Reads like an Onion satire: research into Asian representation in movies

Honestly I’m surprised the numbers in the headline are so low. Hollywood is not good at representation. It’s made some progress in the last 10 years or so, but it’s still not good - it’s notable that even Dwayne Johnson became a superstar outside of Hollywood and then got into movies. And I dread to think what the similar numbers would be for Arabs or Persians.

Yeah, I agree it’s a little surprising it’s not worse. It’s impossible to pretend Hollywood doesn’t reflect the latent racism with the States in various ways.

Ugh. I feel like there is a vast amount of missing information hiding in the margins of the splashy graphics that make up eleven of the 47 pages of the study. The EW article takes only the most sensationalist parts of the study, and is pretty much devoid of context at all, but it can be forgiven because the study throws a lot of statistics at the reader with no way to judge them at all.

For example, you have statistics like “just over a quarter of Asian and Pacific Islander primary and secondary characters died by the end of the film”. I tend to trust that the study’s authors wouldn’t have made a big point of it if the API death percentage weren’t higher than the percentage of white character deaths, but it would be nice to see some numbers to compare. What is the death-rate for white characters?

On that point, the study’s authors limited their data to the top-grossing 100 movies for each of the last thirteen years. That’s not a terrible measuring stick, but it does skew the data towards roles in major tent-pole pictures, rather than overall roles. In 2019, for instance, 61 out of the top-100 grossing films fell into the “Action/Adventure/Thriller/Horror” categories… which is to be expected, but is does mean that most of these movies had a violent aspect to them. So again, how out-of-the-norm is that 25% death rate?

The study’s examples for that category don’t do them a lot of favors either. One of the five cited examples is an API character dying in a film (Parasite) that contains no non-API characters. Another of their examples mentions that the API character that dies is one of five people dying in the film (of a total cast of nine), and complains that she is the only one who isn’t eaten by a shark.

Another statistic with little comparative context: “API females were far more likely to be depicted in sexy clothes (23.3%) and partially naked (21.3%) than were males (7%, 9.3% respectively).” First off, I’m not sure if that’s a terrible statistic or not… I guess it kind of surprises me that three-quarters of women in a high-grossing movie DIDN’T wear sexy clothes. But more importantly, Hollywood is notorious in its depictions of woman: What are those percentages for non-API women in these top-100 grossing films?

And as an aside, what constitutes “sexy clothes” for men? A speedo?

Another issue they cited was speaking lines. They note that “a whopping 74.7% of the 507 tertiary API characters spoke five lines or less”. Again, what is the context – Is that a high or a low number? In my mind, the definition of a tertiary character is one with few if any lines… just one step up from “extra”.

There’s only one place in the study that I saw provide any real context to their numbers, and that was comparing the API roles to the overall US population. They point out that in the last dozen or so years, API roles represented about 5% of the total, while the API population of the US is 7.1%. Which… doesn’t sound all that bad to me, honestly; especially as the percentages have been ticking upwards in the last three years or so.

This is my general response to this and other similar surveys, which I’m naturally skeptical of. If the ratio to the population is pretty close, that’s close enough.

The comments tell you what real Americans think on the issue.

And that is frightening and perfectly true. We live in a world…

I guess this ignores Korean/Japanese/Hong Kong cinema?

Not formally, but it’s looking at representation in Hollywood, and is largely based on a list of “1,300 top grossing films”, presumably measured by US box office, so in practice largely yes. Stuff that’s not based on that list is explicitly limited to Hollywood studios.

The underlying report is here, by the way.

I haven’t read every line of the report, but I looked pretty hard for the rubrics they were using and where they got their list from… and I just can’t find it. Reading between the lines, they DID include non-Hollywood films; for instance, they cite Parasite, which was a Korean production.

Looking at their other studies (apparently they release similar reports annually), it appears that they are using US box-office totals, but maddeningly, they never actually say that anywhere I can find.

Yes, it would be good if they were more explicit. This is the most I found: “Drawing on the Initiative’s database of 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019”.

I assume the database, or at least its parameters, are disclosed somewhere by the Initiative, but I haven’t had time to look.

Like I say, they presumably include only the ones that break the top 1,300 in that 13 year span (top 100 each year?), which is probably going to be a couple dozen at most if it is indeed US box office.

When they look at other aspects of inclusion, for instance, film executives, they are explicitly only looking at Hollywood studios: “Amazon Studios, Lionsgate, Netflix, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios including 20th Century, and Warner Bros. Pictures”

Edit: an earlier report describes the methodology. Relevant bit here:

TLDR, yes it’s US domestic box office.

Eyeballing that list for 2017, the only vaguely Japanese/Korean/Hong Kong movies I could see were The Foreigner and, um, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.

They did state in there somewhere that it was the top-grossing 100 films for each year. In another study they noted that one film was released as a double-feature (I imagine it was Planet Terror & Deathproof).

That’s an interesting line. I presume that just means that they excluded documentaries, but you could read it was also excluding “based on a true story” movies like, say, Midway or the Jackie Robinson movie with Boseman (42?).

The USC project’s home page is here:

Sadly, they don’t have an easy-to-find summary of their methodology… they just keep saying “it in one of our earlier reports!” without actually pointing there.