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The Characters Count

The Characters Count

The Impact of Asian American Stereotypes in Media 

By Annaliese Grellmann 

“Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits,” wrote Wesley Yang, an American essayist, in his essay “Paper Tigers.” [1] 

In 2018 “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first American movie in 25 years

These words from Yang show the devastating impact stereotypes can have on individuals. Stereotypes are overgeneralizations of a group that ignore individual uniqueness. Asian Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, yet compared to other ethnic groups, they are largely underrepresented in American media. [2] According to the 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report, in digital scripted shows during the 2018-2019 season, only 4.8% of the actors were Asian. [3] 

When Asian Americans do appear on the television screen, it is often in stereotypical roles. [4] They are often portrayed in the media as nerdy and academically successful but lacking in social skills and mastery of the English language. Women are often portrayed in two contrasting ways: either as tentative and submissive or seductive and hypersexualized. A 2010 study published in the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication found that the public’s perception of Asian Americans largely aligns with the media’s representation of them, which in turn impacts how people interact with Asian Americans off-screen. 

Jerry Hartman, professor of film, TV, and media at Walla Walla University, said that “in film-making one of the major issues is that the people who decide and create the stories aren’t necessarily represented by the people that are in those stories.” [5] Stereotyping happens when the person telling the story hasn’t lived that story. In Hollywood, that’s almost always the case. The 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report stated that network heads are 92% white and 68% male. [6] 

Hartman points out that as humans, we naturally stereotype and categorize people, but this natural tendency becomes negative when we aren’t aware of its impacts on how we interact with others or when the stereotypes themselves are negative. [7] He explained that the more people watch a certain type of media, the more alike those stereotypical characters seem, and the more the audience agrees with what they’re watching. This cycle of reinforcement is known as Cultivation Theory.  

Cultivation Theory explains why stereotypes become so ingrained in the media and then in society. [8] The theory says that, generally, the media does not accurately represent reality, so the more frequently people watch this distorted representation of the world, the more they begin to believe that the way in which the media presents the world is reality. Unconsciously, people’s attitudes, beliefs, and actions are shaped by the media they consume.  

This distorted reality can have devastating consequences. In March 2021 a white man named Robert Aaron Long killed eight women, six of whom were Asian, at spas in Atlanta. Investigators reported the killings were not racially motivated, but due to his “sexual addiction.” [9] In an interview with NBC News, Sung Teon Choimorrow, executive director of the nonprofit National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said that this attack and many others can be traced back to the perpetuation of the stereotype that portrays Asian women as hypersexualized yet submissive, making them seem easier to take advantage of.  

Choimorrow said of Long’s crime, “Killing Asian American women to eliminate a man’s temptation speaks to the history of the objectification of Asian and Asian American women as variations of the Asian temptress, the dragon ladies, and the lotus blossom, whose value is only in relation to men’s fantasies and desires.” [10] Stereotypes don’t always have such disastrous consequences, but all stereotypes reduce fully formed humans into scripted characters that are easy to overlook, manipulate, or erase.  

If stereotypes can be so hurtful, in addition to being untrue, why do they continue to be used? Hartman explained that “in storytelling sometimes stereotypes are put there as an easy way out, because if we flash a visual and know most people are going to assume something then we don’t have to explain it.” [11] On the other hand, the main characters “don’t act the way you might assume at first because the whole story is built around their life journey.”  

See Also

According to the Hollywood Diversity Report, in the 2018-2019 season, Asians only made up 1.8% of the leads in digital scripted shows. [12] Putting Asian Americans in leading roles more often would allow their complex and nuanced personhood to be explored by and for the audience.  

One movie that did this well was the 2018 romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians.” [13] With a predominantly Asian cast, “Crazy Rich Asians” was able to tell a story with fully fleshed-out characters, each with their own individual temperaments, desires, and experiences, which is how Asians actually exist in the world. “Crazy Rich Asians” is now the second highest grossing romantic comedy in the last decade. It makes sense that a diverse country would appreciate a diverse film.  

Hartman suggested that another way to reduce the use of stereotypes in media is to have more diversity not just on screen, but behind the scenes. [14] The Hollywood Diversity Report found that during the 2018-2019 season in digital scripted TV, only one out of 10 show creators and 2.3 out of 10 credited writers were people of color. [15] A broader diversity of storytellers allows for a broader diversity of stories to be told. 

The way characters are created counts because the media people consume impacts how they view and interact with the world around them. All stereotypes are harmful because all stereotypes function reductively. They reduce a three-dimensional person into a caricature, devoid of individuality and uniqueness. Having more Asian Americans behind the scenes and on screen will result in media that better reflects the myriad of ways people exist in the world.    

References 

  1. Yang, W. (2011, May 6). Paper Tigers. New Yorkhttps://nym.ag/3sYmHXT. 
  1. Qin, Z. (2010). Asian Americans beyond the model minority stereotype: The nerdy and left out. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 3(1), 20-37. https://bit.ly/3dqoDlm. 
  1. Hunt, D., & Ramon, A. (2020). Hollywood diversity report. The Division of Social Sciences at UCLAhttps://bit.ly/3cKxmPU.  
  1. Qin, Z. (2010). Asian Americans beyond the model minority stereotype: The nerdy and left out. Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 3(1), 20-37. https://bit.ly/3dqoDlm
  1. Interview with Jerry Hartman, 3/31/21.  
  1. Hunt, D., & Ramon, A. (2020). Hollywood diversity report. The Division of Social Sciences at UCLAhttps://bit.ly/3cKxmPU
  1. Interview with Jerry Hartman, 3/31/21.  
  1. Cultivation theory. (n.d.). Communication Theory. Retrieved April 1, 2021, from https://bit.ly/3cMQRYp. 
  1. Yam, K. (2021, March 17). Racism, Sexism, must be considered in Atlanta case involving killing of six Asian women, experts sayNBC News. https://nbcnews.to/2POFA0w. 
  1. Ibid.  
  1. Interview with Jerry Hartman, 3/31/21.  
  1. Hunt, D., & Ramon, A. (2020). Hollywood diversity report. The Division of Social Sciences at UCLAhttps://bit.ly/3cKxmPU
  1. Nam, Y. (2019, February 6). Asian representation in film: The impact of “Crazy Rich Asians”New York Film Academyhttps://bit.ly/3fBex3N. 
  1. Interview with Jerry Hartman, 3/31/21.  
  1. Hunt, D., & Ramon, A. (2020). Hollywood diversity report. The Division of Social Sciences at UCLAhttps://bit.ly/3cKxmPU
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