By Nasheed Choudhury
In the fast-growing age of media, there has been an overall increased demand for a more diverse portrayal of characters who accurately represent the world in its entirety. Inclusivity may seem like an easy task to accomplish; however, the entertainment industry is one of the largest groups that have been failing to do so. Rather than striving to be diverse by having an even mixture of people from various ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic classes, and sexual orientations, many large productions opt to include one or two “diverse” characters in their movies or shows so they can appear to be all inclusive. However, this can be seen as a mere attempt to prevent criticism, and it could give a false illusion of equity, which completely counteracts and disregards the need for representation on the big screen.
Many of these productions are guilty of practicing tokenism with their “diverse” characters. Without being inclusive, diversity gets reduced to tokenism. The main purpose for including these characters is no longer well intentioned; it is selfish and precautionary. They are essentially using these characters as tokens to parade their false diversity narrative.
Artwork by Kayla Shu
Tokenism is a harmful attempt at being inclusive, only including minorities for the purpose of avoiding criticism. They parade a very small group of diverse characters, which tokenizes them.
Many of these token characters are given extremely stereotypical roles, which only further perpetuates harmful social norms and normalizes microaggressions. In turn, this paints false realities and generalizes entire groups of people. Many Asians are familiar with seeing a nerdy side character, a quiet bystander, or a genius outcast. An example of this is Cho Chang from the “Harry Potter” franchise. Chang is in Ravenclaw, a notoriously intelligent house, but viewers never get to see the clever side to her. This may be because the only purpose she was meant to serve was that of a minority on screen. Some argue that the lack of a three-dimensional build for her was further propagated simply by how she was named.
Another harmful stereotype is the blatantly racist role, where a minority character is fitted with an overexaggerated accent to signify their heritage. Examples of this can be seen with Apu from “The Simpsons,” Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb,” and Ravi from “Jessie.” These characters often have no background that would indicate their need for an accent but are included anyway to further illustrate a “diverse” cast. Token characters can also be used for another extremely harmful purpose. For instance, Gloria and Manny from “Modern Family” do serve as diverse characters and bring representation to the show, but at the expense of having disrespectful jokes made about them, targeting their Hispanic heritage.
“Using token characters is a failed approach to include minorities since the media only uses them to exude a stereotype. I don’t think it’s right to reduce someone to a single trait, because people are far more complex than that,” said senior Julia Ajith.
These stereotypical roles bolster harmful perceptions of minorities that are untrue and serve to maintain prejudices. The most inaccurate and disrespectful use of a token character can be seen when this character acknowledges their minority status and instead of celebrating their differences, they reject everything about their culture or paint it as oppressive and strict. These characters are whitewashed, and that continues to spew harmful rhetoric toward their identity. This can be seen through characters such as Nadia from the Netflix series “Elite,” and Lane Kim from “Gilmore Girls.” Their only storyline is resenting their parents and their culture, and they remain as very flat characters with little character development.
“Token characters, while a given in many forms of media, are a very tired out concept and don’t do justice to the amount of variety there are in personalities that exist in the world. Tokenism serves to hammer the same stereotypic character traits in the media we consume, and we lose the potential characters that are not only three dimensional, but ones that we can relate to,” said senior Luis Toral.
Tokenism is not the same thing as representation. Without true inclusion, tokenism cannot be seen as diversity because tokens do not have any clear storyline with little development. It seems as if many of these characters’ only purpose is to offer wisdom and aid to white protagonists. For example, many feel as if Jolene, the only Black character featured in “The Queen's Gambit” had the potential for a fully developed storyline, but that was completely disregarded and she was only of assistance to Beth.
Having these characters to aid the main character is extremely detrimental to the millions of people that consume this content because so many people do not see themselves represented in the media, and when they do, their roles are reduced to being completely insignificant. Without representation, they are not being empowered and are losing out on countless experiences that can mold them into being the leaders of tomorrow.