Asian American audiences and on-screen representation
Today, cultural dichotomy means more than just differences in traditions or recipes. For the Asian American community who has experienced so much trauma in the past few years, being seen when tuning into media helps create a sense of connection and empowerment. The media industry has also pledged to do its part to invest in content that paints more accurate representations of diverse communities. This year’s Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Diverse Intelligence Series report explores if we have made any progress when it comes to Asian representation.
The good news is yes—there has been a significant increase in Asian representation on screen in 2021. Across the top 1,500 shows in broadcast, cable and streaming video on demand (SVOD) in the U.S., SVOD led the way with 11% Asian share of screen compared to broadcast (3.2%) and cable (2.7%). The presence of Asian talent in top-rated shows like FBI, Equalizer and Chicago Med, and the debut of Asian-led programs like FOX’s The Cleaning Lady indicate the industry is responding to growing calls for more Asian-inclusive content.
Overall, Asian representation across broadcast, cable and SVOD increased to 4.6% in 2021 (up from 3.5% in 2020). The report notes a significant improvement in representation in the top 10 most-watched shows on broadcast and cable. In 2021, half of the top 10 programs had some Asian talent representation, compared to 2020 when none of the top 10 most-watched shows did. Asian women were present in three of those shows (NCIS, Equalizer and Yellowstone) and Asian men were present in two (Chicago Med and FBI).
But just being present on screen isn’t enough. The stories that are told and the roles played by Asians are also critical to shaping people’s perceptions about the Asian American community. In 2020, the dominant themes in the stories when Asians were present were cerebral, thoughtful and good, which reinforced the model minority myth. In 2021, there was a greater diversity of thematic attributes such as friends, teamwork and creativity.
Despite this progress, media content still falls short in meeting the demands of Asian American audiences who want more accurate portrayals. The results of a recent study found that 2/3 of Asian Americans feel there is not enough representation of their identity group on TV, and when they are seen on screen, more than half of Asian American respondents feel the portrayal is inaccurate.
The media industry has tremendous influence on people’s beliefs and bias. Now is an important time for the industry to highlight Asian characters, stories and experiences on screen through culturally inclusive programming. Accurate representation on screen can lead to greater understanding, inclusion, engagement and peace off screen.