Stereotypes Are Rife Among Asian and Pacific Islander Film Roles, Study Finds

By Sarah Bahr

Two-thirds of characters reflect stereotypes, and just 3.4 percent of movies had leads or coleads who were Asians or Pacific Islanders, the study of 1,300 movies found.

Constance Wu, whose leading role in the movie “Hustlers” (2019) was praised as a good character in a new study. Not many Asians or Pacific Islanders star in movies, the study found.
Constance Wu, whose leading role in the movie “Hustlers” (2019) was praised as a good character in a new study. Not many Asians or Pacific Islanders star in movies, the study found.Credit...Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Sarah Bahr

Of the 1,300 top-grossing films released from 2007 through 2019, just 44 featured an Asian or Pacific Islander character in a leading role — and one-third of the roles went to a single actor, Dwayne Johnson, a study has found.

In 2019 specifically, more than a quarter of Asian or Pacific Islander characters had died by the end of the movie, and more than 41 percent “experienced disparagement.” Two-thirds of the Asian or Pacific Islander characters reflected stereotypes, and nearly 20 percent either spoke a non-English language or English with a non-American accent, according to the study, from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, with funding from Amazon Studios and the UTA Foundation.

The analysis of the 1,300 movies — released Tuesday — also revealed that just 3.4 percent of the movies featured Asian or Pacific Islander actors in leading or coleading roles. (In terms of the U.S. population, 7.1 percent of it identifies in this category.)

Other sobering statistics: Of some 51,159 speaking characters, just 5.9 percent were Asian, Asian-American or Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. In 39 percent of the films, not a single Asian or Pacific Islander speaking character was included.

The research also broke down the statistics along gender lines: Four Asian or Pacific Islander women were cast in six leading roles, compared with 336 unique white male actors in the same time period — a ratio of 84 white male actors for every one Asian or Pacific Islander female actor.

Only 13 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander roles in 2019 films were considered “fully human,” which the study’s authors defined as having a full spectrum of relationships and not filling a foreigner, sidekick or villain role. (Johnson’s Dr. Bravestone character in “Jumanji: The Next Level” or Constance Wu’s character, Destiny, in “Hustlers” were seen as good examples.)

The study, led by Nancy Wang Yuen, a professor at Biola University, and Stacy L. Smith of the University of Southern California Annenberg, also found that the 600 top-grossing films released from 2014 through 2019 included just 15 Asian and Pacific Islander characters who identified as L.G.B.T.Q. And just 26 Asian and Pacific Islander actors were shown with a physical, cognitive or communicative disability in the 500 top-grossing films released from 2015 through 2019.

A torrent of hate and violence against people of Asian descent around the United States began last spring, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

    • Background: Community leaders say the bigotry was fueled by President Donald J. Trump, who frequently used racist language like “Chinese virus” to refer to the coronavirus.
    • Data: The New York Times, using media reports from across the country to capture a sense of the rising tide of anti-Asian bias, found more than 110 episodes since March 2020 in which there was clear evidence of race-based hate.
    • Underreported Hate Crimes: The tally may be only a sliver of the violence and harassment given the general undercounting of hate crimes, but the broad survey captures the episodes of violence across the country that grew in number amid Mr. Trump's comments.
    • In New York: A wave of xenophobia and violence has been compounded by the economic fallout of the pandemic, which has dealt a severe blow to New York’s Asian-American communities. Many community leaders say racist assaults are being overlooked by the authorities.
    • What Happened in Atlanta: Eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed in shootings at massage parlors in Atlanta on March 16. A Georgia prosecutor said that the Atlanta-area spa shootings were hate crimes, and that she would pursue the death penalty against the suspect, who has been charged with murder.

The researchers also looked at representation among filmmakers and found that of the 1,447 credited directors in the sample, only 3.5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander — and just three were women. (Jennifer Yuh Nelson was credited twice on the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, and Loveleen Tandan was credited on “Slumdog Millionaire.”) No Asian or Pacific Islander woman was the sole director of any of the 1,300 films in the study. (The research period ended before the release of “Nomadland,” whose director, Chloé Zhao, this year became the first woman of color, first Chinese woman and second woman ever to win the Oscar for best director.) Among producers, 2.5 percent were Asian or Pacific Islander, as were 3.3 percent of casting directors.

The study’s results come amid increased hostility and violence toward Asian people in the United States. The nonprofit Stop AAPI Hate said in March that nearly 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidents had been reported over the course of about a year during the pandemic, mostly against women.

“Whether through the absence of A.P.I. characters or via stereotypical depictions, entertainment can be a vehicle that perpetuates inaccurate and dehumanizing portrayals of the A.P.I. community,” the report concludes.