‘Nerd’, ‘bad driver’, ‘exotic woman’: More than a third of API characters in main roles embody a trope or stereotype, study finds

Asian and Pacific Islander (API) characters remain poorly represented in Hollywood, with even those in main roles still embodying tropes and stereotypes that reinforce discrimination, according to a new study.

Key findings: The inaugural research, titled “I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority,” found that 35.2% of API characters in main title casts embodied at least one common Asian trope or stereotype. These include the “nerd,” the “bad driver” and the “exotic woman,” to name a few.

  • The most prevalent tropes or stereotypes were the martial artist (5.5%), the “model minority” (5%), the “nerd” (4.5%), the “IT/tech worker” (4.5%) and the “foreigner” (4.5%). However, researchers said no individual stereotype stood out as more prominent than others.
  • Less than a quarter (23.45%) of main API characters were funny, but audiences are asked to laugh at almost half of them (43.4%). This suggests that they often serve as punchlines, researchers noted.
  • While Asians are typically objectified or fetishized, they are rarely given the chance to be inherently sexy. Researchers found that only 21.6% of main API characters are seen as sexy and a character that’s written to be Asian is considered less sexy (12.5%) than a character that simply casts an Asian actor (27.7%).
  • Researchers said stereotypes categorizing APIs as outsiders — such as the “forever foreigner” — may have harmful consequences, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic that saw the rise in anti-Asian violence. Those that seem harmless or even positive also create unrealistic and negative expectations, they said.

Background: The study was conducted by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in partnership with Gold House and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE). It was presented this week during a panel at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas.

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  • Researchers analyzed API characters in the 10 highest-grossing films from each year between 2010 and 2019, as well as 124 films from top studios or streaming platforms between 2017 and 2020 that had API characters in the main cast. They also surveyed 329 APIs working in the entertainment industry, including on-screen talent, writers, producers and directors.
  • Of the survey respondents, 80.9% said they have experienced microaggressions, blatant racism (55.6%) and tokenization (72.5%) in the workplace. “Our study provides unique insights into the lived experiences of APIs working in Hollywood and the negative stereotypes that have existed onscreen for decades,” Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, said in a news release. “There is an enormous gap between how the APIs surveyed and those in the broader Hollywood community perceive the meaning of the word representation. Having the data and these critical insights from the API community will allow us to drive systemic change in entertainment and media.”
  • Researchers laid out an expansive list of recommendations, which includes casting more API actors in “authentic and leading roles,” exposing the model minority stereotype as a myth, greenlighting API stories by API writers and hiring more API entertainment executives who can advocate for meaningful investments, to name a few. “Let API characters be dynamic, funny, flawed, and messy, and avoid reinforcing common tropes or stereotypes,” they wrote.

Read the full study here.

Featured Image (representation only) via Movieclips / Warner Bros. Pictures

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