May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, a time when the U.S. pays tribute “to the generations of Asian and Pacific Islanders who have enriched America’s history and are instrumental in its future success.”
With television being a bellwether of cultural change, AAPI Heritage Month is also the right time to reflect on the representation of members of the Asian and Pacific Islander community on television and behind the screens. While in recent years AAPI participation has increased throughout the industry, it continues to lag well behind representation in the general population. In the 2020-2021 TV season, for example, on-screen Asian and Pacific Islander talent had a 2.9% share of screen across broadcast television.
While there is much more to do to expand AAPI representation onscreen, the good news is that some important names have been working hard to make it happen. In today’s blog, we’ll highlight some of the actors and directors that are driving AAPI representation on television, as well as important programming initiatives that will bring the celebration of this month to a much wider audience.
Actors and directors moving the needle on AAPI representation
In the entertainment world, perhaps the most well-known member of the AAPI community is the actor, director, and producer Lucy Liu. Liu, of Chinese American descent, has made a name for herself both on television and in movies, most notably in the series Elementary and the films Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Liu wrote that while she was happy to have “moved the needle” on AAPI representation onscreen, “it’s not easy to shake off nearly 200 years of reductive images and condescension.”
Another major needle-mover is actor and producer Sandra Oh, known for her long series run as Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy. Oh, who is Korean American, was very aware of the groundbreaking nature of her role. “Young Asian people who come up to me have a certain vibration, and I receive it, and I understand it, and I feel emotional just talking about it,” she said in a Vanity Fair interview in 2018.
Oh also played the titular character in Killing Eve, BBC America’s hit series about an MI6 agent who hunts down a psychopathic assassin, for which she made history when she became the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globes. The show enjoyed a four-season run and defied gender and racial norms when it came to spy thrillers by centering the story around two female characters, portrayed by Oh and her co-star, Jodi Comer.
Important as those roles were, Oh considers some of her more recent roles, like the supernatural horror film Umma, where her character is haunted by the fear of turning into her mother, as even more deeply reflective of the Asian-American experience.
Based on the Korean word for “mother,” Umma is directed by Iris K. Shim, a Korean American director also known for films such as Unknown, The House of Suh, and El Implacable. In an interview, Shim said that what began as a more standard genre movie developed into something very different. “When I finally decided to incorporate these Korean American characters and that experience into the story, it clicked into place in terms of being able to draw from my own experiences and questions about identity, my place in the world, and how much of myself [is one or the other]. ‘Am I Korean or am I American?’”
Programming that celebrates the AAPI community
Increasing AAPI representation is not just about adding more Asians and Pacific Islanders to writer’s rooms and casts—it’s also about changing the kinds of stories that are told. In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, several networks have created programming focused on the AAPI community.
- HBO is celebrating the month by promoting its Asian-American and Pacific Islander Voices collection, featuring curated content from the platform plus the winning films from the HBO Max Asian Pacific American Visionaries Short Film Competition. The slate includes original films such as Tokyo Vice, classic hits like In the Mood for Love, the Warner Brothers streaming exclusive Moonshot, and anime content from the legendary Studio Ghibli.
- NBC will honor AAPI Heritage Month with a show that seeks to “celebrate the innovators, entertainers, scholars, athletes and remarkable leaders of the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora, elevate their voices and shine a spotlight on their incredible achievements in the arts, politics, sciences, activism and beyond.” In light of the rise of anti-Asian violence, the network notes, it is even more important to uplift the AAPI community.
Some cable providers are also participating, with Cox Cable, for example, providing a guide to AAPI content across all of the channels it offers.
Fostering connection—through TV
Greater diversity on television deepens our understanding of differences and fosters meaningful connection among people of different genders, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations—especially when these characters are cast as complex and multidimensional instead of stereotypical or rote. In this, trailblazing members of the AAPI community are playing a fundamental role in creating television that looks more like America, and networks are following their lead. To find out more about recent diversity initiatives on television, explore our Diversity on Television blog post, here.