Winnie Cheung

Rebuilding the Asian American story for next-gen kids

When asked who they would cast as a lead, AAPI kids picked white characters—it's time for kids media to shift the narrative of how children see themselves and others, writes Nickelodeon's Winnie Cheung.
April 6, 2021

My dreams were shattered the day I realized I couldn’t be a fairytale princess. While playing together, my friend said to me, “You don’t look like a princess; you can be the princess’s friend.” It made sense. I’m Chinese American. I did not have the same hair, eyes, eye color or skin tone as the princesses I admired on my VHS tapes. The Asian American’s role in history has been that of a perpetual foreigner and model minority—in media, we’re the nerds, best friends or objects of desire, leading to stereotypes of Asian Americans in real life that persist today.

To understand race, identity and the American family, Nickelodeon surveyed more than 15,000 kids and their parents between 2019 and 2020 in a multi-phased qualitative and quantitative study called “Shades of Us.”

When asked who they would cast in the lead role of a movie, Asian children chose a white character instead of picking someone who looked like them. Looking further into the data to see if this differed by ethnicity, we saw there was no difference in responses from Black, Hispanic and white children; there is a belief among all kids that lead characters should be white.

In terms of what role Asian kids believe an Asian character should play, their top choices include the smart kid, the nerd and the sidekick. Across ethnicities, kids agreed they would also cast an Asian character as the nerd, reinforcing a stereotype of Asian people.

Is it possible that Asian children today are also having their dreams of who they want to be shattered like my princess dream?

About half of Asian kids (49%) say it’s important to be represented in media, and many disagree (40%) with the current portrayals of their backgrounds and cultures on screen. Asian girls are interested in seeing more female representation in general.

Showing Asian Americans in media is not only beneficial for empowering Asian children, but it can also change non-Asian kids’ misconceptions. If children are given a chance to see Asian people as unique, human and similar to them, moments of empathy and compassion can be ignited. In fact, we found in our “Shades of Us” study that among all kids, self-identity is largely driven by family, friends and the media.

With all of these shared traits in a child’s identity, there can be multiple combinations of relevant stories to tell with specificity. Even within the Asian community itself, there is a plethora of stories around the East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander experiences. Yet in the media, Asian communities are often represented as one whole community, leaving out the nuances of each specific culture.

Telling these stories and showcasing a variety of Asian characters has never felt more important than it does right now when there is one more role Asian Americans have been miscast in—originator of a global pandemic.

In 2019, Asian parents believed Asian people experienced less discrimination compared to Black and Hispanic people. In 2020, however, a significantly higher percentage of parents—across all races and ethnicities—felt that Asians experienced a lot of discrimination, likely the result of harassment and hate incidents related to COVID-19. If we were to field those same questions today, the result would be even higher.

And this is personal. On a walk with my family last year, a group of teenagers passed by and made exaggerated motions to move away from us, muttering “China flu!” We live in a metropolitan city full of diversity, with a large Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) population. Surely they’ve seen faces like ours before?

Over the past year, Stop AAPI Hate has reported nearly 4,000 hate incidents against Asian Americans across 50 states and the District of Columbia. On March 16, eight people were murdered at local businesses in Atlanta, Georgia—six were Asian women.

Change in representation has been growing slowly. Movies and television shows are starting to tell stories from a variety of Asian ethnicity groups. Story themes have also expanded beyond just historical references to more genres like romantic comedies, coming-of-age narratives and stories of loss. There are even stories about Asian princesses.

But there’s more work to do. The potential to counteract discrimination among non-Asian communities could start with a better understanding of what it means to be Asian. Here are some ways to start:

  1. Cast Asian leads: Help Asian children feel like they matter by giving them the agency to move a story forward as the protagonist, not just as a side character.
  2. Make products (i.e. toys, games, apps) that feature Asian people/characters: Pretend play is a vital activity to a child’s identity development, but if there are no Asian faces in toys, games or digital experiences, Asian children have already lost the opportunity to imagine stories with people who look like them.
  3. Tell the untold stories: There are great stories out there already featuring the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, but there are so many more to be shared. Take a leap and consider more far-reaching stories than the ones already being told. Not every Asian story needs to include a dragon or kung fu.
  4. Celebrate together: We’re all stronger together as human people. Asian American stories can be interwoven with other experiences. With the rise of children who have more than one ethnicity, stories can—and should—cover more than one culture at a time.
  5. Be brave: Stories about Asian Americans in the media industry have been mistold, misrepresented, and at times just completely missed. But we have to try to make a difference by bringing new narratives into the mix to replace the misguided ones that exist today.

Importantly, content and products should be led by or made in collaboration with AAPI team members and experts. Companies should also consider a long-term strategy that is connected to specific goals, and hold themselves accountable.

My role has evolved from hopeful princess to a Chinese American woman looking to change the media landscape. I hope that for my kids, their roles can be whatever they want—to be the princess, the hero, the changemaker, the lead—and at the same time be seen as a kid with similar experiences to all other kids, facing fears, triumphs, setbacks, love and hope.

Winnie Cheung is senior director of digital consumer insights at Nickelodeon. Insights development was supported by Kelly Chang (senior analyst of consumer insights) and Andrew Park (manager of consumer insights). 

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