Frozone from “The Incredibles,” Gloria from “Modern Family” and Damian from “Mean Girls” are all characters with something in common: they’re the token minority character. Tokenism, or thinking that a singular character belonging to a minority group checks off the representation requirement modern media seems to emphasize, has become more and more common, plaguing media for all age groups and belonging to distinct genres.
It is undeniable that representation matters. We hear the phrase every time a new show, movie or book (or any piece of media for that matter) that includes a portrayal of a strong, independent minority character premieres. Nonetheless, we are also constantly hearing that the representation we are getting is not enough.
As a Latina woman, when I think of Latinx characters in media I have engaged with, Santana from “Glee” or Gloria from “Modern Family,” as previously mentioned, come to mind. It is no mistake that, however, when really seeing these shows, there is only that singular Latina character. And, although on the surface they seem very different, they possess many of the same, stereotypical Latinx character traits: intensity in personality, opinionated in mindset and a tendency to scream in Spanish whenever they get mad. I will not deny the excitement and pride I feel whenever characters like Santana and Gloria come up on my screen. But there is only so much a singular character with a stereotypical characterization can do for their minority community, which is why tokenism is so harmful.
Thinking about representation in modern media, its effects and the reactions viewers might have to it leads to a series of questions: why is a show with five different white characters whose personalities don’t resemble each other at all considered normal and expected, but a show with five Black characters with different personalities is considered revolutionary and not seen as often? What effect has whiteness as the default identity had on the idea of the “Other” and the need to represent this “Other” in modern media? Yes, representation matters. No, we aren’t doing it correctly. And the answer lies in tackling the issue of tokenism.
To answer the series of inquiries I previously posed, I present a few hypothetical scenarios.
Let’s talk about sitcoms. Take the iconic 2005 sitcom “How I Met Your Mother.” What do Ted, Marshall, Lily, Robin and Barney, the show’s five main characters, all have in common? They’re all white. How does the show compensate for the excessive yet inconsequential whiteness it unconsciously promotes? Through the character of Ranjit, a recurrent taxi driver from Bangladesh who, ironically, doesn’t have his driver’s license. Ranjit’s duties are simple: drive the main cast around and be there for emotional support. Other than that, we don’t get much from him, which gives viewers the impression that he’s just there to fill the show’s diversity quota. Aside from Ranjit, James Stinson, Barney’s half-brother who’s Black and gay, and Michelle, Lily’s Black friend from college, make appearances, but that’s about it. The sitcom even had the five white main characters participate in Asian cultural appropriation in the Season 9 episode “Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra,” to the extent that the show’s creators had to apologize.
Tokenism leads to the labeling of minorities as the “Other” with respect to default whiteness, using them to set the stage for whiteness to thrive. Think Chastity in “10 Things I Hate About You,” Dionne in “Clueless” and Ivy in “Good Luck Charlie.” Newly, I inquire, what do all these characters have in common? They’re the Black best friend. Chastity is straight-up meant to serve as a vehicle in Bianca’s journey toward goodness. Dionne is a lot more independent and self-standing than Chastity is, as she isn’t scared to stand up to her boyfriend and call Cher out when need be, but she nevertheless serves the same purpose as Chastity: to be the sidekick to the white “hero.” Ivy is a 21st-century spin on the Black best friend but serves the same purpose Chastity and Dionne do: to set the stage for their white best friend, in her case Teddy, to blossom.
As I foreshadowed with the opening of my column through the mention of Frozone from “The Incredibles,” token minority characters are even seen in children’s media. Representation is indisputably necessary, which is especially true for children’s media, as there it has been proven that negative psychological outcomes may arise as a result of underrepresented or misrepresented identities. Some prominent examples lie in Baljeet from “Phineas and Ferb” — who encapsulates the common Indian stereotype — London from “Suite Life of Zack and Cody” — whose portrayal is actually ironic, as she doesn’t fit into the commonly used “smart Asian” trope — and even within Disney movies new and old. A very recent example is the inclusion of the first openly gay character in Disney’s 2020 film “Onward.” Officer Spencer clearly mentions that she has a girlfriend and is given a name. Sadly, she only appears in one scene and is given very few lines, hinting at the fact that she’s just there because Disney’s trying to prove a point.
There is media, however, that is working to tackle the issue of tokenism. Think about the hilarious and relatable 2011 sitcom “New Girl.” It follows Jess, who is white, as she moves into an apartment in L.A. with three guys she doesn’t know: Nick, who is also white, Schmidt, who is white and Jewish, and Winston, who is Black. Cece, her best friend, who is Indian, is also a recurring character in the show, and we also get appearances from Sadie, her lesbian friend who’s a gynecologist, and Coach, a Black retired personal trainer now. A champion of diversity, right? It’s safe to say that “New Girl” does what “How I Met Your Mother” didn’t even try to do. Not only does it provide representation, it’s accurate representation, albeit with some stereotypes, but there are several episodes that even directly tackle racist issues, such as in the Season 2 episode “Cabin,” in which Winston has a direct conversation with Schmidt about his harmful, racist tendencies.
Does the show contain certain stereotypes? Yes. Coach is a prime example — he fits the token Black athletic stereotype almost perfectly. Even so, the show does much more to promote diversity, and as a result, it can be used as an example of efforts made in modern media to confront the tokenism problem.
Am I reading too much into media that is simply meant for entertainment? Many might think I am. To combat this misconception, let me present one last hypothetical scenario. If you are a white reader, name five characters you relate to that, luckily, look like you physically. As a white Latinx woman, this is easy for me. Although only one is Latinx, I can safely name Amy Santiago, Hermione Granger, Rory Gilmore, Jessica Day and Annabeth Chase, among many, many others, as white brunette women (and one of them is blonde instead of brunette) I relate to both in personality and appearance. Now, if you are a reader belonging to a minority whose physical appearance is not what is considered the societal norm, try to do the same exercise described above. Hard, right?
So no, I am not reading too much into this. As media commentator Lauren Washington explains in her blog post, “seeing oneself on screen is crucial because society is not monolithic, but multifaceted.” Imagine not being able to see yourself reflected physically on screen. Must be horrible, right? Let’s fix it then. There are many ways to fix it and sitcoms like “New Girl” are just one example of how. It is not until we come to terms with the fact that a multifaceted society does not mean that the singular minority person suffices that we will understand why tokenism is so harmful.
Graciela Batlle Cestero is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.