Asian American Representation in Film and Television

Movie poster for  Crazy Rich Asians  (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

Movie poster for Crazy Rich Asians (2018) starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu.

By Jennifer Liu

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, it is worth examining Asian American representation in recent films and television shows. As the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S., Asian Americans currently make up 6% of the population and are projected to account for 38% of all American immigrants in 50 years. Yet they have remained virtually absent from mainstream entertainment until recently. On August 17, Crazy Rich Asians will be released; it’s the first major Hollywood production that is not a period piece to feature an all-Asian cast in twenty-five years (since The Joy Luck Club in 1993). Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy about a Singaporean heir who brings his Chinese-American girlfriend home to meet his family.

The film arrives at a time when the entertainment industry is hotly debating the issue of diversity. The film market in China is second only to the U.S., but despite that nation’s box office contribution, very few major American films feature Asian characters. According to a study by the University of Southern California, only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were played by Asian actors in 2014. Moreover, whitewashing – hiring white actors to play characters originally designated Asian – still occurs. Scarlett Johansson was cast as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017), a live-action Hollywood remake of one of the most successful Japanese anime movies in history. Other examples of recent whitewashing and erasure of Asian actors include Emma Stone playing a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character named “Allison Ng” in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2016); Matt Damon in the starring role of a big-budget Chinese period action film The Great Wall (2016); Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a Tibetan high priest in the original comics but reimagined as a Celtic mystic for Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016); and white-dominated Hollywood versions of Asian stories such as The Last Airbender (2010) and Dragon Ball Evolution (2009).

A multi-university group of California professors and scholars studied 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015 and August 31, 2016. Their report, a follow-up to broadcast TV studies done in 2005 and 2006, concluded that although there are more opportunities for Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) actors than before, their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen. Roles are often of lower quality: characters get less screen time, have less meaningful interactions (including less romantic storylines), or are clearly cast as tokens. Despite the minimum amount of progress for AAPI actors, strides have been made. On the small screen, Asian-American-led TV shows are on the rise. For example, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat has a predominantly Asian-American cast. Inspired by celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, the sitcom follows a Taiwanese-American family that moves to Orlando in the 1990s. The show features an oldest son who loves hip-hop and misadventures, with his parents dishing out moral lectures with uniquely Asian-American points of view. Since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl was cancelled in 1995 (after one season), there hadn’t been a primarily Asian-American cast on network television for twenty years. Currently, Fresh Off the Boat is the only show with an Asian-American-majority cast on network television. Dr. Ken – an ABC show about a Korean-American physician with no bedside manner, his Japanese-American therapist wife, and their two kids –  was cancelled in 2017.

Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the  Master of None  episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Actor/writer Aziz Ansari (R) and writer Alan Yang (L) accept the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode “Parents” during the 68th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 18, 2016.

Critics have praised two shows with three-dimensional Asian-American leads that go beyond Asian stereotypes. Netflix’s Emmy-winning Master of None – the story of a struggling Indian-American actor in New York told through a distinct, unexpected storytelling lens – features Aziz Ansari essentially playing a version of himself. And HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series The Night Of, starring Riz Ahmed, follows a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time, who ends up accused of murder and imprisoned. The show dives deep into identity politics, the perception of Pakistanis, and the legal system to explore how a strong-willed, moral man can be transformed and turn bad. In addition, recent shows like The Walking Dead, Quantico, The Good Place, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Designated Survivor, Into the Badlands, Agents of SHIELDThe Mindy Project, and Andi Mack have featured Asian-American actors as the lead or regular cast member. The decades-long absence of leading Asian-American actors seems to be on the brink of a major shift.


Jennifer Liu is an Associate Professor of History at Central Michigan University. Her research interest focuses on twentieth-century China and Taiwan.

"That's Me"

By Jordan X. Evans

As Black History Month comes to an end, and the hype around the Black Panther film is in full swing, the conversation about representation must reemerge. In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was a landmark case for the United States in which the Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. During the trial, Doctors Kenneth and Mamie Clark showcased their series of experiments known as the "doll tests." Essentially the experiments highlighted how black and white children, as young as three years old, described black dolls with bad qualities and white dolls with good qualities. The Clark's concluded that "prejudice, discrimination, and segregation" created a feeling of inferiority, which harmed African American children's sense of worth and their self-esteem. Recently the discussion about representation in media has echoed many of the same discussions that occurred 60 years ago, and it partially explains why there is such fervor around the latest Marvel film.

The duality of American history is one of ideals that speak of freedom and equality for all, while simultaneously barring people of color and women from participating in the democratic process. Simply put, America has a problem with racism and exploitation, which has been so profitable that it has allowed discrimination, sexism, racism, and bigotry to continue into the 21st century. This becomes evident if we examine how the media have historically been representing black people. The origins of modern American cinematography, in fact, owe dues to Birth of a Nation (1915) which was a film that showed black people as fried chicken eating, no shoe wearing, animalistic beings that just wanted to have sex with white women.

Since Birth of a Nation, films have continued using racist tropes to garner profits financially while subconsciously teaching people how to view others based on those images. Consider the fact that in 89 years the Academy Award's – commonly referred to as the Oscars – has only given five best actor or actress awards to African Americans. Also, it is worth noting that the first award given to an African American was for "best actress in a supporting role" to Hattie McDaniel for her role as a subservient Mammy in 1939. The films that receive the most attention and awards are led by white people, and the few times that black people have won the prestigious best actor or actress awards, they have had to play a bad cop, a megalomaniac dictator, a handy fieldsman, a troubled piano player, and a struggling mother. When viewed together as a whole, it is clear that America views African Americans as troubled people who are better playing the role of an antagonist, a damaged person, or the help.

While African Americans have historically been portrayed as 'less than,' white Americans can see themselves as a savior of a magical world in Harry Potter, the heir to the throne of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, a technological genius in Iron Man, and Earth's adopted superhero in Superman. This has perpetuated the negative perceptions that were uncovered in the Clark's research. The tests have, in fact, been recreated numerous times since the 1940s, and the results are still alarming, children still view black as bad and white as good.

For the first time in 2018 Black America gets to share in the same unbridled happiness as every other child who looked at Harry Potter or Hermione Granger and could say, "They look like me." Finally a story about black people who remain unbothered by colonialism, it's violent tendencies, and one that is purely centered on black people. Black children like my cousins Israel, Azanna, Zion, and Zuri will grow up being able to dress as superheroes who look like them. Azanna and Zuri will be able to see black girl magic at its finest in someone like Shuri, the smartest person in the Marvel universe. Zion and Israel will see themselves as kings and not monsters that want to devour white women. For this one moment during Black History Month, people like me were able to look forward to the future with a smile and not have to be reminded of a history that has devalued our existence. For that I have to say thank you to the cast and directors of the Black Panther, who allowed a historian to imagine a future where the next generation of historians will write of the triumphs of everyday black superheroes.

Photo Credit:  Tom Beland ,  That's Me .

Photo Credit: Tom Beland, That's Me.


Jordan X. Evans is a scholarly activist that attends Central Michigan University. Currently he is studying abroad at the University of Bochum in Germany. He studies American History as a Masters Student, with a focus on African American history in the 20th Century. Currently Jordan is in the process of writing a thesis that will explore the rhetoric, ideologies, and history of the X-Men comics. He can be followed on Twitter @The_Jordan_X.