Case Study: Asian Americans in the Media

John Cho. Aziz Ansari. Lucy Liu. What do these three have in common?

They’re Asian American actors and actresses who are fighting for more (accurate) representation in Hollywood and mainstream media.

Asian Americans are both highly underrepresented and misrepresented in the media, including movies, music and the news. In 2014, only 1.4 percent of lead characters in a sample of studio films released were Asian, according to The New York Times. Today, Asian Americans represent less than three percent of total characters on primetime television shows across six major networks (Zhang 23). Even so, the majority of Asian characters are shown as having high-status through jobs that require intelligence and advanced science degrees, further perpetuating the model minority myth (Zhang 23). There are solutions to addressing the misrepresentation and underrepresentation of Asian Americans in the media, but first, it’ll be important to have a (very) basic rundown of the model minority myth that still comes into play in the entertainment industry.

The Model Minority Myth
Smart. Hard-working. Financially successful. Quiet. Submissive. These are just a few of the stereotypes associated with being Asian American, or the “model” minority. The stereotypes of the model minority myth are seen as influential, yet pervasive for all Asian Americans (Kawai 109).

Sociologist William Petersen first coined the term “model minority” in 1966 through an article he wrote for The New York Times, which highlighted the successes of Japanese Americans in the United States. He said through the familial and cultural structures of the Japanese, they were able to overcome discrimination and become socially and financially successful upon their journey to the U.S. With that, the “model minority” slowly made its way to throughout America and is now considered a “myth” because the assumptions that Asian Americans are faring well in America are generalized and often inaccurate statements. The decades-old myth allows people to perceive Asians as one of the more successful ethnic groups, hence their histories of alienation, oppression and persecutions. Over time, the model minority myth stood as a foundation for depicting Asian Americans in the media.

The Yellow Peril & Asians in the Media
Since the late 19th century, at the rise of the yellow peril, Asian Americans have been depicted as “foreigners” to the United States who are unable to assimilate into the “American” ways. The Yellow Peril is a set of stereotypes that “describes Asians as “foreigner foreigners” and economic competitors who do not assimilate to the U.S. dominant culture norms (Kawai 110). More often than not, characters depicted through the Yellow Peril stereotype are antagonistic villains; for example, Fu Manchu, who is often created as a superhuman full of intellect, but also a subhuman who is immortal and ruthless (Kawai 113). Fu Manchu served as the impetus to other Asian characters. Of course, in modern day, Asian Americans are not antagonistic, rather, they conform the gender stereotypes within the model minority myth.

Photo credit:

The Asian man is often culturally ignorant, effeminate, asexual, isolated and an obedient martial artist while the Asian women is often hyper-sexualized and can be seen as silent, humble, obedient and exotic or deceitful, seductive and ruthless (Zhang 20). The fact that the media is a huge proponent of these gender binaries within the model minority further creates the image that Asian Americans are weak and nerdy; no wonder people perceive Asians as only being academically driven and economically stable. Almost always, Asian American men and women are misrepresented through the failure to become fully “American,” lack of English-speaking skills and low social skills (Zhang 20). As a result, Asian Americans can be seen as lacking strong interpersonal friendships and relationships. It is not hard for the media to play up the stereotypes, reinforcing time after time the “positive” traits of Asian Americans.

Ineffective Coverage
Recently, there have been a slew of headlines surrounding the misrepresentation of Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. Considering it is the year 2016, it is interesting to see the ways in which the Hollywood film industry continues whitewashing. One of the most recent controversies, for instance, is the casting of Emma Stone as a half-Chinese, one-quarter Native Hawaiian character in the movie “Aloha.” Not only that, but Matt Damon’s movie, “The Martian,” also received accusations of whitewashing when it cast Mackenzie Davis as Korean-American Mindy Park, the character in the novel of the same name. Whitewashing continues to prevail in Hollywood, as depicted through these two box-office hit movies, and Asian American actors and actresses cannot help but to voice their concerns.

In recent news coverage of politics, Asian Americans became the subject of racism when Fox news reporter Jesse Watters mocks Chinese Americans in New York City’s Chinatown with a segment on “The O’Reilley Factor.” The video incorporated all aspects of the model minority, taking it one step further by making a joke out of the stereotypes that come with being Asian. Not only that, but the video segment has brought awareness to the idea that Asian Americans are still seen as perpetual foreigners in America, perpetuating the idea that Asian American communities are voiceless when it comes to national and local issues.

Effective Coverage
There has been progress made toward addressing underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian Americans through various television shows that, although may not be completely accurate, bring more awareness to the experiences of being an Asian American in America. The most recent television show is ABC’s “Fresh Off The Boat,” based on chef Eddie Huang’s personal memoir and the first Asian American family sitcom in over two decades. The show addresses the daily life experiences of an Asian American immigrant family, challenging stereotypes and breaking the boundaries of the typical Asian American. Along with that, “Master of None” also stands up for more accurate Asian American representation in entertainment. Aziz Ansari’s show also depicts on the hardships of immigrant families and the struggles of daily life as an Asian American. It answers to the stereotypes of being an Asian American through comedy and relatable situations. These two shows have encouraged dialogue and conversation around issues of the Asian American community.

Photo credit:

Call-to-Action: The Newsroom Protocol
As a journalist, it is important to understand and critically analyze the media industry from all angles. The best ways to ensure a better representation of Asian Americans in the news include:

  1. Check YouTube often for news and conversations around issues in the Asian American community because YouTube and the Internet have contributed greatly to addressing Asian American underrepresentation and misrepresentation. With the rise of YouTube, there has been an increase in Asian American visibility in the media; for, “Asian Americans – a group systematically ignored by the mainstream media – are extremely vocal on YouTube” (Guo, Lee 392). YouTube is an outlet and space for Asian Americans to find success in the entertainment business, partly due to the fact that Asian American YouTubers can create content that resonates with audiences of similar ethnicities. In other words, YouTube has allowed Asian Americans to become celebrities in a way that they will be represented the way they want to be.
  2. Go against the grain and challenge the stereotypes through more Asian characters in the social science and liberal arts roles that require strong communications skills. Before releasing a news story or package, review the content for word choice and character representation in order to put forth a stronger and more effective message that also accurately portrays a group of people, dismissing stereotypes and redefining the way society views certain groups of people and ethnicities. Most importantly, criticize other media, whether that is media outlets or other media professionals. Spread the conversation and engage in dialogue about the importance of accurate representation by calling out other media and the messages they are crafting.
  3. Keep up on the latest social media trends because more often than not, Twitter is used as a platform for Asian Americans to speak up. Recent generations of Asian Americans utilize social media platforms to engage in forms of protests. Known as “hashtag protests,” Twitter has been filled with hashtags that call attention to the lack of and the misrepresentation of Asian Americans in the media. These hashtags, for example, encourage Asian Americans to be proud of their ethnicities and speak out on the racism and whitewashing that occurs, as well as the stereotypes and micro-aggressions that come with being Asian. Here are some hashtags newsrooms ought to follow to keep up with current issues within the Asian American community.
    1. #whitewashedOUT 
    2. #OscarsSoWhite
    3. #MyAsianAmericanStory
    4. #BeingAsian
    5. #ThisIs2016

Newsrooms should pay more attention to the Internet as an outlet for Asian American voices in order to construct more effective stories and make sure there is better representation for Asian Americans. YouTube is a huge success for Asian American voices, and rather than dismissing them as a source for news, newsrooms should rely on them to stay up-to-date on current issues.

Guo, Lei, and Lorin Lee. “The Critique of YouTube-based Vernacular Discourse: A Case Study of YouTube’s Asian Community.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 30.5 (2013): 391-406. Print.

Kawai, Yuko. “Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril.” Howard Journal of Communications 16.2 (2005): 109-30. Print.

Zhang, Qin. “Asian Americans Beyond the Model Minority Stereotype: The Nerdy and the Left Out.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 3.1 (2010): 20-37. Print.