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12 Movies & TV Shows Where Asians Are the Hero, Not the Model Minority Sidekick

Grace Kang

Quiet. Overachieving. Meek. Successful. The inoffensive supporting character. Over the years, there’s been no shortage of media that portray Asians as the “model minority” stereotype. At the same time, is it possible to center Asian characters without invoking the spinning wheel of oppression as the driving force behind the story? Oppression and racism are part of many of the community’s stories, but it doesn’t need to be part of every one we see on-screen. In fact, it does a disservice to the stories that are yet to be told, which is why the movies and TV shows that don’t highlight their Asian character’s oppression, but let them operate as complex, nuanced leads feel so vital and exciting. 

Seeing a multidimensional Asian character as an integral part of a story today still feels like an exception, but they are out there. From blockbuster entries like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Fast & Furious 9 to small screen gems like Never Have I Ever and Kim’s Convenience, there are different fantastical, joyous, comedic, thrilling narratives to entertain us. 

Dig a bit deeper into the past, and there are even some forgotten (but always in my heart!) series that come to light. Before the days of Nick Jonas, Priyanka Chopra starred in Quantico — the first South Asian actor to headline a primetime drama. It was a ridiculously plotted show, but she was a first, which means there can be a second, and then it’s become normalized and no one cares. The same goes for Maggie Q’s high-profile casting in the CW’s Nikita (2010-2013), now starring in this year’s action-thriller feature The Protégé. Seeing Asians in prominent roles with romantic entanglements and messy lives — without erasing their culture in the process — is such an important step forward in the stories we need and deserve to see.

Read on for our selection of movies and TV shows that explore worlds where Asians are front and center, with dimension and entertainment value to match.

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