Images from left to right: Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Bitter Melon (2018), PEN15 (2019-), Minari (2020)
Welcome to the Asian American Representation in the Media LibGuide. This guide will discuss the history of Asian American representation in the media—primarily in Hollywood—and examine some common tropes/stereotypes applied to Asian characters in film and television. Here, you will find brief discussions of the Model Minority Myth, the Dragon Lady trope, techno-orientalism, and whitewashing/yellowface, along with a selections of books and films written/created by Asian Americans featuring nuanced characters and portrayals of Asian experiences, including the movies and films in the above images.
In a recent study, “I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority” (2021) from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment, researchers found that Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) actors made up only 4.5% of leads or co-leads in the top 10 grossing domestic films from 2010-2019. In films featuring API characters in the main cast, about a third of API characters "embody at least one common API trope or stereotype (35.2%)" such as the “Martial Artist,” the “Model Minority,” or the “Exotic Woman.” There is a long and continuing history of the whitewashing and stereotyping of Asian characters in Hollywood films. In 1935, MGM refused to consider Anna May Wong for the leading role O-Lan in the The Good Earth—instead casting Luise Rainer to play O-Lan in yellowface. In the 2023 biography Tetris, Taron Egerton, a Welsh actor was been cast to play video game publisher Henk Rogers, who is Dutch-Indonesian.
The guide serves only as an introduction and highlights texts in our collection that focus on Asian American representation in the media. For more information, see our companion guides including our Feminist Media Studies guide which features brief explanations of stereotypes inflicted on women in the media:
Citations: Almost Half of All Asian Roles Serve as a Punchline, Study Finds. NBC News, 5 Aug. 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/almost-half-all-asian-roles-serve-punchline-study-finds-n1276103.
Video: Why Do We Call Asian Americans The Model Minority? | AJ+ (2017)
The Model Minority Myth is a stereotype of certain minority groups, particularly Asian Americans, as successful, well-adjusted, and therefore requiring little or no social and economic assistance. The phrase "model minority" originated in a 1966 New York Times article by William Peterson who used the phrase to describe the economic prosperity of Japanese Americans after WWII. Since then, the term has been applied to many other groups including Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and Korean Americans. The model minority stereotype is not only harmful to Asian Americans because it groups them into a monolith but also in that it perpetuates the idea that other minority groups should be able to achieve model minority status not through the removal of systemic barriers but through hard work alone. This stereotype can be found in media, journalism, academia, popular culture, and more. For example, in 1987 TIME published their magazine with a cover photo of "Those Asian-American Whiz Kids."
(Left) From Peterson, "Success Story, Japanese-American Style: Success Story, Japanese-American Style." 1966, pp. 180. (Right) TIME Magazine Cover: Asian-American Whiz Kids, 1987.
Scholars and activists have long critiqued the terms AAPI and Asian American as "masking differences in histories and needs among communities, as well as supporting the myth that Asian Americans are a monolithic group" (Connie Hanzhang Jin, 2021). This monolithic mindset contributes society often overlooking diversity in the Asian American community in terms of ethnic groups, experience, immigration status, and economic circumstances. In fact, contrary to the Model Minority Myth which states that Asian Americans are an economically prosperous demographic that does not require financial assistance or investment, Asian Americans are actually the most economically divided racial group in America:
The perception of Asian Americans being economically and academically successful hides the fact that many Asian American communities experience high rates of poverty and Asian American students often feel intense academic pressure which leads to heightened rates of anxiety and stress. While the release of films and shows such as "Crazy Rich Asians" (the first film by a major Hollywood studio to feature a majority cast of Chinese descent in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993) and Netflix's "Bling Empire" have undoubtedly increased Asian American representation in Hollywood, it is important to note that these films do play into stereotypes about the prevalence of extremely rich and successful Asian Americans. Of course, if there were more representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood, this would not be a concern—all communities deserve to be represented in a multitude of nuanced ways—but it is important to consider which portrayals of Asian Americans receive studio/Hollywood funding, win prestigious awards, and draw large audiences.
Video: The Complicated Discussion Surrounding Crazy Rich Asians | Video Essay, Quality Culture (2022)
The model minority myth manifests in television and film characters who are portrayed as one-dimensional nerds, high-achievers, and stoic, diligent workers. To keep learning about this myth, explore some the resources listed below:
By, WILLIAM P. "Success Story, Japanese-American Style: Success Story, Japanese-American Style." New York Times (1923-), Jan 09, 1966, pp. 180. ProQuest, https://proxyiub.uits.iu.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2Fsuccess-story-japanese-american-style%2Fdocview%2F117544314%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D11620.
“TIME Magazine Cover: Asian-American Whiz Kids - Aug. 31, 1987.” TIME.Com, https://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19870831,00.html. Accessed 10 May 2023.
The Dragon Lady is a stereotype of Asian women, particularly East Asian women, as strong, deceitful, domineering, mysterious, and sexually alluring. The Dragon Lady might be seen wearing 'traditional' dress when no one else around her is, speaking in cryptic/flowery metaphors, or utilizing Asian fighting styles. The term comes from the U.S. comic strip "Terry and the Pirates," which featured a character called Dragon Lady, also known as Madam Deal.
Image: Terry and the Pirates: Enter the Dragon Lady featuring the Dragon Lady, a character based on Lai Choi San, a 1900s Chinese pirate.
Inspired by the characters played by actress Anna May Wong, the term is often applied in opposition to the "Lotus Blossom" stereotype of an overly submissive and hyper-sexualized Asian woman. The Dragon Lady has often been used to refer to powerful Asian women—such as Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang Kai-shek) and Devika Rani—in a derogatory fashion. The term dragon lady is applied to Asian women and not to their non-Asian counterparts as Lucy Liu highlights in her discussion of Kill Bill: Volume I:
"Kill Bill' features three other female professional killers in addition to Ishii. Why not call Uma Thurman, Vivica A. Fox or Daryl Hannah a dragon lady? I can only conclude that it's because they are not Asian, I could have been wearing a tuxedo and a blond wig, but I still would have been labeled a dragon lady because of my ethnicity.
"Kill Bill," includes many female assassins but shows Liu's character committing her assassinations in traditional Japanese costume.
(Left) Poster for Daughter of the Dragon (1931). (Right) Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
The Dragon Lady trope has its roots in the Page Act of 1875, a United States law which prohibited the immigration of “Oriental” laborers brought against their will or for “lewd and immoral purposes.” In practice, this law banned all East Asian women from entering the US. On the perception of Asian women during this time, Nancy Wang Yuen states: “They were characterized as potentially carrying sexual diseases. They were also characterized as being temptations for white men” (qtd. in Pham 2021). The Dragon Lady is a result of centuries of Anti-Asian bias, yellow peril, and racist assumptions about Asian women. It is important to note that until recently, these were some of the only roles that Asian women in Hollywood were allowed to play—actors needed to take these positions lest they not be cast at all. The problem with the Dragon Lady stereotype is not that it depicts Asian women as strong, attractive, and mysterious, but that media would often refuse to show Asian women as anything else (Pham, 2021). For more on the nuanced reality of this stereotype see Sarah Kuhn's article "Enter the Dragon Lady" and explore the resources listed below:
Video: Virtually Asian by Astria Suparak (English subtitles) from Berkeley Art Center on Vimeo.
In 2020, Astria Suparak launched the "Asian futures, without Asians" series, a "a visual analysis of over half a century of American science fiction cinema. A multipart research project, it draws from the histories of art, architecture, design, fashion, film, food, and weaponry." In this series, Suparak analyzes how science fiction utilizes stereotypical Asian signifiers that serve as the backdrop for an almost exclusively white cast.
“The piece is part of a larger project examining 40 years of sci-fi films and how white filmmakers envision a future that is inflected by Asian culture but devoid of actual Asian people."
—Astria Suparak qtd in "Asian-American Artists, Now Activists, Push Back Against Hate." NYT 2021
Learn more about Suparak's ongoing project and explore additional resources below:
Video: Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood. Vox. (2016)
Whitewashing is a casting practice in the film industry in which white actors are cast in non-white roles. Yellowface is a form of whitewashing where non-Asian actors are cast to play Asian characters. The practice of yellowface extends from the beginning of Hollywood to today. Famous early examples include Warner Oland playing Charlie Chan in "Charlie Chan Carries On" (1931) and Dr. Fu Manchu in "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu" (1929). In the 1960s, Mickey Rooney wore yellowface to portray I. Y. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). More recently, you might recall Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, and Michael Pitt playing Japanese animated characters in "Ghost in the Shell" (2017), Emma Stone as Allison Ng in "Aloha" (2015), and white actors playing Asian and Inuit characters in the film adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender:
From left to right: Scarlett Johansson in "Ghost in a Shell", Emma Stone in "Aloha", and the cast of "The Last Airbender"
Whitewashing is prominent in Hollywood for Asian characters as well as any non-white characters. For an extensive list, check out this Wikipedia page. Many directors and producers are pressured by Hollywood executives to cast non-Asian actors in Asian roles. For example. Lulu Wang, the director of The Farewell (a film about here Chinese American family), has stated that many American financiers wanted to include a "prominent white character into the narrative, and punch up the nuanced drama to turn it into a broad comedy."
To learn more about the history of whitewashing and yellowface, explore the resources below:
The following are films by and featuring Asian directors, writers, and actors. For additional lists, see below:
Content Warning: Gore
Video: Mitski, Happy (Official Music Video)
Asian Americans have been exploring media representation through their writing, music, cinema, and essays. Below is a small selection of books written by Asian Americans about the Asian American experience.
The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. We do this by funding, producing, distributing and exhibiting works in film, television and digital media. For 40 years, CAAM has exposed audiences to new voices and communities, advancing our collective understanding of the American experience through programs specifically designed to engage the Asian American community and the public at large. CAAM has put together a collection titled "Memories to Light," a project to collect and digitize home movies and to share them–and the stories they tell—to a broad public.
Video: Memories to Light 2.0: The Bohulano Family, 2014
Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ): "Asian Americans have been part of the American story since its earliest days, and are now the U.S.'s fastest-growing racial group with the potential and power to shape our nation and the policies that affect us. Our mission is to advance civil and human rights for Asian Americans and to build and promote a fair and equitable society for all." Explore their Media Diversity Page.
Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) located in Chinatown, NYC. Explore their website and MOJO, the online journal of MOCA, a museum for all, anywhere.
Asian Film Archive: The Asian Film Archive was founded in January 2005 as a non-profit organisation to preserve the rich film heritage of Singapore and Asian Cinema, to encourage scholarly research on film, and to promote a wider critical appreciation of this art form.
During April, we celebrate both Earth Month and Earth Day (April 26th). Earth Day has been celebrated since 1970 and marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. In celebration of this month and day, we have developed a guide focusing on human relationships with the non-human world. This feature will center on representation of animals in the media, literature, and culture. You will find poetry, nonfiction, and novels that allow you to witness how writers and creatives are thinking, and have been thinking, about human/non-human relations.
Still from Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
If you are looking to learn more about the history of a specific animal, look into The Animal Series from Reaktion Books which explores the natural history of animals alongside their historical and cultural impact on humankind. Each short book is a wonderful introduction to an animal with which you are probably familiar and maybe even encounter daily!
Check out our companion feature in the Philosophy guide for more information on the scholarly fields of Animal Studies and Critical Animal Studies, as well as other philosophies of the non-human.
If you'd like to explore more thematic content relevant to climate change, environmental justice, and nature, try the Environmental Justice & Earth Day feature, which includes music, novels, feature films, and documentaries on these topics, and the highlight on Environmental Ethics & Aesthetics at the Philosophy Research Guide.
From Winnie the Pooh to Moby Dick, animals can be found in a wide variety of novels, children's stories, folktales, and other writings from the medieval to contemporary eras. Literary animal studies explores the figurative significance of animals in literature, offering critical insight into the portrayal of animals in literature. Scholars discuss how writers represent animal experience in human language, whether it is truly possible to develop a non-anthropocentric mode of writing, and how representations of nonhuman subjects might affect our perception of certain species.
When exploring literary animal studies in IUCAT, try looking under the following subject headings: "Human animal relationships in literature" and "Animals in literature." See also: "Palgrave studies in animals and literature" series.
Image Credit (Right): Author: Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazwini (ca. 1203-1283), Scribe: Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-'i Nathani. Illustration: A Wild Cat and an Animal Called Sirayis. 1121 AH/AD 1717 (Ottoman). Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/AWALTERSIG_10313536682
Explore the following subject headings in IUCAT to learn more about animals and animal representation in the media:
Hachicko Statue in Tokyo, Japan
Clockwise from left to right: Alex G God Save the Animals; Ia Clua & Jordi Batiste Chichonera’s Cat; The Birdsong Project For The Birds: Vol. 1; Fiona Apple Fetch the Boltcutters; Nyokabi Kariũki peace places: kenyan memories; Pink Floyd Animals
About the Playlist
The nonhuman world, including animals, have long captured the cultural and musical imaginations of people. In this playlist, we have curated a selection of songs about, referring to, or in any way inspired by our fellow critters, whether literally or symbolically. To learn more about the music we've included, the history of nonhuman animal references in music, and animals' own relationships with music, consult some of the resources below:
Note: To enjoy the playlist in full, click on the white Spotify icon in the upper-right corner of the playlist, and press the "like" (♡) button in the application to save.
This American Life
In Dog We Trust: Exactly how much are the animals that live in our homes caught up in our everyday family dynamics?
Ologies with Alie Ward
The Ezra Klein Show
Modern Animal by isolarii: Isolarii is a pocket-sized magazine that conceives of every issue as a kind of ‘island’; new space from which to view the world. Authored by the Ukrainian artist Yevgenia Belorusets, issue five is entitled ‘Modern Animal’ and is conceived as a series of lectures on the modern lives of animals.
The Institute of Queer Ecology (IQECO) is an ever-evolving collaborative organism that seeks to bring peripheral solutions to environmental degradation to the forefront of public consciousness. IQECO projects are interdisciplinary, but unified and grounded in the theoretical framework of Queer Ecology, an adaptive practice concerned with interconnectivity, intimacy, and multispecies relationality.
The Organism for Poetic Research (OPR) is a critical-poetic platform for making and studying operating primarily out of Brooklyn, NY and Providence, RI. The OPR works through writing, visual art, group discussion, and performative events to explore ideas—materially and generatively—across disciplines, e.g. “science,” “philosophy,” “history,” or “painting,” “poetry,” “music,” etc. OPR projects take a number of forms: readings, seminars, installations, books, digital residency projects on our website, and Pelt, a sporadically published (in print and online) magazine organized around an invented concept that is further articulated through the collective work of the issue.
There are many ways to get involved with Animal Rights and Environmental movements right here in and around Bloomington. From incorporating animal studies into your scholarship to donating money and participating in direct action campaigns, see the following list for organizations supporting animals and the environment in the Bloomington area:
The following are national organizations fighting for animal rights, liberation, and environmental justice. For more information on the impact of a few of the organizations listed below, check out Animal Charity Evaluators, which researches animal welfare organizations.