What Is Tokenism?
Updated: Apr 6
Tokenism by definition refers to the practice of making a performative or perfunctory effort towards the inclusion of minorities. When it comes to media this involves the inclusion of people from underrepresented groups such as religious, ethnic or gender and sexual identities in the minority to give the appearance of racial equality. However, there are a lot of problems with this performative inclusion.
Some may ask if the inclusion of minority characters is at least a step in the right direction. And it is, but sometimes these characters and the stereotypes that have developed from them over time can do more harm than good. When minority characters are only available in small quantities the characters carry the burden of representing their entire community. Whereas when roles are plentiful and varied it is far easier to view their characters and actions as being individual. Some examples of harmful type-casting is the way in which Arab-Americans, Middle Easterners and Muslims are repeatedly portrayed on screen. Often the only time Arab-Americans and Muslims find themselves on screen are as terrorists. This takes a large community and denies them three-dimensional portrayal as human beings with families and dreams. It also perpetuates the harmful stereotype that all Arab-Americans and Muslims are terrorists which can led to more hate-crimes.
Let's talk numbers. As of 2018 41.0% of lead roles went to women and 26.6% to minorities out of 139 films. Both are less than the proportion of women and minorities living in the United States. However, both percentages are far closer to being proportional than four years earlier in 2014 when minorities accounted for 12.9% of lead roles out of 163 films were played by minorities. While this growth can be encouraging there are still some other numbers that urge wariness. When looking beyond lead roles to the entire cast there are less female characters in supporting roles with 40.2% of the entire cast being women. And there are more supporting roles for minorities with 32.7% of the entire cast. What does this mean? In the case of women, this means that many films and shows stop short after including a main female role, a fact supporting by the "Smurfette Principle" where there are disproportionate male to female ratios in most shows from everything including the Smurfs, to the Power Rangers, Harry Potter and Star Wars. When looking at minorities there is an increase in supporting roles. This is because their inclusion is often performative and tokenism, aiming only to appear inclusive. What this does is show minorities that they are not main characters. They are best friends, sidekicks and co-workers. But it is easy to see why these are the stories being told when we look at who is writing them. In 2019 17.4% of writing credits went to women and 13.9% went to people of color which means that white men are the overwhelming majority of storytellers. Even more so, 86% of all studio film heads are white and 69% male. These are the people who decide which stories deserve a platform. This isn't to say stories are kept white and male deliberately, but it is much harder to write stories you have no personal experience with. This is why it is often much easier to include minorities as minor characters or to fall back onto common stereotypes.
There are a few key ways to identify when a film or show is actually diverse or if it is tokenism. One of the clearest ways is to see if the character has narrative agency. What this means is if the character shows growth and development throughout the film or show and if the character's presence plays an active role in furthering the plot. Some common mistakes or tropes in films include the "white savior". This can be seen in films like Hidden Figures and Greenbook, both tell stories of Black oppression through a white perspective. Both films include benevolent white characters whose kindness help to advance the black characters in the stories. The first step towards creating good representation is agency. In addition you can also take a look at how disposable the character is, best illustrated by the common horror movie trope of the Black character dying first. To better illustrate what makes certain representation tokenism let's take a look at two commercially successful films, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Black Panther.
Star Wars already had a reputation for it's inclusion of token black characters like Lando Cairissian and Mace Windu. Both supporting characters with little agency of their own, instead only helping to further the plot lines of the main cast. However, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with a new, diverse cast of characters, things looked like they were ready to change. Let's focus on the character of Finn, a rogue stormtrooper and a Black man. Finn is a main character and received considerable promotion and screen time. He was heavily involved in the action of the film, that is until the climax. In the climax of the film Finn is knocked unconscious and remains so for the rest of the final act of the film, seemingly forgotten. In the end Finn is not given full dramatic agency and is instead still a supporting role for the other characters. What makes this characteristically tokenism is its façade of inclusion. On the other hand, Black Panther offers an array of Black men and women characters that all have unique, individual personalities and who all have their own goals and skills. In addition, where Star Wars seems to eliminate Finn's race from consideration, Black Panther both acknowledges race and celebrates the numerous nuisances of African culture. Of course this maybe attributed to the difference in film setting but there is something to be said for the acknowledgement of race which can lend itself towards education and relatability.
So, what is tokenism? Hopefully this is a question you can now answer and begin to identify not only in film and television but also in your daily life, school or workplace.
All statistics are from the 2020 Hollywood Diverisity Report done by UCLA.