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Tokenism in Mainstream Media: the Wrong Side of the Coin

Tokenism is broadly defined as the practice of making a symbolic or perfunctory effort to be inclusive to members of minority groups to give an appearance of performative equality.

The concept of tokenism was acknowledged in the United States from the 1950s, beginning as an ineffective response to racial segregation in the workplace and spreading into the entertainment industry. For decades, the media has presented us with protagonists that follow the 'straight white male' formula. But as times changed, the public became more sensitive towards unheard voices, and there was an increasing demand for the representation of marginalised minorities in the media. The solution to that was tokenism. Creators introduce token characters that stand in for underrepresented groups in an effort to support diversity. However, reinforcing caricatures already common in society has worsened the problem, emphasising stereotypes and disseminating inaccurate information to huge international audiences. As human rights activist Malcolm X declared: “Tokenism is hypocrisy.” Non-white characters frequently reflect the prejudices of western culture. Caricatures of Black males in the early 1900s, when Racial minstrel performances dominated southern society's entertainment, portrayed them as dangers to virtue of white women with violent and overtly sexual reputations. Ever since the 1930s, Renee Cozier observed that black characters were the first to die in horror movies; in the 1940s, the New Yorker was condemned for including black characters solely to emphasise their race; and they were severely tokenized by broadcasting networks like A.B.C., which had a damning 10:1 ratio of white to black people. From the 1980s, stereotypes depicted them as social degenerates and criminals, portrayals that have persisted till this day, propagated by shows like NYPD Blue and Law and Order. Contemporary stereotypical labels include: angry black women, “welfare queens”, and the “Mammy” archetype.

Tokenism also has roots in Orientalism. Characters of colour are often merely present for representation and possess no individual, fully-actualized traits. They are also subtly or blatantly mocked for their race, mannerisms, language, eating habits, etc. Asian cultures are also frequently used interchangeably, with little to no respect for their individual languages or differences For instance, Cho Chang is the name of a Chinese character from the Harry Potter series, where Cho and Chang are both surnames. Some other American and Eurocentric stereotypes of Asians, particularly East Asians, include: the Dragon Lady, signifying a domineering, mysterious and sexualized woman; and the China Doll or Lotus Blossom, signifying fragility and subservience.

On magnifying the case to our own country, we must realise that India's film and entertainment industry hasn't done any better at representing or challenging tokenism. One cannot count the number of Bollywood movies with a token "South-Indian" friend always eating idli and sambar, the Punjabi friend with a background score of "balle-balle" in every scene, or dismissing those from the northeastern states as Chinese. Indian daily soaps, which are regularly watched across the country, portray women in an unapologetically regressive manner. From a gendered perspective, media from around the world largely underrepresents women. The latest 'It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World' report from San Diego’s Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film has discovered that men outnumber women onscreen by a ratio of 2:1 as of 2021. Even in the few instances where the male-female cast ratio is nearly equal, women typically receive substantially less conversation and screen time. The Smurfette Principle, coined by Katha Pollitt in the New York Times in 1991, addressed the tendency to have exactly one female in an ensemble cast of male characters and a male-dominated narrative.Women will be sprinkled into the cast like a cherry on a cake. By looking back at some iconic childhood movies or TV shows like the Muppet show, Star Wars, Big Bang Theory and The Smurfs, we can realise that we were being fed the Smurfette principle unconsciously from a very young age, and are almost normalised to it. In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel coined the Bechdel Test as a straightforward, tongue-in-cheek measure of female representation on screen. The rules are simple: more than one woman should be present in the movie, talking about anything other than a man and his problems. The criterion has obviously evolved over the years, but the number of films that pass even the basics of the test is staggeringly low. In 2018, BBC study found that just under half of the films awarded Best Picture at the Oscars have passed. Adding the three films from 2020, the number touches exactly half. Contemporary stereotypes of women have their roots firmly embedded in the rhetoric of the 20th century. The perfect Victorian woman, the femme fatale, the flapper, the Gibson girl and the damsel in distress were some of the most common types of women depicted on screen. Each of these stemmed from a desire to compartmentalise women and to ensure they remain within those specific confines of acknowledgement. Humanization of female characters is made even more challenging if they are created solely as objects of the male gaze, a concept that was introduced by filmmaker and scholar Laura Mulvey, which filmmakers like Joseph von Sternberg and Alfred Hitchcock are guilty of, although it is extremely common in contemporary media, such as the James Bond franchise. Minority characters shouldn't be utilised in a project for it to seem multicultural. In order to respectfully depict the communities they write about, authors and other creators must accept the obligation to reject clichéd portrayals of those cultures. If the creative industry does not correct its missteps, it risks becoming an echo chamber for damaging stereotypes that exacerbate prejudice and discrimination waged against minority communities. By providing minority characters with humanised and compelling features beyond stereotypes, some shows today have taken a step in the right direction. Kim's Convenience, a clever Canadian sitcom about a Korean family, avoids stereotypes by featuring Jung Kim as a character that challenges the common perception of Asians as serious and bookish thanks to his humorous demeanour and troubled high school past. Similarly, Chidi Anagonye, a sympathetic Nigerian philosopher with a strong commitment to academics, fights prejudiced preconceptions of Black males in the television series The Good Place, which follows four individuals on a voyage of philosophical exploration in the afterlife. Hopefully, this pattern will continue to evolve until it dominates mainstream media in the future.

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