Representation of Asian Americans in film limited

Zahra Haque, Staff Columnist

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]




  1. Good article touches upon some basics in media stereotypes and its way of perpetuating racist images of people of color but Joan Watson in Elementary is not really progress either.

    Instead of having ethnic heritage cultures mocked and stereotyped, having it completely invisible, we have a fully assimilated, acculturated into Anglo-centric American society, character a.k.a. whitewashed.

    It would be refreshing to see a character of color who knows their heritage culture and traditions, hold and have them AND still be considered “American”. “American” shouldn’t have to mean being as white as possible.

    And Joan Watson still portrays the common Hollywood media trope, pairing Asian women opposite White men. It’s pretty ridiculous that after all these decades, Asian-Americans have still never seen an Asian-American couple on TV. Only Asian women with White men. What kind of message are they sending young Asian-Americans when they only see Asian characters opposite White love interests?

    Notice the movie “The Hangover”, where the Asian man is an undesirable joke and Jamie Chung’s character did little more than just show up as the White guy’s Asian bride.

    • “And Joan Watson still portrays the common Hollywood media trope, pairing Asian women opposite White men. It’s pretty ridiculous that after all these decades, Asian-Americans have still never seen an Asian-American couple on TV. ”

      Yeah. There have been pretty rare encounters of Pan-Asian couples on TV, but point taken. Is Better Luck Tomorrow the last movie with an Asian American couple in it? And I think Lost was the last TV drama to have a Pan-Asian couple.

      It also does not help that our “representatives” are either not exactly taking the best approaches (John Cho) or are non-committal to the Asian American community (Lucy Liu, despite what she says or is a part of, and Jamie Chung).


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