Asian characters on streaming shows were less stereotyped but still largely white-adjacent, a new joint study from USC’s Norman Lear Center and Gold House found.
The study, titled A Balancing Act for Asian Representation in Streaming:
Visibility Doesn’t Always Mean Cultural Specificity, examined the top 100 streaming shows of 2022 and found (after removing titles released outside 2022 and unscripted/international titles) 49 had Asian characters. Of the 347 characters identified as Asian, 6% were categorized as leads, one-third were major characters and the remaining two-thirds were minor characters.
Of those Asian characters, 82% were race-agnostic, meaning race either had nothing to do with the character’s storyline, or was referenced only briefly in relation to the character, like Ethan Spiller (Will Sharpe) in HBO’s “The White Lotus.” Per the study, this suggests that Asian actors have been able to secure visible and prominent roles that are not limited by their race or ethnicity. The study also did not find evidence of many historical tropes about Asians, such as the perpetual foreigner, lotus blossom (submissive objects of desire) or tragic hero.
The study also found Asian characters were often in roles that emphasize proximity to whiteness which “has the potential to perpetuate stereotypes that Asians prioritize assimilation over cultural authenticity and racial solidarity.”
Among their findings:
90% of the most visible Asian characters on streaming platforms in 2022 had light or medium skin tones.
Two in three never spoke to another Asian character, despite an average of four Asian characters per title.
And of Asian women characters in romantic relationships, more than half were shown with white men rather than partners of any other racial background — much higher than what data suggests is likely reality.
Further, the research showed that “model minority” stereotypes persist. Historically, the model minority myth has been used to typecast Asians as overemphasizing assimilation to whiteness and to pit Asians against other racial groups. The study revealed that the most visible Asian characters continued to perpetuate this stereotype — almost half engaged in intellectual work (such as STEM or legal fields), while only 11% were depicted in the working class.
“The results from this study underscore the importance of incorporating both cultural specificity and multidimensionality in designing Asian characters,” Tiffany Chao, VP of entertainment and media at Gold House, said. “To assist creative artists, Gold House released the Gold Story Test, a simple set of questions to provoke conversations about the depth of representation of Asian characters, to supplement the Gold Storybook, our practical guide to shaping authentic Asian Pacific portrayals in media.”
The study recommended future projects lean into cultural specificity by incorporating key aspects of the actor’s heritage into the storyline but adding that cultural specificity does not mean that ethnic identity should define Asian characters. There was also a call to craft narratives that don’t center around proximity to whiteness or assimilation and a call for more Asian representation in front of and behind the camera, including creators, executives and more key decision-making roles.
The Norman Lear Center is a nonpartisan research and public policy center that studies the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment.
Gold House is the leading cultural ecosystem that unites, invests in and champions Asian Pacific creators and companies to power tomorrow for all.
You can read their full study here.
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