On news broadcasts and social media feeds across the country and world, issues surrounding identity politics have taken center stage. Much of the discourse centers on pressing topics like civil rights, racial equality, and immigration. This debate has also sprawled into our favorite books and movies over media representation, or the ways that various forms of media portray individuals, races, cultures, and communities—if they portray them at all.
On average, Americans spend at least 10 hours per day consuming media, and such an intense dosage of culture has a profound impact on our beliefs and how we perceive society. This media saturation prompts us to develop real-world, deep-seated beliefs about what we see on the page or the screen: For example, according to one study, viewers who watched a heavily stereotyped portrayal of black people were later more likely to see black people as guilty of committing crimes. While media can feed stereotypes and foster bigotry, positive portrayals can help raise the profile of communities and cultures—unfortunately, for Asian-Americans, the latter has not necessarily been the case.
In their smash-hit op-doc series on race in America, the New York Times interviewed Asian Americans about their experience as immigrants or as the children of immigrants. For many Asian children who grew up in the US, the climate wasn’t an easy one to adjust to; they were often the victims of racial epithets and other degrading language, even as elementary school students. Their parents were also the targets of racial animus, and Asian Americans from all backgrounds were subject to racist stereotypes including the idea of the model minority.
The media has enabled many of these stereotypes, and performances that reduce Asians to villains, foreigners, sex objects, and more. More recently, conversations on Asian-American media representation have focused on whitewashing, or the practice of having white actors portray Asians or where Asian roles are altered and offered to white actors. However, while these issues have hardly been resolved, there has been notable progress in the past few years.
Acclaimed comedian Aziz Ansari, an Indian-American, has been outspoken in his calls for more inclusion in the entertainment industry, especially in terms of casting Asian people in roles other than “taxi driver” and “nanny.” From his breakout on Parks and Recreation to his hit Netflix show Master of None, Ansari and his fellow band of misfits go about life in New York City free of the labels usually assigned to Asian American TV characters. In fact, Ansari and his Master of None co-creator Alan Yang won an Emmy Award for the writing behind the show.
Even children and family shows have begun to cast Asian families in a different light. ABC’s sit-com Fresh off the Boat follows the life of a recently-immigrated Chinese family of a mom, dad, mother-in-law, and three boys as they adjust to life in the US. All of the writers for the show are of Asian descent and work diligently to make the show at once funny and educational about the awkward adjustment to a brand new culture and raising a family in it.
Although this progress is encouraging, there is still much to be done to ensure representation of Asian-Americans and Asian characters in film and television roles. Scarlett Johansson, for example, drew scathing criticism for playing the lead role in the film Ghost in the Shell despite the original text—itself a Japanese work—featuring an Asian woman. In the US, Asian people are fighting not only to break stereotypes, but also to be allowed to play themselves and see themselves where they rightfully belong in film.
What we see on screen shapes our perceptions of the real world and the people in it, so media has a unique ability to either uplift or denigrate individuals and cultures based on how it portrays them. While representation of Asian-Americans has historically gravitated toward the latter category, today, entertainers are standing up to insensitivity and whitewashing in order to reclaim their place as both Asian and American on the screen.