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Media Representation: the Impact on API Individuals

From 2010 onwards, how many Asian models, hosts and actresses did you see within media? Not only was there a lack of Asian roles in general, but it was impossible to come across an Asian main role in a movie that was accurately represented.

The majority of young Asians growing up struggled to identify a relatable and fair representation of API (Asian and Pacific Islanders) within their favourite movies, books and shows. What was deemed as ‘representation’ in Hollywood was only the use of Asian characters for comedic relief or as a punchline. A study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that 93.3% of participants felt that there was not enough representation in the media. Sadly, API characters in Hollywood have inadequate screen time and portray stereotypical traits of nerdy, hardworking or sexualised manner. Not only is this an inaccurate portrayal and racist, but also incredibly mentally destructive to young Asians and Pacific Islanders. Having misguided representation means that many young APIs may view themselves as unattractive or fetishized by westerners.

Stereotypical Renditions Affecting Body Image?

The portrayal within media holds a heavyweight on the reinforcement of stereotypes against the API community. Asian characters displayed are deemed as undesirable, nerdy and as an act of comedy in the majority of movies and shows. Asian men are depicted as unattractive, geeky, and feminine in comparison to white/non-API characters. Whereas female roles are made to be submissive, hyperfeminine, small-framed and sexualised. From the top 10 grossing films between 2010-2019, 17% of API female characters were verbally objectified and 13% were visually objectified. Both representations are equally as detrimental to how non-API communities view API; as well as how API may view themselves, fuelling racism and self-hate! Being visually/verbally objectified or undesirable separates individuality and personality from their appearance.

With the obsession with the slim and petite ideal in the media for API, characters and celebrities that do not fit this standard are usually put in films as comedic relief e.g., actress Awkwafina, instead of sexual objects. This is extremely disheartening and feeds into unrealistic body standards and self-worth as POC (People of Colour). By reinforcing these dangerous stereotypes, API individuals can experience being targeted racially or sexually in their everyday lives. They can lead to being fetishized and sexually desired within media, online and in real life by other races that view API as ‘exotic’ and subservient objects. Some young Asian individuals found themselves not realising that they were playing into harmful stereotypes and racism – ultimately ruining self-esteem and love for themselves.

East Asians Suddenly Put on a Pedestal?

In recent years, has seen an increase in Asian music e.g., K-Pop, and films circulating western media, is it only East Asians that are preferred and ‘exotic’? Although East Asians are dangerously desired, South and Southeast Asians are considered as jokes by society or terrorists. This can lead to feeling unworthy in comparison to their East Asian counterparts. The microaggressions toward South and Southeast Asians stem from darker skin, coming from third-world countries, and religious backgrounds. The media usually represents any South Asian as ‘just Indian’ and completely disregards any other South Asian country and history. There is also an offensive misrepresentation of accents, Hindu Gods and ‘spirituality’ that stems from Hinduism. South Asians may be seen as unattractive in the media; however, this does not stop the appropriation of traditional clothing ad culture. South and Southeast Asian influencers have expressed how the unfair media representation completely destroyed their mental state and how attractive they felt whilst growing up.

Even the East Asian inspired ‘fox eye’ trend popularised by beauty influencers during COVID saw a desire for longer slanted eyes with the help of makeup. API influencers and makeup artists expressed this as majorly problematic due to the nature of the posing that came with the trend. The pose usually consisted of the slight tugging back of the eyes to emphasise longer eyes, which is reminiscent of the racist action of pulling back the eyes to mimic slanted East Asian eyes. Why were slanted eyes suddenly desirable now, after the racist history of being called slurs for being born with them? Activists and influencers voiced that this makeup trend was a microaggression towards API and Asian features were only popularised and special to society when you are a white woman that can easily wipe off a trend at the end of the day.

The Efforts of Stop Asian Hate

COVID-19 saw a surge in hatred towards the API community and countless Asians could not go about their daily life without the fear of being verbally and physically assaulted! After the loss of eight women (six being Asian American) in an Atlanta shooting on 16 March 2021, the conversation of sexual and racist Asian stereotypes in Western countries began. It was realised that the murders had been committed due to the perpetrator’s sexual fetishization of specifically, East Asian women.

Following this unthinkable event, the hashtag and movement #stopasianhate began to educate and bring awareness to the issue. Unfortunately, although racial attacks have always existed, 2020 and 2021 saw a staggering 3795 incidents of racially motivated attacks towards API, even after the circulation of Stop Asian Hate. For many, feminism is only deemed as an issue when the race is not a factor. The portrayal of Asian women in media satisfying the sexual desires of Western men has become a catalyst for behaviour like this.

Can the Future See Improvements?

K-Pop and the Asian film industry's huge impact within the western world meant that more people were gaining interest and taking a liking to Asian culture and authentic interpretation. The release of the movie Crazy Rich Asians consisting of an all-Asian cast meant that API around the world could finally have an accurate safe space for representation. It was the first major box office movie that featured Asian romantic lead roles. Since then, studios such as Marvel and Disney have ventured into exploring an array of Asian cultures and diversity with Shang-Chi, Eternals and Turning Red etc. This is setting an example for others, and it is believed that the future can see to more accurate Asian depiction. With accurate and relatable depiction, young API may see an improvement in body image and mental health.


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