Token Representation in Mainstream Media
You know things are about to get dark when the coloured sidekick gets a lot of screen time just when the show is going quite smoothly. This is very common, the character from a minority community who just stands around to aid in the straight white male’s journey.
Tokenism is defined as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism as an attempt to show that people are being treated fairly”. In other words, if one person from a marginalised group is represented, then everything is okay.
Producers and writers try to promote diversity by introducing token characters to represent marginalised communities. However, this has worsened the issue by enforcing stereotypes already prevalent in the media, the society, and pop-culture. The way in which minority characters are written in shows and films often perpetuate stereotypes, spreading misrepresentative content to large- often multinational- audiences, which is very harmful when it becomes the only representation they get. Some of the people that are most affected by these stereotypes are women, LGBTQIA+ groups, disabled people, people of colour and fat people.
Women are largely underrepresented in the global media. Even in the few cases where the male-female cast ratio is near equal, women generally get vastly lower screen time and dialogues. Women are portrayed as mere eye candies, nothing more than an accompaniment to the male lead in most media; take for example the damsel in distress and the dumb blonde stereotypes. The idea that a woman’s intellect is decided by her hair colour (or similarly other physical attributes) is one of the most toxic stereotypes existing today.
In some of the supposedly feminist books and movies, women characters are shamed by other women. The female protagonist, shown as the stereotypical good girl, generally criticises the other female characters, showcasing them as attention-seeking, jealous, mean and all the other harmful characteristics used to cast women in a negative light. Women are targeted for not being beautiful in the traditional way (which keeps changing every day), and even if they do get cosmetic surgery to feel more confident, they are still targeted, being called fake and shallow for making a personal choice even if they don’t promote the same solution to others. Women making offensive comments about other women’s appearance, calling them superficial, plastic etc is a widespread trend in the global media.
Basically, women are used to tear other women apart while the show gets lauded for being “feminist”. Recently Ginny and Georgia, a show that usually projects feminist values was brought to spotlight for making a sexist joke about Taylor Swift.
Even when certain women characters are portrayed as strong, they are seen as physically strong, making them look like the stereotype of a tomboy, thereby neglecting the other ways a woman can be strong. This leads the viewers to conclude that women who have high feminine energy are not strong characters. As long as a female character is written with the intent to satisfy the objectifying male gaze, it is impossible to achieve an honest portrayal of women in the media.
While female characters are stereotyped heavily, women people of colour face even higher levels of discrimination. Not only women, but all people of colour, regardless of their gender orientation are victims of racial prejudice.
Before writing about a character, proper research should be done on their ethnic and cultural background. If it’s not done, the whole point of representation is undermined as regardless of the intent, the end result is ignorance leading to detrimental and wrong stereotypes being portrayed about persons of colour.
In most cases, coloured characters are there just for representation and they have no other characteristics than being a person of colour. They are mocked on the basis of their ethnicity, appearance, accent, eating habits etcetera. Most of the Asian characters are portrayed as nerds- the tech guy who repairs people’s computers and workaholics and asian cultures are being portrayed as interchangeable. For example the name of a character of Chinese ethnicity from Harry Potter being Cho Chang, where both Cho and Chang are surnames.
Latina women are overly sexualised, shown as exotic, fiery beings without any other noticeable traits or characteristics. Black characters are portrayed as either one of the following- the best friend, the one who dies first in an event of danger, a sassy black woman, the scary villain, or the loudmouthed and angry black people. These are just a few examples of harmful racist stereotypes prevalent in the international media.
Another group facing hatred and discrimination as a result of ignorance and prejudice is the LGBTQ+ community. For so long, LGBTQ+ representation has been taboo, having a “love that dare not speak its name.” But now, LGBTQ+ representation shares a “commercialised love that never shuts up”. Queer characters are often seen as commodities to television networks that give the illusion that they are providing a commendable representation to the queer community.
Everytime a queer person finds a show where they find a beautiful queer couple being all lovey-dovey, a fear sets in them. They’ve been through this over and over again; find a cute queer couple, and when they’ve begun to start shipping them the writers decide to kill one of them without justifying their death, and as a mere plot tool without any redeeming consequences.
During the 2016-2017 television season, there was a spike in the use of a LGBTQ+ trope called ‘bury your gays,’ with over 25 lesbian and bisexual female characters serving as victims of this trend. ‘Bury your gays’ is a problematic trope because it depicts a systematic pattern in mainstream media of LGBTQ+ characters dying after a LGBTQ+ couple is together for a short period of time, or only to serve as a way to further advance a storyline, usually a heterosexual character’s storyline.
This extreme lack of representation affirms the notion that queer characters cannot exist in media without being tokenized or used to support heteronormative narratives. Queer folks crave representation and when their characters are limited to death, suffering and heartbreak, it sends a powerful message to the queer audience:
There is something wrong with me.
These portrayals further solidify the societal norms that tell us that we should be ashamed of our own existence.
Another scenario where the queer audience is taken for granted and let down as a result is the prevalence of queer coding. Queer coding refers to cases where characters are given inherently queer characteristics but are not explicitly stated as being queer. Not only do queer coding villains besmirch the existence of an already marginalized group (queer people), it also enforces sexist commentaries about embodying feminity, strict gender binaries, all while influencing another generation to think that queer people are bad or that being queer is wrong. Queer coding villains is very dangerous because it is already institutionalized in the media we have consumed for an entire lifetime; sometimes it is so subtle that it is hard to recognize. And when that subliminal messaging is repeated often, some people may start to believe it and act upon it. For instance, Umbridge from Harry Potter described as being manly and almost all of the Disney villains being characterised with cliche homosexual stereotypes are examples of queer coding.
Ableism- the discrimination against disabled people- is prevalent all across the media, manifesting itself in often subtle and overlooked ways but not always so. There are lots of offensive jokes and often disabled people are portrayed as villains with scary bodily deformations (for example a one eyed, pirate with a peg leg and a hook for a hand), pitiful people who depend on others to survive or characters who strive hard and recover from their disability hinting that they can be respected only when they work hard and overcome their disability.
Instead of doing proper research and exploring a character’s disability in detail, the disability is used as a mere plot device to further the story. Even in the cases where genuine stories are told about the life of disabled persons, more often than not it is an able-bodied actor that plays the disabled role. Only when disabled people are allowed to tell their own narrative, will there be true progress and inclusion in the international media.
Another section of people who are dehumanised by the media and often reduced to nothing but mere sidekicks who provide comic relief are fat people. A fat person doing normal things like eating, dancing or even walking is portrayed as ridiculously funny. The underlying notion is that fat characters have to get thin to be finally taken seriously by the world as no one likes a fat person.
Fat people are often dehumanised, being portrayed as lazy, gluttonous, disgusting and mean. They are depicted as either the bullies or the bullied, especially in children’s books/shows, for example, Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter is extremely lazy, hates diets, spends most of the time eating and bullies the protagonist at every chance he gets. These harmful stereotypes make real life even more difficult for fat people and trigger eating disorders in both fat as well as non-fat people who fear that they may become fat and get mocked for it.
Even some of the seemingly progressive shows like Brooklyn 99 that have a healthy representation of women, LGBT+ and people of colour are extremely fatphobic. Hitchcock and Scully are constantly ridiculed for being gross and disgusting. In S1 E4, Jake Peralta makes numerous offensive fat jokes about a dead person. The show also uses fatsuits (Fat Terry) and ridicules fat people, enforcing some of the most insensitive stereotypes attached with them.
People should realise that one’s size doesn’t determine their worth or the amount of respect that one should deserve. There should be more shows with fat protagonists and genuine fat characters who are more than mere sidekicks who are portrayed by fat actors and not thin actors in fat suits.
Creators neglect writing minority characters which either makes minority communities feel like unimportant parts of society or boxes them into stereotypical personas.
Due to the strength of today’s stereotypes caused by media outlets, groups unknowingly stereotype each other. Having little understanding of ethnic groups other than one’s own as a result of tokenism, individuals have no choice but to view different groups based on their stereotypical portrayals in the media, which often is the only exposure to a different ethnic group available to some individuals.
Representation is important, because- frankly- it allows for more people to be represented. Representation means that communities’ voices, opinions, and perspectives are not only represented but that they can have a real stake in influencing the narrative and changing practice. However, having such an uncritical focus on representation reduces representation to just having someone in the space that fits a certain identity.
Representation matters, but so does the tone and execution of that representation. If the only way we see marginalized communities in media is through tokenism, violence, or stereotyping, representation is no longer an asset to those groups.
So when one says they want representation, they don’t mean tokenism. They want to see themselves in media that gives them fuller character arcs and better character development, not just for punchlines, comedic reliefs or tragedies. Take everyone seriously.
This piece was penned by Rakshiga K and Aravindan.