Take thirty seconds to name as many major Asian characters on the American small screen as you can.
Got a list? Good. Now subtract any characters that are/have tiger moms (sorry, Jessica Huang!), have a thick foreign accent (remember Apu from The Simpsons?), or fall under any other toxic Asian stereotypes. How many characters do you have left? If you’re like the typical American television viewer, the answer is probably very, very few.
American television has certainly made large gains in diversity with more LGBTQ+ characters and cast members who are POC. However, these characters rarely represent minority groups with accuracy, resorting to cliches and stereotypes instead.
One group affected by a lack of quality representation is the Asian American community.
While Asian Americans make up 5% of the U.S. population — but only 1% of characters appearing in the opening credits of primetime TV shows. This small group of characters fails to properly represent the millions of Asian Americans.
Asians are still stereotyped as bumbling, awkward math geeks and robotic violin-playing prodigies on the small screen. In comedies, they’re the target of cheap punchlines and offensive jokes. In dramas, they’re often the token minority characters that fail to add any meaningful depth to the plot. Very rarely do they have fleshed-out personalities that accurately represent the diverse Asian American population.
As a result, these stereotypes are only perpetuated by the American television industry.
As Asians are portrayed as crazy, perfectionist parents; obedient, antisocial students; and strange, awkward foreigners, Asian Americans as a whole are seen this way by the public.
For the few shows that do depict Asian Americans in a positive light, many of those characters still adhere to archetypes. Fresh off the Boat, which centers on a Taiwanese-American family, has been lauded for how it accurately represents the experiences of many Asian immigrants and their families. However, stereotypes still abound in the show’s characterization: Evan, the youngest child, is intelligent and obedient while Jessica, the mother, is achievement-obsessed and controlling. While both these characters are incredibly complex and multidimensional, the lack of Asian American representation on television solidifies their personalities as the norm for Asian Americans.
There need to be more diverse Asian characters on American TV screens.
While it’s acceptable to have characters like Evan and Jessica who are stereotypical but dynamic, it’s unacceptable to have no other types of Asian characters. Where are the Asian crime detectives, the cunning Asian supervillains, the Asian artists, and the Asian heartthrobs that star in television series? Where are the Asian characters who are more than just their cultural identity? Where is the diverse range of personalities and interests that fill a population of millions waiting for representation?
With its wide influence over popular culture, the American television industry has the power to sculpt the perception of entire groups of people. With its lack of Asian representation right now, it has played a role in the continued stereotyping of Asian Americans. However, with better, more complex Asian American characters on the small screen, it truly has the potential to shed light on the diversity of Asian Americans as a whole.