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The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has teamed with the Asian American nonprofits Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House for a new study examining the portrayals and experiences of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the entertainment industry.
I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority: Redefining What It Means to Be API in the Entertainment Industry, which was introduced Tuesday during a panel discussion at the Davis-chaired Bentonville Film Festival, is the first report that combines an analysis of API onscreen depictions with a survey of API industry members.
“Our study provides unique insights into the lived experiences of APIs working in Hollywood and the negative stereotypes that have existed onscreen for decades,” Davis said in a statement. “There is an enormous gap between how the APIs surveyed and those in the broader Hollywood community perceive the meaning of the word ‘representation.’ Having the data and these critical insights from the API community will allow us to drive systemic change in entertainment and media.”
The study examined the 10 highest-grossing movies in the U.S. each year from 2010 through 2019 to capture a quantitative snapshot of the share of API inclusion. To assess how API characters are portrayed, the study analyzed all 124 films produced or released by a major company from 2017 through 2020 that featured API actors in the main title cast.
Among the annual 10 most popular movies of the last decade, Asians and Pacific Islanders (who comprise 7.4 percent of the U.S. population) represented 4.5 percent of leads or co-leads and 5.6 percent of supporting characters. All five of the API leads or co-leads in this 100-film sample are male, and two of them are Dwayne Johnson in the Jumanji franchise. (Elsewhere in the study, the report’s analysis found that whereas ethnic identity was central to the story for approximately half (49.2 percent) of East Asian characters, it was largely incidental when it came to the vast majority (87.8 percent) of Hawaiian or Pacific Islander characters, suggesting that “authors from these backgrounds are much more likely to be cast in roles that aren’t written specifically for a character of their ethnicity, or that [their] ethnic groups’ stories are less likely to be written for film.)
Among the 225 main title API characters in movies released from 2017 through 2020, of which 72.6 percent were supporting roles, the study found that more than half were East Asian (57.5 percent) and 61.5 percent had light to medium-light skin tones, although the study found no “clear evidence of colorism” in its sample when it came to API leads versus non-leads. The male-female gender split was nearly 50-50, although none of the characters were transgender or non-binary. The study’s intersectional analysis also included examinations by sexual orientation, age, class, disability status and body size.
Approximately a third (35.2 percent) of API characters fell into at least one API stereotype or trope, chiefly the Martial Artist, Model Minority, Nerd and Perpetual Foreigner. The detailed content analysis coded characters along 26 identified tropes (including whether the stereotypes were subverted) and 10 traits (including whether characters were laughed at or laughed with), and also tracked occupational types and the presence and treatment of cultural themes and racism in the story.
In the industry survey portion of the study, conducted by CAPE, nearly all of the 329 respondents (who were most frequently writers, onscreen talent and producers) deemed API representation inadequate onscreen (93.3 percent) as well as behind the scenes (95.1 percent). What’s more, the majority of API industry members surveyed hold a dim view of the rest of the business’ understanding of “representation” to mean authentic onscreen portrayals and opportunities behind the scenes. More than half (55.6 percent) reported that they have experienced blatant racism in the workplace, 72.5 percent said they have been tokenized and 80.9 percent experienced microaggressions.
“With 80 percent of media consumed worldwide made in the United States, we have a responsibility to create authentic storylines and portrayals to push culture forward on a global scale,” CAPE executive director Michelle Sugihara said in a statement. “Currently there is a disconnect between the real-life experiences of APIs and the quality and quantity of representation onscreen and behind the scenes. The conflation of our many communities under the API banner further compounds monolithic perceptions. Inaccurate portrayals are not just a representation issue; they are a social justice issue that we must tackle together.”
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