The number of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) immigrant characters in television has doubled since 2020, according to a new study.
Change the Narrative, Change the World, conducted by the nonprofit Define American and University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center, found that AAPI immigrants comprise 28% of characters on TV. This contrasts the 12% they found in their 2020 report.
“These gains are a step forward for Asian American representation; however, specifically Pacific Islander, or Pasifika, representation is lacking and is often erased from broader AAPI discourse,” the report stated.
Analyzing television seasons from 2020 to 2022, the study sampled 167 unique immigrant characters that appeared in 169 episodes of 79 television series. Other findings included 40% of immigrant characters being associated with crime and inaccurate perceptions by viewers of where immigrants come from, according to a survey.
“More representation of immigrants is not necessarily better,” director of Research at the Norman Lear Center Erica Rosenthal said. “If characters convey inaccurate stereotypes, for example, about immigrants and crime, this may contribute to real-life prejudice.”
The survey focused on four shows of interest, including AAPI-centric shows such as the Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever and the Fox series The Cleaning Lady.
Across all shows, respondents stated that they improved their understanding of immigrants’ experiences as a result of watching the show. Viewers were also more likely than nonviewers to say that diversity is a valuable asset to society in three of the four shows.
Actor Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Nalini Vishwakumar in the Netflix comedy series Never Have I Ever, commented on the study bridging differences between communities.
“Audiences are creating relationships with these characters that are then informing how they’re interacting with immigrants in real life.” Jagannathan said. “There is more empathy, understanding and nuance to these interactions, and that is such a powerful thing.”
Define American also stated recommendations for changing the dominant narrative about immigrants and immigration, including hiring more immigrant actors for more prominent recurring roles and reflecting the diversity and intersectionality within immigrant communities.
“Our nation saw Black and AAPI communities under attack since our 2020 research report, and our television started to reflect more stories from these communities. But immigrant and marginalized communities should always be valued, not just when they are in crisis,” the report stated. “It is imperative to our culture and our world that all communities are represented authentically.”
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