ENTERTAINMENT

Asian American Characters On Screen Are More Likely To Be Laughed At Than Laughed With

A new study describes how major movies perpetuate harmful stereotypes about AAPI people and make them the punchline.

For many Asian Americans, being the butt of a racist joke is an all-too-familiar experience. A new study on the ways AAPI people are represented in major movies finds this is also true on screen, revealing that more often than not, audiences are expected to laugh at an AAPI character rather than laugh with one.

Across the board, AAPI characters usually only get to be the object in major movies rather than the subject, according to a study released Tuesday by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which partnered with Gold House and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment. Their report, “I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority: Redefining What it Means to Be API in the Entertainment Industry,” lays out the ways that popular movies perpetuate tropes that objectify and flatten AAPI people. The rise in anti-Asian attacks and harassment over the past year and a half has underscored the importance of interrogating how pop culture perpetuates harmful perceptions of Asian Americans, which can lead to real-life racism and violence.

The researchers analyzed the AAPI characters in each of the 10 highest-grossing films from 2010 to 2019. Because the sample size was so small (for instance, there were zero AAPI characters in the highest-grossing films from 2010 to 2013), they did an additional analysis using all films with any AAPI people in the main cast that were released by major studios and streaming platforms between 2017 and 2020. 

While there was no single trope that dominated, many of the films portrayed AAPI characters as one or more of the most common Asian stereotypes, including the “model minority,” the “forever foreigner” and the “nerd,” and portrayed East Asian women as “exotic” or “dragon ladies.” The study also found that many of the AAPI characters were only depicted in stereotypical jobs, like “working in tech” or being a “shop owner.” When an AAPI character was meant to be funny, they were almost twice as likely to be the character audiences were supposed to laugh at (43.4%) rather than laugh with (23.5%).

Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fighting Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." Many Asian Amer
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fighting Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." Many Asian Americans criticized the film's depiction of Lee, which turned the actor and martial arts legend into a punchline.

The researchers also looked at what traits AAPI characters displayed when they appeared in these films. For example, with characters that perpetuated the “model minority” stereotype, about 60% were written as “smart,” and 47% were written as “hard-working.” But fewer than a third of these characters “displayed leadership traits” or “were seen as cool.” Instead, when they were on screen, the characters with these traits were portrayed as meek, docile and one-dimensional, reinforcing the model minority trope.

Time and again, studies like these have illustrated the ways that AAPI representation on screen and off screen are intertwined. To better understand this, one component of the study involved a survey of more than 300 AAPI people working in Hollywood, conducted in June by CAPE.

In that survey, only 43.5% of the respondents said they felt their “voice is valued.” Nearly 90% said they have been the only AAPI person in the room, more than 75% said they have felt tokenized, and 81% said they have experienced microaggressions at work, like someone confusing them for another Asian person or assuming they don’t speak English.

The vast majority of respondents said they feel AAPI representation in Hollywood is moving in the right direction, but nowhere near fast enough. The survey found that many AAPI creators see a gap between their own definition of “representation” and the definition held by the industry at large.

Nearly all of the survey respondents agreed that representation means “portraying a group of people in an authentic way on screen.” However, only 42.9% of them said they think Hollywood as a whole considers that the definition. Instead, many of them said they believe industry leaders define representation as “serving as a proxy for a certain group.”

Asian women at a protest in Washington's Chinatown on March 27, 2021. One woman holds a sign that reads "6 Asian women were m
Asian women at a protest in Washington's Chinatown on March 27, 2021. One woman holds a sign that reads "6 Asian women were murdered," a reference to a March 16 shooting spree in Atlanta.

Elsewhere, respondents elaborated on the ways they think the entertainment industry has a much lower bar for representation, writing that they’ve often worked with industry leaders who treat the issue as simply a “check box you have to tick” — when in reality, “just being on screen is not enough.”

The overwhelming theme of both the report’s recommendations and the survey responses from AAPI people in Hollywood is the idea of “more”: more kinds of AAPI stories and characters, more people telling them, more investment in them and more AAPI people working in Hollywood at all levels, from crew members to casting directors to studio executives.

The researchers also emphasized that no single story can stand in for an entire community or group, urging Hollywood to pay attention to what kinds of Asian stories are overrepresented, and to aim to portray a wider range of lived experiences of AAPI people.

One of the study’s recommendations is for “more balance” in storytelling. In addition to avoiding stereotypes and tropes that flatten AAPI characters, it’s also about depicting AAPI people as multidimensional and complicated. For example, one of the respondents in the survey wrote: “I would like to see us as empowered and edgy.”

Other respondents said they want to see greater representation of mixed-race and multi-ethnic characters and families, as well as more AAPI inclusion in classic genres like coming-of-age or romance stories. Many said they hoped to see fewer stories where a character’s AAPI identity, or their immigrant experience, is the sole plot point or catalyst for the character’s story arc — reflecting a desire for Asian Americans to be seen as our whole selves.

Read the full report here.