Writing Perspective: Tokenism

I quite like my writing perspective posts; it helps me to crystalise my thoughts on various topics. Hopefully others will join in discussion. If you haven't guessed, there's another one coming up right now.

I've been thinking about this post for a while now, ever since I saw a forum post from a writer I know—and because I know her, I know the way I took the post is not what she meant, nor what she intended. I felt she was saying she should write about a disabled person simply to have a disabled character in the story.

Tokenism, in other words.

South Park has an African-American character called Token Black. Of course they do. They take everything and make a joke of it. I'm not sure they're right, nor am I sure they're wrong. As the Wiki article mentions, "it's interpreted … as an implication the tokenism phenomenon is outmoded …"

I'm on Twitter. I see a lot of things about People of Colour being underrepresented in shows and in literature and in publishing. I believe the struggles and battles to get more representation is important. Disabled, gay, ethnic… people need characters like them to watch and read. I seem to recall reading years ago that when people can see a character like them, it helps them.

As I understand it, at present moment, most stuff that is written about transgender/black/etc people is done by people who are such themselves. Which makes a certain amount of sense to me: they live it, so they can accurately represent such people in fiction.

One reason I love Lucy Liu in Elementary as Joan Watson (sadly I believe she is only one of two PoC with a lead role in American television currently) is that she is Asian, but that doesn't appear to matter in the series; in my opinion the show treats her as an American first and foremost. I don't recall that Joan has ever been the subject of vilification based on her Asian heritage. It has been a while since I've seen the episodes, so I could be wrong.

I like that portrayal; it seems to be a nice treatment of her. Maybe I'm wrong about that; maybe people out there believe that Joan Watson is an insult to Asian people in that she is American first and Asian almost as an afterthough. Let's face it: I don't recall any specific allusions to Joan's ethnicity. That could very well be a bad thing. I admit that I don't know enough to say it is or isn't. I personally like the relaxed way it's handled: she is an American that just happens to be Asian.

…actually, I'm not sure that I would like Elementary as much if they shoved Joan's ethnicity down our throats. That would come across a little too much like they wanted to show they were being 'good' and not so 'white culture focused'.

I want to see different people in media and in fiction.

Last I heard Glee'd gone off the rails, but it was comforting to see they had gay and lesbian people, different ethnicities, characters who didn't fit conventional beauty standards… whether or not it is now, or ever was… it seemed inclusive. And it seemed to do so naturally.

I guess that's what I'm getting at here. I don't want media and fiction to start going "well we should put a female/homosexual/person with mental illness in here"; I feel that leads to stupid moments where the character asserts their 'distinctiveness' so that people like them can see 'we didn't forget you, so shut the fuck up'.

I'm white. I write white characters by default. I'm female. I write females by default. I suffer from depression; the only reason my characters aren't depressed is because I don't know how to make a realistic portrayal of it interesting or worth reading. My own life is boring as shit, how can I make a character's life any better?

I want to include people outside the 'white', 'heterosexual', 'not cursed with a mental illness', etc spectrums. I want others to do that as well. Is it too much to ask that these people be included in natural ways? Instead of the "I don't want to look like a dick, so have a token character" way?

Or is this one of those cases where we have to accept the token character option and keep fighting for a better way?


2 Responses to “Writing Perspective: Tokenism”

  1. Anna says:

    Ah, tokenism and representation in fiction. A thorny issue – that honestly shouldn't be that thorny.

    I like your Elementary example! It's great as an example not only because it's a reinterpretation of the original material in a respectful and well-done way, but also because it can be contrasted against the OTHER Sherlock-tv series – BBC's Sherlock.

    BBC's version is a lot more faithful to the original stories Doyle wrote – while Elementary sort of takes the basic parts, twists a few things and then runs with it – and is on the whole well written. It is also one of the most blindingly white shows I've seen. In the first two seasons, there is ONE black woman in a bit part, and a handful of Chinese people cast as victims and villains. NONE of the reoccuring important characters are PoCs.

    And there is no good reason why. It's set in contemporary London for the most part – there are a lot of non-white people in contemporary London. Leaving them out makes no sense.

    Elementary, set in contemporary New York, uses PoCs for reoccuring characters because it's a natural thing to do. Joan is Asian, and it's no big deal. Detective Bell is black – because *black people exist*. And neither one of them is an ethnic stereotype.

    While we're on the subject of current tv-shows with goos representation of PoCs – Sleepy Hollow. In the first season, out of ten reoccuring, named and important character, THREE are white, one is Asian, one Latino and FIVE are black. It passes my Ethnic Bechdel Test (two named PoCs talk to each other about something other than a white person) with flying colours.

    …./tv show babble.

    Diversity matters. It is so, so important. In a pop culture that is still overwhelmingly white, male and straight, being able to see representations of people like yourself when you're NOT any of those things MATTERS. It normalises you, makes you feel included – makes you feel like if THEY can do it, you can too. I have heard so many people who finally felt welcome in the world of superhero comics when Miles Morales became Spiderman – finally, there was a MAJOR superhero, headlining his own comic, who wasn't white.

    Shoehorning specific traits into stories – that is, shoving a black character into a story just for the sake of having a black character in it – is glaringly obvious. The character may as well have a neon sign over their head with the word TOKENISM on it.

    But diversifying your cast really isn't that hard. Look at the character you've made up and ask yourself – "Is there any reason this character could not be black/Asian/gay/female/transgender/disabled?". If the answer is no (and it nearly always is) then go ahead and MAKE THEM black/Asian/gay/whatever. There's nothing stopping you. And since you've created them as a character first and foremost, you avoid the tokenism pitfall – token characters tend to have only one character trait: whatever stereotype the creator associates with that skin colour/gender/sexual orientation/etc. But if you create them as a character first, with a personality and a backstory and motivations and interpersonal relationships with other characters – well, then, you've got a character, not a token.

    To use myself as an example – my scifi heroine, Vesto. Scifi is FULL of white people. White people everywhere you look in space. I'm white. I could easily have made HER white – but I didn't. I wanted to write/draw stories about kickass space adventures, not about being white. So I made her Asian (and lesbian, and currently in love with a genderless robot but I digress). There are a lot od Asian people in the world – some of them are bound to have made it into space.

    There was absolutely no reason why Vesto couldn't be Asian. So she is.

    Diversity is one of those things you have to pay attention to when you write – because it's easy to fall back into old habits and do what we've always done. I still have a lot of white characters in many of my stories, but I am paying attention and bettering myself.

    Leading by example is all we can really do.

    • Dianna says:

      …I've been thinking about your comment, especially the "make them [not white straight male] if they can be" one, especially in context of Elementary.

      As I said, I don't think it's ever been pointed out that Joan is Asian. However, I think there was one episode where the fact Marcus Bell is African-American is a little more obvious. Uh… S02E18, The Hound of the Cancer Cells. He remembers a former teacher who helped his community, who helped struggling kids. And the implication is pretty strong (in my opinion) that this community, these kids… are black.

      It serves as a reminder (and of course you can argue that it's unnecessary [but I say you need to confront this sort of stuff]) that this stuff is really happening. Through portrayal in fiction, maybe things like this disadvantage will be acted on… one can hope.

      Joan is Asian, and it doesn't matter, ever. I know I mentioned that she is American first… so maybe that's who Joan is? Her own cultural heritage is of no consequence for her… that's certainly possible. (And seems like an easy cop-out; you never have to address the things Joan might do if she embraced that heritage.)

      Marcus is African-American, and the one time it seemed to matter, it was all about how he rose above the disadvantages of his underprivileged community, because of a good teacher. That stinks, in a way, of the sterotypical tokenism you mentioned.

      It possibly isn't complicated, although it feels such. How do we approach our lesbian/Native American character and include relevant things to their [not white straight male]–without either copping out (ala Joan) or having sterotypical tokenism (ala Marcus)?

      Or is it more important that the character is whatever even if the culture behind it is never really explored?

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