race&ethnicity: asian/pacific islander

the terms Asian and Pacific Islander are broad catch-alls that generally refer to people who come from or are descendants of a particular geographic region (Asia or the Pacific Islands including Polynesia and Samoa). The terms fail to address variability in geographic origin, language, religion, or ethnicity in this region, and so Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Indians, etc. all fall under these categories.  

In the media, there is not one single representation of Asian-Pacific Islanders. Depending on where the media is produced (US or Asia), the genre (movie, television, news, documentary), the historical period, the type of production (mainstream or independent), and the story being told, there may be a multitude or range of representations.  

At the same time, even with all these representations, there are some common stereotypes and conventions we can see if we pay close attention to the patterns in what we’re viewing. Historically, Asians and Pacific Islanders have been portrayed as

…sneaky, deceitful, evil, foreign

…exotic, demure, subservient, submissive

…martial artists, spiritual healers, laundry workers, gangsters…dragon ladies and geishas… model minorities and business tycoons

These stereotypes and conventions may not reflect our reality or any reality we personally know or recognize. In fact, they simply may be common shorthand used by those working behind-the-scenes doing the writing, directing, producing, casting, set design, costuming, hair and makeup.

If we can start to see patterns, even in the smallest details of someone’s dress, their body language, their speech, where they live, what kind of job they have, how they interact with others of the same or different ethnicity, we can begin to understand how representations create meaning, perpetuate ideologies, and potentially reinforce stereotypes.

dig in...do now 

Begin by making a list of specific media representations of Asian-Pacific Islanders you can think of in American media. Also, look at the examples on this website tagged "Asian-Pacific Islander." Then, consider:

  • What types of representations are these?
  • Are the characters stereotypical or complex?
  • If they are stereotypical, what kinds of stereotypes do you notice?
  • Are the stereotypes based on how the individuals look? What they say? How they speak? What they do?
  • Are they violent or peaceful? Are they sexual or asexual?
  • Are they protagonists or antagonists? Heroes or villains?
  • Are the representations of Asian-Pacific Islanders different in US-produced media compared to media produced in Asia?  If so, how? Why?
  • Are there differences in the representations between Asian-Pacific Islanders and Asian Americans (Americans of Asian-Pacific Islander descent)?