A new report from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only 5.9% of the 51,159 speaking roles in the 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007-2019 were played by Asian American and Pacific Island actors, and that only 3.4% of those films had an API lead or co-lead, with only six movies featuring an API woman in a leading or co-leading role.
Of those 1,300 films, only three – 0.002% – were directed by AIP women, and none received a solo directing credit for a live action top-grossing feature film in the 13 years that were studied. Asian American and Pacific Islanders make up 7.1% of the U.S. population.
The data span ends one year before Chloé Zhao last month became the first Asian woman and woman of color (and second woman ever) to win the Best Director Oscar. Her film, Searchlight’s Nomadland, also won Best Picture. Zhao is of Chinese decent.
The USC report, authored by Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen and Dr. Stacy L. Smith and released Tuesday, also found that of the 79 primary and secondary API characters across the top films of 2019, “Portrayals of the API community range from invisible to fully human, with most portrayals falling into the categories of silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated, and sidekicks/villains. The stereotypes still present in top films include the persistent emasculation of API men – 58% were shown with no romantic partners compared to 37.5% of API women without partners – as well as that of the perpetual foreigner, evidenced by non-U.S. accents and use of non-English language. Most troublingly, portrayals of API characters still include violence, death, and disparagement.”
“With the rise of anti-AAPI violence in the United States, on-screen deaths of Asians and Pacific Islander characters are particularly jarring,” Yuen said. “In the top 100 films of 2019, just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander characters die by the end of the film and all but one death ended violently. This, along with 41.8% of API characters receiving on-screen disparagement – some of which are racial slurs – films can fuel anti-AAPI hate. With over 6,603 hate incidents reported to Stop AAPI Hate from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021, Hollywood needs to take responsibility for problematic representations of Asians and Pacific Islanders.”
The report also found that more than two-thirds (67.4%) of the 1,300 films studied fell below proportional representation of the API community, and that 39% of those films didn’t depict even one API character.
“These findings offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences,” Smith said. “Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community. When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”
“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” Yuen said. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion. In 2019, 30% of API primary and secondary characters were either one of the only, or interacted with no other API characters on screen. We need to see more than one API character on screen interacting with one another in meaningful ways.”
The lack of API characters overall extends to intersectional communities, as well. The report found that two-thirds of all API characters were men, and one-third were women. Only 15 API characters across 600 films from 2014 to 2019 were LGBTQ, and none was transgender. Only 1.9% of API characters from the top 500 movies from 2015 to 2019 were shown with a disability, while only 19.6% of all API women were 40 years of age or older. “The image of API characters is predominantly young and largely male, straight, and able-bodied,” according to the report.
The report, which also looked at directors, producers and casting directors, found that of the 1,447 directors across the 13-year sample, 3.5% were API, and that only three were API women. Just 2.5% of producers were API, and only 3.3% of the casting directors were AIP. According to the report, films with API directors or API producers featured more API leads and co-leads than those with non-API directors or producers. API directors and casting directors were also responsible for casting more API talent in speaking roles on screen than non-API directors or casting directors.
“Not one API woman has received sole directing credit for a live action top-grossing feature film in the last 13 years,” Smith said. “Inclusion of the API community thus far has been little more than lip service. Opening up opportunity behind the camera for the API community and in particular, API women, is essential to seeing more authentic, humanized portrayals on screen.”
“In order to reconcile past harm, invisibility, and stereotypes on screen, we first need to confront the hard truths and data,” said Amazon Studios Global Head of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, Latasha Gillespie. “This study is an opportunity for all content creators and media companies to examine and root cause decisions that contributed to our current state, but more importantly drive ongoing accountability in our work.”
“In order to reconcile past harm, invisibility, and stereotypes on screen, we first need to confront the hard truths and data,” said Latasha Gillespie, Amazon Studios’ Global Head of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. “This study is an opportunity for all content creators and media companies to examine and root cause decisions that contributed to our current state, but more importantly drive ongoing accountability in our work.”
“The numbers speak for themselves – again,” said actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim. “They are a sobering look at how far the industry still has to go to counter the invisibility of our community onscreen. If anything is to improve, the historic indifference on the part of decision-makers toward increased Asian American representation must go beyond the usual performative rhetoric to actual, demonstrable change.”
“One year ago, our community was erroneously blamed for a global pandemic,” said UTA partner and TV literary agent David Park. “Now, we see violence against and hatred of AAPI’s reaching unprecedented levels. The words we use, the stories we tell, how we portray people matters. The creative community is uniquely positioned to tell more authentic and inclusive stories that diverse audiences yearn to hear. This effort to document the quantity and quality of AAPI portrayals is an essential starting point for lasting progress in how our community is represented in the mainstream.”
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