People & Society / Asia-wide

Asian representation in movies: have things changed since 1997?

by Isabella Chua

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Methodology

To find out, we combed through IMDb’s list of blockbuster movies from 1997 to 2018. We limited our sample to blockbuster movies because profits and mainstream appeal are often cited as reasons for casting a certain Hollywood actor, or the basis for not having a diverse cast.

Each rectangle represents a blockbuster movie. The thicker the rectangle, the higher the profit.

Subsequently, we categorised the starring cast into four categories — Asian, black, white, and others. The classification is not perfect; whenever the actor has mixed ethnicity that includes either black or Asian ancestry, we classified them as Asian or black. “Others” mainly consisted of actors with Latino or Native American ancestries. By virtue of blockbuster movies being mostly Hollywood produced, the “Asian representation” explored here is primarily of Asian-Americans. Nevertheless, because of Hollywood’s cultural impact, these onscreen stereotypes could eventually be taken for a fact as being the real-life depiction of the entire racial group.

Has diversity increased across the years?

We color each movie by the percentage of white and non-white starring cast in the movie. The darker the shade, the more non-white persons there are in the starring cast of the movie.

To no one’s surprise, the silver screen has historically been dominated by white actors, with only more diversity in recent years.

This development could be read as a collective shift in media towards inclusivity necessitated by criticism against Hollywood’s systemic “Straight White Men” club, or the success of minority-led productions in subscription-based media like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.

In Hollywood movies, Asians are mostly represented by martial arts stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and Chow Yun Fat. Asian women are represented either as the mysterious and sexy Oriental, embodied by Maggie Q, or the capable no-nonsense sidekick played by Michelle Yeoh.

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan

13 movies

Michelle Yeoh

Michelle Yeoh

7 movies

Jet Li

Jet Li

6 movies

Chow Yun-fat

Chow Yun-fat

5 movies

Maggie Q

Maggie Q

5 movies

There is a small consolation; Asians can still find representation in non-Hollywood movies, i.e. movies produced outside of US studios. Chinese, Indian, and Japanese movies usually feature a large ensemble cast of all Asian actors. Whether this is its own form of exclusion is up for debate.

Representation of black people is better, but lacks variation. Just seven male black actors account for approximately 25% of all blockbuster movies starring black characters from 1997 to 2018.

Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson

26 movies

Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman

25 movies

Dwayne Johnson

Dwayne Johnson

22 movies

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx

17 movies

Laurence Fishburne

Laurence Fishburne

16 movies

Will Smith

Will Smith

16 movies

Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy

13 movies

Diversity Sells

azizansari

Another issue with minority representation is the whitewashing of characters. Blackface is still a problem but relegated mostly to fraternity and Halloween parties for now. Unfortunately for Asians, there has been tepid progress since the blatantly racist portrayal of I.Y. Yunioshi by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where the buffoon character conformed to Asian stereotypes of being buck-toothed and “speekee engrish”.

On the surface, Hollywood is telling “asian” stories, with asian actors via their adaptations of Japanese anime into real life action movies. But the protagonist, usually the hero of the story, is still mainly played by white actors.

Movies that have been accused of white-washing Asian characters

Power Rangers (2017)
Elizabeth Banks plays the villain Rita Repulsa, originally an Asian character in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Scarlett Johansson received much flak for her portrayal of cyborg Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell”, where she was digitally altered to look more Asian.

Doctor Strange (2016)
Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, originally a Tibetan male mystic in the comic series.

The Last Airbender (2010)
Noah Ringer and Nicola Peltz play Aang and Katara respectively.

Despite it being a clear example of racial erasure and whitewashing, the systematic underrepresentation of minorities have been rationalised away as a matter of film budget.

ridleyscott

He echoes the conventional wisdom of Hollywood: we are not racist, we are just driven by profits.

This is true for movies from 1997 to 2007, where an all-white cast performed better in the box office. However from 2008 onwards, specifically from 2015 to 2017, movies with minority actors have fared better, and this trend coincides with increased minority representation in movies.

The simple truth is thus this: movies with minority casts cannot sell if there are not enough of such movies being made.

So what kinds of movies can Asians be found in?

Everybody Was Kung-fu Fighting

kungfu-fighting

Asians find themselves mostly represented in the genre of war, fantasy, and action.

When we look deeper into the movies associated with fantasy, it is no wonder why.

Fantasy genre: Asian representation

Movies that only have Asians as the minorities in the fantasy genre can be classified in three ways: they are adaptations of Asian mythologies, wuxia movies (Chinese martial arts), and are set in Asia.

Movies based on Asian mythologies are often produced by Asian film studios, which tend to retell classical tales in modern ways using new cinematic technologies.

Hollywood produced movies tell a different type of story. In movies about wuxia, the plot usually revolves around a stoic warrior with a hidden agenda. For movies set in Asia, Asia is portrayed as an exotic or mystical land where the (oftentimes) white protagonist stumbles into in order to uncover some ancient treasures (The Mummy), or have to face off the Asian villain (Pirates of the Caribbean). The “all Asians know martial arts” trope is consistent throughout all categories, where the reserved character chooses to express himself—be it pain, love, hate, longing—through a sword fighting sequence rather than through speech.

Fantasy genre: mixed representation

Movies with mixed representation featuring both asian and black actors are often featured as part of an ensemble cast. While Asian-Americans generally play less stereotypical characters, characters played by east Asian actors still feel somewhat tokenistic.

Case in point: Kris Wu, a Chinese-Canadian, plays a monotonous Sergeant Neza in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, where a review has said he sounded like he was reading cue cards at a gunpoint. Or Jing Tian, a Chinese actress who plays a biologist in Kong: Skull Island. Chinese critics have derided her as simply being a flower vase (花瓶), for she does not propel or contribute to the story in a meaningful way. Both actors represent a different form of tokenism—including famous east Asians to appease Asian investors and cashing in on the lucrative China box office.

Directors as Auteurs

So far we have looked into what is seen on screen—but most of the executive choices that make a movie happen offscreen.

Just as minorities are underrepresented in starring roles, there remains an inertia towards providing opportunities for Asian, black, and other miniority directors.

This is significant because directors are in the position to amplify representation by having a major say in the cast, and providing the overall vision to the movie.

While diverse representation is not the sole responsibility of minority directors, nor should the storytelling be driven purely by racial factors, there is a tendency for minority directors to tell stories that challenge racial stereotypes or reflect experiences of persons of colour onscreen.

Asian Directors

jameswan

For Asian directors, even being a director in Hollywood is a form of tall order in itself, regardless of the type of movies they direct. As such, there is a tendency for them to build up a portfolio to gain credibility as a “Hollywood director” before delving into more Asian centric stories.

Black Directors

barryjenkins

A foolproof method in having a more diverse cast? Get a black director to direct the movie. Out of the 33 blockbuster movies helmed by a black director, only 2 movies, Rise of the Guardians, and King Arthur, lacked minority representation. This is no coincidence; Jordan Peele, a director and owner of Monkeypaw Productions, has directed social thrillers such as Get Out, Blackkklansman, Us, and Candyman—all of which feature an all-black cast and highlighting the experience of being black in the United States.

Conclusion

When we first decided to investigate Asian representation in blockbuster movies, we were only thinking about the numbers. As we delved further we realised that the criteria for claiming representation are low: a one-dimensional minority character acting as a foil to the white protagonist can still be considered representation.

A movie adapted from Asian sources by Asian characters but with a whitewashed lead can likewise claim representation. So can a movie that has a majority Asian cast but reduces them to tropes. This archetype rang true for Chinese viewers of Crazy Rich Asians, who felt that although it was a movie ostensibly about Asians, it was Asians seen through the eyes of Westerners, like General Tso’s Chicken, a “Chinese” cuisine invented in consideration of Western palates.

Reading the comments, there is an air of exasperation that Asian characters and storylines have to contort and reduce themselves into recognisable stereotypes so as to be easily processed and accepted by Western audiences. No wonder the movie flopped in China.

Movies are ultimately made to be consumed by a mass audience. But how can Hollywood break out of its tendency to be blatantly one-dimensional in its portrayal of Asians and other minorities and to create characters that are more nuanced, if their perception continues to be that ticket-goers are predominantly white, and that their audiences are incapable of expanding their visual diet, despite evidence to the contrary?

Our analysis of 21 years of IMDb blockbuster data have taught us that even though Asians are poorly represented in mainstream movies, there is a steadily growing appetite for more diversity in storytelling, in terms of plot, characters, and setting. Hollywood—or gatekeepers who decide on film distribution and production budgets— can no longer rely on tired tropes about minorities if they wish to appeal to both domestic and international audiences. At any rate, in the digital age of streaming media, those distinctions are increasingly irrelevant.

But don’t just take our word for it, you can explore our visualisation and draw your own conclusions.

  • Director:
  • Gross: million
  • IMDb rating: /10
  • Starring cast:
    NaN% White
    NaN% Black
    NaN% Asian
    NaN% Others

Topics:

  • minority representation,
  • asian representation,
  • blockbusters,
  • hollywood

Disclaimer: Our stories have been researched and fact-checked to the best of our abilities. Should you spot mistakes, inaccuracies, or have queries about our sources, please drop us an e-mail at hello@kontinentalist.com

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