Asian American actors were disproportionately represented in background roles, often playing stereotypical characters that prioritized work ethic and business life over their personal lives (Stern & Taylor, 1997). In a study conducted by Joann Lee (2001), she interviewed Asian American actors. She found that every actor she spoke with felt that there were minimal opportunities for “big roles,” both in film and television. They felt that, at the time, obtaining “superstar status” and going beyond Asian specific roles were nearly impossible. Aside from Asians being seen as hardworking and high-achieving, Asians are also depicted with awkward social skills (Zhang, 2010), and with objectification and sexualization of Asian women in submissive roles. Recently, Americans are starting to see Asian Americans playing non-traditional Asian characters, but it is still far too uncommon.
Together with other minorities, Asian Americans are concerned with the insufficient recognition of minority talent by the film industry. Over the past few years, racial discrimination has led to Oscar-nominated directors and actors threatening to boycott the ceremony, with #OscarsSoWhite hashtag trending on social media. The protest even managed to make it onto notable headlines and magazine titles. Such activism came to be because between 2014 and 2016, there were no minority Oscar nominees for the top award, which has not happened since 1980. Numerous prominent media figures protested the lack of diversity, including Mark Ruffalo, Reese Witherspoon, John Krasinski, and more. Spike Lee, a well-known director, also expressed disappointment and frustration with the decision of nominees. He questioned through an Instagram post on how it was possible that “for the 2nd consecutive year all 20 contenders under the actor category are white,” and went on to say, “40 white actors in 2 years and no flavor at all.”
As mentioned earlier, Asian Americans dislike when media portrays Asians as stereotypical, but what upsets them even further is when media portrays Asians with non-Asian actors. The representation of Asian characters with the use of white actors is known as “whitewashing.” Examples of “whitewashed” roles include Nat Wolff as Light Yagami in Death Note, Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost in the Shell, and Justin Chatwin as Goku in Dragonball Evolution. Another form of whitewashing is known as “racebending”, which takes place when white actors replace or rewrite limited “Asian” roles. For example, a Tibetan monk’s role was replaced in Doctor Strange by a mystic, particularly white, Tilda Swinton. Furthermore, in The Great Wall, a film based on Chinese history, Matt Damon is the main character in a predominantly Chinese ensemble. Constance Wu, the lead actress in Crazy Rich Asians and advocate of better Asian American representation, criticized this casting, berating the director for perpetuating a “white savior” narrative, in which white heroes or heroines save rescue vulnerable communities from devastation. Given how difficult it can be for minorities to find work in the film industry, it can be particularly frustrating when white actors can easily fill the few roles that minorities are expected to play.
It is no secret that there are many stereotypes for Asians, likely due to media perceptions. Without mentioning stereotypes said earlier, there are preconceived notions of Asian parenting, Indians having pre-arranged marriages, Asians being good at math and piano or violin, and assumptions of their careers or professional interests (e.g., becoming a doctor). The list goes on and on. This is not to say that all shows that depict stereotypes of Asians (or any race) are harmful. For example, Fresh off the Boat is highly acclaimed among the Asian American community despite the usage of many stereotypes. The reason why it is well-liked is that it tastefully displays stereotypes comically while bringing awareness to them. Nevertheless, there are still shows that portray Asians negatively. Such portrayals affect Asian Americans in many aspects, such as schooling and dating. Recently, Harvard University was accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Although the federal judge ruled in favor of Harvard, there have been countless instances where elite college administrators expressed concerns that they may have “too many” Asians enrolled in the higher education system (Jaschik, 2006). Also, Espenshade and Radford (2009) showed that a student who self-identifies as Asian would need 140 SAT points higher than whites, 320 SAT points higher than Hispanics, and 450 SAT points higher than African Americans. Another difficulty that Asian Americans face is in dating. In the dating market, Asian women are excelling, while Asian men are struggling. Studies reveal that, on average, an Asian male has to earn an additional $247,000 to stand on equal footing with a white male (Tierney, 2007). Almost a quarter of a million dollars is needed to stand on even ground.
Furthermore, the media’s perception of Asians has affected employment and a presidential campaign. These effects and the ones mentioned earlier are linked to racism, which is heightened or even brought about by racial images packaged as entertainment in popular media. This can skew the way viewers understand and categorize people. In any case, according to a new study, Asian Americans graduate from university at far higher rates than white Americans but are no more likely to hold professional or managerial jobs (Tran, 2019). Even with an educational advantage, Asian Americans are less likely to secure positions in top-tier professional jobs than white Americans with the same qualifications as them. Someone who represents Asian Americans politically is Andrew Yang, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Yang, despite polling higher than other candidates, gets the least amount of speaking time at the debates and is continuously left out of graphics he should be on. For example, MSNBC has omitted him from their graphics over 12 times and has called him “John Yang” on air. An ongoing record of mainstream media exclusions of Andrew Yang has led to the #YangMediaBlackout hashtag trending on social media. Just like all Asian Americans, Andrew Yang, too, should be given fair representation.
A solution to the lack of representation of Asian Americans in western media is to add more Asian actors without casting them in roles that reinforce negative stereotypes. A limitation to this, however, is that “Asian” has a characteristic of “one size fits all.” “Asian” is an overarching term as there are 48 countries in Asia where aspects of their culture, heritage, and even health can differ between each other, meaning that each community that is labeled under “Asian American” have different needs and opinions. Yet, it would be difficult for the media to depict each Asian ethnicity accurately. Even if more Asians are displayed on screens, there will still be some Asians Americans unsatisfied with the lack of portrayal of their ethnicity.
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