Is mere representation the end goal?
According to the comprehensive diversity in film report released by Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in August, Asians were the only characters of color to see a steady increase in the past 16 years, shooting up from 3% of speaking characters in 2007 to 16% in 2022. With promising progress on the quantitative front, fellow USC research group the Norman Lear Center teamed up with Gold House for a qualitative analysis that could well be considered a lesson in representation 2.0 or even 3.0.
Looking at major Asian characters in last year’s 100 top-ranked series and films on streaming platforms, the researchers found that few of these characters fell into stereotypic roles (except for the one about model minorities, with nearly half of Asian characters shown in intellectual careers like STEM), and most in fact were depicted with very little reference to their race or ethnicity at all.
But that’s not automatically a good thing. “This study was an opportunity to take a deep dive into the quality of prominent Asian roles, and our results underscore the importance of nuance in the discussions we have around representation,” Norman Lear Center senior researcher Soraya Giaccardi said in a statement. “Avoiding tropes and stereotypes by simply erasing cultural specificity only continues to obscure the full breadth and diversity of the Asian diaspora.”
In fact, the researchers allege that this ignoring of an Asian character’s racial or ethnic identity actually has the effect of emphasizing his or her proximity to whiteness – ironically perpetuating the stereotype that Asians desire assimilation “over cultural authenticity and racial solidarity,” the study authors wrote. Other indicators include 90% of the Asian characters being fair-skinned, two-thirds never speaking to another Asian character, and most Asian women depicted in a romantic relationship being with a white man.
“We hear from many actors who express a strong desire to move beyond roles and storylines only centered on their race – to play multidimensional characters that can be just as funny, flawed or inspirational as anyone else and just so happen to be Asian,” Gold House vice president of entertainment and media Tiffany Chao said in a statement. “That said, race-agnostic roles should not come at the expense of cultural authenticity. That is a false binary. We hope to see more stories that feature the full range of the Asian diaspora’s experiences.”’
The entire report is thoughtful, compellingly presented and worth a read.