In recent years, awards shows—including the Grammys, Golden Globes, and Oscars—have come under fire for their lack of diversity in nominations, attendance, and performances. Even with efforts to diversify, change has been slow to manifest.
Though last Sunday’s Grammy Awards featured Beyoncé breaking the record for the most Grammys ever, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B putting on a captivating performance, and Korean K-Pop sensation BTS wowing the world with a performance straight from Seoul, when it came to the Record of the Year and Album of the Year, it wasn’t any of them taking home the prize—it was Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, respectively. And Beyoncé, for her staggering 28 Grammys and huge cultural influence, has never won Album of the Year. This troubling trend of artists of color being called on to entertain and influence, yet rarely winning top accolades is indicative of a larger “othering” of non-White cultures—even as those artists drive cultural shifts and embody what it means to be American.
With the Grammys behind us, eyes are turning to the 2021 Oscars to see how the Academy is responding to continued calls for diversity—and there are some signs of progress.
Five years after the social justice campaign #OscarsSoWhite, the list of 2021 nominees, for the first time, includes two men of Asian descent up for Best Actor—Riz Ahmed (Pakistani) and Steven Yeun (Korean) for their roles in Sound of Metal and Minari, respectively. (In fact, for the first time, the Best Actor category is not majority White.) Behind the screen, Chloe Zhao is the first Asian woman—and the first woman of color—to be nominated for Best Director.
Importantly, the stories that Ahmed, Yeun, and Zhao helped to tell are not necessarily “Asian” stories. Sound of Metal is the story of a metal drummer as he begins to lose his hearing; Nomadland is about a woman who, after her husband passes away, decides to travel the country in a van. Minari, while about a Korean immigrant family, is a story that, at its core, is about making a home in America and what it really means to be a family—themes that resonate across cultural lines.
The “Otherness” of Non-White Stories
Yet, when non-White stories or even stories featuring non-White characters are told they are often viewed as niche stories. Yeun, despite his meteoric rise as fan-favorite Glenn Rhee in The Walking Dead, has largely been consigned to supporting roles for English movies. Yeun’s leading roles—in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja—have been in Korean.
The “otherness” of non-White stories is further exemplified by Minari not qualifying to be entered into the Golden Globes’ Best Motion Picture category. Due to not being at least 50% in English, Minari, a quintessential story about the American Dream, taking place in America, written by an American, and starring an American, only qualified for—and won—Best Foreign Language Film. That sort of thinking, those sorts of rules, continue to promote this “perpetual otherness” that Asians face. These rules perpetuate a systematic problem where those making the rules either consciously or unconsciously put up barriers for Black, Hispanic, and Asian success in the media.
Worse yet, when Asians are on screen, they are often relegated to supporting roles and stereotypical portrayals. Asian women—East Asian women, in particular—are frequently portrayed as “China dolls”: mysterious, submissive, objectified, and hypersexualized. Asian men, on the other hand, are on the opposite side of the spectrum: emasculated, nerdy, and reserved (the specific genre of kung fu movies a notable exception). Throughout 2020, usage of the “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” as terms for COVID-19 have been propagated by those in the highest echelons of American media, news, and politics. The impact of this phraseology, of these stereotypes, are not without consequence.
Asian Stereotypes in the Media Fuel Anti-Asian Xenophobia
As hate crimes continue to rise against Asian Americans, the importance of Asian representation in the media is greater than ever before. Stop AAPI Hate, a coalition formed in 2020 in response to rapidly escalating reports of xenophobia and racially-motivated incidents, reported nearly 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians over the past year—and these are only incidents specifically reported to the organization; the actual number is unquestionably higher. That report was issued on Tuesday, March 16th, the same day a white gunman murdered eight people in Atlanta massage parlors, six of whom were women of Asian descent. Although investigators are saying they are still trying to determine if the crime was racially motivated, the conflation of sexual temptation and Asian women is impossible to ignore.
Consciously or unconsciously, what we see on TV, in movies, in news coverage, plays an outsized role in how we perceive the world and people around us. According to Horowitz’s State of Viewing & Streaming 2020 report, 58% of TV content viewers feel the media plays a very big role in reinforcing stereotypes about diverse people and communities in America. That rises to 65% among Asians. Furthermore, two-thirds (65%) of Asian TV content viewers feel that it is important for the media to represent Asians in ways that bust stereotypes…yet 64% also feel that Asians are not represented enough.
The lack of representation in mainstream media has largely been the product of confluent forces. First, the overall lack of diversity in top programming and editorial roles impacts the lens through which stories are told. And second, there has been a desire to present narratives that conform to the perceived world views of a media company’s target audience in order to keep them tuning in. But we are starting to see change: In 2020, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomed its most diverse roster of new members, achieving its goal of doubling the number of women and people of color by 2020 after the outcry over #OscarsSoWhite. And, in September 2020, the Academy also announced new representation and inclusion standards for its Best Picture category (to go into effect in 2024).
Seeing Ahmed, Yeun, and Zhao nominated for some of the highest accolades in media—along with signifies that we might finally be turning a corner. And hopefully, this is just the start— because when it comes to representation in the media, it has never been just about diversity for diversity’s sake. It’s about recognizing that the stories of all Americans are equally valid, authentic, and worth telling.)
Horowitz is a leading provider of quantitative and qualitative consumer research. Founded in 1985, we started with our roots in cable and have been at the forefront of the media industry ever since.
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