It’s been a while since the first part of what I knew was going to be a series of posts about diversity in writing. This isn’t a topic I want to rush or schedule so if you’ve been waiting for this follow up, my apologies for the delay.
In this post I want to write about tokens. I’m not talking about coins that you put into cheap nickel arcade machines but about token diverse characters that are often plunked into cheap creative machines with similar consideration. Below is the definition of tokenism in this context taken from Wikipedia (emphasis added by me):
Tokenism is the policy and practice of making a perfunctory gesture towards the inclusion of members of minority groups. The effort of including a token employee to a workforce usually is intended to create the appearance of social inclusiveness and diversity (racial, religious, sexual, etc.), and so deflect accusations of social discrimination.
Now, I’m talking about a story and not a workforce but otherwise that hits the nail right on the head and highlights a common and really problematic continued trend in media content. To be clear it’s not that a minority character in a story is automatically a token but only when that character exists as a transparent effort at faux diversity. These token characters are often either homogenized or “translated” to the presumed mainstream (white, male) audience or have their Otherness played up to such a ridiculous extent that they become parodies of real people, more like exotic props than fully realized individuals. Token characters in this way are also frequently inessential to the primary narrative. They serve as lightning rods, drawing strikes away from the main character (and the creator) to solidify the protagonist’s heroism. Basically we can tell that our hero is such a great guy because he even has a colored/gay/lady friend and it’s totally not a big deal, you guys!
Back to Wikipedia for a finer point:
In fiction, token characters represent groups, which vary from the norm (usually defined as a handsome, white, heterosexual male), and are otherwise excluded from the story. The token character can be based on ethnicity (Black, Hispanic, Asian, et al.), religion (Jewish, Muslim, et al.), or be fat or otherwise unattractive, homosexual or a woman character in a predominantly male cast. Token characters usually are background characters, and, as such, usually are disposable, and are eliminated from the narrative early in the story, in order to enhance the drama, while conserving the “normal” white characters.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to think of say, fifty examples of tokenism in popular media from the “urban talking” black friend to the predictably catty gay one. Tokenism has become so pervasive in our media that it’s easy for content creators to fall into the trap accidentally and for audiences to ignore it. So many popular franchises are so shockingly monochromatic, masculine, and heteronormative that the one or two outsiders immediately stand out in contrast.
In the first part of this series I made a case for why modern writers should take diversity into account when creating a story. It might seem paradoxical then that I’m also decrying tokenism as it seems like it’s natural solution to increase diversity in your content. There are two huge problems with using diverse characters as “accents” in your work in the service of diversity though. First, tokenism is a post-narrative device. That means it’s a device creators add-in after the narrative has already been established. Tokenism happens when you have a story nearly completely finished and then someone says, “hey – maybe there should be a black guy in the Star War?” A character introduced in that method frequently feel like an afterthought and often ends up a token. This doesn’t always happen. Sometimes a creator asks “hey – what if this character was different?” and that spins the whole story in a new and interesting way or sometimes the inclusion of diversity just isn’t a big deal. Laurence Fishburne is the master of being cast as a previously white character (Jack Crawford, Perry White) and being perfect and awesome at it because he’s a great actor. In these cases when a character has nothing that makes them inherently not diverse, it can be effective to open things up a little and bring in a different kind of character background but this doesn’t mitigate the bigger problem that can come up with tokenism.
The second big problem with tokenism is that it creates scarcity of character types. This is a huge problem in modern content and it can be an issue for non-token diverse characters as well as tokens. By including just the one featured diverse character that character naturally can be interpreted as the representation of all members of his/her background. Going back to Laurence Fishburne for a moment – he’s great as Jack Crawford and Perry White but he’s also one of the very few people of color with a significant role in those properties and there’s nothing about his characters that reflects his identity as a black man. It’s a different kind of silly ignorance to assume that the black experience means that Perry White would need to be from the ghetto or that Jack Crawford would be defined as being a constant target of institutionalized racism. Those stories wouldn’t be served by Fishburne’s character constantly talking about being black in America but when those roles are the only representations of modern African American identity they have a gravity to them. The thing is, it’s not fair to make Jack Crawford or Perry White the standard bearers for the modern black experience but with a scarcity of options it becomes harder not to. Yes, there are plenty of examples of Perry Whites and Jack Crawfords that are 100% authentic as shown on the screen and there are also plenty of real world examples of diverse people acting just like the stereotypes that have been lazily used to define them (the fabulous gay friend, the sassy sistah, the sanctimonious white male writer dude in Portland, etc.). That’s not the point. The point is, when you have just one diverse character, that puts a spotlight on your character and that character will be judged by his or her proximity to and similarity to assumed stereotypes.
Let’s talk a tangible example of the impact of scarcity. There’s a TV show I really like called the 100. I’m not going to go on a geeky rant about why I enjoy it but I’ll let Devin Faraci do it over at Birth.Movies.Death. Anyway spoilers, you guys), in a recent episode of the 100 a fan-favorite character died in a way that evokes the Bury Your Gays trope and this has created a significant schism between the show creators and fans. The thing is, characters are always dying on the 100 but this death hit fans especially hard because of two reasons; first, the character was much beloved and fans don’t like to see beloved characters die and two, the character that died was a rare LGBT character on TV and one of two significant characters on this show -the other being the character’s surviving lover. If there were 7 LGBT characters on the 100 and the creators killed one of them, fans would still be upset but because of the scarcity of representation both on the show and in all media, the blow is amplified. When content creators just use token or Laurence Fishburne diversity in characters they are going to create poorer stories and alienate some of the audience.
Alright, so how do you make sure to avoid tokenism in your content? Well, character authenticity is the first place to start. The characters should feel real if they look like you or don’t look like you. They should always have a core of truth. Avoid the bland and the fetishistic Other. Be aware of these concepts. But that’s not enough. It’s also necessary to include more diversity in stories. Maybe a particular story doesn’t allow you to include a completely diverse cast – that’s okay. That happens and that’s true to life. But in the next story or the story after that, look for different types of truth that do reflect the modern, diverse world we live in. Maybe none of your stories support the kind of diversity I’m talking about. Well, I would encourage you to imagine some different stories for a variety of reasons (if nothing else because of audience expectations and desire) but even then – that’s okay. Not every story needs to, not every writer needs to. BUT if you’re not going to be including more diversity in your content I think you should support others that do.
One final caveat: diversity in storytelling is a complicated and nuanced topic. You see that photo of Lando? Lando is arguably a token but he’s also one of my favorite characters of all time. Some of that comes down to Billy Dee Williams’ natural charisma and some of it is the character itself but good things can come from questionable creative origins. I grew up in a really small town that was overwhelming majority white. But I had Lando and I had the X-Men and eventually in my teenage years I had every movie Samuel L. Jackson would ever do at the video store and, along with a lot of other fictional and real-world experiences, those characters populated my earliest conceptions of diversity in the world. My older brother has been an out gay man since high school, something that was not easy to do in our tiny Southern Oregon city. I remember movies and stories that featured gay characters that followed (the Birdcage, In & Out, Will & Grace), narratives that I hated as they represented stereotypes that didn’t reflect the reality of my brother, the reality of our lives. My brother wasn’t comic relief. He was my brother. He was a million things and those narratives were maybe three. But the funniest thing happened. Those narratives that I despised for being overly simplistic helped some people, even in my own family, connect to the gay experience. Nathan Lane in the Birdcage, over the top drag queen stereotype that he was, mattered. There’s a lot to think about with representation, tokenism, privilege and the power of stories to open or close minds. There is no simple right way to deal with it as a content creator – or a good person. The most critical thing we can do is talk openly about it and, more than that even, listen intently.