While recent years have seen progress in black and female representation in American film and television, the same cannot be said for Asian Americans. For years, Asian Americans have largely been trivialized in the entertainment world. The lack of proper Asian-American representation in film and television is alarming. Roles that allow them to demonstrate the scope of their talent are few and far between.
A study from the University of Southern California found that Asian-Americans played only 4.4 percent of speaking roles in 100 of the top-grossing films of 2013. Hollywood’s aversion to casting Asian Americans is a reflection of its deeply racist culture, where directors seldom deem minorities marketable for lead roles. Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States. Lack of representation equals lack of exposure. When Asian actors do appear on screen, they are often confined to roles that emphasize their ethnicities. One of the few characters of color on “How I Met Your Mother,” Ranjit, was a taxi driver, a common stereotype for people of South Asian backgrounds. Although there are other Asian characters in “Orange Is the New Black,” the character of Chang, an inmate with a thick Chinese accent, still channels the stereotype that Asians are quiet and nonassertive.
These characters give the impression that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners who cannot assimilate into American society. Rarely is an Asian-American actor cast as the lead in a romantic comedy, or an Asian-American actor cast as the protagonist of a big-budget superhero film. These roles almost always go to white actors and actresses.
Some current Asian-American roles transcend stereotypes and signify progress toward better representation. Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson in the CBS series “Elementary” is a strong character whose Asian heritage has little involvement in her life. From her blatantly Caucasian name to her non-stereotypical occupation, Watson would probably not have been depicted differently had she been played by a white actor. Aziz Ansari’s Tom Haverford in “Parks and Recreation” is similarly unrestricted by his ethnicity. This is not to say that diminishing cultural background is the way to achieve better representation of minorities. Rather, cultural background should not be the sole marker of their representation in the media.
It is imperative that film and TV networks put more Asian-American actors and actresses on screen, but merely increasing their quantity is not enough. Asian-Americans should be not be cast in distasteful caricatures of their ethnic identities. Roles should instead showcase the full spectrum of diversity and complexity in Asian-American populations. If the public does not see Asians in mainstream roles that are not defined by cultural stereotypes, the stereotypes will go unchallenged.
Email Zahra Haque at [email protected]