Characters that portray Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrants on television have more than doubled in the last two years, according to a new study published this week.
Define American, a nonprofit focused on humanizing conversations about immigrants, found that AAPI representation jumped from just 12% in 2020 to 28% — becoming consistent with the 27% of U.S. immigrants who are AAPI.
AAPI immigrants were the most underrepresented group compared to their real-life counterparts in 2020, the study said. The “substantial increase” is primarily attributed to a general increase in Asian American representation on TV.
The study also found that there are now twice as many Black immigrant characters on TV compared to 2020. This is partly due to Gina Yashere’s sitcom “Bob Hearts Abishola,” which weaves her own lived experience into the show’s characters and storylines.
Define American conducted the study in partnership with the University of Southern California Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. The research analyzed 167 characters across 169 episodes of 79 scripted series that aired between July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2022.
Highlighting the power of nuanced portrayals, the study aims to shift viewers’ attitudes, beliefs and actions toward real-life immigrants.
“Define American is partnering with the Lear Center to pioneer a model of research in Hollywood that is unprecedented,” Sarah E. Lowe, director of Research and Evaluation at Define American, said in a statement. “We wrote the report through an entertainment industry lens, informed by our team’s direct experience in the field. Our hope is to create research that has practical use to content creators in Hollywood and beyond.”
While the research showed gains for the AAPI and Black communities, it also revealed that Pacific Islander representation is “often erased” in the broader AAPI discourse. Additionally, it found that Latino representation had plummeted from 50% in 2020 to 34% this year.
The study also found that immigrant characters were more likely to be associated with crime, reaching a record high. This year, these associations reached 40%, compared to 22% in 2020 and 18% in 2018.
“More representation of immigrants is not necessarily better,” said Erica Rosenthal, director of Research at the Norman Lear Center. “If characters convey inaccurate stereotypes, for example, about immigrants and crime, this may contribute to real-life prejudice.”
The study also included an audience survey. One finding stated that viewers felt they had gained a deeper understanding of real immigrants’ lives and more positive attitudes toward immigrants in the U.S.
Poorna Jagannathan, who stars as Nalini in Netflix’s “Never Have I Ever,” expressed support for the study’s goal of fostering better understanding of immigrant communities.
“Define American’s research is showing how characters like Nalini — who I play in ‘Never Have I Ever’ — can actually help people to be more understanding toward immigrant experiences. Audiences are creating relationships with these characters that are then informing how they’re interacting with immigrants in real life,” Jagannathan said. “There is more empathy, understanding and nuance to these interactions, and that is such a powerful thing.”
The study, titled “Change the Narrative, Change the World 2022: The Power of Immigrant Representation on Television,” is available here.