When Master Of None and Fresh Off The Boat premiered, it seemed as though there was a renaissance when it came to the representation of Asian American and Pacific Islanders on television. And even though Ken Jeong’s multi-cam ABC comedy Dr. Ken was canceled after two seasons, it was also a landmark for the AAPI community in entertainment. Although these projects were a win when it comes to what seems to be a never-ending campaign for diversity and inclusion in Hollywood, it took more than 20 years for the industry to get there. Before the three shows, there hadn’t been an Asian American-led series since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in 1994. So while there may be progress, according to a new study titled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” proper representation of the AAPI community in Hollywood is moving at a glacial pace.
The multi-university study, a 10-year follow-up to a 2005 and 2006 study of AAPIs in primetime television, examined 242 TV shows and 2,052 series regulars from broadcast, cable, and streaming television scripted shows airing between September 1, 2015-August 31, 2016. In the end, they concluded that although there are more opportunities for AAPI actors, their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen.
The group of California professors and scholars included Christina B. Chin, PhD (Assistant Professor at California State University, Fullerton), Meera E. Deo, J.D., PhD (Associate Professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, San Diego), Faustina M. DuCros, PhD (Assistant Professor at San Jose State University), Jenny J. Lee, M.Ed and PhD student (University of California, Los Angeles), Noriko Milman, PhD (Assistant Professor at University of San Francisco), and Nancy Wang Yuen, PhD (Associate Professor at Biola University, La Mirada, California).
The study’s results showed that white actors dominated the TV landscape in all aspects. Nearly 70% of TV series regulars are white, and at least 96% of TV shows have at least one white series regular. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering UCLA and USC have done studies with similar outcomes. As mentioned, the new study found that 69.5% of TV series regulars are white while 14% are black and 5.9% are Latino. Mono-racial AAPI (a person of single or multiple Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) make up 4.3%, while Multiracial AAPI (person of Asian or Pacific Islander heritage and non-Asian heritage) account for 2.6%. When all is said and done, 155 out of the 242 shows studied do not have AAPI series regulars. In the 2006 study, 2.6% of the primetime programs evaluated had AAPI series regulars. The new study shows a significant increase, but barely moves the needle.
“It’s not enough to have Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on just a handful of shows —they need to reflect real life,” says Yuen, who also wrote Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors And Racism. “Shows set in diverse cities like New York and Los Angeles should not be completely white” — but according to TV, they are.
Shows set in metropolitan cities highly populated with AAPIs see low representation — 70% of shows set in New York and 53% of shows set in Los Angeles have no AAPI series regulars. It is difficult to believe that two of the most multi-cultural cities in the country — the world, even — lack series regulars of Asian heritage. That being said, the “Token” study isn’t just for the sake of pointing out a trend that hasn’t seen much movement since the mid-’90s, but to point out the importance of representation of the AAPI community on TV and how it should reflect the real world.
“As much as we may want to dismiss TV as simple entertainment, it undeniably contributes to our cultural landscape and our understanding of the world,” says Lee. “What does it mean when AAPIs are missing or tokenized in this landscape? It reinforces the idea that we don’t belong.”
The study dissects AAPI representation on TV and breaks it down on multiple levels. For instance, out of the 142 AAPI series regulars, 87% are on screen for less than half an episode, and 17% have the lowest screen time on their show. In addition, as the study’s title suggests, 68% of the shows with AAPI characters have only one series regular. In other words, they have the token Asian.
This particular sample of 142 AAPI series regulars included 21 ethnicities, plus one of unknown origin. The most prevalent ethnicities correspond to five of six of the most numerous Asian groups in the country: Chinese/Taiwanese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, and Japanese. Other ethnicities include Malaysian, Singaporean, Cambodian, Pakistani, and Indonesian. Broken down further, it was found Filipino and Vietnamese see little to no representation, while Pacific Islanders remain virtually invisible on TV.
Then there is the issue of Asian stereotypes, which have been around since the days of Fu Man Chu. Even in recent history, stereotypes and wearing Asian as a costume (i.e., “Yellowface”) have managed to maintain a presence on TV (remember that episode of How I Met Your Mother when the cast decided to parade around in Asian regalia?) More recently, the study shows that stereotypes aren’t dead. Despite the progressive nature of TV, a wide array of micro-aggressions and casual racism continue to illustrate the tone deafness of the portrayal of AAPIs.
The study hones in on five stereotypes that surfaced in the shows they evaluated. There’s the “Uncivilized and Mysterious Stranger,” a common stereotype that has been seen since the dawn of entertainment. Another common one is AAPIs being portrayed as dangerous villains — often terrorists (especially with South Asians and Middle Easterners). The emasculation of Asian men and fetishization of Asian women is also a popular one. The former is played out on 2 Broke Girls, when the character of Han Lee is made fun of for not being able to have a romantic relationship, the latter seen on Vice Principals when the Korean wife of a character is called a “mail-order bride.”
Having white characters assuming roles of Asian authority continues to be a stereotype and was illustrated on Hawaii Five-0 when a Japanese-speaking white man was the head of the Yakuza crime ring. Arguably, the character of Danny Rand from Marvel’s Iron Fist can be in the same boat. And finally, there’s the idea of AAPIs being the “model minority.” The odd nerd. The “typical” doctor. The child prodigy under the Tiger Mom’s paw — a whole other stereotype in itself.
The minimum amount of progress for AAPIs found in this study shouldn’t diminish the strides that have been made. The Emmy-winning Master Of None and Fresh Off The Boat have provided two different narratives when it comes to the Asian American experience. One tells the story of a struggling Indian-American actor in New York through a very distinct, unexpected storytelling lens, while the other follows an immigrant family with traditional sitcom appeal. Still, both dish out multifaceted characters that go beyond Asian stereotypes, while at the same time being aware of the tropes and dispel them by cleverly folding them into the narrative.
HBO’s Emmy-nominated limited series The Night Of starring Riz Ahmed can also be added to this honor roll of AAPI shows. Straying away from the one-note, stereotype-driven show it could have been, The Night Of follows Naz (Ahmed), a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Accused of murder and imprisoned, the show dives deep into identity politics, the perception of Pakistanis, the legal system and how a strong-willed, moral man can be transformed by society and the system and turn bad.
Master Of None, Fresh Off The Boat and The Night Of are a testament to the fact that Asian American shows can exist outside the realms of the stereotypical lens — and can get viewers, acclaim…and noteworthy awards. In addition, shows like The Walking Dead, Quantico, The Good Place, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Designated Survivor, Into the Badlands, Agents of SHIELD and The Mindy Project have featured AAPI actors. Despite all this, the underrepresentation of AAPIs lingers.
“I think the TV industry continues to be resistant to change when it comes to issues about inclusion and diversity,” Cal State Fullerton’s Chin tells Deadline. “Casting an AAPI actor over a white actor as a lead character is still considered risky, unrelatable to the audiences, and possibly unprofitable for networks. Ten years ago, we didn’t have successful shows like Master Of None, Fresh off The Boat, The Night Of or The Mindy Project that prominently feature AAPI actors. But as our study demonstrates, these shows are the exception rather than the rule. We continue to see AAPI actors tokenized on certain shows, playing stereotypic roles, or missing altogether from the TV landscape.”
Adds Yuen: “The industry needs to see that AAPI shows and actors draw ratings and garner awards. It’s time to stop treating AAPIs as tokens and cast more of them as leads with complex stories and relationships.
The three-dimensional representation of the AAPI community not only benefits diverse storytelling on TV but also educates audiences on the proper portrayal of those of Asian heritage, eliminating the notion that all AAPIs are limited to being a dragon lady, emasculated nerd, over-achieving doctor, terrorist, an object of fetishization, or an obedient member of the model minority.