As if the recent jaw-dropping news that 42% of Americans couldn’t name a famous Asian American (despite Vice President Kamala Harris being one) weren’t bad enough, now comes another disturbing example of just how underrepresented AAPI individuals are in all aspects of American society and the business world, including the entertainment industry.
According to a new study from the University of Southern California, representation of AAPI individuals is so low that when researchers tracked the number of Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders who had lead billing in a major Hollywood film between 2007 and 2019, they found that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson alone comprised a full third of those roles.
Kimmy Yam of NBC News has reported that during that decade-plus-long study period, “just 44 films had an Asian American or Pacific Islander, or AAPI, front and center, and in 14 of them, ‘The Rock,’ who is of Samoan descent, was the lead.”
“There just aren’t enough roles for [Pacific Islanders] and Asian actors in general. And that’s why we see The Rock so many times,” said sociologist and lead author of the study, Nancy Wang Yuen. “Mainstream Hollywood isn’t doing its job. I’m just so grateful that there are more independent movies. Hopefully, that will then trickle over to mainstream Hollywood, but we haven’t seen that [historically] up to this point.”
To conduct the study, researchers reviewed the casting of 51,159 speaking characters in more than 1,300 top-grossing films produced between 2007 to 2019. They found that not only did 67% of the films fail to include a proportional representation of the AAPI community, but nearly 40% of the movies neglected to include a single AAPI cast member with a speaking role.
“Just 22 AAPI actors occupied the lead roles, compared to the 336 white men who had leading roles,” Yam reported, noting that statistically, just 3.4% of these top-grossing movies featured AAPI leads over that 13-year period.
In addition to a general lack of representation for AAPI actors, the study also found “glaring erasures of intersectional Asian American identities.”
“Women were the faces of just six of the 44 films with AAPI leads, none of them over age 40. And there wasn’t a single LGBTQ Asian American or Pacific Islander lead,” Yam said.
“[AAPI] are just not seen as mainstream by Hollywood,” Yeun said. “Hollywood just isn’t ready to tell those stories, despite the fact that … there are audiences out there who want to see that.”
To examine whether progress was being made over the 13 years they studied, the researchers also delved even deeper by evaluating 79 primary and secondary AAPI characters featured in the top films of 2019. They then codified these portrayals, ranking them from “invisible” to “fully formed” or fully human, with a full range of feelings and relationships.
The result: just as throughout much of film history, these characters continued to fall into the categories of “silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated and sidekicks or villains.”
“The historic emasculation of Asian men also persists, the study said, as 58% were shown with no romantic partners. In comparison, 37.5% of women were portrayed without partners,” Yam reported.
Yuen blames the entire Hollywood system for the ongoing lack of AAPI representation, from producers and directors down to writers and casting directors, because it’s ultimately a domino effect.
“The people, the writers, the directors, the producers — they’re not Asian or Pacific Islander,” Yuen said. “So, then you have a problem with the source material, a problem with an authentic and deep understanding of the community. So then, of course, superficial representations and tokenism are going to happen, because it’s not on the forefront of their minds.” Yuen also noted that even when they attempt to “do better,” they don’t necessarily know how to go about it, resulting in a reinforced and exclusionary status quo.
Still, Yuen hopes her study will not only raise awareness but, more importantly, further conversations on how the industry can proactively address the lack of AAPI representation in media.
“I fight for more inclusion in the mainstream media … because how else will we have a greater influence on society?” Yuen said.