LOS ANGELES (AP/CNN) — TV's Asian-American characters are so frequently slighted that even programs set in the biggest, most diverse cities leave them out of the picture, a new study found.
For "Tokens on the Small Screen," professors and scholars at six California universities looked at 242 broadcast, cable and digital platform shows that aired during the 2015-16 season and tallied the numbers, screen time and portrayals of characters of Asian or Pacific Islander descent among 2,000 TV characters.
The report released Tuesday, a follow-up to broadcast TV studies done in 2005 and 2006, found increasing opportunities for Asian-American actors but concluded they are still underrepresented and "their characters remain marginalized and tokenized on screen."
There was a sense of optimism with the emergence of ABC's "Fresh Off the Boat" and "Dr. Ken" and Netflix's "Master of None," all starring and focused on Asian-Americans, said Nancy Wong Yuen, a Biola University associate professor and one of the study's authors.
"It felt like, 'Oh, we're finally making it,'" Yuen said in an interview. "But even ("Dr. Ken" star) Ken Jeong said, "Of this many shows, we only have three?'"
The cancellations of Jeong's sitcom and the Netflix historical drama "Marco Polo," which featured a hefty number of Asian characters, showed how tenuous the hold on representation is, the study said.
A third (34.5 percent) of all Asian or Asian-American characters were found to be on just 11 shows — with the 14 characters on "Marco Polo" alone making up 10 percent of the total — which sets up a "risk of greater decimation when networks decide to cancel even one show," according to the report.
The concentration of characters on a few shows also means that many viewers never see an Asian-American on screen, which the study says "effectively erases" them from a large part of the TV landscape.
There are 155 shows that lack a single Asian-American character, including 63 of broadcast and basic cable series and 74 percent of premium cable shows, the study found.
The exclusion is startling on shows set in urban areas. Among all New York-based shows, which has an Asian-American population of 13 percent, 70 percent of shows lacked a single series regular of that ethnicity. More than 50 percent of shows set in Los Angeles, with a population that's 14 percent Asian, lacked any such characters.
Other study findings:
— Among all series regulars, white characters represent 69.5 percent; African-Americans 14 percent; Latinos, 5.9 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders were 4.3 percent. Their numbers among the U.S. populations: white, 61.3 percent; black, 13.3 percent; Latino, 17.8 percent, Asian-Americans, 5.9 percent.
— Four Pacific Islanders were found to be series regulars, including Dwyane Johnson of "Ballers"; Uli Latukefu of "Marco Polo"; Keisha Castle-Hughes of "Roadies," and Cliff Curtis of "Fear the Walking Dead." That represents 0.2 percent, or half of their slice of the U.S. population, the report said.
— Eighty-seven percent of Asian-American series regulars are on screen for less than half an episode, with white series regulars on screen three times longer than their Asian-American counterparts.
Besides Biola, the study included participants from California State University, Fullerton; University of California, Los Angeles; Thomas Jefferson School of Law; San Jose State University, and the University of San Francisco.
Social media is not happy about a quote regarding Asian American actors not being expressive enough.
At the heart of the controversy is a story told by sociologist and author of the book "Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism" Nancy Wang Yuen.
In the book, published last year, Yuen quoted an unnamed casting director who provided an explanation behind the challenges of casting Asian actors.
"Asians are a challenge to cast because most casting directors feel as though they're not very expressive." the casting director said. "They're very shut down in their emotions."
The quote showed up in an article published last week by Paste magazine pegged to the lack of choice roles for Asian actors in Hollywood.
The article also cited Yuen's claimed that the casting director expounded on the difficulties of casting Asian actors beyond stereotypical roles.
"If it's a look thing for business where they come in they're at a computer or if they're like a scientist or something like that, they'll do that; but if it's something were they really have to act and get some kind of performance out of, it's a challenge," Yeun wrote, quoting the director.
The quote stirred a backlash on Twitter, with some taking the opportunity to show just how expressive Asian Americans can be. One particular tweet by user @mauxbot has amassed nearly 60,000 likes and 24,000 retweets since she posted her rally cry on September 8, two days after the Paste magazine article was published.
"Can we start #ExpressiveAsians?" @mauxbot tweeted. Since then, the tweets started pouring in.
The discussion comes at a time of increasing criticism of Hollywood for "whitewashing" or casting white actors in roles where the characters are another race.
Most recently actor Ed Skrein withdrew from an upcoming reboot of "Hellboy" after saying his casting would have whitewashed the role.
The character Skrein was to portray, Major Ben Daimio, is "of mixed Asian heritage."
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