Study points to lingering problems with Asian representation in film
A disproportionately small percentage of Asian and Pacific Islander actors and crew members have been included in the highest-grossing films in the past decade, according to a new study released Tuesday from the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
The study, which looked at Asian representation in the 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, found that just 44 of the movies, or 3.4 percent, had an Asian and Pacific Islander character in the lead or one of the lead roles — and 14 of those 44 were specifically superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Only six films in total had an Asian and Pacific Islander woman in a lead.
Additionally, the researchers found that of the 51,159 actors with speaking roles in the films, 5.9 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, lower than the 7.1 percent of the U.S. population that identifies as such using U.S. census designations.
The Inclusion Initiative, which was founded more than a decade ago to study and promote diversity and inclusion in entertainment, also noted other limited intersectional Asian and Pacific Islander representation, with just 15 characters out of 600 films from 2014 to 2019 members of the LGBTQ community. No Asian or Pacific Islander characters in the films were transgender.
And just 1.9 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander (API) characters from 500 movies spanning from 2015 to 2019 were shown on screen with a disability, the USC study found.
The study, which comes amid a spike in anti-Asian hate crimes during the coronavirus pandemic, also reported that when Asian or Pacific Islander actors are represented in film, the stories often present stereotypes, which researchers Nancy Wang Yuen and Stacy L. Smith argue creates “a state of affairs that can lead to discrimination and psychological harm.”
“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” Yuen said in a statement along with Tuesday’s report. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion.”
Yuen said that in 2019, “30% of API primary and secondary characters were either one of the only, or interacted with no other API characters on screen.”
“We need to see more than one API character on screen interacting with one another in meaningful ways,” she added.
Smith said that the findings “offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences.”
“Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community,” she said. “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 comes the same day the House is expected to pass an anti-Asian American hate crimes bill that was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support by the Senate last month.
The legislation would require the Department of Justice to more uniformly measure COVID-19-related and other anti-Asian hate crimes reported across the country. It would also provide guidance to local and state law enforcement on responding to these crimes.