Asians in film: The Wrap-Up

After watching 20 movies in two weeks, the one thing I can say for certain: movies are very formulaic. Each genre has a different formula, but after you them all right next to each other you figure it out very fast.

Now, while I can tell a lot about the plot of a movie by looking at the movie poster, I couldn’t tell that much about how the Asian characters were portrayed. The year that the movie was made had little impact on whether the Asian character was portrayed stereotypically. For example, The Crimson Kimono starring James Shigeta had a very open and honest dialogue about being Asian in a post-WWII America, despite the fact that it was made in the 60’s. On the other hand, Margaret Cho’s portrayal of a foreign exchange student in Fakin’ Da’ Funk, on the other hand, relied on centuries-old stereotypes, despite being made in the 90’s.

While slightly counter-intuitive this makes sense because at the time that prejudice against Asians was at an all-time high, Asian actors and actresses were often kept off the screen. Furthermore, when they were able to break out onto the screen, they were probably only able to do it through more progressive avenues. Thus, some of the most egregious portrayals, such as Micky Rooney’s depiction of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were played by white actors and actresses, and thus didn’t make it into my study.

However, there were a few trends that we can generalize. Women, on average, were more likely to be portrayed stereotypically, there was a 12 percentage point difference between the portrayal of men and women. Furthermore, Comedies and Dramas had a high level of stereotypical portrayals, whereas Sci-Fi movies had a very low level of stereotypical portrayal. One interesting thing about comedies is that there was a stark divide in portrayals. Comedies had either very stereotypical portrayals of Asian characters or nearly zero instances of stereotypical portrayals. The man difference between the two movies was not that one joked about race and the other didn’t. The difference was that one joked about an Asian character being stereotypical and the others joked about how he/she wasn’t stereotypical but everybody thought that they were. Thus, in comedy, it was nearly impossible for those actors/actresses to escape their Asianess.




  1. zsconnell says:

    This sounds like a really interesting project! Based off of the movies with Asian actors that I have seen, I completely agree wth your findings, especially in regards to comedies and dramas. I was more surprised to hear about the lack of stereotypes in sci-fi films, but I guess that that would make sense, seeing as the main focus of sci-fi films is to almost escape reality if that makes sense. Just out of curiosity, did you look into fantasy films at all, or did you combine sci-fi and fantasy into one category?

  2. Artemis Fang says:

    Hi! I really like your topic. I looked at your previous posts to get a sense of your methodology and was amused by your description of how hard it was to find movies for this project (but I hope it was also fun?)
    I’ve always liked Sci-fi because it seemed to be more race-blind and progressive in general (after all, what’s an Asian to a stormtrooper?) , so I’m glad to know that your research confirms this.
    I know you said you looked at movies from different time periods, but I’m curious as to whether you looked at many that were made in recent years that were probably less stereotypical due to progressive trends?

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