Asian American and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood inflicts more harm to its communities than people may think. For generations, the biggest media conglomerates have perpetuated stereotypes surrounding AAPI individuals, demeaning their cultural identity, dehumanizing them — and with the rise of the pandemic, normalizing AAPI hate. Acts of prejudice and generalization within Hollywood convince Asians and Pasifika people, particularly children, to question their self-identities and ponder whether or not they should conform to such harmful stereotypes.
Let’s put it simply: Poor representation of AAPI communities in Hollywood normalizes the stereotypes created throughout history surrounding their communities. Generations of prejudice rooted in racism and pseudosciences used to categorize marginalized communities in America have created negative stereotypes of immigrant AAPI folks, which is reflected in the media. Polynesian women are seen as hypersexual, East Asian men as weak, and South Asians as only attractive if they have light skin. These assumptions prompt young AAPI folks to question their identity by painting stereotypes rooted in blatant racism and generalization as “known facts.”
Colorism is a huge issue in how Indigenous Pacific Islanders and Asian folks are perceived in the media. For instance, in the 2018 comedy, “Crazy Rich Asians,” the cast predominantly consisted of light-skinned East Asians playing affluent characters while the Asians with browner skin were depicted in service roles. Similar to this, blatant colorism is seen almost religiously on The Filipino Channel, where glutathione and other skin whitening products paint the brown complexion of Filipino actors and actresses. This toxic beauty standard in the Philippines and other countries where dark skinned Asians and Pacific Islanders live — and the actions of big media corporations — prompt AAPI youth to question the melanin in their skin, as though they are outsiders for being darker than those on T.V.
In Disney’s upcoming live-action “Lilo and Stitch” remake, Nani, who has dark skin in the original, will be played by Sydney Agudong, a light skinned a native of Kaua'i, Hawaii. The Polynesian and Pacific Islander communities were outraged, the casting signified an erasure of how Nani and Lilo’s identities as dark-skinned Hawaiian natives affected the story. It is imperative that darker skinned AAPI folks, especially the youth, receive more representation in the media so they can learn to embrace their complexion instead of questioning it.
Although AAPI representation has evolved tremendously over the years, it needs to pivot from simple tokenism towards true and accurate illustration. Take it from shows like “Jelly, Ben and Pogo,” a PBS children's cartoon that accurately shares Filipinx culture coupled with transformative representation by ensuring that those working behind the scenes, including creators, are a part of the Filipinx community.
Transformative representation is much more important than performative representation. It is crucial that the actors playing Asian American and Pacific Islander roles belong to those communities to show utmost respect. Representation behind the screen is equally as important, from the executives and directors to the writers and artists, so people can tell their own stories.
A version of this story also aired on KCBS.