From “Full Metal Jacket” in the ’80s to “Mean Girls” in the ’00s, Asian and Pacific Islander women have historically been exoticized and hypersexualized in Hollywood – and the problem lingers today.
Female Asian and Pacific Islander characters are more likely than female characters of any other race to be objectified on screen, according to a new report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
Researchers examined the top 10 grossing domestic films of every year from 2010 to 2019, as well as 124 films that came out from 2017 to 2020 featuring Asian and Pacific Islanders in leading roles. They found that 17% of female API characters were verbally objectified, meaning they were catcalled or subjected to comments about their experiences, and that 13% were visually objectified, meaning the camera focused intensely on their bodies.
“They’re not shown as full human beings – they’re shown as body parts,” said Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO of Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. “We found that this was more common for the API female characters than the Caucasian female characters or other non-API, women of color characters.”
It’s one of several findings from the report, which was published in partnership with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and Gold House. The researchers – who declined to name specific films – also looked at how often Asians and Pacific Islanders were featured in lead roles, how often they embodied common tropes and stereotypes and how central their identities were to their characters.
The takeaway: Asian and Pacific Islander representation still has a long way to go.
API characters are more likely to be laughed at than with
Of the top movies from the past decade, only about 4.5% of leading characters and 5.6% of supporting characters were Asians or Pacific Islanders, despite that group making up about 7% of the overall US population, according to the report.
In the rare instances where Asians and Pacific Islanders were featured in leading roles, they were often subject to tired tropes and stereotypes. About one-third of films with Asian and Pacific Islander lead characters employed tropes like the “model minority,” “martial artist,” “perpetual foreigner” or “dragon lady,” the report stated.
Asian and Pacific Islander characters are also more likely to be the punchline than they are the person making the joke, the authors observed. About 23% of API characters were people audiences could laugh with, while about 43% were characters audiences were expected to laugh at.
“They were much less often depicted as funny,” Di Nonno told CNN. “They were more in that model minority [trope] of being hard working and rigid and smart.”
Few films get specific about Pacific Islanders
Researchers also delved into some of the nuances of Asian and Pacific Islander identity, a label that encompasses more than 30 countries and ethnic groups that speak more than 100 different languages.
The identities of East Asian characters were central to the story about half of the time, they found. But when it came to Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, their identities were central in only about 12% of instances.
“This shows a healthy balance of East Asian storytelling,” the researchers wrote. “However, this was much less balanced for other Asian ethnic groups, suggesting that actors from these backgrounds are much more likely to be cast in roles that aren’t written specifically for a character of their ethnicity, or that other ethnic groups’ stories are less likely to be written for film.”
To change the ways that Asians and Pacific Islanders are depicted in Hollywood, it’s important for them to be represented not only on screen but also behind the scenes, Di Nonno said. It’s why researchers also surveyed Asians and Pacific Islanders across the entertainment industry about their experiences at work and the kinds of portrayals they wanted to see.
“Storytellers write what they know or what they love,” Di Nonno said. “Being able to build a pipeline of diverse API representation will dramatically improve how these portrayals play out on screen and how we can augment and get more authentic stories.”