“We are more complex than that”: How television portrays Asian American women
“Hollywood always wants a white co-lead,” said Nancy Yuen, associate professor at Biola University and one of the principal authors of a new study about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) in prime time and streaming television. “We need Asian American women to not be seen as tokens or missing from a white man’s story.”
Ten years after two studies of AAPIs in prime-time broadcast television in 2005 and 2006, the same group of researchers have conducted a new study examining broadcast, cable, and digital platform television shows in the 2015-2016 season. “Tokens on the Small Screen: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Prime Time and Streaming Television” measures the number of AAPI series regulars (the main cast of a show) and how they fare in terms of settings, screen time, relationships, stereotypes, and storylines.
2015 is the year that ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat premiered — the first American sitcom featuring an Asian American family since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl 20 years ago — as well as Netflix’s Master of None and ABC’s Dr. Ken.
Out of 242 television shows and 2,052 series regulars examined, the researchers found that although there has been some improvement over the past decade, AAPIs are still underrepresented on television compared to their population and compared to whites on television. Ten years ago, AAPIs comprised 2.6 percent of broadcast series regulars, and now 4.3 percent of series regulars are AAPI — compared with 5.9 percent of the population. Pacific Islanders make up only 0.2 percent of series regulars, which represents half their representation in the U.S. population. In contrast, whites comprise 69.5 percent of series regulars, while they are 61.3 percent of the population.
Sixty-four percent of all shows do not feature any AAPI series regulars at all. This is especially disconcerting for shows set in cities with large AAPI populations. Of the 46 shows set in New York, 70 percent have no AAPIs; and of the 45 shows set in Los Angeles, 53 percent have no AAPIs. In contrast, 96 percent of television shows have at least one white series regular. “It is not realistic,” said Yuen. “Every show has more than one white character, but it is rare to have more than one Asian American character.”
AAPI characters are also less complex, with fewer romantic and familial relationships, and with shows often falling back on negative stereotypes of AAPIs such as perpetual foreigner, “yellow peril,” “model minority,” emasculated men, exoticized women, and sidekicks to white characters.
Race and Gender
AAPI male and female characters are represented at nearly the same rates — 3.7 percent of series regulars are AAPI males and 3.3 percent of series regulars are AAPI females. However, AAPI males have nearly two hours more screen time over the season than AAPI females, with 10 hours 41 minutes of screen time for AAPI males as compared to AAPI females’ eight hours 53 minutes of screen time.
Yuen noted that AAPI women characters are often seen as “pass-through characters,” or plot points for other characters’ stories.
This can be seen in the differences in the complexity of AAPI male and female characters as revealed through the characters’ romantic and familial relationships. AAPI male characters tend to be more isolated, with only 43 percent in romantic relationships and 39 percent in familial relationships. However, AAPI female characters are more likely to be defined by their romantic and familial relationships.
With the advent of streaming television, shows no longer need to reach the broadest audience, but can instead reach out to and succeed with niche audiences. Cable shows have also been able to highlight complex AAPI leads, such as the character of Glen Rhee, played by Steven Yeun, on AMC’s The Walking Dead. “It is a different world than it was ten years ago,” said Yuen. “Master of None would not have existed ten years ago. Three Indians on screen who are so different would not have happened before the advent of streaming.”
Because most shows with AAPI series regulars lie at the extremes of either having only one or being AAPI-dense, AAPI representation is constantly at risk. In 2015-2016, 34.5 percent of all AAPI series regulars were concentrated in only 11 shows. When over half of these shows were canceled, AAPI representation dropped by 21 percent. For example, 10 percent of all AAPI series regulars (14 characters) appeared on Netflix’s Marco Polo, so cancellation of that one show wiped out a large segment of AAPI representation.
“When Sandra Oh left Grey’s Anatomy, there was no one to replace her,” said Yuen. “[Last] year, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park stepped down from Hawaii Five-O because they were paid less and not seen as leads. They should have always been the leads in a show set in Hawaii. These are remnants of the lack of quality representation.”
More complex AAPI roles
A handful of shows that feature AAPI regulars are lauded by the researchers as exemplary in their development of multifaceted AAPI characters — HBO’s The Night Of, Netflix’s Master of None, AMC’s The Walking Dead, and ABC’s Fresh off the Boat. These shows have also received high ratings and multiple awards as they engage with racial issues and resist stereotyped portrayals.
“In terms of quality roles, Constance Wu [who plays Jessica Huang in Fresh Off the Boat] is at the top of AAPI women’s representation,” said Yuen. Other actresses who enjoy complex roles that transcend television’s usual tokenization of AAPIs include Priyanka Chopra in Quantico, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Lucy Liu in Elementary, Maggie Q in Designated Survivor, and Chloe Bennet and Ming-Na Wen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
“We need more Asian American women as leads and not only as tokens, and even on shows with Asian American men,” said Yuen. She said that television features few Asian American couples, more interracial couples, and many storylines about Asian parents wanting their children to marry. “Marriage should not be the only story, and one that inevitably has to be interracial. We are more complex than that.” Looking at the success of Fresh off the Boat as well as the popularity of Korean dramas, Yuen suggested that family dramas may be one way to develop acting talent and to create more engaging stories involving AAPIs, especially AAPI women, that go beyond the tired storylines of AAPI parents pressuring their children to get married, token portrayals like Asian American trophy wives, or comedies that simply make fun of Asian accents.
Superhero, science fiction, and fantasy are other genres that could easily include more AAPI women.
“We need a whole generation of Asian American women to be seen,” said Yuen. “They need better roles so they can flex their acting muscles and display the full range of their talent.”
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