Tokenism: Representation or for Profit?
It is no secret that Hollywood has historically been dominated by Caucasian and heterosexual writers, directors, and celebrities. As we grow as a society, we recognize the importance of having proper representation in entertainment.
This representation does not, and has not, come easily, but we are getting better at understanding the importance of using media as a way of recognizing the diversity of our society.
However, when creating diverse characters, writers can fall into the trap of tokenism.
Tokenism is when a predominately uniform or identical cast, either in sexuality, race or culture, has a stereotyped character for the sake of diversity. Essentially, it’s only a symbolic effort to create actual diversity. Usually this character has little to do with the focus of the story, and is often the comic relief with no relevant development or character arc.
Token characters usually appear in television or movies to show support to a social group or as an attempt at inclusivity. But often times, these shows don’t do the token character justice, and instead harm their social group more than help.
This style of writing should be avoided, but more often than not writers find themselves with empty characters that they want to fill in with something diverse to be inclusive. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but if written poorly it, at best, feels like these characters are forcibly diverse and created to give the story a more “modern” and “cool” cast.
At worst, it feels like the producers put these characters in for rating bumps and to proudly wave that character around, saying, “Look, we got one!”
Writing is important for a character, especially when trying to avoid tokenism. Audiences want characters that are fully fleshed out, that have issues and problems, because it creates drama and makes the show relatable. It’s boring to have a character that is “perfect” in every way. No one likes a flawless character and this is where I think the root of the modern problem lies.
The current issue in Hollywood is an overcorrection in response to the outcry for diversity. A character needs to be flawed to be interesting, and the viewers need to see their growth and development on-screen. If you have a character that can do no wrong while also being purposefully diverse then you have a character who is literally only relatable because of their diversity and that is just another form of tokenism.
Does that mean that those who are screaming tokenism in the face of modern diversity are right?
Well, yes and no.
Due to how movies, shows and entertainment have been written in the past, if a character’s sexuality or race doesn’t matter to the plot, more than likely, the character will be white and straight. While it is ultimately up to the writer to decide how the character looks, we should not ignore the possibility that the traits a writer can choose from include a variety of races and sexual orientations.
We live in the modern era, and we’re shifting towards more diversity and inclusion in our media. But this doesn’t just mean we can stick a black gay man, or an asexual Asian woman, or a gender-fluid Hispanic with they/them pronouns in a movie and call it diversity. It’s important that these characters have personality traits outside of their race, gender and sexuality to emphasize the facts that these are real people with real, human issues.
Writers are obligated to write these characters well so that they do not do a disservice to the community they want to represent.