By Mary Ellen Holden

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (the Institute) co-hosted a robust panel discussion at The Bentonville Film Festival (BFF), a forum to champion women and diverse voices, on August 3rd regarding what it means to be API in the Entertainment Industry. The conversation was particularly timely given the alarming rise of anti-Asian sentiment throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Panelists shared their personal stories juxtaposed with new insights and evidence from the concurrently released landmark study entitled, I Am Not a Fetish or Model Minority: Redefining What it Means to Be API in the Entertainment Industry.

The Institute championed the research in partnership with CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) and Gold House, the premiere API organizations and industry leaders in the Entertainment Industry. They share the Institute’s belief that the impact of media images onscreen is one area where content creators can fix underrepresentation and misrepresentation overnight. The findings help us understand the current landscape of API onscreen representation and better reconcile that representation with the lived experiences of APIs working in Hollywood.

In an industry where “content is king,” Bing Chen, President, and Co-Founder, Gold House, reminded us during his opening remarks at BFF that “we cannot move forward if we cannot measure where we are. That is why understanding not just the baseline of where we stand, but the dimensions in which we stand in, it is so important.” With data, we can effectively drive systemic change and evangelize prominent, authentic, and affirmative representation to corner offices and more writers’ rooms – it is with data, change is made possible.

Our API Representation Panel

The API Representation panel video is viewable here. Craig Robinson (NBCU) moderated the discussion, which featured Margaret Cho (Comedian, Actor, Musician, Advocate and Entrepreneur), Christopher Kahunahana (Filmmaker and Award-Winning Artist), Christina M. Kim (Kung Fu), Jane Lee (Netflix), and Fawzia Mirza (Writer/Creator/Director). These inspirational thought leaders are working tirelessly to build an equitable world for APIs in Entertainment and beyond. They shared their expertise with us and provided constructive rethinking on creating positive change for everyone.

Following the panel, I had the pleasure of speaking with Michelle Sugihara, Executive Director, CAPE, and Jeremy Tran, Executive Director, Gold House, to learn more about the mission and actions of these premiere API organizations.

Close-Up with Michelle Sugihara

Michelle Sugihara (Photo Credit: Andrew Ge)

Mary Ellen: What is CAPE?

Michelle: Now in our 30th year, CAPE is the premier non-profit organization creating opportunities and driving change for Asian Pacific Islander (API) success in Hollywood. We operate in three strategic buckets: first, talent development, which started with our writer’s fellowship because representation starts on the page. Our writers have been staffed on over 50 shows across every broadcast network, premium cable channel, and major streamer, so their shows reach millions of households every day. On the other end of the spectrum, our executive fellowship focuses on rising senior executives in development, current, and production (i.e., the content decision-makers). We are also incubating a host of new programs.

Our second bucket is script consulting and talent referrals. We consult on film and television scripts and have the largest database of Asian Pacific Islander talent working in Hollywood! Our third bucket is supercharging film releases through Gold Open, in partnership with Gold House.

Mary Ellen: What findings surprised you from the study?

Michelle: I was surprised by how unsurprising some of the findings were. It just fuels my desire to double down on creating more opportunities to break barriers for APIs in Entertainment. For example, the study found Asians are twice as likely to be laughed at than laughed within top-grossing films from 2010 to 2019. That highlighted for me that CAPE is on the right track with our impending Stand-Up Comedy program. Asians can be funny and we’re not your punchline. Seeing how comics like Ali Wong and Jo Koy have crossed over from stand-up to narrative projects, I am very interested in building more bridges from stand-up comedy to the film and TV content space. The findings of this study validate our suspicions and bolster our arguments for breaking these stereotypes.

Mary Ellen: Can you share a finding you might leverage to advocate for the API community?

Michelle: Yes, we’re looking at the (dis)parity between the lived experiences of APIs working in the industry and their perceptions of what Hollywood thinks. The survey comments were based on actual experiences. According to the survey results, many of our community believe that Hollywood executives are simply checking a box when it comes to representation. Even though a pilot may be green-lit, it might not be picked up to series because the decision-makers may say or think, “we already have our Asian show.” I’m cautiously optimistic as we see lots of projects in development, but there is still a gap between development and an actual series.

Mary Ellen: What was your top takeaway from the panel?

Michelle: What resonated with me was when Chris Kahunahana said Hollywood treated Hawaii “as its backlot” – as a paradise that API people don’t inhabit. When you watch many of these shows, the white cast is front and center, while the characters of color are pushed to the margins or erased altogether. These depictions are also currently having very real consequences to the residents of Hawaii as tourists have been descending en masse on the islands during COVID, resulting in a shortage of water and other natural resources. As someone born and raised in Hawaii, that is an issue near and dear to my heart. That also ties over to BFF as Chris’ film Waikiki, which was awarded Honorable Mention, depicted the darker side of Hawaii. His film was beautiful and haunting, and I thought he was a critical voice to have on the panel.

Mary Ellen: What is the danger of inaccurate portrayals?

Michelle: Inaccurate portrayals have profound and insidious consequences, which is why this is not just a representation issue but also a social justice issue. We repeatedly see stereotypical portrayals of API characters on our screens — if we see them at all — which have real-world impacts. It affects how we are seen and treated by others, as well as how we see ourselves. When we have portrayals of Asian people being meek and submissive, it leads to higher rates of bullying of Asian children. Or when we’re shown as lacking assertiveness or leadership qualities, it leads to findings such as the Harvard Business Review finding that Asians are most likely to be hired but least likely to be promoted. So, we have a responsibility to tell authentic stories and ensure that marginalized communities are not being stereotyped and put in harm’s way.

Mary Ellen: What does #SeeItBeIt mean to you?

Michelle: Stories on screen have the power to create change; through stories on screen, we can change what the future looks like. People need to see it before believing it — or as the Institute puts it, #SeeItBeIt. Having compelling stories with three-dimensional characters from diverse backgrounds fosters awareness, understanding, and acceptance. Currently, there is a disconnect between the real-life experiences of APIs and the quality and quantity of representation on screen and behind the scenes. For starters, we want to see more layered and nuanced portrayals, stories of mixed-race and multi-ethnic characters, and intersectional narratives. Stories that ignore or erase (or worse, mock) our humanity create the narrative foundation for how APIs are perceived and treated in the real world, which is why stereotypes are so damaging.

Mary Ellen: Do you have a message for our audience?

Michelle: Be intentional about what you create and what you consume. Every single person has the power to vote with their dollars, time, or tweets. We can create change together because what we watch on our screens should not only reflect the world in which we live; it should project a better one.

Introducing Jeremy Tran

Jeremy Tran

Mary Ellen: What is Gold House?

Jeremy: Gold House is the premier no-profit collective of API cultural leaders fighting for socio-economic equity across cultural industries. We are committed to three core pillars – unity, representation, and success for the API community.

Mary Ellen: Why did Gold House partner in this study?

Jeremy: We’re so proud to have worked with the Institute and CAPE on such important work to help accelerate the authentic and dynamic portrayal of APIs in media and Entertainment. As Bing mentioned during the panel, we know that media is a direct progenitor in that it controls what people see and what they believe, and how they are treated. So, we have a responsibility to influence positive media portrayals to change how future generations are seen and treated.

Mary Ellen: What did you find particularly useful about the data?

Jeremy: I appreciated how the study disaggregated the data to reveal the difference between being Chinese American and Japanese American, Vietnamese American or Pacific Islander. We all have very different life experiences. There’s a lot that unites us and a lot for us to be proud of and support each other – but, at the same time, people need to understand the nuanced differences between individual communities. There are dozens of separate API ethnicities that should not always be lumped into one. I also found the survey results to be especially powerful in “humanizing” the data. While hard numbers are critical, some of the most impactful research is simply understanding the real-life stories of those who live that experience every day.

Mary Ellen: We talked about how APIs are not a monolith? How can media portrayals break harmful stereotypes?

Jeremy: Many people may not understand APIs or have any direct experience interacting with APIs, given where they live or other personal circumstances. They internalize what they see on TV or in film as representing the entire API community because they don’t see us in everyday life. Media has the power to amplify critical API stories that provide authentic, dynamic, multidimensional, and real portrayals of our experiences — the good, the bad, the crazy, and the beautiful.

Mary Ellen: What is your greatest challenge?

Jeremy: We need to be taken seriously by the highest echelons across Hollywood. And this data becomes a key to opening new doors.

Mary Ellen: What message do you want to share with our audience?

Jeremy: I want people to take away the fact that we can all push ourselves to do more. There was a finding in the survey that stuck with me: When asked, “What would you most like to see change in Hollywood, one of the most common words mentioned was simply ‘more.’ More representation, more authentic stories, more API talent/writers, and more opportunities on camera and behind the scenes.” Regardless of our ethnic background, we all consume media and have a voice in choosing what we watch. Ultimately, I hope we can use this study to help celebrate not only API stories, but also, to build bridges in support of all communities that for so long have been unseen.