While the Asian American community has seen a boom in representation on film and television over the last several years, Asians have historically been underrepresented or misrepresented in entertainment. Often placed in the sidelines or portrayed mainly through the lens of shallow stereotypes, there was a dearth of Asian Americans in central roles. There have, of course, been actors like George Takei, who portrayed Sulu in Star Trek, but this was largely the exception, and not the rule. When The Joy Luck Club hit theaters in 1993, many saw it as a turning point for Asian representation in film. The story centered around the relationship between four Chinese immigrant women living in San Francisco. Many at the time believed that this film, with an all-Asian cast, would finally usher in a wave of films centered around the Asian experience. However, it took nearly two and a half decades until the release of the next, major American studio film with an all-Asian cast.
Mariko Carpenter, the Vice President of Strategic Community Alliances at Nielsen, sat down for a conversation with Screen Rant. Carpenter is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion team, and in her role, she shares data that empowers Asian American advocacy groups and community. Carpenter discusses the impact of Asian representation in media and entertainment with Screen Rant, and sheds some light on the recent upward trend.
Can you tell me a bit about your role as VP of Strategic Community Alliances at Nielsen, and how it pertains to your work within the Asian community?
I sit between community and commerce. I lead the Asian American data and insights for Nielsen. This really means leading the work that we do, that really focuses on the Asian American consumer and community. What is it that is unique in terms of our preferences? What distinguishes us as a consumer group separate from everybody else? I actually author the Diverse Intelligence Series on Asian American consumers that’s published throughout the year. I go and really take this data and insights on Asian American consumers, and deliver it to our clients at Nielsen. Whether they’re media clients, or retail clients, or manufacturers. I really go out there and speak to why Asian Americans matter. Why they need to invest in understanding our consumer segment.
Often times, I think it’s no secret that for marketers, they’ve been really slow at investing in Asian Americans. They have a big budget for the Hispanic consumer segment, big budget for LGBTQ, African American consumers. Somehow we always end up being the last ones on that list. A lot of the times, it seems like they’re capturing Asians in the general market. That’s why I go out there and really speak to the nuances, culturally relevancy, and the impact that we’re having in media and in our culture here. Which is why advertisers need to pay attention. I do that on the client side, and on the side of community, I really work with community organizations who are championing Asian American communities. I arm them with the data. If they’re going and marketing for donors, if they’re going out there trying to expand their cause, I really try to arm them with insights that could help with their mission. I straddle both of those sides in my role in Nielsen.
It’s my understanding that 82% of Asian Americans subscribe to at least one streaming service, in comparison with the 72% of the total population. How do you see the high rate of Asian people adopting streaming, impacting the type of content that we’ll see on streaming services in the years to come?
It’s really taking the attention of these streaming platforms. I think that your Netflix and your Hulus, that’s one of their initiatives. To build diverse audiences, and they’ve done a good job of that by creating content that is diverse. That is putting diverse talent in projects so that these stories are authentic to those communities. I think they’ve deliberately done that, and the Asian American viewers are reciprocating almost, responding, by really supporting Asian American led programming on these platforms. And it’s not just Asian Americans, I think, it’s really all diverse audiences. They are investing in projects that really highlight authentic cultural, you know, Street Food for instance on Netflix. It’s all about these little amazing, delicious eateries in Asia. You have Jo Koi, Ronny Chieng, Ken Jeong, all those comedians. They have a huge platform on Netflix, and their shows overindex. 455% more Asian Americans watch Jo Koy’s comedy special. There’s 127% more Asian Americans watching David Chang’s Ugly Delicious. You have 168% more Asian Americans watching Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.
It’s one of those things that, because they’re creating content that is authentic, created by us and about us, that I think Asian Americans are drawn to that. They are investing in streaming in platforms, and there’s even a higher percentage who are subscribers to multiple streaming platforms. They’re really invested and putting their time in watching a lot of these Asian American led projects. I think it’s taken the attention of Hollywood as well. The success of a lot of these Netflix-produced programming, is really pushing Hollywood to do better. For them to be more inclusive, for them to create programming that is authentic to our community.
I know you mentioned Ronny Chieng’s Netflix special. There’s so much content out there right now. Crazy Rich Asians, Nora From Queens, Always Be My Maybe. It just seems like historically, there’s been a lack of Asian faces in American film and television, and now all of a sudden there are so many options available. I know there’ s a lot of people tuning in now, but even before then there have been Asian people putting out stuff. It almost seems like it didn’t pick up steam until very recently. What do you think led to this growth over the recent years?
That’s a really good question. It’s almost as though, we’re a new group, when you look at the history of media and Asian American representation. I think for a long time, it was just Hollywood who was controlling what was put on screen, and they were the gatekeepers and they created the narrative. It was just Asian faces playing in on that narrative, whether it’s George Takei in Star Trek, to some of these spots of Asians in programming. And then we had a few highlights, like The Joy Luck Club and All American Girl with Margaret Cho.
But those are really rare, and because they were rare, they were scrutinized. And because they were scrutinized, they didn’t gain the momentum, so there were a lot of one-offs. I think the turning point was really the beginning of the century around 2000, when we have the digital platform that presented itself. There was no gatekeeper on the digital platform. It’s a democracy, and so all of a sudden, you had Asian American artists. Storytellers who were really able to perfect the craft of storytelling on video, and create videos on YouTube that really resonated, and so good that it amassed a huge audience. In doing that, I think the American total audience got a view into Asian narratives and Asian-authentic stories, right? We were invited into Lily Singh’s family and home, and see what an Indian family looked like. And then we were introduced to Awkwafina and she was this crazy rapper — who knew that Asian Americans also rapped? So all those things sort of put us on the map, and I think that changed a lot. It certainly didn’t change everything, but it changed because all of a sudden, we were creating what has now become to me, the “Asian American consciousness.” So it was through digital that all of a sudden, we find a lot of similarities. Indian immigrants are similar to the Korean immigrants, to the Chinese — we have similarities. We struggle with the bicultural identity. There’s a lot of things that surface that made us more similar than different. So I think that also contributed to us unifying as a group, and become more powerful in our unity.
And right when digital was starting, we also had Harold and Kumar, so that all of a sudden Asian American guys were funny, and doing “bad things” too and not just studying right? Which led to more Asian faces in mainstream shows; Grey’s Anatomy, Lost with Daniel Dae Kim, and then that led to Fresh Off The Boat, Fresh Off the Boat, unlike All American Girl, was six seasons. So I think it was one of those things where not only did we Asian Americans start to see ourselves as “Asian Americans,” as opposed to Japanese Americans or Korean Americans or a disparate group of immigrants, that are more collaborative and galvanized group. I think America was ready to see us and be more curious about our stories and our communities. I think it’s both of those things: our perception of ourselves evolving, as well as the American public being more curious and show an interest in our stories.
I know you mentioned The Joy Luck Club earlier. The release at the time, felt like such a turning point. And then it took several decades for Asian representation to come up again on a massive scale. Instead of losing momentum, you see it being able to keep growing this time?
I think we had the talents back then too, but I think the American viewer in general was not ready and we can’t do this alone. I feel like finally, not only are we becoming more visible, but there’s an interest in our community and stories and our talents. So I sure hope so. It also goes very much hand in hand with having more representation not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera. A lot of this starts with diversity in the writers room. Having Asian Americans in the writers room who are putting authentic voices in our characters. We need diversity in the casting, in the board rooms of these studios and production companies that are green-lighting, making decisions about which programming to invest in.
I think as we get better at having representation, better at diversity in general, and having more Asian Americans represented in all of these areas, I can only hope for us becoming more visible, and our talent being recognized for the work that we do. Hopefully definitely not another 20 years until we see another Joy Luck Club or Crazy Rich Asians. Already since Crazy Rich Asians, we have Tiger Tail, The Half of It, Always be my maybe. That’s more than we’ve had in so many years. I’m hopeful because I think everybody is embracing the diversity that we’re starting to see in media.
Would you consider Crazy Rich Asians as this generation’s The Joy Luck Club?
I hope not, because if it became The Joy Luck Club, that means there’s nothing more to talk about. I hope Crazy Rich Asians becomes something that ignited and got the industry excited about Asian Americans in this industry. I hope in that sense that we’ll look back and say, “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first but look at all the things that followed it. It was known for a turning point, but certainly not the only programming in our time when it comes to Asian American-led programming.
Marvel Studios has an upcoming film slated for 2021, called Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’ll star Simu Liu as the first ever Asian lead in a superhero feature film. There’s been a lot of buzz about it, especially among Asian Americans and other POC. For those outside the community who may not fully understand the hype behind it, how would you describe this excitement?
I don’t blame people for not knowing, if they’re not from a minority group. But I really hope that they’ll see that it is important. That it means a lot to our community to get that opportunity. I also hope that they’re not going to take one instance, one example, as something that’ll please everybody. That’s what happens you don’t have a lot of representation; the one time when it’s the first, it becomes scrutinized. Because you are the first, and there’s no one else, so you’re expected to be everything and all of it, to everybody. I hope that they’ll enjoy it for the art that it is, I hope they’ll enjoy it for the talent, and also see it as a really momentous occasion and event for representation for Asian Americans. It’s a huge deal, and to be in front of all those young viewers see that we’re part of the superhero family is really exciting.
I know growing up, personally I didn’t see much of that, so I totally understand that.
For sure. And being able to give these young children dreams. If they’re interested in becoming someone who does animation or an actor, to be able to know that there’s somebody who looks like me. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. It’s also big for community. So much of our community, we live in multi-generational houses, and have lots of influence from our family. Our parents and grandparents. If they don’t see Asian Americans in sports or acting or in politics, they try to steer their kids away from those industries because they don’t see the potential. I hope not only are the kids inspired, but the parents will be less strict about what kinds of professions their kids should be pursuing. It just means a lot in so many ways.
Yes! It’s one of those things where, when I would bring up pursuing creative interests growing up with Asian parents, they would ask “how many Asian artists do you know?”
Yes! I know. And every sort of Asian artist who is doing good work that I meet, a lot of times, the first question is “What did your parents say when you told them that you’re going to be a musician, or wanted to be a comedian?” That’s just part of our culture and it impacts us. I’ve also heard of a lot of people who got into music, but were actually on track to becoming a doctor. They have to start off by learning the piano, learning the violin and all of that, and they are able to pave their way later in their life. I’m excited for our community, I’m happy most for the younger generation.
Wrapping up, but out of curiosity Mariko, I want to know who was an Asian character in fiction that you related to the most growing up? And what types of characters do you see playing that same role for the new generation of Asian Americans growing up right now? Any that come to mind?
That’s a hard one, but can I tell you, I’m going to totally say my age, but I grew up in New York. And we were the only Asian family in the neighborhood. And The Goonies came out, and this is probably way before you were born, but it was a story of these kids and one of them was an Asian kid named Data. I swear, my brother was Data for years in the neighborhood. So, I guess I almost was like, “Oh my god, there’s someone who looks not like me, but my brother” so that’s the closest I had growing up, in terms of somebody that I related to. The reality was a lot of times, if there was an Asian kid in Sixteen Candles or whatever, I cringed because the Asian kid was usually the one that is weird. Or the nerd. Or the one that gets bullied and teased. So sadly, I have a lot of those uncomfortable sort of feelings growing up, when I did see the few that made it on screen. Which is very sad, but yes, Data by virtue of my brother, is the first person.
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