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  • Anushka Agate

The Evolving Narrative of Asian American Representation in Media

The Influence of Asian Americans in Pop Culture (Illustration by Momo Shinzawa)

In the ever-changing landscape of Hollywood, the spotlight on the representation of Asian Americans has become increasingly significant, sparking crucial conversations about the urgent need for more diverse and authentic narratives. Although there have been some noteworthy advancements, challenges persist, prompting the industry to grapple with the profound implications of genuine representation.

In cinematic history, Asian Americans have frequently found themselves confined to stereotypical roles, pushing harmful tropes and limiting the diversity of their stories. One notable example lies in the historical use of yellowface, a practice where non-Asian actors do makeup to portray Asian characters, perpetuating caricatures and racial stereotypes. In the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mickey Rooney's portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi, a Japanese character, exemplifies this problematic tradition, emphasizing the caricatured depiction of Asians prevalent in Hollywood's earlier years. The trope of the perpetual foreigner is another recurring stereotype that has permeated media representations. TV shows such as 2 Broke Girls have been criticized for their portrayal of Han Lee, played by Matthew Moy, whose character leans heavily on racial and cultural stereotypes. The show maintains the notion of the perpetual foreigner, reinforcing the idea that Asian Americans are forever outsiders in their own country. For decades, the industry has had an inclination to rely on one-dimensional portrayals of Asian Americans, preserving stereotypes that oversimplify the diverse experiences within the community.

However, in recent years, the entertainment industry has revealed triumphs in the search for Asian American representation. Films like The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang, provide a poignant example of authentic storytelling, emphasizing the power of narratives driven by those intimately familiar with the cultural nuances they portray. In this film, Wang beautifully captured the complexities of her family's experiences, showcasing the transformative potential of diverse voices behind the camera. Similarly, the landscape of representation expands further with television series such as Never Have I Ever, co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. Centered around Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian American teenager navigating the challenges of adolescence, the show resonates with authenticity. The inclusion of a South Asian protagonist allows for a nuanced exploration of cultural identity, family dynamics, and the universal struggles of teenagehood, contributing to the broader conversation on diverse and relatable storytelling.

Though advances have been made, the entertainment industry still faces issues like typecasting and limited opportunities. A 2019 report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed that Asian characters comprised only 3.4% of speaking roles in top-grossing films. This emphasizes the persistent gap in on-screen representation, with less than 2% of leading characters being of Asian descent.

Social media has become a powerful tool for demanding representation and challenging stereotypes. Activists and influencers, such as John Cho, an actor famous for his role in the Harold and Kumar film series, have used online platforms to advocate for more diverse casting choices, contributing to the ongoing conversation about the need for inclusivity. The #Oscarssowhite movement, gaining prominence in 2016 on platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, heightened awareness about the industry's lack of diversity in prestigious award ceremonies. Despite the following years witnessing increased recognition of diverse talents, including Asian American nominees and winners, the entertainment world continues to grapple with the intricate challenges of fostering genuine inclusivity. This movement serves as a critical reminder that the push for representation extends beyond the actors on screen to encompass the entire spectrum of industry professionals working both in front of and behind the camera.

While notable steps have been taken in the representation of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry, the journey is far from complete. Authentic storytelling, diverse casting, and increased opportunities for Asian American talent are essential steps toward a more inclusive and representative entertainment landscape. As audiences continue to demand diverse narratives, the industry must embrace the richness of the Asian American experience, fostering an environment where every voice can be heard and celebrated.

Works Cited:

Chi, Paul. “Two Years after #StarringJohnCho, John Cho Is Finally a Leading Man.” Vanity Fair, 26 July 2018, Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

Smith, Stacy L., et al. “Inequality in 1,600 Popular Films.” USC Annenberg, Aug. 2023, Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

Ugwu, Reggie. “The Hashtag That Changed the Oscars: An Oral History.” The New York Times, 6 Feb. 2020, Accessed 20 Dec. 2023.

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