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Asian Americans make up 1% of Emmy nominations. Why is representation so low?

“The older generations may see Asian American-led shows as niche or even foreign and not consider them for Emmy nominations," one critic said.
Image: 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals
Sandra Oh at the 2019 Golden Globe Awards in Beverly Hills, Calif.Frazer Harrison / Getty Images file

Critics are pointing out that a number of Asian American and Pacific Islander casts and creators have been overlooked in this year’s Emmy nominations.

Strong front-runner contenders include “Never Have I Ever,” “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens,” “Patriot Act With Hasan Minhaj,” as well as performers from various shows including Hong Chau from “Watchmen” and Michelle Krusiec from “Hollywood.”

Asian Americans account for 1 percent of all nominees in the Emmy awards this year, which airs Sunday. That’s a decrease from 2 percent over the last 10 years, according to a recent NBC News analysis.

Some experts believe that a lack of recognition for Asians at the Emmys is attributable to the fact the offerings may still be considered too niche and lacking mainstream appeal, especially because of the rapid growth of television content.

Mindy Kaling, who created the Netflix comedy “Never Have I Ever” about an Indian American family, tweeted on the day the Emmy nominations were announced that despite high viewership and critical acclaim, the comedy will always seem niche or ethnic to some people.

Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist who writes on pop culture, agreed.

“The older generations may see Asian American led shows as niche or even foreign and not consider them for Emmy nominations.”

“Shows featuring Asian Americans may be popular among younger generations who grew up with a diverse group of friends, but the voting members tend to skew older,” she told NBC Asian America. “The older generations may see Asian American-led shows as niche or even foreign and not consider them for Emmy nominations,” she said.

The Television Academy did not respond to requests for comment.

There is some progress to point to. Sandra Oh scored a third consecutive nod for her lead role in “Killing Eve,” while Dev Patel made his nomination debut for his guest role on an episode of “Modern Love.” Director Andrij Parekh was nominated for his episode of “Succession.” Despite these nominations, experts agree there is still a long way to go.

AAPI representation over the years

In the past few years, television shows led by or featuring Asian Americans have included popular comedies like “Fresh off the Boat,” “The Mindy Project,” “Dr. Ken” and “Master of None” to newer programs like “Wu Assassins,” “Never Have I Ever,” “Warrior” and “Pen15. But they are still rare.

Yuen co-authored a report called “Tokens on the Small Screen” in 2017 that noted white characters make up nearly 70 percent of series regulars compared to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who were at 4 percent, of which Pacific Islanders occupy only 0.2 percent.

She said her research found that historically, television depicts Asian characters in less complex ways than their white counterparts.

“Compared to white characters, Asian characters are less likely to have familial and romantic relationships on screen. They also have less screen time,” Yuen added. “Consequently, Asian actors have had very few opportunities to shine.”

Yuen noted that there is improvement since the survey, but the number of shows featuring Asian American leads remain low compared to the sheer amount of shows featuring white leads. As a result, the Television Academy members may not be aware of them or seen them at all.

The implications of an Emmy nod

The Hollywood Reporter And SAG-AFTRA Inaugural Emmy Nominees Night Presented By American Airlines, Breguet, And Dacor - Red Carpet
Poorna Jagannathan attends The Hollywood Reporter and SAG-AFTRA Inaugural Emmy Nominees Night in Beverly Hills on Sept. 14, 2017.Rich Fury / Getty Images for THR

Poorna Jagannathan, who stars in Kaling’s Netflix comedy, said that nominated and awarded shows attract viewership, more money and more support. They lead to more work, which is scarce for Black and brown creatives to begin with. “It’s meaningful to get visceral reactions from fans of the work, but I also can’t denigrate the worth and importance of these institutions and their need to redeem us.”

She cited Hulu’s “Ramy” — led by an Egyptian American — in which she had a recurring role for the first season last year. It wasn’t recognized at the Emmys but the show won a Peabody, and its creator and star, Ramy Youssef, won a Golden Globe in 2019.

The comedy-drama faced some criticism for its representation of Muslim women.

This year, Youssef and his season two co-star Mahershala Ali are both Emmy nominees.

Jagannathan also starred in the South Asian-led HBO miniseries “The Night Of,” which was nominated for an Emmy in 2017. Her co-star Riz Ahmed won for his leading role, the first actor of South Asian descent to win a lead acting Emmy. (Before him, Archie Panjabi won best supporting actress in a drama for “The Good Wife” in 2010.)

69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards - Show
Riz Ahmed accepts the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie award for 'The Night Of' during the 69th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, 2017.Lester Cohen / WireImage

In terms of off-screen representation, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang were the first Asians to win a writing award for “Master of None” in 2016. Ansari won the same award in 2017 with co-writer Lena Waithe. Maya Erskine was nominated for writing an episode of “Pen15” with her co-star Anna Konkle and Stacy Osei-Kuffour.

Jagannathan said she finds the inequality in the nominations, especially for Asians and Latinos, staggering. “When any award show is called out for their overwhelmingly white nominations, the conversations become very White-Black. This binary leaves out Hispanics and Asian Americans,” she added.

Writer and speaker Phil Yu, who created the culture blog Asian Angry Man as a platform to discuss representation in mass media, said that the deluge of content due to the rise of streaming services means inclusive shows can be shoved into their own category as opposed to being seen as "prestige."

“The Emmys or even the Oscars is the last stop on the train line to acknowledge excellence,” he added. “It’s necessary to create a space for Asian American content to exist and for that to be supported in the first place.”

Reforming the Voting Process

Yuen said that there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of studios and networks or even grassroots efforts to campaign for these Asian-led shows and Asian actors.

According to Jagannathan, “The Night Of” deservedly got attention because of the established white people behind it, including creator and director Steve Zailian, writer Richard Price, HBO and BBC. “We had a big marketing campaign, the academy watched us,” she said. “The real story is what happens to shows that are written and led by teams that are not the establishment. It’s easier to dismiss them even though they get critical acclaim and viral audiences."

When the #OscarsSoWhite campaign took off, it led to an examination of diversity in films but also of the voting body that judges the awards. Jagannathan said a similar reckoning might be needed for the Emmys.

“The ground is shifting beneath us," she said. "Awards shows must meet this movement accordingly."