A New Hollywood: Narrative Scarcity and Plentitude
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
In 2018, Pulitzer-Prize winning author Viet Thanh Ngyuen coined the terms “narrative scarcity” and “narrative plentitude.” The two ideas highlight the consequence to minorities of having little representation, and the freedoms to majorities of having a lot. Ngyuen explains that in our current media world, there is a minority and majority. Having few narratives centered around minorities makes each story more crucial to being an accurate representation, whereas because the majority has a “plentitude” of stories turned to film, each piece has less of a role in shaping opinions for society.
In today’s media, minorities are bombarded with stereotypes through characters in movies and remarks on television and the radio, which are then perpetuated through how the majority views the minority. This is why representation in the media matters. Our current society is one “...in which we feel deprived and must fight to tell our own stories and fight against the stories that distort or erase us…” as Ngyuen writes in his New York Times op-ed.
As a female Asian-American, I have noticed a hypersexualization of Asian women and an emphasis on the “model-minority myth” that places incorrect images into society’s minds that, due to narrative scarcity, are difficult to undo. While people in Hollywood think these stories sell, according to a New York Times article, Hollywood loses over 10 billion dollars a year due to lack of diversity. People want to see themselves on the screen as seen through the economy and the testimonies of minorities everywhere.
A common misconception is that there is plenty of diversity since most films aren’t a single-race cast, however, consider the center of these stories. Major blockbuster films rarely center a minority race character, and when they do, there is the chance of majorly stereotyping. According to an NBC study, 35% of AAPI characters on the big screen fall under the model minority trope and 13% are Asian women being sexualized. These labels both inaccurately stereotype and objectify people which later feeds into society's view of the minority.
Since there are so few accurate stories and a plentitude of stereotypes, extreme pressure has to be placed on films that are an all-minority cast. For example, when Crazy Rich Asians, the first all-Asian cast in nearly 20 years, was in the works, many critics, one of them being Ngyuen, expressed their worries: “For Asian-Americans, if “Crazy Rich Asians” succeeds, we all do; if it fails, we all do.” Narrative scarcity means that every story about a minority is that much more important because of the impact it will have on societal view. The current climate seems like one where “just a couple more films” will solve perpetuating stereotypes. The issue is a lack of representation, but also a lack of desire to include minorities on the big screen. Ngyuen defined narrative scarcity as “ the lack of characters who looked like us, and when they looked like us, were not really human.” Solving narrative scarcity is about creating more films of minorities acting like humans, not their stereotypes because they are people too. There should be a natural tendency to cast in a way that reflects our world properly, not just aspects of it.
Films feed into and establish our stereotypes, but they also have equal power to break them.