Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than 6 percent of speaking roles and less than 4 percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films, according to a comprehensive new study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
The study, titled The Prevalence and Portrayal of Asian and Pacific Islanders across 1,300 Popular Films, comes at a time of rising violence and racism against Asian Americans and the report’s key findings show that Hollywood is failing to meaningfully represent API while at the same time continues to peddle harmful stereotypes of the community.
The report’s authors, Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Dr. Katherine Pieper, Marc Choueiti, Kevin Yao and Dana Dinh, looked at API representation in 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007- 2019. API constituted any character who was Asian, Pacific Islander, and/or Native Hawaiian alone or in combination with other races/ethnicities, using the U.S. Census designations.
The study looked at a total of 51,159 speaking characters from a 13-year period and found that only 3,034, or 5.9 percent, were API characters. Moreover, there has been little to no meaningful increase in API representation over the period. In 2019, API characters with speaking parts accounted for 8.4 percent of total roles in Hollywood films, this was down from 9.6 percent in 2018, and only marginally up from 7.5 percent in 2008. Overall, the report found that the percentage of API characters across 13 years of the top-grossing movies (5.9 percent) falls slightly below the percentage of API people in the U.S. population (7.1 percent).
When it came to API actors toplining Hollywood films, the numbers were even more telling. Out of the 1,300 films analyzed, only 44, or 3.4 percent, featured an API lead or co-lead, in contrast to 336 films led/co-led by white male actors. Dwayne Johnson, Keanu Reeves and Jon Cho were the API actors who had the most lead roles in the period, with Constance Wu and Hailee Steinfeld the actresses scoring the most lead/co-lead roles with two each.
White male actors were more likely to lead or co-lead a Hollywood film than an API actor by a ratio of 15.3:1 and that jumps to 84:1 when comparing white male actors and API women. The report’s authors say that “actors named Ben, Chris, Daniel, James, Jason, John, Josh, Michael, Robert, Sean, or Tom were more likely to be hired as the top actor in a film than any API female actor with any name auditioning in all of Hollywood.”
The report also found that 507, or 39 percent, of the 1,300 films had no API characters at all, with that number jumping to 94.2 percent when looking at Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander characters only.
Behind the camera, the situation was no better. A total of 1,447 directors were credited across the 1,300 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2019, of these only 3.5 percent were API. Of the 50 films with API directors in the 13-year period, 25 filmmakers were responsible for that number of which only 3 were women. The 25 API directors included boldface names like M. Night Shyamalan, Taika Waititi, Ang Lee, Jon M. Chu, Bong Joon Ho, James Wan and Justin Lin as well up-and-coming filmmakers such as Aneesh Chaganty and Destin Daniel Cretton.
No API woman was credited as the sole director of a live-action top-grossing feature film between 2007 and 2019, with Loveleen Tanden credited as co-director of Slumdog Millionaire, Jennifer Yuh Nelson credited twice for directing the animated feature Kung Fu Panda 2 and co-directing Kung Fu Panda 3. Chloe Zhao’s all-conquering Nomadland was released in 2020.
Only 2.5 percent of the 3,952 credited film producers in the period were API, with 85.7 percent of these API producers being men and only 14.3 percent were women. When it came to casting directors, 3.3 percent were API, with 84.9 percent of the casters API women and 15.1 percent API men.
Interestingly, the study found that films with an API director attached featured more API leads/co-leads then those films without an API director attached. A similar but less pronounced pattern emerged with producers and the presence of an API casting director was not associated with the prevalence of API leads and co-leads.
At the studio executive level, API made up only 6.4 percent at major studios (Amazon Studios, Lionsgate, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Company including 20th Century, and Warner Bros.). None of the API executives were at the chair or CEO level.
Of the companies analyzed, the study found that “Netflix featured the highest number of API leads/co leads, films with proportional representation, API directors, API producers, and API casters across the 9 companies evaluated. Netflix also distributed 126 fictional U.S. films on its platform across 2018 and 2019, allowing for greater breadth and depth of hiring on screen and behind the camera. In fact, 4 out of 5 indicators on Netflix films were above proportional representation using U.S. Census.”
The report also found that Hollywood continued to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and tropes of the API community. API characters were more likely to be expendable in films, to feature as the sidekick or villain or as token characters stripped of romantic and family relationships or friendships.
The analysis found that there were films that framed API characters as the “perpetual foreigner” by giving them exaggerated non-English or foreign accents. API women characters were also subject to hypersexualization, with characters often depicted naked, partially clothed or in sexy clothing, feeding into societal sexualization of Asian women. There was also evidence of API men being emasculated on screen, with very few roles in the studied period featuring the male API characters having romantic relationships and instances of the API characters being sexually belittled for comic effect using stereotypes.
To increase API representation in Hollywood films and tackle the problems highlighted by their report, the authors put forward eight recommendations, including: the casting of more API talent; moving towards more authentic portrayals of the API characters; hiring more API storytellers; work with more API suppliers and vendors; supporting nonprofits, film schools and API talent pipeline; ensuring wider distribution of films by API creatives; elevating the voices of API critics, journalists and publicists; and for A-listers to eschew performative allyship with action which is more meaningful and substantive.
The full report and its recommendations can be read here.