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Despite Award Wins, Asian And Pacific Islanders Are Erased Or Silenced In Most Movies

Korean actress Yuh-Jung Youn accepts her Oscar trophy at the 2021 Academy Awards.
Yuh-Jung Youn of "Minari" won the supporting actress Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. Despite wins for "Minari" and "Parasite," Asian and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood is lacking, a new study finds.
(Todd Wawrychuk
A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)
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Korea’s “Parasite” won four Academy Awards a year ago, including best picture. At this year's ceremony, the Korean-American film “Minari'' garnered the supporting actress trophy for Yuh-Jung Youn. But as a new report illustrates, those are rare exceptions to the Hollywood rule.

More than 7% of Americans identify as Asian or Pacific Islander. But API actors are rarely cast in any part, and the numbers are even worse for API performers in lead roles, according to a study released Tuesday by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

A pie chart shows that 58 out of 200 of the top-grossing films did not depict any Asian and Pacific Islander characters, and 36 only depicted API characters with 5 lines or less.
(USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)

The study, which examined the 100 top-grossing films for 13 years ending in 2019, found that less than 6% of speaking roles went to API actors, with essentially no meaningful growth over the research period.

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Of the 1,300 movies examined, just 44 had an API lead or co-lead, and almost a third of those were played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, whose mother is Samoan. Researchers also studied in closer detail the top 200 releases from 2018-2019, examining specific story elements and lines spoken by API performers.

When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire.

The first-ever study of Asian and Pacific Islander performers by USC researcher Stacy Smith and sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen comes as anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States are surging, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate.

In March alone of this year, the organization said, there were reports of more than 2,800 anti-Asian hate incidents, compared to some 3,800 for all of last year.

“Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community,” Smith says in the report. “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.”

The percentage of API casting in more than two-thirds of the 1,300 films examined was below Asian makeup of the U.S. population. Nearly 40% of all those releases had no Asian characters, and nearly 95% did not include a single Pacific Islander.

The API numbers are much worse for women, and people who work behind the camera or in executive leadership positions.

( USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative)

When the researchers analyzed the kinds of roles API actors played, they found an emphasis on characters who were “silenced, stereotyped, tokenized, isolated, and sidekicks/villains,” many of whom were disparaged on screen. And quite a few are killed off by the end of the story.

“With the rise of anti-AAPI violence in the United States, on-screen deaths of Asians and Pacific Islander characters are particularly jarring,” Yuen said. “In the top 100 films of 2019, just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander characters die by the end of the film and all but one death ended violently.”

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Statistically, one of the worst studios is The Walt Disney Company. From 2018-2019, it released 19 movies. None had either an API lead or co-lead. And none was directed by an API filmmaker.