Nearly half of Asian film characters serve as the punchline

Kathryn Wheeler
By Kathryn Wheeler,
updated on Aug 6, 2021

Nearly half of Asian film characters serve as the punchline

A new study has uncovered that, in top-grossing films from 2010 to 2019, Asian Americans’ roles were often the ‘punchline’, and women were disproportionately sexualised

In an analysis of the on-screen portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islander (API) roles in top-grossing films, researchers found that characters were often used as a ‘punchline’ – whether the character themselves was comedic or not.

In a study titled I am Not a Fetish or Model Minority, from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House, analysis of the top 10 grossing films each between 2010 to 2019 found that audiences were asked to laugh at nearly half of all roles.

Additionally, 17% of female API characters are verbally objectified and 13% are visually objectified – levels that are higher for API women than for white women or other non-API women of colour.

When it came to the roles API characters were playing, the researchers found that, even in films that feature API characters in the main title cast, nearly three-fourths are in supportive roles, and a third of API characters embody common tropes or stereotypes such as ‘martial artist’, the ‘model minority’, or ‘exotic woman’.

What is a ‘model minority?’

One of the most pervasive stereotypes attached to Asian Americans, this term was first introduced during the 1960s US social movement. In a piece for the New York Times by sociologist William Pettersen, he explored the widespread stereotype of Asians as ‘hard-working’ and ‘compliant’. He congratulated Japanese Americans for overcoming discrimination – as the myth paints all Asian Americans as successful and well-adjusted, quiet, docile, and with a strong work ethic – in contrast to Black Americans who were ‘problem minorities’ – deepening divides and ignoring the reality of both communities’ struggles against racial bigotry.

In her foreword to the study, Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of CAPE, said:

“Currently, there is a disconnect between the real-life experiences of APIs and the quality and quantity of representation on screen and behind the scenes. For starters, we want to see more layered and nuanced portrayals, stories of mixed-race and multi-ethnic characters, and intersectional narratives. Stories that ignore or erase (or worse, mock) our humanity create the narrative foundation for how APIs are perceived and treated in the real-world, which is why stereotypes are so damaging.”

Recently, there has been a drastic rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, both in the US and in the UK – with British East and Southeast Asian communities seeing a 300% increase in hate crimes, according to UK-based advocacy group to End the Virus of Racism. And, at a time where these groups are more at risk of race-based crimes and abuse, Michelle highlights how important it is to address stereotypes and mistreatment at every stage.

“These inaccurate portrayals have profound and insidious consequences, which is why this is not just a representation issue, but a social justice issue. We see stereotypical portrayals of API characters on our screens again and again – if we see them at all – which have real-world impacts. For example, the stereotypes that Asian Americans are hard-working but lack assertiveness and leadership savvy are so pervasive that, according to the Harvard Business Review, Asian Americans are the most likely to be hired, but the least likely to be promoted into management.

“Additionally, the stereotype of Hawaiians being ‘happy welcomers’ to visitors and colonizers (aka the ‘Aloha spirit’), coupled with the “Hawai’i as paradise” trope, has led to detrimental effects on their land and scarce natural resources. Not to mention when we have a steady stream of stereotypes that dehumanize a group of people, it becomes psychologically easier to hurt them. Indeed, studies show that when people see Asians in America as being ‘foreign,’ they are more likely to treat them with hostility and to engage in acts of violence and discrimination against them.”

Studies such as these are an important reminder, not only of the pipeline from media representation to real-world consequences, but also of the work that still needs to be done.

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