Dwayne Johnson accounts for a third of all API movie leads as study finds sad stats
Asian and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood movies is still abysmal, according to a new report released Tuesday.
Arriving during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and amid a rise in anti-Asian racism and violence, the new study examined 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019 for API representation in onscreen and behind-the-camera roles, as well as among the executive ranks in top Hollywood film companies. It also reviewed the top 100 movies of 2019 for an analysis of how API characters were portrayed, including the prevailing tropes and stereotypes of their depiction.
Among the highlighted findings: Only 44 of the 1,300 films reviewed featured API lead or co-lead characters driving the story. And nearly 40% of the films reviewed had no API representation at all.
This means only 3.4% of the top-grossing movies in 13 years featured at least one API protagonist in a prominent role. These characters were portrayed by 22 individual actors, including Dwayne Johnson, who is credited in 14 of the 44 films.
Just six of the API lead/co-lead protagonists in these films were women — played by four individual actors — and none were women older than 40. Additionally, none of the API lead/co-lead characters was LGBTQ.
When Asian representation and Pacific Islander representation were examined separately, 40.2% of films failed to include even one speaking or named Asian character, while Pacific Islanders were absent in 94.2% of the films.
Netflix outperformed industry peers in key metrics when it came to diversity and inclusion. But the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities were underrepresented, according to a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
“People often ask me whether representations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are improving,” sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, one of the report’s lead authors, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, when representation looks like tokenism, Hollywood is doing the bare minimum for inclusion. In 2019, 30% of API primary and secondary characters were either [the only one] or interacted with no other API characters onscreen. We need to see more than one API character onscreen interacting with one another in meaningful ways.”
The study, titled “The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders Across 1,300 Popular Films,” is a collaboration between Yuen, USC associate professor Stacy L. Smith and the university’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which frequently calls out Hollywood’s shortcomings when it comes to inclusive representation.
The report also provided context to highlight just how damning the findings are.
For example, in the same 13-year period where only 22 API actors were featured in prominent roles in top movies, there were 336 white male actors driving the storylines as lead/co-leads. According to the study, white male actors named Ben, Chris, Daniel, James, Jason, John, Josh, Michael, Robert, Sean or Tom were more likely to be tapped to play a lead/co-lead in a Hollywood movie than any API woman.
The latest study from USC’s Anneberg Inclusion Initiative shows how little Hollywood has changed.
More broadly, of the 51,159 speaking characters featured in the 1,300 films reviewed, only 5.9% were Asian, Asian American or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, which falls short of the percentage of the U.S. population that identifies as API (7.1%). Among these characters, 94.6% were Asian/Asian American, while only 5.9% were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
Looking at individual films, 876 of the 1,300 films reviewed fell below proportional representation of the API community compared to census figures, meaning 67.4% of films in the 13-year period featured fewer API characters than is representative of the U.S. population.
Beyond the presence of API characters in films, the study examined the quality of API roles in the top movies from 2019 and found that Hollywood continues to perpetuate harmful stereotypes. When API characters are not silenced, they tend to be tokenized, isolated, stereotyped or relegated to sidekicks and villains. Among the prevailing API stereotypes are portrayals of these characters as “perpetual foreigners” with exaggerated accents or as expendable. The report also found API women in Hollywood films are still hypersexualized, and the industry’s history of emasculating API men continues.
“These findings offer more evidence that the epidemic of invisibility continues to persist and with serious consequences,” Smith said in a statement. “Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community. When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”
In addition to onscreen representation, the study found a lack of API representation in behind-the-camera roles. Of the 1,300 movies that were reviewed, only 3.5% of directors, 2.5% of producers and 3.3% of casting directors were API. The report also examined the leadership across eight film and streaming companies and found 6.4% of all executives were from the API community (although none were in the top positions).
A new report by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. indicates that most of the burden of representation has fallen on Black talent and creatives.
The study concluded with suggestions on actionable steps that can be taken to improve API representation in Hollywood, starting with casting more API actors, moving toward more authentic portrayals of API characters, hiring more API storytellers, supporting nonprofits and the API talent pipeline, elevating API voices and A-list talent moving beyond performative allyship.
Read the full report and recommendations here.
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