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Cultivating Culture: How Asian Media has gained popularity in America

Western pop culture is becoming so much more diverse these days. It is no longer just white people in the media we consume, but a variety of stories, faces, and people to who others can relate to. People are gaining new perspectives, and it seems that many Asians and Asian-Americans can finally tell their stories and see representation for themselves. From the rise of entertainment such as K-pop, anime, “Crazy Rich Asians”, 88rising, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, and now the wildly successful “Squid Game”, the door has opened for East Asian stories that Hollywood never thought would be able to make it big.

For decades, Hollywood has lacked significant representation for Asians, usually demoting them to racist stereotypes and ideals. There were jokes and remarks made, and harmful stereotypes upheld, at the expense of Asian people. That in turn affected how people saw them and how they would see themselves. The Asian characters that people would see on TV were either unable to speak any English and had no purpose in the plot, a weird, loud caricature of what white people assumed that Asian people were, or a hypersexualized, purposefully submissive female character. Asian women in the media were simply seen as sexual bodies, and that perpetuated ideas that would hypersexualize Asian women. The media also managed to demasculinize Asian men, attempting to portray them on-screen solely as nerdy or effeminate. There is nothing wrong with Asian men who happen to be more feminine, but these stereotypes cause Asian men to be called “girls” in real life and have slurs used against them to further demasculinize them. The Asian man on screen would not be muscular or strong like his white male counterparts, rather, he would be the shy type that would be there for laughs. There are so many negative stereotypes that the Asian community has fought through to get to their current place in the media. They deserve to be seen and treated like they should be there. 

The recent shift in media representation has been seen as positive by many in the Asian community. Jake Boyk, a senior with a double major in communication studies and integrated media, believes that Asian media becoming more prominent in western culture is a good thing. “It means marginalized perspectives are being represented and advocated for. I believe it really kickstarted during the rise of the #StopAsianHate movement, and since then the Asian American media has really taken off,” Boyk said. The #StopAsianHate movement started during the COVID-19 pandemic, when alarming amounts of Asian people were violently attacked in public. The interest in Asian culture has started to really grow during the pandemic. 

This new view on Asian media that views Asian people as people who can be trendy, be cool, and create media that is enjoyable is slowly being recognized by Western audiences. Especially in a time where people target and hate crime Asian people, representation for Asians is important to see. 

K-pop music is easily one of the most recognizable forms of Asian media that has broken into Western media in the last several years. Regardless of how anyone feels about it, K-pop has allowed Asians to see themselves in music charts and interviews. Especially with prominent names like BTS and Blackpink dominating the charts, seeing songs that are sung in different languages is a major landmark for the Asian community. “Idols,” the name for K-pop stars, face discrimination in the form of microaggressions, from being told they all look alike to the male idols being demasculinized and called girls. Their presence in pop music is so important to bridge cultural gaps in music and break stereotypes that Americans and the world believe about people from Asian countries. K-pop groups can sing, dance, and compose and write music, and those are not activities that many people associate with Asians. Their influence makes way for not only more music in different languages, but Asian artists in America to break into the mainstream as well. 

In America, the Asian artistry collective 88rising features prominent Asian-American artists like Joji, Rich Brian, and Niki, who are all making waves. They have collaborated with well-known names like Major Lazor, Swae Lee, and Playboi Carti. 88rising brings together Asian-American youths to see other people who have had the same experiences in America and can understand them. Both K-pop and 88rising’s roster contains different artists from across the globe, yet they are bringing Asian musicians to the forefront. Their music has transcended language barriers, appearances, and stereotypes, and they are slowly pushing their way toward a more prominent role in the music industry.

In the television and movie industry, Asian characters have gone from being background, one-dimensional characters, to fully developed main characters, acting beyond Asian stereotypes. There are finally stories being told from the perspective of an Asian character or family. The television show “Fresh Off The Boat” portrayed an immigrant family and their lives in America in a lighthearted and refreshing way. On the big screen, films like “Crazy Rich Asians”, “Parasite”, and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” have all shown a large Asian ensemble cast. The men are heroes and romantic leads in these films, and the women are powerful, self-made, and clever. All of these films have been large successes and have proved to Hollywood that people will watch stories with Asian casts. 

The television show “Squid Game” is the newest addition to the list of Asian entertainment that has broken into the mainstream. One of Netflix’s most-watched shows, the Korean drama about debt-ridden people playing risky, deadly games to win money has gotten the world’s attention. To see a fully South Korean show become one of Netflix’s most popular shows of all time is a historic milestone. The representation that these films and shows bring is so important. Asian casts are breaking long-held negative beliefs about Asians while portraying compelling stories that audiences enjoy.

Alexis Karolin, a senior studying history, said, “It’s very exciting as an Asian American to see the rise of media from Asian countries such as ‘Squid Game’, ‘Alice in Borderland’, and ‘Parasite’. Oftentimes AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] culture is misrepresented in Western media, which too often relies on stereotypes. So, when we have media produced from regions where AAPIs are represented diversely and can tell their own story, it really helps destabilize misconceptions in popular culture and gives me a sense of pride.” 

The sense of pride that Asians have for their culture is not new, but being able to see their culture represented in a way that tells their story is new. Seeing Asian culture integrated into everyday stories is starting to become the new norm. For many Asian Americans, they did not grow up seeing people who looked like them on screen. Now, more Asian Americans can grow up knowing Asian celebrities. Katie Hall, a sophomore studying marketing and analytics, agreed with Karolin, saying, “I love seeing how popular Asian media has come to be, especially in the past year. We saw the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Shang-Chi [and the Legend of the Ten Rings]’, ‘Parasite‘, ‘Squid Game’, K-pop, and even the Disney movie, ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’. After growing up with barely any Asian idols to look up to, it’s a breath of fresh air to finally see some representation in the media. Along with that, it’s opened much-needed conversations around diverse representation in Hollywood and over; the normalization of consuming non-Western media. Across the world, we see Western media dominating entertainment, which hasn’t left much room for all the amazing creative works of non-Western artists. Efforts to greater dialogue around the Asian American experience are coming to fruition and I’m excited to see what change is enacted by the growth of Asian representation in headlines and entertainment.”

While Asian media has grown immensely, there are still ways for it to show more inclusivity to the Asian community itself. Alexis Ky, a junior majoring in nursing, said, “I think part of the reason we see more Asian media in Western media is because of the recent popularity in K-pop. While I do love the diversity, I feel like more of the focus is on Korean culture and not other Asian countries. One day, I would love to see more media involving other places like China, India, and others, but until then I’m excited and proud of the shifts Western media has made to be more inclusive.” 

There is a long way to go in the entertainment industry for Asian representation. Asian people are still sorely lacking in media other than the films and shows mentioned above. The music industry still does not take music in different languages seriously, and there is a lot of prejudice that stands. Asian media itself also still needs to diversify to tell other stories. The world is changing, and everyone deserves a place to be seen. People deserve to see themselves on screens, hear themselves on the radio, and even see themselves regularly in magazines. The media’s hurtful and insulting preconceived notions regarding Asian people leave effects larger than one may think. People carry these ideas and treat people differently because of them. Jokes, insults, and violence toward Asian people are all commonplace, and pop culture does hold some responsibility. People need to unlearn stereotypes. 

These past few years have been monumental for the Asian community, thanks to the trailblazers who are fighting for their right to be seen and heard. Asian pop culture is not a commodity; it represents all people who do not see themselves in any shows or movies. Hopefully, in the next few years, there will be many more Asian-lead films and shows, and more Asian artists on the radio. Representation and diversity are so important, and Asian media crossing over into American media is an exciting landmark to celebrate.