Asian representation in media has catapulted lately, for better—and for worse.
On the one hand, Asians are characterized as a “model minority” deserving of Oscar wins, crazy talented and “crazy rich,” with our own take on heartwarming family comedies. On the other hand, the very same communities are vilified and held at a distance as pandemic carriers, subject to xenophobia and even violence.
Both portraits of Asian Americans can be harmful, one more obviously so than the other. But what’s troubling about this is that our identity, instead of being solid and ownable, is subject to the shifting mood of mainstream media. Asians have long suffered from being typecast and pushed into the stereotype de jour.
Is there only room for one Asian storyline at a time? The danger of this, of course, is that it collapses all Asians into a single-dimensional monolith. Not every Asian face you see is from Wuhan, China, although this brand of yellow-peril scapegoating is nothing new. When you are a South Korean exchange student or are a third-generation Vietnamese American, what’s lost are the cultural and socioeconomic subtleties that don’t get parsed out when we are tokenized. The risk of only seeing a handful of stories is that this can become the basis of creating stereotypes. And the problem with stereotypes is not just that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.
While the push for greater Asian visibility and representation has been growing, it’s still very much a work in progress. What’s missing are more stories about a wider range of ethnicities (notably lacking are Pacific Islander stories) and economic classes. Talented Asian actors ought to be elevated to marquee stars, and we need to continue normalizing the “exotic” Asian experience for western audiences. It isn’t just a matter of representation on-screen; it’s about changing the gatekeepers themselves who have the power to say yes to both more and a variety of Asian stories. When raising Asians into positions of power where they can drive progress, we simultaneously ensure that our community isn’t treated as a fad.
First, consider a multi-pronged approach to promote better understanding and help shift the current approach to Asian representation. It’s looking at a multicultural audience within what’s already a multicultural category. Next, go deeper with in-depth research to create authenticity. Empower without tokenizing. And finally, invest media dollars. If marketers want to tap into the $1 trillion buying potential of Asian Americans, we need to grow what’s currently a 0.1% media spend allocation.
All this will help create representation that actually reflects individual experiences and doesn’t lean on stereotypes. The more varied stories we tell and the more representation people can see, the faster we can claim our identities. The Asian diaspora is complex, with rich backgrounds and histories. Our stories differ vastly, like the countries our families used to call home. And ultimately, it’s our responsibility to be at the forefront of our own representation and to start empowering individuals by telling more than just the few stories we’ve seen.
Paul Fung is an acd at RPA and a member of RPA Represent, a change agent that relentlessly promotes inclusivity and diversity.