Tokenism and the Underrepresentation of AAPIs in Television

Monday, August 17

By Jay Pearson

Fresh off the Boat. Kim’s Convenience. Never Have I Ever.

These are examples of amazing, popular television shows with predominantly Asian casts. Outside of these three, can you name another show with more than one or two AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) characters? Pretty hard, right? 

Tokenism (in terms of the TV industry) occurs when actors who are minorities are cast in order to create an illusion of diversity within the show. They are usually the only or one of few POC or queer actors among a cast of cisgender, straight, white actors. These characters are called “Token Minorities.” While these characters allow producers to broaden the appeal of the show to other racial, sexual, or gender demographics, they are often very clichéd and perpetuate harmful stereotypes of certain groups of people. This is especially true for the AAPI community. 

Let’s look at one modern-day instance of a borderline racist token Asian character: Raj Koothrappali from The Big Bang Theory. MTV India describes him as "the stereotypical brown guy with an exotic accent, crippled by his inability to speak to women and trying to escape the arranged marriages foisted on him by his bossy parents.” The character of Raj is built off of clichés of Indian people. There are also several racist jokes in the show. For example, at one point the character Sheldon Cooper attempts to scare Raj by putting a snake in his drawer. After seeing that Raj is perfectly fine handling the snake, Sheldon says “I tried to scare an Indian with a snake. Come on, Cooper! You're better than this.” This line reinforces the incredibly old stereotype that Indian people are snake charmers - an act that has been illegal in India since 1991. Raj, like several other token minorities, is used to exploit cultural stereotypes that ultimately make that culture seem like a joke. 

There is actual research that proves the severe underrepresentation that Asians and Pacific Islanders face in television. In 2017, a group of six scholars and California professors joined forces to study racial representation in TV. Their study, entitled “Tokens on the Small Screen,” revealed some shocking, yet still unsurprising, facts. Of the 242 shows they examined, 64 percent of them did not have a single AAPI character. By contrast, a whopping 96 percent of shows had a character who was white. This disparity is even apparent in shows set in incredibly diverse cities with high populations, such as LA or New York City. Even though about ⅓ of all Asians in the United States live in California (according to the Pew Research Center), 53 percent of all shows set in LA don’t have an Asian character. It is also important to note that over ⅓ of all AAPI representation occurred on just eleven shows. Several of these shows had been cancelled or not renewed at the time of the report, cutting overall representation down by 21 percent. There are even differences in the amount of screen time Asian characters get versus white characters. According to the study, Asian series regulars spend an average of 20 hours onscreen throughout the run of a show, while white series regulars typically have around 64 hours of screen time. See the disproportion? 

While the TV industry has come a long way in terms of racial inclusion, it still has miles to go. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Never Have I Ever have been instrumental in increasing diversity in American TV, but we can’t rely on them to do the heavy lifting. True representation goes beyond seeing a singular Asian face. It goes beyond having the typical Asian sidekick, perpetual foreigner, or model minority. True representation means having more than 4.3 percent of leading television roles be AAPIs. It means having well-rounded, multifaceted characters whose personalities are not based on ethnic stereotypes. Hopefully, one day minorities will be seen as more than just ways to score diversity points. Until then, we have a lot of work to do. 

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