Is it Diversity or just Tokenism?

By Anita Moyale, G11

Over the years, the representation of people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community in Western films has considerably increased; 27.6% of lead roles in Hollywood to be precise (UCLA Newsroom). But is this exactly a good thing? Take the role of a ‘gay bestfriend’ for example. From Damien in Mean Girls to Brandon in Easy A, this stereotype has been prominent in teenage coming-of-age movies over the years. At first thought, one would probably go ‘oh, it’s so great that movies are becoming more diverse!’; but think again. Is it truly diversity or is it simply tokenism?


tokenism 

[ toh-kuh-niz-uhm ] 

noun 

“the practice or policy of making no more than a token effort or gesture, as in offering opportunities to minorities equal to those of the majority.” 


This is frequently used and easily spotted in narratives where there is a white saviour storyline. Films such as The Help or The Blind Side, although very touching, are good examples of this: Black characters made to look weak and helpless, in need of the white (main) character to solve their problems for them – to come save the day. This portrays BIPOC as unable to think for themselves, unable to come to their own rescue. It portrays us as in need of white people to survive; a notion that is very much false. In fact, Black-owned businesses make up 9.5% of a total of 15% of minority-owned businesses in the United States. All around the globe, Black people are beginning to fight against racism,

primarily in the BLM movement. So, it’s about time that the television and entertainment industries show who we are instead of who they see us as. 

This same idea is seen again when we look at the size and importance of a minority’s role in a movie or TV show. In comparison to the, usually, white main characters, the ‘gay best friend’ or any other stereotypical sidekick role that a minority would play has considerably less screentime and fewer lines as well. Not only that, but they rarely get their own storyline. We don’t get to see any kind of character progression in the minority roles because the main focus is always on the main characters; the plot basically disregards them as independent characters – it uses them as tokens. In these kinds of entertainment shows, they’re only there to prove that the casting director – and whoever else involved, even the film studio as a whole – isn’t racist, or homophobic, or guilty of any other form of discrimination they’ve been accused of or fear getting accused of. 

It’s very easy for respected film producers or companies to get away with stereotyping, thus tokenizing minorities in our current society, one where POC would settle for the bare, frankly offensive, minimum because ‘at least we’re being seen’. But it’s time to fight for more than that. Enough of the ‘asian nerd’ or ‘ghetto Black thug/b*tch’; this type of categorising could very easily lead to internalized racism among young kids and teens. We need to begin to realise that not all representation is good representation. Just because there’s a minority in a film or show doesn’t mean there’s diversity; it could very likely be tokenism.

Next time you watch something, I want you to ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is the minority character a main character? 
  2. Do they have a non-stereotypical role? 
  3. Do they have their own plotline? Do you see them grow as a character? 

And finally, 

4. Are they saved by a white character? 

If you answered no to all of the questions, then it’s very likely that it’s tokenism rather than diversity. Don’t get it twisted.

xx


Cover Image courtesy of Nick Slater, 2017.

Sources

Wolf, Jessica. “2020 Hollywood Diversity Report: A different story behind the scenes.” UCLA Newsroom, UCLA, 6 Feb. 2020, www.newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/2020-hollywood-diversity-report#:~:text=Women%20had %2044.1%25%20of%20lead,all%20film%20roles%20in%202019.&text=In%202018%2C%2 0just%207.1%25%20of,19.3%25%20were%20people%20of%20color.

Kariger, Brian. “Tokenism”. Dictionary.com, edited by Daniel Fierro, Lexico Publishing, 14 May. 1955. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/tokenism#:~:text=noun,to%20those%20of%20the%20ma jority.

USAFacts. “A higher share of Black-owned businesses are women-owned than non-Black businesses.” USAFacts, 23 Sept. 2020www.usafacts.org/articles/black-women-business-month/.

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