When MASTER OF NONE, FRESH OFF THE BOAT and the (now cancelled) DR. KEN premiered on TV, as well as the ongoing HAWAII FIVE-0, it seems that AAPI representation was finally on an uptick. It’s worth noting, however, that it took two decades for a network show with an Asian American lead to pop up on TV again after the one season of ALL-AMERICAN GIRL starring Margaret Cho. So, this new “renaissance” may seem like progress, according to recently published study titled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” proper representation of the AAPI community in Hollywood is still moving at a very slow pace.
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The multi-university study, a 10-year follow-up to a 2005 and 2006 study of AAPIs in primetime television, examined 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015-August 31, 2016. In the end, they concluded that although there are more opportunities for AAPI actors, their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen.
The group of California professors and scholars included Christina B. Chin, PhD (Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton), Meera E. Deo, J.D., PhD (Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego), Faustina M. DuCros, PhD (Assistant Professor at San Jose State University), Jenny J. Lee, M.Ed and PhD student (University of California, Los Angeles), Noriko Milman, PhD (Assistant Professor at University of San Francisco), and Nancy Wang Yuen, PhD (Associate Professor at Biola University, La Mirada, California).
The study’s results showed that white actors dominated the TV landscape in all aspects. Nearly 70% of TV series regulars are white, and at least 96% of TV shows have at least one white series regular. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering UCLA and USC have done studies with similar outcomes. As mentioned, the new study found that 69.5% of TV series regulars are white while 14% are black and 5.9% are Latino. Mono-racial AAPI (a person of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) make up 4.3%, while Multiracial AAPI (person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and non-Asian heritage) account for 2.6%. When all is said and done, 155 out of the 242 shows studied do not have AAPI series regulars. In the 2006 study, 2.6% of the primetime programs evaluated had AAPI series regulars. The new study shows a significant increase, but barely moves the needle.
The study sums up that there may be more “representation” on TV with AAPI actors, but they’re relegated to supporting or bit roles.
“It’s not enough to have Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on just on a handful of shows —they need to reflect real life,” says Yuen, who also wrote Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors And Racism. “Shows set in diverse cities like New York and Los Angeles should not be completely white” — but according to TV, they are.
What is also noted in the study is the continual use of “Asian stereotypes” or “Yellowface.” A perfect example is the episode of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER where all the main white leads are dressed in “Oriental” clothes and don fu man chu mustaches. Despite all the progress over the years, these micro-agressions and casual racism showcase the tone-deaf racism when it comes to AAPI representation.
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The study hones in on five stereotypes that surfaced in the shows they evaluated. There’s the “Uncivilized and Mysterious Stranger,” a common stereotype that has been seen since the dawn of entertainment. Another common one is AAPIs being portrayed as dangerous villains — often terrorists (especially with South Asians and Middle Easterners). The emasculation of Asian men and fetishization of Asian women is also a popular one. The former is played out on 2 BROKE GIRLS when the character of Han Lee is made fun of for not being able to have a romantic relationship, the latter seen on Vice Principals when the Korean wife of a character is called a “mail-order bride.”
Having white characters assuming roles of Asian authority continues to be a stereotype and was illustrated on HAWAII FIVE-O when a Japanese-speaking white man was the head of the Yakuza crime ring. Arguably, the character of Danny Rand from Marvel’s IRON FIST can be in the same boat. And finally, there’s the idea of AAPIs being the “model minority.” The odd nerd. The “typical” doctor. The child prodigy under the Tiger Mom’s paw — a whole other stereotype in itself.
Deadline writer Dino Ray-Ramos, who penned this article, points out HBO’S THE NIGHT OF as a show to be championed and added to the pantheon of AAPI led shows currently on TV:
HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series THE NIGHT OF starring Riz Ahmed can also be added to this honor roll of AAPI shows. Straying away from the one-note, stereotype-driven show it could have been, The Night Of follows Naz (Ahmed), a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accused of murder and imprisoned, the show dives deep into identity politics, the perception of Pakistanis, the legal system and how a strong-willed, moral man can be transformed by society and the system and turn bad.
MASTER OF NONE, FRESH OFF THE BOAT AND THE NIGHT OF are a testament to the fact that Asian American shows can exist outside the realms of the stereotypical lens — and can get viewers, acclaim…and noteworthy awards. In addition, shows like THE WALKING DEAD, QUANTICO, THE GOOD PLACE, MY CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR, INTO THE BADLANDS, AGENTS OF SHIELD and THE MINDY PROJECT have featured AAPI actors. Despite all this, the underrepresentation of AAPIs lingers.
The general consensus is that the TV industry is resistant to change, even though the business model versus theatrical film is different. AAPI leads are still considered “risky” and shows like THE MINDY PROJECT or FRESH OFF THE BOAT are the exception rather than the rule. AAPI characters, for the most part, are still tokenized.
The article ends with this bold statement:
The three-dimensional representation of the AAPI community not only benefits diverse storytelling on TV but also educates audiences on the proper portrayal of those of Asian heritage, eliminating the notion that all AAPIs are limited to being a dragon lady, emasculated nerd, over-achieving doctor, terrorist, an object of fetishization, or an obedient member of the model minority.
Bottom-line, there’s so much work to be done, especially for AAPI representation in mass media. I’ve written in the past that when it comes to Asian Pacific Americans, white people (as well as other groups), just don’t know how to approach us, write about us or represent us. It’s time we take the reigns and do it ourselves, just like Aziz Ansari, Alan Yang, Nanatchka Khan, Mindy Kaling, Justin Lin, and many more are doing.
To read the entire article, head over to Deadline Hollywood: Asian Americans On TV: Study Finds Continued Underrepresentation Despite New Wave Of AAPI-Led Shows