Asian representation vs. the Model Minority Myth and the media

In the last few years, (ESEA – East and Southeast) Asian (American) representation on the silver screen has increased massively. From Crazy Rich Asians to Mulan, from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to Eternals, from Turning Red to Raya and the Last Dragon, and from Minari to Everything Everywhere All at Once, the diverse lived experiences of the Asian/ESEA diaspora and Asian/ESEA talent are finally being recognised and given opportunities.

In addition, on North American TV there was Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience, both of which became the first American and Canadian series with majority Asian main casts. As I’ve lamented before, there is yet to be any big, mainstream British equivalent.

In many of the above films and shows already mentioned, they highlight the “Model Minority Myth” that is often very relatable to the creatives behind the lens and the Asian audiences but the characters and storylines also often challenge, twist or break the “positive” and negative stereotypes associated with Asians and their cultures. In this blog post I’ll break down what the Model Minority Myth is and how it and other negative, narrow-minded and harmful stereotypes have affected Asian representation in the media and most importantly, how it needs to be challenged, especially in the UK.

ESEA representation statistics in the UK

Research from the Creative Diversity Network in 2020 shows that in TV, representation of East Asians (this includes Southeast Asians) is minuscule. On screen East Asians only made up 1.1% of roles and an even poorer 0.7% off screen between 2018-2019. The sample size was too small to say how many East Asians were in leading roles (so basically zero) but was 3.3% for supporting roles, however this could also include those with minor roles who have few scenes and lines.

When it comes to TV adverts, 8% feature East Asian people but only around 1% play a lead role in them.

In film, from 2011-2020, there were 9 British films released theatrically by BESEA directors, which equates to 0.8% of all releases and nearly all were defined as low budget. And in theatre, as I’ve said in a previous post about diversity, East Asians make up just 3% of all cast members across 19 West End musicals. Keep reading for more on this further down…

What is the “Model Minority Myth”?

Traditional upbringing passed down through generations has almost dictated ESEA people to go and study certain subjects and go for certain types of jobs – serious subjects where there’s guaranteed job prospects and jobs where high earning and career climbing progress is possible. Media and the arts are seen as hobbies that don’t put food on the table. This has perhaps blocked many ESEA people interested in these paths from going down them, which means the talent pool is pretty much absent of their presence.

The Model Minority Myth also reinforces stereotypes regarding personality traits, including shy and quiet, non-confrontational and well-behaved.

The media and society’s views of ESEA people are influenced by what they know based on stereotypes and statistics (for example, official data says they are among the highest earning ethnic minority groups and best performing in education) as well as what other media and society has told them. The Model Minority is often reflected in the storylines and character profiles of ESEA people, such as Ling Woo from Ally McBeal (portrayed by Lucy Liu) a lawyer whose personality was akin to the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, and the parents of Kitty Wei (Kim Adis – the first Southeast Asian actress in a co-leading role on British TV) in Get Even who have high expectations, making her feel under pressure to overachieve.

Top to bottom, left to right: Ling Woo, Kitty Wei, Jing, Rachel Chu, Dr Lily Chao and Cho Chang.

Others include Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) in Crazy Rich Asians who is an Economics professor, Jing (Kae Alexander) from Bad Education who is described as the most intelligent and serious student, “sensible and responsible”, “longing for a decent education” and “the one person in the class who’s always right but is sadly never listened to”, and Dr Lily Chao (Crystal Yu) from Casualty, who “has her sights set on a good match in marriage”, is “an intelligent high achiever” and “comes from a hard-working family who like to boast about their doctor daughter, but have never really told her they are proud of her”.

There are also academic essays such as one written by Jennifer Mak that explore the way in which characters like Cho Chang from the Harry Potter films are portrayed; “a gentle and meek personality reflected in her standing posture and tone of voice, posited against Harry’s best friend Hermione Granger, who is portrayed as brave, outspoken and smart”, while her competency in Quidditch is omitted from the films.

Other ESEA stereotypes to be avoided and challenged

Pik-Sen Lim, who is best known for her role as Chung Su-Lee in Mind Your Language and her co-star Robert Lee as Tarō Nagazumi, have also been topics of conversations regarding both their over-exaggerated stereotypes and whether the show (from the late 70s to late 80s) was racist or simply a “product of its time”.

Chung Su-Lee from Mind Your Language perpetuated early and lasting negative stereotypes about East Asians.

In addition to the “Dragon Lady” stereotype, other ESEA characters that are more often than not included in shows and films are: “tiger mum” (Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young in Crazy Rich Asians), “submissive” (Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly), sexually promiscuous (Trang Pak and Sun Jin Dinh in Mean Girls) and speaking poor or limited English despite the actor usually speaking perfect English (Mr Wu in Benidorm). Stereotypical storylines or jobs for ESEA characters include: restauranteur (Mr Wong in Coronation Street), fake DVD seller (Li Chong in Eastenders), facing deportation (Xin in Corrie), being accused of eating a neighbour’s dog (the Lim family in Neighbours), and of course being a martial arts master. While some, such as the latter are not necessarily negative stereotypes, they are over-utilised and characters’ individual profiles may be minimised and less focal to the story in favour of it.

Obviously in reality, people like the above exist across the ESEA diaspora but also other cultures too. Although I don’t think they all shouldn’t not exist at all (though some, yes), they should absolutely not be the very few types of ESEA people that are portrayed in any one particular medium and can and should be more dimensional. For example, a “tiger mum” can still be fun and comical or a “submissive” character could eventually become strong-willed and independent.

Conversely, some rare good examples of positive representation are: Tao and his mum from Heartstopper and the Chen-Williams family in Hollyoaks.

The lack of ESEA representation and diversity in theatre

Across the world of theatre, including opera, the lack of ESEA representation is just as startling. Over the years, I have seen an increase in ESEA actors grace the stage of many productions, albeit in extremely minor roles or in the ensemble. The only two notable shows that have leading roles where the actors are (usually or should be) ESEA, are The King and I and Miss Saigon. But even then not all actors who have portrayed the king have been of ESEA heritage, such as the first to do so in The King and I – Yul Brenner, who is Russian and half of the sixteen listed as prominent actors who have done on the musical’s Wikipedia page over the years aren’t either. Thankfully, the 2023 UK and Ireland tour of The King and I will star Darren Lee in the regal role alongside other ESEA actors as supporting characters. Yet, in the musical, it is Anna who is the seen as the leading character, not the king.

In Miss Saigon, there was uproar when Jonathan Pryce was cast as the Eurasian engineer in the show and in many early productions, other Asian characters were played by non-Asian actors. Only the lead of role of Kim has been as consistently authentic as possible, in which Lea Salonga originated it.

While there has been a vast increase in the number of Black talent taking on roles that were originally fulfilled by White actors, there has been almost negligible ESEA talent noticeably doing the same. The only example I can recall so far is Frozen, though this was again, two minor supporting roles.

Jacqui Sanchez and Kerry Spark played Queen Iduna and King Agnarr in Frozen.

In opera, as previously mentioned, Madama Butterfly is perhaps the only example of this art form with a focus on an ESEA character, though the portrayal of Cio-Cio-San is hotly contested as racist, stereotypical and for feeding into the fetishisation and the idea of inferiority of East Asian women, which Miss Saigon has also been accused of doing as the stories are similar. However, in a revolutionary move, a new production by the Royal Opera in 2022 staged Madama Butterfly with the racist parts removed. The only problem? The part of Cio-Cio San was shared by two sopranos, neither of whom are East Asian…

In addition, newer productions of Anything Goes have rid the Chinese characters of having stereotypical accents that mocked them. Perhaps the most recent show to feature an all-Asian cast is Allegiance, based on the true story of George Takei and 120,000 Japanese growing up in America in the 1940s. And there are a small and growing number of ESEA groups such New Earth Theatre and Paper Gang Theatre putting on ESEA-focused shows, allowing ESEA creatives more opportunities that they perhaps struggle to find in mainstream theatre, with networks like East by South East and helping them to connect.

Why do ESEA actors and actresses take on stereotypical roles?

It must be noted that those who audition for or accept roles like the aforementioned may have a number of reasons for doing so, whether that’s a need for a job, something about the character, the show or film’s premise or the script that appealed to them, or because of the exposure they would get from it.

Actor David Tse, who is a vocal advocate for anti-racist tropes and East and Southeast Asian representation in the media, has spoken about how he has turned down lucrative TV roles because they were so offensive. While we can ponder why others didn’t refuse offers or may not have challenged the stereotypes their characters possessed, we don’t know if they did and received pushback, so it is not for anyone to blame them. And as the aftermath of the pandemic has encouraged and empowered more ESEA talent to speak up about anti-Asian racism, this will hopefully change and such negative representation won’t be repeated.

Ultimately, the problem lies with the creators and writers of the shows and films, who do not see the diversity within the ESEA spectrum and who do not feel strong ESEA characters would either be necessary, popular or even accurate.

Where are the ESEA creatives to tell our stories?

As previously mentioned, off-screen ESEA creatives are far and few between on mainstream TV and big budget films. Sadly, this is due in part to the Model Minority Myth, which has hindered both ESEA people entering the industry and representation from the perspective of non-ESEA people being high, diverse or accurate.

In the US, Asian Americans of East and Southeast Asian descent as well as mixed race Asians account for roughly 17 million of the total population, which is equal to just over 5%. While Asian Americans enjoy generally increasing and improving representation in the media, the percentage is comparatively almost equal to that of the UK’s ESEA population. Why and how then, is representation of them far beyond ours? This is not a question I have a definitive answer to, but it has long been a topic of discussion in the US with little in the way of similar major progress in the UK.

Scriptwriting competitions that specifically target or welcome applicants from underrepresented groups are on the up, and while this is a positive step in the right direction, the question is how many ESEA people actually enter them? I believe calls for them separately should be encouraged and actively trying to find the talent out there that surely exists. A great example would be the upcoming TV adaptation of Chinglish by Sue Cheung where she told me they sourced a British Chinese team to co-write and edit the script, which shows keen intention to represent and showcase such talent.

How to increase and improve ESEA representation

Three simple tips I would encourage non-ESEA people working in TV, film, advertising and theatre to do in order to increase and improve representation in those mediums are:

  • Find and hire ESEA people: there are creatives and talent from across the ESEA spectrum to be found. If you think there aren’t, you’re not looking hard enough
  • Ask for their opinions and input: if you somehow cannot find ESEA people for your projects or make the ESEA characters main roles or more focal to the stories, the next best thing is to consult with the ESEA people you do have in roles and others (such as focus groups). This can at least ensure your characters and their storylines can be more authentic and represent a more diverse array of ESEA people and their experiences
  • Diversify your ESEA talent: especially when it comes to actors, there is a big talent pool of them so it’s not always the best idea to have go-tos or certain people in mind for roles. Particularly as you see in Asian American TV and films, a majority of them cast the same small roster of people in principal roles. The representation might have improved but the reality is that numbers haven’t increased much

While I’m on the fence about whether things will change a lot in the coming years and whether Britain will be ready for prominent lead ESEA characters in TV (not ensemble), film and especially theatre, we can only continue hoping but also fighting for more and better representation. If you’re an ESEA actor or creative, don’t give up your quest. If other ethnic minorities and marginalised groups can finally start gaining momentum, so can we.

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