January 18, 2010

Asians and Indians on TV

Saturday I met with Michael Le of Racebending.com. He was in the neighborhood to film an interview with me on The Last Airbender and Asians (Racebending's focus) as well as Indians and Blue Corn Comics. I'll link to the video when it's available.

After the interview we talked for an hour and a half on Hollywood's portrayal of Asians and Indians. In general, minorities are getting the shaft, but Asians and Indians seem to have more problems in common than most. I touched on this in Hollywood Chinese and Indians, but here are some more thoughts.

As you'll recall, I surveyed the 2009 TV season so far. The picture for Natives wasn't pretty. Looking at the same shows for Asians is hardly more encouraging. About the only Asian actors I've seen listed as cast members are:

  • Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim on Lost (resuming shortly)
  • Sandra Oh on Grey's Anatomy
  • John Cho on FlashForward
  • Tim Kang on The Mentalist
  • Ken Jeong on Community

  • Lost, Community, Parks and Recreation, and The Good Wife also have regular Asian Indian characters. Lucy Liu was on Cashmere Mafia and Dirty Sexy Money the last couple years but isn't on the air now.

    Does this sound like a decent record? Well, Asians make up about 5% of the US population. But many TV shows are set in Los Angeles or New York City, where Asians make up 11.9% and 9.9% of the population, respectively. Moreover, many shows feature white-collar professions--medicine, law, business, government, etc.--where Asians are well-represented.

    It's fair to say that at least 10% of the characters on TV should be Asian. That's one of every 10 characters, or about one character per show. We're nowhere near this level of equity. Instead we have a hundred or more shows and only a dozen or so Asian characters.

    I may have said this before, but of the "major" minorities, I think Asians are the worst represented on TV. Natives and Latinos are next--though with Natives, it's hard to tell. America's Native population is small enough that a couple appearances a week would fill their "quota." Finally we have blacks, who are probably doing the best among minorities.

    More similarities

    While blacks and Latinos are increasingly playing a variety of roles, Asians and Natives are still cast as a few types. The savage or kung-fu warrior. The wise mystic elder. The beautiful maiden or princess. The shady casino or high-tech business owner.

    Moreover, Asians from different countries and Natives from different tribes are cast interchangeably. Some Asians look "Eurasian" enough to play Natives, Latinos, or anyone who's supposed to be "ethnic." And Hollywood loves to cast whites with a tiny amount of Asian or Indian "blood" in these roles. That way you get someone who has an edge of "strangeness" but is mostly "normal" and "acceptable."

    Has Hollywood focused on blacks first because Americans see race as a black-and-white issue--literally? Is it just a matter of time before other minorities get their fair share of roles? Are Asians and Natives being held back only by their small populations, which make them "invisible" to studio execs? Or is something else at work here?

    I don't know, but we can speculate. These days most people would guess that blacks and Latinos are Christians. (Unless a black man gets elected president, that is, but that's another matter.) In contrast, Asian Americans are perceived to have non-Christian religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, ancestor worship, etc.). So are Native Americans, although I believe both groups are predominantly Christian.

    Moreover, both minorities are perceived to be stoic and inscrutable. They're perceived to live apart from the mainstream (in Chinatowns and on reservations). And of course they have "exotic" or "Asiatic" features.

    Coincidence? Or is Hollywood avoiding Asian and Indian actors for a reason? When it keeps whitewashing Asian and Natives roles (The Last Airbender, 21, The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Twilight), you have to wonder.

    For more on the subject, see "Colorface" Yesterday and Today and Friday, Tonto, Jacob Black, et al.


    dmarks said...

    Don't forget the most enduring Asian character in prime time TV: Apu from "The Simpsons"

    Stereotype-ridden, and, I believe, voiced by a white guy.

    Kat said...

    I guess there are two sides of this coin: One is the whitewashing of originally Asian characters (and also Black ones, see this for a galling example.

    The other side is the Asian sidekick, which is mostly there for some form of comic relief and/or sassy:
    You have the camp Asian Indian in "Weeds" and the lesbian sassy sexy Asian Indian in "The Good Wife". Asian sidekicks also feature in "The Big Bang Theory," "Parks and Recreation," "Community," "The Office" and "30 Rock".

    It's an "accessory".

    dmarks said...

    Kat: Don't forget the Green Hornet's sidekick. An East Asian character played by Bruce Lee long ago, and now Jay Chou in this year's movie.

    cara said...

    i think that modern america doesnt know how to pinpoint modern native americans, and asians, other than the old sterotypical roles. as a native american, i feel that we need to create a positive modern impression, so hollywood can begin seeing us as a part of the world. not just native's on a rez., but actually making a mark on the world.

    Anonymous said...

    Julia Ling was on Chuck for a while. 33 episodes, according to IMDb. She's off the show now, though. She speaks fluent Mandarin, so I assume she's Chinese. Vik Sahay is still on the show. He's Indian (Asian). Michaela Conlin is on Bones - part of the core cast. Her mom is Chinese. On Numb3rs, Navi Rawat is half Indian (Asian). On Stargate Universe, Ming-Na was born on Macau. On Sanctuary, Agam Darshi is born in the UK, but must be ethnically either Indian or Pakistani. And those are just off the top of my head..
    - Annie/NativeCelebs

    dmarks said...

    Cara: Right. Not many, or any in the movies lately, are there? I wonder how they will do with Adam Beach in the new "Green Lantern" movie as a modern non-stereotypical Native character.

    I guess, as long as they filmmakers resist the temptation to have him rip off his shirt and turn into a wolf.... even if it might automatically mean $100 million more in box office if they do.

    Rob said...

    Thanks for the additional examples, everyone. I'm watching a lot of TV this season, but I still see only a fraction of the shows.

    I should've remembered the Asian Indian guy in The Big Bang Theory, since I just watched that (overrated) show. But I wouldn't count Apu in The Simpsons because he appears only a few times each season.

    As usual, I'm not counting cable or Canadian shows. I think cable penetration is somewhere in the 50% range in the US, so it's far from ubiquitous.

    Of course, these additional examples don't change my thesis. You'd have to come up with ten times as many Asian characters before I'd say they were fairly represented.

    Kat said...

    @ Annie:

    What you said does not refute what I meant: The characters I mentioned are also on the core cast, but they are sidekicks, not the lead, which is White. Or are any of the ones you mentioned the actual protagonist of their show?

    @ Rob:

    Speaking of Adam Beach- why is there no article here on him in the first two episodes of "Big Love"?

    dmarks said...

    Apu does not count? Remember, it's "The Simpsons". Appearing a few times each season for 20 years adds up to at least 60 apperances. I doubt you will find an Asian TV character as well-recognized.

    I wasn't saying Apu was an example of anything good (him being voiced by a white guy and being rather stereotypical).

    I guess we'll probably agree to disagree on this one, just like on another cartoon character, Joseph Gribble, as to where he counts as an Indian.

    Rob said...

    Sixty appearances out of the 10,000 characters who have graced The Simpsons in 20 years? Any way you slice it, it's still unimpressive.

    If Apu appeared more often, he'd still be a stereotypical Asian Indian. Racebending.org probably wants fewer characters like him, not more.

    An article on Apu:


    Culture-vulture Simpsons fans have felled entire forests in arguing that he's a parody of a stereotype, rather than the stereotype itself. But the plain fact is that most viewers are laughing at Apu, not with him. They're enjoying the simple pleasures of a funny, singsong brown man with a slippery grasp of English.

    dmarks said...

    Yes. See my above comment about how Apu is stereotypical and voiced by a white guy.

    The voice situation is typical for that show. I checked the first African-American character that came to mind (Dr. Hibbert). Although he's not stereotypical, he's also voiced by a white guy. The second black character to come to mind for me, Carl, is voiced by a white guy....

    Anonymous said...

    There's also Dollhouse with Dichen Lachmann playing one of the major characters. The episode revealing her background, Belonging, being arguably the best Dollhouse episode ever.