Researchers examined the top 10 grossing domestic films of each year from 2010 to 2019, as well as 124 films that came out from 2017 to 2020, with Asian and Pacific Islanders in leading roles. They found that 17% of female API characters were verbally objective, meaning that they had been catcalled or subjected to comments about their experiences, and that 13% were visually impaired, meaning that the camera was subject to their The focus was intensely on the body.
“They are not shown as complete human beings – they are shown as body parts,” said Madeline Di Nono, president and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media. “We found that it was more common for API female characters than for Caucasian female characters or women of other non-API, characters of color.”
It is one of several findings in the report, which was published in partnership with Asian Pacific of the Alliance at Entertainment and Gold House. The researchers – who declined to name specific films – also looked at how often Asian and Pacific Islanders were portrayed in lead roles, how often they adopted common tropes and stereotypes, and how often they were identified with their characters. How central was it?
The takeaway: Asian and Pacific Islander representation still has a long way to go.
API characters are more likely to laugh
According to the report, of the top films of the last decade, only 4.5% of the lead characters and 5.6% of the supporting characters were Asian or Pacific Islander, compared to about 7% of the total American population of that group.
In the rare instances where Asian and Pacific Islanders were portrayed in leading roles, they were often subject to tired tropes and stereotypes. About one-third of Asian and Pacific Islander films employ tropes such as “model minority,” “martial artist,” “perpetual foreigner” or “dragon lady,” the report said.
The authors observed that Asian and Pacific Islander characters were also more likely to be the punchline than the person making the joke. About 23% of the API characters were people the audience could laugh with, while about 43% were characters the audience was expected to laugh at.
“They were much less often portrayed as funny,” Di Nono told CNN. “They were more in that model minority [trope] Being hardworking and tough and smart.”
Some movies are specific about Pacific Islanders.
The identities of East Asian characters were central to the story about half the time, they found. But when it came to Hawaii and Pacific Islanders, their identity was central to only about 12% of cases.
“This shows a healthy balance of East Asian storytelling,” the researchers wrote. “However, this was far less balanced for other Asian ethnic groups, suggesting that actors from these backgrounds are more likely to be cast in roles that are not specifically written for a character of their ethnicity, or Stories from other ethnic groups are less likely to be written for the film.”
Di Nono said that for Hollywood to change the way Asians and Pacific Islanders are represented, it is important for them to be represented not only on screen but behind the scenes as well. That’s why the researchers also surveyed Asian and Pacific Islanders in the entertainment industry about their work experiences and the types of portrayals they wanted to see.
“Storytellers write what they know or what they love,” Di Nono said. “Being able to build a pipeline of different API representations will dramatically improve how these illustrations play on screen and how we can enhance and get more authentic stories.”